Kate, age 3, Will, age1
Parental Flaw #856: Finally having kids, thereby finally getting your chance to live vicariously through them. Then trying to cram the reliving into their first three years without a lick of thought. Average Future Therapy: Forced to attend family events at young ages makes the children lethargic and unresponsive to even the most mundane of outings. Will require ongoing cash bribery. Potential to do this to their offspring: Surely.
It took me awhile, but I finally figured out what having a child does to your brain. It addles it. In the dictionary the definition of “addle” is: to become rotten, as eggs. I’m not sure I can come up with a more perfect description of my brain on the day we decided to take a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old to chop down a Christmas tree in the freezing cold, but a brain full of rotten eggs pretty much covers it.
The need to push my children into participating in trumped-up family outings is strong in me. Like the Force. Luke Skywalker had a tough childhood. His parents were dead; he lived in a house carved out of the ground; he was forced to wear the same outfit day after day; his aunt and uncle were vicously killed. Kind of like myself. Of course, I’m not living on Tatooine, rebuilding droids, and my parents are alive and well—but my own childhood was not filled with fun family fieldtrips. So in my mind I was as tortured as Luke. Thus triggering an almost urgent Force-like need in me to make up for my lost childhood outings through my children.
Don’t get me wrong, I had a delicious childhood.
As the daughter of two on-the-cusp hippies, it was a bare-feet-walking, wheat-bread-eating, bell-bottom-wearing free-for-all. I have a very large extended family that knows how to have a good time. I attended tons of family parties; I honed my dance moves on the Beatles and the Stones and fell asleep in a pile of coats just before dawn every weekend.
But we did not do scheduled events.
Or at least we didn’t do them well. Occasionally I’d find myself in a class or camp somewhere, but it was never consistent and I can’t really remember asking to attend any of them. One time I remember being in someone’s basement singing “Kumbaya” while making flower crowns. Another time in some tap shoes dancing around the school gym.
Sure I got to go see Santa when my mom happened to be at the mall that day, and sure my dad took me to get a Christmas tree. A block from our house. At the time I didn’t feel like I was missing anything. I was having too much fun dancing around the house to The Marshall Tucker Band to notice.
Then I got a little older and my teenage friends would stay things like, “Yeah, my family is camping in the Boundary Waters for 10 days this summer” or “Soccer camp was suuuuper fun” or “My family went up to this tree farm and cut down this huge Christmas tree.”
You went camping? With your parents? I didn’t know that was even humanly possible.
In my mother’s defense, she tells me nobody was doing those kinds of things back then. And that’s true. The families we hung around with weren’t participating in organized events, unless, of course, you counted a NO NUKES demonstration or a SAVE THE LAKES rally as an “event.” There’s no time for Girl Scouts when you’re fighting nukes and saving the lakes.
Now I have two kids. Two kids, by my sound judgment, who are old enough to start experiencing life. Particularly the life events I never got to participate in as a child. I know I’m not alone here. We all do this. I’m sure of it. My neighbor totes her family off to the Renaissance Festival every fall. That in and of itself is proof enough.
This particular December Saturday starts like most other mornings in a household where the children were birthed too close together: in bed.
In bed is where anyone with any common sense stays until finally forced from the covers by prodding little feet and wild shrieks of hunger. In your bed, where you’ve tossed the rug rats after they woke you at the break of dawn. Where, with your pillow over your head, you’re hoping beyond hope they’ll fall back to sleep for five more stinking minutes.
They never do. But I keep the hope alive.
It’s now time to get out of bed.
The kids are occupying themselves for the moment by tunneling in and out of the sheets, batting at each other’s faces and rolling around on our bladders. There is no more hope of sleep. It’s time to face the day. It’s 6:43 am.
My husband and I look across the rumpled covers at each other, smile weakly, and try to plan our weekend day. We have found that it’s much easier to make a rough “outline” of the game plan while still lying prone in bed. As soon as our feet hit the ground we both know there’s not going to be another uncluttered moment in time to have an adult conversation.
We half-heartedly go through our options:
1) We can take them outside and build a snowman.
Nope, too torturous.
2) We could take them sledding at the park 10 steps from our front door.
Nope, too hard.
3) We can throw them in the car, drive an hour up north, drag them through a maze of snow covered trees, and freeze our asses off while chopping down a Christmas tree.
Yep, that’s the ticket.
It’s getting very close to Christmas, and we’ve been putting off buying our tree. So I’m sure the guilt is pulling us along with its hot, sharp guilt-tongs.
God forbid, the little crackers don’t get their tree on time.
I can’t really blame them, though. That’s unfair of me.
