Worst Christmas

By Paul Schlieben

This story, told to me by a friend, David Brewster, is the story of his Christmas in 1959, the last year of the Eisenhower administration; not that that has anything to do with the story, but for most of you it puts in squarely in ancient times. I will tell the story in the first person, just as my friend David told it to me.

M

y Worst Christmas started the day after Columbus Day, October 13, 1959. We sat down to our evening supper at the white porcelain kitchen table and, right after my younger brother, Randy, said grace and, before we had time to tuck our napkins in our belts, my father made a portentous announcement, which cast a deep, dark shadow over the next two and a half months. “Christmas is out of control.” He said. “It’s outrageous! I was downtown today and there are Christmas decorations in every window, in every store, restaurant and lamppost! Even the church was festooned! It’s a mockery! Well,” and here he paused for dramatic effect, “your mother and I have decided that, this year, we are not going to buy any Christmas presents, and” (to my kid brother, Randy, who still believed) “we have asked Santa not to come this year; however, we are going to give each of you a special gift that you can admire for the rest of your life – a tree. So, I want you to think about what kind of tree you want. You have two months to decide.” Complete silence settled over the table for perhaps 10 or 15 seconds, broken finally by my sister, Laure, who at thirteen, being the eldest and most outspoken, picked up her fork just to slam it down as hard as she could against the porcelain-topped kitchen table, saying, “That’s crazy – I don’t want a stupid tree, I want a stereo record player!” Well, my father, always quietly intimidating, gave her a malevolent look and said simply, “This year will be refreshingly different.” Expressing her outrage the only way she could, Laure bolted from the table and moments later slammed her bedroom door so hard that ToeGo, our six-toed cat, levitated off the floor and Herman our nervous, decrepit, fourteen year old dachshund, rudely startled out of his canine dream, peed next to the stove, farted and then slid back into his deep sleep, where he spent most of his days. Mother and Father exchanged glances of pained bemusement often associated with teenage daughters, and then father, recovering his stoic reserve, addressed me and Randy, saying, “Well, you’ll see; we’ll have a really good Christmas, trust me … now, let’s eat.” My stomach had been growling angrily for more than an hour, ever since Mother banished us from her kitchen, as she usually did, so she could “prepare dinner in peace”. Laure’s departure afforded a tactical opportunity that commanded deep concentration. As a profligate, I was as willing as any twelve-year-old boy to trade long term, strategic goals for immediate gratification, even if the consequence was a barren Christmas, which I was certain remained unlikely. Suppressing my indignation, I focused on the more 1

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immediate contest of commandeering Laure’s meatloaf. However, Mother’s too-gentle voice dashed my hopes. “I’ll just serve something on a plate for Laure first. I’ll bring that to her after she calms down.” Bitterly disappointed, I mused to myself, “It will be a damn cold plate by then!” After dinner, Randy and I gathered in Laure’s room, where Laure was pecking at the food Mother left for her just inside her door. I could tell the news was slowly seeping into Randy’s consciousness. Randy’s eyes were slowly filling with tears that were about to spill out over their brims. “Awe, don’t worry Randy” I said, “this is just another one of Dad’s crazy ideas, like when he had a fit about how TV was ruining the country last year and only allowed us to watch the boring news. Two months later we were back where we were before. Remember?” Randy brightened. “Yea, or the time he decided the Russians were going to bomb us any day now and had us all digging that big hole in the back yard for a bomb shelter but we kept hitting ledge and huge boulders and finally had to give it up.” I continued in lawyerly fashion building my case point by point. “Or the time he insisted we all join the Quakers and go to those boring meetings where everyone sits around meditating or whatever – sleeping, more likely – for what felt like hours. That sure didn’t last, did it? Two weeks, at most!” Randy brightened some more. “Yea?” Laure put in. “Well, I was watching Mommy and she nodded in agreement when Daddy was talking. He must have checked it out with her first and when Mommy nods in agreement … well, we’re lucky if we’ll get a god damn toothbrush for Christmas!” Randy sagged perceptibly. “Shush,” I said, “You don’t want to let them hear you swearing.” Swearing back then was a capital offense in our house. “Besides” I argued, desperate to revive Randy’s spirits (and my own), “Christmas is almost three months away; they’re bound to change their minds by then. Are they going to keep Grandma and Grandpa Helms from buying presents? Or, Aunt Dot and Uncle John? How could they do that?” Randy, wiping his eyes on his sleeve and looking at us hopefully, said, “He can’t tell Santa Claus what to do, can he?” “Of course not!” I said, thinking they wouldn’t dare disappoint a true-believer like Randy.

