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Posts Tagged ‘Family Heritage’

 

Halloween isn’t what it used to be. But then, maybe it never was. When I was a child, we didn’t call it Trick-or-Treat. It was Halloweening. We didn’t dress up and go door to door anonymously collecting loot from strangers. In my neighborhood we had friendlier traditions.

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My family lived in a rural community of small farms and households whose occupants worked in town. The neighborhood encompassed about a square mile, a small school district once served by the one-room schoolhouse, Barnum Hill School. After I finished first grade, the school was closed and we were bussed into town. Since we all rode the same school bus, everyone was acquainted.

Halloweening was a ritual. When we knocked on a door, the family invited us in and tried to guess who we were. That was fun. The better the disguise, the more difficult it was to recognize us. Seldom were costumes store-bought. Usually we made our own. Old sheets became ghosts, scarecrows emerged from rags, and dress-up clothes and hand-me-downs outfitted princesses, witches, and anything else our imaginations could conjure. Some clever mothers sewed elaborate, almost professional, costumes for their offspring. Everyone wore masks or makeup to change their appearance. After the family guessed us right, we unmasked and they gave us our treats.

Walking two or three miles was a lot for one night, especially for small children, so we spread Halloweening over three nights. Two days before Halloween, as soon as we got off the school bus, we’d dress up and head out. One evening we’d walk up East Maine Road, down the road another night, and the third night we’d canvass Reynolds Road. The only time our parents drove us was over to Finch Hollow where Grandma and Grandpa Masters lived. Pretending to be neighborhood kids, instead of calling at the kitchen door as usual, we’d go to the front door and make them guess who we were.

Grandma always made popcorn balls for Halloween. In those days, we didn’t worry about razor blades or poison, because we only went to homes of people we knew. Years later, I was appalled when a friend told me she went through her children’s Halloween bags before they were allowed to eat anything, and she threw out all the homemade treats! But she was one of those who took their children to neighborhoods where they didn’t know anyone, prosperous areas where they could get lots of loot. Better than candy were the homemade goodies from our neighbors, and of course Grandma Masters’ popcorn balls.

Only once did anyone question our arrival before Halloween Night. A new family moved into the neighborhood. We went to their house because their kids rode the school bus and we knew them. “But it’s not Halloween yet,” the man said and refused to give us treats. I’m sure someone set him straight by the following year.

Parents sometimes accompanied their children. My mother went Halloweening with us when we were young. Once she dressed as a scarecrow with a straw hat pulled down over her face. “I bet this is Barbara,” a lady said, as she tugged the hat up, and both of them laughed. Another new neighbor brought her children around so she could get acquainted. When my brothers and I were older, we went by ourselves and took our younger siblings with us. It could turn dark before we got home, but no one worried because all children in the neighborhood were out Halloweening.

One year I made a papier-mache Frankenstein mask at school. Somehow, word got around and my mask became the talk of the neighborhood. I was quite proud of it, but come Halloween, I knew if I wore it, everyone would know who I was, so I dressed as something else. That proved to be a disappointment to neighbors who had been looking forward to seeing “Frank.”

There was always a little mischief in the neighborhood, but nothing serious. Although most homes were modern, a few outhouses remained. Grandad had a little rental cottage with no plumbing, only a well pump and an outhouse, which was routinely tipped over every Halloween.

Ancestral Ourhouse

Ancestral Ourhouse

The schoolhouse had two outhouses, one for the girls and one for the boys. Apparently, the boys’ was adequately secured to its foundation, but when I was in first grade, someone tipped over the girls’ outhouse and we had to use the boys’ until it could be set right again. Today the culprits would be hunted down and charged with criminal mischief, but in those days, it was just part of Halloween.

This outhouse at Purdue Hill, Alabama, is similar to the girls' outhouse at Barnum Hill School.

This outhouse at Purdue Hill, Alabama, is similar to the girls’ outhouse at Barnum Hill School.

Ours was a three-seater, too.

Ours was a three-seater, too.

