the christmas tree that wasn’t

The holiday season is nothing if not about making memories, right?  We all shoot for the good ones, try to impress upon ourselves and our little ones feelings of warmth and togetherness.  But in the end, we don’t so much as make the memories, as they make us.

The memory that I wanted to create for my family was of hunting out the perfectly imperfect Christmas tree.  I wanted the story to read like a book: singing in the car together, to the beautiful tree farm with green triangles reaching towards the sky as far as the eye can see.  We would tromp around, making jokes, until we found the right one.  For us, it would be a slender tree, tall and elegant, but with a spit of character.  Maybe there would be snow, that would be okay.  Then at home, we would drink hot chocolate, listening to Christmas music while oohing and ahhing over the handmade ornaments.

No?

The memory of our day is far more full of frustration.  Of disappointment.  Of fear, even.  But laced through it all is the story of family, and adventure.  Of faith that holds it all together, and a fullness of the redemption that is nothing if not the greatest story ever told: of Christmas itself.

The tree farm is about forty minutes south of where we live.  We drive out there for the big picture experience of the whole thing: for the memory-making factor, really.  There is a tractor ride out to the field, and the span of trees seems endless.  There are even reindeer.  The forecast was looking grim, but only cold and gray for most of the day.  The wintry mix they were predicting wasn’t supposed to come in until late afternoon.  We layered up, long johns underneath, turtlenecks and wool on top, and headed out mid-morning.

Imagine our surprise, then, when Mark pointed out the first few snowflakes.  Oh, isn’t that beautiful, we all cooed.  Tiny specks of flurries, hardly threatening.  By the time we were off the highway and threading through the windy roads that cut through farmland and woodland, the snow was laying down on the ground.  We watched the car ahead of us, surely caught by surprise like us, spin like a top after going around a corner too quickly.   But we had already come so far, we said.  We’ll just grab our tree and head back home.  And really, we couldn’t have known.  Pulling into the parking lot at the tree farm, there was no blanket of white.  It still held a farmland patch of brown and gray.

Good thing, too, because while I had made sure everyone was bundled in warm layers, I had not prepared us for snow.  We all wore our sneakers, and our cotton gloves.  After pulling on our winter coats, we waited at the crest of the hill for the tractor to take us up to the field.  The flurries gave it this somehow “New England” feel, fulfilling my aspirations that are thwarted by my geographical reality. We even had our own private hay ride!  The corners of my mouth were poking upwards, (though surely this is a sign of my naive arrogance:  I had already begun mentally patting myself on the back for such good memory-making luck).

We marched this way and that, through squat fat trees, into swaths of trees that looked simply glamorous in the way they tower over me.  It’s easy to lose perspective out in a field where the clouds are the ceiling and the only walls come from the forest itself.  Our living room is much smaller, and what looks perfect out here looks obese and unwelcome at home.  The snow was building now, faster and faster the flakes were falling, and I noticed that the kids each had about an each laying on their shoulders.  Griffin wanted to be held the whole time and was quickly losing patience, and warmth.  We chose a tree that looked good enough, and Mark laid into the cold, wet ground to saw it down.

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We stood, now, in a family huddle, waiting for the tractor to pick us, and our tree, up to deliver us back down to the farm shed and our car.  Shoulders hunched, head down, I could see our feet, all of our sneakers soaked through with snow, wet and cold now.  My quaint visions of Christmas at the farm were fading, traded instead for the tough reality of our unpreparedness.  My usually thick-skinned kids were beginning to complain about being cold and wet.  I couldn’t blame them.  Fifteen, twenty minutes into our wait, and I was fresh out of enthusiasm, too.  I could offer no more Christmas carols, no more running races.  Any minute, now, I kept telling our crew.

Except that there was no tractor coming for us.  Nope, too dicey, the guy told everyone. The snow – just not safe anymore.  Get hoofin’ then.