Our kids are too small to even care about their tree. They’re still asking us if the leaf pile they jumped in a few short weeks ago is still accessible under the snow. For all they care, we could cut down some branches from outside our house and decorate them with elbow macaroni and colored paper clips.
It’s only us addle-brained adults who care. Me in particular. I’ve been waiting patiently for this particular event ever since Suzy Carmichael announced to our 8th grade class that she single handedly chopped down her family’s Christmas tree. I knew then I had a destiny to fulfill. I would see the day when my children found a tree of their own. Their bare hands trembling as they wrapped them around their prize. Me looking on in animated excitement, hands clasped, face shining, reliving this day as my very own. “See, I can do this too, Stupid Suzy!”
Looking back on it, I was so foolish. A new mom with rotten eggs filling her head. My kids were toddlers. How in the hell were they going to chop down a tree by themselves? Or even muster up enough enthusiasm to care about a tree? Much less having hands big enough to grasp even the smallest of trunks.
I’m blaming it all on sleep deprivation.
Losing sleep can make any sane women sloppy. Loss of sleep is the foremost cause of delusional behavior in otherwise sane individuals. That’s a fact, Jack.
Honestly, my kids were so young we could’ve jerry-rigged a cardboard box, cut it out in the rough shape of a tree, spayed it green on Christmas Eve—and they would’ve been none the wiser.
But my day was finally here.
In my mind, it was going to play out just perfectly. The children would be dripping with gratitude—so thankful their parents loved them so, so much. Realizing that we were the “special” kind of parents, the ones who don’t deny their children anything. They were going to be Suzy Carmichaels if it killed me.
I wonder if there is actually a ranking system for “I’m reliving my childhood through my kids” events? I bet Christmas tree chopping is number one. The rankings are probably listed on www.chiponyourshoulder.com right this minute.
My husband goes along with this particular plan willingly. Even though he harbors no latent childhood urgency to chop down a tree for his own personal satisfaction, he still agrees to everything. Boys are so easy when it comes to event planning. Either that or he knows if he denies me the chance to fulfill my destiny, he’ll never hear the end of it. Best just to get it over with now.
We feed the children breakfast, pack a duffel full of extra clothes, add snacks, add juice, add toys, and finally wrestle them into their appropriate snow gear—17 layers’ worth.
The whole time we’re getting ready Kate keeps saying, “I don’t want to go, Mommy. Can I just watch Sesame Street now?” We’ve interrupted her Saturday cartoon hour.
“Honey, this is going to be so fun! You won’t know what to do with yourself when you see all those trees. And you get to pick out our Christmas tree all by yourself! What do you think of that?”
Thank your lucky stars you even get to go chop down a tree, little Miss Shruggy. Some of us never even had the chance.
It’s midmorning now and the sun is behind a wall of clouds. It’s freezing cold and the forecast is for snow. But we’re committed. This is Minnesota—cold and snow live here. If we balked every time the weather turned, we wouldn’t leave the house for seven months.
Just about 20 minutes into the drive I realize I’ve forgotten my camera.
I make my husband pull over at a gas station so I can jump out and purchase a disposable one. Because by the hand of the Almighty, I will document our family Fun Day even if it kills me.
I panic over which camera to buy, since they all demand sunshine and by this time the wall of clouds looks dark and blizzardy. I finally pick one and run from the store. I forget the treats I agreed to buy to get my children to stop screaming at me for two effing-minutes. So I have to go back in and buy some.
After another eternity of driving, we arrive.
We turn down a picturesque dirt road, blanketed with newly planted Christmas trees on either side as far as the eye can see. We silently congratulate ourselves. This doesn’t look so bad after all. The snow hasn’t fallen yet, which is lucky indeed, because there is no way in hell our minivan could navigate these ruts in deep snow.
After driving for about a mile, we come upon a shack the size of an outhouse. We can’t see inside the shack from the road, but it looks like we’re in the right place. There’s some red ribbon tied to a post. There’s no official parking lot, but there’s a long, wide patch of dirt, so we pull in. There are no other vehicles in sight. We get out and approach the outhouse.
When we get close enough, we can see two teenagers inside the shack hovering over a space heater. They lift up their heads in unison and stare at us blankly as we approach.
“Um, hi there, we’re here to chop down a tree,” I tell them. I’m still vaguely uncertain if this is the place or not, because maybe this is just their clubhouse. I wasn’t raised on a farm. Huddling in a cold shack could be the norm for fun up here.
They silently push a map of the grounds out to us and point to a bunch of handsaws heaped in a pile next to the outhouse. I had pictured axes.
The instructions are simple: Go and cut down a tree.
