With a master’s degree in social work, Ron Culberson spent the first part of his career working in a large hospice organization as a clinical social worker, middle manager, and senior leader. As a speaker, humorist, and author of "Do it Well. Make it Fun. The Key to Success in Life, Death, and Almost Everything in Between", he has delivered more than 1,000 presentations to associations, government agencies, non-profit organizations, and corporations. His mission is to change the workplace culture so that organizations are more productive and staff are more content. He was also the 2012-2013 president of the National Speakers Association and is a recognized expert on the benefits of humor and laughter.
Holiday gatherings are often full of stories. But sometimes, I wonder if the story we tell is the whole story?
When I was in elementary school, my father would take me with him to get the family Christmas tree. I had no choice in the matter as I suspect it was his way to get me out of the house so I wouldn’t bug my mom.
We’d get up early on a Saturday morning and pack our lunch with a sandwich, some chips, and a thermos of milk. Back then, the idea of bottled water was unheard of. You drank milk from a thermos and supposedly, it grew hair on your chest. I’m not sure how the girls felt about that, but it’s the message my dad gave me. (For what it’s worth, the same was true for broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and liver.)
Anyway, my father and I would get in our very old, very used, Chevrolet station wagon and head for Whitetop Mountain, the second highest mountain in Virginia. We were in search of the perfect Christmas tree.
The first half of the trip was spent on gently winding roads through the beautiful countryside near Meadowview and Damascus. Then, as we headed up the mountain, the road turned into what felt like a gnarly pile of spaghetti. We drove one way and then quickly angled back the other way. I was not a fan of those roads and, at that age, I was not fan of spaghetti either. Without fail, when we hit the halfway point, my partially digested breakfast decided it had had enough. It wanted out.
I said to my dad, “Uh, I think I’m going to be sick.”
Also without fail, my dad would say, “No you’re not.”
We continued up “Spaghetti Turnpike.”
A few minutes later, I would say, “I really think I’m going to get sick.”
My dad would reply, “It’s all in your head. Look at the horizon.”
The horizon? How can you see the horizon when you’re driving up a wooded mountain road?
Finally, I realized that time was of the essence, so I said, “PULL OVER, PULL OVER, PULL OVER, I’M PUKING!”
My dad swerved to the shoulder and I spilled out onto my knees just as my breakfast spilled out onto the grass. For the rest of the trip, my stomach felt like it had been to the Tilt-A-Whirl at the county fair.
Ever since I was a child, whenever I thought about our trips to get a Christmas tree, I vividly remembered the upchucking part. In fact, I’m a little nauseous just describing it. I never could understand why my dad didn’t believe me when I said I was going to get sick. This always bothered me and became the focus of my story.
But here’s the interesting thing—the stomach emptying was only part of the experience. As I sat down to write about this, a flood of memories came back and reminded me that while the car ride was not particularly enjoyable, it was not the bulk of the day. It was just the story I had told myself. Now, I realize, there was much more to it.
Since we lived in the country, we didn’t buy our trees at K-Mart or even at the lot where the Boy Scouts sold them. We went old school. We took a John-Boy Walton approach and drove to the top of the mountain where we could cut down our own tree for just five dollars (nausea included).
The guy who owned the tree farm lived in a small cabin that was so run down, you could almost see through the walls. He had a chest-length beard, was dressed in well-worn overalls, and did not appear to have even heard of a stock portfolio. Yet, he always greeted us with kindness and Christmas cheer. One year, my father, who I think felt sorry for him, offered him an extra couple of dollars because he let us use his saw. The man said, “I wouldn’t think of taking that money.”
With saw in hand, we trudged through the mountain snow to find the perfect tree. It had to be six feet tall with evenly distributed limbs. No Charlie Brown tree for us. My dad was very particular and a little OCD.
After we cut down the perfect tree, we paid our five dollars, tied the tree to the car, and then retraced our path down Spaghetti Turnpike making sure we didn’t lose the tree off the back of the car. I did, however, lose my lunch off the side of the road. But the tree was secure—mainly because my dad used his OCD skills and miles of twine to make sure it didn’t budge. In fact, it usually took us an hour just to get the dang thing untied once we got home.
The tree was placed in a homemade stand (coffee can nailed to two boards) and we began the arduous process of centering the tree in both the stand and the room. Then it was time to trim it.
Our tradition was to decorate the tree while listening to Mahalia Jackson and Nat King Cole albums or while watching the Andy Williams Christmas Special on television. Both of these experiences put us in the proper mood to decorate. We packed the tree with all of our old, often handmade, ornaments. And then the icing on the cake was putting the icicles on the tree. I probably don’t need to tell you that my father implored us to carefully drape the icicles on the limbs of the tree to make sure that they hung properly. No clumps, no overlapping, and definitely no throwing.
When the process was complete, we all sat back and admired our work. At that point, my stomach was just about ready for some Christmas cookies.
In hindsight, I realize that the story I had told myself about our search for the perfect tree had become more about getting sick and less about the whole experience. The real story was that we had spent quality time together on an all-day adventure that ended with creating a lot of Christmas spirit in the Culberson house.
Sometimes, I think, we choose to tell ourselves the wrong story. That story might be that people don’t care about our needs. Or that we’re not good enough. Or that we might not be as successful as someone else. But if we really look closely, there may be another story.
I hope that the stories you hear, tell, and create this holiday season are not only the right stories but are worth retelling for years to come.
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