If you’ve been in Novato for a decent period of time, and you know what it feels like to live here during holiday season, Frank needs only to go by one name.
For 32 years, Frank and Gretta McGovern ran a Christmas tree farm on McClay Road, a spot on the threshold between the rural Indian Valley area and plush suburbia. Trees were hauled in and stacked like cordwood, then fluffed up and put on display around the McGovern yard. Hundreds of Novato families were loyal customers each year.
When Gretta died in June 2010, Frank just couldn’t do it alone — physically or emotionally — and decided to not to have a lot last season. Christmas just wasn’t quite the same without the McGovern tree farm.
So Deann DaSilva and her cousin Linea van den Toorn — who goes by PeeBee — decided they would invite Frank, now 77, to offer advice and wisdom as they got their temporary tree lot, Cousins' Christmas Trees, up and running. It’s poised to open Friday on North Redwood Boulevard on a lot their family owns next to .
DaSilva, a neighbor of McGovern on McClay Road and operator of Just Struttin’ Farms, said McGovern has lit up like a (you say it) since he was first approached.
“He’s amazing. He says he’ll be down there all the time,” DaSilva said Tuesday. “Yesterday he was down there four separate times. Today he was in the city with some friends, and he called me tonight saying, ‘What’s going on? What did I miss?’”
McGovern said it will be a treat to not have all the responsibility while having the run of the place.
“I’ll soak it all up and give it my damnedest. I’ll stay all day if I can,” he said. “I’ll give them pointers and be up front with them. It’s not my show, so I’ll just be the nice old guy. They’ll treat me like a prince.”
McGovern, a native of St. Helens, Lancashire, England, benefitted from incredible customer loyalty during the years his tree lot was in operation, While Frank worked up a quarter-inch coating of tree sap on his hands, Gretta operated a small shop out of their garage, selling her famous jams and jellies and other Christmas gifts. Teens from the neighborhood helped Frank and his family do all the dirty work during one exhausting month each year. He said he hopes some of that McGovern loyalty will help the Cousins lot.
Deann and PeeBee were two of those workers, having grown up on the 50 acres owned by their extended families since 1939. And now they get to work with their old neighbor again.
“We’re so excited to have him,” DaSilva said. “Our whole goal — we’ll be relieved if we break even — is to bring the community together in the way we remember as kids at Frank’s.
“When we first started talking to him about this idea, it was kind of hard for him. He reminisced about what he and Gretta had. At first he thought we should do this at his place, but his son said he just couldn’t do that anymore. So this is the best of both worlds because he can be part of it but not have all the obligation. He gets all the social benefits. So he’s in better spirits. He’s chipper and happy again.”
It’s a fine switch from when McGovern was feeling “mopesy” has he mourned Gretta. The retired carpenter has passed the time attending civic meetings and public events, ushering at the Marin Veterans Memorial Auditorium, enjoying the museums of San Francisco and chatting with neighbors.
“If I’m out in the driveway or in the garage, almost all of them will stop and chat,” he said. “Novato is such a great place.”
To operate the Cousins lot, the women hit up McGovern for some of his tools and equipment.
“They stopped by and cleaned the place out,” McGovern said with a laugh.
The poles and lighting are up now and a small trailer is on the lot as an office. The trees are to be delivered Thursday evening or Friday morning, so the cousins are a tad nervous right now.
McGovern said the women will do just fine.
“They’ve been living on McClay their whole lives, and they are very strong girls,” he said. “There’s no messing around with them. They’ll push me over, I’m sure. I’ll just be their fatherly figure down there.”
DaSilva added, “He’s telling everyone, ‘I’m going out with the girls. Rumors are starting to go around Novato.”
The Cousins lot expects to be open from Friday through Christmas Eve. School Fuel, the nonprofit that supports public school programs in Novato, will be the beneficiary of Santa photos, bake sales and possible other things, DaSilva said. The lot will be as kid-friendly as possible, complete with a crafts table and showcasing the talents of local students.
“It’s going to be a happy place to be,” McGovern said.