The Tennyson Free-Range Christmas Tree Farm: A Carding Chronicle

SH-Christmas lightsThis story is the first Carding Chronicle I ever wrote. It’s still one of my favorites and every year, I unpack it with the same reverence I reserve for those special ornaments we hang on our tree.

It’s amazing how many memories are locked into holiday ornaments, isn’t it?

No matter how you celebrate winter, I hope you take the time to gaze up at the star-filled sky and celebrate our spin through the universe.

Welcome to Carding, Vermont where life always includes a dash of the unexpected. You can find the little town that no one can seem to find on a map right here in the Carding Chronicles and in the four novels of Carding, Vermont, The Road Unsalted, Thieves of Fire, The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life, and Lights in Water, Dancing.

If you haven’t already, don’t forget to subscribe to the Chronicle by clicking the link on this page. That way, you’ll never miss a story.


As the glower of November settles into the sustained chill of December, the good folks of Carding, Vermont begin to think seriously about the coming holidays. One of the first signs of Christmas-to-come is the appearance of a particularly thick and creamy brand of eggnog on the shelves of Cooper’s General Store. Andy Cooper, the seventh Cooper to own and run the rambling everything-you-need emporium, always gives Benson’s Special Nogg pride of place in the first cooler you see when you walk in the front door, just to the left of Carding’s Creamy Ale.

Word spreads through town when the Benson’s shows up so you’ve got to be quick to get your share of the seasonal treat.

One of the other signs of the approaching holidays are the trays of Carding Crunch Cookies that Diana Bennett makes over at the Crown Town Bakery. The pungent scents of ginger and cinnamon leak right out of the bakery’s windows and doors, causing passersby to drop whatever they’re doing to buy a dozen while there are still some left.

But perhaps the most anticipated holiday signal in the whole town is the appearance of a small sign at the end of the dirt road that goes up to the old Tennyson farm. The sign was once white with a green triangle in the center to represent a Christmas tree. But over the century since that sign was first painted, the white has faded to the gray of a winter sky, and all that’s left of the tree symbol is a faint shadow.

No matter. Generations of Carding-ites, who start watching for the sign on Thanksgiving, know exactly what it means—the Tennyson farm is open for the cutting of Yuletide trees.

Lee Tennyson, the seventh Tennyson to own the farm, will be the first to disclaim any credit for this special plantation of spruce and balsam firs. If asked, he’d be glad to tell you how they were planted by the first Tennysons to live on Belmont Hill. His name was Alfred and his enchanting wife’s name was Elayna.

If you talk to the old timers in Carding, they’ll tell you lots of stories about Fred Tennyson. He wasn’t native-born, first of all. He came from New York City but he left a good job there to come live in the Green Mountains. You’ll hear how he was the only person in Carding to vote for Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the the 1932 election, and how right he was to fight to get electricity in Carding in 1943.

Fred Tennyson didn’t marry a local girl, though there were plenty who would have been happy to have him. No, as soon as Fred finished building the small cabin that eventually grew into the Tennysons’ large farmhouse, he sent a letter to a faraway country to ask for a certain young lady’s hand in marriage. Her name was Elayna, and she accepted Fred’s proposal without hesitation. No one in Carding ever learned much about her past but Fred always said that when Elayna left her homeland, people wept.

As a general rule, people like to live their lives among people they know. So it’s no surprise that the folks in Carding were prepared to keep Elayna Tennyson at a distance for four or five years while they got to know her. But somehow—and no one was quite sure how—Elayna blossomed easily among them, just as if she’d always been there.

A number of Carding-ites accounted for this by remarking on the pleasant aroma that wafted through the air whenever Elayna was around. The scent was like fresh-baked cookies, one part ginger, two parts cinnamon with butter in the background. But when asked, no one could ever recall seeing her bake.

Another contingent, mostly children and those enjoying the peak of gray-haired longevity, treasured the way Elayna touched them. Some described her caress as soft as the brush of a snowflake on a cheek while others said it felt like the first warm sun on a cloudless March day. But when asked, they could not recall ever being embraced by Mrs. Tennyson.

