As I decorated the Christmas tree last week, I remembered another holiday season from long ago. I’ve told this story before, but because it’s Dad’s last Christmas with us, I’d like to tell it again.

On that snowy afternoon, I followed Dad through the orchard, stepping in the deep tracks he made with his big boots. He carried a hatchet, and I pulled the sled. Without saying a word, we walked to Angel Hill, home to a small stand of balsam firs.

It wasn’t often that we were alone. Dad worked two jobs and spent much of his “free” time refurbishing our old house. It seemed there was never enough of him to go around. The only time he sat still was to watch “Gunsmoke,” and even then he had one of us on his lap.

We were nearing the trees when Dad stopped suddenly and motioned to me to be still. A doe was picking her way through the crusty snow, looking at us with a question in her eyes, “Are you going to hurt me?” We stayed perfectly still, respectfully allowing her to pass.

After a few moments, we followed her tracks through the firs to where the trail ended at a hollowed out place under one of the smaller trees. Dad spoke for the first time since we’d left the yard.

“She stayed here last night,” he said. I could see the shape of her body in the snow and imagined her resting there with no blanket or even leaves to keep her warm. Dad seemed to read my mind as he said, “She was okay here out of the wind. Sit there for a minute. You’ll see.”

Curled up and warm

I crouched down under the tree, leaning in against the trunk. Dad was right, it did seem warm there, protected and safe. I curled into a fetal position, rested my head on my mittened hands and closed my eyes, listening to the quiet. My father stood watching me, his hands in his pockets, understanding.

I opened my eyes when I heard his step, reminding me why we had come there. The tree our friend had slept under was the nicest one, but it seemed wrong to cut it down. Instead, we chose one close by, tied it on the sled and followed the tracks back through the orchard.

Twice my father bent to dig frozen apples out of the snow, putting them in his pocket. When we were in sight of home, he emptied his pockets on the ground near the clothesline. “She’ll come around later and find these,” was all he said.

The next afternoon when Mom sent me to get the sheets off the line, I noticed the apples were replaced by a pattern of deer tracks. I couldn’t wait for Dad to get home so I could tell him.

That night Dad and I began a ritual that lasted several weeks. After supper, we retrieved a few Macs from the fruit cellar and put them outside for the doe. Every morning, the apples were gone and only a pattern of tracks remained. Dad explained that as the snow became deeper, it was harder for deer to find food and that many of them starved to death over the winter.

The day before Christmas

Every day, I worried over that doe, but she kept coming back. Every night, Dad and I put out more apples, sometimes staying on the porch long enough for him to smoke a pipeful of tobacco while he not only talked about deer, but unraveled stories about his boyhood, voiced his thoughts on the world and shared his hopes and dreams.

On Christmas Eve afternoon as I wrapped gifts in the secrecy of my room, Mom made pies, putting the pan of apple peelings on the porch steps when she was finished. Later in the day, as dusk approached, Dad and I stood at the kitchen window and watched as the doe walked cautiously across the yard and put her soft, brown nose into the pan of peelings. I was careful to hold very still and was close enough to see, if only for a moment, that the questioning look was gone from her eyes.

That Christmas, like so many others, was filled with mounds of gifts under the tree, friends, family and food galore. And as with so many other Christmases, I’ve forgotten the details.

What I do remember about December 1963 is that I learned some things about deer, but more importantly, I learned a lot about the man who is my father.

Karen Carlton is a freelance writer living in West Bath, who is a regular contributor to this column. She can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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