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“Don’t bet on it!”, Laure put in, as we exchanged woeful stares and glanced at Randy just as two very wet tears overflowed Randy’s lower lids and slid silently down his cheeks, followed by a single, mournful sob.

The next day at school, my friend Dill came up to me and said, “Hey, I heard you’re not going to get anything for Christmas. Wow! What the hell did you do wrong, dick head?” I had been trying hard not to think about it and was vaguely embarrassed to bring it up – what kid wants to admit he’s got a weird family? “Who told you that?” I said as aggressively as I could, hoping he would back off and drop the subject. “Your sister did, dick face. You’re getting trees for Christmas? Gez! Haw, Haw, Haw!” Dill was just getting over bronchitis and sounded like a donkey braying. Ouch! I really didn’t want this to get out. Worse yet, just then Anker Bell sidled up next to Dill. “Hey!” he said, what kind of tree you going to get, a dick tree?” At this they both cackled, congratulating each other on their clever wit and slapping each other gleefully. (Well, this is the way twelve year olds talked back then; some things never change.) “How about asking for a pineapple tree and a one-way ticket to Hawaii?” Anker said. “That’s real funny! How about planting a pineapple up your butt?” I said not to be outdone. “You know, they make a finger for people like you,” (my cleverest rejoinder). And then I showed him which one. “Hey, what’s with you?” Anker shot back. “S’not my old man’s a screwball, jerk off!” Well, this was going nowhere – we had both delivered our best stuff – and, in the back of my mind, I was still trying to work out a course of action to avert the impending nativity disaster at home, so I made a threatening move towards Anker and then said something about having to see Mr. Brayer, my math teacher, before class, and stalked off. As I turned I noticed a crowd of kids closely packed together, leaning first one way and then other, like a sea anemone, and concluded that something important was happening and, immediately, was struck by the thought that it was related to my own predicament. We rushed over and, sure enough, there was Laure, sprung as tight as a Halloween cat, circling Bucky Horn, her schoolyard nemesis, who undoubtedly said something more stupid than even Anker or Dill could imagine, crumble-brain that he was, about to be raked by Laure‘s claws in a flash so quick and deadly he would forever stubbornly insist he was attacked by someone from behind. I half expected to see Laurie spring onto the chainlink fence like a spider and then spring onto Bucky, jaws agape. At considerable risk to myself, I jumped into the circle and grabbed Laure around the waist and hauled her backwards with the help of Mr. Ball, my sixth grade teacher, dragging her out of range, thus saving Bucky from permanent scars and certain humiliation.

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In the days that followed, the other kids backed off. I think they sensed a heretofore unrecognized potential for danger in both of us – especially Laure, who had built her reputation for feline ferocity and agility by climbing the ropes in the gym faster than anyone with only her steely little arms, which was cause for caution and wariness, especially among the pudgy twelve year old boys, most of whom pined for early signs of puberty that, in fact, would overwhelm most of us in just a few short months. So, by ganging together, we managed to deflect those natural inclinations towards cruelty and ridicule present in middle schools everywhere. Thankfully, attention spans being naturally attenuated, softer targets emerged upon which to vent there naturally endowed cruelty. As to the source of our anguish; for the rest of that week and for several more, we managed to repress the inevitably unpleasant and, in our own minds, improbable outcome; gradually convincing ourselves that some supernatural force or moral imperative would intervene. Perhaps Grandma, sensing our potential for utter devastation, will talk sense to Father and Mother and weaken their resolve. Trees! Were did he come up with that idea! Like an uninvited guest, we managed to evade the topic. Inescapably, father again raised the subject at dinner the week after Thanksgiving, when he asked, “Have you been thinking about what kind of tree you’d like to plant, David? Laure? Randy?” addressing each of us in turn. I looked at Laure and I looked at Randy and together we felt hope jerk its head back into its shell as if Father had suddenly poked it with a stick! “Well, you’ve only got a few weeks to decide,” he said, placing the Field Guide to Trees of North America flat on the table. “Here’s a book on trees. Look it over carefully and think about what kind of tree you’d like to plant.” “How about a Christmas tree with lots of presents under it!” Randy said. “Yea!” we all chimed. Father, serious as ever, just looked at each of us in turn and tapped the book firmly with his index finger. “The answer’s in here,” he said. “Now eat.” For reasons I can’t explain, I felt it my duty to pick up the book and carry it away, but none of us dared open it, fearing that it would be a betrayal; a weakness that would signal a crack in our solidarity. The remaining weeks before Christmas were quiet; deadly quiet. No trips to the department stores, the music store, the sporting goods store, the local hobby shop (my favorite haunt), not even Herb’s Haberdasheries, where Mom buys our socks and underwear.

