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The Making of Wonderland

December 9, 2010

Heap on the wood!

The wind is chill;

But let it whistle as it will,

We’ll keep our Christmas merry still.

–Sir Walter Scott

 

            Last night, after I unplugged “Boo” (a plastic light up ghost figure holding a pumpkin) who I inherited from my friend, Henry, when he passed away three years ago, I took Boo to the kitchen so that he could join his friends in the basement for another year.  Halloween is over, and it is time to make new plans.  Gregory, saying good bye to the friendly little ghost who lights up our front window in the fall, was quick to warn me that it isn’t quite time to unleash the Christmas beast.  There is still Thanksgiving to get through; I was going to have to be patient just a while longer.

That doesn’t mean though that I can’t start making plans.  I have been to the basement several times over the past few weeks to get a bit of wrapping for a friend’s gift, to fetch food stuffs, to repair a spot on the wall or whatnot.  There it all sits on a pallet holding all of the trappings of a festive holiday season.  It is almost as if they are taunting me.  Perhaps I can get away with putting things up, if I just agree not to light the tree before Thanksgiving itself?

Well, this year will be different.  Now that I have the working sewing machine which Santa Claus brought me last year, that sits in a well of the white table I ordered myself off the internet, I plan to get into the crafting mood and make myself something spectacular.  Drapes perhaps?  Maybe some table linens.  I may even finish a few of the projects that I brought back from Maine—craft projects that I had bought when I was in high school twenty years ago and never got to work on because I went away to college.  This year, this old Victorian is going to get the works.

The Victorians did not ascribe to the twentieth century notion that “less is more”; to them, if less were more, imagine how much more MORE would be!  I have oft wondered just what kinds of fantastic over-the-top decorating the Victorians could have done had they had modern lighting and electricity to go along with their paper crafts, opulent fabrics and flair for overstuffing a living environment.

Throughout my early childhood, my family’s living environment was in direct opposition to that of the Victorian period with its large houses and tiny rooms; we had no “gingerbread” flourishes on the outside of the home, and all of the wood paneling typical to the early 1970s.  We lived in a mobile home trailer, just a few yards behind where my parents constructed their newer home in 1984, that my mom’s aunt had helped my parents acquire, fitting nicely on the piece of property they were given by my great-grandmother.

HomeThis trailer, the thirteenth home located along the second rural free delivery route in Corinth, wasn’t the kind of place that one felt inclined to decorate much from the outside.  It wasn’t an unattractive home; the trailer just lacked a certain level of “curb appeal”, as the Home and Garden Television station would later come to call it.  No, it wasn’t an unattractive home at all; it rather just sat there at the end of a long gravel driveway, looking a bit sad in comparison to the large blue barn dad built as his garage and workshop.  The trailer just seemed lonely next to the rose bush that dad hacked away at every year, claiming he was only removing the dead canes, until it eventually surrendered up its life in a valiant declaration of defeat.

Coming up the front steps onto the rather large landing, holding fast to the black metal handrail that kept you from slipping in winter, you could look into the large living room windows, or even past the long heavy pink drapes that covered the windows of similar size in Melissa’s bedroom.  If you were lucky, Smokey, the yellow-eyed gray cat with a diamond of white hair on the chest, might be sitting on the high back of the couch, poking his head out past the sheer white toile and the greenish-gold damask draperies in the window.  Smokey was a faithful friend and he was often there waiting for you.

Wilson Family Cat

A Vigilant Friend

The exterior of the trailer itself was covered in a white metal siding with a row or two of blue siding as an accent; it also sported a genuine artificial brick facade under the kitchen windows.  The “addition” that dad had built so that we kids would have our own rooms and mom might remain in possession of her sanity was covered in one-eleven siding painted a dark brown, assuredly some excess color dad would have brought home from a job.  Nothing special, but very economical.  The only place that would have been fun, really, to decorate was the tongue of the trailer, which stuck out from the face of the home beneath the kitchen sink’s window where the air-conditioner had been placed.  We never did decorate it, to my recollection, but often, that is where we ‘parked’ our Caribbean-blue plastic snow sleds with yellow, or perhaps red, handles so that they wouldn’t blow away down the field on the gusty days.

