“It’s dinner time!” Rose hollered to Penny, who tinkered in the living room with his train set and a little town whose population grew twofold by the hour. The thick smell of coffee grounds permeated the air, as Penny placed townspeople one by one on streets paved with Maxwell House. It was November 23rd, 1953. By Christmas Day, there would be street lamps and telephone wires, a pond, a waterfall, and two smoking trains that ripped through a mountain on their tracks. With years to come, the display would grow so large that it would be moved to the basement. Family, friends, and neighbors would visit just to see the train display. Though Thanksgiving had yet to come, Perry Como crooned “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” from the record player in the corner, and it was in this moment that I got to thinking about the Blue Spruce and Pine down on the farm.
We tended to those trees year round, planting new seedlings in the fall and trimming the ever-growing ones each June to make certain they were the perfect shape to hold tinsel and lights. At the end of each summer, after the farmhouse was clean, its valuables stored away, and our wagon packed for the drive back to Glassport, Penny would haul buckets of water from the house to the barn, where the trunks of our trees welcomed one last drink and said their “good-bye for now”. I would say there wasn’t anything he tended to with greater love or devotion than these trees to the left of our barn, but that just wouldn’t be true, although it wouldn’t be untrue either. He took on every project with the same intensity, squeezing more time out of a day than the sun or moon ever dared to. We’d wait patiently in the wagon, the puttering of the engine and the sweat on Penny’s brow as deeply woven into our farm traditions as Sunday church and mid-day swims.
Come December, we’d lace up our boots and head to the farm with saws, shovels, and a Thermos or two of Rose’s hot chocolate. While most of my memories cast our days on the farm in sunlight, there’s always been a special place in my heart for its semblance in winter—the acres of grass touched only by snow, the pond thick with ice, the windows of the farmhouse silenced by frost...there was something magical in its quietude, something spiritual in its stillness. I’d take it in like one does a painting and not realize I was holding my breath until a heavy exhale exposed the frigid air and—
“Grab a saw, son.”
I turned to see Penny on his knees, halfway through the thick trunk of a beautiful Blue Spruce and Wayne not far behind at the base of a Pine. Buyers had begun to arrive, and they were already threading through our tiny lot, examining branches and assessing each tree’s height as if it were already standing in their living room. Once felled, we’d wrap them in twine and load them onto trucks or tie them atop car roofs, needles sticking to our gloves with sap. We sold each tree for one dollar, knowing full well that several of our buyers would turn around and resell them for much more. Our biggest customer was always Cousin Dale, who’d load his truck full of trees and resell them in Allegheny County for triple the cost. But that never bothered Penny, who was happy with one dollar and happier still if he could help just one more person at Christmas time. The tree we took back to our home in Glassport was always from the farm, and despite the cold winter air, we’d lower the windows of the wagon the entire drive home to catch the scent of that year’s tree in the breeze.
As we pulled into the driveway, we saw Rosie’s face, followed soon after by Kathie’s, fogging up the front windows of our house and the smoke from the fireplace lifting to the clouds. Rose no doubt had cookies in the oven and the tree stand already filled with water and waiting. The excitement was palpable. All together in the living room, we’d hoist the tree in its stand and cut the twine as if attending the ribbon cutting at a grand hotel. This year was no different; only, we had forgotten to pick one of our favorites from the lot before the buyers picked them dry, and before we knew it, every tree was sold but one...
The Tree of ‘53 did not win us much praise when we cut its twine that evening. It stood among boxes of ornaments and tangled string lights and knew it had zero chance of holding their weight for the next 32 days. Still we played the records and ate the cookies and decorated that tree as if it were standing in the East Room of the White House. Penny’s trains chugged around the trunk and throughout the room with a tick tick tick that drew the whole neighborhood and even a local reporter to our door that year. The layout was far too large for the reporter to capture in one shot, but a few days later, there it was: a photo of Penny and a small section of his beloved train right there on the front page.
“I wonder why they didn’t include the tree,” Penny quipped, setting off a decades-long string of jokes that would leave generations to come reminiscing about that scraggly Tree of ‘53 as if they too had unwrapped presents by its side.
Come Christmas morning, there wasn’t a single needle left on its branches. Of course, that didn’t stop me from sliding into the tree skirt like I had just hit a line drive past third base. Our presents were pristinely wrapped and waiting for us, as was Penny, perched on the sofa with a giant grin across his face, his eyes wide and blue like the great sky that proudly watched over us as we played down on the farm. There’d be even more gifts in the evening, when aunts, uncles, and cousins arrived, and we’d stay up way past our bedtime, rubbing our eyes to stay awake, lest we miss a moment that would last us a lifetime.
I remember Cousin Dale lighting a cigarette by the tree and joking that if he got too close, the whole house would burn down, and Penny responding with something about Dale taking all the good trees that year. I remember a baby being rocked to sleep in a chair amid laughter, and drinking, and dress shoes dancing on wood floors, as I fought the urge to drift off with all my might. I remember Penny with the 8mm camera and the sound of the film blending with that of the trains, as he drew the lens closer and closer to my face. But all those images dissolved to black, and I woke the next morning to the smell of bacon frying in the kitchen and coffee brewing strong. The taste was bittersweet, knowing I had missed some part of Christmas the night before.
Some seventy years later (I do the math again to be sure...Has it really been that long?), I find myself retired and tinkering through the boxes in my basement, a cup of coffee permeating the air. “That box has to be here somewhere,” I think, as I’m led toward streets paved with Maxwell House and Penny’s whistling trains. Just one remains amid the tracks that are stacked neatly in rows with bubble wrap. I take it out of the box and lay a few tracks.
“Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Chugga, chugga. Chugga, chugga—Choo-choo!” steams from my lips before I catch myself. I’m closing in on 80 and the years drip from my eyes. But there’s something about a train that keeps a man young, transports him back to his childhood though the engine charges forward. I ride the train over boxes marked “The Farm”, “Vet School”, and “Janet”, plastic containers full of stuff my children never collected, and filing cabinets stuffed with paperwork. The train circles the old Bell and Howell projector and a box marked “Film”. Suddenly, my stomach drops and my heart races, like when you’re 16 and you take that first turn at the wheel onto a busy highway; excited and scared all at once.
My hands gravitate to a reel marked with the number “53” and the projector that hasn’t seen action for decades. After fumbling for close to 30 minutes, I discover the faded and flimsy owner’s manual beneath its heavy base, and in 10 minutes, the film is set. I imagine Penny doing this same thing on this very machine throughout the 50s and 60s, the skin on his hands thick with years of hard labor, as he secures an image of his loved ones behind the plate as I so carefully do today. I turn off the lights and flip the switch on the projector. It sounds like my old metal Radio Flyer barreling across a rocky drive or fighter jets in an air show, their missiles long silenced. Silent too are the people dancing across my wall; they move with the flickers of light, but their words are a mystery, their lips silenced by a kiss, a smile, a cigarette, a drink, or 8mm film. These were the days when it didn’t much matter what people said, but what they did, and I find myself pulled in by their silence, much like the farm pulled me in with its quietude each winter. The wheels continue to feed the film strip, ravenous for that simplicity once again. I wish I could slow it all down, and...
“Dad, it’s time for dinner!” my daughter hollers from the kitchen above, but I’m lost in the basement, tinkering with an old train set, sawing down a Blue Spruce, catching my breath on a snow-laden farm in winter, spying on Penny and Rose as they slow dance in the kitchen, and sweeping the needles that fell from The Tree of ‘53.
Holidays with Penny & Rose