In 1974, I was opinionated, persistent and volatile. In other words: I was a sixteen-year-old. And although I wasn’t fully matured, I was already nostalgic for the past - especially at Christmas time.
I yearned to be 6 years old again - I thought of that Christmas Eve when my mom gave me reindeer pajamas and tucked me in without her usual frown because Dad skipped the bar and came home early. I drifted to sleep watching the twinkling outdoor Christmas lights as they dispatched red and green shafts of color through my window shutters.
But best of all: at age 6, I was dwarfed by our family Christmas tree. My parents chose a Noble Fir from Oregon - the finest tree on the lot. Though it was only 7 feet tall, it towered over me, wreathing me in its sweet fragrance.
I imagined elfin beings hiding in the deepest recesses of the branches, making candy canes that would appear on the tree Christmas morning. It was a magical time, a time before I was aware that characterizations like “severely dysfunctional” aptly defined my family.
During the advent of my 16th Christmas, my mom descended into one of her dark and vicious moods because we weren’t behaving like characters in a Hallmark movie. I steered clear of her, focusing on recreating the magic from 10 years before.
I focused on decorations. I knew the people in my life would behave poorly - I couldn’t control that. But if I was meticulous, and duplicated every precise detail from years past, maybe I could tune out my family and surround myself with festoonery, making everything merry and bright.
It would be impossible to replicate the past with the sad artificial tree we had been using. But thanks to my incessant grousing, my father promised that this year we would have a real tree. This most important detail would be exactly as it was 10 years ago!
So naturally, I bristled when my dad told me to bring in the plastic Christmas tree from the garage.
“You said that this year we could have a real tree!” I protested.
“I thought it was going to be a better year,” my dad said, staring at his shoes.
“I hate that old tree!” I grumped. “It’s a plastic abomination! Have we completely abandoned nature in this sterile cracker box of a tract home? We might as well start eating plastic food for dinner! This is so bogus! You are teeming with bogosity, Dad!"
I hated that old tree with the fire of ten thousand C-9 Christmas light bulbs. Modern artificial trees look realistic; in the 1970s, they were poor approximations. Our fake tree was a farg-tangle of poly vinyl chloride that looked like shredded seaweed. Dozens of bare spots exposed tortured wire. The branches sagged like the shoulders of a teenager who had been asked to take out the trash. The artificial balsam scent installed at the factory had evaporated. The stench of dust and stale cigarettes took its place.
I was both angry and lazy, so instead of using a ladder to retrieve the tree box from the garage rafters, I nudged it forward with a broom handle, harrumphing ire with every nudge. The tattered box split open and the tree fell squarely on my head. The tip of a metal branch scraped my cheek.
I screamed and grappled the tree. My dad rushed into the garage just in time to see me raise the tree overhead and slam it to the ground like a professional wrestler. I kicked it repeatedly until dust wheezed from its core. I could swear it emitted a death rattle.
When I ended my tirade, I had no idea how my dad would react, but I assumed it would involve confinement or chores. To my surprise, he sighed and handed me a twenty-dollar bill.
“Ok, hot shot,” he sighed, “Go find out how much tree twenty dollars buys these days.”
“Twenty bucks!” I rejoiced. “Far out!"
I summoned my friend Pete. We shoehorned ourselves into in my dad’s Opel SportWagen and headed for the Christmas tree lot.
The Scotch Pine section was nearest the parking lot. I didn’t like those bushy Scotch Pines, but I lingered to check the prices. A five-footer cost twenty dollars. This was not a good sign.
A man in a buffalo plaid jacket approached us.
”So, you like the Scotch Pines?” he asked.
“No thanks,” I said. “I’m looking for a Noble Fir!”
“You have good taste in trees!” buffalo plaid man said.
He led me to a stately seven-footer. The price tag was marked $75.
“I’ve only got twenty bucks,” I moped.
“Ohh,” the man spat. “Then you want a table-top tree. We have some over here.”
The man’s eyes tracked downward to a cluster of twigs that couldn’t be more than 2 1/2 feet tall. Each specimen had 5-6 branches, tops.
“There you go! A Noble Fir for only twenty dollars!”
“C’mon Pete, let’s go,” I glummed. “My dad was right. I have a plastic tree to assemble.”
As we walked toward the car, I heard an odd sound, like a guy imitating a cow: “Uuuuuuuuuuuu!”
We ignored it and kept walking. I heard it again, “Uuuuuuuuuude!”
The third time I heard it, I realized he was saying, “Duuuuuuude!”
Pete and I turned toward the voice and saw a guy our age in a corduroy jacket and wool cap.
“Duuuuuuuude!” The guy yelled and waved.
He looked vaguely familiar. I probably knew him from high school. We walked toward him.
“Dude?” I asked.
“Dude!” the guy said. “You’re, like, in my homeroom. You draw those cool cartoons of our teacher.”
