The best Christmas tree I’ve ever seen was plain except for a garland of rope and three envelopes attached with wooden clothespins.
My grandpa had put it up as a surprise for my sisters and me, and we were sufficiently wowed.
This was a few years after my grandma had died. She’d always been the one to decorate the house, cook big meals for the extended family and generally make everything feel festive at the holidays. Since then, most of the house had been frozen in time, and not even the calendar changed with the season.
A utilitarian man who grew up during the Depression and wore the same style of overalls from Sears nearly every day of his life, my grandpa was not necessarily one to overdo it, even on special occasions.
So it seemed to us a pretty big gesture that he had dug out the big old artificial tree and set it up, even going so far as to decorate it — even if the decorations came from his workshop. The envelopes, of course, contained our gifts. I don’t remember how much he gave us that year; it didn’t really matter. But we beamed at the effort he’d made for us, and he silently beamed back. That’s what I remember about Christmas that year.
Come to think of it, that wasn’t the only time he did something special to surprise his granddaughters.
One year, having watched us get excited about sorting loose change, my grandpa gifted us a big stoneware crock full of who knows how many decades of pocket change and a package of coin wrappers like they use at banks.
I’m a little embarrassed to say how pumped we were to spend our Christmas that way, but it felt like we were transforming those spare coins into serious cash.
Another year, seemingly out of nowhere, he gave us cedar chests.
My grandpa was one of nine children who grew up in Arkansas. One year, having just returned from a big reunion with his remaining siblings, my grandpa got an idea.
He remembered that when his sisters were young, they had all wanted cedar chests. I think most people at that time called them hope chests, and they were something young women used to collect linens and items as they prepared for marriage.
Well, my sisters and I were well below marrying age, but I think my grandpa just figured it was a practical item — both furniture and storage — and it was the kind of thing that grows with you and becomes an heirloom.
He tracked down three identical chests and hauled them to my parents’ house while everyone was out for the day. He deposited the cedar chests in the garage and, true to form, got back in his car and drove the hour and a half back home.
It wasn’t like my grandpa to tell anyone he had left three huge cardboard boxes in the garage, or what was in them, and it definitely wasn’t like him to wait around to hear the giddy thank yous he deserved. He was an efficient, get-on-the-road before dawn type. I’m still not sure how he loaded and unloaded the chests all by himself, but even in his late 80s he seemed to have superhuman strength.
I remember pulling into the garage to see the mysterious gifts and opening them to see the shiny wood carvings and smell the warm cedarwood.
It was a pretty great gift that went from storing my dolls to my clothes to my wedding dress and veil. And that smell of cedar still reminds me of him.
It must be something about the holidays that makes us think of the people we love who aren’t with us anymore.
I think of my grandpa often, but definitely more than usual at Christmastime. Maybe it’s because I tend to be around my aunts and uncles and cousins — all the people in the family he and my grandma created. We tend to have pretty big holiday festivities these days. But I hope as we celebrate we can follow his example of giving, which is to be generous, thoughtful and humble.