The tree was a plump little white pine, cut from the top of a much bigger one that grew in a stand behind the cottage. Thinking back, I see it as very superior in size, shape and decoration, but my mother tells me that trimming it caused her some worry. "When we were Christmas shopping," she says, "I decided we needed another string of lights. We had only one left that worked. A string of lights probably didn't cost much more than a dollar then, but we decided we shouldn't spend the money—or maybe we just flat didn't have the money. I almost cried about that, but you know how Daddy was. He told me I was being silly, and I was, and that the lights didn't make any difference. He carved decorations out of wood and we painted some and covered others with tinfoil to sparkle. We strung popcorn we'd grown and fixed up a candle on top of the tree. We had a good time decorating it and it really was beautiful, but every once in a while I'd look at it and think we were so broke that buying a string of Christmas lights was a major decision."
By the time it was dark the storm had passed. The temperature was subzero. It was dead calm and the sky was full of stars. There was enough light from above and streaming out of the cottage, and so much snow to reflect it, that the yard right down to the lake was softly illuminated. The spruce and pine trees were drooping gracefully, with virtually every needle bearing a delicate load of snow. Even the stark oak and gum trees were snow-covered. The air was so clear and cold that it seemed as if the stars were not simply shining through the limbs but hanging on them like ornaments. What we had was the pluperfect, storybook, fancy-calendar, greeting-card Christmas scene. About this my mother and I have exactly the same memory. "It was," she says, "the prettiest Christmas I have ever seen, and I have seen 27 more of them than you have."
I probably made no such judgment then, if only because I had no standard of comparison, but now I have. In fact, every Christmas Eve since has come up short esthetically in comparison with 1931. In a way I suppose that's bad, having had the best so early, but, as they say, it's better to be coming down the other side of the mountain than never to have been on top.
Christmas morning I was up and in the living room very early, though not before my parents had turned on the tree lights, started the fire and done some last-minute display work. It might not have been much by current standards of consumption, but I still see it as a room chock full of loot. There were a considerable number of more or less background bundles—coloring books and crayons, reading books of the Shingibis sort, a small clockwork truck, a dozen oranges (less common and comparatively more of a treat then)—all packaged so as to create the illusion of superabundance. Then there were four major presents, three of which I knew immediately were major and one which I did not. They were:
1) A bow carved of Osage orangewood and a quiver of six hickory-shafted arrows, blunt tipped, feathered with pinions taken from a wild Canada goose. The bow and arrows were something of a rite-of-passage symbol, though such fancy terms were not used then. My father and uncles were archery buffs, shooting at targets and playing archery golf, a game in which bows and arrows instead of clubs and balls were used until an arrow reached the green. Then they used a ball and a putter to finish out the hole. Times being what they were, they also became competitive fletchers, there being considerable rivalry in designing equipment, and selecting and curing various wild woods. I had played around with bent limbs, wrapping twine and notched elderberry shoots, but this was my first genuine, serious bow.
2) A genuine, serious ax. The head was from a salvaged hatchet, burnished but intentionally ground very dull. The handle was cut down to my size, but the grip was shaped like that of a real ax.
3) A rocking chair, again custom-scaled for me. Lacking a lathe, my father had turned out the rungs and rockers with a drawknife and plane. The seat was caned with split hickory. He had carved funny, gnomelike faces on the ends of the armrests and a low-relief cluster of hickory nuts on the headboard.
4) A leather coat lined with sheepskin, and a matching aviator-style helmet of a style then popular with American small fry. This was all right, but the coat was the present whose importance I did not appreciate then or, for that matter, not until quite recently when my mother and I were talking about that Christmas.
"One of the reasons you had been staying inside so much was that we didn't think your old jacket was warm enough," she said. "We didn't have the money to buy anything better, but you did. When you were born your grandfather started a bank account for you. It had $50 in it, and we thought of it as the start of your college education fund, though back then you had about as good a chance of going to the moon as to college. We never touched it until that Christmas. Then Daddy said it wasn't going to do you much good to have a bank account if you were frozen stiff. So we took out about half the money and bought you that coat. I felt like we were embezzlers," she said, smiling. "It was such a big thing for us, and you just looked at the coat and said 'ugh' or something."
The bow was the most immediately spectacular and engaging present. While my mother was getting breakfast my father rigged up a pillow target, showed me how to string the bow over my knee, draw back on the string rather than the arrow, hold it steady and release it without jerking. Shortly I had splintered an arrow by shooting wildly into the stone fireplace. Later on when we got outside I improved somewhat under the tutelage of older bowmen, and subsequently archery became a modest skill and an occasional pastime.