I watched Jim Tom dig around the little pine tree. At first he used a spoon, then Daddy’s rusted shovel with the broken handle. He pushed, groaned, and cried, stopping to wipe his hands on his pants. He studied his blisters. He then fetched Daddy’s axe from the shed. Soon the little tree was down. It was only about two feet tall, but the way Jim Tom carried on, you would have thought it was lofty enough for the folks at Rockefeller Center. He put his prize in a cracked plastic dishpan, threw in some dirt and propped it up in the window that faced the road. After tying some of my colorful hair ribbons on the scraggly branches, Jim Tom felt ready for the world to see his tree. But not many folks saw it.
Daddy came home that night quarrelsome and blind drunk. But not so blind that he didn’t see Jim Tom’s tree. He swore, “Nosey busybodies… always snoopin’ and meddlin’. They ain’t gonna tell me how to raise my youngins.” I’m glad that Jim Tom was asleep and didn’t have to see Daddy throw his little tree on the fire. The needles popped and gracefully floated up the chimney like tiny angel’s wings. Daddy cussed Christmas and trees and no-good do-gooders. I reckon he thought the neighbors had called the charity people again, and they had brought us the tree. I sure dreaded when he realized it was the pine tree that he himself had planted in our back yard last spring.
The next morning neither Daddy nor Jim Tom mentioned the tree. But Jim Tom stared out into the yard at the spot where the tree had grown. Tears glimmered in his eyes.
“Jim Tom, you crying?” I asked.
“I ain’t crying. It’s the onions we had for breakfast.”
“You know we didn’t have onions for breakfast,” I said softly.
His eyes flashed defiantly as he mumbled, “We did too have onions.”
I figured that that year Christmas would be like all the Christmases we’d had since Mommy died. Daddy wouldn’t let us sing Christmas carols or take part in the school’s Christmas play. No tree and no presents on Christmas Day. Our big house felt sorrowfully empty. The cold, mean wind rattled the frosty windows crying, “No Christmas for you. No glow of red and green. No sweet smell of evergreens. No Christmas for you.”
Daddy would say, “Ya’ll ain’t mistreated. You know that I’ll get you some little thing.” He’d wait for the after Christmas sales. He’d look at the price tags and say, “These folks must have had a fine Christmas. They ain’t marked nothin’ down. I reckon we ought to wait a while, don’t you?”
Then sometime near the end of January, Daddy would come home with presents. When Jim Tom was six, Daddy bought him a BB gun. He bought me a pretty doll. As he handed me the unwrapped doll, he said, “I picked this one because she has chestnut hair just like you, Lettie.”
He gave me hug and I hugged him back. Because even though I felt too old for dolls, I was thankful for any present my daddy gave me.
I sometimes wondered if Jim Tom could remember the way our Christmases were when Mommy was alive. He never really spoke of her. She had loved Christmas.
Every December our old house had sparkled. The kitchen smelled of molasses and vanilla. Mommy rolled out dozens of sugar cookies and gingerbread girls and boys. We popped corn and strung it and cranberries on the tree. Everything glowed and twinkled.
My last Christmas memory was of Mommy gently rocking Jim Tom by the fireplace. The rocker creaked as she sang Away in a Manger. Her voice was soft and the dancing fire lit her pale delicate face. I sat with Daddy on the couch. He picked out the notes on his guitar, while Jim Tom and I listened and watched. I remember seeing a tear on Daddy’s cheek. I wanted to cry too, but I wasn’t sure why. The cancer took Mommy that night. It was Christmas Eve.
The year of the dishpan tree, Jim Tom was seven and I was ten. One night after Daddy burnt the tree, I caught Jim Tom on the roof outside his bedroom. I crawled through the window onto the cold shingles.
“Jim Tom, Daddy will whip you good if he catches you out here.”
“Leave me alone, Lettie, I’m just watching the airplane lights. They’re red like Christmas lights.” His voice cracked as he said, “They blink too.”
“I’m sorry about your little tree.”
I heard him shuffle his feet. “We’ll have Christmas. I’ve got a plan.”
“Jim Tom, I don’t think you’d better cross Daddy. He’ll probably be drunk from now ‘til New Year’s Day.”
“Lettie, that is just what I figure. You leave it up to me. We’ll have a tree this year.” He shined a flashlight at a calendar that he had tacked outside his window. He had been crossing off days all month. “Look here, tomorrow is Christmas Eve.”
