Wednesday, December 13, 2017

I Think I Found Christmas


I’d ridden by the Amish farmhouse with Christmas wreaths displayed on the front porch a few days earlier. The contrast of red bows against off-white clapboards caught my eye. I didn’t have time to stop but I knew I’d get back there. And I did earlier this morning despite the zero-degree temperature and a light snow making the less travelled, winding road a little slippery. But that didn’t stop me. There was something about that simple house with corn shocks gathered in a nearby field and those wreaths on display in the cold that made me feel like Santa lived there.

I noted tracks leading from the barn to the road. They were from the wheels of a buggy and a horse pulling it. I noted footsteps in the snow. Someone was off somewhere early. Maybe the North Pole?  Thoughts of that someone out in the freezing cold made me hurry along a shoveled path leading to the front porch where the wreaths were hanging from nails. Aromas of cedar and pine and something baking inside brought me back to the times when I was a little girl visiting my grandparents at their farmhouse; especially this time of the year; the time of cinnamon and nutmeg; wreaths being made in the kitchen; an old Singer sewing machine humming and my grandfather’s saw creating surprises like a pine desk complete with a stool-my most favorite Christmas gift ever.

Swirls of snow dancing over drifts took my breath away as I knocked on the door. I could hear a baby crying. I could hear a little one running around. When the door opened I was greeted by a young Amish woman holding the baby. She didn’t invite me in. We stood there looking at each other until I asked about the wreaths. I was told they weren’t for sale. They were a special order. That’s when the baby really started crying. It was just too cold. The mother asked me in while she tended to her little one. The minute I stepped inside I felt as if I was back at the farmhouse where I spent endless hours as a child.  I felt as if my grandparents were there. In a way, they were as the floor creaked and the wind edged its way in between cracks and aromas of yeast and currants and kneaded dough and spices swirling from an oven brought to mind my Grandmother’s Christmas bread. Could it be that’s what was in the oven? Anything was possible. Christmas was coming.

A few minutes later I was asked to sit down at the table. The baby was sleeping. The toddler was peeking at me. We exchanged names. We talked. I learned the other children were at school. Watching her finagle her many duties brought me back to when my children were young. It seemed like yesterday. And yet, it seemed like an eternity. She disappeared for a minute only to return with her arms loaded down with boughs of cedar and pine. She explained she had to finish that special order. Watching her gather her materials reminded me of the times I’d do the same when I had a minute, only I’d be gathering pads of paper with scribbles I hoped to turn into a story if I had the time.

I decided I’d stayed long enough. This mother was trying to create with duties all around her. I stood, telling her I had to get back home.

“I would like you to take a wreath. Pick anyone you’d like, except for the large one, off the porch.”

I told her I wouldn’t take one if she didn’t accept money for it. We made a deal and minutes later I was walking along that shoveled path holding on to a precious wreath of pine and cedar with a red bow and pine cones made by what could have been an elf in disguise if you took in account her spirit of giving.

Driving down that narrow, slippery road I noticed a buggy being pulled by two horses coming towards me. As we were about to pass I felt chills going down my spine. If I didn’t know better the older gentleman in that buggy could have been Santa Claus. I mean he really looked like Santa Claus with wire-rimmed glasses and a beard as white as snow flying in the breeze and a twinkle in his eyes and a smile that made me feel like it was Christmas morning. I saw deer running in the woods. I bet they were on their way to the North Pole. I mean, it’s Christmas.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

In J. J. Newberry's basement with Santa Claus

Despite the rip right through my older brother's face, this photo is in pretty good shape considering its age. I am so thankful I found it in a box of old photos meant some day to be a part of a family album. Of course back when it was taken there wasn't the technology as there is today so if photos weren't put into albums immediately, they were added to a collection of photos stored away in a drawer or a box once they were developed. I'm figuring a store employee took this photo. I think that #53 is a reference number for the photo. It doesn't matter. What matters are the memories, despite the fact I have no recollection of that day-still dressed in my snowsuit in the basement of a J. J. Newberry's in the heart of the downtown in my hometown.