Now, listen.  Normally, we are the right gang for this.  We are a hiking family.  My kids know well how to put one foot in front of the other through dirt trails, mining roots and rocks with agility.  We do adventure. But we do it with hiking boots and a water bottle.  This?  This was different.  This was a half mile of snow-slicked trail.  I had little confidence in my own ability to hold a sure footing, let alone the kids.  But we do what we have to do, and we put one foot in front of the other.  I adjusted Griffin on my hip, feeling the full weight of his body through my arms and back, and I grabbed Grant’s hand.  Not thirty paces in and Mark, carrying Renee, slipped and fell.  His remarkable agility twisted to save Renee, but he took quite a crash.  I reminded myself to breath, and to be slow.

Though shaken, we made it back to the car.  We had no tree.  We didn’t even care about the tree, now.  We were cold.  We were wet.  We were thwarted.  We were surprised to see my car covered by an inch or two of snow.  The gray and brown patchwork that had welcomed us was now a thick blanket of white.

We tore off wet layers, shed soaked socks, turned up the heat in the car.  We watched as a few cars had trouble climbing the small hill to get out of the parking lot.  Watching these cars spin their wheels dramatically, the kids, already cold and tired, were getting anxious about driving.  We have some baggage in this department, you could say, and it surfaces at times like these.  But I trust Mark with many things, and he is my number one man in these situations.  There is no one I would rather have behind that steering wheel

Except, that is to say, here is where faith steps in.  Because as much as I trust Mark, he is just Mark.  Mark has a steady hand, and a thoughtful knowledge of these physics, but there are certainly things that are out of his control.  So as we headed slowly down a snow covered hill and passed a car struggling and fishtailing its way up in the other lane, we prayed.  When we turned a corner to find a half dozen cars dotting their way up a hill,  the crown jewel of four people pushing a car that was stuck, we prayed.  The kids were scared.  Mark made quick decisions, ones that I don’t hesitate to say were prayer inspired, and kept us safe.

After the worst of it, when we had turned away from that impassable hill, and (God bless technology) we found another way around in this unfamiliar farmland, Grant spoke loud and clear from the backseat: “Thank you God for keeping us safe.”

It took us two and half hours to get home, far from the forty minutes we traveled to get there.  It appears that this storm just caught everyone off guard, coming in earlier than expected, and so quickly.  The highways were no better than the back roads, and we did much better driving away from other vehicles.  It was a quiet, intense car ride home.

After a couple other reroutes due to stuck cars, we finally came down our long familiar road, past the sports center, to the crest of our hill.  Our house is on the middle of this hill, just beyond.  But this hill is notoriously treacherous in this weather, and today it proved no different.  There were cars dotting it like wayward ants.  In one last act of adventure, we decided we just couldn’t wait any longer to get home.  Mark turned off our road into the neighborhood behind our house.  We parked our car in the circle, and pushed our feet into cold, wet sneakers one last time.  We tromped through the snowy woods that separate this neighborhood and our house, with the promise of dry clothes and hot chocolate propelling us forward.

Home, safe and sound and warm, I reflected on the day.  I couldn’t shake my disappointment.  Knowing that I should be simply thankful that we were safe, I felt guilty for being bummed out.  Our plans for the rest of the day, of course, included decorating the tree, and the magical, memory-making afternoon that I had envisioned was now empty, full only of the daily demands of dinner and laundry.

There are, of course, ways that I can look back on this and say: “What a story! What an adventure!  Look at the faith, and the family and the provision!”  It’s all there, I know.  But what I felt was a dampness in my bones that I couldn’t shake, and an emptiness not just in my living room but in my dashed expectations.

We talked a good talk at the dinner table: you guys were brave troopers out there today, well done kids; we’ll pick up a tree tomorrow. My words set about to tell the narrative of redemption: of bravery, and adventure, of faith and togetherness, and found warmth.  The narrative that will turn into the made memory.

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