The room at the top of the stairs was warm from the heat of the wood stove below. Outside a nor’easter was bending the pines and kicking up whitecaps on the surface of the creek. Snow flurries were falling. The children’s noses pressed against the window, big smiles lit their faces, and their minds raced ahead with thoughts of snowball fights and snow families. The stew simmering in the pot on top of the stove made our mouths water as its aroma filtered through the rooms. Our lights had been off for several hours, the result of a tree falling on the side of the road, taking the electrical wires with it. We were grateful to have the wood stove for warmth and a gas stove for cooking.
It was mid-December on Waccamaw Neck. We were in the midst of the holiday season and everyone in this coastal community wondered if it was our year for a white Christmas. A snow storm was an unusual occurrence here. We were all excited, keeping in mind that within a few days, it could all be just a pleasant memory.
It was time, once again, to make plans to pick out the Christmas tree. When the wind died down, we’d head out for a drive through the woods. Most of the large cedars along the marsh had been destroyed by hurricane Hugo several months before. Those left standing needed time to recover and regenerate; a process that takes years. Fortunately, the majority of the forest was spared so we would search the woods for the “perfect” tree – a ten foot pine. Along the way, we would stop to snip and gather branches of magnolia and holly. Vines of smilax could be used to frame our front door and dress up the railing of the stairs. Wreaths and sprays would be fashioned from longleaf pine, yaupon and holly berries. The house would hold the scent of the greenery that we would place in crocks and tuck into empty corners. The mantel would take on new life as left-over branches were woven between candles and placed inside the empty stockings hanging there.
While waiting for the weather to settle down, we pulled boxes filled with Christmas decorations from their resting place underneath the stairs. Strings of lights were sorted and untangled. Favorite wall hangings were place throughout the house, giving us glimpses of the season from room to room. Crocheted snowflakes were hung in the windows, usually our only reminder that some people enjoyed a white Christmas every year. Digging through the assortment of hand-me-down ornaments filled me with nostalgia and brought back memories of Christmases long ago:
When I was a child, my brother, sister, and I accompanied our father every year to get our Christmas tree. We went by rowboat, across the saltwater creek that separated our island home from the mainland. Our destination was a familiar stretch of marsh bordering the edge of the forest where the cedars still grow today. Aside from weathering the storms that blow our way, the area hasn’t changed at all over the years. I was the youngest of the three children and slow enough to fall behind when making our way through the tall marsh grass, following the meandering paths made by deer and feral hogs. My dad usually ended up carrying me on his shoulders while my brother carried the axe and my sister scanned the area for the best tree. After much discussion and careful consideration (too fat; too thin; too tall; too short?), my dad sent wood chips flying as he chopped down the tree we selected. I can still remember how the fragrance of the fresh cut cedar competed with the pungent odor of the marsh mud. My dad centered the tree on his back, resembling a large green porcupine, and walked slowly back to the boat. I was positioned behind him and had to be careful not to step on the tip of the tree as it dragged along the ground. Once we placed it in the boat we often had a difficult time finding room for ourselves. I recall my dad pulling the boat home once, guiding it through waist-deep water, because there was no room for him to sit and row us across the creek to our dock.
Trees don’t always look so tall when they are part of a forest. We often had to cut four or five feet off so it would fit in a room with a twelve-foot ceiling. Our trees were never shaped perfectly, not like those found in most homes today. We sometimes had to cut a branch off here or tie a piece on there to balance it out a bit. However, once the decorations were added and the lights turned on, it was transformed, and became perfect in our eyes.
Outside the wind calmed. Warmed by fond memories and a hot meal, we headed out the door for an afternoon in the woods, confident in the steadily falling snow, the assurance that we were teaching our children what memories were made of and the belief that our white Christmas dreams had come true.
another lovely story shared with us on this Christmas Day,
by Avis Hutchinson
....first published in The Coastal Observer
(Thanks again, Miss Avis, for sharing your memories and your talents with us!)