We almost feel sorry for them: twisted spines, uneven limbs, dwarf stature, and either bulbous bellies or anorexic torsos. But we finally decide on one that will do. Although not perfect—too short and portly—it’s ours once we saw its trunk and haul it to the car. We can put it on the card table where I grade papers. Once strung with lights, hung with ornaments, and topped with Father Christmas in his fur-lined red robe and bulging pack of presents, we won’t feel sorry for it, won’t notice its deformities.
We have the day off because both parochial schools where we teach celebrate the Holy Spirit’s visit to Mary (Mother of God). Not being Catholic, we learned from attending required monthly Mass about the Immaculate Conception which, to us, seems quite a stretch.
I prefer the Emersonian church—trees, sky, and a path to follow—or not.
Before hiking up and down rows of balsam fir, Scotch pine, and blue spruce, we stopped our Taurus station wagon at a shack looking like a single-seater outhouse. A man came out and I handed him my Christmas bonus, a green piece of stationery that declared its bearer worthy of one cut-your-own Christmas tree.
I’d seen Father B. before, but rarely, only at all-school Masses where all the abbey monks participate. And last year, here, because Father B. planted and tended to the trees. He had a cowboy face, tanned, lined, and leathered. He wore jeans, a school sweatshirt, and blue knit cap. He saw the letter and, perhaps vaguely remembering me, his smile broadened.
“Father,” I asked after the usual “Good to see you again” back and forth, “how’d you wind up in charge of the tree farm?”
He leaned down so he could look across me and take you in as well. “My name means ‘little farmer’ in German, so I thought it fit right that I take care of the nursery. Or, as I prefer to call it, the forest.”
When the abbot discussed with Father B. his role in the abbey, “I convinced him that taking care of the forest was my calling. I got the job.” He preferred taking care of trees over taking care of classrooms. “The trees don’t talk back to you, like kids do.”
You said you didn’t like cutting down live trees.
“For every one that’s cut,” Father B. said, “I’ll plant five more.”
Four days later, my brother and mother help decorate the tree. I’m 32-years-old, and up until tonight, the tradition has been to put up our widowed mother’s tree in her Chicago apartment.
“Things change,” my brother, a psychiatrist, reminds us.
Next morning, I write in my journal about not wanting to relive those nights decorating the family tree, when told what to do and pretending to be someone I wasn’t. Nothing back then compares to life now, setting goals, and setting out to find them.
Now, I find, is five times better.
Richard Holinger’s books include Kangaroo Rabbits and Galvanized Fences (Dreaming Big), a collection of humorous essays about surviving life in suburbia, and North of Crivitz (Kelsay Books), poetry focusing on the Upper Midwest, available at richardholinger.net. His poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in The Southern Review, Witness, Boulevard, and have garnered four Pushcart Prize nominations. Degrees include a Ph.D. from The University of Illinois at Chicago in Creative Writing. Holinger lives an hour west of Chicago in the Fox River Valley. He has been a teacher, security guard, stock boy, busboy, workshop facilitator, and columnist.