I remember hearing stories of going there to see Santa Claus when we were little. I remember walking down the stairs and turning right but that's it. Maybe I can't remember because I would get so very excited when seeing Santa Claus despite my not even acknowledging him in the photo. My mother would tell me stories of the Christmas mornings when I'd be so over-the-moon excited that I actually made myself so sick that she had to bundle me up on the sofa while she and my father and older brother opened their presents.

From what I can recall hearing, Santa's booth was not far from the stairs. It was against a wall. It was busy every day leading to Christmas. My mother helped my brother and I write our "Letters to Santa Claus." We'd bring them with us to Newberry's to drop in that box in the photo. I remember a main item on my list for a few years was a Bonnie Braids doll. When I finally found her under the tree wrapped in Santa paper it was like finding a pot of gold-even better.

Usually it was my mother who took us to Newberry's but it is an aunt in the photo waiting while Santa talks to us. That aunt was like a mother to us. She never married so her nieces and nephews were special to her. We loved talking Christmas with her. We loved how she wrapped the presents she bought for us.

It wasn't until years later that my mother told me the Newberry's Santa Claus was a woman. She worked with my mother as a nurse and loved playing Santa Claus. I decided that's what matters. She loved igniting that wonder and belief in the children who came to see her in that store basement. That to me is what Santa Claus is all about.




Sunday, November 26, 2017

We Three Kings and my Older Brother

I can't remember what grade my older brother-by two and a half years-was in when he was chosen by his teacher to sing one of the stanzas of 'We Three Kings' in the Christmas program at the little grade school we both attended just up the block from our house on the lane. I do remember I didn't think much about it even though I heard my parents discussing his singing with other relatives. That didn't matter. I knew he preferred playing with me over singing. And I was certain he wasn't as good at singing as he was at building forts with me in the front hall.

Our forts were made when closing off both doorways leading to the front stairs by using blankets. I don't know how he'd secure the blankets. I was more interested in filling our secret space. When the blankets were in place we'd take books from our mother's bookcase and put them in our secret spot. I'd run upstairs and bring down some of my dolls and stuffed animals. I don't think having my dolls in our fort bothered my brother. He never said they did. He was too busy defending us from the enemy. We'd play and pretend in that hidden hallway for what seemed like hours. 

It was snowing the morning of the Christmas program. When we got to school the parking lot was beginning to fill up. When I stepped into my classroom, the teacher told me she'd heard my brother sing in a rehearsal. She thought he had a good voice. I can't remember what our class was singing in the program. I just remember having to put something in my hair. Shortly after that, we were lined up one by one and led into the auditorium. It was packed. I found my parents near the back sitting with one of my aunts. I waved at them but they were waving at my brother. He was sitting up near the front with his class. He was dressed as a wise man. Everyone thought he looked just like one despite his red hair and freckles. 

The program was very long but very good. Just before Santa Claus made his appearance, the lights dimmed. The Principal walked to the center of the stage and announced the next song would be the last song . I knew what it was. It had to be 'We Three Kings." And it was. My brother's class stayed in their seats and sang. When it came time for the third stanza to be sung, my brother stood. A spotlight was right on him. And when he started to sing I was in shock. My brother really could sing! His voice was strong. He held his head high and sang with all of his might. When he got to the end of the stanza, his classmates joined in. When the song had been sung, the auditorium erupted with applause. Everyone was on their feet-including me. I was sure I was clapping the loudest-the proudest as I told my classmates, "That was my brother singing"! I looked back at my parents and my aunt. They were clapping just like me.

My brother's fame never changed him. He still built us forts in the front hallway and he never did complain about me filling them with my dolls and stuffed animals.


Monday, November 13, 2017

The Best Little Newspaper Ever

Growing up in the country surrounded by relatives proved to be my own Kickstarter when it came to taking my love of newspapers at a very young age to another level. I don't know if my infatuation was with the smell of the print or everything that a newspaper had to offer from the front page to the last page. Add in flyers and advertisements and the lure grew even stronger. I read all the sections-from local news to national news to sports and special features. When my father brought the newspaper home with him, I was usually the first one to grab it.

