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A GIFT OF TIME: It Will Be A Wonderful Life At Thornhill Farm This Christmas

A GIFT OF TIME: It Will Be A Wonderful Life At Thornhill Farm This Christmas
November 18, 2008 |

It’s the perfect place for a Christmas story — a holiday gathering place at a Christmas tree farm.With toys lining the shelves and his mother’s old kitchen table sitting next to the door, Webb Thornhill sits inside the place he built and dubbed The Tree House, smiling as he talks about Christmases past, present and future.Not once does the smile run away from his face, although enough pain has been packed into those 71 years that no one could blame him if it did. “I can’t tell you why I wasn’t the meanest boy that ever walked,” he says with a grin.That may sound strange coming from a man so gentle and likeable, but to those who know him best, it’s perfectly understandable. You see, his story is part Oliver Twist, part A Christmas Carol and part It’s A Wonderful Life. It’s Charles Dickens meets Jimmy Stewart, a tale about a poor orphan who, despite a horrific childhood, grew into the best-loved man in all of Rosalie, or maybe even all of Jackson County.That’s easy to see at Thornhill Farm, where laughter has reigned six weeks of the year for about three decades. It’s where grownups come to pick out the perfect tree and meet for hot chocolate or coffee. And it’s where children giggle excitedly as they wait to board a custom-built Christmas train that’ll carry them along imaginary tracks between the rows of Virginia pines and Leyland Cypress trees.”This Christmas, I’m going to get out here and more or less just talk to people,” vows the man who not only plants and trims those 30,000 trees but also serves as engineer on the tractor-drawn train full of children. “This year, I’m not going to be digging trees, and I’m not going to be tugging on trees. I’m just going to be out in the field talking to people. I’m going to be smelling the roses.”That’s because Webb, or “Gay” as he’s known by his middle name in these parts, has already received his Christmas gift — the gift of time.
It came on a family trip to the beach last July, along with a diagnosis that he had a malignant brain tumor. It came without warning and with such ferocity that Joy, his first-grade sweetheart and wife of 53 years, said she simply “shut down” when she heard the news.”The doctors have been right up front that it would be terminal,” said Joy. “(But) Gay told me after one of the doctors walked out of the room, ‘Well, we knew life was terminal when we came in here, didn’t we?’ That’s been his attitude the whole time. He says, ‘The Lord’s got control over this. I’m in the Lord’s care.'”Gay says it like this: “It’s like coming to a mud hole in the road — you can either go left or right, but I choose to fill it up and keep on truckin’.”Life’s first mud hole came when he was only 5 or 6 and his father died of a heart attack, leaving his mother to raise four boys and a daughter alone. Another came less than two years later as 8-year-old Gay — the baby of the family — watched helplessly as his mother lay dying of pancreatic cancer. She was only 36.”When Mama was sick, I’d get ready to go to school, but I’d go hide in the barn until the school bus came,” he said. “I’d peep through the cracks in the barn, and when the bus passed, I’d go back into house and crawl in the bed with her. I’d stay in the bed with her the rest of the day. I’d do that every morning. Everybody knew that I was doing that, but they didn’t make me go to school because they knew Mama was dying.”After she passed away, life became almost unbearable for young Gay. Sent to live with another family, he declared his independence at 14, and left with nothing except the clothes on his back and his mother’s old cast iron skillet in his hands.Gay moved into his old home place, long since abandoned and almost falling down. “When I’d get cold, I’d get down in that old feather mattress and pull it up around me like a quilt. And — I’m not lying to you — I kicked gopher rats off my bed this long,” he said, his hands spread about eight inches apart. Since the old house had no water, Gay would wash up at an old store down the road.He got a job at a sawmill, earning 45 cents an hour every Saturday — just enough to buy a few cans of Vienna sausage, pork and beans and crackers “when I could get them.” At school, the lunchroom workers kept an eye out for the young boy, secretly feeding Gay breakfasts because they knew he was hungry.Out of necessity, he grew up quickly. By 16, he was so mature and reliable that he was hired by the Jackson County school system as a school bus driver. One of his passengers was his future wife, Joy, who still remembers the day Gay slammed on the brakes and shouted at her to settle down. “She was back there flirting with some other guy,” he says laughing. “I told her, ‘You need to sit down there and behave yourself!'”Two years later, they were married. They named their first child Merry; their second, Cherie.”One of the local papers picked up on it and called us ‘The Christmas Family’ before we ever thought about growing Christmas trees,” said Joy.Years later, when they opened their Christmas tree farm, Gay and Joy made quite a team. When a worker mistakenly mowed down their entire Leyland Cypress crop, Joy volunteered to take over the mowing. When Gay said he was going to build a trailer to haul school kids around the tree farm, Joy suggested a train. He complied, and even christened one bright red car “Miss Joy.”Before long, Thornhill Farm had grown to 40,000 trees on 38 acres. Customers came from all over to pick out their trees, and kids kept Gay’s tractor-powered Christmas train running from daylight to dark.Today, about half of the Thornhills’ sales are starter trees sold in one-gallon containers to tree farms all over Alabama. Each tree is propagated by cuttings handled by Gay in his greenhouses.Normally, he’d have all of his cuttings reset into the gallon pots before leaving for the family’s annual vacation trip to Gulf Shores. But when a rash of tornadoes struck this northeast Alabama community on Feb. 6, the Thornhills worked until mid-June, first feeding families displaced by the storms and then feeding the volunteers who came in to help those families.”We did that until June 13, and he was real late about getting his cuttings because of the tornado,” said Joy. “We thought we’d just go to the beach and when we come back, we’d plow in and get them done. Well, this happened.””This” was, of course, the life-changing diagnosis. One day after heading to Gulf Shores, the family returned home in a daze. A barrage of tests confirmed that the tumor was malignant.Word spread quickly. Prayer chains were formed, and prayer cloths made. “I just turned it over to the Lord,” he said. “I said, ‘It’s in your hands. I can’t do anything about it.'”On the day surgery was scheduled, 70 to 80 people lined both sides of the hallway of Huntsville Hospital, touching Gay’s hand as he was wheeled from his room into surgery. “I just stuck my hands out and let ’em clap my hands,” he said. “It’s been that way ever since.”Over the next several weeks, as he underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments, friends, relatives and neighbors poured into Thornhill Farm to help reset the starter trees into gallon pots — the task he had planned to do after returning from the beach. Working morning and afternoon shifts, they reset 19,000 trees.”I really didn’t know the friends I had,” said Gay, his face stretching into a big smile. “They were potting trees coming and going. I’d stand up there in the house and look out the window and see them down there working, and sometimes I’d just have to bawl ’cause I couldn’t be down there. I could hardly take it.””I’ve had a rough life, but a good one,” he adds. “This Christmas is going to mean a lot.””We’re going to appreciate it more,” Joy says, taking his hand. “Take more time to smell the roses and appreciate the friendships, right?””Right,” he says. “But I’m already smelling the roses.” For information about Thornhill Farm, call (256) 451-3640. For information about other member farms in the Southern Christmas Tree Association, visit www.SouthernChristmasTrees.org. For other possible tree farms in your area, consult with your county Farmers Federation or Extension office.

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