The Year My Big Brother Almost Fixed Christmas

My big brother Marc enlisted me one year in a project to fix Christmas, one that was proving to be the worst of our lives.

He was the kid who knew how to get things, how to build things, to catch things and to fix things, while I usually served as his assistant in his various projects. I would chum the hole, while he caught the fish. I passed the boards and nails, while he built the forts and tree houses. I was the dreamer, the drawer of spaceships, the looker-outer of windows. He figured things out and fixed everything broken. He studied problems, with furrowed brow; I gazed blankly at the roiling clouds.

It was precisely fifty years ago, the Christmas of 1967. We lived then in an ancient brick farmhouse at the edge of town. In the news, a war raged, and angry people crowded the streets, but none of it concerned us boys in the face of an imminently bleak Christmas.

Our mother was in the hospital, and she would remain there throughout the holidays. Being poor, we were poorer even more so with her absence. Our grandmother who cared for we boys managed to keep the lights on and oil in the stove that heated the creaky old place. As the season approached, it became apparent to my big brother Marc that the haul of presents and toys would be thin.

What’s more, there would be no regular Christmas tree, typically a fine looking Scots pine, trucked in from Canada and purchased from the Jaycees in town. A poor substitute, a silver tinseled artificial imposter, no more than three feet tall, would have to suffice. It had served in past years as a window decoration on a low bookshelf. It sat again in its usual spot, with only a handful of presents on the floor nearby as the big day approached.

We lay awake beneath our electric blankets one night, discussing the impending catastrophe. Marc posited that only a hypothetical Santa Claus could correct the situation, but we were just past the Santa-believing age, more apt to tease mercilessly any school friends who clung to the Santa cult. In the frosty darkness, we half-heartedly repented our lack of faith, throwing down a Pascal’s wager, resolved then to be at the very least Santa agnostics.

Our repentance would be for nothing, however, as any hypothetical Santa would scoff at our shambling holiday display, the tiny fake silver tree with its rationed gifts. Why even bother leaving the door unlocked?

So, on Christmas eve my big brother Marc announced to our grandmother our intention of procuring a real Christmas tree from the woodlot beyond the back field.

We dressed in the long underwear kept hung by the stove, put on our heavy coats, toboggans and mittens, and snapped on rubber goulashes. We retrieved a dull hatchet from the shed and a length of rope from the barn. I pulled behind me my battered sled with its rusty runners—a Rosebud looking thing—to help haul the wonderful tree we felt sure to locate. We exited the barnyard through the back gate, little brother following big brother, bigger boy leading the way. The smudged sun sank behind us, the air damp and foggy in front, and we spied our objective, an opaque scruff a mere half mile away.

In an instant it seemed, the temperature dropped precipitously, and the wind at our back buffeted, and soon huge flakes descended, the size of silver dollars in their dizzying geometric array. Then they came down in turgid clumps. Our path deepened quickly, and drifts formed as if in an angry frozen surf; knee deep, waist deep, then almost shoulder deep in places. Behind, the farmhouse was a reluctant silhouette, and ahead the woodlot was a distant dull patch on the horizon. The sled I dragged became encrusted in snow and ice, and I stumbled and faltered behind my big brother Marc and hollered for his help. Marc grasped me from the mire, said to leave the sled, and shouted above the howling wind that if we could make it to the woodlot we could escape the sudden freak blizzard that had conspired against our mission. My short legs worked furiously in the trail he ploughed; our breaths became smoky plumes behind us.

After a time we reached the edge of the woods, collapsing in exhaustion, alone between the wilderness and the frozen wasteland we barely managed to cross. Marc focused on the task at hand, a boy who knew how to get things and how to fix things, and we crawled through a tangle of underbrush a-glitter with ice as the boughs heaved and creaked above us in the strong winds.

Woodlots such as this were once essential to farms when wood was the primary fuel, and this one was only a few acres deep, and a mere remnant of great forests that had covered the land for centuries; crowded with beech and maple, sycamore and blackberry brambles. Here and there, an occasional conifer peaked from the drifts, scrubby hemlocks, several varieties of pine and spruce either too big or too small, all disappointing specimens. A powerful fear rose up in me, imagining us stranded and buried and found asleep forever beneath this deluge of snowy hell. Through chattering teeth and frozen snot I sniffled that we should return home before it grew too late, 

Look! Marc exclaimed. As if seen through a tunnel a likely prize beckoned, and we made our way toward it stiffly like tiny Eskimos. As we approached, we realized it was not the rare fir or spruce or pine, but a species of juniper, a red cedar, this one more a large bush than a tree, appropriately formed in height and shape for our intended purpose. It swayed where the wood ended abruptly into another field and an adjoining farm. Upon closer inspection, we became disheartened and glum. From the side of our approach, it seemed to be healthy enough, perhaps a little patchy and thin, but the backside of it against the opposite field, a snowdrift obscured its branches, and after clearing it away, it became apparent that its needles were wind-burnt, its branches brittle and rotted. In fact, it proved to be half a tree and not a whole, barely holding onto its life. Marc breathed hard, clutching the hatchet; his pink face clustered with snow and ice, and he grimly announced it would have to do.

