Every Christmas my father would bundle all of us into the car, for many years a blue Chevy station wagon, and take us out to get a Christmas tree.
Not just any tree and certainly not a cut tree. It was always a small but beautiful live blue spruce, full at the bottom and tapering up to a perfect point for the angel at the top.
We'd go out to the farms near our Penn Hills home and stomp through the mud or snow looking over every single tree. We'd vote for our favorites and choose one that would always turn out beautifully.
My sisters and I would run up and down the rows of trees with our scarves flying, our long curls under our knit caps streaming behind us and our mittens safely pinned to the sleeves of our jackets.
We called out to each other while our dad walked slowly behind us with his bare hands in his trouser pockets for warmth. I think these were some of his favorite times.
He loved the smell of the pine sap, the crack of his boot on the frozen earth, the weak winter sun turning the snow to diamonds. Most of all, he loved the sound of his girls' voices singing on the wind.
For most of those years, the tops of the trees were way over our heads, and we would zigzag between the rows trying to find each other, only to realize that our hearing deceived us and the voices were coming from another direction altogether.
One bitterly cold year when my sister Joey was about 6, she wandered farther down the steep hillside than we had ever been before.
Julie and I warned her, but it was no use. She gathered speed as she passed us, falling in deep snow at one point, but getting up quickly to careen the rest of the way down.
We could hear her feet trampling the packed snow and getting farther away from us, then we heard the crack of the ice and the splash.
We ran toward the sound, reaching the small creek at the bottom of the hill to see her trying to get her balance on the slippery rocks in the freezing water.
When Daddy arrived at the creek a moment later, he reached in and grabbed her arms, picked her up and held her tightly to himself, wrapping her small body inside his work jacket until he got her back to the top of the hill and into the car. We had to make another trip to the farm that year to choose the tree.
When we found that perfect tree, we would decorate it with aluminum foil chains and stars cut out of construction paper, marking it for the farmer to dig up and have ready with the dirt ball tied up in a burlap sack for when we would collect it a week or so before Christmas Eve.
The farmer came to know us. He watched for us each year, laughing at our funny paper decorations and pointing out our tree to all the other tree shoppers who used the green (for live) or red (for cut) plastic ties he provided to mark their choice. We got more outrageous with our temporary decorations with every passing year.
It was a great illusion to think that we were helping load and unload that heavy bundle at the bottom of that perfect tree.
In truth, Dad did all the work. When we got it home, the tree would rest in a big metal tub for a few days in the shelter of the back porch or the breezeway until it was time to bring it inside.
On Christmas Eve, we set it up on its special platform for decorating. The platform was built with a couple of pieces of old plywood and the legs from an old chair. Of course, Dad had to put a cement block under the center to support its heavy load.
On the day following the Epiphany, we took down that perfect Christmas tree and put it back in the tub to await spring planting, which would occur with great fanfare in our yard.
Over the years our small plot of land took on a majestic, dignified look as all those beautiful, perfect blue spruces lined the driveway and marked the boundary between our yard and our neighbor's while shading our little wooden swing set.
My sister Joey is gone now and so is Dad. But the little house is still there, and so are all those beautiful trees.
Elizabeth Beard of Plum, an educational technology consultant, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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