Nowadays, it’s hard to believe that the green hills of Vermont were once treeless, stripped bare by decades of logging. But that’s the way they were when Fred asked Elayna to marry him. The brown hills made him feel sad, and he promised his wife-to-be that he would replant them with maples, oaks, beech, and “some spruce and pine so the little ones of Carding can have Christmas trees once again.”

The treeless plight of Vermont’s hills touched Elayna’s heart so she arranged for a special wedding gift for Fred—a dozen magnificent balsam firs from her faraway land.

It took the newlywed Tennysons a while to choose just the right spot for their Christmas tree farm. But they finally picked a southwest-facing slope that was protected from the worst of the winter winds yet was open to the light of the summer sun.

One of Elayna’s special balsams was much larger than the others, and it became the center of their tree farm. After they planted the first, Fred collected spruce seedlings from local hollows and copses to fill in the spaces among them, and the tree farm flourished.

And so did the Tennyson family. Elayna gave birth to a girl named Arabella just before they celebrated their second Christmas as man and wife. Little Arabella soon had three brothers—Alfred junior, Cedric, and Wesley—and then she had a little sister named Rose.

The Tennyson children shared their mother’s luminous qualities, and that’s probably why people believed they were conceived in the moonlight under that great balsam fir. Of course, no one but Fred and Elayna could have testified to the truth about that story. But generations of Carding women who were wooed by Tennyson men told stories about walking in the woods with them at night.

The family began selling Christmas trees the year Arabella turned twelve. Fred made the white sign with the green triangle that year, and nailed it to a post stuck in the ground where the cart track up to the farm met Belmont Hill Road.

Only a handful of families made the trek that year but the welcome they received was memorable. The Tennyson children guided everyone right up to the back door of the farmhouse where they were met by Fred and Elayna. Fred was dressed in a dark green jacket while Elayna wore a patchwork apron with deep blue pockets on its front. Fred carried an axe to do any cutting while Elayna directed the selection of “the right tree for the right family.”

She was quite particular about this, asking the Carding families about their lives, their dreams, their hopes and travails before picking out a tree. Some folks may have thought all that chat was unnecessary but the people who walked in the woods with Elayna didn’t seem to mind at all.

As they walked with her, Elayna told tales about the trees. It seemed she knew the life story of each spruce and fir intimately.

“Look at those three here,” she’d say when the walkers reached the top of the hill. “They were planted on the same day but look how the one in the middle is smaller than the others. That’s because its top broke off in an ice storm. But see how the one on the left and the one on the right have moved together to protect it? That’s how life should be, don’t you think, us protecting one another from storms.”

Then later on, when the walkers reached a clearing near the big balsam fir, Elayna would execute a little dance step in her heavy winter boots, and laugh in her soft, sparkly way. “Happy Christmas,” she’d say. “Happy Christmas to all.”

And everyone who heard her could smell the tang of spruce and hear the whisper of the balsam firs. Then suddenly, they’d be right back in the barnyard where Fred helped them load their special trees into their wagons, Elayna would give them tin cups full of hot cider, and the Tennyson children passed out the first Carding Crunch Cookies.

“Just bring back the trees when Christmas is over,” Fred said as they drove away. “You can leave them right at the end of the drive. I pile them up for windbreaks around Elayna’s flower gardens.”

And that’s how the Carding Christmas ritual began. Year after year, families in the village waited for the Tennyson Tree Farm sign to appear, and then they’d trek up Belmont Hill, turn right on the old cart road, and then follow Fred with his axe and Elayna with her stories until they found the perfect tree.

Remarkably, everyone’s selected evergreen always fit perfectly in the spot chosen for it.

Remarkably, every Tennyson tree filled its home with the tang of spruce and the whisper of balsam fir, especially on Christmas morning.

And, also remarkably, on the day after Christmas, all the trees were left in a pile at the end of the cart track that led up to the Tennyson farm.

What stayed behind in the homes and mills and farms of Carding were the stories that Elayna told about the evergreens. All Carding’s children learned the tale about their family’s particular tree like the one about the spruce with bent branches and a strong heart or about the wispy fir that held a family’s-worth of ornaments with magnificent pride or the pine that whispered words of comfort to people facing grief.

