The Ugliest Tree in Town©

Saturday Reprise

Averyell A. Kessler

My Mother had a custom of giving me a Christmas book every year. She always dated it and wrote an inscription on the inside cover. Towards the end of her life, she chose Hans Christian Anderson’s The Fir Tree. Here’s what she wrote. “This book proves my theory about Christmas trees. I’m glad we always selected a tree cut down for Christmas, but not chosen. I gave it a shining star.” Her remarks were my inspiration for the following story.

I recognized it immediately, a small scrap of a tree, minus a few branches, a host of needles and leaning left as if it had grown sideways on a steep, mud-caked hill. When I came home from school, it was standing in our den, a bleak, second tier companion to the fragrant Avery Garden’s cedar in our living room. But that would change.  My mother bought it, as she always did, from the few remaining Christmas trees available at the Belhaven Jitney. She did it every year. I suppose the conversation went something like this.

“Are you sure you want this tree, Lady?” the clerk asked. “It’s kinda skimpy. We got better one’s in back.”

“No,” Mama replied. “I want this one. It wants me too.”

“Load it into your car?” he asked, quite sure he was staring at a loony bird.

“Yes. Absolutely.”

My mother was a Christmas person. The moment leftover turkey bones were tossed into a bubbling soup pot and our sumptuous pan of cornbread dressing had been scrapped dry, she began. It was as if an internal Santa-like voice shouted in her ear. “One for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, now go,go,go.” In an instant, she became a scampering elf, a flying reindeer, and a woman who could put Mrs. Santa Claus to shame. 

Our annual ugly tree was an important part of Mama’s Christmas tradition. She spent hours decking it with ropes of silver garlands, sparking bubble lights, shiny glass balls, and a flock of red cardinal ornaments, until it glowed like a fairy princess.  After a few days, a dose of water in the tree stand made our crippled tree stand upright again, and no one noticed that a few critical branches were missing. As Christmas approached, it was just as merry as the fat cedar in the living room.

During her last years, the ugly tree tradition continued, even after she moved into to my home in Fondren. One day, during our morning walk, we found a graceful branch lying by the curb on Oakridge Drive. “That’s it,” Mama said, pointing to a castoff limb waiting for garbage pickup.  We took it home, set it in a tree stand, and welcomed a stark, leafless tree left for dead.  When we’d covered it with white lights, red balls, and her traditional flock of cardinals, it became a beautiful addition to our decorations.

“How unusual,” my friends mumbled, as they inspected our lovely branch. “I thought it might be a sculpture.”  Mama smiled, because she’d done it again.  

My mother’s ugly tree was an eye opener. Every year, I watched as she searched for an unwanted, bedraggled tree, brought it home and treated it with all the love in the world. Suddenly, a transformation. Our tree wasn’t ugly at all. Loving the unlovable can produce unexpected results.

Perhaps the best Christmas gifts are not tangible, but things we experience[ak1] .  They are lessons of love that soak into our hearts and remain there, strong aromas of the past that linger in our memories, like fresh cut cedar and gingerbread. They are the echo of long-ago laughter, and absent voices ringing like harness bells. New voices too; the giggles of a two-year-old or a fifth-grade choir singing Away in the Manger. The best gifts wrap us in warm coats of joy, keeping us snug all year long. Perhaps, they even give an unwanted tree a second chance.


 [ak1]

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