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Monday, December 17, 2012

The Last Christmas Tree... my holiday gift to you

It was a ‘Charlie Brown Christmas tree,’ even before there was a Charlie Brown. It stood almost six-feet tall with a crooked trunk and so few scraggly branches that you could almost call it a stick. As my sister and I dragged it home, we left a trail of needles from Grandpa’s store to the house where he and Grandma lived, just a block away.

In a word, it was WORRYSOME. How could this pitiful specimen ever become a ‘real’ Christmas tree?

Dad was in the Navy, gone now three years fighting World War II. The three of us, mom, my kid sister and me, lived in on a brick-paved street in a tiny rental house that was owned by grandma and grandpa who lived next door. This is where we moved when dad was called to serve our country. Our rent was $20 a month… or not, depending on if we had the money.

Between our house and the store was an alley, used mostly by garbage trucks… like the one that hit and almost killed me once when I raced across in my Radio Flyer wagon without looking. But that was another time. On the other side of the alley was Frasco Brothers’ Corner Grocery Store. It belonged to grandpa and his brother, our Uncle August. His family lived above the store. The Frasco brothers were Italian immigrants who came to Peoria, Illinois through Ellis Island in 1903. The Frasco men found their calling in groceries and, after establishing themselves, sent for their families. Mom and dad were both first generation American born.

It was the morning of December 24th, that long time ago. My younger sister and I were so excited. Not only was tomorrow the BIG DAY but right now, we would get to put up grandma’s Christmas tree… and that thrilled us beyond telling. This was only our second time… but this year, we got to do it (almost) all by ourselves. Grandma’s house was the center of our family Christmas.

Because of the war, the scarcity of some food products limited what could be bought, but everyone went all out for Christmas and Frasco Brothers’ was the only place folks around here shopped. The nearest Kroger was still 41 years away. And who wouldn’t choose a neighborhood grocer who knew every customer by both first and last name and delivered free in a horse drawn wagon… until the first Model T truck was purchased.

Grandpa (Butch—short for butcher—or Teddy, they called him) and Uncle August carried many of their customers ‘on the books’ with full knowledge that some debts would never be paid, “…because widow Johnson doesn’t have the money and we can’t let her go hungry,” or “Tony just had a big hospital bill because of Mary’s operation,” or “Mrs. Melvin lost her husband in Italy and still has three small kids to raise… “

The customer always came first at Frasco Brothers’ and this went double when it came to Christmas trees. Grandma always got whatever was left, usually around Christmas Eve, after Grandpa had called all his customers who didn’t have their trees yet. “No money this year, Mrs. Albert… who said you needed money for a Christmas tree? We are saving the best for you. Want us to drop it off?”

This year, there was just one left for grandma… the best … the only… but, as grandpa said, we had the chance to help God make our own beautiful tree. So… Over the alley and through the neighborhood, to grandmother’s house we drug… that poor, mangy stump of a tree, while pulling our wagon filled with the extra branches that fell from other, long-ago-purchased trees, a card of thumb-tacks and a ball of green butcher’s twine.

“Look,” Grandpa showed us, “ with just some extra branches, thumb-tacks and string, this will be the best tree of all.”

Grandma smiled as she greeted us at her door. ”My, what a wonderful tree we have this year.” (We later learned that she always said that.) “I just know you will make it so that baby Jesus himself will want to lie in our manger.”

Now we knew…the fate of Christmas was in our hands.

From the attic’s drop-down stairs came the boxes of heirloom ornaments older than we were and the rag-tag, impossibly jumbled strands of mixed lights that sometimes did, but mostly didn’t work. With the patience of the knitting and crocheting whiz that she was, grandma would carefully untangle, and then try every single light to find ones causing problems, replacing all that needed replacing. Sometime, she even had to repair the flimsy wire that tied them electrically together. Eventually, we had full strings of working, blinking Christmas lights… and we were thrilled!

Our attention turned to that miserable specimen of a tree lying on the parlor’s tile floor. I picked it up and settled the tree’s base into the stand. With grandma’s keen eye, she judged the best angle of the crooked trunk and my sister held it in place while I tightened the stand’s screws. Our ‘Charlie Brown ‘tree was soon able to stand as straight as possible without being held.

We all stood back and surveyed our work so far. “Hmm… ” Finally, grandma nodded, “Just right! Kids, get those branches and let’s get started.” Grandma was an amazing woman.

We hummed Christmas carols as we worked… and thumb-tack by thumb-tack, grandma began attaching extra branches to the trunk while I tied supporting strings higher up the tree.

We gently layered our tree with all the working Christmas bulbs… and oohed and aahed when they actually lit the tree. 

Grandma then had to leave us to get grandpa’s lunch on the table for their big noontime meal.  Grandpa opened the market at 6 am and, after finishing cleanup chores when the store closed 12 hours later, his feet hurt… and he was too tired to eat much before he fell into a hard-snoring slumber on his favorite chair… six days a week.

Sis and I stayed busy, fully consumed with our important task. We were a well-oiled team, happier at our task than at any other time of the year.

Ornament-by-ornament, our scraggly leftover started to look like a real Christmas tree. The topper was, of course, the most beautiful star you could ever imagine. Grandma made it out of yellow felt and red ribbon. She used the ladder to put it atop the tree, and after a few ‘tippy’ moments, she had it looking ‘just right,’ even if it was a tad off center. Then we wrapped the tree in popcorn and ribbon garland and draped it with so much silver tinsel that Santa himself couldn’t tell it wasn’t perfect.

Finally, our favorite part--we unpacked the manger and carefully unwrapped all the characters… the camels, the wise men, the sheep and shepherd, the angel, Mary, Joseph… and the baby Jesus.

It was my sister who lovingly laid Him in the manger. We stood back… and after an appreciating pause, we sang Away in a Manger and Silent Night. This was the first moment when we really felt the meaning of the season in our hearts. And of course, ours was the most beautiful Christmas tree ever!

As we stood there in reflected silence and pride, we knew Christmas meant hope, love and peace. But mostly, I think, hope. Please bring our dad home… and all the dads and brothers and sons and daughters. End the war… please end the war. And let us all do unto others, as we would have them do unto us…

All wasn’t right with the world that Christmas, but we believed it would be again, someday… sooner, we prayed, than later.
So, with hope abounding: Happy Christmas to all… and to all, a good night.

Jerry C.

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