When I was older, our school district elected a trustee who let his position go to his head. He began making decisions contrary to the wishes of the parents, who got up in arms. The teenagers, aware of their elders’ discontent but too young to vote, took matters into their own hands. On Halloween night, the trustee found out what is meant by “tricks.” No real damage, only toilet paper, eggs, and garbage thrown at his house. He called the police, but as I remember, nothing much came of it except that the next election saw him voted out.

After we moved away, I was disappointed that other people didn’t practice Halloweening. When we went to neighbor’s houses, they’d just shove candy at us and send us on our way, no guessing or socializing.

Today, Halloween has fallen into disrepute. Some people think it has something to do with devil worship. Actually, the old Celts of the British Isles celebrated Sondheim, a harvest festival. They dressed up in costumes to trick the evil spirits, so they could do no harm. The early Christians adopted the holiday and called it All Hallows Eve, meaning the evening before All Hallows or All Saints Day, November 1st. What’s ironic is that those who today substitute “Fall Festivals” for Halloween have returned the holiday to its ancient Celtic purpose—a Harvest Festival!

 

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This summer I spent a few weeks in West Virginia with my granddaughter Tiffany and her family. They live near Kearneysville in the state’s eastern-most county, Jefferson County. Her husband Justin comes from a huge extended family. Both of his parents came from large families, as in ten or so kids, and their parents as well. He said none of them move away. They just stay there, generation after generation. He has so many cousins, known and unknown, that he wouldn’t date a girl from West Virginia. He played it safe, he thought, by marrying a girl from Florida.

My great-grandmother came from three counties away, Hampshire County, from the little community of Slanesville. Like Justin’s family, her forbears settled there in the 1700s and stayed, until one of the wandering Rogers, my great-grandfather John Thomas, married her and carted her off to upstate New York. I can see why they stayed. Unlike most of mountainous West Virginia, this area in the North River Valley is blessed with rolling hills and good farmland.

Slanesville, WV, looking toward the North River

Slanesville, WV. Looking toward the North River

Whenever I’m in the neighborhood, I like to do a little genealogical research. This can be challenging because these folks practiced subsistence farming and recycled most everything. They even recycled names. Say you have a man named John. He names his oldest son John. Half of John’s ten or so children might be boys. John, Jr. and each of his brothers name a son after their father, and in only three generations you end up with a half dozen or so men with the same name, and many of them are cousins about the same age. I’ve run into this sort of thing trying to trace my roots. I try to sort them by birthdates. Have you ever written a number or date wrong? Family historians are human, and records are not always accurate, if they even exist. Hampshire County libraries have good historical records, but I’ve been stymied by who is my ancestor and which are distant cousins. So before venturing over to Hampshire County, I went through my notes and wrote down the vital statistics of the people I was looking for.

One branch of the family tree is the Hietts. The name has variously been spelled as Hiatt, Hiet, Hyet, Hayet, and Hyatt. And the line is full of Johns. My ancestors John and Mary Hiett, Quakers, were born in England and joined William Penn in Pennsylvania around 1700. They had a large estate near Philadelphia and produced several children, among them, John Hiett, Jr. He married Margaret Stephens and they eventually ended up in Hampshire County, which at the time was part of Virginia.

Poring over my notes, I found an interesting tidbit: after they left Pennsylvania, before moving on to Hampshire County, the Hietts owned land in Frederick County, Virginia. In those days, the colonies were divided into large counties, which were later broken up into the smaller counties we know today. The part of Frederick County, Virginia where John, Jr. and Margaret lived is now Jefferson County, West Virginia! My ancestor Evan Hiett was born there in 1748. Wow

Historic Bridge on Opequon Creek

Historic Bridge on Opequon Creek, West Virginia

Several miles downstream  of the Hiett holdings.

Several miles downstream of the Hiett holdings.

The Hietts lived on Opequon Creek. I’d crossed that creek a dozen times going to and from Martinsburg. They lived upstream, near the town of Middleway.  “That’s just up the road from here!” Justin said. So Tiffany and I drove up the road to Middleway. I expected, at most, a sign indicating where the historical town once stood, but I was pleased to find Middleway is still, in its own way, thriving.

