88: The Together Tree

88: The Together Tree

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: It's Christmas!

The Together Tree

Gifts of time and love are surely the basic ingredients of a truly merry Christmas.

~Peg Bracken

“But I’ve never been this far away from home, and it’s almost Christmas,” I said while fighting back the tears. “And I’m seven months pregnant!”

“I know, baby,” he said sitting on the edge of the bed and wrapping his arm around my shoulder. “The NCOIC said we will have base housing by January 10th at the latest.”

“That means Christmas in this dark apartment,” I whined. “And what is an NCOIC anyway?”

He smiled, shook his head and dropped his arm from my shoulder. “Non-commissioned officer in charge — in this case he’s the guy in charge of base housing. Believe me, he outranks every second lieutenant in the Air Force.” He walked to the only window in the bedroom and looked out. “Why would anyone build an apartment with only two windows?”

“Can we at least buy a Christmas tree?” I asked.

He turned and faced me. Like so many other college seniors of 1969 he had been transformed into a stand-up-straight, starched-uniform-wearing second lieutenant. At six foot three inches, Mike had always been taller than average, but now his “at attention posture” made him appear much too close to the ceiling. He would surely have hit his head on the light fixture if there had been one.

“If we get a tree, we won’t have any decorations. The household goods have to stay in storage until we are assigned to quarters,” he said.

Mumbling under my breath about military vocabulary and acronyms, I stood, unplugged the lamp and walked to the living room. Placing the lamp on the small table near the sofa, I lowered my rather large round body to the outlet near the baseboard and plugged it in again. Two windows, no overhead lighting, and only one lamp; this was not exactly home sweet home. It was what the Air Force referred to as “off base contracted temporary quarters.” “That’s okay,” I said. “I just need a little something to get me into the Christmas spirit.” This was our second Christmas as a married couple and the first one that either of us had spent away from family.

“We have your grandma’s fruit cake,” he said with little boy excitement in his voice. Mike always relished every bite of my grandma’s sweet and nutty fruitcake.

“You know that has to wait until Christmas Day,” I said. “Please, just a small tree.”

We drove to a tree lot we had seen near the entrance to Mather Air Force Base. Deciding on a four-foot Douglas fir, and paying our $10, we loaded our little piece of Christmas into the trunk of our car. The top foot of the tree was peeking between the trunk lid and bumper, waving in the now dark streets of Sacramento, California as we drove back to our apartment.

Mike had the early shift for the next two weeks; this meant he had to leave for the base by six a.m.

“Do you have any quarters?” I asked while rolling out of bed, and instinctively cupping my hands under my ever-expanding abdomen.

“Laundromat?” he asked.

“Phone booth.” We both smiled. Let’s just say being seven months pregnant and trying to fit into an enclosed phone booth made for some very funny images.

By eight o’clock I had collected my quarters and walked the half block to the nearest phone booth. I deposited my first quarter and waited for the operator’s instruction. “That will be seventy-five cents for the first three minutes,” she said. It was ringing.

“Hello?” I heard a warm familiar Texas accent.

“Grandma, I only have three minutes and I need to ask a favor.” I was practically screaming over the sound of the passing cars.

“Are you all right?” she quickly asked.

“Yes ma’am. I need a favor. I need you to send Christmas cards to this address. I need lots of cards, right away. It’s the only decoration we will be able to have on our Christmas tree this year. Will you ask everybody you know to send us a card?” I was talking fast. She was quiet. “Are you ready to write down the address?” I continued.

“Is Mike all right? How’s that baby?”

“We’re all just fine, Grandma. Write down this address,” I said again. We exchanged “I love you” just as the operator asked for more quarters. There were quick overlapping goodbyes and then silence.

I had just enough quarters for one more call, this time to my mother-in-law. The conversation played out much the same.

The next day I purchased a roll of red curly ribbon, placed it under the tree and waited for the cards to begin arriving. Three days later, there were five cards in the mailbox. I opened the one from my grandma first. The card was dark blue with golden angels on the front; inside were the words, “peace on earth, goodwill to all men.” Best of all it was signed in her familiar handwriting, “Merry Christmas! Love, Grandma and Granddaddy.” I poked a hole into the corner of the card, ran a piece of red curly ribbon through the hole and tied it to the tree. I stood back and looked at our tree. It was beautiful!

When Mike came in that afternoon, I met him at the door, babbling with excitement, “Look! Look! We have cards on our tree.”

When we awoke on that Christmas morning, we carried our lamp to the living room, placing it so as to “light” our tree, which was now filled with cards. We sat on the floor, eating a breakfast of Grandma’s fruitcake, reading the cards, and remembering with joy the people who had sent them. Even though many miles separated us that Christmas morning, it felt as if we were all together around our little tree.

~Melba Payne

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