I didn’t sleep well that night. When I shut my eyes, I saw Jim Tom’s little tree burning. When I did fall asleep, I dreamed that Daddy had nailed boards across all of our doors and windows. There were big signs in the yard that read “No Christmas Allowed!”
The next morning Daddy was gone when I awoke. Jim Tom was at the table eating a bowl of milk and cornbread. He smiled a milky smile and looked at me with hopeful eyes. “I’ve found our tree,” he said. “I spotted it from the roof. I’ll be back soon.”
I watched Jim Tom walk to the tool shed. He left that morning carrying Daddy’s axe, the same one he had used to chop down the dishpan tree. Jim Tom disappeared into Mr. Haggard’s property. Nobody trespassed on Old Man Haggard’s land! He was mean, but not nearly as mean as his big, crazy dog, Fireball.
Fireball’s fur was a deep orangey-yellow. He was wild as a panther. It was said that he could leap the distance of a school bus in a single jump. It was rumored that he ate the neighbor’s cats. I’d heard that he even ate the bones and fur. I said a little prayer for Jim Tom.
Jim Tom crossed the fence and headed for the small cedar tree he had chosen. It was raggedy; one side was nearly branchless. Just as he made his last chop, he saw Fireball bounding towards him. He dropped the axe and grabbed the tree. As he ran for home, he screamed at Fireball, “You ain’t getting my tree!” As he tried to climb over the fence, Fireball’s huge jaws locked onto his pants leg. He kicked like a mad mule, shaking Fireball’s heavy head, slinging slobber all over creation. He kept kicking and screaming until Fireball loosened his cat-stained teeth just enough for Jim Tom to slip free. As he ran home he could hear Mr. Haggard yelling for Fireball. He had has tree and nothing was hurt but his pants.
I heard what appeared to be a singing Christmas tree running through our yard. “Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree, Lettie, I told you I’d get us a tree!”
We hid the tree in Jim Tom’s closet. I made stars out of aluminum foil and cardboard. Jim Tom cut and glued chains out of our old school papers. We wrapped empty cereal boxes in brown paper bags and colored gold and silver angels on them. We were so busy that we didn’t see Daddy pull his truck into the driveway. We didn’t see Mr. Haggard walk up to the truck carrying Daddy’s axe.
Mr. Haggard switched the axe to his left hand and stretched his right hand out to Daddy. Daddy ignored the gesture. He scowled and grabbed his axe.
“Where’d you find this?”
“James, I don’t want to cause trouble for your boy. He’s a good kid.”
“What’s he done?”
The old man shook his head. “He chopped down one of my cedar trees this morning.”
Daddy glowered at Mr. Haggard.
“But I won’t miss it.” His eyes searched Daddy’s face. “James, it sure seemed to mean a lot to him.” Mr. Haggard smiled. That kid can run like a rabbit. Fireball took after him and ripped his pants leg, but I don’t think he drew blood. Your boy shook him loose.” Mr. Haggard thought he heard Daddy sigh in relief. “That little fellow dropped the axe and was on that fence in two blinks of an eye. It looked like that cedar had little skinny arms and legs.” Mr. Haggard watched Daddy smile a weak and weary smile. The old man quietly said, “I don’t know how he saw where he was going. He was determined to make it home with that tree.”
Daddy kicked at his truck tires a couple of times. He looked towards the house and back at Mr. Haggard. His legs gave way. He dropped to the frozen ground and hid his face in his trembling hands. He sobbed as he kept repeating, “What have I done to my babies?”
Mr. Haggard patted Daddy on the back. “James, I’ve watched you and those children hurt for a long time. Don’t you think it’s time you start healing? You haven’t been drinking today, have you?”
Daddy said, “No, I promised myself I wouldn’t drink this year. I know I’ve got to stop.”
Mr. Haggard said, “It may not be any of my business, but why don’t you go inside and check on your children?”
We were sitting in front of the fireplace when Daddy walked in. Jim Tom whispered in disbelief, “He ain’t drunk.”
Daddy knelt in front of us. He said, “I hear we have ourselves a Christmas tree.” Jim Tom looked past Daddy toward the fireplace. Tears shone in his dark eyes. Daddy said, “It’s ok. I won’t hurt your tree, Jim Tom”.
Jim Tom’s eyes moved from the blue-green flames to Daddy’s sad eyes. “You mean it’s really all right?”
Daddy put his arms around us and squeezed us tight. In a shaky whisper he asked, “Do you remember the words?”
Jim Tom asked, “What words Daddy?”
Daddy said, “The words to her song.”
Jim Tom was silent.
I softly began singing, “Away in a manger…”