Home To Evergreen
written by: Jim Bates
“Glenn.” My wife Sue handed me her phone. “It’s your mom. She wants to talk to you.”
I leaned back in my chair, slightly peeved. “What about?”
It was Saturday and I was grading my class of tenth graders’ life science tests. It was the test I’d given them before the Christmas holiday, and I just wanted to get it done with so I could enjoy the next week with my family. First on the agenda was to try and talk my son Will into going ice skating together. Once close, over the past few months I’d felt him drifting away from me; much like I did when I was thirteen and his age. I didn’t want to lose him. Like my dad had lost me.
Sue gave me a look, one that I was quick to figure out after nearly twenty years of marriage.
“You should talk to her,” she said, handing me her phone.
Yes, I should. “Hi, Mom. What’s up?”
To make a long story short, my dad was dying. Okay, that happens. But the kicker was that he wanted to see me.
Here’s the deal. In the late 1880s, my great-grandfather was in the logging business in northern Minnesota. He was very successful. So successful, in fact, he founded the town of Evergreen. You may have heard of it. It’s the Christmas Tree Capital of the World, or so my great-grandfather liked to say. “Best Christmas trees you’ll ever see,” he’d tell anyone who’d listen. Lots of people did, and to this day it’s still the town’s motto.
He bought land and planted more pine trees and business thrived. So did the town. He passed the business on to his son, Quimby, my grandfather, who passed it to my father who wanted to pass it along to me.
I wasn’t having any of it.
“No way,” I told him over thirty years ago. “Not on your life.”
I fancied myself a free spirit back in those days. Not wanting to be tied down, I left home and never looked back. In essence, my dad disowned me, not wanting anything to do with my devil-may-care attitude. Which was fine with me. I moved to Minneapolis, smoked a lot of weed, hung out, and played guitar in coffee shops. In short, I was going nowhere fast.
Then met Sue. It was love at first sight. At least for me. We were definitely not on the same wavelength romance-wise, and she made it clear she didn’t want anything to do with me.
“Clean up your act,” she told me. “Then we’ll talk.”
So, I did. I quit the weed, trimmed my hair, and looked to the future. I started taking classes and eventually graduated with a bachelor of science degree majoring in biology. I also obtained a Minnesota teaching certificate which allowed me to get a job in the Minneapolis school system. I’m happy to say I’ve been teaching Life Science at Metro High School for over twenty years, and I love it.
Anyway, although Dad and I never reconnected, Mom and I stayed close. She kept me apprised of the family business, and business was good. Great, even. Dad was a firm believer in sustainability, long before it became a media buzzword. He had about five thousand acres and rotated his pine trees through them on an ongoing basis. He recognized that good forest stewardship was the best way to conduct business. That’s where we differed.
Dad saw his forest of evergreen trees as a commodity. I didn’t. I saw them as a place to go for a walk, observe nature and maybe write about the experience. He was a capitalist. I was a poet. We had vastly different philosophies and neither of us figured out how to connect with each other. So, we did the guy thing. We avoided talking.
For thirty years.
Thank goodness for Mom. We stayed in touch and talked often on the phone. When she came to the city, she stayed with us. She and Sue were very close and Will adored her. She was a kind and generous person, and I loved her. So much that I didn’t mind her being married to my dad.
But I’ll tell you this: when she talked, I listened. So, that day on the phone, I listened for a long time.
Afterward, I went into the kitchen where Sue was busy dicing tomatoes and getting dinner started. I hugged her from behind. “Smells great. Spaghetti?”
“Correct.” She smiled. “Here.” She gave me the knife. “You take over.”
“Aye, aye, captain.” I grinned and started chopping.
She leaned against the counter. “What’d your mom want?”
“It’s Dad,” I told her, trying for some reason to sound blasé. “He’s dying.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” I could tell she was. In fact, I got the feeling she already knew. Like I said, she and my mom were close.
“She wants me to come up there. He wants to see me. Will, too, since they’ve never met.”
Sue poured a glass of wine and sipped. “Makes sense. What are you going to do?”
“I don’t want to drive all the way up there, but I think I should.”
Just then Will came in. “I think I should what?” he asked, grabbing a handful of cookies. Sue slapped his hand good-naturedly. “Only one, buster. It’s almost dinner time.”
I turned to Will. He was thirteen years old and had short red hair. Tall and thin, it seemed he grew taller every day. “Go visit my dad,” I told him. “Your grandma called. He’s dying.”
“He’s dying?” Unexpectedly, tears formed in his eyes.
“What’s wrong,” I asked, confused. “You don’t even know him.” I know it sounded cold, but, honestly, I didn’t know what else to say.