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We did decorate our Christmas tree a few days before Christmas – a live one in a canvas ball that stood about four feet tall, even shorter than Randy. Dad made a roaring fire (with logs from a tree that (as Laure pointed out) “was murdered by some arborcidal tree maniac”. Dad said it had died just before he rescued it. (I think he lied.) Mom baked one of her apple-cranberry pies and we drank hot chocolate with whipped cream while Mom played Christmas carols on the piano, which temporarily felt enough like Christmas to lift our spirits just a bit. Then came dreaded Christmas Eve. For reasons we didn’t quite understand, none of our extended family were visiting this year. Nevertheless, being a special dinner, we ate in the dining room on our best china and silverware, used only for special occasions and guests. It was pleasant enough, with candles burning and a cozy fire in the fireplace, which cast a warm glow over the entire scene and cast the roast ham with all the fixings in a honeyed glow. As soon as Mother’s pineapple upside-down cake with vanilla ice cream was served, Dad said, “OK, now I want you all to sit back, relax and listen to a very important story about a life well-lived, the story of Elzeard Bouffier. I know these few months have been difficult for you and I know how disappointed you are not to be getting Christmas presents this year, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be a few surprises… but you’ll just have to wait and see about that … Tonight, I’m going to tell you a story that my father – your grandfather – told me when I was about your age; a story I hope you pass on to your children someday.

W

hen Grandfather Brewster (Henry, I’ll call him) graduated from college, in 1910, he didn’t know what to do with himself. He could have gone into his family’s iron casting business, but he had a burning desire to wander for a while; to see the world. So, with a few dollars he had saved, he decided to hop a freighter for Europe and learn what he could of the world. He arrived in Marseille on the southern coast of France. Having studied French in high school and college, he was eager to speak and, within a few months, was speaking French fluently. Being close to the Southern Alps, he donned a rucksack and bedroll and trekked into the mountains, where the Alps descent towards Provence, hitching a ride where he could, mostly on horse-drawn wagons. The foothills were a great disappointment; nothing like he had imagined. The land was dry and lifeless, except for the occasional hard-scrabble farmer and charcoal burners who made charcoal by cutting down the few remaining trees. The people there looked at him warily and pretended not to understand him. Most were unfriendly and refused him accommodations, while those few who did, did so grudgingly, and seemed to snarl at each other and at Henry resentfully. It being summer, Henry preferred sleeping under the stars. But the land was windswept and treeless and there was no shade; only large boulders behind which to shelter from the constant wind and hot morning sun. The food, what was available, was poor and water was very hard to find. One day, after several long, thirsty days trekking in this desolate land, Henry came upon a shepherd carrying a sack full of acorns and a rod of some length. Henry stood and

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watched him as he poked the rod into the ground, dropped in an acorn, and then covered it up. The man was very purposeful in his work and Henry could not be sure he noticed him. Nonetheless, as soon as he had emptied his sack, realizing that Henry was in need of water and a place to stay for the night, offered Henry a drink from his canteen and invited him to follow. He seemed friendly but spoke sparingly. The man collected his flock of sheep and his sturdy sheep dog, and turned for home. They arrived at a tidy, well-built stone house – uncharacteristic for this region – in a protected wooded area – one of the few in this region – and he offered Henry some hot coffee, a bowl of hearty soup and buttered bread for dinner and a pallet on which to spread his bedroll. After dinner, from his pallet in the shadows warmed by the fireplace, Henry watched as the man got out a bag of acorns and started sorting them, discarding all but the best ones. Then, he examined them again more closely, counting them out by tens until he had one hundred perfect acorns. When he was finished, he went to bed. In the morning, being curious, Henry asked if he might rest here another day. The man agreed and said, if Henry had nothing better to do, he might accompany him. Intrigued and fascinated, Henry agreed. The man opened the pen to let his sheep out and, together with his sheep dog, led Henry off in the direction that Henry had met him the day before. They left the sheep in a pasture under the watchful eye of his sheep dog, and climbed a nearby hill where he continued planting acorns where he had left off the day before. At days’ end, on their walk back to his cabin, he pointed to hills that were covered with a soft, gentle green where thousands of seedling grew, in great contrast to the arid and windswept hills nearby. After observing this gentle yet purposeful man for a day, Henry, enthusiastic and curious, peppered him with lots of questions. How long had he been planting trees? Four years. How many had he planted so far? About a hundred thousand. The man went on to explain that one in five acorns germinates and, just half of those survive foraging animals and drought to become full-grown trees. As they reached the man’s cottage, he showed Henry a fenced-in area that protected a small grove of beech saplings from his sheep. He said he also intended to plant birch trees in the low areas where there was moisture just below the surface. The next day, Henry left him and made his way back to Marseille and home.