While the exterior may not have been special, Mom felt that the inside of the trailer was something else entirely.  It may not have been fancy, but she made every effort to bring the sense of wonderment inside.  If you can’t be comfortable in your own home, then you aren’t really comfortable anywhere.

To me, Christmas is the decorations, the good food and the pleasant company.  For some in the family, Christmas was time of gift collecting, a bountiful harvest of household items and toys.  It was all about receiving.  To others still, it represented a free meal with no responsibility to do dishes nor any sense of obligation to help out in any way.  It was a meal that came with leftovers in small plastic containers, even if one didn’t actually cook any of the food.  To my mom, though, Christmas meant a time of festivities, and perhaps more importantly, the ideal season to reaffirm to those surrounding you from day to day that you love them.

“The reasons that Christmas was important to our family, and to me, lie in the people”, Marion reminisced.  “You actually went to visit the relations when I was a child.  (Also Labor Day, another biggy when my aunt Madeline was alive.)  I never remember being able to stay at home and just look at my gifts received.  We always went to relatives’ places.”  Having then a family of her own, Marion felt it important not only to visit but to invite.  No one person should be saddled with the entire task of making people happy.  Everyone knows how difficult that chore can be.

Setting up a good holiday takes work, though, and involved even the unpleasant duty of dusting.  In short, good holiday celebrations don’t just happen.  You have to want them to happen and apply yourself to the task.

For a woman who never dusted anything, except at the holidays, you could tell Christmas was indeed a big deal.  (The truth be known, however, she never really dusted in honor of the holidays, it was more a matter of necessity, of self preservation.  At Christmastime, all of the usual objets d’art were moved around, or stored away, leaving rings of dust behind.  Since there were often many guests at that time of year, mom did feel rather obligated to do something about the situation.  Not to have dusted at least then would have been embarrassing—to the kids, that is, whom she would have “blamed” for not being more helpful.  Missy was a good duster so the job usually fell to her.  In fact, Missy was so good at the task that Grammy used to engage her services before every visit from her church lady friends—much to Grammy’s consternation, Evelyn Trask never let a single trace of the stuff go unnoticed.  The tops of photo frames or knickknacks were easy prey to the stealth glove of Mrs. Trask.

Each year shortly after Thanksgiving, mom would very carefully bring down from the top of her bedroom closet the large garment box from the J.C. Penney or Freese’s Department store that she had saved just for keeping her decorations safe for another season.  Several paper decorations that we hung on the dark wood panels of the living room wall resided in that two-toned gray striped box.

A multiple piece set of Santa Claus driving his big green sleigh appeared first.  Carrying with him a large sack, filled up with toys, some of which you hoped secretly were to be yours soon, Santa rode snuggled in a lush green blanket to keep warm.  With puffy, soft red yarn, almost a ribbon like mom would put in a Missy’s hair on Sundays, the sleigh was hitched to four pairs of reindeer, each with an elf riding without a saddle.  All the principals were there:  Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen; Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen.

More impressively still, Rudolph with his big red nose led the way as Santa and his sleigh darted across the dark panels.  That the other reindeer had picked on Rudolph was troublesome, but I tried to keep it in perspective.  The other reindeer had to have been young deer from the way they looked with their tiny little antlers.  They were bullies because of their age, for sure.  I can’t tell you if reindeer were supposed to grow large racks like the white tail deer we were used to seeing behind the trailer in the fall. I do know that in my mind’s eye these particular reindeer must have been very young.  Rudolph showed those other deer where they needed to go.  He rose above the taunts and the jeers; he was heroic.

These particular paper reindeer were sprayed with a special paint that felt to the touch like velvet or fur.  Funny must have been the scene of Marion’s little ones climbing up on to the couch to be able to reach the soft deer that populated their bedtime stories.  “Get down from there!” they would hear.  “Don’t spoil them or we won’t have them next year.”  My parents were the children of people who had survived the Great Depression.  A good Yankee already never throws anything away; imagine for a moment living with a Depression-era one!

Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer.  Beside the one leading the paper sleigh, we had another paper Rudolph.  How he managed to be in two places at once belonged to the magic of the season.  Grammy Sweet, unlike us, had a plastic figure of the little guy, covered in a red velvet finish about twelve inches tall.  Grammy’s Rudolph had gilded glittered antlers and a nose, whose color had long since worn off by the time I met him.  I admired that little Reindeer, who had trouble standing on his own, having been given Barbie legs on which to stand.  He seemed very brave indeed; I felt certain that he was a better little reindeer for having stood up to the others who didn’t want him to fly with Santa.  He was awkward but empowering.

Our paper Santa portrait was a familiar friend.  With rosy red cheeks and a pipe, Santa appeared to be the sort of man who would have just come in from the woods.  He was benevolent and kind; you could see it in his eyes.  If Uncle Everett had been a fatter man, I imagined that he would have looked this way.  Quick.  Run and hide.  What if Santa likes to nibble at little boys’ ears too?

Mom also had several other important decorations that we put into the dish cupboard, the smaller china hutch that her Aunt Madeline had given her.  There were glass ornaments strung on silver branches that were tucked neatly into the crystal vases atop the hutch.  Two white candlesticks that were themselves decorated with Victorian-style handwriting, greetings for Christmas, sat in a base that looked like white poinsettia flowers.  On delicate golden chains, two small angels holding on for dear life climbed the candles.  With worried little looks on their faces, they didn’t resemble the angels that I had read about in Sunday School, the ones who announced the coming of the Christ child to the blessed Virgin.  Troubled as the little angels seemed, they still represented Christmases of times gone by for my mother.

Salt and pepper shakers in the shape of Mr. and Mrs. Claus reclining in their easy-boy chairs (shaped like mini sleighs) perched on a lower shelf.  And, four little elves romped in and on letters that spelled NOEL, the word that no one really understood, but knew meant Christmas to someone.  Bedecked in little red bell-bottomed outfits, they fashionably climbed around, in and out of the holes making up the shapes of the vowels and consonants, as though letters themselves were magical.  Noel.

Christmas is doing a little something extra for someone.

–Charles Schulz

            Mom rarely had a job that kept her from home when I was a child.  She read a lot from Ena Chapman’s Harlequin romance collection, or from books swapped with her mother.  “Don’t give this one to Helen,” my mother would warn as she would hand off a book to Grammy.  Helen was Grammy’s lifelong friend who owned a farm not far from where my mother was raised.  “Helen isn’t to get this one.  It is just a bit to steamy.”

In summers, mom would occupy herself with our garden and other household chores like cooking or canning things for winter.  In the cooler evenings of autumn, after dad had eaten his four o’clock supper and returned to work, we would sometimes take our bicycles, mom on the one that she had gotten for herself at the Western Auto—a beige lady’s bike with a cushioned seat—and us twins on the matching red ten-speeds that Grampy Sweet had gotten for us that year we didn’t have a lot of snow for the holidays.  We all, mom especially, managed to find ways to amuse ourselves.

I always felt that she was not fully satisfied in her role as a stay-at-home mom, but she would never have said it out loud.  We didn’t have a lot of money, and since she was an extraordinary cook, able to prepare a harvest feast in 30-minutes’ time, as though the whole process were effortless, she often showed how much she cared for people through her cooking.  More than one of our school chums used to stop by on the fly and find that there was always easily set an additional plate at the table.  Missy’s friend, Amanda, used to ask for some of mom’s dishes by name.  “Thanks a lot, Mrs. Wilson.  When I am here on Thursday, maybe we could have some of your chili?”  –“Probably,” Mom would reply.

