It is funny how, when we are young, we want nothing more than to grow up and be old. Now that I am the age I dreamed of so long ago I wish I could take it all back. Go back in time, if you will, and relive it again but without all the hurrying to be all grown up. The bills pile up around me, the kids continually yell, “Mommy!!!!!!!”, the basement has a leak somewhere that I cannot find and the house is only half finished. Every day I drag myself from bed and pray I can get through yet another day of what seems like constant heartache and pain. Every night I go to bed and dream of long ago days when I was safe in Grandma and Grandpas arms. No bills to pay, no house issues to worry about and nobody relying on me for advice. All I had to worry about was my homework, having fun and lapping up all the love my grandparents had to offer. Everyone is gone now it seems. I have just my mom, dad and cousins left now. Our huge family is slowly dwindling down.
What truly saddens me around the holidays is that my son and daughter will never get to experience those amazing holiday memories that my cousins and I had. No matter how hard I try I can never bring those memories, or anything similar to them, alive again for my children. Something is missing and I know what it is. All the old timers from our family and our Grange family. No matter how hard I try I will never be able to bring them back. So, now the best I can do is set down and tell our story for those of us who lived it to think back on and those of us who never got to see it to know and understand what true love is. So here is the story of one families old fashioned lives and old fashioned holidays. I have combined many years events into the one story. So everything here in is true but didn’t actually take place on one Christmas as it appears. I hope it brings back fond memories of childhood for all who read it. May your holidays be old fashioned, happy and safe.
The holidays for us always started with the first snow. Us cousins and I would dawn our snowsuits, grab the wooden sleds with their red double blades and wooden steering handle and head for Aunt Minnie and Aunt Lora’s house. They had a giant hill that made a hair raising turn past the dog house and down towards the main road. This hill could never be beat when it came to an adrenaline rush. At the end of a stomach churning ride you would always land in the bushes or in the ditch next to the sap cooker just shy of Dana Hill Rd. Heart pounding, you would pick up your sled, if a cousin hadn’t already grabbed it, and make the long trek back towards the top where our Aunt’s crumbling little Cape Cod house once stood all those many years ago. All day we would take turns on the two sleds until we were either too tired to go on or too frozen to maneuver the sled’s steering mechanism. That is when we would head inside the battered old Cape.
The house itself always smelled of mildew and home baked pastries. Perhaps not a fantastic combination for most but it was one of the best smells I have ever smelt before or since. The 300 year old wood of the warped floorboards would creak loudly in protest as we entered the hall leading into the long kitchen. After everyone was stripped of their outerwear, Aunt Minnie would ply the kids full of her fancy hot coco while Aunt Lora brought out her famous filled cookies. We would set, huddled on the few chairs in the house, soaking in the tastes and smells that told us the holidays were upon us. Once our bellies were full we would either head outside to play with the dogs or we would do more sledding. As soon as no one could possibly move another step we would head back inside for some homemade beef stew, homemade pickles, some more filled cookies and yet more hot coco. The beef stew was always served with fresh butter and bread. Aunt Lora swore that no meal was complete without it and somehow I think she was right. After our meal we all felt sore, tired and sluggish. That is when Aunt Lora broke out the games. My favorites each and every one. Carom, Tidily Winks and Checkers. We would then play and play until our parents came to get us. We always protested. No one ever wanted to leave Aunt Minnie and Aunt Lora’s house. It was way too much fun there!!
So sometimes we would sleep over. All of us crammed into the big old feather bed in what our aunts called the boy’s room. It was always snug and warm and a bit scary. The house would screech and moan with each and every little wisp of winter wind. The old bed springs would also moan every time someone moved even the slightest. Above our heads holes, filled with paste made of flour and water, loomed. Old grotesque carnival creatures our aunts had won at the fair back in the 1930s stared us down from their perch next to the window. The room was long. What seemed to be a mile away were old burrows, old clothes, an old chair, a smaller bed for the male cousins, a bookshelf of musty old books and the dreaded closet. Older cousins would keep younger cousins awake at night with stories of Doctor Dana (For whom Dana Hill Rd is named.) dying in the house and his ghost hiding in the closet ready to eat any small children who dared to go to the end of the room. Every creak the old house would make as the rotted sills sunk further and further into oblivion would be another story to scare the younger ones with. It was always Doctor Dana, who owned this house hundreds of years ago who was making the noises the older cousins would insist. He was a child eater too according to them!! It frightened me to no end back then. Now that I look back however, I have to laugh. What would a doctor, known for saving so many lives in this very house, be doing taking the lives of unsuspecting children?! I guess you believe anything as a child.
