Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas is in the Heart

I can't single out one Christmas over another; one that stands out as the best Christmas ever for each year presents a different story of circumstance and expectations. But I can say that those Christmases spent in the country will remain in my heart forever. My aunt who swam like Esther Williams would on occasion say that youth is wasted on the young. I never understood what that meant until later in life. As a child, growing up in that row of 4 houses full of relatives was just the way it was to me. Having cousins, aunts, and uncles as part of my daily routine along with the surrounding fields and pastures; woods and old barn and chicken coop clubhouse and meandering creek-all just part of every day life.

No other time of the year brings that all back around like Christmas does. My grandmother baking her cookies and Christmas bread; the heartwarming scent of fresh greens mingling with cinnamon and nutmeg; snow falling-and falling; presents wrapped in tissue paper held together by stickers that often didn't stick; skating under the dancing stars-all and so much more part of life in the country at Christmas time.

I've written before about my favorite Christmas present ever-the pine desk my grandfather made me with the pad of paper and sharpened #2 pencil in its drawer waiting for me. Another gift-a rather simple gift of a pencil and letter holder from my aunt who made awesome candles also comes to mind as a favorite. I don't know why; perhaps because I was able to set the gift on my desk and use them when pretending to be a writer at a very young age. Funny what we remember isn't it? I think she ordered the set from Miles Kimball. At least I remember seeing the catalog and a few weeks later saw her walking down the cinder driveway to the mailbox where there was a package waiting so naturally I thought the package was for me!

There was one aunt who lived faraway. She was beautiful; always wore a single strand of pearls and lipstick and cardigan sweaters. Because she'd had polio growing up, she walked with a limp. She never had children. My cousins, siblings, and I were her children. When she came for Christmas it was an overload of excitement for her presents were always among our favorites. Not just because of what was inside but because of the way she wrapped them. She never used tissue paper. Rather, each gift was wrapped in brightly decorated paper with curly ribbon and bows. Every gift she'd either sent ahead or carried through the door was wrapped like this-meticulously-with corners tucked just so and edges folded over. I remember one year in particular when she came home for Christmas. I'd written her; asked for a particular doll; even sent a picture of it. Turns out I didn't get the doll and my disappointment was obvious. That Valentine's day I received the doll in the mail.

So many Christmases-so many memories. From my brother coming home from Vietnam and surprising my parents to my father dying on December 22nd and everything else in between. Point is-each Christmas writes its own story. Each Christmas offers its own memories which we can take and tuck away in our hearts-for that is where the Spirit of Christmas exists-forever.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Christmas in the country

Besides the anticipation and warmth of family gathering what I remember most of those many Christmases in the country was the setting. As gifts were wrapped and distributed between the four houses; as the older generation shared traditions with the younger generation; as the wide-eyed wonder of Santa Claus was not only in the eyes of the children but the adults as well, something else was going on. Mother Nature was at play; providing perfect backdrops-enhancing that wonder all the more.

I can still hear the crunch of the snow underfoot as we'd race down to the creek to skate.In the evening,lying atop that bed of ice, my cousin and I would "talk Christmas" as shimmering stars danced for us in the black-violet sky. The moon-a crystal white in the midst of those gleaming stars-seemed to touch the earth beyond the snow-covered fields glimmering in diamonds. Corn stalks left from the harvest assumed the role of toy soldiers in wait of Santa.
Snow sprayed by the wind from branches of pines and maples made little whirlwinds swirling about the drifts. Tracks of rabbits and field mice told of the little creatures scurrying about as the scent of woodstoves warmed our spitits. Far in the distance the haunting passing of a train whistled through the night going to places we could only dream of.

And on Christmas Eve-we were quite certain we heard the jingling of those famous bells-out in the country-where it was Christmas every day!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Saturday Night at the Movies

My oldest brother and I were lucky for on Saturday nights our grandparents would take us into town to the movie theatre complete wih a balcony and ushers with flashlights. There were always two movies showing. Between the first one ending and the second one starting a news reel featuring real news not opinion and black and white promos of coming attractions played. Then the fun started. It was time to play bingo. After paying to get in the attenda
nt would give each of us a bingo card. Everyone in the theatre played bingo while eating popcon smothered in butter. There was never talk about needing a license or protests over kids playing bingo. It was simply fun; part of a Saturday night at the movies.

A short man in a suit stood up on the stage and out of what seemed like a giant fish bowl pulled numbers painted on round discs one at a time; yelling the numbers so loudly until someone stood and yelled back, "Bingo"! The cards were perforated so as a number was called that matched your card all you had to do was push the number in and down. I'm not sure but I think the prize was free tickets. I don't remember any of us winning. It didn't matter. We were sharing time.

After the movies we'd go next door to a local diner; the sort of place with a countertop where see-through holders on pedestals displaying homemade pies and donuts sitting on doilies sat. In front of the countertop stationary stools that swivelled all around were bolted to the floor. These were usually occupied by the regulars-prime property where they could read the papers and watch who was coming and going. Booths lined the walls and ran up and down the center with an aisle on each side.

