My favorite true family Christmas story:
THE GIVER'S GIFT
It was such a special tree that I couldn't take it out to the curb when the neighbors discarded their Christmas trees. This year our tree wasn't the floor-to-ceiling beauty of other years - one that dwarfed the living room and had room for all the wooden ornaments the children had painted and the balls that had been decorated by our family and everyone who had visited us in the last ten Christmases. Room for all that without crowding the chains of popcorn. This tree was not nearly so grand. Until we stood it on the coffee table in front of the bay window, Carol could reach the top of it without a chair and she was only eight. My feelings for it were all out of proportion to its size and the fullness of its branches.
We vacuumed up the showers of needles after Christmas and gave it daily water, but even such a tree does not last forever. After it was too dry to keep in the house safely, I stood it in the yard by the front walk and kept water in its stand. With its base covered by snow and its green preserved by the crisp cold, it looked as if it grew there, and I wished it did. That was no ordinary tree.
The birds liked the peanut-buttered pine cones on its branches, and Mike could see it from the big chair near the window, when he felt like sitting up. I smiled to myself every time I walked past it and remember it warmly long after its needles were contributing to the compost heap in the far corner of the back yard.
Here's what made that tree so special.
Our Christmas plans were almost complete that Saturday when we got the tree. Carol had worked diligently, with her tongue tucked between her teeth in concentration, on the stuffed owl pillow she was making for Sara. Sara had something under her bed that provoked cries of "Don't come in here!" whenever someone came near the closed door. The plush bears we'd all worked on had been sent off the to children's home and all the packages had been mailed.
The things money could buy, we already had, and the more important things that money could not buy, so we had made no lists. Even Carol had a hard time trying to think of something she wanted for Christmas when her grandmothers asked about that. She was beginning to get the idea about giving and getting - what would Mamaw most enjoy imagining Carol playing with, instead of what was the most she could reasonably expect to get.
We did have one need, but even that we expected to have satisfied before Christmas. After months of pain with two bad discs in his neck, Mike would get the gift of relief when he had surgery just before Christmas We were surely blessed.
The thought of his surgery cast a shadow over our plans for the holiday, but the results we'd been told to expect were the lining behind the cloud, and even the surgery would not be the frightening, lonely experience for Mike that it might have been for some people. The hospital room was just a corridor away from his office, and he had almost four hundred students he'd taught anatomy to still in the medical school.
His course was the first one that new medical students took, and after they got over the hurdles of the beginning and their first experience with dissection, after they realized that beneath his exacting demands was a concern that they become the best doctors they were capable of being, their awe became affection and they were his friends as well as his students. They'd watched him wear the protective collar more and more frequently, and some of them must have realized that he could not have taken the pain until almost the end of December if he hadn't felt he had to finish that course. Such friends would make his hospitalization easier for him, and for the rest of the family.
We didn't have to struggle to have faith in the skill of some doctor we knew nothing about, for the surgeons and the anesthesiologists were people he knew and trusted. The medical school was his world, and the hall near his room was busy with the coming and going of other teachers and the students. The white-coated traffic near his room must have awed new nurses who didn't know that these people were his friends, not his doctors.
Supported by such love and concern, the rest of the family made preparations for a quiet Christmas. The last errand of the Saturday before Christmas was picking out the Christmas tree. The girls and I walked between the rows of freshly cut trees at the service club's Christmas tree lot. When Cathy reminded me of the enormous one Daddy had cut the year before, two feet too tall for the living room, I told her that we'd need a more manageable one this year, because I had to put it up without Daddy. The salesman led us past the big trees to a pile of smaller ones.
Cathy found a pretty tree, well-proportioned and about the right size. She asked how much it cost, then turned to me. "You've got five dollars, haven't you?"
My billfold had been stolen from my purse at school the day before, and although there hadn't been much money in it, I now had no identification so I had no way of cashing a check until the bank opened on Monday. What money I'd had at home had been spent at the grocery store or was now buried in the depths of my handbag. As I rummaged through the bulky purse in search of the elusive coins, I felt the young man watching me, so I explained my disorganization to him. "Someone stole my billfold, but I'm sure I have enough money, if I can just find it." He accepted my explanation without comment, as he accepted the coins I counted out.
As he put the tree in the trunk with a hearty "Merry Christmas," it seemed larger than I'd realized and I wondered aloud if I'd be able to manage it alone. The girls assured me that we could do it together. The nice young man gave me a big armload of fresh branches and I thanked him. They smelled as fresh as those I remembered our cutting in other years. He gave me another "Merry Christmas" and closed the trunk.
We were still waiting in the line of tree-laden cars when the salesman came to my car window. He caught my attention and I rolled the window down. He smiled a little self-consciously and took a deep breath. "We've decided that we'd like to give you this tree. When things are bad, maybe it will help to know that we wish you well. Merry Christmas and good luck to you all." He put a five dollar-bill in my hand.
After a puzzled minute, I realized what he'd understood, or misunderstood, from the conversation between my girls and me. I hurried to protest. "We don't need to be given a tree. We have plenty. You misunderstood. We really don't need anything.... My husband would..." Oh, what would Mike say if he could have seen us then. My husband who had everything and got so much pleasure from being able to give. He had never been an object of charity and I didn't think he would like it. "My husband would never accept it." I searched for words to tell the man we were not in need. I thought of the comfortable house on a quiet street, the security we enjoyed, and I tried again to explain. "We really don't need..."
"I know. I know," he interrupted gently. "But we want you to have it. That's what we're here for. Giving's what it's all about. Please take our tree and our good wishes."
I started to protest again, to explain once more. But six young men were watching me. When they saw me glance at them, they all waved and smiled reassuringly. Their expressions said without words, "Don't worry; things will get better."
I quit protesting and thanked him sincerely for the gift they were giving us. But the gift was not just the Christmas tree, and I think they got a gift in giving one.
Mike is well and strong now, and it is a long time since that Christmas, but yesterday when I passed the vacant filling station with the faded sign, "CHRISTMAS TREES FOR SALE," I told myself again, "Yes, surely, as long as there are people like that, things will get better."
Written about Christmas 1973 Mary
2010 He's gone to bed early, not well. I will add pictures and pretty it up tomorrow.