Small Hands Help Pick The Perfect Pine Tree

Winter nights in Washington, D.C. bring sleet or freezing rain and rarely any snow, but as I recall Christmas Eve of 1947, memory shapes my footprints into powdery dust. A woolen muffler wraps my chin and tucks in my braids as I walk down Calvert Street in late afternoon darkness, holding my father's hand.

A block before Wisconsin Avenue, we turn into a space that's green with pine, spruce, and balsam fir. We walk the perimeter, then edge in toward the center rows, until Daddy points to the belly of a five-foot pine. ''This one? Do you think this one will do?'' he asks, turning to me.

I'd never nod my head so soon and cut this wonderful evening short. Besides, the tree's too scrawny for my taste. Its branches mat down like a wet dog's fur. I scuff my heel to make little dashes in the snow, then raise my eyes.

''Could it be bigger - just a tiny bit?'' Like Marilyn's, I want to add but do not say. It's Christmas, after all, and we should be grateful for what we've got, especially in these times of war and starving European refugees.

My father's eyes inspect my face and crinkle at the corners in that gentle, easy smile of his.

''You pick this time,'' he says. ''Go on, little one. You pick a tree you really want, and then we'll see.''

Fifteen minutes later, after Daddy peels off three one-dollar bills, he takes my hand to walk toward the tree we've bought. He motions me to follow him and lift the lighter end. He hauls the base up onto his shoulder, and we start our journey home with this green seesaw between us - just him and me - doing it together.

Then Daddy stops a minute, turns. ''You okay? Not tired yet?'' He shifts the tree base to his other side and waits for my reply.

I smile and say I'm fine. I'm nine years old, capable and sure, on this one night at least. It doesn't matter that my mittens pick up resin from the tree or that my toes are cold.

To be trusted and to share in work - and do it well - that Christmas memory is the one I'll keep before I'll picture dolls or books or a velvet-collared coat beside the tree.

This was my father's gift to me, one that's lasted throughout the years: the knowledge that on Christmas Eve he'd chosen me for a special job and that with his help I'd done it well.

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