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Expressway: On the farm, our hunt for a Christmas tree

Members of the Prianti family at their Commack

Members of the Prianti family at their Commack farm around 1976. From left, sister Jean, mother Angela, Millie Cestaro, father John, sister Margie (author of the essay), sister Antoinette, sister Fay and sister-in-law Stephanie. Photo Credit: Richard Prianti

I loved Christmas on Prianti Farm on Jericho Turnpike in Commack, where I grew up in the 1940s with my nine siblings.

Jericho Turnpike was a rural two-lane road, and we ran a farm stand that sold our vegetables, including rhubarb, carrots, potatoes and tomatoes, from May until October.

After the hectic selling season, my mother, Angela, would be in the house cooking, looking much more relaxed. The big, bright kitchen smelled of delicious meals. Our "aunt" Millie sang as she cleaned. She often scolded my mother for putting too much salt in the cooking.

Millie Cestaro was a key figure in our five-bedroom farmhouse. After living at an orphanage run by nuns in Brooklyn, Millie joined my mother's family when she was 10. Years later, while my mother was busy running the farm stand, Millie, 21 years older than me, was like a mother to the 10 Prianti children. She devoted herself to us and never married.

In late fall each year, Aunt Millie would start discussing our Christmas tree. When I was about 8, she asked one day, "Well, kids, if it's not too cold tomorrow, what do you say we get the tree?"

I felt a shiver of delight at the thought of a trip to what we called "Christmas tree land," an area at the back of the 25-acre farm.

The big day dawned cold and clear. Snow covered the ground. Four or five of us fought noisily over snowsuits, hats, gloves and boots. My mother wielded a wooden spoon and pushed us out the door. Aunt Millie followed, muttering about how my mother had no patience, never did and never would.

Pulling our biggest sled, we set out for the woods. The biggest brother on the expedition carried the ax. Aunt Millie sang Christmas carols until she got too cold, and then we just walked on.

At the woods, anticipation energized us, so we began to run. At a clearing, we stopped to catch our breath and stare at the evergreens ahead of us.

"Wow! Look, Mill! How about that one?" I yelled.

"Just a minute -- it can't be too big!" Millie said.

Thankfully, it was too cold to argue, so a tree was chosen, chopped down and loaded onto the sled. We pulled it home and set it up. Decorations bought from catalogs or made at home were hung. I thought it was the most beautiful thing ever.

At least once each season, the tree would fall, usually during an argument when someone was pushed into it. Aunt Millie would see it toppling in slow motion. Her voice would ring out: "The tree! The tree!"

Everyone would scatter. From her chair next to my father, my mother would scold, "I told you to tie it to the wall and that wouldn't happen!"

Millie ignored her and went about the business of righting the tree.

In the decades that followed, parts of the farm were sold. In 1998, the Prianti Farms nursery run by my brother Bob Prianti and my son, Giro DiLillo, was relocated about a mile to the west in Dix Hills. Aunt Millie lived with my youngest brother, Richard Prianti, in Smithtown until she died at age 85 in 2001.

As my siblings and I married and left the farm, I often wondered if Millie missed Christmas on the farm as much as I do now. I think she did, but those holiday memories remained with us always.

Reader Margie Prianti lives in Northport.