As the days grew darker and colder and the snow began to drift ever higher against the house we would begin to prepare for Christmas. Mom and dad would put up the ugliest silver aluminum tree I had ever seen right in the middle of Dad’s office. I hated that thing and still do. I would often sit under it, looking up into the branches, squinting. I did this in hopes that somehow the tree would suddenly become beautiful. Unfortunately, the miracle of Christmas never did touch that poor tree! My grandparents, on the other hand, would always have a fresh tree. Grandpa would trudge through the snow, ax in hand, to his “secret” tree spot and would inevitably come back dragging what I thought then was a beautiful tree. It always was ragged and usually lacked the lushness of the trees you buy commercially but it was beautiful non-the-less. Grandma would get out her beat up box of ornaments. These looked to have come from the 1920s-1930s for the most part. The tinsel had worn down to a mere length of string with a few strands of aluminum clinging to it. The birds were partially featherless and thus a bit naked to say the least. The glass bulbs had most of their glitter and color gone years and years ago. Yet, somehow, it was all so beautiful and magical to me. Grandpa would place the tree on my little Army cot bed and we would proceed to decorate it. It looked so ragged and dumpy but something about it was always magical. I could never place that as a child but now I can. It was the love of grandpa cutting the tree and trudging it back through miles of wet, cold, waist high snow. And it was the love of grandma helping to decorate it that made it so magical.
Day by day we would inch closer and closer to the happiest day of the year for me at that time of my life, Christmas. Christmas Eve would arrive first, as it always does, and with it would arrive an anticipation so urgent I could hardly sit still. Supper would consist of appetizers served in Dad’s office around the blinding glitter of the fake tree. Everything from fudge to cookies to cheese balls, dips and chips was served and eaten. It was all washed down with a tall glass of eggnog. Today was not about health it was all about splurging and having fun. It was about celebrating!! As we ate Mom would allow everyone to pick just one gift to open. I always prayed I would open the one gift that was incredible beyond my wildest imagination. Invariably, I would always pick a gift of socks, clothing or toiletries!! One year I got a pillow!! It didn’t matter though because that just made Christmas day just that much more special. Because I knew that under that ugly silver tree remained gifts that were incredible beyond my wildest dreams. Mom always had that special way about her. She knew just what would make me smile and jump with joy on Christmas morning. I could always count on her to provide the magic.
That night, at midnight, we would get in the car and meet grandma and grandpa at the Ashland Methodist Church. There, the minister would go on and on and on about the miracles of Christmas. Meanwhile my cousin Jessie and I would try to catch up on everything kids like to talk about. Grandma would shush us and produce two Canada Mints from the pocket of her pale blue jacket. We would munch quietly for a while on the sweet minty goodness before starting our bantering back up. Out would come more mints and another shush from grandma. I was so bored but soon my favorite part of the night would start up. Everyone was handed a candle. One by one the candles were lit until the entire church was awash in the light. Out would go the main lights and out would come the hymnals. Slowly, the whole church broke into “Silent Night”. A shiver would travel down my spine as I looked around me. All did seem “peaceful and bright”. Grandpa’s face reflected wrinkled, time worn, leathery and brown in the light of his candle as his mouth formed the syllables to the song. Grandma’s face appeared softer, whiter but no less time worn in the glow of her candle. And there I was in the middle. Safe and happy.
Soon the children were called to come down to the Sunday school room. Here we were allowed to act out, ram around and talk a mile a minute. A huge magical Christmas tree always stood in the corner all lit up. Aunt Lora and her helpers would produce a huge box of little cellophane bags. Inside each bag was a big round cold orange, some slightly rubbery and very salty popcorn, some very sticky hard candies and a few Hershey’s Kisses. You could always count on Aunt Lora to bring a smile to the children’s faces. She loved the kids with all her heart and it showed in every little thing she did for us. After she and her helpers passed her little bags of treasures out, us kids would pretty much go wild. Loud excited talking, trading candies for oranges and oranges for popcorn and general chaos and disarray pervaded over the event. Soon the Sunday school room was a mess. So, at one or two in the morning, Aunt Lora and her helpers would begin to clean up the mess with a smile on their faces. Then it was off to home where we swore we would never sleep. Yet somehow we did.
The next morning I would wake up only a few hours after going to bed. Without fail the cookies I had set out would be gone and lots of gifts would be scattered about in their place. On the mantel the socks hung heavy with all sorts of goodies including a big fat orange right at the toe. I never knew which way to run. Should I open Santa’s stuff first or the stuff under the ugly metal tree or the stuff in the socks on the mantel? It was a hard decision but somehow I always managed to solve it by ripping through everything like a one woman wrecking crew. In minutes everything was ripped to shreds and it was time to get down to business. Mom, dad and I would round up all the trash into a big trash bag and then I would spread my treasures out to play with as we had our breakfast of ham and eggs. Now that I am grown it amazes me at how my mom and dad were able to pull off this feat. I have yet to pull together such a wonderful magical Christmas without one of my kids catching me at it. At only 3 years old my daughter said to me, “Mom you gave me these presents. Santa didn’t!!” I asked her why she said that and she answered, “Because the price tags are all from where you shop!!!!!!” I tried the lame excuse of, “Well maybe Santa likes to shop where mommy does.” She only responded, “He wouldn’t shop there mommy. He shops at the North Pole!!” I then tried to explain that maybe they have these shops at the North Pole and she retorted, “They have elves there not Big Lots and Mr. G’s!!” Either mom and dad were very good or I was very gullible. Either way I can never remember a more memorable Christmas then those of my childhood and this was just the beginning of the day!!
