The snow had mounted up just to the bottom of our shoes. A “dusting” of snow transformed the landscape into a wintry scene, while not endangering travelers too terribly on the old road that curved around the back of the old house. Chilly wind blew in gusts that moved the sedge grass in rhythmic waves on the hill above the tobacco field. Circling over the harvested corn field, looking for anything that might satisfy their appetite this day, a flock of birds made the only noise of the day.
I had been called down to breakfast from the warmth of an upstairs bed covered with at least five quilts. The warmth beneath the covers was contrasted to the cold air in the house. Pappaw liked to turn the furnace down at night for better sleeping. But it made it really hard to get out of the warmth of the bed. Mammaw had been up early, scrounging through the kitchen for this day’s breakfast. Having been brought up making her own biscuits, she was pleased to find the convenience of the canned kind, and punctuated the morning with a loud “Thwack!” as she opened this day’s can. Placing them gently on a small pan, she arranged them so their sides would touch, helping them raise higher. Then she stuck them in the toaster oven. Turning back to the stove top, she prepared poached eggs and cream of wheat, the same food she made every day for Pappaw. Today she would add a little to it so her grandson could eat too. Coffee was made out of boiled water and a spoonful or two of “instant”.
Pappaw had been out since daybreak to make the morning trek to the barn. Calves had to be fed even when you felt like sleeping in. He would climb the hay loft and throw down several bales to distribute along the feeding area. Boards separated the place where the hay was served so the calves would not knock each other around. They could stick their heads through and munch to their heart’s content. Then along several long troughs a mixture of ground corn, with hay, oats, cotton seed and molasses (which had been prepared at the mill in Gate City) would be measured out. The calves loved this feed and licked it up with enthusiasm. After several minutes of feeding, counting the herd and checking to see that none were sick, Pappaw would slowly turn back toward the house. Stomping on the way back, he would clean his shoes of anything the cattle contributed to them, and he could enter the back porch where he would remove them and step into his house shoes and out of his overalls so he could come to breakfast.
By now I was wide awake, and trying with all my might to get up. The warm/cold dichotomy seemed to set a war within my soul, and I wouldn’t budge until Pappaw came to the stairs and hollered: “He-ey, Cowboy!” Those words would make me almost mad, and I’d holler back “I’m coming!” Then I’d fly out of the covers and down the stairs to the warmth of the kitchen, to the hear the furnace growling with the first fire of the morning. Running by Pappaw, he reached out and grabbed my ears with his cold, calloused fingers and said “You going to go with me today?” Grinning, I could tell he had something up his sleeve. That curiosity is the only thing that kept me from heading on into the warm kitchen where the toaster oven had just completed it’s daily biscuit making work.
I had to ask: “Where ya goin?”
“We need to go get Mammaw a Christmas tree today.”
My eyes got big, and I remembered that we hadn’t done this job yet. I smiled and told him I couldn’t wait to go. Breakfast was eaten hurriedly, almost in one gulp. This man of great patience seemed to enjoy torturing me with his his slow, deliberate ways. I was dressed and ready, my coat and hat on, sitting at the table while Pappaw sipped slowly on his coffee, his eyes partially shut. Mammaw got up and started on the dishes.
Almost out the door, a car drove up and stopped. Uncle Bud got out and sauntered into the kitchen. I went on a walk out toward the barn, kicking gravel along the road while the adults talked in the kitchen. Bud was a chain smoker, so he loved to light up a cigarette in the kitchen, reaching slowly over to the window seal for his ashtray, then sitting and talking at the kitchen table about things he was thinking about doing. He discussed it all with Pappaw, and then what seemed like hours later, finally left. Anxious to get on with our work for the day, by the time he left, I had been down at the bridge over the little creek in front of the house, watching the water go by, and dropping rocks to see if they would bounce. Upon returning to the house, I found Pappaw out in his “Shop” looking for his saw. Finally headed in the direction of the pasture, we were off on the search for the perfect tree.
Our pasture was down the creek, and up the hill behind my Aunt Annie’s house. We went through the gate and climbed the hill. Pappaw had seen a stand of cedars so we went toward this native Christmas tree farm. Cedars were the scourge of pastures. They grew thick and shaded out the grass, making it difficult for the cattle to find enough grazing land to satisfy them, and since the farm had been divided after Granddaddy Ketron’s passing, the pasture had shrunk to where we could only graze about twenty cows or about thirty steers. This year it was steers. They were easier to raise, and we kept them in the barn lot for the winter, so we could feed them and make them fat for market. So the pasture was empty of animals, except some rabbits and an occasional deer.
Out of breath when we reached the summit at the top of the steep main hill, I watched the white air, like smoke, issue forth from my head as I still followed my Pappaw’s every step. Down to the right, above Clyde Hilton’s thick, overgrown cedar grove, we found some smaller trees on our side of the fence. Pappaw looked at several, and I kept trying to point out my favorites. Finally he bent down and started sawing. Every little bit he’d spit some tobacco juice while he sawed, seeming to relieve him of the pain of this work amid the sticky cedars. The one he picked was much smaller than the ones I liked. But he knew this business, as he was planning on placing our tree upon a table in the corner of the living room.
Slowly, deliberately, he perfected the cut at the base at the end of the tree, and smiled and said, “Come on, Cowboy, let’s get back to the house.” Then, turning and spitting one more time, the job was finished.
We followed the cow path back down the hill past the salt lick to the creek, then up through the gate, across the meadow, and back to the road. Out behind the “Shop” near the hog-scalding pan, we laid our tree on its side and fixed the silver, star-shaped base to it’s trunk. A few more small branches were sawed off to shape it up better, and once the tree was fitted into this ancient base, we stood it up to see how it looked. I was beginning to see it’s potential. Cedars grow long and then thicken up in the middle over time. This one was shaped more in the A-shape we desired. It was about four feet high, and didn’t weigh so much I couldn’t pull it in the house. So off we went to set it up.
By the time we got in the cold living room (where the heat was only allowed to come on during our family’s Christmas festivities), Mammaw had set out the decorations. We strung the ancient lights, large-bulbed yellow bubble lights, and smaller colored lights. Once strung up, we set the tree on the table. Then we hung the old ornaments. They had hung many a year on trees in this house. My grandparents had raised my mom and uncles through the harshest years of the Great Depression, so money was only spent once on Christmas ornaments, including icicle tinsel. They were carefully stored after Christmas and brought out again when needed.
After hanging the little ornaments, Pappaw carefully placed the heavy tinsel, one strand at a time, and stepped back to survey his work. He reached down and plugged the lights in to see the finished product. I was busy by now putting out the manger scene, carefully unwrapping each piece and putting it together on the table where Mammaw wanted it. After oohing and aahing a little, the lights were unplugged. Then, Pappaw’s mouth now full of tobacco juice, he was barely able to tell me to come on in the other part of the house as we closed the door on the Christmas decorations in the Living Room, where Christmas cactuses were in full bloom behind the couch in the bay window. The cold room would have to await until time for our festive gathering. But it was ready now.