Will wiped his eyes. “I know. But I always thought one day I’d meet him.” He set his cookie down. “After all, I never knew Mom’s mom and dad.” Which was true. They had died before he was born. Car accident.
“So, what are you saying? You want to go meet him?”
His eyes brightened. “Yeah, I would. I’d love that.”
Wow. I looked at Sue. She met my gaze and raised her eyebrows. I could tell she was thinking, you’d better do this, pal. You may not get another chance like this to not only be with your son, but to mend fences with your dad.
She was right.
“Okay,” I said to Will. “Let’s do it.”
“Yeah!” he jumped up and, surprisingly, hugged me. “Thanks, Dad.”
I hugged him back. I guess I’d made the right decision. I hoped when we got back home, I’d still feel the same way.
Christmas was five days away. I did a quick calculation, thinking out loud. “Okay. I’ll call Mom and tell her we’re coming. We’ll go tomorrow. Stay maybe a night or two. See how it goes.” I looked at Sue and she gave me the thumbs-up sign. I looked at Will. “Okay with you?”
He smiled at me. A smile I hadn’t seen for quite a while. “It’s great, Dad. I’ll go pack.”
Now, I was excited. Evergreen, here we come.
The drive took about four hours, and we arrived around noon. Before we went to Mom’s, I took Will on a quick tour. Evergreen is in the middle of Moraine County. It’s a quaint town of four thousand hardworking souls who love the out-of-doors. They also love to decorate the town for the yearly pageant which runs the week before Christmas. We’d hit it just right. Main Street was lined with beautifully lit Christmas trees and decorated with hanging evergreen garlands interwoven with shiny red ribbons. All of the storefronts were decked out in twinkling Christmas lights and some of the windows had colorful displays of Santa and his elves. Everywhere we looked there was a feeling of festive joy in the air.
Will was enthralled. “Wow!” he said, pointing to a horse-drawn sleigh with four people in it being pulled along the snowy street. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
I had to admit it was very cool. The town was done up even more than I remembered. Back then, I thought it was an ostentatious display of extravagant commercial Christmas hogwash. Now, though, seeing Will’s face light up, I realized that there was a feeling of magic in the air. Maybe it’s because I was older and less jaded, but I really felt like I’d entered a different time and place; a Christmas wonderland full of the spirit of the holiday. It felt good.
“Shall we go to Grandma’s?” I asked.
“Sure,” Will said, looking out the window, his eyes wide with wonder. He turned to me. “Dad, I’m glad we came. This is way cool.”
The fact that we were even talking after not communicating much over the past year was, to use his term, way cool to me. I grinned. “It sure is.” I reached over to muss his air in a show of affection like I used to do.
He let me.
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s take this sleigh to Grandma’s.”
“That’s pretty bad, Dad,” Will said. But he grinned anyway.
“Giddy-up,” I said. And off we went.
Mom and Dad lived near the town square in the house my grandfather Quimby built. It’s a beautiful, two-and-a-half-story wood-frame farmhouse-style home with a wraparound front porch.
We pulled up front and parked. It was wonderfully decorated, of course. But beyond all of that, beyond the memories and emotions having to do with the house I grew up in, and the father I hadn’t seen for thirty years, was the memory of what Sue had said to me the night before.
We were lying in bed. I was restless, unable to sleep. She’d put her hand on my shoulder and said, “Glenn. I know you’ve got a lot on your mind.”
“That’s putting it mildly.”
“Well, here’s something else to think about when you see your dad tomorrow.”
I turned the bedside light on and sat up. “What?”
“Think of it as if the situation was flip-flopped.”
“What do you mean?”
“Like if the roles were reversed. Instead of you and your dad, think of it as if it were you and Will.”
“Me and Will?”
“Yes. Think what you’d feel like if for some reason you and Will had a falling out and he left and you hadn’t seen him for thirty years. Think what it’d be like if I contacted him for you because, heaven forbid, you were dying. What would want to have happen?”
Well, when she put it that way, the answer was easy. “I’d want him to come home and make up.”
That conversation was in the front of my mind as Will and I walked up the steps and across the porch and I knocked on the front door. It was early afternoon. The sun was shining and the temperature was around twenty degrees. From a few blocks away on Main Street carolers were singing. But I was aware of none of that.
Mom opened the door and smiled. “Glenn.” She hugged me tightly. “You came.”
“I did, Mom.” I hugged her back. “It’s great to see you. Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas to you, too.” Then she stepped aside. “Here’s your dad.”
Standing just behind her, teeter-tottering on unsteady legs was my father. Once a robust man who could lift fifty pounds in each hand, he had shrunk at least six inches. He was bald, his full head of hair gone. His cheeks were sunken, and I had the fleeting thought that he’d lost all his teeth. Next to him was a wheelchair. He’d obviously stood up to greet me and was using a cane to keep his balance. He was not the same man I’d left thirty years ago.
