If Santa and his reindeer lived right here, like in the Benny Grunch song, they would be in my mother-in-law Ms. Larda’s house. It looks like North Pole, Chalmette.
She is Mrs. Santy. She’s got elves that dance; Rudolph with a LED nose; 31 Christmas sweaters, one for each day of December; a complete set of Christmas-ornament Elvises, chronological, so he gets a little fatter on each one; two Christmas Thomas the Trains; three inflatable lawn art scenes, including a manger set with life-size camels; and a new outfit for her Chihuahua, Chopsley. (He’s Olaf the snowman from Frozen this year.)
Every year, she gets a new artificial tree. That don’t mean she throws away the old tree. She just adds it to the collection. She has an aluminum tree with blue spotlights, a black-and-gold tree that turns on its stand and plays “We Are the Champions,” a tree with a Santa hat and an electric eyeball that goes “Ho! Ho! Ho!” when you walk past; a K&B purple tree; and a pink-and-black tree dedicated to Elvis. And that’s just to start.
To make it smell like Christmas, she always opens a fresh bottle of pine-scented Air-Wick on Christmas Eve.
Well, would you believe, my little granddaughter Lollipop went over there, looked at all the Christmas stuff and asked Ms. Larda, “Where’s your tree?” Lollipop lives out in the county, near Folsom, and her mama and daddy take her to one of them tree farms and cut down a tree. So that’s her idea of a Christmas tree. No spangles, no strobe lights, no spinning. Just plain green. Can you believe it?
Well, Ms. Larda can’t disappoint the child. She gets the address of this tree farm, and she and me drive up there.
But nobody is around. There is just a shed with a saw, a measuring stick and a money box with “$5 per foot, Happy Holidays” on it. But there ain’t nothing about credit cards and between us we got $23.42 cash – and $3 has to pay our way back across the Causeway bridge.
So we get a $20 four-foot tree. I lay flat on the ground and saw it down and Ms. Larda ties it to the roof of my VW bug with a bungee cord.
We are barely on the road when the bungee cord snaps loose. The tree shoots off the car like an arrow, and I got to screech to a stop and drag the tree off the road.
This time I open the sunroof and we each grab the tree with one hand and drive like that. To cheer things up, Ms. Larda turns the radio on and we start singing about snowflakes flaking and jingle bells jingling. Then rain starts raining.
Pretty soon it drips right through the tree and down our arms and into our armpits. With her free hand Ms. Larda reaches in her bag and pulls out her fold-up umbrella. She pushes it out through the sunroof, through the tree branches, presses a button on the handle and Foop! it opens. You would think it would fly away, but Ms. Larda hangs on tight. The whole car will fly off the Causeway and over the lake before she turns loose of either the tree or the umbrella.
People pass us with their eyes bugging out. Ms. Larda says, “Just act normal, Modine.” We stare ahead calmly, arms up, like we always drive like this.
Well, when we finally pull up in front the house, believe it or not the umbrella is fine. Unfortunately, every needle has blown off the tree. It is bald as Rudolph’s antler.
I hope Lollipop watched A Charlie Brown Christmas, because that’s the kind of tree we got here.
But on Christmas Eve, when we all troop into Ms. Larda’s living room, there’s a gorgeous real tree, with popcorn strings and everything. Ms. Larda is smiling, but through clenched teeth. I sidle up and ask where this new tree came from. “It’s the same tree,” she snaps.
“All it needed was a little love, like Charlie Brown said?” I whisper.
“Love, schmove. It needed leftover branches stole from the tree lot, green duct tape to stick them on, popcorn strung on fishing wire to prop them up and scratches all over my arms, “ she says.
Then we notice Lollipop. Her face is glowing. Ms. Larda beams.
It was love.