A Selection from Personal Mythologies
It seems strange that of all my childhood memories of Christmas, only one seems to spring readily to mind—the annual Christmas tree hunt I enjoyed as a boy. But as a writer, I have to ask: How much of my memories are what happened and how much are confabulated? Memory is an adept changeling—a play of light and shadow over the heart. A night sprite that is half dream, half waking thought. The shapeshifting of a dancer, her performance different every time. She tosses me a coy grin as she exits, knowing I’m a willing partner in the conspiracy.
Winter is not winter without snow’s brilliance—a white magic more powerful than the most balmy midsummer day. My Dad and I have gone out in a Forest Service truck as part of our annual hunt for a Christmas tree. My sister stays home with Mom to help bake and decorate Scottish shortbread and other delights of the season. Hunting for a suitable tree seems a mundane enough task. But to me at age 12, it’s an honour, a privilege my father grants with his typical lack of pretension, in a few quiet, humble words. “Guess it’s time to get the Christmas tree again, huh?” I resonate with pride to be Dad’s right hand man, upholding the family tradition.
Not for us the tacky fakeness of artificial Christmas trees just new on the market in the ’70s. For us only a real tree will do. Besides, what would Christmas be without a Christmas tree hunt—the white wilderness adventure shared by a boy and his Dad? He’s spent his whole life walking the pine and fir-scented forests, a man of integrity doing his best to moderate the relentless tide of industry. He knows what is to be taken and what is to be left behind. If possible, we take a sickly tree rather than a healthy one, provided it’s not too scrawny to hold up the bells and stars.
Snow-hunched trees hold up a gunmetal sky. We’re heading out into the early darkness of a winter afternoon, which is odd. Late home from work, maybe? Dad’s wilderness savvy—his ‘bush sense’—is legendary. “Never start into the bush after dark,” he used to warn me. We say little. The animal whine of four-wheel-drive gears pulls the faint thread of a forestry road through the snow. We may be just outside town, but in my imagination we’re hundreds of miles away. Snow drifts down in elfin-sized fistfuls. Indistinct gobs speckle the darkness, spring into shape in the truck’s headlights, then disappear.
It’s cold enough for breath to leave its fleeting wraiths but not toe-numbing frigid. My feet are always the bellweather of the cold. The first prickly bite a reminder I wasn’t cut out for a northern climate. “Guess you got Mom’s California genes,” Dad would joke. By contrast, he seems insensate to the cold. Often he sings a snatch of that old song, “At twenty below zero the lumberjack buttoned up his vest / at forty below zero he put on his coat…”
Our unspoken understanding is that Dad gets out of the truck first. The Canadian wilderness is sparkling, pristine, and potentially deadly. Respect it and learn some good ‘bush sense’ and you can come out alive. Charge in ignorantly, and all bets are off. Like the hobby hunters from the States who shoot at anything that moves—including each other. And then sometimes get lost, forcing a muttering rescue team out into the bush. “Yahoos,” Dad calls them.
He takes the axe from the truck bed. I open my door, slip off the seat into the snow and turn my face upward to catch snowflakes. My cheeks are struck by soft, icy crystals. I swing the truck door closed—a sudden stabbing pain! “Aaaahhh—Dad, my finger!!”
He responds with the calm of an alpine lake under stars. I grasp my wrist, my finger screaming with pain. I grit my teeth but my sensitivity gets the better of me—tears! Dad looks at the finger. Sure enough, it’s swelling into a throbbing bouquet of purple. “Are you okay? Do you want to go home?”
If there’s disappointment in his voice, I can’t hear it. But I’m determined not to give in. Dad’s face is concerned, but not alarmed. “Pack some snow on it to take the swelling down. We can sit in the truck for awhile if you want.” My breath is coming in gusts. I nod my head and we climb back inside. What seemed mildly cold weather just a few minutes ago now feels bone-chilling. Dad turns over the engine and switches on the heater fan. “Geez, Dad. It really hurts.”
“Oh, come on. It’s not that bad,” he chuckles, disappointed maybe. Or is he just tempering me into manhood? It’s the same old story in our family when someone gets hurt. After a quick, mildly anxious inspection of the injury, the tone turns mocking. Words sting long after the cuts and scrapes heal.
Yet the slight edge in Dad’s voice fades quickly to his native kindness. “Think you’ll be okay while I go get us a tree?” I nod repeatedly, anxious not to scuttle our mission. Before he leaves he reassures me it’s fine, I go with him every year. No big deal if he has to get this year’s tree on his own. Besides, as far as Mom and Kim are concerned, just my going along made it a team effort.
He walks alone into the frosted gingerbread landscape, the axe slung over his shoulder. When he disappears into the dark evergreen, shame eclipses physical pain and tears stream openly. How could I have been so clumsy? How could I have let him down like that?
My bravado, as usual, is short-lived. Time begins to play its tricks on me, dragging out the seconds. I’m alone, in a truck in a northern wilderness, in winter, far from home. Where’s Dad? When is he coming back? How long has it been now? Fifteen minutes, twenty? A half-hour? Anxiety gnaws at my guts. Pain gnaws at my finger. What if he gets lost? No, no—that’s stupid. Not my Dad. Get lost, in the forest? Never. Snow is clumping the jagged treeline. I watch, and wait. Still no Dad.
Finally his shoulders reappear, piled with snow like the tree he drags behind. At last! Time telescopes back into miniature. I roll down the window and lean my head out. As he nears the truck he holds the tree up to standing height, shaking off the icing. Dark green boughs rebound to life. He grins his irresistible grin. “What do you think? Think Mom and Kim’ll like it?”
The drive back and our reception at home slide into the murk that surrounds all memories. Is this story wishful thinking? Or what actually happened that winter day? Does it matter? Isn’t it the heart that moves the organic machinery of memory to suddenly stop, wheel on a dime, and say, “Wait! This is worth keeping.” Who can say what makes that Christmas tree hunt more memorable than all the others in my childhood? A boy’s hurt pride? The pain of a finger slammed in a truck door? That I recall this tiny adventure with my father and nothing of the gifts I got that year seems utterly right.