The Tree Farm – A Christmas Story
The Tree Farm: A Christmas story
For generations, the MacDowells had sold cut-your-own Christmas firs. But was it time to exit now? Or was there a little magic left?
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Published 6:00 AM CST Dec. 15, 2022 Updated 6:00 AM CST Dec. 15, 2022
After a final pull of the twine, Clifton MacDowell tugged at the tree to make sure it was set, tapped the rooftop and offered a wave as the car rolled down the long driveway, into the blur of snow. It was evening, the snow-filled sky and snow-covered ground blending into a gray broken up by only the long rows of Christmas trees on either side.
MacDowell watched the car fade into the distance, waiting for the wink of the brake lights before the turn onto Highway 19, east toward town. It was the last car of the day, bringing it all closer to the last day of the season. He pulled down his hat, shook off a shiver and hunched his shoulders under his faded old coat.
He had to round up his granddaughters, and knew even before turning which one would be missing.
“Sarah Jane,” he called out.
Inside the battered old shed, a teenage girl startled to attention, a thump as her feet dropped from the ledge to the floor, then a bang as she swung open the door. A single bulb lit the inside of the shed, casting her shadow across the ground.
A string of white lights ran from the top of the shed to a nearby tree. There was a stack of wreaths, all with perfect red ribbons, resting on a bench. Dozens more sat on the ground or leaned against the shed. He had been too optimistic again this year, what with the economy. The whole situation had left him surly and sour, conflicted about whether it was time to listen to his doctor, his family and his tired old bones and call that developer back and sell.
“Addy, where’s that sister of yours?” MacDowell asked.
“Is there another?”
Addison, now 14, did that teenage thing, where she wanted to smart back, realized this was her grandfather she was talking to, and offered a sheepish shrug instead. Sarah Jane was only 10, and Addy was supposed to be watching her, but instead had gotten lost in a book.
“She came in a while ago and said she needed her mittens,” Addy said.
MacDowell waited. Addy gave a slight shake of her head, as if even she didn’t believe what she was remembering, then continued:
“She said she needed them because the reindeer’s foot was bleeding.”
There was a set of small footprints, heading off into the trees. Every few feet, there was a spot of red.
“Come on,” MacDowell said. “This way.”
Was it finally time to sell?
Was it finally time to sell?
The tree farm had been in MacDowell’s family for four generations. It would have been five, if his son had shown any interest along the way – six if it could be handed off someday to the girls.
But now its future was uncertain, and fading.
As a boy, MacDowell’s grandfather had once walked him along the rows and told him all he needed to make a go of the Christmas tree business was a strong back, a little sunshine and a lot of patience. And that was true for a long time. But now every year the business danced on the edge of unpredictable prices and changing tastes that always made it seem as if he had planted the wrong varieties a decade ago.
MacDowell wasn’t sure when the place had lost its magic. Maybe it was when he got that new hip, and his walk became more shuffle than stride. Maybe it was when Scout got too old to chase along on those mornings when he walked the rows with a pruner looking for wayward branches. Maybe it was when Eleanor passed and he was left to puzzle over the books himself.
But when the family gathered at Thanksgiving and voted again on whether to sell, he was the lone holdout, though really only his vote mattered. So, that evening he repainted the sandwich board sign – “Christmas trees, you cut” with an arrow – and set it out the next morning.
The farm had made his father a living, had sent him to community college and sent his own son off to the state university. It provided a comfortable routine. In the spring, he would plant the seedlings. In the summer, during dry spells, he would lug buckets of water from the faucet by the road. In the fall, he would mark which trees were ready to be cut and sold.
And on Christmas morning he’d make out his order for next year’s seedlings.
Amid the uncertainty, his son had sent the granddaughters out a week before Christmas to help tend to the customers. They were meant to pitch in, but Addy always had her nose in a book or was fiddling with some device, while Sarah Jane was always off exploring – as likely to build a snow fort as to chase a squirrel or to tromp out a “Merry Christmas” message with her footprints.