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Main St. Middleway

Main St. Middleway. My ancestors settled in the neighborhood before these houses were built. 

The Gilbert House, built in the early 1800s.

The Gilbert House, built in the early 1800s.

The Elizabeth Smith House, built around 1800.

The Elizabeth Smith House, built around 1800.

Masonic Lodge and Schoolhouse, early 1800s.

Masonic Lodge and Schoolhouse, early 1800s.

Opequon Creek flows from what is still Frederick County, Virginia, forms the county line between Jefferson and Berkeley Counties, and empties into the Potomac River. John, Jr. had farms on both sides of the creek. Property records still exist, so one day I may go back and locate them.

When John, Jr. and Margaret moved to Hampshire County, Evan went with them. He settled in the town of North River Mills where the restored Hiett Log House still stands. (You can see this house at http://www.historichampshire.org/nrm/building/finelli.htm).

In 1784, Evan “Hyett” was listed as the head of a family of eight “white souls,” with one dwelling and four out buildings. He married Sarah Smith and their daughter Margaret married Benjamin McDonald whose father had emigrated from Scotland. One of their descendants was Rebecca McDonald Rogers, my great-grandmother.

Evan’s brother John Hiett III stayed in present day Jefferson County. Eventually, some of the Hietts and their descendants scattered to the Carolinas, the Midwest, and who knows where else. But not all moved on. Uncle John is reportedly buried at the Hopewell Friends Cemetery in present day Frederick County, Virginia, less than ten miles from Middleway. Sons are fairly easy to trace, but daughters marry and change their names. Who knows what names my distant cousins in Jefferson County go by?

Uh, Justin, I hate to tell you—maybe you didn’t go far enough away to find a wife who’s not your cousin.

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Dogs I Have Known

This summer, after sixteen years of companionship, I laid my good dog Teddy to rest. In saying goodbye, I thought back to other dogs I’ve known through the years.

When I was a child and we lived with Grandma and Grandpa Rogers, two dogs lived in the house with us, Grandma’s beagle Tinker and Aunt Hazel’s cocker spaniel Curly. In my memory they were big dogs, but at the time I was small. Curly had curly black hair. Tinker’s dog tags would tinkle whenever he moved, so I always associated his name with the sound. I remember them scurrying through the house, always together, it seemed, often underfoot. Grandma would call them to go out, or come in, “Curly and Tinker!” or “Tinker and Curly!” as though they were a single entity.

I recall one other dog on the farm, a German shepherd named Lady, who was kept chained up in the cellar. I felt sorry for her. We didn’t play with her like we did Tinker and Curly, but I don’t remember her being anything but docile. German shepherds were popular at the time and for awhile Grandma raised them. Lady had a litter of pups but we didn’t keep any. Mom said she disliked the breed because one of Grandma’s was mean and attacked her. Grandma probably kept Lady chained out of caution for her grandchildren.

I developed a dislike for German shepherds when I was older and we lived across the road from my grandparents. Our next door neighbor had a mean one he kept in a pen. Sometimes the dog would get out and come over to our yard. We were scared of him and would run inside if he got loose. Once when Mom was hanging out clothes, he chased her into the house. I never understood why my father didn’t shoot that dog.

Grandpa Masters had a hunting dog named Skeeter. He was a nice dog but had to be kept tied so he wouldn’t chase game out of season. His leash was attached to a clothesline so he could run back and forth. He lived in a cozy doghouse summer and winter.

My first dog was a small hound I named Poochie. I don’t remember where I got her, but I loved her very much. Unfortunately, she learned the bad habit of chasing cars from other dogs in the neighborhood. One day she chased the school bus. She ran into the wheel and died instantly. The bus driver was distressed, but it wasn’t his fault. I was inconsolable. Dad handled my grief by grumbling that I wouldn’t cry so much for him if he died. How unfair—I was thirteen and had probably told Dad many times that I hated him, but he knew better. I buried Poochie in my flower garden “with her tail to the North and her head to the South” as I wrote in a poem about her. After this, I tried not to let myself get so attached to a dog.

