Many years ago I was at a gathering of a small group of friends who were sharing a quiet Christmas celebration. We were in a sentimental mood and openly shared favorite Christmas memories. A friend of mine, Hugh Schmelzenbach, shared his memory, which I have never forgotten.
The Story of Three Boys
Hugh was born in Africa of missionary parents. When he was about a year of age, his father, Paul, contracted a tropical disease. He had to come back to the United States for treatment. The medical profession didn’t know how to treat the disease in those days, and Paul, Hugh’s father, passed away.
Hugh’s mother, Mary Kate, gathered up her three young boys and made her way to the only place in the United States that she could call home, Nampa, Idaho. There she practiced her profession of nursing. For five years she did her best to deal with those boys, holding home and hearth together, until wonderful man by the name of Wayne Phillips entered her life. They fell in love and were married.
Wayne gathered up his new family of Mary Kate and the three boys and moved them out of the deserts of Idaho to his old house on the Oregon coast. The town was Tillamook, famous for cheese and floods. There was an abundance of cows and rain. It always rains in Tillamook. The drastic change from dry desert to rainy coast was an apt image of the relationship between Wayne and the three boys. It was constant conflict. The boys gave no quarter. Wayne didn’t know what to do.
My friend, Hugh reported of himself and his brothers, “We were unruly, unmanageable, and uncooperative. Everything that poor man did to try to win us over, we rejected.”
A Christmas Tree Hunt
It was near Christmas, and like most families on the Oregon Coast at that time, they loaded up in the pickup truck, filled a thermos with hot chocolate, and headed into the mountains to find a Christmas tree. My friend Hugh remembers, “Something happened that day. I don’t know how. Dad told the same stories, but we began to listen. We joked back and forth. We enjoyed the hot chocolate and sandwiches. We found a few snowflakes, a lot of mud, and the perfect tree. Everyone took a turn with the saw. Down it came and we tied it in the back of the truck.”
Wayne and the boys found the beginning of a new relationship that day. They laughed and joked as they bumped down the mountain with their prize tree in the back. It was a great day, a new day for them.
Of course, Christmas trees in the back of trucks have a magical quality. As you drive down the mountain, the tree grows. What looked like the perfect size on the side of a mountain is oddly larger than expected when you arrive back home. In this case, unbeknownst to Wayne and the boys, the perfect, prized Christmas tree had grown two feet on the ride down the mountain.
As Wayne and the boys pulled up to the house, Mary Kate instinctively knew something had happened on the mountain that day. The tree was praised, the laughter continued, and a cooperative, happy spirit prevailed. Mary Kate treasured the moment in her heart.
They carried the tree into the house with the confidence of successful hunters. They placed the tree in an old tree stand and pulled it upright in the middle of the living room. Shock! Rather than gracing the room with elegance, the tree bent over against the ceiling of the old house. Shock and silence. What would be done? What could be done? This was the perfect tree.
Everyone looked to Wayne. And, he knew what to do. This was the moment for astonishing and extravagant love. I report the facts as my friend Hugh reported them to me:
“Dad went out into the garage, picked up his tool kit, and came back to the living room. We three little boys were at his heels. Rather than stopping in the living room to shorten the tree, dad went up the stairs to our bedroom, which was just above the living room. The three of us stood in silence and bewilderment as Dad pulled back the carpet. With chisel, hammer, and saw, he cut a hole through the floor of our room and, below, the ceiling of the living room. The top of the tree popped up into the middle of our bedroom. It was a sight to behold.”
The boys went wild. Wayne was Dad, forever. He had found the way to open their hearts. Astonishing and extravagant love. Astonishing – to amaze someone to a great degree. Extravagant – excessive, exaggerated, or abundant.
The Rest of the Story
The boys grew and left the old house in Tillamook, Oregon. My friend, Hugh, became a schoolteacher in Portland, Oregon and the other two brothers moved to Alaska as professional fishermen. A few years later, Wayne and Mary Kate went to Alaska to visit the boys. They were traveling in a small airplane. Something happened. The plane went down in the snow and ice. Wayne and Mary Kate where gone.
In their deaths, they didn’t leave much for the three boys. They didn’t have much. But they did leave them a few memories, an old house in Tillamook, Oregon with an odd repair in the living room ceiling, and the heritage of man who became their father through astonishing and extravagant love.