My family's home was one of four homes in a row and all those homes were full of those relatives. My grandparents' farmhouse was the anchor. Off in a field not far from the farmhouse was an abandoned chicken coop. That old coop became the center of my universe, as well as my cousins, after the adults gutted it and filled it with the desks, chalkboards, and books from a vacated one-room schoolhouse. We were always in the chicken coop; even in the winter despite snow blowing in through windows with missing panes. We'd play school with imaginary students. We'd put on Easter parades. We'd read books and write books. And from all of this playing and pretending and creating an idea hit like a hurricane.

We'd start a newspaper. And so my cousin and I became reporters, editors, publishers, advertising salespeople, circulation experts and the Sports department. We called our paper 'The Burns Row Journal'. It was named after our grandparents as all those four homes in a row were all Burns' in one way or another. We were a weekly newspaper, publishing on Saturday nights in the chicken coop. There were no computers. We didn't have a printing press so we hand-printed 4 copies of our Journal. We didn't have paperboys or papergirls so on Sunday mornings, we'd deliver a copy of The Burns Row Journal to each of the 4 homes. There weren't individual sections to our pub. It was usually four sheets of loose-leaf paper stapled together and when it came to a new section it would have its own heading. We didn't charge our customers. Each printed edition was a labor of love.

The one thing all of our sections had in common was the fact that every single item in the Burns Row Journal was family-related. Our ads featured a funeral home, a shoe store, a teacher/coach and nurses as all of those professions were represented in those four homes. Our Sports section ran features on anything we considered to be sports. That included baseball games held in the front yard of the farmhouse to swimming in a river down across the road to skating down at the creek. News highlighted anything we could think of family-related and that could have been news briefs on family pets or a special event coming up at the chicken coop clubhouse.

I can't remember when our 'printing press' stopped. Probably when we grew out of doing such a silly thing as hand-printing four copies of what we considered to be our own New York Times on Saturday nights.

(Photo included shows that old chicken coop clubhouse. I am the one standing between two neighbor kids. This is the only photo I have of that amazing clubhouse-home to the amazing Burns Row Journal.)


Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Pretty Little Handkerchiefs

My mother worked the midnight shift as a Charge Nurse in the ER. Working that shift meant my parents didn't have to pay a babysitter for me and my older brother. By the time she had to leave to get to the hospital, she'd fed and bathed us. Then we'd ride in the backseat of the car as my father drove her to work. After she got out of the car, waved to us and disappeared inside, my father wouldn't drive away. The three of us would stay in that car, looking up towards a window overlooking the circular drive. The window was in the office of the Nun in charge. Our mother would get to that window and wave goodbye again. On the way back home it was as if she was still in the car. I could smell her Avon deodorant and whatever she'd used to keep both her hair and starched white cap in place. Besides those familiar scents, I also remember a leather-type bag she always brought back and forth with her. It held books she might be reading. It also held whatever project she was working on; projects that kept her fingers busy and her mind released of some of the stress she was under. Of course I wasn't aware of that stress back then. I just liked riding in the car in my pajamas.

Of all the projects she worked on, her hand-embroidered handkerchiefs amazed me the most. The designs were so dainty. They were mostly little flowers with little leaves. The colors were happy. Beautiful. She kept that bag near a chair by a window in the den. Sometimes I'd sit in that chair. I'd reach in and take out whatever she was working on. If I pulled out knitting needles or embroidery needles I'd spend a few minute pretending I knew how to use them.  I was especially happy when I pulled out those pretty little handkerchiefs. I'd take my finger and follow the stitches. I'd check the other side of the handkerchief which was as neat as the front.

When I was a teenager, we moved to the country. In the afternoons in the summertime I'd do the family ironing. Back then everything was ironed. Even towels and sheets were ironed. Once in awhile my mother would open a top drawer of her dresser. It held all of those pretty little handkerchiefs. She'd gather them and hand-wash each one using Woolite in the kitchen sink. Then she'd lay them on the table. When they were dry, she'd let me iron them after adjusting the temperature. I took my time. I'd take that iron carefully around each cluster of leaves and flowers embroidered in a corner of each handkerchief. I knew how precious they were. I knew the nurse found such pleasure in her work-both as a Charge Nurse in the ER and as a designer of precious little handkerchiefs.