Before we moved to Florida, we had a nice little Scotch collie named Topsy. Since we couldn’t take her with us, we left her with Grandma and Grandpa Rogers. They grew to like her and kept her the rest of her life.

Next week I will write about dogs I knew in Florida, including Dad’s He had one who climbed trees and rode behind him on his motorcycle.

For another story about dogs, read:

https://marieqrogers.com/?s=Joe+and+Sally

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Until I was about ten, my family lived upstairs in my grandparents’ house. When we were little, my brother and I shared a bedroom. On the wall above the bed hung a photograph of a young boy, Dad’s brother Donald, who died many years before I was born. That photo remained on the wall for decades, until my grandparents sold their farm and moved to Florida.
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I could not find that picture, but here is Uncle Donald and his baby brother Russell with their grandfather, George Brown.

In their cellar, hanging on the back wall under a thick layer of dust, was Uncle Donald’s bicycle. No one rode it. Even when my siblings and I were old enough to want bicycles, Donald’s stayed on the wall. No one offered it to us and I doubt any of us asked to ride it.

Who was this young man whose spirit remained a living presence in the lives of those who knew him? Donald was my father’s only brother, about three years older than he. He was a well-behaved child and a good student. By comparison, my dad was the wild one, mischievous, non-compliant. But he loved his brother more than he could express in words. Perhaps that’s why he didn’t talk much about Donald.

Uncle Donald suffered from health problems but no one seemed to know what was wrong with him. We only know that he died in his mother’s arms. Donald was only seventeen and had just graduated from high school. My dad was about fourteen. Losing his brother threw Dad into a tailspin he never seemed to recover from. In the middle of World War II, he quit school, joined the army, and was sent to the Pacific theater. I can only imagine my grandparents’ anguish, their only remaining child fighting in a war half-way around the world.

When my youngest brother was small, he developed a seizure disorder. I remember my father’s panic when Billy had seizures. That was uncharacteristic. Dad was quick to anger but not to panic. I remember him yelling that his brother died of a seizure. This alarmed me no end, so I asked my mother. She said Donald had seizures, but that was not what killed him.

One day I broke the code of secrecy and asked Grandma what Donald’s medical condition had been. She didn’t know its name, but said when he got sick he would have albumin in his blood. His doctor knew what to give him for it, but in his last illness, the doctor was out of town. Under the care of another physician, unfamiliar with Donald’s disorder or its proper treatment, and probably refusing to listen to the patient’s mother, he died.

My grandparents hoarded Donald’s possessions until the end of their lives. After they died, my parents packed up and moved from Scrambletown in the Ocala National Forest, where they lived for over thirty years, to Blackfork, Arkansas, where they’d bought a farm. Dad built a big house on the farm, large enough to store two lifetimes of accumulated treasures. Among them were Donald’s belongings, but I had no idea of their existence until this summer.

At our biennial family reunions, we always have an auction to raise money for the next one. Family heirlooms are in great demand. Before our reunion this summer, Mom and my sisters went through boxes of old pictures, ledgers, letters, knick-knacks, and diaries. None of these has much monetary value, but to us they are precious. They went to the auction block where they garnered high prices. Among them were Uncle Donald’s belongings.

From the handsome but sickly boy who had a bicycle, Uncle Donald emerged as a full human being. His high school class ring was among the auction items, in pristine condition, of course, since he didn’t live long enough to wear it out.

Books, lots of books. Apparently, Donald liked to read. What survived was a collection of popular fiction for boys, among them: Army Boys in France, Working Hard to Win, Young Eagles, and Penrod Jashber by Booth Tarkington. These were gifts from various relatives and even neighbors. The books are not in pristine condition—they have been read, probably by many people.

Perhaps the most interesting relic was Uncle Donald’s baseball. We knew he was a farm boy as well as a scholar, but an athlete? Those were the days when kids used a stick for a bat and anything they could throw, including rocks, for a ball. Uncle Donald must have been fortunate to own a baseball.