Close to lunchtime we would get into the car and head up the snow covered lane, known as Oxbow Rd, to grandma and grandpa’s house. The little cape set upon the top of the mountain, old but still very proud looking, would greet us like an old and beloved friend. Inside aunts, uncles, cousins and my grandparents scurried about trying to ready the Christmas celebration. Grandpa and a few other men would remove the furniture and the such from the main room of the house and in its place a table of tremendous length would be set. On either side of this amazing table would be set logs from the woodshed and upon these logs would be set wooden planks from the barn. Grandma and the other woman would pull amazing treats from the old Home Hearth cook woodstove and pile the table high. To this day I cannot get my food to taste even half as good as that cooked in that old wood cook stove. Soon, everyone was gathered around, sitting precariously upon the planks, saying grace. After that it turned into a free-for-all. Turkey, potato, stuffing and all the other good things that go with it would make their rounds down the table and around again. Occasionally someone would rise to stoke the fire or refill an emptied dish but mostly we just sat and enjoyed each other, our family home and all the food before us. After the last belly was full to bursting the gifts would go around. I would run to the ragged little Christmas tree in the bedroom and bring them out, one by one until everyone had a little something. It was funny but it always seemed that grandpa had the most gifts. Big 5lb boxes of chocolates, lots of wool socks and boxes full of ribbon candy spilled off of the table in front of him.
After the last guest was gone grandpa and I headed to the woodshed for more wood for the night. To this day I will never forget that moment in time because it was our very last Christmas together. I was just 12 and a huge Dukes of Hazzard fan. In my pocket was one of my gifts from Santa, a little wind up General Lee car. I had waited all night to show it to my best friend, my grandfather. I was just so proud of it. As we crossed Oxbow to the woodshed I could hear the snow crunch under our feet. It was one of those nights. So cold that your breath froze in the air and so clear that the stars in the sky almost blinded you. This combined with the fact that my best friend was by my side, made this the most magical night I can remember to date. As we reached the big woodpile outside of the woodshed I produced the little orange specimen from my pocket. Grandpa stood and pondered it for a while, his big hands turning it about this way and that. Finally he said, “Nice.” and handed it back. He then added, “It is going to be a cold one. We’ll need some wood.” He piled my arms high and then piled his own. Silently we walked back to the house, me wondering if he really liked my little car or not. That night the tree was taken from my bed and brought to the woodshed. Grandpa always said it was not lucky to keep the tree up after Christmas. My army cot was then laid with a few wool army blankets and I was allowed to snuggle in for the night. However, it was hard to sleep. Something was changing. I couldn’t tell what. Was it me? Was it Grandpa? Was it the world? I felt uneasy. Something felt a bit wrong. I finally did fall asleep, my General Lee securely in my hand.
Now that I am all grown up I realize that it was me. I was growing up and becoming a woman. The car didn’t mean so much to me as what it symbolized. It symbolized freedom, justice, love and a world of uncertainty that could somehow be conquered. To this day I still possess that car and every time I bring it out of its special spot I think back to that faraway Christmas. My very last Christmas as a child. My very last Christmas with my best friend. Every time I touch it, moving it this way and that, I am transported back to a snowy evening where two sets of footprints led to a woodshed and the end of a childhood. I can even see Grandpa’s big hands as he pondered that car. I guess he thought it was childish. Kind of silly in a way. But I will never know for sure. All I know is that those days are gone now and I have no way of reliving them with my own children. If only I could find a time machine to take my kids back to that very night. My son could show grandpa his very own General Lee that I gave him for Christmas last year and my daughter could tell him all about her days at school with her friends.
So now I am the adult. The one expected to pull off a miraculous Christmas. But it just cannot be done. As I watch my son sleep on Christmas night, cradling his own General Lee in his hands, my heart breaks. So much like his mom, maybe too much. I then look in on my daughter. A perfect angel in every way. She is so different from me. Very girly and very independent. Even so she should know the miracles I have known. So here I sit still searching for that Christmas miracle that keeps alluding me. It has been about 24 years now since I last experienced a Christmas like the ones of my childhood. Each year comes with high expectations and each year goes with only an empty heart. Maybe it is as simple as the fact that I try way too hard. Maybe I need to create a simple and poor Christmas like those of my childhood. Maybe Christmas has simply died in my heart along with my best friend. Either way, I will keep trying to find my long ago Christmas for as long as it takes.
I truly hope that you, my readers, find that miracle of Christmas that I cannot. If you do, relish it, hold it tight and don’t let it go. It is way too precious a thing to have slip away.