But it is only a half tree, I sneered as he crawled beneath it, brushing away the snow and whacking angrily at its base, slinging limbs and twigs and needles into the air. It will be fine, he said, pausing. We will put the bad side against the wall. He continued chopping at it until it tilted, and then pushed it over on its damaged side and freed it from the frozen earth. He then wrapped the rope around the lower branches, extending out the ends as tethers, one for each of us to grasp, and we began dragging it back through the woods, over logs and through the ice-encased thicket, grunting as we went. In our wake, a trail of broken branches from its deadened side marked our way, and darkness descended all around.

We emerged from the dubious shelter of the woods and reentered the field we had crossed earlier. The mangling west wind now in our faces, blasting us with horizontal ice, the sting of it curled us over. We moved toward its blinding vortex in stumbles; once again, knee deep, waist deep, in places almost shoulder deep snow. It was difficult work for a man, much less for two boys, with the bigger boy doing the bulk of it, the smaller boy hardly any help at all. We went forward a few feet, falling, and then another foot, falling again, and then only inches with each breathless tug and yank.

I sobbed, my face flooding with crystalline tears. Somewhere in the middle of the maelstrom, perhaps where I had earlier abandoned the buried sled, I simply stopped, on my knees, my head barely poking out of the furious, white sea. I could not move, would go no further. Leave the damn thing! My big brother Marc would not be deterred. But we are almost home, he yelled at me over the howling onslaught. We cannot give up now! He gathered in both tethers, bunched them together in his mittens, and crouching he commanded me to mount his back. He rose up with herculean effort and stomped forward, in knee deep, waist deep, almost shoulder deep snow. I grasped hard around his neck, and we lumbered on like an elderly two-headed animal, big brother carrying his little brother, dragging a great tree behind us to fix Christmas in the worst year of our lives.

The old brick house then appeared phantom like ahead, lit like a showboat, every window shining. The depth of snow tapered and the winds subsided. I slid from my big brother’s back as his struggled pace eased. The maelstrom of swirling flakes slowed to a gentle flurry, and replacing the opaque hellish void, emerged now above several random stars, miniscule flickers. I hurried ahead stiffly, opening the gate, and Marc trotted through dragging the bedraggled forlorn cedar behind.

Grandmother threw open wide the side door that entered into the den and Marc pulled the tree in behind. Already she had set out the stand, and retrieved from storage beneath the stairs the boxes of ornaments and decorations of Christmases past.

In the light of the indoors, the half-alive, half-cedar was a pathetic thing to behold, busted and bruised and utterly destroyed on one side, but still a thing acquired at great risk. We screwed its trunk into the stand, raised it up, and wedged it into the corner, bad side against the walls. We covered it with ornaments and lights and tinsel, candy canes and strings of popcorn. We topped it with a familiar electric angel and the result was bright and colorful and magnificent.

I cannot recall now any details of Christmas morning that horrible year precisely fifty years ago, or if the hypothetical Santa rewarded our efforts, creeping through the unlocked door, shouting his approval of the fantastic thing two boys had accomplished. Childhood memories are a selective interchange of illusions, and any remembrance of the next morning is undiscovered in my rummaging. The quantity and quality of gifts received—if they might be shiny new bicycles, turtleneck sweaters, plastic robots with blinking lights—these were never the true issue to either of us, but rather a cobbled-together substitute.

It was perhaps on Christmas day itself we went on a scheduled visit to see our mother at the hospital, and as my uncle’s car rolled past the front doors we were surprised to find her standing anxiously out front in the cold in her hospital gown and slippers. She rushed to the car, her lovely face beaming, hands waving, so happy to see all of us. She clamored franticly to get in, flinging open the door next to where I sat. Her quivering words were imploring, and to this effect: Look at all of you! How wonderful to see all of you! Please take me home with you now. Can we all go home now?, Why can’t we all go home now? A nurse and orderly appeared suddenly by the car, and they gently extracted her from where she sat beside me. It is not time to go home, not quite yet. You must come back inside. Why not? she cried. Aren't they all here to take me home? She was then led away and back into the building, and the distress in her voice, her stricken face looking back at us, is burned into my haunted soul. We drove away without her in stunned and tearful silence.

We shall leave that part there as it is and celebrate instead the heroic tale of my big brother Marc, which by now you may have guessed contains some dubious but clever exaggerations. Only he and I know the truth of it. The cliché-like story of two boys hunting a tree to fix Christmas is indeed real, the grandest Christmas memory of my life, and keeping the fabled part of it etched permanently in memory blurs and distracts from the sadder alternative. Our mother would come home eventually and be well again, a more enduring heroism entirely. But by no means did Christmas get fixed that year, despite the efforts of my big brother Marc, with or without the assistance of a sniffling little brother in tow. Allow me then to put the bad side against the wall and decorate until magnificent.

I endeavor to consider all things in this way, but a more profound image emerges, a clearer vision gathered in the storm’s eye, delivered from the blizzard’s soul. As if from a detached, elevated distance, I see it thus: two boys trudging across an unfriendly frozen wasteland, two insignificant dots actually, a little brother tagging behind his big brother, and oftentimes the bigger boy carries the smaller boy with heroic determination, unafraid, on an epic mission to get something, indeed to get all things, forever fixed.
Doug Matthews

Doug Matthews

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