Getting real at Christmas

My wife, Mary Kay, turned me on (don’t get excited, that’s ’60s Speak for enlightening me) to Helen and Ed’s Christmas Tree Farm in Wapwallopen in December of 1999.
We had met a year earlier and had our first date on the day before Christmas Eve in ’98. It was the only free evening either of us had, and she actually was on call that night at the operating room at Nesbitt Memorial Hospital. We got together for dinner at Jonathan’s, a lovely restaurant located in the Tudor Book Store building, practically across the street from Nesbitt, in case she had to dash.
She had just returned from visiting her friend Mary Ellen in The Netherlands. She told me about Zwarte Piet, or “Black Pete,” the character who brings good little Dutch children gifts on the feast day of St. Nicholas. He is sort of a Santa’s, or Sinterklass’s helper. She had photos of him on ice skates.
This year, however, in many part of The Netherlands (I learned from Mary Ellen, by the way, that the “The” is part of the country’s official name) Zwarte Piet is no more. In view of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, the Dutch reconsidered having a white man in black face as part of their holiday tradition.
By the following Christmas, Mary Kay and I were an item (that’s ’50s Speak for a couple, a “thing” in today’s parlance) and when I told her a real Christmas tree was a must in my world, she told me about Helen and Ed’s.
I’ve been getting my trees there ever since.
We’ve always had a real tree in our house, but times have changed. It was not until I grew older that I appreciated how tight money was when we were kids, and my memory of our Christmas trees underscores it.
We would not get our tree until Christmas Eve. We always thought that’s what everyone did, without a clue it came down to finances. On Christmas Eve, Dad would venture out to a Christmas tree lot at a gas station and negotiate. The trees would be well picked over by then and Dad would typically wind up buying three scrawny trees for about two bucks total. He’d cart them home and go to work in the driveway. Using a saw and a hand-operated drill, he’d cut branches off two of the trees and glue them into holes he’d drill in the bare spots of the trunk of the third. When he finished, we had a nice, full tree. I told this to my friend and colleague Jack Smiles a few years ago and he said, “Oh, so your dad was a driller and a filler?”
I suppose he was.
That’s a far cry from my trips to Helen and Ed’s over the past two decades. For the first several I brought along my own saw and ventured into the snow covered fields to select a Douglas Fir, often referred as “the Cadillac of Christmas trees.”
I later switched to Fraser Fir and a few years ago switched from cutting my own to selecting one from the pre-cut assortment. I bought a spike tree stand about 15 years ago and it’s one of the smartest thing I’ve ever done. They square up my tree at Helen and Ed’s and drill a hole in the bottom. They bind it up with cord and I when I get home I just pop it on the spike and that’s that.
A couple of years ago I made another change. The folks at Helen and Ed’s turned me on (there I go again) to a Corkbark Fir and it was gorgeous.
Never heard of a Corkbark? Well, neither had I and there’s good reason. The people at Helen and Ed’s told me they are extremely slow-growing and therefore quite rare. The one I took home is the only one they had. They said it had been growing for 20 years.
I found that a little sad, and if it were still in the ground would have told them to let it live. But since it had already been cut, I felt it deserved a good home for the holiday season.
They said they aren’t going to plant any more Corkbarks because it’s bad business. They can harvest three growths of other trees while waiting for one Corkbark to mature. I told them I understood, but since then I’ve been thinking of going back and asking them to plant one more and put my name on it. I will come for it in 20 years.
I’m drawing inspiration from my very first landlord, Carl “Chilly” Boos. One day I found him planting two saplings in the backyard of the double block he lived in while renting out the other side to me. He was meticulously measuring the distance between them.
“Why so precise?” I asked.
“Because I plan on stringing a hammock between them some day,” he said.
He was about 75 years old at the time. Sixteen years younger than I will be when I return to Helen and Ed’s for my next Corkbark.
This year, Helen and Ed’s introduced me to a Concolor Fir. It’s standing next to me as I write, waiting for the lights and ornaments. Like the Corkbark, the Concolor has somewhat of a citrus aroma.
The first flakes of what promises to be a foot-and-a-half snowfall will be falling as I begin decorating. Johnny Mathis will be singing in the background. It’s gonna be a good day.


Ed Ackerman