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Gail Ylitalo

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The Cookie Tree
By Gail Ylitalo
Wednesday, December 01, 2004

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Nestled deep in a hollow between two mountains rests the house of my childhood. The long drive along mountain roads snaking through the countryside made me question why anyone would want to remain in the decaying “company” town. The coalmines had blighted the place, but they offered work for the poor. Work meant money to feed ones family and, when one was cold and hungry, concerns over protecting the land were quickly discarded. That was a worry for the next generation; after all, people had to eat. Perhaps if you were born there and knew nothing else than the hardwoods and pines standing sentry on the majestic peaks that had placed an invisible cord around your heart, you, like the trees, would be rooted to this natural beauty. I was making this journey because of the cookie tree, which had stayed locked in my memory all these years.

December, 1940, was a cold one. The first snow had fallen on Thanksgiving Day—a harbinger of things to come. Like any six year old, I was thrilled and made the most of it, but now that the cold was firmly in control, the novelty had withered away like the daffodils by the front porch. Mama had our small home decorated for the holidays. As I approached the house, I thought about the history lesson on the town’s founders we’d had in school that day. Could this place be a beacon to a bygone age? I loved to repeat my teacher’s words and thought it made me appear to be the smartest student in her class. My brother, Bobby, said it got on the teacher’s nerves, but I didn’t care. I paused and watched wisps of gray smoke rising up from the brick chimney before dancing off to join the geese crying out their greeting as they passed overhead. As I stepped onto the slightly sagging steps, the scent of pine surrounded me. Yeah, I thought, Mama’s finished decorating. The whole month of December, as if in defiance of the town’s grim circumstances, was a time of singing, story telling, and homemade decorations. My eyes feasted on the colorful displays, and late at night I would get up to sleep by the woodstove, letting its warmth fill me with dreams of new toys and clothes. Grandpa’s story about the cookie tree helped me to believe in Christmas. He’d told me that if a child were lucky enough to find the perfect pine seedling, she could decorate it with cookies for the Spirit of Christmas, and her wish would be granted—not “right away” but “down the road”. Well, I had a wish, and this year I was going to find that seedling! Feeling confident, I started to open the door when a shrill voice froze me to the spot.

“Peggy Jean, I’m gonna find that tree,” cried Rhoda Burns.

My back stiffened as I turned to face the girl who had caused physical pain to nearly everyone in our class at one time or another. Even though I’d lose in the end, I would still fight her tooth and nail. Giving Rhoda my meanest glare with fists clenched, I looked at her and said, “Rhoda Burns, you’re too dumb to find anything!”

“I’m just telling you,” she shrugged. “I’m going out now.”

I really didn’t want to fight her so I shrugged and stared her down. She lived across the road from me and we’d been friends once—until she started getting so mean. She had seven brothers, and Mama said that accounted for her being so tough. Mama also said she was jealous of me and that’s why she pushed me in the river once.

The day our friendship ended was over my Grandpa’s indoor bathroom. I thought she’d like to see it, so one day I let her in. The new bathroom was bigger than the old water closet and even had a bathtub with claw feet. The toilet wasn’t that different from the one out back except it had a water tank perched above it with a gold chain dangling down. My brother Bobby was anxious to pull it, but Rhoda soured the mood. She told us that all the “stuff” would go down into the river. Bobby had said “big deal”, but I was mad. We played in that river during the warm months, and I couldn’t believe the “stuff” would rush down into it. We solved the problem when Bobby suggested that we go out, follow the trench, and wait. He would give us a few minutes and then pull the chain.

Rhoda followed me out without saying a word. We walked down and stood by the pipe. Sure enough, water rushed down from the house into the Bluestone River. I was so mad I shoved her and, in retaliation, she rubbed my face in the mud. I got up with my back turned, and that’s when she pushed me into the river. I ignored her from that point on and took great pleasure in the teasing she took from our classmates. Her clothes were in worse shape than mine, and she stank to high heaven. Her family didn’t even have a bathroom. In a region of poor people, they were the poorest among us, and her mama never left the house—not even for church on Sunday!

I tossed my books down and started down the steps. Rhoda didn’t move. “I’m going now, and I will find the tree,” I declared, brushing past her. She only laughed and followed closely behind.

“Your mama’s gonna get mad!” she smirked. “You might even get your brother’s old coat dirty!”

Rhoda was really pushing it! She was the only one who knew just how much I hated wearing Bobby’s coat. He’d gotten a new one, and I was left with the one he’d so quickly outgrown. Not wanting to confront the mean girl right now, I bit my lip and started up the mountain. The sun was going down, and the air had grown colder. I knew I couldn’t go far so I went to the nearest stand of pines. Rhoda stayed close, as if waiting to take whatever I found. To this day, I marvel at my luck. The tiny seedling was right alongside the path. I’d walked by it all summer and had never even noticed it. Spotting the seedling at the same time, Rhoda let out a yell and charged at me like old man Smith’s bull. She knocked me to the ground, but I didn’t feel a thing. There was something in her yell that I couldn’t explain. I actually felt sorry for her.

Rhoda rushed to the seedling, yanked it out of the earth, and started to cry. “You ain’t getting it!” she said, between sobs. “This is for my mama and my baby brothers.”

“I don’t want it…” I said, sitting on the snow, “…not that bad. It’s yours.”

Rhoda blinked as if confused by my words. “I found it fair and square. It’s my wish.”

“Okay,” I said, getting up. “You got the first cookie tree.”

Rhoda started to cry as she clutched the tiny pine. “You don’t understand. My wish will help my mama. She won’t drink anymore, and my daddy will love us all again.”

I knew what drinking did to people. My father would come in from the mine with only his eyes showing and have the shakes. He’d quickly clean up then go out to get his reinforcement. He would always call it that, but I saw the pain in my mother’s eyes and understood that beans and fatback would be our suppers for the week. I went to Rhoda and hugged her.

We didn’t speak until we were near our houses. Rhoda broke the silence with a question. She wanted to know if I thought it would work—the wish. I thought it over and said, “Not right away, but down the road.”

Rhoda smiled and nodded. She was about to walk away but stopped. Looking at me with the old mean look back on her face, she exclaimed, “If you tell anyone I cried, I’ll rub your face in dog stuff!” She didn’t wait for me to say anything and hurried off. Her house was always cold and dark. I felt bad because I didn’t ask her to my house, but she wouldn’t have come anyway. I knew that Rhoda had to get home and take care of her family.

I think about that day and, in a way, Rhoda’s wish did come true . She cared for her family until she graduated from high school. She left the day after graduation and a year later sent for her family. They never came back to the hollow. I’m back because time has taken its toll and it’s my turn to find another cookie tree…for down the road.


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Reviewed by Karen Lynn Vidra, The Texas Tornado 12/3/2004
Excellent story, Gail! Well done!

(((HUGS))) and much love, your friend in Tx., Karen Lynn. :D

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