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Gather Memory - A Pennsylvania Christmas
by Walter Mills 

On a Saturday before Christmas we went down to Mr. Brown’s Christmas tree farm as we have done the last few years.  We borrowed one of his saws and went out to find the tree we would cut and take home.

We do not take the first tree that we like, because that would spoil most of the fun.  Up and down the aisles of trees we wander, looking for the perfect tree.  But there is no perfect tree, only a tree that is right for us.

When we find the tree that seems right, I kneel on the ground and cut it down, and then we drag it back to the car.  Mr. Brown tells us it is a Fraser Fir, which sounds like the name from a children’s story - Fraser the Fir.  The rest of the afternoon we spend decorating the tree.

That is the way it was this year, and it reminds me of those lines of poetry by Delmore Schwartz from “Tired and Unhappy, You Think of Houses” :
 “…a young girls sings
that song of Gluck where Orpheus pleads with Death.
Her elders watch, nodding their happiness
To see time fresh again in her self-conscious eyes.”

I see “time fresh again” in my two daughters’ eyes as they hang the decorations on the tree.  Memories return from my own boyhood days in South Florida - going out to where the orange grove ended and the pine forest began, past the old workshop surrounded by wild palmetto bushes where my grandfather had built fishing boats for my father and uncle.  There my father would choose the tree and chop it down with a hatchet, and my brother and I would carry it home.

Then we set it up in one corner of the main room of the little house with the cold concrete floor that was heated only by the wood-burning kitchen stove.  The Christmas lights had large colored bulbs that screwed into their sockets.  If the lights did not work, each bulb had to be taken out and replaced until the faulty bulb was found and the string came on all at once like a multicolored necklace.

On Christmas morning my brother lit the wood stove and put water on to boil for coffee while the house was still dark and our parents slept.  He took sweet rolls from the package and warmed them on the stovetop.  Then he woke my sister and me and we went out to find the lights on the tree were glowing and the presents were all lying under the tree like a drift of colored snow. 

In the afternoon the relatives arrived with more presents, and we put the extra leaves in the long oak table for dinner.  The food was carried up the path from my grandmother’s house, where the women had cooked all morning. Trays and platters and dishes of food were carried by the children from her kitchen to our long table and spread out for a feast.

Round and stern, my German grandmother presided over the meal.  Uncles and aunts, and great aunts and great uncles, and young cousins bowed their heads while she said a formal grace over the food. I ate great piles of stuffing and mashed potatoes with secret tunnels of butter until I was too sick to eat anymore. 

Then my father and the uncles sat down on the couches and chairs in the same room and talked of fishing and boats and the weather, which was always clear and cool with a wind off the ocean, and the uncles smoked cigars.

Now each of the uncles is gone and father is gone and the old grandmother is long gone from the earth.  The little house is broken and fallen down and the memories are faint and fleet.  But once again I see those Christmas scenes made fresh in my daughters’ eyes.

I see through their eyes our little village, lit up like a necklace of diamonds as we carol from house to house on a December evening, and the candlelight service on Christmas Eve in the simple church by the creek.   And their memories will gather like snow falling on the rooftops of the town.

(The above originally appeared in the Centre Daily Times; copyright © 2004 by Walter Mills. All rights reserved worldwide. )

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