WENDY TOTH AND HER FAMILY

Location: Valley Forge, Pennsylvania

Wendy's father with Sam the tree and their family dog Thunder

My parents found Sam outside a small Pennsylvania nursery in October 1977. “It was a windy afternoon, close to Halloween, and we were out for a drive,” says my dad, Mike.

My mom was pregnant with my older sister, Jill—their first—and they’d just bought a house.

“We were getting ready to leave our third floor walkup in January,” my mom, Mair, remembers.

The small pine tree was growing in a bucket and looked out of place amidst the nursery’s pricey shrubs and potted mums. “I noticed that little tree and said, ‘That’s our Christmas tree,’” my dad recalls. He hadn’t even been thinking about the holidays.

Sam cost $10 and spent the next two months propped up on a table, covered in Christmas balls and garland. “It was very Charlie Brown,” my dad remembers.

Wendy's grandpop with his very own live Christmas tree

My grandpop liked the look of Sam and the idea of a tree he could plant in the yard so much that he went to the same nursery for another. My aunt and uncle got one too. It was a good year for baby pines.

There were at least three feet of snow on the ground the day my parents moved. They thought Sam would be perfect for the plot of grass next to their new back door, but the soil was frozen solid.

“Grandpop said we should wait until spring to plant,” my dad recalls. But when the time came, my grandparents thought the chosen spot was too close to the house. Sam was still so small that my parents never thought he’d use the space he had. They planted him in April.

By the time Jill was 2-years-old, and deeply into Dr. Seuss, Sam was still by the back door, but not thriving. “I used to take Jill outside in the evenings to either water or talk to him. I thought it would help him grow,” my dad says.

With poignant 2-year-old-logic, Jill wanted to give the tree she conversed with a name and deemed him Sam after the title character of her favorite book, “Sam I Am.”

I was born the next year and Sam shot up steadily as my sister and I strung twinkle lights on him, built snow forts around his trunk, watched birds nest in his branches from the kitchen window, and ran circles around him with our dogs. 

We still do most of those things. We even run circles with my parent’s puppy, Thunder, now.

A diminutive Pug-Shih Tzu with the personality of a 100 lb German Shepherd, Thunder loves to stand at attention under Sam’s branches. It’s as if the pair of them have no greater pleasure than contentedly watching over the house—two security guards on a permanent beat.

If that’s the case, Sam is definitely the muscle. He now measures 40-feet and towers over the house.

All of us still wonder if giving him a name, thereby making him an official part of the family, also provided Sam with the security to stretch out. Stately and striking with a tiny dog loyal at his side, Sam he still is.

Wendy Toth is Senior Editor, Lifestyle for Digital Works @ NBCU. She lives in Brooklyn, has two cute rescue cats named Boris and Zoe. In addition to editing Petside.com, Wendy has also contributed to many publications, including NYTimes.com, iVillage.com, Weight Watchers, Parents, Spa, PDN, Supermarket News, New York Press, and Newsday.