Several years went by during which Henry worked in the family business, married, had children (including me and my brother John) and served in the US Army on the front lines as a Major during the Great War of 1914 – known now as World War I – where he saw, first hand, destruction and loss of life to a degree unimaginable. At the close of the war, Henry was demobilized and, having been greatly disturbed by all that he had seen in the war, elected to remain in Europe for a month and return to the region that had been such the great source of solace ten years before. As he approached the man’s cabin, Henry was surprised to hear water running in a small brook nearby and, in contrast to the hot wind that blew years earlier, noticed that the breeze was now gentle and fresh.

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Henry was surprised to find the man just as he had left him, but working several kilometers from where Henry had met him years earlier. The war had not affected the man at all. In just ten years, there were stands of trees as tall as Henry and taller, as far as he could see. And there were groves of beech trees intermixed with the oak. Henry was surprised that the man remembered him – wordlessly greeting Henry casually as though he had been expecting him to appear at any moment! Henry spent several days with the man there and, gradually, while smiling at the memory of it – for speech came even more slowly to the man than before – he told of a delegation from the Government that had come to the forest and had concluded that it had regenerated spontaneously! Not wanting to risk government interference – for certainly they would have found a way to interfere – he remained silent. But, he said, something positive did come from their visit – they declared the region a national forest and banned charcoal making and open fires. So, the man was left alone to continue his work in peace. Before Henry departed, realizing he did not even know the man’s name after so many years, he asked the man. He didn’t answer, but simply wrote on a scrap of paper and handed it to Henry. ‘Elzeard Bouffier’. Having found the tranquility and peace he sought after the distress of the war, Henry returned home to resume his life. But he thought often of Bouffier over the years. It was several years before Henry was able to return to Europe and to Provence and the foothills of the Alps. Finally, when he did in 1935, Henry though Elzeard Bouffin would probably be dead by now, since he had been 55 when he first met up with him in 1910. As Henry approach the town that had been all but deserted twenty-five years earlier, he was struck by the transformation. Streams were audible throughout the region, trees were at least twenty-five feet tall and there were many more houses, all with well kept flower and vegetable gardens. People there were pleasant and welcomed him, answering his questions willingly. When he inquired as to how to find Elzeard Bouffier, they pointed the way. Henry was amazed to find Bouffier as vigorous and strong as ever, building a new house, ten or more kilometers from his former home, which he has given to a young couple he hardly knew, so he could be closer to new stands of oak, beech and birch he was planting there. By now Bouffier spoke not at all. When he arrived in France, Henry had contacted a trusted friend, Pierre, who he had met during the war and now worked for the Forest Service. Henry trusted Pierre completely, so he shared the secret of the forest with him. Pierre came along with Henry one day on one of his daily treks to meet Bouffier, observing his methods closely and taking delight in the profound, quiet transformation he had brought about in the land. Pierre, an accomplished forester himself, offered a few helpful suggestions, but mostly, he observed Bouffier admiringly, admitting to himself that the man knew much more of forests than he did. From that day on, Pierre made sure Bouffier remained unmolested by his forest service personnel, to continue his work in peace. The war of 1939, World War II, broke out and, for six years, Henry was unable to return to the region. Finally, when Henry did return in 1945, although the country and its inhabitants were still recovering from the war, the region, being remote to most of the

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fighting, exhibited few scars and recovered quickly. By this time, there were several more settlements there and Henry would not have recognized the towns were it not for the well-marked signposts. The most striking feature was a beautiful water fountain set in the center of town next to a linden tree, the symbol of resurrection. Bouffier was still diligently toiling away, if more slowly and with considerable stiffness; but contentedly, without complaint. As before, Bouffier spoke not at all but was pleased to see his old friend. They walked together in the town among the many who lived there now and who knew nothing of the origin of the miracle that transformed this barren, uninhabitable, wind-swept land; or even of its former arid condition. This gentle man, Elzeard Bouffier, died peacefully in a hospice in Banon in 1947. The remarkable legacy he left behind covered a hundred square miles. With the help of Pierre’s guiding hand, his work continues to this day.1

