Christmas in Hawaii. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Let me tell you a little about the Christmas trees of my youth to ruin the sound of those three words for you. The situation in Hawaii back then went like this: trees were cut in the great North sometime in August, piled onto a very slow barge and sent over the tumultuous Pacific to the little islands, unloaded onto a pile in late November. First-come-first-serve. By mid December, the needles would all drop off.
During my last year of high school we had barely gotten a tree; it was the second week of December when my stepdad agreed to go tree shopping and when we finally found a Charlie Brown tree at Ah Fook’s supermarket, he clearly didn’t have the money to pay for the thing. I saw the dishonest glint in his eye as he shakily fiddled with the tree’s price tag. I’d grabbed the tag from him, went inside and paid for the tree myself. I’d been working in a kitchen since I was 14. I was rich.
The following fall I went off to Portland, 17 years old and attending first term Lewis and Clark College. When Winter break came up I’d be off home to sunny Maui to mentally thaw for three weeks.
And my little brain cooked up this scheme. A Christmas tree scheme, since I was in the Great Northwest, land of endless green pine trees, I was going to make sure my mom would have the best tree on Maui. Oh, that’s what I told myself; naturally, I wanted the tree for me, wanted to show Stepdad he was useless.
I would bring a tree home on the airplane! Mom (and I) would be so happy!
I didn’t have a car but I got someone from work (French restaurant now, sauté cook nights) to drive me to a tree lot, where I picked out the best, seven foot, dark green, Douglas fir I could find. The whole time picturing Mom’s face when I pulled THIS off the luggage turnstile. The tree spent the night downstairs in the dorm. I’d wrapped it in a white dorm sheet and tied it with orange yarn.
The next morning I was off to the airport, dragging the tree and my wheel-less suitcase down the icy hill to the bus stop. By the time the bus came, the tree’s sheet was wet and hanging off where the orange yarn had broken. But it was a very durable tree. Another bus passenger helped me schlep it up the steps into the bus, where I answered all stares with, “I’m going home to Hawaii,” or “We don’t have good trees there,” or “ Present for my mom.” Mostly, my crazy endeavor was met with approval. At least that’s how I interpreted the blank nods from the bundled up Portland people.
I thought once I was at the airport, the hard work would be over. Already my arms felt ripped from their sockets. It was a very heavy tree and it took both hands around its trunk to lift and move it as the line shortened at check in. Then I’d have some stranger hold it up for me while I fetched my suitcase and caught up to my spot, only to have to move the tree again, fetch my suitcase, and so on. Boy these people were sure nice. They must have thought it was so cool: bringing a tree home to my mom!
I was relieved once the tree’s dark green tip disappeared into the luggage hole behind the ticket desk.
I think the flight was one of those red-eye, all-you-can-drink Pacific flights, where they used to convert the upstairs of a big ole 747 into a bar. There’s no drinking age up in the air, so I was sufficiently tipsy when we landed at eight in the morning on Maui. And when the tree appeared, missing its sheet and yarn, but otherwise intact, Mom was very excited. Or it seemed so anyway.
There were financial woes that year that overshadowed everything. Mom and Stepdad had filed for bankruptcy, sold our house, (sold my VW bug!) and on a small lot they began to build a concrete block house which stood roofless as they lived inside, hoping it wouldn’t rain. It was a strange scene, Mom cooking outside in a brick fireplace she built, all the dogs, cats and birds a-roost in the new digs, little brother moping around barefoot and angry. But we had electricity and we decorated our tree and it twinkled and glowed majestic under the blanket of black sky. It was more than something to please Mom, it was a testament to my future, I was that tree, reaching for the sky among the ruined base. And as my arms healed from the achiness of transporting my tree, I couldn’t help think whenever I looked at my stepdad, “See? We don’t need you.”