The Christmas Tree

untitledThis is a reblog from last year and the spirit moved me to repost so here it is again (with a few edits)

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 our little islands, unloaded onto a pile in late November. First-come-first-serve. By mid December, the needles dropped 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 it. I saw the dishonest glint in his eye––the same glint I’d seen at grocery stores when he’d switch price tags on packages of meat –– as his shaky fingers fiddled with the price tags of the only two trees left in the hot and sunny parking lot. I grabbed the more expensive tag from him, hustled 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, at 17 years old to attend Lewis and Clark College. When Winter break came up I’d be back home on Maui to mentally thaw for three weeks.

And I 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.

I would bring a tree home on the airplane! Mom would be so happy!

I didn’t have a car in Portland 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. The whole time picturing Mom’s face when I’d pull this off the luggage turnstile. I planned only to tell her that I had a surprise for her. The tree spent the night downstairs in the dorm, wrapped it in a white dorm sheet and tied 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,” and “We don’t have good trees there,” and “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!

Once the tree’s dark green tip disappeared into the luggage hole behind the ticket desk, I was so relieved.

I think the flight to Hawaii 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 snockered when we landed at eight in the morning on Maui. And when the tree popped out from the black cave of luggage origin, missing its sheet and yarn, but otherwise intact, Mom was very excited. Or it seemed to me anyway.

Our family’s financial woes overshadowed everything that year. Mom and Step-dad had filed for bankruptcy, sold our house, (my Volkswagen bug was gone! My surfboard was gone! My childhood was gone!) 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’d 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 Hawaiian sky. That tree was more than something to please Mom, I see now, it was a testament to my future. I was that tree, reaching for vast the sky of hope, from a ruined base.

But back then, in 1978, as my arms healed from the achiness of transporting the tree across an ocean, that tree was my pride. And I couldn’t help think whenever I looked at my stepdad and his mealy, thieving ways: “See? We don’t need you.”


e ha’ole makahiki hou!



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