The most memorable birthday present I ever got was a Christmas tree.
I was 4 or 5 and thought Swedenburg’s Christmas Tree Farm was the coolest place in the whole wide world. So early November some time in the mid 90s, my parents somehow convinced the farm’s owners to let them set a herd of 4-year-olds loose on the farm. I remember eating cake outside and taking rides in a horse-and-buggy to see the not-quite-ready-for-Christmas trees.
But, mostly, I remember the cypress tree the farm’s owners gave me.
Only a few inches tall and twiglike, with tufts of green sprouting from its spindly branches, it was a regular Charlie Brown Christmas tree, and I loved it. We went home and planted it in the front yard by the mailbox. My parents named it B.T. for “Baby Tree.”
One of the first things I remember is asking whether we could put Christmas lights on it that year. My parents said no. It was too small, and the lights were too heavy. It would be a few years before B.T. could hold them, and that seemed like such a long time, it might as well have been forever.
My mother didn’t confide until years later that she and my dad weren’t sure B.T. would survive the winter, but it survived that first one. And the next and the next, each December accompanied by the question, “Can we put lights on it this year?”
By the time I was 9 or 10, B.T. was a few feet tall and fully green, and the name “B.T.” didn’t really fit anymore, although none of us thought “L.T.” had quite the same ring to it. I’m sure we started stringing it with lights the last couple of years we lived there, but if we did, I don’t remember what they looked like.
The summer I was 10, we moved out of the state. Like any fourth grader in that situation, I had some concerns. Chief among them was what would become of B.T. After all, if I wasn’t there, who would ensure that B.T. was never, ever, under any circumstances or for any reason chopped down? My dad promised he’d tell the new owners how special the tree was, but I remained worried.
Years later, when I was in college and hadn’t been back to Mississippi for years, I got a call from my dad who was visiting Columbus.
“I went by to see B.T.,” he said.
“How’s it doing?” I asked.
“It’s Big Tree now,” he said.
Big Tree, indeed. The next time I was in Columbus I barely recognized it. I had to crane my neck to see the top of it, marveling that after all these years, B.T. and I had finally grown up.
It’s still there, at least 30 feet — taller than the light pole on the other side of the driveway — and pointing straight toward the sky like a giant green arrowhead. This week, I contacted the house’s current owners, Robert and Stephanie Gibson, who were friends with my parents when I was a kid. Mr. Gibson said the last time he put lights on it was about six years ago.
“Now that it’s so tall, we’ll have to get a bucket truck to put lights on the top of it,” he said.
He and I chatted for a few minutes over the phone about the tree. I thanked him for taking care of it, and he said it pretty well takes care of itself.
I didn’t remember, but when he and his family moved in, there had actually been three other cypress trees in the front yard, all of which he cut down. As soon as he said it, the memory of them came back — three slightly smaller Christmas trees spaced evenly apart across the yard. Possibly I’m biased, but I remember them being more in the background, with B.T. in the front — taller, fuller, grander, the Peter Pan to the other trees’ Lost Boys.
Mr. Gibson thinks if he has some help — and a bucket truck — he’ll decorate it next year. It could be the centerpiece of the neighborhood, he said. I offered to help.
Maybe next year, B.T. will finally have Christmas lights.
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