Christmas, especially, has always been in my mind a time for sharing, especially good food.  It doesn’t have to be anything formal, just share what you have.  “Christmas was the only time of year your Dad got to see and talk to brothers and sisters,” Mom wrote, “Your grandmother Avis actually used to have everyone there to eat and it was fun to see everyone.  No one waited for others to come, you just started to eat and as people came, you (if done) gave up your chair for someone else to sit and eat.”  For us kids, it was also a time where we would get to see the cousins.  Grace and Scott, dad’s siblings, were still at home too but they were closer in age to the older cousins than the other aunts and uncles so it was as if they were a part of our group instead.  Melanie, Jeff and Randi Jeanne, Becky’s kids, were most often there.  The house was never wont for activity with all of us there.

Grammy Avis, besides knitting the best bedroom slippers, used to make the very best mincemeat, and by extension mincemeat pie.  She would take neck of the deer that Uncle Junior would have shot and use the meat to make her own.  If she didn’t have enough venison, she would add some leftover beef roast.  That was supposed to be a secret, though.

Avis Wilson’s Mincemeat

4 pounds chopped venison/beef (then ground)

2 pounds chopped beef suet (though grinding helps it to melt better and more evenly in the recipe–it is not crucial to use this much suet, as it is bound to clog arteries!  You must use some, but 2 pounds is an awful lot.)

3 pounds brown sugar

2 cups molasses

2 quarts apple cider

3 pounds dried currants

4 pounds seeded raisins

1/2 pound citron, chopped

Cook slowly, stir occasionally until sugar and ctiron melt.

Meanwhile prepare 2 quarts peeled sliced apples (this can also be done with apple sauce, but save a few apples chopped to add at the very end so that it gives the appearance of having real apple pieces in it).  Add to mincemeat and cook until the apples are tender.  Add 1 quart Brandy or dark rum, 1 Tbsp. cinnamon, 1 Tbsp. mace, 1 Tbsp. powdered clove, 1 tsp. nutmeg, 2 tsp. salt, 1 tsp. allspice.  Adjust seasons to taste.  Add more of each for bolder flavor.

Grammy used to put her mincemeat in jars to be sealed and stored for winter.  It is perhaps easier to put two cups (which is what most recipes require) of mincemeat into bags and freeze.  Yummy!  Gregory and I made some when we visited Maine together in 2002.  Try bringing back bags of frozen mincemeat on the plane today!

Grammy’s homemade bread was also delicious, and not difficult to make, except in a cool kitchen where it will never rise.  Luckily, her kitchen was always plenty warm.  In this recipe, she uses a “mixing spoon”–I would say each spoon held about 1/3 cup of whatever.

Avis Wilson’s Home Baked Bread

 

3 mixing spoons sugar

3/4 mixing spoon salt

1 rounded mixing spoon shortening

2 cups of hot water, though not boiling

2 cups canned milk

2 packages yeat

8 cups of flour, perhaps more

For dark bread, use half and half of white and whole wheat flour and add 1 cup molasses.  You can also take two cups of oats and two cups of boiling water, 1 cup molasses, 2 cups milk and 1 cup raisins and add to original recipe for seasonal bread.  (A mixing spoon is not a common measure.  Rather, it refers to the large metal spoons used to stir pots.  It is the equivalent of about 3 to 4 well-heaped tablespoons).

Another favorite at Grammy’s house were her molasses cookies.  They weren’t reserved just for Christmas.  Whenever we would go to visit her, she had a big gallon jar on the counter in the kitchen where you could go to get one.  Aunt Grace said that her recipe read as follows.

Grammy’s Molasses Cookies

1 cup of sugar

1 cup of molasses

1 cup soft shortening

1 cup of boiling water

3 level teaspoons soda

1 teaspoon of cream of tartar or 3 tablespoons of vinegar

A teaspoon of cinnamon and salt to taste

1 teaspoon of ginger

1 egg

Flour to roll (so I am not sure how much it takes to put in the cookies themselves or you just add it after you roll them out after they have been chilled)

Grammy, like my mother, always over cooked for the number of expected guests.  No one would go away from their tables hungry.  My mother maintained an open invitation for my friends from France and beyond when I was away in Vermont at college, a place where there were many who couldn’t’ be at home for the holidays.  We’d catch a ride home with some other MIDD kid who lived in the southern part of the state of Maine, and Mom and Dad would come to fetch us.  Raphaelle Nicholas, Muriel Vergé and Mariane Palmiero were among those to enjoy from my parents’ generosity.  In another year, as I was returning from Europe after a year and a half, my parents welcomed to our home Paule Consul and Andrée Harivel, two of the ladies I had been friends with in Normandy.

