On a Saturday in December long ago, my dad and I drove into Winnipeg in search of a Christmas tree. The temperature hovered around minus thirty, and the wind, unimpeded from Hudson Bay, whipped through the Manitoba prairie.
Driving east on the Trans-Canada highway, I was hypnotized by the snow swirling across the highway, a natural Spirograph. The heater in my dad’s truck worked hard, on full blast for the duration of our journey. One of Dad’s chapped hands, the size of a mitt, gripped the steering wheel with ease, while his other hand tapped the beat of the Christmas tune on the country music station. He hummed.
He’d often hum at home on Saturday nights. He’d be leaning over the bathroom sink, face inches from the mirror, shaving, often for the second time that day. When Dad shaved twice, we knew he and mom were going out. When he hummed while he shaved, we knew he was looking forward to going out.
He kept humming on that drive into Winnipeg. When we reached the city, Dad looked at me and asked, “How about we try this lot?” He wasn’t looking for an answer, but included me anyway.
We pulled into the busy lot and left the truck running. We meandered through a makeshift forest of frozen Christmas trees, which were tied into two-dimensional shapes. I followed my dad through the maze, walking a few steps behind him, waiting for him to stop and shake the snow off a tree, inspect a bough, and walk on.
By this point, my eyelashes frosted white and stuck briefly together whenever I blinked. My scarf – pulled high above my nose – was crispy, frozen with the condensation of breath. As we walked, the snow squawked in protest. Dad shook a few trees, but unsatisfied, he headed back to the truck, ready to do this again in another parking lot.
By hour two, I grew impatient. I’d point to a tree and say, “How about this one, Dad? It looks good.”
His replies ranged. Sometimes the tree was “too expensive” or “too short”; other times, there was a “gap in the branches” or he’d explain that a “Manitoba Spruce sheds too much.” To me, a tree was a tree, but not to my dad. Somehow, he knew what he was looking for.
As hour three approached, I stayed in the truck, took my feet out of my boots, and put them on the dashboard vents in an attempt to thaw my toes. I changed the radio station, but switched it back before Dad returned.
My dad was a farmer on a quest. In searching for the right Christmas tree, he employed similar skills as to what he used to build a successful grain farm from nothing: hard work in spite of the conditions, careful consideration, attention to cost, and a relentless search for quality.
Eventually, he found what he was looking for. He motioned for me to come out of the truck, asked my opinion, and handed the cash over to a frozen attendant just as the sun sat on the western horizon, prematurely ending a short winter’s day. He carried the tree back to the truck and waited patiently as I struggled to open the tailgate with my thick mittens. He slid the tree in easily; it was lighter than a sack of grain, I supposed.
On the half hour drive back to the farm, he hummed again. Occasionally, though, he stopped and phrased a sentence, one that was nearly a question. “I think we got ourselves a good one.”
“We did,” I said, sharing credit that was not rightly mine.
We turned off the Trans Canada highway and drove the remaining three miles on gravel roads. Though it was not yet dinner hour, the stars were shining miles away from the city lights. The truck’s headlights led the way and reflected off the steel bins as we turned into our yard.
My dad unloaded the tree while I plugged in the truck. My mom opened the door and I rushed in to warmth. Secure in the house, I scraped the door’s frosted window and watched as Dad balanced the tree on the front step’s railings and sawed an inch off the trunk, searching for new life. I held the door open as he carried the tree into the entry.
“We have to let it warm up a bit,” he said. Mom got an empty ice cream pail and filled it with water. Dad placed the tree carefully and leaned it in a corner.
We stomped the snow off our boots, took them off, and hung up our coats. Our ears and cheeks reddened. Mom asked Dad if he wanted a drink, code for a rum and coke. By the time he said yes, the ice was out of the freezer and the jigger was on the counter.
We sat around the table as the aroma of roast warmed the house. My brother and sister – now too old for this Christmas tree shopping expedition –joined us at the table.
As he did every year, Dad told the story of the quest.
“I don’t know if the tree’s any good,” he said, preparing us for the worst.
“I’m sure it’s fine,” my mom said. “It always is.”
We reminisced about the great tree we had last year. And the one the year before, the one that had a single glaring bald spot, a flaw Dad disguised through careful rotation.
Sure enough, later that night, we set up the tree. Dad sat on the couch watching us untangle the lights, onto his second drink.
When the last piece of tinsel was placed, we turned off the lamps, plugged in the tree’s lights, and sat in a moment of breathless silence.
Any Christmas tree stories – or stories of dads – out there?