The people of Carding grew so accustomed to visiting the Tennyson tree farm every year with Fred in his green jacket and Elayna in her patchwork apron that it came as a great shock when they learned that she had died.

“She just hung that apron of hers, the one with the blue pockets, on its peg in the kitchen,” Fred said, “and took to her bed. She was gone by morning. She just said it was time.”

The Tennysons chose to bury Elayna in a special place just down slope from the spot where people left their trees after Christmas. You could see all of the Corvus Valley from there—the glittering ribbon of river, the shimmer of Half Moon Lake, smoke rising from Carding’s chimneys in winter, and the sparkle of snow-covered Mount Merino in the far distance.

It was a simple ceremony. The whole town was there. At the end, Arabella and her brother Cedric planted a balsam fir to watch over their mother.

As people turned to go, they told one another that Christmas would never be the same because the Tennysons wouldn’t sell trees now that Elayna was gone.

But they were wrong. On the morning after Thanksgiving, Cedric hung out the white sign with the green triangle. The news spread through the village faster than a roll of thunder, and soon a line of cars were turning right up the snowy track to the farm.

Arabella and her sister Rose greeted everyone wearing patchwork aprons of their own making with two bright yellow pockets on the front because that was their favorite color. Father Fred waved from his kitchen window where he was keeping warm by the wood stove while his three sons—Al, Cedric and Wesley—stood at the ready to help folks cut and load their chosen Yuletide evergreens.

This went on year after year with Carding family elders passing on their Christmas tree stories to their family youngsters. But somehow, in all that time, no one’s noticed that they always find their special tree in the same place they did the year before. And somehow, they never notice that the one they pick has the same broken branches or misshapen trunk as the year before.

What they do remember are the stories they heard as children, and walking up the hill among the trees in the dark. And then, after they gather their special yuletide greenery, they wander to the center of the wood to stand by the great balsam fir that Elayna Tennyson brought to Carding so long ago. Then a little breeze comes up, snowflakes drift past their cheeks, and they hear a soft, sparkly voice whisper: “Happy Christmas. Happy Christmas to all.”


Remember, you can visit Carding any time by reading one of my four Carding novels, The Road Unsalted, Thieves of Fire, The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life, or Lights in Water, Dancing.

Thanks for stopping by.

The Tennyson Free-Range Christmas Tree Farm

SH-Christmas lights

Tomorrow’s story about how Christmas trees came to Carding is the first Carding Chronicle I ever wrote. It’s still one of my favorites and every year, I unpack it with the same reverence I reserve for those special ornaments we hang on our tree.

It’s amazing how many memories are locked into holiday ornaments, isn’t it?

No matter how you celebrate winter, I hope you take the time to gaze up at the star-filled sky and celebrate our spin through the universe.

Hope you can stop by.

Welcome to Carding, Vermont where life always includes a dash of the unexpected. You can find the little town that no one can seem to find on a map right here in the Carding Chronicles and in the four novels of Carding, Vermont, The Road Unsalted, Thieves of Fire, The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life, and Lights in Water, Dancing.

If you haven’t already, don’t forget to subscribe to the Chronicle by clicking the link on this page. That way, you’ll never miss a story.

Half-finished Projects: A Carding Chronicle

SH-Crazy quilt squareChances are pretty good that you have some unfinished projects lingering in your attic, garage or closet.

I know I do.

Edie Wolfe, Ruth Goodwin and Agnes Findlay have a LOT of things they started but never quite finished. In today’s entry to the Carding Chronicles, the loss of a friend acts as a reminder to them about their unfinished business.

Welcome to Carding, Vermont where life always includes a dash of the unexpected. You can find the little town that no one can seem to find on a map right here in the Carding Chronicles and in the four novels of Carding, Vermont, The Road Unsalted, Thieves of Fire, The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life, and Lights in Water, Dancing.

If you haven’t already, don’t forget to subscribe to the Chronicle by clicking the link on this page. That way, you’ll never miss a story.

————————————–

Edie Wolfe sat back with a sigh as she checked off an item on her current to-do list. Nearly, her cocker spaniel, pricked his ears up with anticipation. In his experience, his human took walks for two reasons—to serve his daily needs or because she had something to ponder.