“Ah, Dude!” I managed a more upbeat tone.
“Dude, I work here,” the guy said, “Find the tree you want and then, like, come back to me, Dude, because, like, I will, like, totally take care of you, Dude.”
“Du-hu-hu-hude!!” I exclaimed.
Pete and I canvassed the lot. I was drawn to a majestic fourteen-foot Noble Fir. I knew it was probably a long shot, but it wouldn’t cost me anything to ask.
I found the guy and cocked my head toward the fourteen-footer.
“Dude, how much for this bruiser over here?” I asked.
“For you, Dude...” he said, “twenty bucks!”
“DU-HUU-HUU-HUU-UDE!” I cheered.
The twenty-dollar bill passed hands at the speed of light.
This is a good time to mention that there was nothing sporty about my dad’s Opel SportWagen. This sub-sub-compact car was slightly bigger than a gallon milk jug - and about the same anemic yellow color. When the dude-saying guy lashed the monster tree to the SportWagen, it looked like a huge green javelin with wheels.
The branches blocked the doors, so Pete and I had to enter the vehicle through the rear hatchback. Once behind the wheel, I crawled slowly home, running the windshield wipers to nudge the branches back and forth, affording glimpses of the road.
I pulled into the driveway, and almost impaled the garage door with the tree top. As Pete and I struggled to separate the tree from the car, my dad rushed out of the front door. “What is this?!” he asked.
“A Christmas tree, Dad.” I tried to act nonchalant.
“You must have put in some of your own money!” Dad accused.
“No, Duuuu, I mean Dad. Twenty bucks!”
My dad glared at Pete for verification.
“Like he said, Mr. Lynch, twenty dollars. I saw him pay.”
My dad walked away shaking his head as Pete and I hauled the tree into the living room.
We soon realized the tree would only fit in the far corner where the cathedral ceiling was high enough to accommodate it. That meant displacing the sectional sofa my mom had custom-ordered for that spot. We began moving the sections. My mom heard the commotion and dashed in from the kitchen.
“What are you doing to my living room!” she demanded.
We froze in place, as if we would perish if we dared make the slightest twitch.
To my shock, my dad backed me up and mumbled, “That’s the only place the tree will fit, Madge.”
My mom snapped her hand towel and stormed back into the kitchen. We stared at each other nervously until my dad signaled with a nod that it was safe to proceed.
I got the 6-foot ladder out of the garage, and discovered that even standing precariously on the uppermost step, I couldn’t reach the top of the tree.
My dad sighed again, “I’ll go to my storage lot and get a bigger ladder. Maybe scaffolding.”
“You’ll not bring scaffolding into this house!” my mom bellowed from the kitchen.
“It was a joke, Madge,” Dad said.
“Well it wasn’t very funny,” Mom sneered.
Dad stuffed himself into the SportWagen. An hour later, he returned in his construction truck with a twenty-foot ladder.
We began decorating the tree from the top. When we got nine feet down, we ran out of lights and ornaments. The bottom five feet were bare. It looked like a Christmas tree wearing a green skirt.
“I guess it’s a girl tree,” I said.
“Or it’s a Scottish tree wearing a kilt,” Pete said.
Behind my shoulder, my dad sighed yet again. I turned, and he produced another twenty-dollar bill.
“Go get more lights and ornaments,” he said. “And try to bring back some change.”
Later that night, I stood in front of the finished tree. The warm lights coaxed a balsamy-vanilla smell from the branches. But the best part was that the tree was more than twice as tall as I was - just like when I was six. I was as happy as a jaded sixteen-year-old could be.
My dad approached and asked, “Did you forget to give me the change?”
I handed him the 28¢, and this time he didn’t sigh.
“Tree looks nice,” he grunted.
My dad grew up in stern-faced Indiana during the Great Depression. Legend has it that my dad began his life as sensitive and curious as I did, but his ten brothers teased him until he was stoic and withdrawn. Then he met my mom (a narcissist with borderline personality disorder and a never-ending supply of amphetamines), who finished off Dad's remaining expressive qualities.
If he had any spirit left, it was hiding miles within him. He laughed on occasion, but even in laughter his eyes looked sad. I had seen him cry and get angry twice each during my entire childhood, and I had never heard him express affection.
In a rare moment of self-awareness (ultra-rare for a 16-year-old!), I thought about what a pain in the ass I had been that day. When I raged over the plastic tree, Dad attempted to give me a lesson in inflation by handing me that twenty-dollar bill. When his lesson backfired, he handled defeat graciously. He didn’t have to buy additional decorations for that tree. He could have told me to redo it and spread things out. Instead, he indulged me - and I knew that later he would have to answer to my mother for it.
I beamed as I craned my neck to gaze at the star atop the tree.
I accepted that my dad would never say the three words, and that he would never hug me. But staring at that tree, I knew that my dad loved me. That realization was the best gift I received in the Christmas of 1974.