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Stave 1: Birdland is unseasonably warm, and Claude, the Royal Palm Tom turkey, spent the night on the roof of the coop. He was on the far side, and I saw his shadow from below on the transparent roof parts as I poured a scoop of pellets into the hopper, then heard the thumpas he jumped off.

For some reason, that thump awakened in me a string of memories of holidays past.

In the old days, we would hike out to the piney woods on Thanksgiving afternoon with the chainsaw and cut our Christmas tree.

The pines were planted for Christmas trees by my dad and aunts and uncles when they were kids. They were supposed to be harvested the year I was born, but Great-Granddad died that same year, and instead, they grew to their full 50-foot height, crowding out sunlight so the lower branches were dead.

The rows followed the curvature of the terraces Great-Granddad once made on the whole farm but now only remain in the pine woods. As children, we thought it was an enchanted grove.

(There is a similar one at the Pine Tree Trail in Lodge Park. You round a bend, and suddenly, the rows stretch out before you in straight lines, sunlight filtering through the needles, like the nave of an outdoor cathedral.)

At any rate, a monoculture (of corn, beans, Christmas trees) has its charms. It was a whispery, shadowy place for us, the floor cushioned by years of fallen needles.

One Christmas, before my own grandparents moved back to the farm, my dad brought us out, and we cut our tree from the woods.

When we moved out here, the Thanksgiving Day tree hunt became our family tradition. The boys and I would scout out a few trees that looked promising from below, and then we would vote on one as Michael revved up the chainsaw.

The first cut would only partially fell the tree, as it would be caught on the way down in the shoulders of its neighbors. A few more cuts would bring it to the ground with a thump, and we would top it and drag it home. These trees were always scraggly, but we loved them.

After the kids grew up and moved away, the piney woods died off after a couple of years of extreme weather — both hot and cold.

As I remember, I’m walking back and forth, doing chicken chores almost in my sleep. I “come to” when I realize I’ve let Ursula out with the bottom chicken door still open. I find her devouring the delicious kitchen scraps I spilled out for the chickens.

Stave 2: This is a different kind of Christmas. None of our boys will risk the travel to come home, and I’m proud of them for that.

Our dear neighbors put up lights, even around the back of their house so we can see them! I told them we’re living vicariously through their celebrations.

We haven’t done much yet to mark the season, but I think today I will rally and hang strings of Christmas cards in the living room (usually my Thanksgiving Day routine) and put up the little artificial tree and decorate the Norfolk Island Pine with a string of tiny origami stars. These have stood in for our Christmas tree since the demise of the Piney woods and the migration of the boys.

Then I will bake and pack boxes to mail. I’m thinking of more gingerbread and pumpkin butter gummy buttons to add to the apple butter ones I made.

(I’ve been experimenting with drying fruit butters into button-sized stars, piped from a pastry bag.)

We’ll gather on Zoom with extended family on Christmas Day, and I’m thinking of making a Jeopardy!-style game for fun. I’ll try to get questions that cover every corner of the family and each generation. If I do it right, the questions can be conversation starters to pass on family history and preserve stories.

Meanwhile, it seems like I talk with family and friends almost more than I did before the pandemic started, and even if it’s on the phone, there is joy in that extra connection.

Stave 3: I’m looking forward to Christmases yet to come. I would say that I’m eager to wear my mask for 100 days, but by now, masking seems second nature, like wearing underwear or clicking on my seatbelt. I think I might feel naked without it someday.

But if masking and getting a vaccine can help us return to gathering normally with family that I long to hug? Sign me up!

My grandmother used to say (when I did something she considered good or kind or generous), “Oh Mary, you’re laying up your treasure in heaven.”

(OK, so she didn’t have occasion to say it all that often, but I still remember her words.)

So let’s lay up our treasure now, taking care to squelch this pandemic with the tools we have so we can gather later.

I long for the day when the boys can come home, and we can bake together, smell the gingerbread, run out with a basket of presents for the grandparents, sing together and, most of all, hug our loved ones to our hearts.

Mask in Beauty; Celebrate with Love; Blessed Be

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Hartland near White Heath. (Shout out to Judy for part of the tagline above.) You can see pictures about this week’s post on Instagram @BirdlandLetters. Mary can be reached at letterfrombirdland@gmail.com or via snail mail care of the Journal Republican, 118 E. Washington St., Monticello, IL 61856. She wants to thank her friends for writing and will answer you all soon.

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