In an area where Christmas trees are grouped together like freckles on a 5-year-old, we searched with enthusiastic determination for a magnificent specimen. Sure, anybody can shell out a few bucks and come home with an ordinary tree, but ours has to be special because of the priceless treasures that we display on it. Our heirlooms include the gingerbread house created in nursery school by one of our sons using brown construction paper, a handful of gold glitter, and a little toddler magic, and the plastic spoon that our other son covered in green felt (and that I'm pretty sure is an elf).
Precious treasures such as these call for a special tree. Every year when the air grew sharp, we ventured out to study the local offerings. We twirled them this way and that to the sound of the holiday jingles in our heads. Every year we took home the perfect tree to become a cherished member of our family.
One year when gas prices were high and paychecks were low, we waited until late in the season to venture out in search of our special tree. Where groups of tall Fraser firs once stood together in groups, there were only loners left here and there by the holiday blitz. Our perfect tree had gone home with somebody else.
That evening, our older son and I took the dogs to the playground at a nearby elementary school, the perfect place to let our furry family members run out a little of the holiday spirit they had stored up napping on the living-room rug.
Lucy trailed behind on shorter Dachshund legs as Bo raced on Labrador paws toward where the playground leads into a small wooded area. The ground was covered by rustling leaves, sharing a thousand secrets in their scent. I was hurrying along to catch up, when Ryan grabbed my arm.
"Mom, look," he said as his eyes danced like sugarplums.
I looked. There, where the door of each schoolroom opened to a small enclosed playground, laid a series of small pine trees, bare except for a few strands of icicles here and there that small, excited hands had missed when taking the decorations off the classroom tree.
"That's our tree!" Ryan said and pointed to one that was slightly fuller than the others, propped beside a door like a homeless stranger sheltering from the wind.
There's something about a daring raid with rescue in mind that brings people together. Ryan and I ran to the playground gate. I held it open while he hoisted the little tree. Closing the gate carefully behind me, I grabbed one end of our prize, and we carried the tree between us like victors returning with the spoils of war.
We laughed at how the janitor would scratch his head when he came to take the used trees to a pile in the forest and found one missing. Our glee filled the air, and the dogs came running, snuffling at our treasure to see what sort of strange creature we'd captured.
Ryan's determination conquered the challenge of loading into a compact car what turned out to be a fuller tree than we had realized. If we folded the seats down, one person could fit in the car to drive the tree home. The other would wait with the animals for the return trip. If only we'd brought reindeer instead of the family pooches!
"I have to get the tree out, so I'll drive home and come back for you," said my 16-year-old, whose only claim to driving rights was an expired beginner's permit. Up to this point, he'd shown no interest in learning to drive our little car.
"You and what jolly licensed elf?" I replied as I grinned and climbed into the driver's seat. "I'll be right back." The house was five minutes away.
I wheeled into the driveway, screeched to a stop and jumped out of our four-door open sleigh. I grabbed the tree trunk. I pushed. I pulled. Had the thing grown since we put it in the car?
Pausing for breath and hoping for a miracle, I thought of the bare spot in the living room waiting for our special tree. I thought of Ryan waiting in the dusk-covered playground with Lucy and Bo. "Please," I prayed. "I've gotten this far. Help me bring Christmas home."
I grabbed the trunk and began to pull the tree out of the car. It lost a few needles and a few branches were bent, but there it stood. Our perfect tree.
Later that night, we all gathered around our rescued tree, a tree that almost found its happy service cut short before the holiday came. Bo and Lucy lounged contentedly under the branches.
I don't know which group made the tree glow more, the classroom filled with bright-eyed faces, or our family huddled together, grinning up at the most perfect tree we ever had.
Never again will Christmas find us at the corner lot paying for an extravagant tree. To our astonishment, the boys decided that a trip to the schoolyard in the depths of December should be a family tradition. So every year, we bring home a little pine tree that still wears scattered remnants of homemade decorations and leftover icicles.
And as we turn up the holiday music and take out strings of lights and tinsel, we always agree: A "second chance" tree is the perfect one for us.