My guests were welcome to come and enjoy the holiday itself, as well as be treated to guided tours of the area.  A jaunt to the coast to walk on the frozen ocean.  A few lobsters.  A trip to the mountains north of Greenville and Moosehead Lake.  A quick stop off at the various covered bridges in the area, vestiges of the nineteenth century and the closest things we had to historical structures in the area.  One of the girls taps on the thermometer back at home.  Forty degrees below zero.  That can’t be.  We’ll all die.  And who knew that forty degrees below zero is the only spot on both the Fahrenheit and Centigrade scales where the two systems are equivalent.  Forty degrees below zero just means that it is COLD out and that mug of warm tea you refused earlier sounds really good all of the sudden.

 

There’s nothing sadder in this world than to awake Christmas morning and not be a child.–Erma Bombeck

 

            1993.  Christmas in France.  I was somehow slow to realize that for the first time, I would not be home for the holidays.  Classes were about to come to a halt for the winter break in Paris and I was suddenly the kid with no place to go.  The houses were not decked out in holiday lights, each competing with the next to make the electric company a little richer.  No one had special dishware decorated with holiday motifs.  Santa Claus didn’t come to Les Halles, the closest thing to a mall in Paris.  For the first time, there would be no stocking to unpack on Christmas morning.  In short, this is what loneliness felt like, and it seemed to be approaching at bullet train-like speed.  I wanted desperately to get out of its way.

            I thought about how much fun it was to go out and cut a tree with Dad.  Sometimes we went out behind the house, but our property wasn’t very rich in pine trees.  We had old growth oak and maple, tamarack and lots of poplar (weak trees that were often found fallen).  What we usually ended up doing was going out behind one of the old farms in the area, like Jock’s place, and dragging one out of the woods from there.  We probably shouldn’t have, or at the very least we should have called the farmer about the situation, but who would complain about one less pine in Maine?  After dad cut the tree with one of his handsaws, which he could make “sing” if they were of good quality, we’d load it into the back of the pickup truck and put it into the garage to dry off a bit before attempting to take it into the house.

Mom’s recollections of getting a tree for the holiday, not unlike mine, seems straight out of a Currier and Ives lithograph–like the ones that were reproduced annually on the tops of French vanilla ice cream cans sold by the Schwans’ man.  She writes, “We always took horses out for drive when I was a kid to cut the Christmas tree.  Dad and I would go look for one.  I never remember Mom going.  It was Dad and me time and I got to drive the horse”.  Grampy Sweet passed away at the age of 64, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t with us in spirit today.  “If Dad had lived,” mom surmised, “We would be still going for the tree with a horse, as he would have had the field around house pastured and a horse to look at.”

In those early years when we were living in the mobile home, the tree was often much more simple than I want to recall.  In my mind’s eye, the tree was stuffed full of ornaments and heavily draped in tinsel.  In reality, as the old family pictures prove, Mom had but a few ornaments which she had bought soon after she was married.  There were the balls wrapped tightly in a silky thread which we put close to the bottom in case the cats decided to go after them, and some metal ornaments the she most likely had gotten from one of her aunts.  The lights on the trees were relatively large and burned hot.  They were far brighter than the mini LED lights people use today.  We had one or two strands and the bulbs were well spaced out.  It was nothing like the 1000 little lights which adorn my own tree this year.

