A 150-year-old pecan tree on Barbara Nunneley’s ranch, about thirty miles northwest of Dallas, normally isn’t much to look at this time of year. The state tree of Texas doesn’t boast the rich, fall color of a maple or even the warm shade of the red oaks that line the fence of the ten-acre property. In fact, this particular pecan tree, which stands fifty feet tall, lost its leaves earlier than usual this year. By Thanksgiving, it was bare.
But magic happens when things are bleakest. Like many sources of hope, this one can only truly be appreciated in the depths of darkness, in a year like this one.
Even the drive to the ranch, located in the tiny town of Bartonville, is a metaphor. Once you turn off a main road that runs from Interstate 35 East to I-35 West, the two-lane country road into Bartonville is an uphill slog. There are no street lamps. In the next mile, the route curves to the left. There’s a stop sign and a fork in the road. If you turn left, eventually you pass the Nunneley ranch, where the tree looms large from the roadside pasture. And then it’s all you can see.
Every holiday season, from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, the tree is wrapped in 60,000 white lights, their cool tint sometimes making them seem almost blue. It has brought people to tears. All kinds of emotions have been poured out in its presence. Grief. Bliss. Relief.
What is now viewed by hundreds of people each year began with an audience of one.
In 2005, Nunneley and her partner, Jan Deatherage, hired the Christmas Light Company to line the roof of their house with lights. Nunneley recalls the owner, Bill Rathburn, pointing to a pasture near the road. “You know, you’ve got this big pecan tree out there,” he told her. “We could light it, and it would just be sensational.” Yes, Nunneley thought, but it would also mean more money. She waved off the idea and went the traditional route.
Two years later, Nunneley’s father was entering the last stages of prostate cancer. The holiday season was his favorite time of year, and the family knew this one would be his last. Nunneley usually hosts a big Thanksgiving at her house, so she decided to surprise her dad with an extravagant display of Christmas lights—including the pecan tree. She called up Rathburn. “Get out here,” she told him. “Let’s do it.” Rathburn summoned his crew and the cherry picker needed to reach the tallest branches.
Nunneley’s close relatives, including four siblings and their families, gathered that weekend. Everyone was there, except the patriarch. He had become too ill to make the seventy-mile trip from Nocona. Although he was missed, they decided to go ahead with the light show she had planned for after dinner. Nunneley had told the lighting crew she didn’t want to see the tree lit up before the grand unveiling, so they had shown her which buttons to press when the moment came.
Usually, trees make for great sunset photos in the winter. Their leafless branches create black silhouettes against a colorful sky. When the contrast was inverted, the result was stunning. Strands were circled up the trunk. Nearly every limb was wrapped in light. It looked as if the tree were made of ice. The darkness around it only amplified its vibrancy.
“It took my breath away,” she recalls now. “It was a little spiritual, a little emotional.” The next day, her father died. “My daddy did not ever see it from Earth, but I’m real sure he saw it,” she says, looking up at the sky. “In the days that followed, it was just a brilliant reminder of the season.”
The tree brought them so much joy that year that the couple decided to light it again the next. It became an annual tradition. Neighbors brought pecans and other gifts as a thank you. The town asked to put a picture of the tree on its website. Soon, a steady stream of cars were coming through the neighborhood to catch a glance.
One day, a note was tucked under Nunneley’s doormat. The sender asked for permission to use the tree as a backdrop for a proposal on Christmas Eve. “If another night would work out better for you, that would be great,” it ended. That was it. The piece of paper from a yellow legal pad had nothing written on the back of it. No contact information or name.
Nunneley fretted about how to reach the author of the note. A couple of days later, she was feeding her horses and saw another yellow paper. The note continued. “If you could please call my mother,” it read. “I don’t want to risk my girlfriend finding out.” When she finally talked with the man, he told her he would flash a light toward the house when the proposal was finished so they would know whether it was successful. She and Deatherage watched from the window that overlooked the pasture and saw him get on one knee. The girl threw her hands in the air and was “gesticulating wildly,” Nunneley remembers. “It was pretty obvious she had said yes.”
There have been at least eight proposals under the tree that Nunneley knows about. One person asked to have a wedding under it. (The answer was no.) “It was so strange when it started happening,” Nunneley says. “Because for forty years, I’ve been a divorce lawyer. That’s exactly what I’m known for.”
She keeps a folder of memorabilia, things people have sent. A postcard from the first year. Photos. A marriage announcement. Another notecard was slipped under her doormat this week. “This tree is so beautiful and always makes me smile when I see it,” it read. “This year it is especially helpful in spreading joy and hope.”
Nunneley knows all the ways this year is different. Instead of the usual large family Thanksgiving, it was just her and Deatherage. They finished dessert and coffee, then the two of them stood outside. Nunneley pressed a button. The light returned.