One glance out the frosted window told me that the morning was crisp and cold. The pale blue sky promised one of those late December days when the mercury was looking up at the freezing mark. A good day to stay indoors, sip hot chocolate and curl up under a blanket with a good book or a bad movie.
The urge to burrow back up under the covers and search for the tattered remnants of my fading dreams was overwhelming and my eye lids started to slowly drift closed on the winter vista outside.
A rather unpleasant shaking sensation preempted my search for subconscious coziness.
"Time to get up," my mother announced in a no-nonsense voice that brokered no room for debate. "We need to start getting ready to go."
"Aw mom, do I have to go?" I mumbled in the disgruntled way that all teenagers do when they are being asked to do anything that they have not thought of themselves.
"Yes," my mother answered as she exited my room on her way back down the stairs. "There's oatmeal on the table. Eat while it's hot."
I rolled my eyes at the prospect of oatmeal, but I'm not really sure why. In truth, I really didn't mind oatmeal, as long as was sprinkled with brown sugar and had a moat of milk cooling the outer edges as I ate my way to the inner keep. For some reason that my be simple human nature or 20th-century-spoiled, North American nurture, teenagers feel that they have an obligation to complain about everything; even things they like. It is the one thing that all those experiencing puberty work hard at.
And so I huff, groan and roll my eyes again, even though there is only an empty room to play audience to my petulance. After a few minutes of waiting hopelessly for someone to yell up at me that the trip is postponed and that I'm free to go back to sleep until my accustomed weekend rise-and-shine hour of 1 pm, I grudgingly roll out of bed and stumble into the bathroom, where I try to snatch a last few minutes sleep while I stand waiting patiently to pee.
Breakfast was the usual exchange of good cheer and peppy conversation from my parents, which I replied to with half articulate grunts and disinterested mumbles.
My sister, herself a passenger on the Teenage Raging Hormone (TRH) Express, joined us with a somewhat more pleasant and heartfelt 'good morning'. She was not anywhere near as grumpy and self-important as I was, but I chalked that up to the three and a half years more experience my age gave me in riding the Express. She would eventually learn from my fine example, as well as from her peers, and the various 80s icons that served as role models.
I noted that my sister did not bother to wish me a good morning and simply took her seat at the table, pecking at her breakfast with little interest. My sister and I, while both passengers on the Express, existed with each other in a way that mirrored the US/Russia Cold War. We both thought ourselves superior to the other, we both poked and prodded the other and/or their allies and we were both well aware that any major confrontation could result in Mutual Assured Destruction.
We both knew, however, that at this time of the year we were expected to play nice. This was Christmas time, and if there couldn't be peace on Earth, my parents at least insisted that we have peace in our home. They usually settled for a cease-fire, and there were circumstances enough during the holiday season to make us, if not allies, then at least non-combatants.
Today was one of those holiday events that brought us closer together with our common annoyance at scheduled forced joy. The events of the day used to be fun for us before first me, and then my sister, boarded the TRH Express. We used to have fun in the snow together, threw snowballs at my father, who called us 'rotten kids' to cover his giggles (We threw snowballs at my mother once. Once.); and generally had lotsa good ol' f-u-n.
But now, after breakfast, we were told to go upstairs and get ready to go. My sister and I exchanged a brief and totally spontaneous look that said we were on the same page in our complete and utter lack of desire to suffer through the upcoming scripted revelry. Of course, we knew we were going, come hell or high snowdrifts. We'd danced this dance before and would dance it again next year and the next after that.
So we reluctantly retreated back to our respective territories to bundle up and to prepare to be festive.
The ride took only about twenty minutes, but to the passengers in the back of the van, each second was an eternity of wanting to know 'are we there yet?' but with the lessons of experience and (relative) maturity to keep from asking the annoying rhetorical question aloud.
We were both dressed in a compromise between keeping warm and looking cool. It never occurred to us that shivering in ripped acid-washed jeans with red ears and snotty noses was just as un-cool as the toques and Cougar boots my parents offered us before leaving the house. Parents and children just looked at each other shaking their heads in that, 'what the heck are you thinking?' way. In retrospect, I think my sister made the better compromise between comfort and cool. I'm not sure if that was because she had a better idea of how to keep warm and still look cool, or if I just didn't have as good an idea of what cool was. The truth, as usual, was probably somewhere in the middle.
We pulled into the parking lot, my parents diligently scanning for a place to park the car and my sister and I diligently scanning for anyone we knew. We pulled into a spot at the end of a row of vans, station wagons and pickup trucks, and piled out into the combination of snow and mud that comprised the majority of the visible ground cover. My father opened the rear hatch of the van and checked our supplies. One bundle of yellow nylon rope and one large saw. Nodding as if he hadn't checked that they were there at least three times before even leaving the house, he picked up the saw and closed the hatch.
It was time to trek out into the wild (neatly ordered rows of carefully grown, trimmed, and fertilized) forest and find our Family Christmas Tree.
I took the saw from my father and slung it over my shoulder. It was one of the sort that had a large, flattened "D" shape handle with a long-toothed blade between the two points of the "D". I liked carrying it for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was a tool, and even to a teenager tools were cool in a rough manly-man way. Especially a three-foot long saw with half-inch teeth. The second was that the shape of the saw reminded me of a bow. I had been heavily into science fiction and fantasy before peer pressure told me that that kind of stuff was for geeks and sissies. Even in my heavily over-hormonal state, there was a part of me that still felt like Legolas from The Lord of the Rings or one of my Elfin characters from my Dungeons and Dragons days, with that bow-shaped saw slung over my shoulder. And if not a bow, then at least a very dangerous-looking bladed weapon. And while I don't remember for sure weather I had a conscious thought about it, but wasn't I hunting Orcs in Fangorn Forest?