The only other rule is you can’t drive there. You have to walk, weaving in and out of the rows on foot until you see a tree you like. Then you saw down your prize and drag it back here to the outhouse. Then the two teenagers check it over and decide the price.
“Decide the price based on what?” I ask.
They point to a giant ruler bolted to an oak tree 15 feet away. It appears you come back with the tree you’ve just wrested from the woods, lean it up against the oak and see what size it is. You pay by the foot.
“How are we supposed to know how big the tree is out in the wild? You know, since we left our industrial tape measure at home?” More blank stares.
My husband had gotten a tip from a co-worker about this place having cheap trees. That was part of its allure. Part of the reason we journeyed to this particular lot. Minnesota is loaded with tree lots; we could’ve found one closer to the city. But the hot tip was for this place. And I’m all about the hot tips.
“Which patch of forest do the $20 trees live in?” I glance around, searching for an arrow advertising the wicked deal we were hoping to get.
The acne-laden teens point to a pile of pre-cut 3-foot trees and say, “Do you mean those?”
Nope, I don’t.
I mean the $20 ones that look like they’re Times Square worthy. The ones we came out here for. The ones you Up North People are supposed to dole out to us City Folk just because we drove here. Those $20 trees.
$20 trees do not exist here.
The teenage workers are beginning to look slightly uncomfortable at my interrogating, so I decide to stop. This is supposed to be a fun day—a special do-over Childhood Event Day. I will enjoy it even if it means I have to sugar myself up on the jelly beans I just bought for the kids to boil my blood meter up to “fun.”
I console myself with the fact that our tree will most likely be under $40 and that’s still a good deal. All those suckers down at Frank’s city lot won't be getting half as good a tree. They won’t get to a chance to wrap their bare hands around the trunk and pluck it directly from Mother Earth themselves.
We walk back to our van and pull out a cheap umbrella stroller. We buckle our 1-year-old son in and begin to stroll him down the dirty, icy, snow-caked rows. I don’t know what I was thinking, but at the very least I was picturing a tarred path meandering through rows of Norman Rockwell-worthy trees.
After my husband tries to Evel Knievel our stroller over several tree roots, which blanket the ground like gnarled knuckles, we give up.
In the time it has taken us to stroll our son 10 yards, he’s managed to pull off his hat, boots, socks, and gloves approximately 20 times each. The path is now littered with his leavings. We decide to ditch the stroller in a pocket of trees and come back for it later. My husband hoists our son up into his arms, while I force his winter clothing back on to avoid unsightly frostbite and loss of toes. But the child is determined to walk. He lets us know this by performing double swan dives out of his father’s arms while emitting several bloodcurdling screams (which I’m sure my mother can hear from her warm comfortable home, and is silently shaking her head).
Did I mention it was 18 degrees below zero?
So, here we are on our lovely Family Day.
My children are stumbling over snow-covered haystacks, which are positioned every three feet to “protect” consumers from ripping their ankles on freshly shorn stumps. We are all covered in a thicket of burrs from walking in and out of the rows to examine trees. All the trees so far look like they would belong in the Hall of Giants. The thought of dragging a tree of that size back to the outhouse is giving me a headache, which feels like a vice grip clamping down on the part of my brain that used to contain my common sense receptors.
Kate is completely unhappy. After being forced to walk though the arctic tundra for 20 minutes, she’s quietly stumbling after me, I’m sure plotting how best to get back at me with a few well-placed tantrums. Every once in a while she says, “Can we go home now?”
My husband has to let our swan-diving son down on the ground—either that or be taken to the emergency room for immediate back treatment. Will then proceeds to run straight into a dozen trees branches. He jumps back in amazement after the pine needles attack his face. Oh, to be 18 months old again.
We wander around for a while, deeper into the maze of trees, before we decide, like smart people, to make our way back toward the outhouse. Finding a mid-size tree by our car will save us some much-needed time and energy. We are all cold, and no one seems to be having much fun. We’ve been here for at least an hour. I am just about to tell my husband to pick any tree he wants in this godforsaken tree patch when Kate informs me she has to go to the bathroom.
“Mommy, I have to go potty. Poop.”
“Are you sure?” My little girl just got out of diapers. We had a battle of the wills for a long time, but I finally prevailed. In order to break her habit of putting on a diaper to poop, I told her they didn’t make diapers big enough for 3-year-olds. On her third birthday we threw all her diapers away. She bought the whole thing, especially when the only options I gave her were either pooping on the bathroom floor or in the toilet. There have been some days of awkward constipation, but all in all it’s going well.
There is no bathroom here. Not for miles and miles. The outhouse is currently filled with teenagers.
“Yes, I have to go really bad.” She starts jumping around, holding herself.
