A Good Eye
“The perfect Christmas tree? All Christmas trees are perfect!" – Charles Barnard
Sometimes Grandpa could be as grumpy as a troll.
“Why does it take you so long to get those baking powder biscuits in the oven? My stomach’s rumbling,” he’d grouse, while Grandma continued to cut out perfect circles of dough with her jelly glass.
“Why do you have to practice right now? You can see I’m taking a nap,” he’d grumble from the green velvet parlor sofa. My big sister, Patti, would glance heavenward, and then give me a wink as she quietly turned the lid down over her keyboard.
If I caught him casting a baleful eye my way, I’d quickly set down my “Children’s Activities” and scurry to the shed for an armload of split logs to refill the wood box.
But I’ll always remember one special December in l947 when we all lived together in an old Victorian house in Scott Mills, OR, and Grandpa began to twinkle like a North Pole elf. He offered to drive us to Salem to pick out a few new Shiny-Brite ornaments at JC Penney. He beamed at Grandma while she treated her fruit cakes to a dousing of brandy and then rewrapped them. He even encouraged Patti to play “Silent Night,” which, he told us, came from Austria, just like him.
A few days before Christmas he announced it was time to bring home a tree. My sister and I clamored to accompany him to choose one, but he refused our help.
“I’ve got a good eye for the perfect tree,” he claimed, tossing on his navy plaid Pendleton jacket. “You can trust me. You just start stringing the popcorn, because I’ll be back in no time.”
We waved goodbye as he nosed his ’46 Ford pickup up the hill towards the woods, then headed for the kitchen. The previous afternoon Grandma had popped corn in a kettle, then let it sit overnight to dry out. Now she helped Patti and me thread our needles, and took a nap herself as we girls spent the afternoon stringing garlands. I slid the berries and popped kernels down each segment of thread, and then Patti tied the segments together. Her long slender fingers were much better at securing the knots.
By the time we’d used every berry and kernel, it was almost dark and Grandpa hadn’t yet returned. Grandma went with us outside to drape a few garlands around shrubs and bushes to feed the jays and crows and chickadees. A few fluttered over for a nibble and squawked out their appreciation.
“Don’t worry, girls,” Grandma said, noticing our worried glances towards the woods. “Grandpa’s just taking his time to find the one tree that will be just right.”
When he still hadn’t appeared by dinner time, Grandma dished up the crusty macaroni and cheese that she knew we both loved, and we all munched together.
Just before bedtime we heard the pickup sputter up the driveway. We all ran outside. Grandpa hopped out and waved a hand toward the bed of the truck.
“It’s about eight feet tall, and shaped as pretty as a bell. It’s a Noble fir. We’ll leave it here for the night and put it up in the morning.”
“Grandpa, what took you so long?” I glanced up at the sky. I saw it was so cloudy that Grandpa couldn’t have found the North Star if he’d gotten lost.
“It took a little while to find the perfect tree. And this one is. You’ll see when we get it up tomorrow.”
When Patti and I got to our bedroom and changed into our winter flannel pajamas, she turned to me.
“Don’t you know why Grandpa’s in such a good mood at Christmas? And why he stayed out so late today?”
I wrinkled my forehead. Was there some mystery here that I hadn’t known about? I shook my head.
“Christmas is the one time Grandma doesn’t scold him if he drinks a little brandy. Couldn’t you smell him when he got home? Didn’t you notice how red his face was? He’s probably been sitting out in the woods in the cab of his truck singing Christmas songs to himself.”
If a nip of brandy made Grandpa more cheerful, it was just fine with me.
Until Christmas Eve my favorite place was right under the tree. After supper I loved to curl up on the soft scarlet chenille blanket Grandma had draped around the stand, and read my magazines and story books. I’d take in the tree’s rich piney scent. Then I’d roll over my back and watch the lights twinkle. I’d pretend I was a woodland creature, a chipmunk or a squirrel, safe and snug, protected by the fir’s mighty branches. Sometimes I’d even drift into sleep. Grandma claimed she came into the room once to hear Grandpa and me snorting together like a pair of weary reindeer on Christmas morning.
The night before Christmas Patti played every carol we knew while we sipped hot chocolate and admired the festooned and garlanded tree with its topper light, an angel with gold wire mesh wings and skirt. I think Grandpa had added a little brandy to his cup, because his face grew flushed, as Patti had pointed out.
The next morning we opened our presents. Patti and I each received a box of chocolate covered cherries and a bag of peppermints. I got a new baton and Patti a Brownie camera. We both unwrapped a book and a Gibson Girl striped shirtwaist, mine pink, Patti’s blue. Santa had been generous.
Patti and I went to the Christmas morning service at the Friends Church. Then that afternoon, after we feasted on turkey and candied sweet potatoes, Patti snapped photos of us all and of our presents. Then I crawled back under the tree. I read the first chapter of my new book, “Dandelion Cottage,” and was entranced.
I remember how I rolled over and stared up through the branches of the fir. I took a deep breath of its wonderful aroma, and popped a peppermint into my mouth. I thought about the characters in my book as I listened to Patti, at her piano, sing “Away in the Manger” and “White Christmas.” Grandpa snored softly on the sofa.
I realize now that Grandpa indeed had a good eye for a perfect tree. Even though it’s true that he reverted to his old grumpy self after New Year’s, I’ve never forgotten that particular tree. Nor those magical days when I lay beneath its boughs where I saw, smelled, heard, touched and tasted…Christmas. That perfect tree was the best Christmas gift ever.