On a Tree

Every December, we go hunting for our family’s “real tree,” a tradition we started when we lived in rural Virginia after years of living in Washington, D.C. The idea of tromping through the snow and paying half-price for a Christmas tree seemed more charming than picking up a pre-cut job at a Lowe’s parking lot.

This year, Husband and I fretted over whether our tween Daughter and teen Son had outgrown this ritual: Would they be Christmas Curmudgeons about schlepping an hour from our house to a farm to cut our own damn tree? That’s what my father, the King of Christmas Curmudgeons, called it. Red-faced and sweating despite the cold, Dad’s swearing could be heard down our upper middle-class street as he shoved a balsam through the front door, “What they charge for a damn tree is ridiculous. We are never getting another damn tree again!”

My Christmas wish: Our kids have better holiday stories than me.  

Daughter couldn’t wait to go and Son seemed noncommittal until we offered to fill up his truck if we could use it to transport the tree. The four of us piled into the Silverado with Cheerwine, a North Carolina soft drink, while Husband searched for a classic rock station on the radio.

We arrived at Stowe Dairy Farms and parked on the side of the long, winding driveway, behind a line of other parked SUVs. Armed with an axe, we trudged through the wet, muddy field towards the section of ginormous, Rockefeller Center cedars. After days of rain, it felt good to feel the warm sun peeking out through the clouds and walk outside without bulky coats.

Everything on our first pass looked too big, too shrubbery. We headed back towards the normal-sized trees, where the selection stood closer together and the scent of real Douglas Fir made us all inhale deeply.

“Hey! You with the axe!”

A broad-shouldered, weathered man in overalls with gray hair peeking out from his Stowe Farms ballcap came slipping down the hill.

“You can’t use your own axe. Insurance reasons. You got to use one of our saws. We have them up here,” he said, half-apologetically. “It’s insurance that makes us do that. If it was up to them, they wouldn’t let anyone cut them down except us.”

We told him we understood and followed obediently up to the white canopy where he offered us a sharp bandsaw. After circling the farm a few more times, we declared a winner: Well shaped, full all-around, and it dwarfed six-foot Husband. Our ritual calls for each of us to take a turn chopping down the tree, with Daughter and I performing ceremonial cutting and Husband and Son doing most of the hacking. After little struggle thanks to our strong 17-year-old, the tree hit the ground, the gator arrived to cart it to the truck, and we headed over to the gift shop.

We sniffed the goat soap and glanced at the standard selection of tree stands and ornaments before heading out the door. And that’s when Son and I discovered the 1948 Chevy farm truck. Owner Gwen Stowe saw us admiring the classic vehicle and told us the truck first belonged to her father-in-law. He eventually sold it. Decades passed and her husband, Tim, came across it at a local event for sale but didn’t buy it. A few years later, Tim spotted it again on the side of the road with a sale sign on the window. Two owners later, Tim bought back his father’s original truck with most of its parts intact and well maintained.

Son, a gearhead who works part-time at a NASCAR shop, leaned in to look through the window.

“Nice, it has three on the tree!”

Gwen nodded. She drove the high school bus when she was 15 years old, which, like the truck, had manual transmission and steering. That took some serious strength, not to mention discipline and patience to get up that early and put up with all those kids, I noted.

“I knew everyone and where they lived, so if anyone misbehaved, I called their parents,” she smiled.

We admired the truck’s deep green paint and lack of rust.

“It’s been in a Hillshire Farms commercial,” she said. “They changed the flat bed to wooden slats but didn’t modify much else. Didn’t need to.” Son began firing technical questions about the vehicle.

“That’s about as much as I know, you’ll have to ask Tim,” Gwen grinned and shifted our attention to the nearby Jersey cow and her week-old black calf resting by her side. Its large father eyed us warily from the other side of the fence, with the same demeanor of a New York cop whose glance told you to move along. We pet a fainting goat named S’mores and headed back to Son’s Silverado. The no axe insurance guy stood nearby, thanking a couple for coming to the farm.

“Are you Tim? We were just talking to your wife about your father’s truck,” I called to him. “Can you tell us more about it?”

A big grin split his face as he launched into the story, recapping almost verbatim what his wife told us, with a few extra details. He pulled his flip phone out of his front overall pocket.

“I don’t have time to answer right now,” he told the old mobile device, slapping it shut.

A film crew descended on the farm a few years ago for a Hallmark movie, An Evergreen Christmas, Tim continued. It’s about a daughter who comes back home from Hollywood to take care of her family’s Christmas tree farm after her father dies and her brother doesn’t want her to sell it. A crew member spotted the post-war Chevy and asked if it could be used for a commercial. Tim pointed down at the roads winding through the Smoky Mountains to show where they filmed it.

We thanked Tim and as we climbed into our seats, Son said, “I love these stories!”

The towering cedar leans to one side; which one, I won’t disclose in these politically charged times. It fell once while Husband anchored it in its makeshift stand, then again when, after decorating the entire tree, I attempted to straighten it, causing a few ornament casualties.

And I used much stronger curses than damn while fixing the tree mess I created.  

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Jennifer ZajacComment