He and my father attended a one-room schoolhouse, Barnum Hill School. Dad told a story about Barnum Hill’s undefeated baseball season—they played one game with Deyo Hill School, and won. We surmise this was the game ball from that historic event.

I find it interesting that my father and his family talked freely about other relatives long gone, yet they were almost silent about Uncle Donald. Historically, the Rogers have not handled grief well. Unspoken memories of Donald were gathered in their hearts much as his belongings were stored in boxes. Not until the last person who knew Donald was gone, did these tidbits come into the open. Although Donald’s life was as unremarkable as it was short, he touched deeply the hearts of those who knew him, and he continues to live on in our memories today.

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I’ve been reminded of my mortality. My cousin Michael died recently. I hadn’t seen him in years, yet it saddens me. Mike was only two years older than I, too young to die. I’m told he drank himself to death.

Mike hardly lead a charmed life—his mother died in childbirth. Uncle Buck remarried to a widow from Alabama who had two daughters. Aunt Ora Mae was no southern belle, but a scrappy gal who gave him two additional sons.

Mike grew up believing Aunt Ora Mae was his biological mother, until some “well-meaning” relative told him otherwise. Although given the same love and attention as the other children, Mike seemed to feel out of place. He was the only child in the home who’d been born to a different mother. I remember a conversation between him and his brother when they were very young. Uncle Buck, frustrated as parents sometimes get, had threatened to put the boys in a juvenile home. Paul, too young to know better at the time, bragged that his mother could get him out of the home but not Mike because he wasn’t hers. Ouch.

He was actually my father’s first cousin. Dad was born to Grandad’s oldest son and Mike to his youngest. With only a few years’ difference between them, my dad and Uncle Buck were buddies. Both served in World War II, came home, married, and started families. When I was born, Mike was only two and couldn’t pronounce my name. He called me “Tishie” which stuck as a nickname until I was a teenager. Then I decided I no longer wanted to be called that, but by my real name. Somehow I bent most of my relatives to my will and was able to change my appellation.

When I started school, Mike was put in charge of my safety, to walk me to our one-room schoolhouse each morning. He and I were among the last students to attend that school. After it was closed we rode the bus together to the city schools, but following Mike through the academic ranks was not easy. I was a well-behaved scholar and he was not. In junior high, one teacher asked if I was related to Mike Rogers. When I said yes, that I was his cousin, the teacher said only, “Oh.” That one word spoke volumes.

I had an English teacher who never seemed to like me. I got along well with most teachers because I was a good student. I was a favorite of English teachers, especially, because I enjoyed reading. I couldn’t figure out why this teacher never warmed up to me. Later, I learned that Mike had previously been in her class. He told me he got in trouble when she found girlie books in his desk. How unfair! After nine months of school, you’d think this teacher could have figured out that I was quite different from my cousin.

Mike’s family lived in an apartment upstairs in Grandad’s house, just up the hill from us. He and his brothers, and my brothers and I, were childhood playmates. In winter, we would ice skate on his grandfather’s pond and during summer we played baseball in my grandparents’ field.

Then time and distance separated us. My family moved to Florida and I saw Mike only a few times when we returned to visit. I did not know him as an adult. He married and moved to California, and I did not see him for a lifetime. I never met his wife or children.

I had led a rather sheltered childhood. The only people I knew who died were old people who had lived out their years. Even during the Viet Nam Era, most of those around me avoided the draft and I lost no one I knew well. At my 40th high school reunion I was shocked to learn that some of our classmates’ lives had been snuffed out, at least one by suicide. Mike’s death was similarly unexpected.

When my grandparents were still with us, I made a point of visiting them often. I didn’t want to regret not spending enough time with them while they were alive. After I became interested in genealogy and family history, I found holes in my knowledge and often wish I could ask my elders about this or that person or event. Despite my efforts, I have regrets.