I don't remember her ever actually using one. I think that's because she considered each a piece of art. And I would have to agree.

Monday, October 2, 2017

The Magic of a Cookie Jar

When I was growing up we had a Santa Claus ceramic cookie jar that sat on one of the shelves of a free standing service cart-like-thing. It had wheels so you could roll it around from one wall to another or one room to another. My mother always kept it in the kitchen by the back door. Along with that cookie jar she kept the toaster sitting on that stand as well. Both the toaster and the cookie jar always stayed in the same place. Other stuff wasn't permanent. It changed when she needed to get something out of the way.
It never mattered to any of us that it was a 'Santa Claus' cookie jar. What mattered was that it contained cookies all year long.

My grandmother kept her cookies inside a small, free-standing cupboard. It was painted white and it had a counter top. Half of the space in the front of that cupboard was where she kept boxes of cereal. All you had to do was open a small door and make your choice. The other half was comprised of three pull-out drawers. The middle drawer had a tin-like top with holes for ventilation. That's where she kept the cookies. All you had to do was slide that top back to find the cookies. If the cookies weren't homemade, they were either Fig Newtons or Lorna Doones. When my children were growing up, cookies were kept in a drawer in a cupboard. And when my two grandchildren happened along, cookies were kept in a cupboard-until the oldest one fell in love with foxes.

Her infatuation with foxes started awhile back. She is now 7 years old. A few weeks ago I'd been told by her mother that a certain store was carrying Fox ceramic cookie jars. Bingo! A light bulb went off in my head. My thoughts went back to my mother's Santa Claus ceramic cookie jar always sitting in the same place and always full of cookies. I hadn't thought about that cookie jar in years but at that moment, I realized how much I missed it. I realized how much it remains a part of my childhood. It was always there. Whatever else might have been going on; whatever else might have changed, that ceramic cookie jar probably 'Made in China' was sitting there waiting for a little hand to stop, pick up the top half, take a cookie or two, put the top back down and enjoy what that jar had to offer. But it wasn't always a little hand dipping into that jar. You see, my father loved cookies and my father did the grocery shopping so add those two together and you get a full cookie jar at all times full of his favorite cookies.

A few days after leaning about those Fox ceramic cookie jars on sale at a local store, I went shopping. When I came home, I not only had a Fox ceramic cookie jar 'Made in China' but a Fox ceramic cereal bowl and a Fox ceramic plate.  I couldn't help it. They belong together, now sitting on a shelf in an old cupboard in the kitchen, full of homemade Squash cookies waiting for that little fox to make another visit.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Hair Nets

No matter where my mother went she was wearing a hair net or had one with her in her purse even when going to the grocery store. Her wearing a hair net always amazed me because her hair was either set in place with lots of hair spray or done up tightly in pin curls held in place by bobby pins. But that didn't matter. Hair nets were a must accessory back then. They came in handy if the wind kicked up or it started to rain or she was in a boat going for a ride or she'd just had her hair done and she wanted to be sure to keep it in place.

Hair nets came in colors. Her hair nets were always black or if she was wearing a bouffant type, they were always pink. I was used to seeing her in a hair net. They were as common as earrings are today. She even had a dresser drawer dedicated to hair nets.

My mother eventually grew away from wearing hair nets when styles became more casual although she kept some near just in case. I never knew her to grow her hair. It was always short and tight to her head while her mother's was always long and twisted into a bun and held in place by hair combs. Hair can define us. Hair can make a generation stand apart from another. While hairdos change so do the accessories and ways we treat and cut our hair. Lots of women pay big bucks on their hair.

Maybe my mother had it right. Wear a hair net to keep those hairs in place. It makes for less time spent on your hairdo and keeps you from going back to salons for their assistance. And always, always keep a hair net close by. You never know when you might need one.