Best Christmas tree ever

My Mille Lacs Messenger column for 12/24.

During the Depression, when my dad was a young boy in Chicago, his family couldn’t afford a Christmas tree one year.

My grandfather was out of a job, and he paced, defeated, across the floor of their one-bedroom apartment. He had been taught that it was a man’s duty to support his family, but like many during those hard times, he wasn’t able to.

That Christmas, they had to rely on the generosity of their neighbors and food from the government.

My grandfather was not a drinking man – just the opposite in fact. Although Prohibition had been repealed a few years earlier, it was still Prohibition in Grandpa’s church, and in his heart.

But one day, a week before Christmas, my dad, who was 10 at the time, came home and found his father sitting by the window with a large jug of wine, the cork still in it, the seal unbroken.

Grandpa would look from the window to the jug and back to the window, and my dad wondered what it was doing there, and how he could afford it, and why he didn’t open it.

My grandmother was a cheerful woman who could make oatmeal taste like sugar plums. That same day, while Grandpa was sulking by the window, she came in, brushing snow off her coat and holding what looked like the branch of a small tree. Her rosy cheeks made Dad think she was as warm inside as the oil burner that heated the living room where he and his brother slept.

Grandma’s tree was six feet tall, with gray bark. Its branches curved and grew upward, each one splitting again and again, and each covered with sharp thorns.

Grandpa asked what she was doing.

“I got us a Christmas tree,” she said.

My dad knew where it had come from. Near their apartment building was a vacant lot, and across the lot was a small valley – more of a ditch, really – lined with thorny trees.

Grandpa watched as she tried to find a way to make the tree stand up. She put it in a glass pitcher, but the tree tipped the pitcher over. When she filled the pitcher with water, the tree still leaned precariously because the mouth of the pitcher was so wide.

It leaned there all evening, a bare and ugly thing, until it was time for the boys to go to bed.

In the morning, when my dad woke up, the tree was standing straight and tall – taller than my dad or his younger brother. It had been decorated with popcorn and cranberries and the most colorful and fragile ornaments, which Grandma had collected during happier times. Around its base was a red wool blanket that the boys slept under on cold nights.

The boys knew there wouldn’t be many presents under the tree that year, but they hoped for the best. They awoke on Christmas morning and saw a present for each of them under the tree, but the real present was on the branches. Overnight the tree has sprouted hundreds of purple flowers – more beautiful and intricate and fragile than Grandma’s precious ornaments.

When it was time to take the tree down, Grandma took the red blanket away, and there, under the tree, holding it steady, was the jug of wine that Grandpa had brought home. He never drank it, but the tree did, and turned the wine into purple flowers.

Grandpa and Grandma are gone, and so are my dad and his brother. All that’s left of them are the stories they told, and one old, cracked ornament. Whenever we would ask him to tell a story about his childhood, my dad would tell that story, and eventually it became a tradition. He would hang that bulb on the tree and tell us the story of the best Christmas tree ever.

Merry Christmas.

Brett Larson ( is the editor of the Mille Lacs Messenger.

Appropriate boob

Conversation in car with son Leif, 11.

Leif: Why do they always call people boobs on Nickelodeon?

Me: I don’t know.

Leif: I wonder what kind of boob they mean.

Me: What kind do you think?

Leif: The uninappropriate kind, I think.

Me: Uninappropriate?

Leif: I mean appropriate.

Chopped liver

Sometimes I feel completely unnecessary around here.

I thought being the editor of local newspaper had a little, just a little status associated with it, but I’m constantly reminded that I’m about as important as the potted plants.

This morning I hear our staff members talking about a couple incidents that occurred yesterday afternoon. Something about cop cars and guns drawn at the IREC and Portside.

My ears perk up. “What?” I yell from my office. “Guns drawn? Why didn’t I hear about this??!!”

Turns out the call came in yesterday afternoon when I was engaged in really important activities: Taking pictures of the Onamia girls’ basketball team. The call went to Rob, who tried to get EVE to cover it. EVE, OUR 16-YEAR-OLD INTERN!!!

(Rob was preoccupied, but what else is new?)



When Merit burned a couple weeks ago, I was the last one to know. Diane Gibas was there, Linda Becker was there, Jamie Root-Larsen called ROB (for Pete’s sake! not ROB!), while I’m at home taking a leisurely tubby bath, brushing my teeth, eating my oatmeal, kissing the children goodbye…

I’m the editor of the local paper, for crying out loud! When news happens, I’m supposed to be the first one to know! I should be on speed dial! My red phone should be jumping off the hook!

Good conversation

I had a nice talk with Bill Hill this morning, who pointed out some misleading statements on my blog and in my column about the library. He wasn’t trying to get me to make a correction, but I do like to clarify things when I find I’ve said something that is incomplete or misleading.

Bill pointed out that the council attempted to meet with Judy Cain of the Tourism Council to discuss options for her group and the Depot and the library, but she and the council had already decided to move out.

Bill also said the city council has a good working relationship with the school district, and he took issue with a crack I made on this blog referring to possible rivalries among various entities. Bill cited the ball field development, the Nexus project and the fitness center as three areas in which the city and the school district worked well together, for mutual benefit.

Bill likes step in when tempers flare and be a mediating voice of reason. It’s good to have people like that in the community and on the council.

By the way, the Onamia School Board decided to make Bill’s son Bill the next school board member, after the resignation of Tom Briscoe. Bill was fourth in the voting in the recent election, after the three winners, so it made sense to appoint him.

Brief reviews

I’m reading House of Sand and Fog. Didn’t see the movie. Book is good, but I don’t like when male authors describe what women feel like when they’re making whoopee. But it was on Oprah’s list, so maybe he got it right.

Movies I’ve watched recently:

Mission Impossible 3 on cable. Review: bearable.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead: Philip Seymour Hoffman is always hard to watch, but even harder to watch when he’s a heroin addict whose plot to rob his parents’ jewelry store goes tragically awry, unleashing a series of increasingly dark consequences.

I want to make a list of favorite kid/family movies of the last 10 years. With an 11 year old and a 13 year old, I’ve seen lots of them. A couple that come to mind: Penelope, Bridge to Terebithia. The kids singing “Why Can’t We Be Friends” is one of my favorite musical movie moments, which makes me think I should make a list of favorite musical movie moments. One that comes to mind: “Tiny Dancer” sung on the bus in Almost Famous. The end of Magnolia with all the characters lip-sinking to that Amy Mann song. All the Cat Stevens music in Harold and Maude.

I love the Harry Potters, especially number 3.

Can’t wait for Lost to come back on. Some good music in that show, too.

Went to Twilight with Cedar. I was pleasantly surprised, and it was nice to think about the summer I lived in Forks, Washington, and hooted for spotted owls. I didn’t see any vampires, but Diane found signs of what appeared to be a wiccan ceremony outside Port Angeles. Maybe it was vampires.

Finally found a used copy of Shotgun Willie on vinyl. And Merle Haggard, Serving 190 Proof.

Read Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent. Oddly compelling, but ultimately unsatisfying.

I have once again become an unabashed Vikings fan. And was on the bandwagon even when they were 0-2.

Had jury duty today. Got dismissed, thank goodness.