As we grew as a family, and had moved in to the new house, we like many bought an artificial tree.  The days of stringing tinsel ended and we replaced the metal threads with plastic icicles.  They added that extra touch of sparkle to the tree.  Moreover, we had to worry less about the cat scaling the tree like Oliver, the big yellow cat, had once, causing the tree to topple and smashing a fair number of ornaments.  We also didn’t have to climb under the tree any longer to add water to the base every day.  Dry tree needles on the floor became a thing of the past.  The constant in all of this was, of course, the tree skirt, which Mom made with us kids one holiday season.  White flannel back drop with Christmas images cut out of felt and glued on.

While I loved being in Paris, and Marianne Gluge (the lady from whom I was renting a room) was very sweet, there was no tree that year.  Her being Jewish might have had something to do with it.  She wasn’t the only one at fault.  The fact that Christmas in France is a religious observance, not a commercial one like it is here, things just weren’t the same.  I received a note from Mom a few weeks prior which read, “We will all miss you on this holiday.  Maybe some year you’ll be rich and famous and can come home at will.”  I made plans that year to travel first to Germany, to visit my friend Uli, and then to go to Brittany, France to be with the family of a long-time pen pal.  Christmas markets in Germany are exciting and a Nutcracker collector’s heaven.  A short train ride later, though and I was ready for Midnight Mass with the family in Quimper.  Annie, Joe’s wife, spoke softly to the priest and arranged for me to sing O Holy Night for the parish; I agreed to tell no one that I wasn’t Catholic.

Several days before leaving for my trip though, I spent a day in the many outdoor markets of Paris just trying to gather ingredients.  I would bake away my sorrow even if making American-style baked goods in France was a real challenge.  They don’t eat pumpkin; cranberries are not European; and baking soda is sold in a pharmacy with a prescription.  Vanilla extract.  Forget it.  More importantly, who had the time to let the two vanilla beans sit in vodka and turn into the homemade stuff I grew up with in Maine?  I bought the vodka just the same and drank it.  Close your eyes and you can imagine the gentle vanilla flavors as it slides down.  So much for an American holiday in Paris.

My mom’s favorite Christmas desserts are Cranberry Raisin Pie and Filled Cookies.  We made them every year, without fail.

Mom’s Cranberry Raisin Pie

Cook together:

1 package of cranberries

1 ½ cup sugar

1 ½ cups water

1 cup raisins

Use 3-5 Tbsp flour in cold water to thicken.

Add 1 tsp. Vanilla and butter the size of walnut

Perhaps some spice to taste.

Some molasses in the mix is also nice.

Mom’s other favorite is:

Filled Cookies

 

Cookie:

1 cup sugar

1 egg

2 cups flour with ½ cup later

1 tsp. Soda

½ cup shortening

½ to ¾ cup milk

2 tsp. Cream of tarter or baking powder

Filling:

Cook till firm:

1 cup raisins

½ cup sugar

½ cup water

1 Tbsp flour

juice of lemon

Bake 350 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes

It was Christmastime and I was determined to make mom’s treats in my apartment on Rue Boissonade, Paris, and had I been able to get hold of the raisins and the cranberries, I would have.  I was determined to use that French tart pan that Marianne had in her kitchen and make a pie.  I eventually made other holiday cookies instead.

A certain charm surrounds the Christmas holiday in the US.  From the Hanging of the Greens service at the East Corinth Methodist Church to the holiday specials on WABI (CBS), WLBZ (NBC) and WVII (ABC) television the airwaves are alive in celebration.  We had 33 rpm albums of our favorite carols and Berl Ives told us the story of Frosty the Snowman through song on the television.  Christmas was ubiquitous.

Thanksgiving and the Macy’s Parade officially marked the beginning of the holiday season.  Mom, though, recalled a different time before the parade was brought right into your livingroom.  “Dad and Mom always took me to see the Thanksgiving parade in the city and to see Santa.  After a bit, Dad stopped going but Mom always took me.  At least once before Christmas we took a ride to the city just to see the Christmas lights.  And I think we may have stopped at “Dirty Girt’s” for an Italian sandwich on the way home.  Three sandwiches for a $1.25.  We didn’t do this often as this was expensive for times and we couldn’t afford the luxury.”