It was crowded after the movies. People gathered to talk about what was shown. We always tried for a booth near one of the windows. I'd sit on one side with my grandmother and my brother would be with my grandfather on the other side. When the movie had been a western my grandfather went on and on. Grampie loved westerns. He loved to read, especially Saturday Evening Posts and Zane Grey novels. Although we went thought the ritual of the waitress coming to the table with a menu covered in plastic and her small pad of paper in hand and a pencil behind her ear we always ordered the same thing-a hamburger with a pickle and a coke in a real coke glass with chopped-up ice and a straw. This was the only time we ever had soft drink so every last drop was enjoyed. Our grandparents were never in a rush to get back to the country. Dressed up to the point of even wearing hats they'd sit with us as locals came and went and the theatre sat in wait for the next Saturday night and more bingo and even more popcorn smothered in popcorn.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Giddy's Christmas Bread

For any and all who knew and loved our grandmother she was affectionately called "Giddy"; nicknamed by my brother when he was a toddler. She was the cog keeping us together; as strong a woman as I've ever known.She defined the power of a woman way before it became a cliche.Cook, baker, homemaker, mother, wife, garden tender, sewer, crocheter, rug maker-the list goes on defining this French-Canadian woman with high cheek bones and waist-length hair wrapped up in hair combs on top of her head.

When I think Of Giddy this time of year it is her Christmas bread that fills my heart. The aroma-the texture-the taste remain in my memory of Christmases when we'd gather together out in the country. I can still see her in her kitchen with an apron around her and her strong hands stirring and folding; a few wisps of hair out of place as she works the dough just where it needs to be. She never measured her ingredients. She didn't have fancy appliances or a multitude of tv chefs telling her what to do. She was the chef in her farmhouse kitchen kneading the bread for the holidays; folding in the fruits and nuts and raisins and then baking the loaves in her woodstove as outside the snow fell and inside the wonder of Christmas approaching filled every room of that old homestead.

Of course the proof is in the pudding as they say. Sitting down to enjoy the bread was more than a delight-it was tradition. Many times as we'd gather to talk and eat while nipping away at a loaf with a slice here and a slice there,the bread simply would be devoured in minutes! Of course there were more loaves in the waiting. Giddy always made sure we never ran out.

The recipe for Giddy's Christmas bread has been passed down. Those in the family who've followed in the tradition of baking the bread,which is a 2-day endeavor, have done quite well. Of course they have Giddy as their mentor. I've never attempted to make the bread. I think I will remain a taster-enjoying every slice as memories of Giddy in her kitchen fill my heart.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Dolls

Just like anything else dolls define a generation-from rag dolls to dolls that look, act, and feel like newborns, dolls leave an imprint on those who receive them. I only remember one doll I ever wanted. She didn't cry or eat or roll over or walk-she was just a baby doll with two little braids on the top of her head, blue eyes, and a warm and happy smile. I remember the moment I unwrapped the box covered with red-tissue paper. There were no glitzy photos or warnings that what was inside was unsafe or declarations that batteries would be needed to make whatever it was function. It simply was a doll whom I scooped up into my arms knowing at that very moment Santa Claus had again received my letter and again made my Christmas dreams come true. Her name was Bonnie Braids. Bonnie and I spent many hours together-at tea parties, in classrooms on the side porch, on picnics in the back yard. We became good friends.

When my oldest child was a little girl there was one doll constantly advertised on television. Of course those big companies know just how to make kids think their products are must-have, to die for gifts. Santa bought into the hype. Under the tree on Christmas morning was that doll that ate-and then literally pooped! My daughter never realized the meaning of the latter so when "it" happened she jumped up crying. The actuality of what those ad campaigns were screaming from October thru Christmas hit home and my daughter never played with that doll again.

Sometimes micro-chipped dolls; dolls that are endowed more than a little child needs to know; dolls that do everything but be what they should be in the first place-a doll that can just be wrapped in a blanket and hugged-are discarded along the way when the novelity rubs off. That's when that hard chunk of over-advertised plastic is replaced by something simplier; something that allows a young imagination to take a baby doll into their world-and truly and beautifully play-and pretend. What a real gift that is! No glitzy ad campaign needed!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Busy Fingers Club

For awhile my mother, 3 aunts and grandmother would get together once a week and create whatever it was they felt like doing. A few may have knit or sewn while others may have preferred to crochet. My mother was a talented seamstress; making tailored coats from Vogue patterns or suits with narrow lapels. She loved fabric. She loved fabric so much that for awhile she ran a fabric shop right off our living room decorated in antiques. I'd go in her shop in the evening and pick out bolts of fabric and mix-match them into outfits in my imagination. She carried all the top pattern lines and fancy feathers,pins, and jewels to make hats. Some times I'd bring a pad of paper and design my own patterns-or try to at least.

