So this one Christmas my grandfather, Francis Emmit Brady (he went by Emmit), took me to go get the tree. Normally, my brother would have gone as well, but he was sick, so I got grandpa all to myself. We went down to Produce Row in St. Louis where he knew all of the Italians who had produce stands. Grandpa, like my dad, worked for the Norfolk & Western (now Southern) railroad and would call them whenever a car of produce was about to go unclaimed. The produce stand owners would then come to the rail yard and bid on the car, thus getting a better deal on the produce. They returned the favor to my grandpa by giving him discounts on his own produce, Christmas trees, and Thanksgiving Turkeys (that’s a WHOLE ‘nuther story!!!). Riding with my grandpa was always a treat. First, there were no seat belt laws back in the 70’s. Second, he was color blind and would sometimes forget which light was on top – the red or the green one. I just thought people were odd when they waved quite energetically to us but with only one finger. Anyway, once we arrived, grandpa held my mittened hand and led me around the lot full of trees. He told me I could pick out any tree I liked. After careful inspection, I chose the absolute best tree I could find. Turns out the tree was about 12 feet tall (we had 8 foot ceilings), had a trunk with an S shape and was missing quite rather large branches, but hey, from the point of view of a 4 foot tall five year old, it was spectacular. Grandpa, naturally, agreed with me. He scooped me up to his shoulders (which seemed to be 10 feet high) and we went into the produce store.
The store was magical. It was filled with the smells of pine, apples, oranges, homemade wine, man sweat, wet dog, apple cider, and chocolate. I was in awe. Then I spotted something I’d never seen before – a hairy wooden ball. When I pointed it out the gigantic dark haired man who owned the store laughed and laughed. Grandpa, for the record, never laughed at me. It would be rude to laugh at a princess, which is exactly what he made me feel like. For some reason, though the other man’s laughter made me smile. His laugh was deep and rich and kind. He spoke with an accent which I found enchanting. He then handed me the hairy ball and told me that if I could open it, I’d find a prize inside. I promptly sat on the floor and attempted to open the thing, which I couldn’t do. Before I knew it, it was time to go. The enormous tree was tied to the top of the car and Grandpa and I were headed home singing “Jingle Bells”. Okay, it was like shouting than singing, but whatever. I was having a GREAT time, especially with all the cars honking at us and waving. I held my hairy ball in my hands, breathing in the scent of winter, pipe tobacco, and something sweet. Turns out that while I was occupied with my new ball, the big man was sharing a bit of homemade Italian wine with Grandpa!
We got home to Collinsville safe and sound. My mom was horrified when she saw the tree, my father laughed so much he cried, MeeMaw just smiled and shook her head, and my brother asked why I had a coconut. Grandpa and my dad basically cut the tree in half to get it inside the house. My brother, coughing and sneezing, helped me hold a screwdriver to one of the coconut’s eyes while he used the hammer to poke a hole in the top. Eventually, we got through and poured out the “milk” inside. Then, we gleefully pummeled the coconut until it cracked open. MeeMaw gave us each grapefruit spoons and we gnawed on the raw coconut while the grown ups got the tree set up and the lights on it. Terry and I, full of energy now, put on ornaments while MeeMaw and my mom found ornament hooks, Grandpa snored contentedly, and my dad sat back and watch, a goofy grin on his face.
For some reason, I still love lopsided trees and I always want a coconut for Christmas.