(n)O Christmas Tree

Part Two of Four–Mom’s story

Continued from 12/17/18 Part One

That lean Christmas in a 19-foot travel trailer was a tough one for me, but it was great preparation for the next Christmas. The trailer was a temporary fix for my family, and even though we called it “home” for less than a year, it seemed like an eternity at the time. In the first few weeks, Mom and Dad slept on the sofa which folded out to a full-sized bed, while two of my brothers slept in a drop-down bunk that acted as a storage cupboard in its “up” position. Both of those beds were not quite full-sized, but they weren’t exactly cramped.

My sister and I, however, shared the bed over the drop-down dining table. It was not quite as wide as a twin bed, and yes, it was cramped; there was literally no room to roll over. But my four year-old brother had just a thin strip of foam laid down on the floor. He had it the worst. If anyone wanted to get to the bathroom near the entrance of the trailer at night, they would have to step over him (assuming they hadn’t already stepped on him).

As it was, Mom and Dad only stayed in the trailer long enough for Dad to put a lid of sorts over the cement foundation. It was to be quite a large home in its finished state, so the basement level functioned as a storage unit/work shed, with a corner sectioned off as a master bedroom of sorts. If I remember correctly, Mom kept the bed covered with plastic sheeting in an attempt to keep the sawdust out of the sheets. During that summer, Dad worked hard to get the upper floors framed in. He ran a power line from a transformer to the trailer and another to the house in order to keep an  upright freezer and an old refrigerator running. Extension cords fed a work light and power tools, and we made a weekly drive to the nearest laundromat fifteen miles away . A laundry room and a bathroom with a full-sized tub were the first rooms finished.

By fall, the roof trusses were up and covered over with plywood and tar paper, and insulation in the form of shredded, recycled, fire retarded  newspaper particles filled the walls. It was the best insulation to be found at the time, the wall studs were covered and it was blown into the walls through a layer of plastic. It was one of the very few projects on the house that Dad contracted out, and my brothers helped with most projects calling for more than two hands. This tough task was compounded by the fact that Dad was working a full-time job and functioning as a bishop in our local ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If Dad wasn’t at his paid job, he could be found attending meetings with church leaders or counseling church members. In his spare time, Friday evenings and Saturdays, he worked on the house. I’m amazed he got so much done during that first year.

As it was, there were still no windows installed and the roof shingles had not yet been laid on the roof as October neared its close. That fall, Dad spent nearly every waking moment either harnessed to the steeply pitched A-frame roof or installing windows.  There would be no sitting down for a family meal during those weeks. Mom would often bring Dad’s dinner to him while he worked. He even tried working on the house one Sunday, but  ran a two-by-four through a newly installed window as he was cleaning up the next Sunday. Dad never, ever, worked on a Sunday again after that, but he still managed to get the house fully closed in before the winter snow began to collect. Thankfully, Christmas of 1974 would be white.

America’s Problems get Personal

1974 was a tough year world-wide, but it was even tougher in the United States than in most nations. In response to its support of Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the United States was banned from oil trades with the world’s oil producing nations (OPEC). By the year’s end, As the country using the largest percentage of the world’s fossil fuel resources, the oil embargo hit hard, causing fuel prices to quadruple, followed by increased prices on imported products, including anything that could not be produced locally. Adding insult to injury, President of the U.S. Richard Nixon, resigned his position  amidst allegations of White House involvement in a break-in of Democratic headquarters during an election year.  To this day, Nixon is the only U.S. president to voluntarily resign, adding political upheaval to the nation’s deepening economic woes.

To avoid fuel shortages, people were asked to drive only when necessary. We lived a mile uphill from the nearest neighbor, five miles from church, ten miles to school and the nearest grocery store, and more than fifteen miles to work. Walking was out of the question.

fuel dispenser
Photo by fotografierende on Pexels.com

Families across the United States were tightening their belts, including ours. Because of the increased strain on the family’s resources, Mom got a job working at a workshop/school for disabled adults. That really helped, and thanks to her, the building project was moving along as quickly as could be expected under the existing conditions. What wasn’t expected was the loss of Dad’s job in December.  If last year’s Christmas was lean, this year’s would be worse.

Well, at least we had snow.

I’m Dreaming of Any Kind of Christmas

I had finally reconciled with Santa’s fall from Christmas grace, and I figured that nothing could be worse than the binder paper Christmas. The trailer had been moved closer to the basement entrance, and Dad’s tools and building materials went to to the second floor. With windows and insulation added, Mom and Dad’s “bedroom” was moved to it’s permanent home on the third floor despite the lack of carpeting, painted walls, or electrical amenities. Now there was plenty of room on the basement level for a dining/living area. We no longer had to use the trailer for bathroom purposes, and we could actually sit on a full-sized sofa and watch whatever channel might be getting reception on our thirteen-inch black and white television set.

It also meant room for a real Christmas tree. I didn’t care about presents, but I couldn’t face another year without a real tree. Apparently Mom felt the same way.

Mom’s Side of the Story

The only good news coming from Dad’s Christmastime lay-off was that he now had much more time to work on the house. Despite her meager salary, or perhaps to spite it, Mom felt the burden of Christmas falling directly upon her shoulders. Dad took a practical approach–stuff like this happens, and the world would not end without a tree or presents. His focus was on keeping a roof, unfinished as it was, over our heads, and getting a new job as quickly as possible so he could get everything under that roof finished.

Mom wasn’t quite so pragmatic about it.

Mom is the most creative person I know. If it’s too expensive or cheaply made, she figures out a way to create a better home-made version. The first thing Mom did was cut down a four-foot juniper tree from our six-acre property. It wasn’t the traditional fir tree we were used to, it had a fuzzy trunk, and it didn’t have that familiar Christmas tree smell. In addition, it was short. But it was still an evergreen,  very nicely shaped, not school bus yellow, and it fit perfectly beneath the open staircase. I was thrilled. We had a Christmas tree.

