Natures perfection is its imperfection. That is how Beth sees it. She sees beauty in the lopsided Christmas tree. A tree that is sparse on one side and full on the other. Her brother Bill could not disagree more. Although Billy is old enough to know better, he still aspires to finding the “perfect tree.” His imaginings of this tree are typical and uninspired, requiring it to be symmetrical and uniform, of consistent fullness, without sparse patches or bald spots. Beth thinks Billy’s ideal christmas tree resembles a cartoon drawing or the green triangles seen in one of the many “stop motion” tv specials which play over the holiday season.
It is Saturday afternoon and two weeks before Christmas. Mr. Weald and eldest son Bill, as they do every year, are heading out to cut down the tree. Only this year all the children and Pops want to tag along. In October, over thanksgiving weekend, all had trekked through the bush to tie two red ribbons onto potential Christmas trees. Now they are eager and excited to show their father and watch the chop.
Firstly Josh and Joey lead Mr. Weald to the back of the North field. It’s a long way to go but the twins assure Bill it will be worth it. The tree they have flagged is a diamond in the rough, or more accurately a pine growing within the cedars. Mr. Weald is sceptical. “Are you boys sure this is where you found the Christmas tree?” ” Oh yes! yes.” reply similar voices. “We remember pretending we were in the jungle.”
After searching amid dense cedar and finding neither the pine tree nor the red ribbon, the group decides to move on. Joey and Josh are disappointed but Beth is pleased. This means it will be her tree to decorate. Mr. Weald turns to her and nods, prompting Beth to lead the way.
She shepherds them eastward. A group of seven trundling through wet snow. A shallow blanket covers the forest floor making every step slippery and soft. Fat drops of melting snow falling periodically from tree limbs splattering around and sometimes on top of them. Bill becomes impatient, “Beth.” he sighs, “we are almost at the end of our property, where are you taking us?” Beth replies that it is just over the next little hill but the truth is she can’t remember. She was carrying a copy of “Aurora Leigh” in October and may have been reading as she strolled through the woods. When she looked up from her book there it was, a perfect Christmas tree standing before her. She tied the red flag, turned around and returning to her book walked home in the same manner. Now that she thinks about it, she had to follow the dog home because she’d lost her way. Beth doesn’t admit to this out loud but she does remember that she’d been heading east, the sun was warm on her back that day. Instead she says cheerfully “Just one more hill, I am sure of it.”
Reaching the crest, the company expects to spy the perfect pine tree. Instead, it is not one tree but many. And not pine but apple. It is an orchard. Opening up from the bush, an area containing several rows of gnarled stunted apple trees. Here, the sun is allowed to reach the ground, for some reason the wilderness of the woods has not taken root. Apple trees standing apart, un-manicured and surrounded by dead leaves and weeds, but still proud and uncrowded. This orchard may have been forsaken but the trees appear content.
The beauty of this secret orchard, forgotten amongst the forest, takes Beth’s breath away. Bill, on the other hand, is frustrated and wants to turn back immediately. The twins and Lauren are already running between the fruit trees, tossing frozen apples at one another. Mr. Weald, who has lived here at Milkweed Lane his whole life, is taken aback by the discovery. Pops, however is not.”Uh huh, yes,yes. Seems I forgot about this place.”
The family now questions Grandpop. Mr Weald in particular. “How is it I have lived 40 years on this property and not come across the orchard?” Pops chuckles. “I don’t know son, I haven’t kept it from you. it just slipped my mind.” Bill smacks his forehead with the back of his hand, even more frustrated with the typical Pops answer. Of all the Weald children Billy has known Pops the longest so he also knows we are all about be subjected to a “back in the day” story.
Grandpop begins with ….In my day, as you might well know, we grew all our own food. Not much was purchased at the market. It was my father, your great-grandfather, who planted this orchard. He did so in secret because it was to be a surprise for his wife, my mother. You see, your great-grandmother loved apples. All kinds, but most of all she loved the wild apples. It was her leisure to take long walks, down the lane-way and hunt for apple trees roadside. She found it utterly delightful to stumble upon one or two growing wild and alone aside the forest edge. On warm spring days she took pleasure in the blossoms, inhaling heavily scented air, the breeze stirring up flurries of petals like soft and perfumed snow. And in the crispness of autumn great-grandmother loved nothing more than to stroll across the acreage encountering wild trees and collecting their tiny apples. Green and hard and full of flaws, she needed many to make a pie. Wild apples are small with numerous flaws and blemished, it was a chore to remove imperfections, leaving not much edible flesh. It seemed, to my father, all lot of work for just one or two pies. He decided to plant her a proper orchard. Pops spreads his arms wide, motioning towards the fruit garden as if presenting it to us. In the spring a blizzard of blossoms and in the fall apples red and ripe, plump and perfect.
Well, mother was delighted with the surprise. Kissing and thanking her husband, she couldn’t have loved him more. And as it is true for most gifts it was the thought that counted. There was no denying the beauty of the orchard. Spring came and when she visited the orchard to enjoy the blossoms, as expected the sight was awesome. Millions of pinkish white and fragrant petals smothering rows of manicured fruit trees. A wonderous world created by love. Oh, how she wanted to love it back but Mother missed stumbling across wild apples by accident. She missed being unexpectedly struck by the delicate whiff of blooms. Mostly she missed knowing her secret that wild sour apples make the best pies.
In autumn great-grandmother eager to make pie for thanksgiving returned to her orchard. She collected plenty of apples in no time. Not needing many, being they were so big. Humming away to herself in the kitchen, she made several pies and left them on the porch to cool. The family, trailing the aroma, gravitated towards the homestead anticipating desert. After dinner everyone was excited to taste the first pies made from orchard apples. The apple pie was delicious. Anyone who had never tasted a perfect apple pie would have swooned. But the Weald family had, they’d had Mothers wild apple pie. A pie which needed fifty wild apples collected lovingly from around the property and along the roadsides. A pie that was beyond compare.
As years went by mother visited the orchard less and less returning to old habits. Father kept up the orchard for a while but it was time-consuming and he had plenty of other work. After a while the orchard was…. forgotten.
Beth is enchanted by the romance of the story and by the orchard itself. She sees it has been left to grow wild and flawed just as the apple trees great-grandmother was so charmed by. Beth decides to remember this place and make it her own. Billy, on the other hand is ready to move on. “Let’s go.” he hollers to the other kids. “It’s getting late we still need to find a tree.” Grandpops suggests he take the children back to the house while Mr. Weald and Bill go and cut a tree as they always have.
By the time the two men are back it is dark. A balsam fir, slightly frozen rests on the porch to thaw. Once the branches fall Bill will trim them and use the cuttings to fill-in bald spots or sparse areas. He drills small holes into the trunk and wedges the extra branches into them. He does not have to do this he wants to. Everyone else thinks the tree is fine the way it is. Mrs.Weald will position the tree in the stand then string lights and garland around it. The ornaments are hung by the children, some new some old, some made and some bought, each containing a story that will be brought to mind. Lastly Mr.Weald places the star on top. As the family steps back to admire their work all are dazzled. Beth most of all. She is lured by the sparkle, she wonders if this years Christmas miracle was in not finding the ribbon tree. For sure this is the best Christmas tree yet. It is splendidly homemade, homegrown and a combined effort. A tree that is perfectly perfect in its imperfections.