I think I was about 10, so it was the 1960’s and my journalist-turned-ad-man dad wasn’t having a great year. We had kind of a Jewish-lite household. My mother had converted when she married my father but couldn’t give up her Christmas tree, and so we usually celebrated both Chanukah and Christmas. Which usually meant bunches of presents for us kids, but that wasn’t going to be the case this year. In fact, things were so bad that we couldn’t even afford a tree.
My parents had taken the time to explain to my sister and me that this year was going to be different. We would light the candles and have Christmas dinner, but both of us would only get one present and it wouldn’t be a big one. Both of my parents had tears in their eyes when they told us, which got to my little ten-year-old heart. Even though the hopes for a Man from U.N.C.L.E. spy briefcase were dashed, I did understand.
I think we were lighting candles on Christmas Eve when my dad got an idea. “Hey, Elvis [his nickname for me], let’s go to a tree lot. Maybe they are having a sale!” It sounded like a cool idea to me, so we got into the station wagon and drove into town. We pulled into the first tree lot we came to, and it was dead empty. Not a soul in sight, just some very withered trees and an abandoned shack. But there, in the middle of all the mess, was one pristine, white flocked tree that seemed to be calling our name. We looked around and yelled to see if anyone was there. My dad went into the car and was writing something. He got out and said, “Okay, buddy-boy, let’s load it up.”
We put the tree in the back of the wagon and headed home. I asked my dad if what we did was wrong. To me, it was like stealing, so I asked him, “Was this okay?” My question wasn’t out of line, and my father just smiled. He told me that in his note he had put a $10 bill (which was all he had) and our phone number if they wanted us to bring it back.
When we got home, Mom realized that all the decorations were packed away in the garage. But that didn’t stop her from having a tree for the holidays. My mother liked to decorate with silk flowers, and she started taking them out of the vases and putting them on the tree, and we all joined in.
Christmas carols filled our house that night, and the next morning, our little gifts were wrapped up nicely and gently placed under our tree. I remember the family taking our time that day. Not the usual wake up and run to the tree to rip open the presents. That was the year I learned to savor the moment and the gift.
I still remember that Christmas dinner. We had a heat-and-serve pressed turkey breast; Martha Stewart would not have approved. But Mom made potatoes with cheese, and Dad created his famous salad dressing for the veggies. I remember that meal not for what we didn’t have, but for feeling more love around our table than we had felt in a long time.
The next day, my dad got a call from the tree lot. They wanted him to come get his change. It seems that the white flocked tree was on sale for five bucks that night. Things started to get better for him after that.