Regardless, out in the country with little chance of seeing anyone I knew that might think me un-cool (and carrying the ultra-cool saw) I began to relax. Looking around, I noticed that the pale blue sky that I had observed upon waking that morning had been covered by puffy low-slung clouds. The temperature was warmer than when we had left the house, making the cold winter day almost pleasant. All around us there were the sounds of smaller children chasing each other through puffy banks of snow and sliding down harder-packed toboggan hills. The air rang with their carefree, innocent laughter as they reveled in the moment, blissfully unaware of their status as future passengers on the Teenage Raging Hormone Express, and simply having fun.
Despite the cold, I could feel all of my selfish, pouty, ultra-self-consciousness begin to melt away. I felt the urge to take a turn on that toboggan hill. To find some really good packing snow that would make the best kind of snowballs. The kind that are wet enough to make them hold together until impact, but not so wet that they get heavy and really hurt your intended target.
Despite the cracks in my armor, however, I didn't give in to my temptations. I stood and sullenly looked around at the stumps sticking up through the snow in regular rows, thinking they looked like the headstones of Christmas Trees past. A tree graveyard.
Before those morbid thoughts could completely drive out the festive playfulness that had started to warm my thoughts, a faint clip-clopping sound distracted me. From around behind the small log cabin that served the tree farm as office, shelter and souvenir shop, came two large horses pulling a long trailer stacked with bales of hay. The brawny Clydesdales were puffing out great gusts of white, steamy breath as they high-stepped their way around the cabin, following the road until they reached the small crowd standing beside a post labeled "Hay Ride Pick-up/Drop-off".
They clip-clopped up to the post in perfect precision, coming to a stop and standing perfectly still, at attention almost, with their heads held high. I noticed they weren't even breathing heavily anymore and wondered if they breathed that way while they were working the same way a weight lifter controls his breathing when pumping iron.
We joined the line up to get on the hayride, helping each other on to the trailer. I tried standing as we started off towards the Scotch pine grove, as I didn't want to sit on the snowy bales of hay and get wet marks all over the butt of my acid-washed jeans. Unfortunately the roll and pitch of the flatbed trailer, as it negotiated the ruts in the farm road, proved to be impossible and I was forced to sit on my glove-covered hands.
As the hustle and bustle of the main area was left behind for the quiet of the open farmland, I was struck by a new feeling. I looked at the rolling hills around me and the distant forests carpeting the slopes down into valleys and then back up into even more distant hills beyond, and I felt small. That feeling was very humbling, and it made the big issues of the time such as girls, grades and 'being cool' completely insignificant.
Feeling lighter than I had in a long time, I jumped down from the hayride just before it came to a stop. I felt buoyant, with all the weight of my self-interests and personal issues lifted from my consciousness. But was it cool to be happy? I was still hesitant. It is a difficult thing processing emotions that have lain dormant for any length of time.
It was an issue I was still wrestling with as we moved up and down rows of long-needled pine trees, examining each and every one for the lucky tree that we would claim as our own for that year.
My father stopped beside a potential candidate and gave it the once-over for size, shape and to look for major bald spots (I think this is the same method my mother used to decide to date my dad before they were married). Passing first inspection, my father reached inside past all the branches with their scratching needles and grasped the trunk at shoulder height. He gave a mighty shake, trying to get the snow off so that he could have a better look at our potential, new, house guest. With a mighty whipping motion, the uppermost part of the tree bent this way and that, but held jealously to its treasure of snow. Then, in an act that seemed almost premeditated, it released its cold white payload right at the apex of the whipping of its branches, flinging a frozen pie of snow into the face of its attacker.
My father took two sputtering steps back and stood in place, melting snow dripping off his moustache and down his face, disappearing inside the front of his coat.
My mother, sister and I disintegrated into gales of boisterous laughter. Even my father managed to crack a grin through his mask of dipping white snow.
The flying snow and subsequent giggles melted away the cold that had nothing to do with the December temperatures. A small amount of mirth had helped bring a sense of family, togetherness and even holiday spirit.
We abandoned the offending tree, which most obviously did not want to come home with us, and searched for another. Jokes, jibes and the occasional snowball accompanied the hunt.
Eventually a suitable candidate was found, pronounced “The Best Tree Ever,” as every tree had been since we could remember, and we all took turns kneeling in the snow while my mother snapped photos with her trusty Instamatic.
When we had all posed and taken a few licks with the bow-saw, my father finished the job and we hauled our prize back to the horse road and then back to the main area to pay and bundle the tree up onto the roof of the van.
We leaned the tree up against the faux-wood paneling of my mother’s van and watched with amusement as a young yuppie couple tried to figure out how they were going to get their seven foot high blue spruce home in their Honda Civic hatchback.
Later we sipped hot chocolate and adorned the tree with a mountain of decorations of the store-bought variety and those that were relics of grade school cut-and-paste projects contributed over the years by my sister and I. A real-wood fire crackled and popped in the fireplace and a mixed tape of Christmas music jingled in the background, a notch or two too loud, on the stereo.
In those hours, all teenage angst was forgotten. It was okay for my mom to give me a hug. We spoke to our parents politely, laughing and simply enjoying the feeling of family. My sister and I were equals in happiness.
And so, my lovely children, I hope that you have read my story and understand why it is that we’re bundling up into the SUV and meeting grandma and grandpa at the tree farm to find ‘The Best Tree Ever.’ And if you do come to understand as I have, I will look forward to one day dodging snowballs from your children, and listening to the sweet sound of their laughter.