Destinations & Diversions: Christmas trees and bourbon balls

J. H. Osborne • Dec 6, 2016 at 8:30 PM

I passed two Optimist Club tree lots in town last week. It made me long to go tree hunting.

In truth, for the past decade or so, all I’ve had to do to “hunt” a tree is prowl through my high-rent storage units — and decide which of the seven, eight or nine artificial trees I’ve accumulated (I’ve lost track) to put up at which of several spots in the house.

But when I was a child, and into my early 20s, the annual hunt for a tree holds some of my best memories of family at Christmastime. Until I was 10 or 12, this usually meant a trip to a local tree lot. We had a lot of Charlie Brown Christmas trees, based on family photos from the 1960s.

By the mid-1980s, with my siblings gone and Dad working more than ever, Mom and I went on a several-years-long extravagant streak, buying lush cut trees, often at Evergreen. We had some beautiful ones during that time.

But, oh, those precious memories of the trees of childhood, especially those we braved chilly hillsides to choose, cut and drive home stuffed in the trunk or tied to the roof of the car.

At some point in the 1970s (I blame “The Waltons” and its pilot “The Homecoming”) my parents, both born and raised in rural sections of Lee County, Va., became nostalgic and decided we should go “down the country” (how we referred to visiting our Lee County kinfolk) and cut our own tree. Oh, wouldn’t it be fun!

It was. But in truth it was more funny than fun.

Like Chevy Chase years later in National Lampoon’s “Christmas Vacation,” we turned out to have very poor judgment when it came to size in the field vs. size in the living room. We never made it home with a squirrel in the branches, but we did once make it home to discover a bird’s nest.

My mother preferred cedars, saying they reminded her more of “old timey” times. And they made the house smell “old timey” too. I can remember my brother Keith telling us point blank that a tree Dad was about to cut was too big for our house. One year, like something from an episode of “The Lucy Show,” we found two trees that each had one “perfect” side, so Dad trimmed the “bad” from off each and grafted them together in our old green-and-red, three-legged tree stand.

Cedar trees, especially fat ones, don’t usually have that conical shape we’ve all learned to expect from a Christmas tree. Soon, we became known for our “Christmas bushes.” It was hard to decide where to place the “treetop star.” Relatives we wouldn’t see all year began to show up during the holidays, just to giggle a bit while they proclaimed, “What a tree!” and “However did you get it in here?”

My last memory of going to cut a tree from the family farm(s) at Flower Gap is one of the funniest. It was 1982. And it was just me, Mom, Aunt Bonnie (Wallen Hurd), and Bonnie’s daughter, my first cousin Sue (Hurd Mullins). We headed out one sunny afternoon for the one-hour trip to “the country,” with me driving Mom’s big late ’70s Chrysler, Aunt Bonnie riding shotgun (and armed with an ax), and Mom and Sue in the backseat.

Our goal: find, cut and bring home seven trees. I can’t recall who all we had promised a tree. I do know one would have been for my paternal grandmother, Maude Ward Osborne. And I also had promised one to my college-professor-turned-friend Dr. Janice Wilson.

At that time, a popular holiday homemade treat was Bacardi rum balls: crushed Nilla wafers, cocoa powder, powdered sugar, Karo syrup — and rum. Bourbon balls also were a holiday staple of the day. Liquor was not welcome in our home. But somehow I’d eased in just enough to get away with making a run of each of these “cookies and candies.”

And I’d put a tin of each among the snacks we’d packed in the car to tide us over on our hunt. Mother and Sue weren’t having any. Aunt Bonnie and I got into both early on. Pretty soon Mom and Sue were whispering and laughing in the back seat. Eventually, they expressed concern because they said every time Aunt Bonnie opened one of my cookie/candy tins, the car was filled with the smell of liquor. They allowed I shouldn’t be imbimbing while driving. Aunt Bonnie said when you cook with liquor, the alcohol evaporates. I said, “These aren’t cooked; you just stir them up.” Aunt Bonnie gave me a look that told me I should have kept my mouth shut.

We arrived at Popie’s (my grandfather, Null Wallen’s) house and parked in the gravel driveway. In no time, Aunt Bonnie was herding us up the hillside — recounting for us, again, that when she was a child she’d had to carry water in metal lard buckets from the creek on the far side of the road, back across in front of the house, and to the top of the hill we were ascending to water one of Popie’s tobacco patches. Whenever she told this tale, the amount of water that splashed out by the time she reached the tobacco increased until finally it seemed just a tablespoon or two remained.

In addition to the rum and bourbon ball controversy, we had another diversion: fear.

For some reason unknown to me, the womenfolk were skittish once we left the safety of the big Chrysler. Even though we were on family land (my grandfather’s property joined farms owned by my uncles Jack and Mitchell) Mom, Aunt Bonnie and Sue seemed sure we were going to meet with trouble. Each time we’d hear a car approaching on the road below, Mom and Aunt Bonnie would simultaneously whisper-yell, “Hide!” And each time, dissolving into laughter that echoed off the hillside across the road below — on the far side of Popie’s prime “bottom land”  — Sue and I would jump behind the nearest trees.

Aunt Bonnie did most of the cutting. She was especially good with the ax, although I’d brought a saw as well. She picked an especially well-shaped tree for herself. In no time, we had our seven trees crammed in the Chrysler’s trunk or tied on its roof.

We set out for home. Mom and Aunt Bonnie were practically wringing their hands that sunset was upon us and it was potentially a matter of life and death that we get through Drake’s Gap before nightfall. Otherwise, they were certain we’d be waylaid. Ambushed. Robbed and perhaps worse. They said they’d heard that recently someone noticed a car began following them just as they entered the gulch-like gap — and when they reached the other end, a second car blocked the road. They were pinned in — and would have been robbed if their gun hadn’t been visible on their car seat. All we had was an ax.

Usually Mom and Aunt Bonnie would be telling me to slow down as we made our way in and out of “the country” on the two-lane, winding roads. But that evening they were telling me to speed up and get us through the gap.

Then it happened. Not far from our entrance into the dreaded Drake’s Gap, a car seemed to come out of nowhere behind me. I sped up. It sped up. With the trunk lid open and trees hanging out, we could only glimpse it in the side mirrors. “Go faster, don’t let them catch up with us!” Aunt Bonnie said, just as the car chasing us began to flash its lights and blow its horn. Arms waved from its windows. “Don’t let them pass us, stick to the middle,” Aunt Bonnie shouted. I floored it. Thanks to Mom’s big V-8 Chrysler, we left them in the dust and made it through the gap.

When we got home we unloaded the trees. All six of them. Yes, we’d lost a tree. It was Aunt Bonnie’s.

It took less than 24 hours to find it. The next day, after church, she and her husband, Lonnie, went to visit my Aunt Ann (Wallen Manis Addington) and her husband, Pete. Aunt Bonnie walked into Aunt Ann’s living room and remarked, “What a beautiful tree, sister. Did you cut it at Popie’s or Jack’s?” At the same time, it hit her: that tree sure looked familiar.

“No,” Aunt Ann said. “We didn’t have to cut it or even go looking for it. We went down to visit yesterday, and on the way home we found it. Just laying in the middle of the road. Right before you get to Drake’s Gap.”

Aunt Bonnie went home and put up her vintage silver tree with the color wheel.

If you have children and they’ve never been on a tree hunt — at a tree lot in town or a cut-your-own farm — there’s still time to give it a try.