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The Gift That Arrived When No One Was Looking

Twenty-five years ago, Dad told us to plant white pine trees in the gravel pit across the road from our four-room farmhouse in Ashby, Mass. The state was selling six-inch seedlings guaranteed to grow quickly in sandy soil. So one spring day, Dad and Mom brought 150 tiny, rooted sprigs and helped my wife, Lauren, and me slip them into the ground behind the blades of pointed shovels.

Our first son arrived two years later, in time to grow with the seedlings. At Ben's ninth Christmas, half the tiny seedlings had taken hold to become a handsome, green grove of five-foot pines, and Ben now had a six-year-old brother, Jonathan.

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That winter, we had tired of seeking the perfect Christmas tree at local farm stands, and the boys were big enough to cut their own. So one Saturday, we went back to Ashby to thin out Dad's pine grove.

Unlike hemlock or spruce, white pines aren't dense or symmetrical, but one crowded tree certainly needed cutting, and the boys shared the task of pulling a small hand saw through the four-inch trunk.

Even with lights and ornaments, it wasn't a Christmas-card tree, but Lauren and I loved it for growing from its tiny beginning, and the boys were happy for their tree-cutting rite of passage.

When the holidays ended, the pine carried a surprise, for as we plucked garlands and colored balls from the dried, thinning branches, Ben said, "Oh! Look!" In the very center of the tree, wedged between a branch and the trunk, rested a small birds' nest. It had survived the cutting and a 30-mile ride on the top of the car.

"Let's save it!" Jonathan said. And we did, gently pulling the nest from the tie-down twigs and grasses and strands of hair the birds had carefully woven to the pine tree's trunk and branches.

The next Christmas, we bought a living tree, a four-foot-tall spruce, with a burlap-wrapped ball of roots. When properly watered in its large, new, galvanized pail, it weighed more than either of the boys. With much groaning, grunting, encouragement, and laughter, in came the tree and out came the worn boxes of decorations. Nestled inside the first box was the birds' nest from Dad's white pine tree.

We gave the nest a proper place, carefully wedged into the very center of the spruce, where the nest's makers would have wanted it.

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"Let's put a fake bird in it," said one of us.

"No. Let's leave it," said another. And we left the nest empty.

When we packed the decorations, the living tree had begun to show too much life for the freezing outdoors, so we kept it in our warm house. In April we planted the spruce in the yard between our neighbor's kitchen windows and ours. Now that its roots were in the ground, the tree was short enough for the boys to peer over, and we knew the spruce would never grow as quickly as a white pine. But it, too, had been our Christmas tree, and we liked having the spruce where we could see it every day.

Our hound dog, Molly, showed unusual interest in our planted Christmas tree. So one day I followed her inquisitive nose and saw, nestled next to the tree's trunk, what looked like our old Christmas nest, slightly tattered from the weather. When we packed the decorations, the tree had hidden the nest.

"Let's take it for next Christmas," one of us said.

"No. Let's leave it," said another.

We left the nest in the tree.

Three weeks later, Lauren came into the house from gardening. "Come see!" she said. Putting one finger to her lips, she led us slowly to the spruce tree. There, in a refurbished nest, rested four eggs, no larger than white mulberries. With big eyes and whispers, we quietly moved to the corner of the house as a darting, flustered jenny wren rushed to her borrowed nest.

During the next 10 days, the wren was a hard-working parent. We watched her tend her eggs and feed her children, and then they were gone.

Ben and Jonathan are now in their 20s. Betsy, another houndlike stray, has taken Molly's place. And the spruce tree has slowly grown to 18 feet, branches tight and full. The wren never returned to the tree, but last year one of her grandchildren tried to build a home in our old holiday wreath.

We no longer look for the nest from Dad's white pine, but whenever Betsy leaves the house, she looks for birds. When she jumps about our tall Christmas spruce, a flock of 40 or 50 tiny birds, sparrows perhaps, suddenly whirl from their hiding place in the cool shadows of its branches.

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