Throughout most of my teenage years, my family ran a shop out of the front room of our house. In the springtime we sold flowers; fruits and vegetables in the summer; in the fall we’d have pumpkins; and in the winter we would sell Christmas trees.
The day before Thanksgiving my brother, step-brother and I would take off school to help unload the trees. We lived on Main Street, the four lane highway that ran through the city, and we’d have to block off the right lane with cones to park the semi flatbed with its 200 trees stacked high. It was cold by then, and we’d be bundled up in our coats and hats and gloves. The boys would jump up on the truck, cutting the trees loose, passing them down to my mother and me, who would drag them to stack against the house. And meanwhile we’d have to be keeping count, to make sure the company hadn’t cheated us a tree or ten. Eventually they’d switch off, the boys dragging and my mother up on the truck bed, but myself being afraid of heights and generally a weakling, I stuck with the dragging. It was hard work, and your hands would start to ache, and your gloves would be sticky with sap and filled with needles, and you’d smell of pine, and the sun would set by the time we’d finish unloading the truck but our work was far from done. Then we had to set the trees up. The boys would pound wooden stakes into the ground with a mallet, and my mother and I would heft a tree up between them and tie it off with twine. Rows of trees, in the front yard and the back, Scotch Pines and Douglas Firs and Blue Spruces, two hundred in all. And then the decorations would go up, flashing lights wrapped around the support beams of the awning, fake plastic candy canes and little deer and signs announcing, “Trees for sale!” along with the prices.
We did good business. The driveway was filled more often than not. The dogs would bark and my parents would cry “Tree People!” whenever someone pulled in. My brother, step-brother, father and mother would all be the ones in charge of sales, taking people from tree to tree, convincing them that the Blue Spruce was a little more expensive but look how beautiful it smelled. And then they’d heft the tree into a truck bed or tie it onto the roof with twine passed through the windows while I tendered out the sale on the little electric cash register. We had a store inside, mass produced goods from the SMC catalogue, porcelain dolls and decorative vases and musical snow globes. I made ornaments as well, out of glitter and glue and popsicle sticks and felt. I’d make Christmas pencils by rolling them in glue and glitter, and sold them for fifty cents apiece. My step-father would dress up as Santa Claus, and we’d take pictures of the kids on his lap with a Polaroid camera, which was then taped inside a pre-printed card.
There was a Pepsi machine out on the front porch, year round, and though we said it was for business more often than not it was we ourselves who used it. Occasionally the neighbor kids would come round to buy a pop. In the winter cold the machine would freeze up somehow, and occasionally it would eat your dollar, but more often than not it would spit out multiple bottles of soda. We’d had a candy machine inside the main room as well, an antique looking wooden thing that dispensed bite sized pieces of chocolate; as well as a giant red plastic gumball machine. The “store” was essentially our living room, filled with shelves instead of couches, and everything for sale. The only “living room” aspect was the Christmas tree standing against the window, strung with colorful lights that flashed to the melody of a dozen Christmas carols; not full songs but simply a few lines, a chorus, before it moved onto the next, and still whenever I hear any of those songs I automatically hum the next song in line. We actually used a plastic tree most years; spending all day with real trees tends to wear off the novelty and accentuate the strong smell of pine and needles scattered over the carpet. One year we did use a real tree, however, and I remember it well because the tree ended up being too large for the living room, and we had to chop off the top to fit it in.
We’d have last minute Tree People coming through Christmas Eve. When the traffic had finally faded the kids would head to bed, or pretend to head to bed, as the adults began setting out the presents. Most years I’d sit at the very top of the steps, listening as they brought gifts out of hiding. And usually I’d be caught and given a stern warning, and I’d retreat to my bed for a short, restless sleep, before waking early, too early, the next morning, wandering down in my pajamas to sit in the shop, beside the tree, sorting out my presents from my brothers’. We didn’t wait for anyone else, although sometimes we’d run into each other by chance. Presents would be opened, marveled at for a bit, but then we’d all go back to bed and reconvene for lunch.
The next day we’d drag the leftover trees out to the very back of the yard, the graveyard, the place where pumpkins had been left the day after Halloween.