We are standing in a stall of trees. In the middle of the forest. My only real choice is to head back to the car and cram one of my son’s diapers on her and hope she goes quickly. I grab her hand and hastily point to the first tree I see and yell at my husband, “Just cut it down for the love of GOD!”
I tell Kate what’s in store for her as we head back to the car. When we get there she is sobbing and screaming, “I don’t want a diappppper!” I’m towing her behind me like a wagon with a flat tire.
I pull the van door open and grab the diaper bag. “Listen sweetie, this is all we’ve got, let’s just try and make this work.” I yank off her pants and paste a diaper on her as quickly as I can.
She can’t go.
I really can’t blame her.
I wouldn’t be able to go either. She’s standing naked from the waist down in our freezing cold car with a super-small diaper on, the most despondent girl I have ever seen.
I’m pretty sure in one of my diaper-threatening lectures I told her something along the lines of, “If a 3-year-old still poops in a diaper, then she can’t go to college. Her life will be ruined forever. If you continue to wear a diaper, all of your friends will point and laugh, and we won’t love you anymore.”
I take off the unused diaper and we make our way back into the trees. I’m desperately hoping she won’t poop in her pants on the way.
We can’t find my husband.
He has not cut down the tree. He is miles from the point where we left him. He’s trying to keep up with our wild animal of a son. I can hear them rustling back our way. He shouts at me through the trees that we left the saw back at the stroller. Oh, for the love of God. I tromp back to the outhouse and get a new saw, since it’s closer than our stroller. My husband meets us halfway back with our sobbing 1-year-old, and we pick the nearest tree without even so much as a second glance.
There are no Kodak moments.
It takes him an eternity to saw through the gargantuan trunk.
When it’s finally down, I start dragging the kids in the direction of the car, while my husband starts dragging the tree toward the outhouse. After a few minutes we can finally see the dirt parking lot through the trees, about a football field away. My daughter, the diaper-hater, picks that moment to stop in the middle of the path. She refuses to walk another foot.
Her brand new boots are too tight. She has blisters. And she’s so mad at me for the diaper debacle she’s standing amidst the trees sobbing.
My husband comes up and takes our son by the hand, and I pick up our daughter and start walking to the car, cutting through rows of trees as I go. I finally get there, take her boots off and shove her into the freezing car. Then I jog back to get my son, who emerges right then from the trees, 20 yards in front of me. He is running toward me with glee, pretty much right into the path of an oncoming pick-up truck.
The nice pick-up driver stops and decides not to run him over. I reach him as quickly as I can and haul him back to our car with a nod of thanks to the driver. Thank goodness the driver will never recognize me in the future as “that stupid-ass mother who let her small child run freely through a parking lot.” My muffler and woolen cap make an impenetrable winter disguise, cloaking my bad mothering skills like blanket of down.
My husband is still fighting our new tree out of the wilderness, since the branches are too wide to fit through the aisles.
I stop right there and swear on my life I will never, ever again so much as whisper Family Day as long as I live. My parents were absolute rocket scientists for not planning trumped-up fake-fun outings. All you need is a good party, man. None of his fieldtrip shit.
We end up paying a million dollars for the tree. It’s so big my husband can’t even lift it himself and has to employ one of the teenagers to help him hoist it onto our car.
He then spends eight hours trussing it to our van’s roof. He has to use super big knots, which keep every window open 2 inches the whole ride home. We drive at 70 mph. I try to pluck as many burrs off the children as I can so they can actually sit down. Kate instantly falls asleep due to high trauma, and my son just looks bewildered.
We make it home in one piece with the tree still attached to the car. It’s a Christmas miracle. We haul the tree inside, which takes the both of us and all our might, and get a good look at it. The trunk is so big it barely fits into the stand, and the branches are so dense it takes the two of us, with big leverage tools, to pry them apart so we can string on the lights.
The tree lists to the side as we’re sticking on the lights because it’s so goddamn heavy. The children watch a video the entire time we decorate the tree. They couldn’t care less what we’re doing in the living room. They are not even tempted to come in and take a look.
I'm still pulling burrs off of random articles of clothing.
I have now burned the directions to the tree place, so there will never be another “Compensation to Lost Childhoods” chopping-down day ever again. We spent the entire torturous time in the freezing cold for no other reason than to fulfill a hole rent in my own childhood—a hole I mistakenly thought was there, but finally realized was just a fake space in my over-active imagination. A fake space filled with rotten eggs.
It’ll be a long time until I’m ready for another fun family outing. But, I do have one thing on my list I won’t be able to ignore for much longer. The pull is too strong, too magnetic. The kids are starting to talk about it and I’m not sure how long I can shut them out. It’s the prize among prizes.
The King of all Childhood losses:Disney World.