“Christmas when I was small was always so much fun.”  Mom wrote, “Before Madeline started going to Florida, we always went to her 6th Street home and had a lovely meal with all her fine china.  Frank and Thelma and girls always were there and later when Gail was married, her son Michael was there.  I think Madeline went to Florida before Scott and Linda were born.  On Christmas morning we always opened gifts when Grandmother and Grandpa came to our house.  Then we went to theirs.  Home again and off to the city.”

 

“I stopped believing in Santa Claus when I was six. Mother took me to see him in a department store and he asked for my autograph.”

–Shirley Temple

 

 

For me, Christmas Eve sometimes included the Midnight service out to church, sometimes not; that mostly depended on whether Grammy was going and if she were willing to take me along.  The tree, amply surrounded by brightly colored packages with ribbons and bows was for some of us, almost irresistible.  “Missy always had to open one gift on Christmas Eve and still does”, Mom reminisces.  “Later, if I gave her slippers or something with two in it, I’d wrap them separately and play up one for her to choose to open and then not let her open the mate until the following day.  She still remembers this and tells people about it.”  Knowing that the following day was going to be a long one, we kids were often hustled off to bed a bit early.

Doing Santa highlighted the late night.  “Doing Santa when I had a family was fun,” Mom recalls.  “I couldn’t sleep waiting for you kids to get up and see what he’d brought.  Seems you, James, were always first.  You’d sneak down and take Santa, sometimes we’d talk and share stories and then Missy would become awake and come down the stairs.  It was so fun to see the joy in your eyes.”

Santa was indeed a very generous man.  Our stockings overflowed with toys and other small items.  We suspected some of the things were brought by Santa just to save Mom having to wrap the each individually.  There were little Story Books of Lifesaver candies, penny banks filled with Tootsie Rolls, games, and one year, a new metal trash can with our favorite toy characters on them.  We got puzzles and books of activities (many of which I would eventually give to Melissa because of the frustration that they caused me).

 

Nothing’s as mean as giving a little child something useful for Christmas.  ~Kin Hubbard

 

Christmas Day.  Up at 7:30 AM to help make the breakfast for everyone who would come an hour later.  Scrambled eggs.  W. A. Bean sausage.  Bacon.  Blueberry muffins.  Juice poured in to the tiny juice glasses that originally stored shrimp cocktail sauce.  Milk ready to be poured.  Syrup in the jar with the sliding lid top.  Mom and I would gather the chairs around the table, taking them from the other rooms, or the back of the closet if they were the metal folding ones we used.  Extra leaf or two in the table.  Nice table cloth.

After breakfast, we’d all gather in the living room around the tree.  One of us kids would have been given the task of handing out gifts, one to each person and then another round.  Big piles of paper would lie on the floor until Grammy would pull off all the bows to be saved.  Mom tried to convince her to just let the paper go to the trash or fire place, but she would diligently fold and save it in a pile along with the gift boxes.  Gifts were carefully carried to our rooms and displayed on the bed artfully so that everyone could admire them before heading out the door to go to Grammy house and repeat the same experience over lunch.

Some of the gifts that I received over the years have remained with me because of the memory of one no longer with us.  One year, Grampy Sweet had bought for me a cassette tape player and a tape of Dolly Parton singing.  Another year he got Missy and I both bicycles.  They were red Western Auto ten-speeds.  We had so little snow that year that we were able to ride them in the yard that afternoon before parking them under the edge of the camper in the garage until Spring.  He and Grammy also bought me book about horses that Christmas just before he passed away.  He would often take Missy and me to the auction house over at the Tiltons’ to see the horses and other animals.  I would have loved to have had one but Grampy’s time with us was too short.

Grampy was sixty-four years old when he passed away (he would have been ninety-four as I write had he survived).  I wish that I personally had more memories of him, but I was just too young.  Mom recollects his gentleness fondly though.  “I remember one Christmas my dad seemed so pleased with what he got me.  He was not a man for keeping secrets if he’d bought something really neat.  Only hint I got was “it’s round and you can sit on it”.  Big box, rectangular, in shape.  It was a long coat.  Really nice as I remember and probably cost a fortune back then.

