The Christmas smile


Editor’s note: This column was first published in the Juneau Empire on Dec. 24, 2014.


My mother’s smile on the Christmas holidays was never so large as when she stood with her arm up around my father’s waist and he draped his down upon her shoulder.

Gazing up into branches of pine or cedar or spruce, she would catch his eyes lovingly looking down into hers.

The tree aroma surrounded them.

Standing out in the muskeg-covered snow.

Knee-deep in white holiday cheer.

The large tree before them had been spotted from the road as we drove slowly along our unpaved childhood.

“Harold, that looks like a good one,” mom would say.

We would drive on.

“Harold, that looks like a nice one,” mom would say.

My father’s blue International Travelette, or double cab, pickup blasting out as much heat as could cover a carload of at least two of their seven children and whatever friends of ours happened to get caught up in the “finding a Christmas tree” day.

“Nope,” my father would say.

And either the tree would be too big, too small, missing branches, be a home for tiny critters, a deer’s back scratcher, a place where porcupine dwelled or just not what the twinkle in his eye was looking for.

Ahhhhhhhhh, but when the tree was found!

“Oh there,” his powerful voice would fill our tiny heads as they pivoted left and right and back and to the front in search of the green goodness that would fill our living room with color and aroma for weeks.

Out of the truck we would pile.

Bodies too bundled to bend forward and see our boot toes.

Snow was thrown at the smallest of us travelers.

My father would lift from the pickup bed the hand-made toboggan he had crafted and set it down facing the direction we would travel. For 10 seconds the beauty of generations of Swedish ancestry would catch the soft falling snow, its yellowish color and white braided line proudly showing the great-great-great teachings passed down in my father’s homeland.

In we jumped.

I, the tiniest, my feet and knees too small to fill the curled up front, was held tightly in place by an assortment of larger bodies behind me.

A leather pack containing a thermos of coffee and another of cocoa, a stack of sandwiches, and an extra large woven sweater was put in between my tiny legs.

This would block the snow and wind from kissing my face as we traveled out among the wonderland much like explorers in the Arctic.

My father would grasp the loop of rope that held his lineage in one hand, and his double-edged axe in the other, and with one hefty step and pull, our excited squeals were thrust out into the day.

My mother was bundled as tightly as we were.

She would grasp my father’s checkered wool jacket edge and be eased along in his gait.

Whatever canine we had at the time bounded about. Sam, husky-wolf mix, sprang high in the air; Chubby, husky-St. Bernard mix, crashed through the trees; or Koenig, all Weiner dog, buried by any step taken outside the path my father made ahead.

From the steaming truck on the road Grandma Agnes Erickson, my father’s mother, who spoke only Swedish except when calling us “those damn kids” in broken English, would be voicing something Scandinavian, wave at us, and continue on in a dialogue only she could comprehend.

She had brought my father as an infant to America.

She darned his socks and mended his work clothes, things my mother would do as well.

They lived for a while in Canada until my father lost his in the great flu epidemic.

At 14 years old my father brought his mother and his sister and her husband to Alaska.

He raised foxes and built log cabins. He carried burdens I could never, and have never, understood.

He was one of the original Alaska Telephone lineman, he installed some of the first phones and televisions in Little Norway.

That was where he met my mother.

She graduated from Queen Anne High School in Washington, married the wrong man, who brought her and their five children to Alaska and then ran off.

My father took them all in, added my brother Jim and then myself.

Men shook his hand when they spoke on the street and women hugged him knowing he was spoken for.

So across the holiday landscape we trod.

My father’s giant steps seemed to cross rivers with each footfall.

Somehow mom was never far from his side.

When she tired he would kiss her cheek and she would languish until the sled passed and she could fall in on the hardened path we left.

Through the trees we wove.

My father would pause every so often and chip a small kindle off a tree, his bare hands would gently waft the species to his nose and he would “ahhhhhhhhhhhh” long and deep.

The smell was pine, or cedar, or spruce.

He would then waft it under my mothers nose. Her smile spreading warmly, pushing her scarf aside and her woolen hat back.

Then the piece was handed to me.

An aroma so earthy and fresh and spirited and giving…

Behind me a blow would come to pass it back and reluctantly the piece of nature would be shared.

“Our tree will smell like this,” he’d say.

And off we would go again.

A ride into my father’s own childhood paradise and my mother’s fantasies.

I peered over the bundle before me, past the curve of the sled, trying to spot what tree would be ours.

The passengers behind me did the same and the sled would turn slightly left or right as they leaned out to look around the mammoth man who towed them forth.

The breathing of my father and mother would cloud up above us and float away and we would try to shoot our own wintery plumes after them.

“Hmmmpph,” my father said.

And we were at our tree.

We all rolled off the sled and went crazy for five minutes before yelling of cold fingers and frozen toes.

The sled was propped across a stump or a berm and lunch was served.

My father drank quickly a thermos cap of coffee, rubbed the life into his hands, and took his axe forward.

We watched from our perch, mouths full of egg salad or chicken salad and dripping cocoa.

In a few short strokes it fell and we whooped in joy.

The tree would have regal passage back… fastened to the sled with only the weariest youths sitting inside its warmth.

We would not see it again until the next morning.

Harold would trim it in the work shed and fasten it to a stand and in the next day we would all have some part in decorating.

Strings of light bulbs the size of my tiny fist were wrapped upon it.

My parents own childhood ornaments, and those accumulated later, were brought from old wooden storage boxes.

My mother’s grandmother’s tree top angel placed last above it all.

On Christmas morning my father would sit down next to the tree and hand the gaiety of presents to my mother and she would pass them to whom Santa had so destined.

This Christmas tree forage would continue as I aged — from grade school, to middle school, to high school and college.

My father became grandpa, my mother grandma, and my brother and his family lived next door.

Still he went forth, with youths in tow, and the magic was given over and over.

When my father passed in 1993 the Christmas tree hunt began to change.

Some years fresh trees were brought home, in others the convenience of imposters.

Sometimes at night I would bring a glass of water to my mother’s bedside and notice the tears in her eyes, my father’s photo on the nightstand smiling at her, a handful of black-and-white celluloid mementos across the bedding, her knees underneath making mountains like those our past trees came from.

My mother would spend her later Christmases at other’s homes.

On a Christmas that would be one of her last, before she became bedridden, she was bundled up and taken out into the night for a drive to see lights and visit relatives.

I stayed home.

Earlier I had crossed muskegs and streams.

I collected not trees, but limbs of the forest.

The living room was cleared of as much as could be reappointed in the house my father built.

I nailed, hung, tied and placed spruce, cedar and pine branches about.

No wall space showed.

The floor was laden with tree boughs. Twigs framed and iced the windows to reveal the snowfall outdoors.

The old family ornaments were adorned in this forest… more than 100 years of parental collections, passed down to children who grew to raise children of their own.

Things with cracks and withered paint, with half plumages remaining and legs or arms absent.

A few favorite family heritages and the photos she nightly coveted were placed from select hangings.

Aromatic wood chips from the forage were scattered about.

In the center was my mother’s favorite chair, a rocker my father had built.

When mother returned I sat her there in the center of the forest and closed the door.

Her tears flowed fast and steady among the smell of pine and cedar and spruce.

My father’s smiling eyes looking down from the branches into hers… my mother’s trembling smile pushing her gaze back up to him.

• Klas Stolpe can be reached at

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