At least someone, MacDowell thought, knew the wonder of the place.
A mitten and a tear
A mitten and a tear
Now, halfway down a row of trees, MacDowell stopped to catch his breath and spotted a bright blue mitten on the ground. It was one his wife had knitted for the girls. He stuffed it in his pocket, looked up and saw Addy pointing.
“She’s down here.”
Addy disappeared down the next row. McDowell lumbered on, turned and – before he could get mad – spotted his two granddaughters: Sarah Jane sat on the ground, her face red, tears ready to spill down her cheeks. Addy knelt next to her and had pulled her close.
There were spots of red on the ground. MacDowell scooped up a handful of snow, and realized the red was just the berries that had been set aside for the wreaths.
“Hey, little girl,” he said softly. “Did you get lost?”
He knelt next to them both, put his hand on Sarah Jane’s cheek, caught a tear with his thumb. She looked down and shook her head.
“Then why are you crying?”
“He was hungry,” she blurted out, and showed the remaining berries in her hand. “But you made him disappear.”
MacDowell looked around. There was no sign of anything, just a little girl’s footprints in the snow, and a spot where everything was tramped down – the spot where she now sat huddled beneath a blue spruce, maybe 8 feet tall. In the growing darkness, there was no sign of the second mitten. He summoned his gentlest voice.
“Who’s gone, honey?”
She took in a deep sniffle and looked up with the saddest of faces.
‘Turn toward the magic’
‘Turn toward the magic’
Truth be told, Sarah Jane wouldn’t be one to get lost.
From the time she was old enough to visit with her sister, she made the tree farm her own. Where every year Addy grew more aloof, Sarah Jane was more excited, eager to learn about all the varieties, always ready to get the sled and help families haul the trees back to their cars.
She knew where to find trees with just the right shape, which had branches strong enough to hold heavy ornaments, and which variety had needles that wouldn’t drop until January.
But as each day passed, it became harder to keep her focused. While Addy was busy checking out the customers, and while MacDowell helped tie down the trees, Sarah Jane would only appear with talk of Blitzen and a new, different request: The first day, it was for a piece of wood. The next, it was cardboard, then tape, then string.
One morning, as Addy was filling her thermos for the day – always hot chocolate for the girls, black coffee for Papa – she saw Sarah Jane slipping extra sugar cubes into her coat pocket.
Now, the week had all but disappeared. It was the day before Christmas and, as the stragglers looked for a last-minute tree, Sarah Jane walked up and asked if she could borrow the blanket Addy kept on her lap in the shed.
“Are you kidding?” Addy replied. “Don’t you realize how cold it is?”
“But we need it –”
“Not Blitzen again,” she said, with an eyeroll.
“Just because you can’t see him,” Sarah Jane said, “doesn’t mean he’s not there.”
“Actually,” Addy replied, “that’s kind of exactly what it means.”
The girls had been through this debate before, and quickly fell into their familiar roles. Addy said it was time for Sarah Jane to grow up, to put all this Santa stuff behind her. Sarah Jane reminded Addy about the time they both had stayed up past midnight, snuck downstairs and saw Santa Claus eating cookies, and – shoot – why couldn’t she just believe her now?
“Just take the blanket and get lost,” Addy said. “But I’m tired of telling Papa you’re out helping customers when you’re not.”
There were enough customers that a small line had formed as the girls argued.
“Excuse me,” one woman said, stepping forward. “Did you say Blitzen?”
The woman wore a long, heavy coat. A knit hat covered her graying curls. Wrinkles danced around her eyes when she smiled, which she did now and added: “I haven’t seen Blitzen in a long, long time.”
When the two girls turned, she offered a wink toward Sarah Jane.
“Now, if Sarah Jane says she saw Blitzen, well, then I believe her,” she said. “And Addy, you should, too. How old are you now anyway?”
It was not unusual for customers to remember the girls or, it being a small town, to have heard all about who was in dance and who was playing tennis and who got braces.
