When I was 4 years old, my father lost his job on the Friday before Thanksgiving. All throughout his adult life, my father never once called in sick. Even so, due to the lagging economy that year, he and many other employees were laid off from the local aluminum factory. With less than a month before Christmas, a mortgage to pay and three children, my father had to figure out a way to support our family. My sisters were 7 and 8.
One week later, on the day after Thanksgiving, my mother walked 5 miles in the snow down to the shopping center in our town. Her plan was to apply at every single store until she found a job. The first store on the strip mall was Kinney Drugs, a small drugstore chain in upstate NY. She walked in and asked if she could fill out an application. Within an hour, the store manager had hired her. Because Christmas was just a few weeks away, he asked her if she could start right away. The following day she made the 5 mile walk back down to the shopping center and started working as a store clerk. My mother, who had been a stay-at-home-Mom for 8 years, was now supporting our family. She was making minimum wage, less than $6 an hour that year.
With Christmas just weeks away, my father decided to take advantage of the season. He thought that maybe he could make some money by selling Christmas trees. Since my mother was now working full-time and we were all too small to stay home alone, Dad loaded my sisters and I into the car and drove us out to a tree farm in Brasher Falls, about 30 minutes away. When we got to the farm, my father asked my sisters and I to get out of the car. That’s where he left us. He drove off and we never saw my parents ever again. [Just KIDDING. Just wanted to throw some humor into this sad story.]
At the tree farm, my oldest sister, who was 8, helped my father find the best looking trees while my other sister and I played in the snow.
Dad tagged as many of the best trees as he could find and hired a man to deliver them all back to our house. Later that afternoon, a giant truck pulled up in front of our house and delivered 75 beautiful Scotch Pines. My sisters and I helped Dad tie ropes to the trees so we could drag them into our yard. Living in upstate NY, we had several feet of snow, which made it much easier to display the trees. Dad arranged them neatly in rows, leaving room for potential customers to walk between and around the trees as they searched for the best ones.
Being only 4, I didn’t really understand why our small yard was now suddenly overflowing with Christmas trees. And I’m not sure what our neighbors thought. But what I do remember is how much fun it was suddenly having 75 trees in our front and back yard. While Mom was at work at the drug store, my sisters and I were outside in our snowsuits with Dad each day, running and playing in the snow and interacting with the customers. It was a small town, so I’m sure many people knew about our situation.
And even though Mom wasn’t making very much money, Kinney Drugs was one of the biggest toy stores in town at that time. Employees were able to make purchases at cost (which was less than half price), including toys. And because my sisters and I all believed in Santa, Mom made sure there were plenty of presents under our tree that year.
One afternoon a man named Ross Violi, a local business man and owner of the most popular restaurant in town, came by and bought enough trees and boughs to decorate his entire restaurant for the holidays. He could have purchased Christmas trees from anyone else in town. But instead, he decided to buy them all from Dad. Anyone who knows the Violi’s knows what a wonderful and generous family they are. And to this day, my family is very grateful they were so kind to us that year.
After that, word spread throughout town, and soon we were running out of trees.
What had started out as as a risk had paid off. Once again, we made another trip back to the tree farm with Dad for 75 more trees.
With Christmas only a week or two away, the second load of trees disappeared as well and soon only two or three trees remained in our yard.
On Christmas Eve, there was only one tree left. Just before dark there was a knock at our front door. Outside, a man was standing on our front porch. Dad recognized him. He was a local elementary school teacher with several small children of his own. Because our town was so small, Dad knew he was unemployed too.
He asked Dad, “How much for the Christmas tree?” It was the only tree left on our lot. For several minutes, Dad tried over and over again to get him to take the tree for free. But despite Dads efforts, and the man knowing that Dad was out of work, too, he insisted on paying for it.
Santa visited our house that year and my sisters and I had more than enough presents. I can’t tell you what gifts I received that year. And at the time, I had no idea that Dad had lost his job.
What I do remember is how much fun it was having our yard temporarily transformed into a winter playground filled with snow and hundreds of beautiful Christmas trees. I also remember how Dad, in between selling trees, had turned part of our back yard into a small skating rink for my sisters and I. He made trip after trip from the house for boiling water, carrying it out, one kettle at a time, and poured it out onto an area of snow he had smoothed out and turned into a rink, so that my sisters and I could skate in our back yard.
And I’ll never forget how both of my parents, working as a team, made sure that my sisters and I had one of the most beautiful and memorable Decembers I will never forget.