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Oh, Christmas Tree

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I grew up in Seattle, and the favorite holiday meal of my childhood was the one I ate in the car with my dad and my two brothers in front of Dag’s drive-in. We were on our way to pick out our Christmas tree from the bargain section at the Chubby and Tubby store.

It was a treat to eat at Dag’s, especially at night during the holidays. The giant revolving milk shake on the roof was lit up, the order windows were decorated with tinsel, colored lights and spray-on snow, and the teen-aged workers who sometimes could be mean to us were forced to wear happy holiday elf hats.

We loved the droopy fries, the flat hamburgers and the very bright orange drink that gushed continually down the clear plastic sides of the beautiful refreshment machine. It turned our lips, tongues and teeth enamel orange, which instantly put us in a holiday mood.

My mother stayed at home that night. It was the first time we were picking out a tree without her, which everyone agreed was for the best.

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My family was slowly going broke, and my mother, like a lot of parents in that situation, was increasingly prone to Yule-tide depression. She was also a perfectionist, so the only way she could pick a Christmas tree out of a pile of rejects was to convince herself that somewhere in that pile was a perfect tree, and all we had to do was work hard enough to find it. She’d send my brothers and me burrowing into the evergreens the way King Arthur sent his Knights into the forest to find the Holy Grail, and then she’d refuse every tree we pulled out. After an hour of looking, she’d fall into a contagious dark silence that would last for the rest of the night.

It was a pattern that had been going on for three years. We’d begun to dread getting our Christmas tree--until my father had an idea.

He came home from work one day and told Mom that he’d be happy to get the kids dinner and pick out the tree himself if she would stay home, stay calm and bake him a pineapple upside-down cake. It was his birthday, the cake was his favorite, and he knew she wouldn’t argue.

It was rare for my brothers and me to be alone with our father, and there was a wild, giddy feeling in the car as we played the radio, peeled pickles off our hamburgers to pass to the brother who liked them and listened to dad tell us a new episode of our traditional family Christmas story about the adventures of a haunted girdle named Gretchen who had been accidentally tossed out by her owner. Dad told us a little bit each day, sort of like an oral advent calendar, until Gretchen was joyously reunited with her owner on Christmas morning. I have no idea how Dad came up with it, but we thought it was the funniest story we ever heard. Although we begged him to tell it all year, he always waited until the holidays.

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We finished eating; Dad sent my youngest brother out to slam our trash into the can and started the car. It was when he turned to back out that I saw a look on his face that made my stomach tighten. Mom wasn’t the only one worried about what was going to happen to us. He edged toward the street and sang, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” It was a phrase he sang often, but I never understood what it meant. That night I told him, “I don’t get it, Dad.”

He flipped on the headlights and nosed into traffic. “Me neither, sweetheart.”

In the Chubby and Tubby parking lot, Dad reminded us of the new rules for picking out our tree. My father, who loved to gamble, decided that the only logical way to reduce the stress of choosing a tree was to shoot a rubber band into the budget pile and leave the rest up to the Divine Hand. “Whichever one it lands on, that’s ours, you got that?”

He explained that if we got a good one, well, then we were lucky. And if we got a cruddy one, then, in the spirit of Christmas, we were going to give the poor thing a home.

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I felt certain that the odds were in our favor. I mean the set-up was so perfect. We were broke, Mom was depressed and Dad was full of faith as he stood in the sawdust and slowly aimed the rubber band with one eye closed and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth.

I saw people staring at him and I remember laughing out loud because at that moment, I believed I had the most terrific father--the funniest, cleverest, most daring father of all time. I felt certain a miracle would happen. A miracle like all the other miracles that are supposed to be happening around Christmas. It would land on a beautiful tree. A perfect tree. One that would make my mother happy, one that would prove what an incredible man my father was.

The rubber band landed and my brothers ran toward our new tree. They lifted it.

It looked like an emaciated animal that first froze to death and then got run over a lot.

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I think even my father was shocked by the tree, but he took hold of it. “Let’s go, kids.”

When Mom opened the front door, the smell of pineapple upside-down cake hit our faces. She was the master of that cake. I was always astonished by how she flipped it out of the pan perfectly to reveal the sudden beauty of six shiny maraschino cherries in the center of six pineapple rings. My brothers and I were standing in the kitchen staring at it when Dad carried the tree through the front door and we heard Mom shout, “Oh, for the love of God, Robert! No!”

In the front room the decorations were laid out in neat rows. The three-legged tree stand stood on a white cloth in the corner. The windows were steamed up and Mom’s Johnny Mathis record was on.

After a short but heated whisper fight, my parents set the tree up straight, turned the worst side to the wall, and that was when the miracle actually happened. My mother stood back, looked hard at the tree and started laughing.

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“Oh my God, Bob,” she said. “Look at it.”

We sang “Happy Birthday” to my father and ate pineapple upside-down cake while Mom decorated the tree. She preferred to do it herself and nobody wanted to argue with her.

Thinking about it now, I guess we did get the perfect tree. Because it gave us what we all needed, even if it was just for one night. It gave us the feeling that we actually could turn a bad situation around.

I’ll always remember that. Sitting on the couch and eating cake with my brothers, watching my parents getting along with each other and seeing our tree slowly become more and more beautiful.

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