12 Days Valerie Fraser Luesse

Like Two Trees in a Pod

You never knew what might happen on our annual hunt for the family Christmas tree.

I look around at all the beautifully manicured Christmas trees grown on farms near Birmingham, where I live—and the perfectly shaped, pre-lit artificial ones at Walmart and Hobby Lobby—and I think to myself: Where’s the challenge in that?

When I was a child, growing up in rural Alabama, “putting up the tree” began with a pickup truck and a saw. Daddy would load my cousin Kathy and me into his truck and strike out for the hedgerows framing my uncle’s cotton fields, where cedar trees grew wild. My dad was sort of famous in our family for selecting ugly Christmas trees. To be fair, he had often worked an 8-hour shift in a paper mill before my mother dispatched him to find two trees—one for her and one for her sister—accompanied by a couple of we’re-so-excited-we-can’t-stand-it little girls. So I have to cut Daddy some slack.

I’m sure we must’ve found some of our trees in broad daylight, but in my memories of those Christmas hunts, the air was always crisp and cold, and the sky was slowly turning “dusky dark,” as my mother says. If you’ve never ridden in the back of a pickup with a dusky dark December sky overhead, I’m just as sorry as I can be. It’s grand.

On behalf of our mothers, Kathy and I thought it our duty to steer Daddy, as best we could, toward two suitable trees: triangular in shape, not too tall, not too short, not pencil-thin, and not as big as a barn. But Daddy is both stubborn and imaginative. That’s a mighty dangerous combination in a man. And unlike more cooperative spruces and firs, the cedars around home were wily, unpredictable pieces of foliage. They weren’t at all sure they wanted to be triangles. Looking back, I think it was the challenge of tricking a cedar into becoming a Christmas tree that Daddy loved best.

Everybody knows you can’t cut the top out of a Christmas tree, or there goes the triangle. So you have to work from the bottom up to get the right height. Because the ladies wanted their trees to sparkle before a front window so that passersby would know they had the holiday spirit, they insisted that their trees be pretty “all the way around.” They would have none of Daddy’s “we could turn this bare spot around to the back” arguments.

His most celebrated achievement—one that works its way into most Christmas essays I write because I still marvel at it—was the year he found two trees that were both lush and green on one side and dead-brown on the other. You now what happened next, don’t you? He cut them both down and tied them together with the dead parts facing inward. Presented with two half-dead trees that had been fused into one gloriously green one, my mother was clearly conflicted: Well, that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard of . . . but it’s kind of genius too.

Because we never knew what kind of Christmas weather we might have in the Deep South—could be in the 30s, could be in the 60s—we could never count on real snow. So Mama made some. Did you know that if you take Ivory Snow detergent, add water, and whip it with a hand mixer, it will take on the consistency of meringue? It’s true. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a white Christmas, but our tree was always Ivory Snow-tipped.

Fast-forward many years to the beginning of my career in magazines. By then, Mama and all the ladies in our community had succumbed to the convenience of pre-lit artificial trees. No more watering. No more untangling last year’s lights. Sigh. No more tree hunts with Daddy.

So I developed a new hunt of my own. Whenever I traveled, I would search for jaw-dropping Christmas ornaments for my parents’ tree. Mama especially liked the ones from Saks in New York. Over the years, I completely filled that tree with beautiful ornaments, which everybody loved looking at during the holidays.

A couple of years ago, my mother announced that she would no longer put up her big Christmas tree. It’s just too much trouble, she says. For now, all her pretty ornaments are packed away. But I’m thinking . . . I’ve got some time off for Christmas. Daddy’s still got a pickup. And he’s still got a saw. All we need are two half-dead trees, and we’re back in business.

More about Missing Issac

Screen Shot 2017-11-25 at 7.26.10 PMThere was another South in the 1960s, one far removed from the marches and bombings and turmoil in the streets that were broadcast on the evening news. It was a place of inner turmoil, where ordinary people struggled to right themselves on a social landscape that was dramatically shifting beneath their feet. This is the world of Valerie Fraser Luesse’s stunning debut, Missing Isaac.

It is 1965 when black field hand Isaac Reynolds goes missing from the tiny, unassuming town of Glory, Alabama. The townspeople’s reactions range from concern to indifference, but one boy will stop at nothing to find out what happened to his unlikely friend. White, wealthy, and fatherless, young Pete McLean has nothing to gain and everything to lose in his relentless search for Isaac. In the process, he will discover much more than he bargained for. Before it’s all over, Pete—and the people he loves most—will have to blur the hard lines of race, class, and religion. And what they discover about themselves may change some of them forever.

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Valerie Fraser LuesseValerie Fraser Luesse is an award-winning magazine writer best known for her feature stories and essays in Southern Living, where she is currently senior travel editor. She grew up in Harpersville, Alabama, a rural community in Shelby County, and now lives in Birmingham with her husband, Dave, and an orange cat named Cheeto.


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