Mom must have garnered a lot of trust at her job, because her boss gave her unlimited use of the scrap bins and let her use the shop’s power tools after hours. Mom made wooden ornaments in various shapes and drilled holes for red yarn. They looked so cute on the tree. She also gathered up some nice round branches from other trees on our property, and cut them into evenly shaped pieces. Using scraps of lumber from the building project and her workshop scraps, she built three sturdy lumber trucks–just as good or better than can be found in vintage toy shops today.  I am not at all sure what my brothers thought of them, but I thought they were amazing. I’m pretty sure Dad helped some with that project, but I was impressed to learn that my mom actually had woodworking skills.

Woodwork wasn’t the only thing mom was good at. In her adolescence,  She learned to sew; and from a very young age, she sewed her own clothes. She made her own wedding dress, and when I got married the first time, she remade it for me. I was aware of a stigma that came with having homemade clothes versus store-bought clothes, but I never worried about it. If mom could find nice affordable fabric, she could make any clothing look better than its commercial counterpart. That year, Mom made fabric dolls for my older sister and I, and although I no longer played with dolls, I thought mine would make a nice decoration when I finally moved in to my new bedroom.

There wasn’t much in the way of Christmas baking that year but there was one tradition Mom was determined that we would not go without–Stollen and hot cocoa. Stollen is a German sweet bread made with nuts, spices, and dried or candied fruit, coated with confectioner’s sugar icing. As the daughter of an authentic German baker, it just wouldn’t be Christmas without it. I don’t know how she managed to get all of the ingredients, and she does say that she knows the bread went without the usual, albeit expensive, pine-nuts, but I know I didn’t notice.


Love–The Best Gift of All

Along with wooden trucks and rag dolls, mom made a new pair of pajamas for each of us. I think, though, that most dazzling was the wide array of treats and trinkets to be found in our stockings. Mom said she scrounged around everywhere to find cool things to fill them up. My favorite gift that year came from a local automotive shop–a transistor radio that bore an uncanny resemblance to a car battery. It worked great, and even though I was no car enthusiast, I truly loved it.

transistor radio car battery
My favorite gift in 1974. Not as tacky as a leg lamp.

When I asked Mom about that Christmas, she told me that year was such a hard one for her that she had forgotten much of it. She suffered so much angst that year, and I know we felt it, but I’m still so amazed at what she was able to pull off. It simply hadn’t occurred to me that it was the worst Christmas in her memory. Looking back at my own motherhood though, especially as a single mother, I now realize that tough times are difficult for kids, but they are always toughest on the parents because we worry that we cannot give our children so many of the things they need, and that at the very least, their innocence will be lost in the process.

Until I started writing this story it hadn’t even occurred to me that my two younger brothers would have had to come to terms with the man in the red suit that year.  The youngest would have been just five or six years old at the time. If either of them  believed in Santa before that year, they certainly would not have afterwards. I didn’t bother to ask for anything, and if my younger brothers asked, they definitely didn’t ask for wooden logging trucks. For me, the magic I had lost in the abrupt revelation that there is no Santa two years earlier had returned. For my brothers, the magic was definitely changing.

Lessons Learned

Christmas can be magical for children, but it’s not about Santa Claus or about the gifts we get. It’s about love and giving. There is no greater love than that of a parent to a child, and there is no better gift than one that comes from the heart. Homemade gifts are thoughtful gifts, and everyone knows it’s the thought that counts. Mom never stopped thinking in December of 1974. That Christmas was filled with so much love that I didn’t care weather or not we had eggnog for the New Year. I wasn’t thinking of what we had to do without, but of our fortune in being able to have the things that we had.

Dad found a new job by the next fall, and the next Christmas was celebrated in a nearly completed home. Dad received a huge Christmas bonus in thanks for helping his new boss maintain the trust of a very important client. It was big enough that we were able to help out two other families for Christmas. Gifts were more than plentiful, and we even had our very first full-sized color television set. But the most appreciated presents, once again, were the handmade ones from Mom.

I still have two wooden ornaments from that year– a star and an A-frame house. The star remains in its unpainted form just as it was that Christmas, but the little wooden house, along with many of those ornaments from the Christmas of 1974, is tole-painted to resemble an Austrian style chalet (painting–another one of my mother’s many talents). Mom had managed to capture the image of our mountain home in that ornament, and in the other, the true spirit of Christmas. I normally include them in my annual decorations, but after our cross-country move, and last summer’s bout of bed bugs, the ornaments have accidentally been relocated to a storage unit, and I haven’t yet gone to retrieve them. I’ll add a photo of them as soon as I am able.

It’s been more than a decade since I celebrated with a real Christmas tree, and these days I don’t even bother with a full-sized tree. Now I have a Christmas tree collection. I display miniature trees everywhere, and every year I add to it, knowing that no matter how lean the celebration, there will always be trees.

7 thoughts on “(n)O Christmas Tree

  1. Your mother was a very special woman, but I think she was blessed with a very special family, as well. Thank you for sharing these tender, heart-felt memories.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Your parents are truly heroic. I can’t imagine your dad building that house single-handed or your mother creating all those gifts and ornaments for you all. 1974 was also a very tough year for my parents. My father, a self-employed architect, had no jobs because of the economic conditions, and they had to sell the house he’d designed in 1965 to move to a much smaller house (that he also designed and helped to build although he did have a regular building crew helping also). I was already out of college by December 1974, and I remember telling my father not to include a room for me because he needed the space and I was now an adult living on my own.

    Liked by 2 people

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