The grandfather climbed out of the truck. It was cold, bitter cold. It was the kind of cold that reaches down through layers of material, and descends directly into bone marrow. Joints ache, blood flow begins to slow, and no additional bundling can prevent a constant chill from permeating the body.
“Let’s hurry up and get this over with,” the grandfather said. "I can’t take the cold as well as I used to.”
“Neither can I,” said his wife, climbing out of the opposite side of the truck. “It’s colder than I expected, but if we don’t do this now we may not get another chance.”
The grandmother was just as cold. The less-than-adequate coat she had thrown on absent-mindedly was no longer enough to ward off the freezing temperature. She had buttoned it as high as it would go, her head withdrawn like some kind of arctic turtle, with only bright red cheeks and scattered highlights of winter white dusting her hair as snow flurried. Her eyes attested to how miserable she felt.
Only the child seemed oblivious to the creeping cold. After all, they were going to cut down a Christmas tree. That was something new to him, and nothing could detract from his joy. His grandmother and grandfather told him they had taken him when he was younger, but at four years of age, he had difficulty remembering last week let alone last year. To him, everything he did was fresh and new.
“Mamaw, Papaw, c’mon.” he said after getting unbuckled from the car seat. “I want that tree over there.”
Both of the adults smiled. “That tree is bigger than our house,” the grandfather said. “We need to find a smaller one.” The look of disappointment on the child’s face was clearly evident, but he submitted to the flawed logic of his grandparents, as usual.
“Besides,” said his grandmother. “You want to take a hayride on the tractor and wagon out to where the trees are, don’t you?”
“A tractor? Can we?”
Moments later they were sitting on bales of straw as the tractor chugged along, the wagon rocking from side to side, tilting slightly as it was pulled along the dirt path among row upon row of ‘baby’ Christmas trees, as the grandmother called them. The diesel discharge rising from the smoke-stack of the tractor buffeted them with an oily smell, which simply served as an exclamation point to the already unpleasant experience for the grandmother and grandfather.
Meanwhile the child, snuggled in tightly and wrapped within the protective arms of his grandfather, watched the proceedings with joyful abandon. A Christmas tree! They were going to cut their own Christmas tree. He held a small handsaw tightly in his gloved hands. He couldn’t loose it or he wouldn’t be able to cut the tree down.
And then they were there, surrounded by Christmas trees. Which one to choose? The child, naturally, walked up to the first one he saw with saw drawn, ready to cut. “This one,” he said.
“No,” said the grandmother. “We have to look for the best one.”
“Now, now,” said the grandfather to the child. “It’s Mamaw’s job to pick out the tree. It’s our job to cut it down.”
Twenty minutes later the choice had been made. It was the first one they had seen. The child looked up at his grandfather, and simply held out both hands, palms up. On his face was the question that would reside there the remainder of his life.
“Let’s get to cutting,” the grandfather said. No time for life lessons now. It had already taken longer than he had wanted. All he could picture at the moment was a warm fire and hot chocolate.
The grandfather and the child knelt down and began to cut. It became evident that only one saw would work well, so the grandfather told the child they would use just one saw and they would both cut together. It didn’t take long for the saw to cut through a few inches of wood.
The grandfather paused just before they were all the way through. He turned toward the child. “Now when I tell you, cup your hands around your mouth and shout TIIIIIMBERRR. Then the tree will fall down.”
The child nodded his head. This was serious stuff.
The grandfather began cutting again, and then said, “Now.”
“TIIIIIMBERRR,” shouted the child, as the grandmother clicked away with her camera.
Riding back on the wagon, sitting on the bales of straw once again, they snuggled together with a fresh-cut Christmas tree at their feet. Suddenly they hit a hole in the road. The wagon wheel dropped down into it a few inches with a loud clatter. “Ow,” said the grandmother. That really hurt my back.”
“Bad ol’ wagon,” said the grandfather.
“Bad ol’ wagon,” said the child.
When the tractor had finally pulled them back to the barn, they hauled the tree off and gave it to a man standing there. “Come here,” said the grandmother. “Watch how they do this.”
All three stood and watched a man hook up the tree trunk and then pull it through what looked like a big can open on both side. When the tree was pulled through, rope was wrapped around the tree and it was in a tight bundle of needles and branches.
“Isn’t that cool?” the grandmother said.
The child could only nod his head in agreement. He had never seen anything like that before. It would take some serious thought to figure out how they did that.
“Now you and Papaw go get the truck, and I’ll go pay for it.”
“Don’t forget to pay for it with my money.” He handed a heavy bag full of dimes and nickels to his grandmother. He had been saving a long time so he could pay to get a Christmas tree for his grandmother and grandfather.
“I’ll pull out just a few dimes and nickels so he can say he helped pay for it,” the grandmother whispered to the grandfather as they separated. They both smiled at each other.
The grandfather couldn’t wait to get back to the truck. It had taken them longer than expected, and tradition or not, he had become seriously chilled. It was then he felt a small hand slip into his. He looked down at his grandson, who was looking up at him. The smile that showed on the child’s face came directly from inside, unencumbered, rich and joyous.
Suddenly, the cold disappeared. The creeping darkness brought on by the approaching dusk disappeared as well. The gentle cascading of snow flakes took on an anointing aspect. There had been no toys, no Santa Claus, no garish lights, and no hustle-bustle of crowds. There had been no cacophony of sound, no ka-ching of cash registers or rattle of money. There had only been the gentle clinking of dimes and nickels saved by a small child and given unselfishly—a true Christmas gift. There had only been a shared experience between two grandparents and their grandchild. That’s all it had been, and yet it had now become so much more.
It had been that smile—the smile of innocent delight. It was a smile that spoke of the thread of love that need not be spoken, only felt. It spoke of true affection that disregards the gulf separating loved ones by half a world or half a century. It had flipped an otherwise dreary day and an arduous year upside down. More, that smile had turned a world-weary grandfather, bearing the full weight of a life-time of fermenting cynicism, back to the reality of true Christmas spirit.
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