In the summer of 2009, Mike accompanied Uncle Buck to our family reunion. I had not seen him in over forty years and would not have recognized him on the street. He’d turned into an old codger with a grizzled beard. With over a hundred other relatives in attendance, I didn’t have much time to visit with Mike. I didn’t know I would never see him again. He was not supposed to die so soon.

And so I regret not having made more effort to know my cousin Michael. I also wish I had collected his stories. Living in close proximity to Grandad, what family history did Mike know that died with him? And with two more years at Barnum Hill School, what memories did he have that I lack? Must we always regret such missed opportunities?

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Last week I saw an Edsel. It’s uncanny how one thought runs into another, and almost spooky when one of those random thoughts materializes.

It began in my writer’s group. One member was struggling to reword an awkward phrase about surnames from different languages. My mind meandered to my eighth grade social studies class. At the beginning of the school year, when the teacher called the roll, going down the list of Polish and Russian and Slavic names, he came to “Rogers”. He asked me, “What are you doing in Johnson City?”

Indeed, what was I doing there? My English-sounding last name seemed out of place. Most of my classmates were descended from Eastern Europeans who escaped persecution in their homelands and were attracted to well-paying jobs in the shoe factories. The Rogers had come here by a different route.

Although he lived in Pennsylvania, my ancestor William enlisted in the Union Army in Elmira, NY. After the war, he went to Albany to marry Nancy Turk. He and Nancy must have met before the war, probably in Upstate New York.

The Rogers are such wanderers. William took his bride to Wisconsin where he taught school. Later they homesteaded in Kansas. He returned to the East when he inherited his brother’s farm in Pennsylvania, then settled in West Virginia with some of his sons. For reasons I am unaware of, Nancy returned to the Johnson City area where her relatives lived. Most of her sons eventually followed her, including my great-grandfather John Thomas, whom I called Granddad.

For the better part of the Twentieth Century, there were quite a few Rogers in that part of the country. Granddad had four sons. Uncle Jim had no wife or children, but he made his mark by building houses, including my grandparents’, before he moved to California. Uncle Floyd and Uncle Buck had three sons apiece. My grandparents had only one who survived to adulthood, but he made up for it with three sons and six daughters before we moved to Florida. Notice I keep saying sons. I was the first girl born in the Rogers family in a century.

So at one time there were quite a few of us in Johnson City and surrounding communities. Now I’m not sure if any remain. We are such wanderers. Uncle Buck and Aunt Ora Mae migrated to her home state, Alabama. Their sons now live in Alabama and the Carolinas. Uncle Floyd’s have similarly dispersed. My family is spread around the globe.

One thought drifting to another brought me to the Edsel. In that same social studies class, one day we held a debate. A boy posing as Henry Ford defended his position, whatever it was, by saying he hadn’t sold an Edsel in over three years. Unprepared with facts to the contrary, I countered with, “You must have. I’ve seen dozens on the road.” After the debate, the teacher set the record straight, “The Edsel went out of production in 1960.”

That was so long ago. I couldn’t tell you when I had last seen an Edsel or even thought about one. The Edsel had been a mechanical and marketing flop in its day. Now, the few that remain must be worth a fortune. The word is so obsolete my spell-check did not list it. But that’s where my thoughts wandered that day in my writing group.

On the way home, I saw an old car coming down the road toward me. As it drew closer, I noticed the distinctive grill. It was an Edsel! What on Earth was it doing on that back road? And, more significantly, why in Heaven’s name was it driving through my thoughts?

You might ask, what do these two topics have to do with one another? Nothing, except they converged in memories of my eighth grade social studies class. Interesting, how the mind works.

If you knew what an Edsel was before you googled it, congratulations. You win the Geezer Award.

 

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Almost all my life I have been fortunate to live in the country where wild trees are available for Christmas. The area I lived in as a child used to be dairy country. Once there must have been a dozen small dairy farms within a mile of our house. Through the years, one by one, they went out of business. Today, I doubt any remain in operation.

