When we got to the tree farm, it was just starting to snow. Cold, crisp flakes that blew sideways and skipped across the ground. It wasn't like New England snow, that sloppy, wet, melt-on-your-clothes kind of snow. This was Midwest snow, the first I'd seen since moving to Iowa, and it had come suddenly out of a dark gray wall in the west that swallowed up the midday sun.
The gold bells on the door clanged when we opened it, and we stepped through a warm draft of wood-smoky air into a small room bright with greenery. Wreaths plain and decorated. Trees still bound up in their mesh coats. Others that had opened out and were already dropping their needles. And everything exuding the joyous odor of what persists, even in winter.
"Do you for today?" said a man behind the counter. Dressed in a tan canvas coat, he was as tall as any Iowan I'd met since we moved here in the summer, and when his hand shook mine it stuck with pine sap as though reluctant to let go.
"We'd like a tree," I said, "but not one of these. We want to pick out our own from the rows out in the field, if that's an option." This was my idea. I'd always dreamed of doing this kind of thing.
As a boy, trudging beneath the strung lights of the tree lots in and around the little towns of Rhode Island, holding up Douglas firs and Scotch pines so my mother could look for bare spots, I would envision myself setting out across a snowy expanse toward a copse of green. Ax on my shoulder, boots crunching through drifts, the church steeple of a distant hamlet rising above the conical tips of spruce, pine, and fir, one of which I'd soon be dragging home to Mom. I was a character right out of Dickens. This was a dream that recurred every year, and always in mid-December.
"I'll pull around front with the flatbed. You might want to warm up at the woodstove before coming out. It's a cold one today," the tree farmer said, clanging out into the horizontally falling snow.
Sharen snuggled up to me in front of the stove. "This is fun. Puts me in the spirit of the season. This was a good idea. To think my family always had an artificial tree - a silver one at that!"
I shook my head. "You and I will do it heartland style."
We sat huddled atop hay bales arranged into makeshift seats, the long flatbed trailer bumping across frozen ruts, a John Deere tractor pulling us into the rows of trees.
The wind sounded like the trumpets of a fox hunt miles away. Snow nipped at our exposed cheeks. A few times the tree farmer turned to us and spoke, and his breath seemed to hang in the frigid air.
"What did he say?" Sharen mumbled through her scarf.
"Sounded like, 'Do you want a pizza?' " I said. Sharen almost choked, laughing through her scarf. "I am kind of hungry," I added.
He lowered the idle on the tractor, and once again shouted back to us, "How do these look?"
"Can we just jump off and walk around?" I said.
Climbing down, I looked behind the hay bales, hoping to find an ax, but all I could see was a slippery- looking chain saw covered with wood slivers and oil. I said to Sharen, "Let's just pick out a tree and leave the rest up to him."
Maybe it was the rich Iowa soil, that fertile loam kindly left behind by the glaciers on their tedious migration. Maybe it was the clean air. Maybe it was just that I'd never actually been to a tree farm. Or that my childhood dream looked so much like these snowy rolling hills dotted with spruce and fir and pine. Whatever the case, I'd never seen trees that were greener or more alive.
"These are beautiful," Sharen agreed.
"My mother would love them," I said. And so I thought of her back in Rhode Island. She'd probably already picked out a tree, and from a place very much like this. Ever since I'd moved out, she'd begun going with my father in late October to a tree farm she'd discovered somewhere in Massachusetts. Every year now they go and tag a tree and pick it up weeks later.
Her tree would already be set up in the living room. It would be an elegant tree decorated with white, unblinking lights and the collected ornaments of 40 married years.
Though I'd see it in a few weeks when the semester ended at the university and we flew back East to our families, I could see it already in my mind's eye. Tinsel dancing around the lights. Delicate balls gleaming. And at the apex an heirloom angel with her wings outspread. A model for the tree my wife and I would select today and take back to our apartment at the edge of a town we hardly knew.
"Do you like this one?" Sharen said, squeezing my hand. This would be our first tree.
And I said, "I do, I do."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society