Leonard Evans strolled slowly among the glorious evergreen specimens at the Thompson Tree Farm, searching for the perfect Christmas tree. This was one decision which Leonard enjoyed making alone. Not only did Thompson's have the freshest evergreens around, but hiking the manicured rows provided him with a few precious moments of serenity. Leonard didn't even have to dissuade his wife Mildred from accompanying him on this annual quest. He knew she would find a reason to do practically anything else and that was just fine with Leonard.
A young man wearing heavy denim overalls approached, his cheeks rosy from the crisp December air. "May I help you?"
Leonard smiled and extended his arm toward the chosen tree. "This one. It's beautiful."
The young man wielded his chain saw and in a flash had cut the trunk flush to the ground. He then hoisted the tree in one hand as thought it were weightless and turned back toward the office.
"How's business this year?" Leonard asked the young man as the two strolled through the perfectly shaped specimens.
"Oh, brisk," was the reply. "Last weekend was really busy. But we still have plenty of nice trees left as you can see." He propped the selected tree against the outside wall of the office, stepped to the open door and called inside, "A six-footer." The girl behind the desk jotted something on a small note pad.
The tree farm office was a small, cheery space, festooned with ornaments, garland, stuffed snowmen and sequined stockings. In one corner stood a large refreshment table covered with a red plaid cloth trimmed with green tinsel. A coffee urn labeled "Hot Cocoa" stood at the ready with Styrofoam cups nearby. A large bowl of popcorn invited sampling, so freshly prepared that its aroma still hung in the air.
A pegboard along one wall held tree stands, outdoor electrical extension cords and other seasonal necessities. Leonard retrieved a giant white tree bag and laid it on the counter to be included with his purchase.
"I always get one of these," he smiled at the girl. "They're the best."
"Oh, yes, we sell a lot of those bags." She added $1.98 to the total and handed the bill to Leonard.
Bidding her "happy holidays," Leonard headed toward his car, tree bag in hand. The man in overalls rejoined him along the path to the parking lot, carrying the 6-foot tree as if it were a feather. He positioned the tree into the trunk of Leonard's car so that only a few inches protruded and quickly tied the lid closed with twine.
"Merry Christmas," said the young man. "Thanks for shopping at the Thompson Tree Farm."
"Same to you." Leonard smiled, climbed into the car and laid the tree bag on the seat next to him.
Leonard congratulated himself that he hadn't forgotten to purchase the essential tree bag. The oversized trash bag would be carefully arranged around the tree's base before it was trimmed. When the tree was ready to be removed, the bag could be stretched to the top of the then-dried tree to catch shedding needles and help alleviate most of the mess. If Leonard had forgotten the tree bag, he would never have heard the end of it. Merely imagining the scene that might have ensued sent shivers down his back.
As Leonard pulled into his driveway, he was pleased about his tree selection. To him, the yearly selection of the ideal Christmas tree was significant, the official start of the holiday season.
He climbed out of the car and headed toward the trunk to unfasten the lid precisely as Mildred burst through the front door.
"Well, it's about time you got back. I was wondering what could have happened to you. How could such a small purchase take such a long time?"
Unfazed by her welcome, Leonard proudly removed the tree and stood it upright on the driveway. "What do you think? Isn't it nice?"
"Nice? It's all lop-sided. Look at it. The limbs aren't even. We have more ornaments that that tree will hold. Besides, it's already dry and the bark is flaky. And my goodness, the needles are already falling off."
Leonard said nothing, but hoisted the tree, closed the trunk lid and proceeded toward the back porch. He needed to attach the stand and knew to do so outside. If he had learned one thing during his many years with Mildred, it was that the Christmas tree enters through the rear of the house. He might still expect problems related to the general disruption of the household, but the back door was the only acceptable entrance route.
Leonard had discovered some time ago that if he were going to endure marriage to Mildred, he had to ignore her. The survival skills had been difficult to develop and took a great deal of practice. But he had become able to tune out the high nasal whine of Mildred's voice and could usually anticipate the type of things that might provoke her.
Christmas had always been a special time for Leonard Evans and remained his favorite holiday. Even though he and Mildred had never had children, they still managed to enjoy the holiday season. They visited friends, participated in church activities, performed errands for elderly neighbors and took pride in decorating their home.
Every year they continued the gesture of buying gifts for each other, but Leonard knew that nothing ever pleased Mildred. The sweater wouldn't be soft enough, the jewelry wouldn't be impressive enough. Through the years, her ceaseless criticism had dulled Leonard's creative gift giving. He had learned to select gift certificates or items that Mildred had described in specific detail, like the top-of-the-line cookware she had requested this year. Such gift selections removed any need for creativity.
After Mildred supervised Leonard's delivery of the tree, she returned to the kitchen to bake for the church's cookie exchange. The tree stand was attached now and the tree had slowly made its way from the back door toward the living room window. Leonard popped in a CD of his favorite Christmas carols and set about decorating the tree.
Following the holiday season each year when the decorations were put away, Leonard carefully wound the strings of lights so they would be tangle-free for the next use. He handled the lights carefully, stringing them through the dark green boughs, bottom to top. Decorating the tree was Leonard's responsibility and he enjoyed the task. He had heard friends refer to tree decorating as a family project, but that was not the case in the Evans' household.
A few minutes later, Mildred appeared in the hall doorway. "I have a batch of cookies in the oven, but I have to run next door. I'll be back in a few minutes. If the timer goes off, take the cookies out of the oven." She did not comment on the tree or pause for more than a moment. "Leonard, did you hear me?"
"Yes, I heard you," he replied from behind the tree, connecting the extension cord to the tree lights.
"Well, you'd never guess that from your reaction. I couldn't tell if you heard me. You seldom listen." Mildred bolted out the door, carrying a small wrapped gift.
(To be continued)