“Yeah,” the woman said, sizing her up. “That’s about when it happens. Once you hit a certain age, seeing is believing, but before that it’s the reverse – believing is seeing. And, I’ll tell you, I always try to stay on Sarah Jane’s side of things. That’s where the magic is.”
The woman was unrushed, despite the impatience of those waiting. She held a wreath under one arm, and a pocketbook in her hand. Her voice carried a gentle wistfulness, making the girls feel as if just listening to her could carry them wherever she was going.
MacDowell had walked up, and interjected: “I know what’s coming …”
And they both said it – he and the woman – one with disbelief and one with hope: “Always turn toward the magic.”
“Beatrice Merriweather,” MacDowell said, introducing her to the girls, then offering a hug. “Great to see ya, Bea.”
“Now, Clifton, you know it’s good advice,” she said, and looked toward the girls. “Once you start to believe, you’ll find yourself seeing things everywhere.”
MacDowell explained that Beatrice Merriweather had lived across the street when they were kids. They walked to school together (“Uphill both ways,” he said, nudging Addy), played in the field behind their houses (“Where the car dealership is now,” she said), and had all manner of adventures.
That included, Bea reminded him now, of the time she saw reindeer on his rooftop one Christmas Eve, and as proof that Santa had been there, the next morning showed him a mitten that had fallen to the ground (“He never did believe it,” she whispered to the girls.)
Truth be told, on that night, back at age 11, MacDowell had heard footsteps before he fell asleep. Had heard them clear as a bell. But when Bea showed him the mitten, he realized it matched one his father had been missing. And in a snap, the magic was lost, perhaps for good.
“Back to work now, girls,” he said.
Addy headed for the shed, but before she sat down, she passed the blanket out to Sarah Jane, who promptly excused herself and disappeared into the trees.
“By the way,” Beatrice said. “Your sign’s wrong.”
Addy offered a puzzled look, and the woman pointed. Indeed, the sign in the window beneath the shed’s window said: “Closed.”
Addy waited until no one was looking, then reached outside and turned it around.
Getting that guy home
Getting that guy home
After a while, as the customers wound down, Sarah Jane ran back up, out of breath. Her grandfather had just sent a car home, and two final families stood waiting to pay.
“He’s back,” she said. “Addy, he wants to see you.”
This time, Addy did not roll her eyes. Instead, she looked at her grandfather, who shrugged and nodded toward the tree line.
“Go,” he said, playing along. “Tomorrow’s Christmas, and we need to get that guy home.”
Addy turned and followed her sister, who zigzagged ahead. At one point, Addy slowed, thinking she spotted a hoofprint in the snow. She shook her head, and kept running. Finally, she turned a corner and nearly ran into Sarah Jane, who raised a finger to her lips.
“Ssshh,” she said. “He can get nervous.”
In the clearing, Addy spotted a cardboard contraption, criss-crossed with tape, pressed up against a fir tree. The blanket was spread on the ground. The snow around it was a mess of footprints, and some snow was piled to support the cardboard. Addy’s heart sank. There was nothing there. Why had she bothered?
But then there was the slight jangle of a sleigh bell, and a reindeer stood up from behind the tree and stepped – cautiously – toward them. The reindeer raised his head to sniff the air, shook his head quickly, and stomped a foot. A mitten was awkwardly forced onto a hoof, and his leg was stiff – a stick held in place against it with a wrap of yarn.
Addy slowly stepped forward, reached up and ran a hand along the creature’s neck, stopping at the collar. The reindeer snorted, blowing a dusting of snow from her shoulder. Addy took the silver tag and turned it over in her hand, revealing the letter “B.”
She glanced toward her sister, a look of wonder on her face.
“We were under the dining room table,” Addy said, closing her eyes, “and he was sitting in Dad’s favorite chair.”
The two said the next line in unison: “And then he dropped the cookie.”
