We bought our tree last weekend and installed it in the usual corner in the living room. It's a happy seasonal ritual as we buy from a gentle man who brings trees from his Vermont farm to his sister's antique shop and sells them for $20 each. He remembers my daughter and I each year and we always have a cordial chat as we scour his small selection for just the right tree. The last word is always my daughter's who seems to intuitively know which one will fit our small house. Our Vermont tree grower ties it onto the car for us after he neatly trims the bottom. This year, I suddenly heard myself tell him that when I see him next, my daughter may not be with me as she'll be married and leaving home in the new year. He offered his congratulations with a kind eye towards me. "Oh Mom, you're gonna miss her", said with a knowing and wistful shake of the head.
On the drive home, as she has every year since she was a child, my daughter asked me to tell her a certain story yet again. One Christmas Eve long ago, when I was newly unemployed (there was another painful recession in the early 1990's that has since been eclipsed in most people's memory), I read in the newspaper that a tree farm near our apartment was offering free Christmas trees for anyone who had lost a job. Life had been hard for us so on a snowy afternoon, I drove to the farm with my daughter, who was three at the time. We trudged up to a wooden shack and opened a creaky door to find the tree farmer behind an old metal cash register. I told him I had lost my job and he silently reached behind him and took a large bow saw off the wall. He handed the saw to me! I had never cut anything with a saw in my life but moments later my daughter and I were stomping about outside in the now heavily falling snow, searching for a small tree to cut down.
Once I found the one I thought would be easy to carry up the flights of stairs to our flat, I crouched down in the wet snow at the base of the tree and began to saw. I never knew how hard sawing through a piece of wood was but somehow I felled the tree with a satisfying crack. Sadly, my only pair of gloves were in tatters from the effort but I managed to drag the tree to the car with my daughter plodding along behind by following my deep snowy footsteps. By the time the tree was tied inside the open trunk, we both looked like we had been dusted with powdered sugar. The air was bitingly cold and the sky quickly darkening and with my numb fingers I snapped my daughter into her car seat.
The driving was treacherous as I slowly made my way up the slick road to the top of a sloping hill. A short skid nearly stopped my heart and the wheels of my small car began spinning. I let the it roll back a bit to see if I could drive out of the icy patch and continue up the hill. Just as I succeeded, I heard my daughter speak in that odd matter-of-fact way children do when they think a parent can easily fix anything. "Mommy...the tree fell off". Peering through the nearly frozen-over back window I could see the green tree rolling down the hill, powdered snow bouncing off its limbs with every rotation until it hit a fence on the side of the road. Without my useless gloves, I put the emergency brake on, unhooked my daughter from the car seat and together we slid holding hands down to retrieve the tree which was now laying still beside the fence. Tears stung my eyes and I wanted to wail outloud. By the time we got home with the thing, we were wet and shaking from the cold and dampness. I left the tree outside leaning against our apartment house and put my small child in a warm bath. I made a call to a neighbor. His wife must have told him I was near tears because he came right away with a short saw to shave off the uneven bottom of the tree and then drag it up the stairs and install it in our tree stand. I thanked him and after he left, I tucked my daughter into her warmest pj's and drew her child's chair up to the low coffee table where she ate her dinner.
Soon the branches on the tree dropped enough so it could be trimmed. But I was tired, overwhelmed, and put out and if I didn't have a child high on anticipation, I would have turned off the lights and gone to bed. As I was agitatedly untangling the fairy lights, my eye suddenly caught something fluttering deep within the tree. It was a small brown rabbit, clinging to the trunk and shivering. I reached inside and gently cupped my hands around the tiny bunny. I could feel its tender heartbeat in my palm. My daughter rushed to my side with wide eyes and she and I stroked its fur with only our index fingers. I heard my daughter tell the bunny not to cry or worry. "My Mommy's here", she said. I realized that when we cut the tree we had disturbed this little creature's safe place and frightened, it had clung to a branch through all the dragging and rolling. And it had survived.
As luck would have it, our neighbor's sister kept rabbit dens and she dispatched her husband again who came and took the bunny. Oddly, my daughter never wondered about our little visitor again until she was older and I was implored to the tell the story of it each Christmas. I remember looking up the symbolic meaning of rabbits and came across words like "centering" and "balance in chaos". Finding a bunny in one's tree on Christmas Eve was too precious not to think about nuance. Soon after Epiphany, I was employed again and life took a happy turn.