“For Christmas I would hang one of Dad’s stockings for Santa.  His were so big.  I’d get an orange in the toe and walnuts to shell and some candy and a few trinkets. Really neat stuff as I recall or thought at the time.  All gifts were practical, most home made and really nice I thought.  After our gifts we’d go to Grammy Rowe’s house and sit in the dining room.  Dad had a favorite chair and this chair sits on my porch today.  I can still see him in this chair sometimes.

“My gifts usually were dolls, clothes and practical things.  I always [played alone so could amuse myself with made up stories and such.  Used to make a tent out of card table and blanket draped over top in living room for my dolls and me.  Did learn to make doll clothes out of scrapes of cloth.  Traditions were all the same.  Christmas at our house then on to Grandmothers house, back to our house for dinner with grandparents coming to our house.  It wasn’t until after Grandfather died that I remember Grandmother coming to our house first to see me open presents.  Always before they would wait until dinner to come.  Grandmother always made us new mittens, even Dad.  Sometimes in the afternoon we would go to Frank and Thelma’s house just because they were family.  Never remember if I got anything but it was nice just to be with family and I didn’t mind.  We had a few earlier Christmases at Madeline’s.  I remember Wendy there and Michael, as they were about the same age.  Madeline would play Christmas music for kids on her piano and there would be so much food.  This was at her house on 6th Street.  I don’t remember what happened to the Grandparents those years.  None of the other families were in the area at that time either.”

Christmas is a magical season.  But, Christmas as an adult has meant the forging of new traditions.  “A nice tradition your father and I have done for Christmas these past years,” writes Mom, “as no one comes to visit anymore is having lobsters instead of turkey for the meal.  Dad and I enjoy each other in a jammy day, getting out of our pjs and going out only when we want.  Avis is usually at Roger’s, so we try to go Christmas Eve to see her or at least the weekend before.  Missy usually hosts Mom and Sherwood the night before and then don’t want to come to the house for breakfast.”  With her multiple ailments, Mom can’t do the tree for herself any longer and Missy isn’t interested in helping her set one up, having already done her own at home.

For me, at least when I first moved back to Wisconsin to be close to Gregory, it used to mean going to Gregory’s parents’ home for the day.  We’d drive from Madison and share the day with his folks and sister’s family.  Scrabble.  Coffee.  Hand-made fudge.  Yet, since his mom passed away, we aren’t invited to do that any more.

I still decorate, and I do a lot of baking and inviting during the holiday season.  As I listen to stories of other’s holidays, I think of something that my mom has said on numerous occasions.  “One tradition, maybe not a tradition, was that NO ONE ate a meal sitting in front of a TV but had to come to a table and sit and socialize,” affirmed Mom when we wrote of the holidays together.  “I don’t think Missy and Kermit have many meals not in front of TV nor does Todd.  Probably you are the only one who eats at the table besides us.”  She is probably right.

So this year, Gregory and I will get up on Christmas morning, light the tree and while still in our jammies like Mom and Dad, enjoy the presents that were sent to us from friends, family and my own Maine-bound Santa Claus.  We’ll have a day of togetherness and sharing around the table, but on a less grand scale.  We’ll call my parents on the phone and talk about the day and how we used to celebrate it.  I’ll shed silent tears for the way things used to be and those of joy for the memories yet to be made.  “We will all miss you on this holiday,” my Mom wrote that first year I was away.  “Maybe some year you’ll be rich and famous and can come home at will.”  I’ll pray for that too this year.

 “One of the most glorious messes in the world is the mess created in the living room on Christmas Day.  Don’t clean it up too quickly.”  –Andy Rooney

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Marion permalink
    February 2, 2011 4:44 pm

    I miss you as does Dad and we wish you and Greg lived closer. Thank god for the telephone and our hour long conversations.

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