Three inches of new powder had fallen overnight, and we were driving in our eight-year old Chevy Blazer on an isolated forest road. The kids were quiet, gaping out the windows. The snow-covered boughs of white pine trees resembled outstretched arms, welcoming us into the woods.
We had driven from Illinois to Wisconsin to cut down a tree for our first Christmas without Grandma Dunne, who had succumbed to cancer the previous January. There would be no hand-knitted afghans, sweaters, or mittens from Grandma this year. Nor her special sausage stuffing for the holiday turkey.
But what Mike, 11, Jackie, 9, and Janet, 5, would miss most were Grandma’s stories about the old days, and the way she spoiled them with a waterfall of unconditional love and affection.
Feeling that something else was needed to make this season special, Marianne and I promised our kids an old-fashioned Christmas, with a wood fire, Christmas stockings, and a real tree we would find and cut down ourselves in the national forest.
Spying a partial clearing, I shifted into four-wheel drive, pulled off the road, and shut down the engine. The tops of several baby pine trees poked out of the snow, signaling abundance farther in.
Mike wanted to lead, and we followed our eldest down a deer trail. The cold wind that assaulted us on the road did not reach inside the forest, where the air was lovely and silent.
After descending into a frozen marsh, we hiked to the top of a ridge where a cluster of red pines, hemlocks, and fir trees stood in the sun. Mike approached a seven-foot fir and pulled lightly on a branch, shaking off the snow.
“How’s this one, Dad?”
Jackie, in her blue snowsuit, circled the tree, holding her chin like an appraiser considering a work of art. Finally, she signaled thumbs up. Little Janet clapped her red mittens together.
At its base, the trunk was six inches in diameter, falling quickly to my bow saw. Mike reached his hands through the branches to grip the bottom while Jackie took hold of the top, and they led us back the way we came, their prized balsam fir carried between them.
“Such a sweet pine scent from where it was cut,” said Marianne.
“And look at their faces,” I said.
Nearing the road, I heard the rumble of another vehicle. As we walked out into the open, I saw a yellow pickup with the Department of Natural Resources emblem on the passenger door, engine idling. The children set the tree down next our Blazer, just as two officers exited their truck. Both wore army green snowmobile suits, their Wisconsin Conservation Warden badges prominent on their caps. I nodded to the officers before asking Marianne to start the truck and get the kids warm inside.
“What is it?” I asked the men.
“Federal lands are on that side of the road,” the taller warden replied, pointing to the woods opposite of where we hiked. “It appears you took that tree from private property.”
It was bad enough that they issued a $75 citation. What was worse, they confiscated our tree.
No one spoke on the ride back. The Blazer’s tires squeaked in the dry snow.
Back at the rental cabin, after we took off our coats and boots, Marianne explained to the kids how I had made a mistake, and that mistakes happen, even with adults.
“But they took our tree,” said Jackie.
“We’ll buy another back home,” said Marianne. “Christmas will be the same.”
Of course, I knew it couldn’t be. I had let them down. A dark feeling came over me that I couldn’t shake, one that I didn’t know how to fix.
That evening, Mike and Jackie played Scrabble in the loft. Marianne read a book next to the wood stove. I went to Janet’s room to tuck her in. After I kissed her good night, she was reluctant to let go; and when I lifted my head, I saw tears in her eyes.
“Daddy,” she said, “If Santa Claus doesn’t bring you anything this year, you can have some of my presents.”
I smiled and leaned down to embrace her, with a lump in my throat. For now I knew it would be OK.
Since what our family needed this Christmas, was not some tree we had to search for, but something more precious that Grandma Dunne had already instilled, and that had been present all along.