But what a tree!

Every year when I was a child, it was a very big deal to go after the Christmas tree, taking sandwiches and cocoa and every spare pair of mittens in the house out to the powerline road where we and everyone else in the world, it seemed, went to bag the perfect evergreen.

For years - decades, in fact - that was simply the way the thing was done. So when my oldest three were big enough, that's what we did, too.

Then one year, alone, the four of us arrived late in the day, late in the season, and the children's eager chatter was shut off like a faucet as soon as we got out of the car.

The place was cold as a well, and deserted, except for someone running a chain saw we could hear choking and spitting way off somewhere. The ground was boot-top deep in frozen mud and littered with carcasses: trees lying every which way, most with the top six or eight feet hacked out and carted off. It was like arriving at a party after a police raid. The kids wandered from one downed tree to another, turning each over carefully as if checking for vital signs.

''Never mind,'' I said. ''Let's go buy one at the supermarket.''

But Margie was adamant, Nora in tears.

''Tree murder,'' Dennis muttered, and took off out of sight. The girls, puffing and blowing, stumbled after him.

''Hey! We've got to be out of here by dark,'' I yelled after them.

It was a good half-hour into sunset when I heard them coming back, and I knew by their voices that they had found us a tree. But what a tree! It was a foot through at the base, about 12 feet high, and somebody had cut the top out. What was left resembled a very muddy Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

''If we don't love it, who will?'' Nora reasoned.

We got a lot of strange looks, driving home with that evergreen whale carcass lashed to the top of our Volkswagen beetle - but we gave it a bath and trimmed it enough to fit inside the door, where it wedged between ceiling and floor, its great shaggy arms embracing us, the furniture, doorways, intruding even into the kitchen.

That year, we had enough tree to hang all the old ornaments, all the snowflakes, and the paper chains and the egg-carton bells and the meat-tray gingerbread houses and the toilet-paper-roll dwarfs - there was even room for some new ones.

And our neighbors, normally busy with their own lives, came around to peer in at our crazy tree, stayed around for cocoa and swapping yarns.

Since then, every year our tree hunt is a rescue mission. Once we found a little juniper that vandals uprooted from someone's lawn. Several times it's been cedar or fir boughs pruned or blown down from a neighbor's yard. Once, it was a dead peach tree we hung with oranges.

The thing is, we've come to understand that it isn't such a big deal, having the prettiest, most perfect evergreen, that trees are living things - gifts - and that, even dying, they need not be wasted.

It's a matter of dignity. A matter of thanks.

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