In 1921 Mrs. Venable asked her milk man, "Mr. Meyers, would your little girl go to the woods and cut a nice fresh cedar tree for me? I’ll pay her 25 cents for it, the same I’d pay at Jackson’s Grocery Store."
She said the ones she saw there were dusty and tied up together with binder twine, "and they’ve lost a lot of that wonderful fragrance that makes the whole house smell like Christmas."
Dad said he reckoned I could cut her a fresh cedar, and he asked what size tree she wanted.
"About up to here," she said with her hand on her shoulder. The stem of that tree would be, at most, the size of Dad’s index finger, so he knew I could saw it off and carry it to the house. He would deliver it when he took Mrs. Venable’s milk.
I knew our woods well and played there in almost every season. Mom lived in Centralia as a child. She loved the outdoors but had little or no opportunity to roam among rippling streams, huge limestone bluffs, countless ancient trees and naturally eroded rock formations when she was my age. In 1916, when Mom and Dad moved from rented land to their own 80 acres, Mom took my brother and me and we went with Dad when he cut and trimmed long, tall trees for telephone poles for our half-mile of private phone line. I was too young to remember that, but she wrote to her parents, "Sue cries when I take her sweater off." I recall going years later with Mom to get leaf mold for flowerbeds and to stomp hulls off and gather hickory nuts in autumn. For her remaining years, we often went to enjoy the woods together, and she was quite supportive of my Christmas tree enterprise.
I recall our identifying places in the woods by telling what grew or bloomed at certain places. One hill produced shiny "horse chestnuts," another was "by that that earliest patch of violets and Dutch man’s Britches." The hill that Dad called "that worthless rock bluff" soon got a new name: "the Christmas tree bluff."
That sale to Mrs. Venable launched me in a paying business, and there seemed no end to the orders until Dec. 24 each year. In most springs I picked and sold wild gooseberries; in midsummer, blackberries; and in autumn, hickory nuts and black walnuts. After the second Christmas season, I deposited $30 in the Columbia Savings Bank and proudly carried my checkbook - but didn’t write a check! By 1931 my best friend and business partner was W.F. "Chub" Gerard, who carried the big, heavy trees and often delivered them to our customers.
In this first week of December 2004, I’ve watched people decorate three artificial trees. They’re bigger, greener, not prickly and make no mess when they go up or come down. However, families miss going together to the woods in a box sled or wagon pulled by horses or tractor, hunting for that just-right cedar, sometimes with a used bird’s nest hidden inside its thick boughs.
Now I’ve devised a scheme to make me rich: I’ll concoct real cedar fragrance and market it in spray cans so Santa will be sure to stop at those artificial trees on Dec. 24. People could spray it on their benign, expensive, perfectly shaped, non-prickly, "play-like" Christmas trees, and maybe Santa Claus would never know the difference. We oldsters would know!