But he was my dad. And always would be.
“Hi, Dad,” I said. “It’s great to see you.”
He took a tentative step but suddenly lost his balance and fell forward. I caught him in my arms and held him. He was emaciated, just skin and bones. He buried his head into my neck. He smelled like an old man with a hint of aqua vela shaving lotion. He smelled wonderful.
His first words to me were, “Thank you for coming, son. It’s great to see you, too.”
Then we both broke down in tears.
We spent the afternoon talking. Dad was in his wheelchair and often nodded off, napping, but that was okay. It was like nothing had happened between us. The expression ‘let bygones be bygones’ kept coming to mind. Whatever had caused our estrangement (which was basically our different ways of looking at life) meant nothing. The important thing was that we were together.
After we reminisced about when he coached my peewee hockey team, and I told him about me coaching Will’s, he looked at me and said, “Okay. Getting back to one of the reasons I wanted to see you…”
“I’m glad I came, Dad.”
He grinned. “Me, too.” Then he cleared his throat and said, “I really have only one request, son. I’d like you to consider the business. It pretty much runs itself these days. I’ve got two good operations managers, a young couple named Gabe and Kris Jenkins, and a good accountant doing the books. I’d like you to take over my role and oversee the operation.” I looked at him, touched, frankly, that he’d made the offer. In that speechless moment, he added, “You could even keep teaching. Just think about it, okay?”
I told him I would.
The next day we visited the tree farm. I helped Mom load Dad into their handicap-accessible van and off we went. It was mid-morning and two days before Christmas Eve. It was a beautiful winter day, clear and cold, probably fifteen degrees. We’d had a fresh inch of snow overnight and crystals sparkled in the sunlight, turning the world into an enchanted fairyland.
Evergreen Tree Farm was bustling with business. There were sleigh rides, and a seasonally decorated kiosk giving away (giving away!) hot apple cider and Christmas cookies. The parking lot was sectioned off for those who wanted to buy trees already cut, or those who wanted to cut their own. It was a place full of joy and good cheer. Bursts of laughter filled the air and mingled with piped-in Christmas music. Seeing all the smiling faces made me feel incredibly happy. I couldn’t believe I had turned my back on all of this so many years ago.
I said to Will. “What do you think?”
He grinned. “I love it.” Then he said, “Dad?” He pointed to the horse-drawn sleigh. “Can we go for a ride?”
“Absolutely,” I said.
Before we did, though, I met Gabe and Kris and a number of the other workers. It was an experience I’d never had before, being around happy employees. Most of the people I knew were disgruntled in one way or the other with their job, so it was amazing having all those people compliment my dad and mom, many of them pulling me aside and telling me how wonderful it was to work for them. Even though the circumstances were extraordinary with everyone knowing Dad was dying, it was easy to see the honesty in their heartfelt sentiment.
While Dad sat in the van with Mom talking to their employees as well as customers who were stopping by to pay their respects, Will and I slipped away and went for our sleigh ride.
Our horse’s name was Lightning Bolt, a misnomer if there ever was one. But what the big gelding lacked in speed, he made up for in durability and endurance.
We got an up-close tour of the tree farm.
“It’s got nearly two million trees,” our driver, Becky told us. “They add not only half a million tons of oxygen into the air every year but also provide homes for birds like the endangered Kirkland Warbler.” She turned to me. “Your dad is doing a good thing here.”
I smiled. “I know. I can tell.”
As we made our way back to the parking lot, Will turned to me. “Dad, I’ve got a question.” He’d overheard all of the discussions between my dad and mom and me. He was also sharp as a tack.
“What is it?”
“Are you going to take over for your dad? Like he asked?”
“No beating around the bush with you, is there?” I grinned at him.
“I just want to know.”
“What do you think I should do?”
He didn’t have to think. “You should do it.” He waved his arm. “Look at all the trees. This is a great place and if you don’t help keep it, who knows what might happen? It might get sold to some developer and then a bunch of houses will go in and all of the trees will be gone and all of the birds and animals too.” He paused and looked at me closely. “I’m serious, Dad. You should do it.”
I’d called Sue the night before and we had talked. She’d agreed with my thinking, but knowing Will’s feelings helped.
“You know what? I’m going to do it.”
I was told later by Mom that you could hear him a quarter of a mile away in the parking lot.
Evergreen Tree Farm was always about two things. One, it was about protecting the forest through sustainable planting and providing a home to birds and animals. Years ago, I was too self-centered to see that, but I saw it now. Very clearly.
It was also about building a family business. One I almost turned my back on. Almost.
That Christmas I came home. Mom and Dad and Sue and Will were glad I did. Me, too.
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