Family traditions feel so reliable and constant in childhood. Then everybody grows up and disperses, and here you are blogging about a tradition turned bygone day. My brothers and I darted to opposite edges of the country with our parents balancing us in the Midwest: the Thompson diaspora. They’re constantly trying to lasso us together, but it’s hard. I roam the West Coast; Matt is a full-blooded East Coaster; Mike recently transitioned from East to West. It works, though. Our geographic locales suit our polar personalities in every way so I guess it was meant to be.
No matter how far we trek, there are a few things I know will never change. My mom is homemaker extraordinaire. She made carpet vacuum lines an art form while setting some of the most incredible meals on the dinner table. My dad will always be a hardworking man while striving to temper the overwhelming domesticity with a rugged, outdoorsy spirit—occasionally volunteering to rough it on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches alone (which happen to be his signature dish). Matt and Mike will continue to be quintessential brothers: two so diametrically opposed in every way they must, in fact, be brothers. And I will forever reign as the favorite (slash only) princess-of-the-land daughter and sister.
We made good memories while tethered under one roof. A rather short-lived but unforgettable family tradition was the Great Christmas Tree Hunt. We lived in Reno, Nevada and though I relished the pastel desert sunsets of summer, winter had its wonderland moments. Heavy forests and mountains hug Nevada to the west: a promising expanse for selecting the tree of trees. Two neighboring families were just as sap-thirsty, so we herded a sizeable group of about 20 (each family had at least three kids).
Now, despite frothing excitement about the mountain excursion, we kept our priorities straight. Tree or no tree, we would feast. My mom, armed with bottomless crockpots (seemingly gigantic to my young eyes), transformed our day-after-Thanksgiving leftovers into steaming turkey noodle soup and hearty chili. We rounded up all stray lunchbox thermoses and filled them with hot chocolate. My mom prepares for every scenario and if we happened to get stuck in the snow, she made certain no Donner Party diet would befall us. She confronted frostbite with equal zeal, layering us kids in snow pants, coats, and hats until we were poofed beyond recognition, identifiable only by jacket color.
Before the giddy caravan of families hit the road I made sure to squeeze into the seat next to my boy-next-door crush, Jonathan Stewart, whose proximity was thrilling beyond words, though I was so afflicted with shyness all energy went toward appearing as unthrilled as possible. I remember fishing with him once. We were in fourth grade. He caught a fish and cleaned it and I thought it was just the manliest thing I had ever seen. And yes, if he reads this I will be no less embarrassed nearly 20 years after the fact.
In retrospect, my parents were adventurous. I’m pretty sure this drive was another curvy, twisty, hanging over the cliff type of ride. My dad would get this semi-crazed gleam in his eye hollering, “Hold onto your hats!” and mom would order, “Everybody, lean to the left!” and of course we would do it, sure that our clever maneuvering would save us. I leaned as hard as I could, a little terrified and a little elated to have my crush beside me rather than one of my gross brothers.
We arrived in another land: one with grandfatherly pines and firs that dropped gifts of enormous pinecones. The snowfall varied each year, but on one visit it was piled at least ten feet high. The effect was fantastical—I could have sworn our twisty drive magically shrunk us to miniatures. There is nothing more beautiful than a wide view of untouched snow. It was a new, virgin land, bearing only the occasional deer or bird track; though, not for long. We unloaded our sleds and explored the woods, each of us hoping to call dibs on the model tree, but mostly letting our wild adventure hearts drive us deeper into the natural world, surrendering us to wonder and daydreams.
My mom, caught up in burst of affection for nature, daintily plucked a small brown seed from the snow exclaiming, “Look! I found a pine nut!” (Words that will forever haunt her). Moments before popping nature’s bounty into her mouth, it squished between her fingers in a very un-pine-nutty way. We doubled over and fell to the snow screaming with laughter. It’s generally funny—anyone about to eat a deer dropping—but this was my mother: always ladylike; a model of impeccable hygiene; housekeeper extraordinaire about to eat deer poop. It’s a story my dad insists on regaling as often as possible: the Pine Nut Incident. My poor mother. We tortured her for months after. “Hey mom! How about some pine nuts on this salad?”
We did the snow justice, starting snowball fights, sledding, making snow angels. After working up an appetite sweating in our layered gear, we brought out the feast. Food cooked over a campfire has a way of tasting especially good, minus a little soot, but this hot meal eaten under firs, steam in your face and snow for a chair, is one method for heaven. We eventually voted on the handsomest tree specimens. The dads got out the hand saws to chop them down and strap them to the cars, and we returned to our neighborhood world, exhausted and content, asleep in the backseat.