With Christmas rapidly approaching, I have been thinking about my mother, Laura. She loved the holidays, despite the hustle and bustle of crowds, the escalating price of merchandise, the influx of Sunday drivers on the roadways, the arrival of bad weather, and the false good cheer of her coworkers at the insurance office. At heart, she was always a romantic.
Mom enjoyed the company of friends and family. She liked nothing better than to gather with her loved ones and revel in the old stories of foibles past, present, and yet to come. She was always a good sport. If the story made her laugh, she did not care if she was the butt of the joke, which frequently was the case. It takes a secure, confident person to laugh at himself or herself. To everyone who knew her well, my mother genuinely was such a person.
Some of the old stories have been told and retold so many times they long ago left the province of factual accuracy and ascended into a realm of mythic banality.
As I racked my brain to recall a more-or-less true story about mom and Christmastime — one that had not been repeated on innumerable festive occasions — I dredged up a little tidbit from the recesses of deep memory, a black box where I seldom venture owing to a fear of what I might find there.
One blustery December afternoon in 1976, shortly before my fourteenth birthday, mom decided the price of Christmas trees was entirely too high. She was a traditionalist who enjoyed the splendor of the holiday season, but she was also a single mother raising a child on a modest income. To combat what she viewed as usurious pricing, mom resolved to procure a fir by cutting out the middle man. We would snag our own Christmas tree free of charge. She would transport my best friend, John Harris, and me to a patch of abandoned acreage and release us with instructions to cut a suitable specimen. That is how two pimply-faced adolescents sporting shag haircuts, Fonzie-style leather jackets, and Converse high-top sneakers found themselves stumbling around lost in the woods near Effingham, South Carolina.
After purchasing matching axes from our local K-Mart retail store, mom found a deserted-looking dirt road visibly lacking “No Trespass” signs. She parked her dented Chevy Nova on the shoulder. We were deep in the pine forests of South Carolina at least 20 miles from our house. I was unfamiliar with the isolated area.
Lighting a cigarette, she pointed. “Go on, boys,” she said. “This is as good a place as any. Go on into the woods now. You can burn off some of that youthful energy by cutting us a tree.”
John and I did as we had been instructed — with one minor deviation. Had we simply walked in a straight line away from the Nova and cut a tree within sight of the automobile, all would have been well. Yet we were young and dumb. When we trudged away from the road, one of us would point and exclaim, “Now, that’s a Christmas tree!”
“No, man — look over there. That one’s even taller!”
Invariably, after we raced to the new tree, we spied an even more impressive candidate lurking farther in the distance. By the time we had settled on a mutually agreeable fir, we had lost sight of both my mother and her automobile. The forest was so thick and we were so disoriented that nothing looked familiar. Ironically, every tree resembled every other tree. We could have cut any one we stumbled upon without venturing into the thicket.
Alas, we had traveled such a long distance that calling my mother’s name only met with silence.
Mom had finished smoking her cigarette. Realizing we had been absent for an inordinate length of time, she sat in the car blowing the horn to catch our attention. When that desperate action failed to produce results, she drove up and down the dirt road with the windows rolled down, calling our names. In a long-ago era before cell phones and GPS tracking systems had become ubiquitous, my mother was worried and apoplectic. What should she do? The sun had not set, but the sky clearly was fading to a burnt orange glow, suggesting that dusk was on the horizon.
Fearing my mother’s wrath if we got lost and failed to procure a Christmas tree, John and I chopped down the intended target. Dragging the tree in the direction of where we thought the road was located — which turned out to be in the opposite direction — we suddenly remembered we had not eaten anything in at least three hours. It is an unwritten rule that adolescent boys must consume prodigious quantities of foodstuffs at frequent and regular intervals if they are to maintain their practiced insouciance and annoying exuberance. Ravenous, frantic to find the car, and growing progressively frightened of the dark woods enveloping us, John and I screamed ourselves hoarse for someone — anyone — to rescue us from our self-created plight.
We might have stumbled around all night in the scary forest, at least until National Guard units parachuted in to find us in the light of day, were it not for a serendipitous event.
As it turned out, the land was not abandoned. The owner, a local octogenarian hermit renowned for his less-than-friendly manner and his uncanny resemblance to numerous movie villains and serial killers, happened upon my mother parked on the dirt road. After he listened to her tale of woe, he agreed to reconnoiter the area in search of two young interlopers.
An hour later, John and I spotted the headlights of his pickup truck slicing through the dark night as he swerved along a small logging road adjacent to his land.
In a fairy tale, the story would have featured a happy ending. The would-be Ed Gein would have been in touch with his inner child. He would have reunited us with my mom, bid us adieu in the spirit of Christmas, and sent us on our way toward a bright, successful future.
We had seen too many movies.
In the real world, Mr. Happy drove us — along with our tree — to meet up with mom, who sat in her Nova crying hysterically. Furious that we had cut down a tree on his land without permission, he agreed not to turn us over to the local police if mom would surrender all the cash on her person. It was the money from her Christmas bonus she had intended to use for our presents.
Easy come, easy go.
Mom drove us away from the dirt road, sadder and wiser, with the Christmas tree strapped to the top of the car — the twine a parting gift from our noble savior — and $183.00 missing from her wallet. It was a princely sum at the time — far more money than she would have spent on a tree had we simply purchased one, as we usually did, from the seasonal Christmas-tree lot situated six blocks from our house.
Laura works at her desk in the 1970s.
A life-long nature lover, I have enjoyed countless hours hiking in the woods, spending the night on camping trips with the Boy Scouts, rafting down wild western rivers, transporting family and friends to national parks for recreation and conviviality, and reflecting on my life and its meaning in an isolated forest enclave. Yet that evening lost in the woods showed me a different side of nature. It was hardly dramatic stuff — no one drank urine to survive, hacked off his arm, devoured another human being, or starved to death — but the experience demonstrated how quickly nature can evolve from friend to foe. The forest did not change in the few hours we were lost, but our interpretation of the event changed, which inevitably changed our relationship with nature. To my amazement at the time, the character of nature altered in direct proportion to my growing sense of panic.
To this day, I am not a fan of Christmas trees. The price is too high.
It was one more valuable, expensive life lesson lifted from the annals of my mother, Laura Martinez.