That airy sound she’d just made had a pondering quality to it so maybe…

“It never seems to get shorter,” she explained to her dog as she carried her empty tea mug to the kitchen sink. “There’s always so many projects to get done, so much…”

Her phone’s ring tone cut Edie’s sentence short.

“Hey Edie, it’s Ruth. I just got a call from Fred Makepeace, Genevieve died yesterday morning.”

“But she was at the guild meeting only three nights ago,” Edie protested. “She looked fine. What happened?”

“Heart attack, I guess,” Ruth said. “Fred woke up in the morning. Genevieve didn’t.”

The air hung word-free on the phone between them for a long moment as their familiar world rocked gently around them.

“Oh my, and they just finished building that big quilting studio for her last year,” Edie said, “and she was so excited about it. That is not fair, so not fair.”

“Yeah, Fred wants to know if we’ll go over to the house to help him figure out what to do with her fabric stash.” The two friends sighed as one. “Will you come?”

Edie looked at the to-do list now lying unattended on her table. It was tempting to say no because going through someone else’s creative paraphernalia felt like an invasion of privacy, like going through someone else’s underwear drawer. But there was no way she would leave Ruth to face that task alone.

“Of course. Should we ask Agnes to come too?” she asked.

“Yeah, the more, the merrier, I guess,” Ruth said with another sigh. “I told Fred we’d make it over tomorrow morning, if that works for you and Agnes. Does it?”

“Sure, sure.”

**************

Genevieve Makepeace had been a quilter for longer than just about anybody else in Vermont. She had made her first patchwork project when Jimmy Carter was President, long before the quilting industry could count its worth in billions of dollars, long before there were shops dedicated just to quilting fabric, long before 16 million other people decided to take up fiber arts as a hobby or vocation.

Before she retired from teaching elementary school, Gen made only five or six quilts a year. After retirement, that number shot up to five or six quilts a month. Everyone in her guild knew about her voracious appetite for new fabric, and it had been a long time since any vacation she took with her husband didn’t include stops in quilt shops or at shows.

So Ruth, Edie and Agnes thought they were prepared for what they were about to see when Gen’s daughter Clara led them to her Mom’s sewing room.

“I hope you folks can help,” she said as she swung the door wide open, “Dad and I are just overwhelmed.”

Edie felt a chill jog across her shoulders as she turned in place. The longest wall in the brightly-lit room was covered with a drawer system consisting of large metal baskets suspended between slides. And each basket—about three feet square and a foot deep—was filled with fabric.

Most of it was sorted by color—blues, greens, reds, browns. Some of it was sorted by design type—stripes, dots, florals, geometrics. One whole group of baskets was filled with batiks, another with flannels, another with children’s fabrics.

The opposite wall was covered with bookcases, each of them groaning-full with craft books, art books, the thrillers that Gen had loved to read for pleasure, and volumes of history.

“Either one of you have any idea where to start?” Agnes said. Ruth and Edie shook their heads while they mentally measured the task ahead of them.

“There’s no way any of us could incorporate this into our own stashes,” Ruth finally said. “I’ve been trying to reduce my fabric for a couple of years now, and it’s finally beginning to show. I don’t want to leave something like this to my daughter.”

“What about that place over in New Hampshire, the one that buys inventory from stores that close and remnants from manufacturers?” Edie suggested.

Agnes and Ruth nodded in unison. “I like that idea,” Agnes said.

Ruth dropped her purse on a nearby chair. “I suppose we should start by figuring out how much yardage is in here so we can give them some idea of what we have.”

“Okay, let’s pick a basket and measure it out, piece by piece,” Edie said.

After a bit of hemming and hawing, the three friends chose a basket in the middle of the wall. It was filled with a variety of striped fabrics, mostly in blues and greens.

“How much do you suppose is in here?” Ruth asked as she and Agnes lifted it to Genevieve’s cutting table. “Ugh, I don’t know why but I am always surprised at how heavy this stuff is.”

“I’m not sure…thirty yards maybe?” Edie said. “I’ll keep a running total if you two measure, is that okay?”