W

hen Father finished speaking he looked at each of our faces to gauge the impression his story made. We each sat quietly, caught up in the world that had been so dramatically altered over forty years or more by this quiet, contented man. But gradually the reality of this Christmas – still our “worst Christmas” – crept back into the shadows left by the flickering light of the fireplace and the candles that illuminated Father’s face. Laure was the first to break the spell. “I suppose that means we are each going to get a bag of acorns for Christmas. Huh?”, but with a little less bitterness and just a suggestion of an amused twinkle in her eye. Father answered in kind, with equal measure of sternness and affection - for he and Mother admired Laure’s spirit as much as they often regretted it – “maybe not so many acorns as that – now off to bed! All of you!” clapping his hands loudly.” Then winking at Mother, “Tomorrow’s going to be a busy and long day for all of us.” “We still have a few surprises in store that will delight you,” mother added, to seed our immigrations and our dreams. “Now git!”

Our awakening Christmas morning was indeed a surprise. Usually, it was we kids who woke first and suffered to wait at the bottom of the stairs for my Mother and Father to come downstairs, an hour or more after we’ve been up. “Oh, why do they torture us so!” But this Christmas, just as it broke the spell of Father’s story the night before, it was my father’s clap that broke into our dreams this morning. Mother and Father were both dressed and busy carrying suitcases and bags downstairs! We all rubbed our eyes incredulously and peered out our bedroom doors; not quite believing our eyes. “Come on,
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The story of Elzeard Bouffier is adapted from a story titled The Man Who Planted Trees and Grew Happiness by Jean Giono that appeared in The Next Whole Earth Catalog published in 1980.

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get dressed! Quickly! Were leaving in twenty-five minutes and breakfast is on the table!” mother chimed, smiling and glancing at father rather conspiratorially, I thought. We all dressed as quickly as we could. The smell of eggs, bacon, toast and aroma of pancakes and warm fruit syrup spurred us on and drew us towards the kitchen, where the story of our Worst Christmas began so many weeks ago. Now it was mother’s turn to speak. “Since none of you has picked out a tree on your own, I’ve picked them out for you (except mine which your Father picked out.) “For Dad, I’ve picked out a Sycamore and we’ll plant that in Cooperstown, New York next to grandpa’s tree, along the street where he grew up. The hole has been dug and the tree will be all ready when we arrive. “For you, David, we chose a Catalpa tree with leaves as big as elephant ears, which we will plant lakeside at Lake George so you can check its progress each summer when we visit there on vacation. “For you, Laure, I’ve selected a beech tree with lots of branches to climb as it grows mature. We’ll plant that in Grandma and Grandpa Helm’s yard in Virginia.” “As for you, Randy? Well, we had to search far and wide to find the perfect tree for you. We decided that a Royal Palm would be just the thing! The only trouble is, well have to drive all the way to Florida to plant it,” she concluded, “and stop at Grandma and Grandpa’s house along the way.” Pleased with the effect the news had on us – for by now we were all leaping and shouting excitedly, delighted with the prospect of a few weeks on the beech. We were all in the car – even ToGoe and Herman – and on the road by seven, laughing and singing Christmas carols at the top of our lungs.

S

o, as you see, David and his family spent their “Worst Christmas” and the two weeks that followed on a wonderful holiday adventure that took them through New Hampshire, Vermont and New York State, and then south to their grandparent’s house in Virginia and, finally, to Miami Beach and, eventually, as far south as Key West, which is as far south as one can travel by car in the United States. They even sailed and swam among the reefs of the Florida Keys. And, yes, they planted all their trees and many, many more, in the years that followed.

Epilogue Laure, who loved to climbs trees and was captivated by Father’s story (even though she denied it whenever the topic came up) became a park ranger in Colorado where she spends a lot of time in the trees, fiercely protecting them! My friend David owns a nursery outside of Philadelphia where he grows dozens of varieties of trees, including disease resistant American Elms and Chestnut trees. And Randy? Well, Randy may have been too young for Father's parenting experiment, for he rebelled and became a logger in Oregon and celebrates Christmas by cutting down a big tree each year, which he
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never fails to picture in his Christmas cards with a note saying he’s “bagged another one!” But lately, perhaps having finally recovered from his childhood trauma, Randy limits himself to recovering old growth logs from the frigid Columbia River – logs that became waterlogged as they were floated down the river and sank a hundred years ago or more! They all make regular trips together to visit their trees and the trees of their parents, which they’ve carefully marked on a map, proudly marveling at how tall and beautiful their trees have become. And faithfully, they retell this story to their children often. But never at Christmas time. They’ve never forgiven their father for their own Worst Christmas!

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