Back in the day when houses were heated with firewood, farmers maintained wood lots to ensure a steady source. My grandparents had more trees on their farm than many – havens for climbing grandchildren and shady places for the cows in summer. Most farmers seemed to begrudge the few square feet under trees where grass and crops would not grow and kept their pastures and hay fields cleared. Hence the importance of wood lots. When my father was a boy, he planted a corner of the farm in trees as a 4-H project. By the time I was old enough to play in the woods, his trees had attained some size, but young trees, just right for Christmas, grew from seeds they dropped.

There was no thought of buying a Christmas tree. We went to the woodlot and cut one of suitable size. A variety were available: pine, spruce, fir, and hemlock. As my brothers and I grew big enough, we would harvest the tree without adult assistance.

One year sticks out in my mind. I must have been twelve or thirteen. Grandma and Grandpa Masters lived over the hill in Finch Hollow. Grandpa hunted in the woods behind their house. That year he spotted several perfect trees on their property and offered us one. We had hiked cross-lots to their place in summer and thought it would be no problem to haul a tree over the hill on a sled.

But this was winter and snow was knee deep. We got over the hill OK and up to Grandpa’s woods where we selected our tree, cut it, and tied it on the sled. We warmed up in Grandma’s kitchen, sipping hot cocoa, before we pulled the sled down through the hollow and tackled the big hill. Wading through grass and brush in summer is one thing. Struggling through snow tangled in grass and brush is another. Cold as we were, asking for help was out of the question as we could not lose face. Besides, we were a good distance from any road and no one had snowmobiles. We made it over the hill and through the fields to our house, tree and all,  frozen to the bone, but proud. And happy once we warmed up and put on dry clothes.

Our first Christmas in Florida, we lived in the Ocala National Forest where sand pines grow. Not as nice as fir or spruce, nevertheless, with their short needles and dense growth, the young ones make suitable Christmas trees.

Then I grew up and moved on. Today I live in pine flatwoods, too wet for sand pines but host to other varieties: long leaf, loblolly, and slash pine. While these grow into beautiful adult trees, they have long needles and their branch whorls are at least a foot apart. The saplings look like Charlie Brown Christmas trees, but when dressed in lights, ornaments, and tinsel, they are as pretty as any store-bought.

A few years when I had the money, I bought fragrant fir trees from a lot at a friend’s church. After they went out of the Christmas trees business, I resumed cutting trees from my woods or a neighbor’s. Occasionally we had cedar trees. They are very pretty with dense foliage to rival any spruce, but the branches are prickly. You almost need gloves to decorate them or your hands end up looking like you’ve been picking blackberries.

This year, my son Joel and his family spent Christmas with me. Did the children want me to buy a tree? No. The Spirit of Christmas Trees Past spoke to them. They remembered previous Christmas times when they accompanied me to find a tree. It was fun. It was tradition. That was what they wanted.

I was so busy with holiday preparations, Joel took the children out to the abandoned pasture behind my house. They were gone a long time, tromping through marsh and blackberry brambles, but fortunately no snow. They brought back the perfect tree. Almost perfect. One side had few branches, so we set it against the wall. The children helped me trim it, and I believe it is the prettiest Christmas tree I’ve ever had.

Is it the commercialization of Christmas that drives us back to old practices that have little place in modern life? What practical purpose does a Christmas tree serve? Besides the time and expense, I’m required to rearrange furniture to make room for a place to pile gifts. A table would do as well. Boxes of ornaments are hauled from the attic and hung on the tree. Not to mention the mess, tinsel and pine needles all over the floor. After Christmas, everything must be undone and put away. And why cut a living tree? A tree-hugger like myself should shun the practice, but I have never been drawn to artificial trees.

If only a fresh tree will do, I can afford to buy a pretty, well shaped fir which was grown for this purpose and whose scent is unequaled. But like my grandchildren, I am drawn to the woods this time of year, to bear the cold and brambles, to harvest a tree and bring it into my home. It has meaning beyond the large decoration crowding my living room. It is a connection with the Earth, with my roots. It keeps me centered and gives life a meaning that cannot be expressed in words.

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