My brother and I grew up with an artificial Christmas tree. The bent branches were colour-coded and fit into a crooked six-foot pole. My parents hosted holiday parties in our little house and more than one man we had been taught to call Uncle had fallen into it.
Over the years, our broken tree absorbed the smell of these parties. It would puff out in a cloud of perfect expectation when we opened the old box.
If someone could manufacture, mix and bottle the scent of rye whisky, cigarette smoke and the marriage of hot bulb and green plastic without giving me cancer, I would sit and huff it in dark rooms from Dec. 24 to Jan. 2.
We didn't have religion, but we did have the tree.
Our father died young just after Christmas one year, within months of several others who had populated those parties: a grandfather, a grandmother, an uncle, an aunt. A tree, it turns out, lacks a quality of reassurance a prophet or a god might provide in a season of funerals.
In our extended family, the usual things happened with vacation property that had been happily shared before the deaths of patriarchs and matriarchs. It could suddenly not be shared and my mother, brother, and I found ourselves with $60,000 from liquidated real estate.
It was not nearly enough money to replace what we had lost: a cozy cabin by a prairie lake. Something intelligent like paying off debt or investing in oil companies did not occur to us.
“Dad would want us to buy land,” my brother, Kirk, wrote in an e-mail. At the bottom of the message there was a blurry photograph of a forest.
While I'm pleased forests exist, I had no great urge to own one. Kirk lives in Edmonton, but he has diverse interests that include shooting huge animals on a weekend.
“It's a log cabin on 80 acres. Land.”
I heard Duddy Kravitz's grandfather, who had at some point in high school melded with my own grandfather: A man without land is nobody.
What about a man without indoor plumbing?
Kirk picked me up in his truck and we drove to our land, 120 kilometres northeast of Edmonton. It was a real log cabin: a box with a healthy layer of mouse droppings on the cold floor and a couple of windows stuffed with fibreglass insulation. There were antlers on the wall and some grey mattresses stacked in a loft. The single light, powered by a generator, flickered woozily. It seemed a terrific place to stab someone.
I didn't want to buy it, but Kirk was correct about our father. He had grown up on a farm and longed to return.
That fall, my brother had a knee operation and developed a blood clot. It travelled from his leg to his lungs and sent him to the hospital with a massive pulmonary embolism. Several doctors told him he had nearly died and for a couple of weeks he was on a lot of morphine; it made him alternately bewildered and sentimental. I visited him every day and he made me write down the songs he wanted me to play at his funeral. Only one of them was any good.
Outside the hospital room, some men were stringing Christmas lights on an artificial rooftop pine tree. I had been looking for a way to direct the subject away from death.
“You know what we have to do?”
“I'm not changing the songs. Those are the goddamn songs.”
“What did Dad like more than anything?”
“Apart from that?”
When our father was 17, he stuck his left arm into a farm implement and lost it. He moved to the city a one-armed man but he never gave up his agricultural dreams. I knew precisely what we had to do to honour our father, renew our connection with Christmas, stop talking about funeral ballads and make a pile of cash.
Next thing we knew, both of us were sobbing with the curtain closed around the bed.
I started working on our business plan: Uncle Tannenbaum's Christmas Tree Farm.
It takes seven to 12 years to grow a soft-needled, aromatic balsam fir. There would be some start-up costs, of course, and I would have to find a sapling supplier.
The leading cut-your-own Christmas tree farm in Alberta is 16 kilometres from the autobahn-like Queen Elizabeth II Highway that links Edmonton and Calgary: Fir Ever Green Tree Farm.