Two Trees

Posted by jdg | Monday, December 08, 2008 | , , ,

In memory, it seems like I was born into an epoch of ice. As my mother waited for her body to signal I was ready to be born, she anxiously watched the snow fill the road outside her house, several feet of it. Six or seven feet, maybe. My father arranged for an ambulance to meet them at the main road a mile away, which was being kept clear by the township plows. He would get her to that ambulance on his snowmobile.

We were always snowed in. Even the old-timers around those parts acknowledged the severity of those winters. "Remember the Blizzard of '77?" they still ask. "How 'bout the Blizzard of '78? '79? '80?" In my memory there were ice storms; neighbors gathering to curse or admire fallen trees with bark encrusted by inches of ice; weeks without power; a room at the Knight's Inn just for the warm shower.

In early December 1982, there was already a lot of snow. Dad started up the engine of his old Polaris in the garage, and the blue fumes sputtered out and clung to my polyester jacket. The snowmobile clattered out to the snowcovered driveway and he idled the engine a while before shutting it off. Then he let me climb all over it, touch the handlebars even. I was Batman. I was Luke Skywalker.

He went to the shed and brought back our best sled, the big orange one that my sister and I could both fit in easily. He took a rope and tied the sled to back of the snowmobile. My mom had made sure we were both dressed up really warm with hats and mittens---scarves even. She sat us down together in the sled, me in the back with my little sister propped up inside my arms. Mom climbed behind my dad on the snowmobile, grabbing him around his waist as that little 440 engine started up again: that puff of carbon monoxide, some traction in the continuous track, and we were off, as slow, probably, as we could go, off into our own Christmas carol. The big black Labrador trotted alongside us.

In a minute or two, we were beyond the sight of our home or the lights of any neighbor. We went up and down hills, through the forests I would spend my childhood exploring and which would one day be torn down to build a subdivision. Around this time the man who owned this land offered to trade it all to my dad for a forty-year-old Ford; he kept the Ford, thinking the land would never be developed anyway. As we slowly cut our way across those hills with jags of snow falling from the shivering hardwoods, I didn't know anyone owned those woods. I had no reason to think they weren't ours.

We reached a hilltop filled with pines and cedars half a mile from our house. My dad, with his chainsaw, balanced himself on the lower branches of a mighty Scotch Pine and began to climb, disappearing into the tree. Before we heard the first rip of the starter cord he yelled out in fearful shock as snow poured down and he lost his balance, nearly falling. The beautiful Snowy Owl he'd disturbed stretched out her wings and flew off to a quieter perch. Undeterred, dad lopped off seven feet of the top of the tree and it tumbled down with a muted crash as the chainsaw and the snowmobile idled.

* * * * *

The three-year old in the Radio Flyer crunching along on an inch of freshfallen snow is almost four, she reminds him. She promises to hold on to her baby brother and not let him fall out. The German Shorthaired Pointer trots alongside them. "Don't eat that!" the dad shouts at the dog, who's got someone's discarded Turkey drumstick in his mouth. They pass a playground where swingless chains hang from a metal crossbar; a tennis court he's never seen anyone use, a 140-year-old church that's changed congregations a few times since the German immigrants who built it laid their Teutonic-scripted cornerstone. A homeless man watches the scene from a picnic table. "We can't do this," the dad says before they get to their neighborhood candle/witchcraft store, struggling to pull the wagon and its precious cargo along Detroit's broken sidewalks. He knows the little girl won't walk all the way home, not in this cold, not with the tree in the wagon, the baby in one arm, the wagon's handle in his other hand and the dog eagerly devouring fowl-bones left and right. What was he thinking? Could the dog pull the wagon, maybe if they dangle a chicken wing from a stick in front of him? No. So they turn around.

For three years now they've purchased their Christmas tree from the farmers who spend the month of December living in tiny heated trailers in Eastern Market half a mile from their home, within sight of the urban prairie. As he loads the kids into the car, he thinks about all the time he's spent wandering that prairie. He remembers the patch of cherry tomatoes he found growing wild in the middle of an empty field. He thought of the dogwoods and cherry trees left behind by the people who'd moved away from their neighborhoods, how they still bloom so beautifully in spring. He entertains thoughts of theft: thoughts of looking for an old Scotch Pine, pulling the kids in a sled through the prairie, and lopping off its top with a hacksaw. Silly, he thinks, as he wanders with his son on one arm and his daughter running through a maze of cut trees, looking for one she likes. He hands a Yooper in head-to-toe camouflage a couple of twenties for a tree that smells like Christmas always did. The Yooper loads the smell of Christmas into the trunk.

When they get home, the girl helps her father carry the tree from the car to the house and the dog runs out to greet them. He sniffs the prostrate pine, lifts his hind leg, and marks it to let everyone know just whose tree this is.