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Have you lost your Christmas Gifts?

I grew up working on a farm.  From 11 or 12 until the age of 21, Cedar Valley Farm was a center of gravity for me.  Every summer and most days after school you’d find me making the five-mile trek from town to the end of The Happy Corner Road.  I still marvel that I grew up in a place with a road called Happy Corner.

In spring there was fencing.  In summer there was haying.  Fall was firewood, but then there was winter. Winter on a dairy farm in Northern Maine is expectedly cold and difficult yet it was somehow so much more.

Cedar Valley was a second generation homesteaded farm owned by Robert and Louise Guptill.  My childhood memories of the Guptill house go well beyond my years working for Robert, but much of my character was shaped in those tractors and barns.

I’d started working for them as a boy when Louise decided “we kids were more useful in a hay field than any man she could find in town.” The summer job throwing bales became a fall job shoveling out calf stalls.  Then came winter chores and weekend help.  I loved it all but there was something about Christmas on the farm.

Robert, the quintessential New England farmer, was hard working, fit as an athlete, and appropriately introverted.  But below the surface, he was deep as the ocean with a unique value of moments.  He seemed to understand that experiences mattered even if they were fleeting.

Around the end of November, before any significant snow fell, we’d set off to cut down a tree from the back 40 acres.  It would usually be a tree Robert would have noticed in the spring during fencing and had eyeballed for Christmas harvest.  Over the years he took to trimming a couple of trees to get them ready like a tree farmer.  I always marveled at the advanced thinking of farmers and their understanding of seasons.

At one point we would cut down 5 trees.  One for inside the Guptil house, one for the yard, one for grammy Lilian who lived in the old farmhouse, a small one for aunt Edna who lived over grammy Lillian and then there was the one for the lawn in front of the barn.  The barn tree was my favorite.

It was usually a spruce or fir tree anchored in the lawn or snow bank depending on how early it got put up.  There were no ornaments that I remember, but it had these glorious Charlie Brown lights.  Sunset in Maine in December is close to 3:30 in the afternoon which meant that it was dark as night by the time we finished milking chores at 5:30.  Shutting down all the equipment and machines as we left the barn I can still see in my memory the diffused lights of the tree through ice coated single pane glass windows of the milk house.  Driving away from the barn, the pitch-black of the countryside night would be illuminated by this simple tree that you could see for miles.

After trees, we had to cut boughs for the church ladies and their wreath-making party.  Robert even designed this wooden stake “thing” to hold the boughs as we tromped through the woods with our cuttings.  It was added work to an already non-stop farming workload but he seemed to relish it.

The decorations draped the house but the food inside was the real draw.  Louise would make homemade butter-cream candy.  Some years I’d take a Saturday off and spend the afternoon rolling and dipping chocolates for hours just laughing and telling stories with Louise.  She’d make scotcheroos, caramel corn, fudge, sweet bread, and Grammy Lillian’s Christmas Tree Cake.

There was always so much to do on the farm but at Christmas, it doubled joyously.  Few memories are as satisfying to me as the sound of the John Deere 4030 tractor grinding to a stop in the shop yard and Robert waving me up into the one seated tractor cab to sit on the armrest while he drove us about the day’s chores.  Steps to shovel, hay to feed, water pipes to be thawed…and singing.

Robert was determined that we know the old Christmas songs, “No place like home for the holidays” stands out to me. I can still hear him singing, “I met a man who lived in Tennessee and he was headed for…Pennsylvania and some homemade pumpkin pie…”  I was recruited young to our little church choir, Robert would have Lana plunk our tenor part out on piano and record it on the little black tape recorder.  He and I would listen on the tractor tape deck and sing along for practice to get ready for the ever looming Christmas cantata.

And of course, there was the Christmas Caroling.  Robert and Louise were the unofficial hosts.  Everyone would gather at the church and we’d pile into vans and cars.  Seniors to teens to kids, we’d squish in together and take to the dark icy roads.

Caroling became life lessons for us kids as well.  People who you’d sing with one year could be someone sick and homebound the next.  We’d go to the nursing homes, senior living village (which we, unfortunately, called wrinkle city) and anyone out in the countryside someone thought needed some love.  My first understanding of the pains of cancer came from a time singing carols as a kid in the humblest of homes to a sweet woman named Helen Lynch.  Too sick to get up, I remember crowding in the hallway and in around her bed.  And as some of the adults kissed her now bald head and said what would be their good-byes, I somehow knew this was more than just singing.  It wasn’t just fun, it wasn’t just laughter, it was an experience that could give life.  And we were lively.

As teenagers we still loved it and I can still see us all playing around as we walked house to house.  We had a pretty limited song catalog but would all laugh together as the night drew longer and “We wish you a Merry Christmas” came sooner and sooner.  After a while, you knew each song delayed Louise’s homemade eggnog and all that was waiting for us down Happy Corner Road.

One of my last memories of the farm was a year home from College when I told Robert I wanted to come in and help with milking on Christmas morning.  There’s an old story of barn animals kneeling at midnight on Christmas Eve to honor baby Jesus and I told him I wanted to see the cows kneel.  Honestly, I just wanted to be with him.  I wanted to experience the black early morning, before the world was awake, carry the milk, sing the songs, listen to the country Christmas music on the parlor radio. It was a treasured time for me.

I’ve thought over the years about what I’ve learned on the farm and wondered if as the world changes, were the things that were good lost.  But they aren’t.  What the Guptills and the farm gave me can never be lost because they aren’t things.  I was given confidence, joy, hard work, sacrifice, grace, love and challenges too.  You see, my farmer friend from the Happy Corner Road understood then what a world is desperately trying to learn today.  Spend your life on experiences, not stuff.  Give moments.  Give time.  Give attention.  Give love.  It was all given to me, and none of it has been lost.

Merry Christmas!

Michael D.