Uncle Stuart was the husband of my mother’s sister, Thelma. He looked out for the widow ladies in the family: his sister Margaret; my mother; and one of her sisters, Leota. He had a bit of a round belly and sat with his hands folded over his belly when he sat at the table with a cup of tea. Stuart made home repairs, picked up the ladies to play cards, and sometimes took us on Sunday drives and picnics in his red station wagon. Stewie seemed to know the name of every plant in the woods, and he could identify a bird simply by the shape of the outline in the sky.
For several years while I was still in school, Stuart picked me up on a Saturday near Christmas, and we drove out to their farm to look for a Christmas tree. He poured hot water on the engine of his rusty old tractor. It chugged a few times before it got running, then off we went back through the woods behind the house. I loved riding on the tractor and looking for the tracks of small animals in the snow. Stewie always seemed to know what made them.
Sometimes we brought home a spruce, but I favored balsam Christmas trees. I liked them best because there was plenty of space for the ornaments to hang free, unlike many of the trimmed and cultivated ones from the tree farm. (I suspect Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree was a balsam.) One year we found a tree that had grown up alongside another tree. It was mostly flat on one side. I decided it was perfect for us because it would fit well in the corner where we always put the tree.
When Uncle Stuart stopped the tractor, the silence was nearly complete. Just the wind blowing lonely through the trees and maybe the call of a chickadee. After the tree was cut down, we dragged it to the scoop on the tractor to take it back through the woods. Before we headed back, Stewie broke off branches of spruce, pine, cedar, and hemlock so we could make a wreath. I especially liked the tiny needles on the hemlock. And I loved the smell of the fresh greens.
When we got back home, we dragged the tree to the shed on the back of the house and stood it up to shake the loose snow off it. We’d set it up later. There was always a glass of warm milk with Nestle’s Quik stirred into it to chase away the cold.
I cherish the memories of those wonderful times