In a matter of minutes, the friends established a system, Agnes unfolding, Ruth measuring, and Edie adding up the yardage. And then, just as they reached the bottom of the basket, Agnes gasped.

“Oh look at these old crazy quilt squares,” she said as she lifted up a small pile of fragile, embroidered fabric patches. “Where do you suppose these came from?”

Edie smoothed one of the squares with a gentle finger, lingering over two small holes where moths lunched together at some point in the past. “Wasn’t Genevieve’s mother a quilter? I wonder if these were hers.”

“Oh, just look at the embroidery,” Ruth said as she spread them out.

“A lot of work went into these,” Agnes said. “Don’t you just love that herringbone stitching?”

“I remember my grandmother doing this kind of work,” Edie said. “I think there are enough blocks here to make a quilt top.”

Agnes shook her head as she looked around the room. “How many unsewn quilts do you suppose are in this room?”

“Well, I can tell you that there’s enough in this basket alone to make a bunch,” Edie said. “You just measured out 70 yards of fabric.”

“And how many baskets are there?” Ruth asked, starting to count. Agnes joined her, starting at the opposite end of the wall.

“Forty,” they said together.

“That’s 2,800 yards of fabric,” Edie said, shaking her head. “And I’ll bet she’s got scraps stored somewhere as well as other stuff left behind by her mother.”

“All unsewn and unfinished,” Ruth said. “That’s a lot of projects to leave behind. A lot of making left unmade.”

“And now it will be sold or given away to be used by someone else,” Agnes said.

Edie thought about her untouched to-do list at home, and then about her own closet full of half-finished projects. What would her son and daughter do with all her stuff?

Sell it? Give it away? Throw it away? Diana enjoyed quilts but she had no interest in sewing. And Daniel wouldn’t have a clue what to do.

And her friends? Edie glanced from Ruth to Agnes, knowing full well that their closets were just as full as hers. They all shared the same love of making. The problem was—what do you do with what you make?

She suddenly felt the full weight of the fabric that Genevieve had left behind pressing down on her shoulders. Too much stuff, she thought, we all have too much stuff.

“You know, I suddenly feel the need to go home and sew,” she said to her friends. “I vote we contact that store to see if they would be interested in buying Gen’s stash. I’ll be happy to make the call.”

Agnes nodded. “That’s as good a place as any to start.” She stroked a yard of silver and pale blue striped fabric, perfect for making holiday gift bags.

“You should take that,” Ruth said. “To remember Genevieve.”

“Yeah, I think I will.

Edie reached out to touch a soft green and beige piece. Its stripes had centers of gold thread. “This is lovely,” she said. “Gen had such exquisite taste.”

Ruth picked up a yard of turquoise stripes that reminded her of the sea. “Maybe I’ll take just one piece,” she said. “For Genevieve.”

Then Agnes pointed at the embroidered squares. “What about these? The store in New Hampshire won’t have any use for half-finished projects.”

The three friends looked at one another, each aware of the others’ thoughts. “Shall I ask Clara to make us some tea?” Edie said. “I think we should rescue all of Genevieve’s half-finished projects before I call that store in New Hampshire, don’t you?”

Ruth nodded. “And right after that, we’re going home to work on our own stuff. Right?”


Remember, you can visit Carding any time by reading one of my four Carding novels, The Road Unsalted, Thieves of Fire, The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life, or Lights in Water, Dancing.

Thanks for stopping by.

Half-finished Projects

Chances are pretty good that you have some unfinished projects lingering in your attic, garage or closet.

I know I do.

Edie Wolfe, Ruth Goodwin and Agnes Findlay have a LOT of things they started but never quite finished. In tomorrow’s entry to the Carding Chronicles, the loss of a friend acts as a reminder about their unfinished business.

Welcome to Carding, Vermont where life always includes a dash of the unexpected. You can find the little town that no one can seem to find on a map right here in the Carding Chronicles and in the four novels of Carding, Vermont, The Road Unsalted, Thieves of Fire, The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life, and Lights in Water, Dancing.

If you haven’t already, don’t forget to subscribe to the Chronicle by clicking the link on this page. That way, you’ll never miss a story.

SH-Crazy quilt square

Author of the Carding, Vermont novels, quilt books, and book publishing guides.