The First Tree

It was a cold day, as I remember it.  We had more of those then, and they came earlier in the year, too. You could see your breath that day, and I pretended I was smoking a cigarette, holding a stick between my fingers the way my Aunt Louise did. Well, I did that up until momma caught me doing it, and then I had to hurry up and get in the truck after hearing a sermon about the evils of smoking.

We lived on 30 something acres in the hills of North Mississippi, and had carved a few acres out for the house and yard, and the rest was fenced off scrub oaks and pines and cedar that we let a cousin lease and he ran a few cows on it. When Daddy put the chainsaw in the back of the truck, I knew we were up to something good. Then he put the old single barrel shotgun that had been his daddy’s behind the seat and we set off.

The truck was an old Ford dad had bought from work when they finally decided it was too ragged out to make sense to keep fixing it. It was red, like all their service trucks were, and had a vinyl bench seat with cracks in the vinyl that hurt your legs if you were wearing shorts, and if you were wearing jeans, like I was on this particular day, then bits of the yellow foam that was beginning to deteriorate would stick to your pants.

We drove up the path, along the massive ravine that ran down the middle of our property that had more than one junked car pushed off into it, past thickets filled with elm seedlings and blackberry canes and sedge grass. Our property was on the southern side of a massive hill, and our house was about midways up it. This day we were headed uphill, to the area at the edge of our property, next to the old cemetery where generations of Black folks were buried, and whose origin story nobody ever told me.

Because that is where the cedar trees were.

Later, when I was studying such things, I would be fascinated to learn that they weren’t cedars at all, but Juniperus virginiana, also known as the Eastern Redcedar. Several years ago, after having learned this, I told Dad they were Junipers and not cedars, and he said, “Not here they aren’t. Here, we call them cedar trees.”

I guess that settles it then.

We were out on this cold Saturday afternoon hunting for our Christmas tree. We understood that there were people that lived in cities that bought trees out of a parking lot, and we also knew some rich people that had artificial trees. But being neither of those, and having 30-odd acres full of cedar trees, this is what people like us did.

Up by the cemetery was a huge field, perhaps 5 acres wide, of nothing but sedge and cedars. And daddy stopped the truck, told momma to look for a tree she liked, and he took the shotgun and my hand and we headed into the woods.

“What are we doing, Daddy?” I asked.

“Hunting”, he said.

This excited me to no end. All the old men I knew hunted, even though Dad did not.

“Are we hunting quail”, I asked?

“No, son. We’re hunting mistletoe.”

Mistletoe is a semi-parasitical plant that grows in deciduous hardwoods, like pecans, hickories, and oaks. And in the wintertime, after the leaves have fallen, you can see it in the treetops. You can, if you are a bit crazy, climb up in the tree and cut it down, to hang in your Christmas decorations.

Or you can be like Dad and just shoot it out of the tree with birdshot.

When we got back, me holding the mistletoe (after a warning to not eat the berries) and Dad holding the shotgun, Mom was standing beside a tree about six feet tall.

“Is that our tree?” I asked.

“That’s it,” Mom said.

As we rode back down the hill to the house, Mom was holding the mistletoe in her lap and me, I was on my knees looking through the rear glass at the tree I had “helped” cut down, holding on to the back of the seat and swaying as the old truck jostled.

I couldn’t wait for Christmas to arrive.

I still can’t.