Thoughts from Friends: Rodney Kemerer

The Living Tree

Text and Images by
Rodney Kemerer
Friends of Robinson Gardens Board Member

This Christmas Season looks like it is going to be a lot like last year. The Pandemic lockdown has cancelled the usual activities and it feels like a total loss to everyone. Within that loss is a hidden gift, much like the one you find tucked into the tree branches after all the gifts are opened. That gift this year is the gift of memory. Rather than being caught up in the usual frenzy, we now have time to sit back and look back to Christmas Past. To things we never realized that are woven into our Holiday Memory Bank.

My father, rest his soul, was cheap. I believe both by necessity and personality. This presented itself in odd ways and, mostly when I was a kid, they were annoying to me. Like saving every coffee can that came into the house or, worse, every piece of cardboard. Christmas presented a special challenge for him in that it was hard to avoid the usual related expenses. One that he carefully circumvented was The Christmas Tree Lot. There was something about paying for a dead tree for limited use that chewed at my father’s very fiber.

His workaround for this problem resulted in an unusual gift he gave me that I now see and enjoy everyday. He had no idea of the ripple this particular stone would cause in the lake of my life.

Here it is. It was well known in our house that my Father hated the idea of chopping down a living tree and decorating the decaying corpse for a few weeks. Thus was born The Living Tree. My father would find a local landowner with various fir trees of assorted sizes growing on his property. How he found these places I have no idea. For a small, key word, small, fee he would get permission to dig up a tree, roots and all. Now this was only possible because my father had a free workforce of three sons, each one capable of holding and using a shovel. As you can imagine, we dreaded these outings.

There was no Martha-Stewart-looking tree excavating event with hot chocolate, matching scarves and romping golden retrievers. No, this was one long afternoon of arguing over the right tree, the right size of tree and then endless complaints about how the soil was too frozen to dig and why couldn’t we just “buy” a cut tree and enjoy it (unspoken, “like normal people”). My father had a good answer: “We will always enjoy this tree because it will be living in our backyard.”

The tortuous afternoon of digging frozen soil, hoisting a 100-pound root ball into a galvanized washtub, lugging it into the car and home was, to put it clearly, a pain in the ass. Fingers frozen, back aching, exhausting pain. Not very Christmas-y.

Once home, the tree, its soil, roots and washtub had to be moved into position in the living room. Why use a dolly when you have three boys to lug the dead weight up the stairs and into the house?

Once in place our living tree did smell great, but, so I am told, does a cut tree in its final days on earth. Clearly its last gift to its executioners. Inside a furnace-heated home, the tree gets extra thirsty requiring gallons of water everyday. More work for the boys. “Who watered the tree today?” my father shouted. Finger pointing ensued. This daily watering, ironically, added even more weight to this living, breathing symbol of all that is Merry and Bright.

After the New Year arrived, the day came to remove the tree. Even as a kid, I marveled that the tree had continued to grow inside our house. At the tip of each branch was new growth. This made a lasting impression on me. Instead of dropping needles, it was growing new ones. This tree was alive and just had its first Christmas. At this point the tree was removed to the unheated garage to remain until the first thaw of winter when the soil would not fight back so much. We continued to water the tree and it continued to grow, although perhaps not as much as if it had been outdoors. Sunlight in the garage was limited.

Early Spring meant dragging the very heavy washtub out into the yard for hours of debate as to where to plant it. Three boys acting as “trees” standing in various locations yelling, “How about here?” as my father contemplated its exact impact on the landscape. This was rural Pennsylvania, the tree would look good wherever you put it. The ritual was to make it a very considered decision. At some point a consensus was reached, digging began, and the earth took back our beloved Christmas symbol.

As a teenager I grew to dislike this whole process. It seemed to drain the fun out of Christmas like that rancid eggnog inadvertently sipped from the carton. As we know, the thinking of teenagers is not permanent or, for that matter, very important. What is important is that the young brain is like a sponge. Stuff just gets sucked up. As an adult I found myself revisiting the The Living Tree concept. Way before it was “Green Thinking” or a twinkle in Al Gore’s eye.

The idea of killing a living tree, decorating the corpse and then tossing the “body” out to the curb seemed barbaric to me. It still does.

I can now proudly say that as an adult, I have never purchased or used a “cut” tree at Christmas. When I lived in small apartments and later in even smaller guesthouses, I had a very small one gallon “tree,” or sometimes a shrub, that I decorated on tabletops and then planted outside in the garden after the Holidays. When I bought my first house, for that Christmas I went to the nursery (no more digging in frozen soil) and brought home a five gallon Monterey Pine, decorated and then planted it. Remarkably, that first real tree is now well over a hundred feet tall and is home to countless birds and squirrels. Its canopy provides endless shelter and shade.

Like some Christmas Johnny Appleseed, I have planted various fir trees everywhere I have lived. Today those trees (at least forty plus) began their lives celebrating a Holiday and now continue to give their gifts all year round, year after year. My father might be amused by this, I will never know. I am sure that he had no idea that he was planting ideas in my head along with those trees.

10 Responses

  1. Vera Dunn
    | Reply

    Rodney, this article is incredible. Although Christmas is not my holiday, it made me perhaps for the first time appreciate the true meaning of Christmas. I do beg to differ with you however regarding your ending. I believe, for what it’s worth, that your father is looking down on you and chuckling as he sees how you have truly embodied the essence of all of his lessons not only during Christmas but throughout your life.

  2. Diane Illis
    | Reply

    My father was also a “real tree” person, although we just drove to the Christmas tree lot and bought one. Perhaps because he had been blessed with three daughters instead of three sons.

  3. Claire Cabrey
    | Reply

    This story is so well written. Your words take us right back there with you, frozen fingers, aching back and all. How wonderful that the 5-gallon Monterey Pine is now 100 feet tall! Thank you for sharing these precious memories.

  4. Pam Falk
    | Reply

    This article is a little treasure. It’s so full of genuine spirit and warmth that it makes me yearn for the holidays for the first time in too long. Many thanks for this delightful and unexpected boost. Bravo!

  5. Clare Wagner
    | Reply

    Thank you Rodney for this inspiring story

  6. Cynthia Meitle
    | Reply

    What a charming memory. My father lined the property line on the side of our driveway with each Christmas pine until my parents divorced. I can picture him, clad in his biker boots with “the ring” with the shovel to this day. During the Nixon administration, the home was purchased from my mom by the state with plans to build a new freeway connecting L.A. traffic to LAX. Fast forward 25 years. I was living in Tahoe (Because pines?) and on a visit to SOUTHERN California found myself on an off ramp saying, “I used to live right here.” In that moment I learned that they left the pine trees in place. It was surreal.

  7. Laraine Newman
    | Reply

    I had no idea, all those years, that your tree was a living tree. I love this story Rodney. And I so agree at the absurdity of “killing a tree and decorating it’s corpse.”

  8. Terry Murkins
    | Reply

    Absolutely loved the story, and as always your perfect writing style Rodney. Can’t wait to get my hands on your new book. I am certain it will be a “Best Seller”

  9. Nick Modesti
    | Reply

    Thanks for sharing your story Rodney!

  10. Lynn Rothacher
    | Reply

    This piece is worthy of an annual fireside reading. It is at once nostalgic and timely. I teach seventh grade English, and I instruct my students to endeavor to touch their reader’s head, heart, and/or funny bone. This piece touches all three—a hallmark of Rodney Kemerer’s writing. Thank you, Rodney, for reminding us that the best gifts of the season are the ones that keep on giving.

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