This is about the time of year that, for many years, my sister and I would take off for our long, once a year walk through the piney woods of the neighboring farm where we grew up in north Florida. Since I was six years younger and “the puny one”, my job would be to “lookout” for people–more specifically interfering grownups–while my sister scouted around looking for the perfectly shaped eastern red cedar to grace our living room for Christmas.
It wasn’t often that she included me in her adventures–that privilege was usually reserved for my brothers, nearer her age and older–so for several years it was one of the rare times I felt connected as a sibling. Most of the time, she had little use for a snot-nosed little sister who had come along and snatched away her notoriety as the only girl in the family. Naturally it was a highlight of my year, and even though there was a sense of urgency that kept my stomach in knots during those quick and yearly excursions, I didn’t call it stealing. I guess that’s exactly what it was.
Prior to these years, neither set of grandparents nor my family ever had Christmas trees as far as I can remember. And it wasn’t until my sister was old enough to take care of the details herself that we enjoyed one in our house. Even though my father was tight fisted with his money, if anyone could make him relent, it was me and she knew it.
So she would whisper to me what to beg him to buy the next time we were in our Uncle’s general store in Providence. That’s how we came to own one strand of exactly seven lights, and one box each of silver icicles and angel hair that we re-boxed and re-used every year. Our other decorations we made ourselves–from yarn-wrapped dried hickory pods or pinecones–and colored glass balls salvaged from used Christmas corsages available in McCrory’s dime store for around 50 cents.
Our neighbor planted white slash pines. They take about 30 years to reach sawtimber size, but trees can be harvested or thinned out at an earlier stage and sold for use as pulpwood. On a good site, a well-stocked stand of slash pine can also produce about two cords of wood per acre per year. It was considered a good investment if you had a lot of land, but didn’t like to do a lot of work, so there were acres of it growing in the two to three miles distance between our home and his along a country road.
There were also several big NO TRESPASSING signs posted along the way, but for some reason this was where all the best red cedar trees grew wild, scattered in an around the growing pines.
On the appointed day my big sister would take my hand in one hand and a handsaw held close to her front thigh in the other, and we’d sett off together on foot. To casual passers by, we were just two sisters out for a walk on a Saturday afternoon. After we’d walked a distance where the trees began to grow thicker, we’d climb over a barbed wire fence, and disappear among the trees and begin to breathe a little bit easier in our cover of foliage.
“There,” I’d say when I spotted my first cedar tree. Then, seeing another possibility, “No, there!” But my sister had her own idea of what constituted the perfect tree. When she found it, even though it was usually at least five- or six-feet tall, she selected the top 24 inches or so to saw off, leaving the majority of the tree headless. We wouldn’t have been able to manage a larger one and drag it quickly back home; neither would we have had lights, or icicles and angel hair enough to decorate it. At the time, however, she always insisted that the smaller the tree, the prettier.
If we heard a car or truck coming, and they were usually few and far between that far along that country road, we’d stand the tree upright against the barbed wire fence long before they came into view, and wave at whoever it was driving by.
Safely back home, we’d “root” the tree in small foottub of wet sand, and set it on a side table in front of the living room window. Then we’d get the small but growing collection of Christmas decorations we hoarded from year to year. Of course my sister took control of the decorating. She put the lights on first, then she’d point to where I could hang each of the ornaments, and together we’d carefully drape the silver icicles evenly over the tree. When everything else was perfect, she’d take the angel hair and stretch it very carefully to enshroud the entire tree, at least on the side seen from the room.
When she was finished, we’d plug in the lights and wait for darkness to fall so we could go outside and see how it would look to anyone driving by. The angel hair made the lights look as if they were covered with halos–like those around Mary’s and the Christ child’s head in pictures of the nativity scenes from bible stories. Every year until she married and moved away at the age of 17, we created this magic together again and again.
Naturally, then, my sister is on my mind every year around this time, especially since she died of breast cancer in March of 1995. She was only 59 years old. For many years since then, I’ve tried to scheduled my yearly mammogram during the month of December. I like to think it’s what she would want me to do now that I have a tall plastic tree to decorate each year. And while it’s beautiful with the fancier decorations I’ve collected over the years passed between then and now, a part of me has to admit it doesn’t hold nearly as much magic as those tiny little trees of long ago.