Yes. That was what had happened: Santa dropped the cookie, and Addy pulled Sarah Jane back, and shushed her, as they took it all in. But somewhere along the way, Addy had relegated that memory to just a dream, or some made up thing. She had pushed the magic to the margins.
“You do remember!” Sarah Jane said. “You said you didn’t.”
“Well, I did,” Addy said. “And then I thought I didn’t.”
The blanket and the splint
The blanket and the splint
By the time their father pulled down the driveway, the girls were on the bench waiting and caught him in a hug as he opened the car door. They tag-teamed what had happened: The reindeer, the injury, the blanket and splint.
“I see,” their father said, with an exaggerated nod. “So, it’s kind of like that time you guys spotted Santa eating cookies in my easy chair?”
“You don’t believe, do you?” Addy said.
“Let’s talk about it in the car,” he said. “Papa will meet us at church.”
“But you believe,” Sarah Jane said, looking at her grandfather. “You believe, Papa. Don’t you?”
He paused to consider it all. He wanted to, he really did. He wished he could see things like the girls, wished he could do what Beatrice had admonished, and always turn toward the magic. He remembered how as a boy he woke up each Christmas morning to notes from Santa left next to an empty cookie plate, and how he saved them in a box until a friend said it was probably just his Dad writing with his left hand.
He offered a warm smile, and said the most honest thing he could say:
A burst of a jangle
A burst of a jangle
After they drove off, MacDowell walked to the end of the long driveway, the snow again drifting down. He took the wooden sign, folded it closed, and set it on the sled.
As he pulled the sled back down the drive, he thought back to when he first painted the sign, to all the times he painted it. He thought about every time someone said he needed something fancier – flashing lights or bright flags or a snappy slogan – to make the farm go. He thought about how he had worked and finagled and strained to keep the place afloat, how hard it had become.
He realized it was time, and vowed to make the call next week.
It was dark now, so he tracked the tire marks in the moonlight, pulling the sled back to the shed, where the lone light bulb shined through the frosted glass. He leaned the sign against the wall and after a pause, he took a deep breath, and turned the sign to read “Closed.”
As he did, he noticed a glow in the distance. Families would sometimes leave lanterns or flashlights behind. He followed the glow into a clearing, but there was no flashlight, no lantern.
Instead, there was a small tree with a single string of white lights, a battery pack at the end. The tree was in a black, plastic pot, where it could stay until a spring planting. He reached out, mystified, and pulled off a wayward branch, as if to prove to himself it was real.
As he did, he felt a rush blow past him and heard a burst of a jangle, and turned. But there was nothing but the chill night sky. For a moment, he thought he saw a movement in the shadows, but shook his head free of the thought. No. There was nothing.
Then he spotted something on the ground, next to the tree.
He bent to pick it up – a hand-made mitten. It had been stretched and the yarn was stiff and discolored. He took out the mitten he had stuffed in his pocket a few days ago. They matched, of course. He thought about that mitten Beatrice had found so many years ago and her admonishment that afternoon: “Always turn toward the magic.”
He said it aloud, and hoped. He was trying.
As he approached the shed, his footsteps light and easy, he noticed a pair of long, thin tracks pressed into the snow, and something else. He took the branch from the tree, pulled loose a handful of needles and tossed them across the ground. When they landed, it revealed a cluster of reindeer tracks.
He stepped inside the shed to turn off the light. On the ledge there was a pink piece of paper – a receipt for a season’s worth of seedlings, with a “Paid” stamp in the corner. He picked it up and turned it over.
There was a message on the back – in a scrawl he recognized from his childhood.
He smiled and felt a warmth that belied the cold. He rummaged through the drawer and found a roll of tape, turned the paper around and taped it to the window, so that message could be seen by anyone who would happen to wander up in the months ahead:
“See you next Christmas.”
Greg Borowski, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editor, writes a Christmas story every year for his family and friends. Some of his previous Christmas stories are collected in two books, “A Christmas Wish” and the earlier “The Christmas Heart.” He can be reached by email at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GregJBorowski.