My dad was born in a farmhouse. He had very little growing up. At least that’s how he always told the story. His family was pretty hard up.
His most valuable possession was a transistor radio he’d bought at a department store when he was a boy. He’d listen to the radio shows in the 50s. “Abbot and Costello” reruns. “The Jack Benny Show.” He’d listen to ball games. He’d root for Mickey Mantle. Roger Maris. The “Say Hey Kid.”
Otherwise, he didn’t have squat.
Which would explain why my father headed up the Christmas tree committee every year at the fundamentalist Baptist church (motto: “Buying life insurance is a form of gambling”).
My father would gather up donations from anyone and anywhere. He would shamelessly ask for money. He would even resort to sending paralyzingly cute Little Leaguers door to door, selling cookies.
The money earned would be used to buy balsam firs. He bought truckloads of trees.
At which point people in the church would submit addresses of families who needed help for Christmas. Whereupon my father and his army of his friends would deliver trees in early December.
Every year, I would go with Daddy on these deliveries. Each year, we would load dozens of balsams into the bed of his F-100. My father would have a clipboard of addresses. And we would drive into the hinterlands, wearing Santa hats.
One night, I remember riding into a little trailer park, way out in the sticks. I remember how dark it was in the country. I remember my father parking the truck in front of a single wide trailer.
We walked up to the mildewed porch. Daddy carried a tree over his shoulder. We rapped on the thin aluminum door. When the door opened, a young woman was staring back at us. A baby on her hip.
Daddy insisted that we sing “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.” So we did. We sang the whole thing. Even the dumb verse about figgy pudding.
By the time we finished singing, the young woman was laughing. Then my father would always say the same thing. He would tell the recipient they had won a randomized contest put on by the power company. “You won a free tree!” he’d say.
He would never tell the recipient that someone in church had nominated them for a tree because they were going through hard times. He would never embarrass anyone. We were always with the power company, just wandering through town, carrying a truckful of Christmas trees for the heck of it.
I remember one time we delivered a tree to a veritable shack. It was the kind of place that was leaning sideways. Chipped clapboards. Lopsided porch. An obligatory blue tarp on the rooftop. Simply put, the place was crap.
We showed up to the home, and Daddy was visibly shaken. He wiped his eyes and nailed a smile to his face.
He and I went marching up to the doorstep. He rang the doorbell and several children answered the door. They were scrawny and pale, with dirty clothes.
Daddy set up the tree in their den, and they all just watched him in rapt wonder. And then my father surprised everyone when he placed wrapped boxes beneath their tree.
He told the kids these gifts were from Santa, and that Saint Nick had given him official permission to do this even though Christmas was four weeks away.
The kids threw their arms around my father and thanked him and begged him to stay. And my father just held them tightly and wished them a merry Christmas.
And when we left that place, my father pulled the truck over and wept like a child in the front seat. I asked why he was so upset. He wiped his face and said this was near the house where he had grown up.
Whereupon, he held me closely and told me that we had a lot to be grateful for. He told me he loved me. And he asked me to make him a promise.
“What kind of promise?” I said.
“Promise me that you won’t ever forget about people in this world who are hard up.”
I pray every year that I can make good on that promise.