My grandmother was always braiding rugs. Her generation never wasted a thing. Socks with holes were darned; discarded clothing debuttoned; cut into strips and braided into rugs of all sizes. My cousins and I used to lay on the floor in her living room and pick out material woven into her rugs that had once been our pants or shirts or jackets. Each of those rugs was a tapestry into our family. They each told a story.

Christmas time is when those busy fingers got really busy. Wreaths made from greens brought in from the nearby woods were created around coat hangers. Fresh greens were also turned into centerpieces for each of those 4 houses in a row. But the candles are what I remember the most-especially the ones made by my creative aunt living in the old farmhouse. She must have collected bits of crayons and milk cartons all year for at Christmas she'd melt the blocks of paraffin and turn bits of crayons and milk cartons into beautiful,colorful, sparkling, shimmering candles of all sizes. I don't know how but she'd whip the paraffin and make some candles look as if they were covered in snow. To some she'd add little silver beads. Those were my favorite ones.
Making memories can sometimes be quite easy if you take the time to gather and share. I'm quite certain the talk was lively and the laughter loud as those busy fingers created into the night!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Place Where Santa Came Down the Chimney

No matter how old we are, when it comes to Christmas that little child within us goes back to a place we keep tucked away in our hearts-a place we called home when Santa came down the chimney; a place where we'd put the cookies and glass of milk and sugar for the reindeer out-then hurry to bed but hardly to sleep.

I remember such a place. It wasn't in the country with those four houses in a row. Rather it was a few miles away in th
e small town where I grew up. Occasionally I'll drive by; feel a little anxious as down the hill I go,slowing when approaching the place still sneaking into my dreams. I can visualize my mother sitting on the front steps-smiling and waving-looking beautiful-watching me and my brother cross the road to play with neighbors who remain young in my mind. Although it is no longer a pale yellow and a 2-car garage stands where lilac bushes once bloomed, that house sitting next to the lane is where Santa made every Christmas magical for me. Somehow he came down the chimney although we never had one. My parents did put together a cardboard fireplace; the kind where you fit a tab into a slot and instantly you have a teetering fireplace complete with cardboard mantle,logs and flames. It was ok for me and my brother. We we were able to hang our stockings on it before running up the backstairs to bed.

The house had a double living room separated by a wide archway. The tree was always in the front nudged into the corner by the window. After my father meticulously hid the huge,blue lights back between the banches and the ornaments from the 5 and dime were in place, my mother would take over-covering every inch of the tree with strands upon strands of sparkling silver tinsel. My mother loved the stuff. She'd buy whatever Woolworth's and Newberry's had to offer. By today's standards it'd probably be condemned as I bet it was full of lead. But no one cared about that kind of stuff back then especially with Christmas approaching.

There was a smaller area off the second living room which my mother used as a dining room only on Christmas Eve. She'd set the table the same way every year-with linens and china, tall-stemmed, etched crystal glasses and a silver soup ladle for serving her oyster broth. Red taper candles sat in polished holders. Her parents and sister would come for dinner; usually later than normal and then we'd all go to midnight mass. Now that I am the adult I wonder what time my parents went to bed for after mass they still had to bring us home and get us upstairs and quieted down; making sure we were asleep before assuming the role of Santa Claus. Kids don't ever think of such things. That is the blessing of childhood.

My brother was usually up first; making just enough noise so that I'd follow right behind. Rushing down the front stairs that creaked with age I'd pause at the bottom before looking into Christmas.Cinnamon was coming from the kitchen; stockings were overflowing-sitting on the floor lopsided beside the cardboard fireplace. Piles of presents from Santa were in front of other gifts wrapped in tissue paper. Those were from our parents. As the heat came through the old registers and the snow fell ever so softly I'd rush into that front room in embrace of Santa's visit.

I was in third grade when we moved to the country. Although so many wonderful Christmas memories of family followed I still feel a twinge when thinking back to that pale yellow house with its small stoop and screened-in side porch.I remember being so excited when I'd bought my brother a 5-cent pack of Wrigley gum. I mulled over what wrapping paper to use; couldn't wait to see his expression when he opened it. While he liked the gum it was his Hopalong Cassidy radio that stole the show that year. It didn't matter for he shared the pack of gum with me.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

It's December!

Well now the longest wait known to mankind would have officially begun; the countdown to Christmas would have been underway out there in the country. Any indication of it approaching would have been noted and talked about between my cousins and me over and over again. That aunt with the bright red lipstick took such care in buying her presents. She truly made her list and checked it more than twice. Even the paper she used for each gift was taken into consideration. There was a room where she would pile the presents in wait of Christmas. Whenever my cousin and I were at the house we'd go in that room and touch and feel and hold the gifts to our ears to see if we could possibly get a hint as to what was inside.We noted each sticker used to keep the present wrapped; each illustration on each tag. I don't recall we ever figured anything out.

When the creek froze we'd spend hours down there talking Christmas; exchanging anything we might have heard. Some evenings we'd lay on top of the ice under the stars and tell each other what we thought so and so was getting us. I can still hear the ice crack and the wind blow through the baren trees along the creek's bank; hear the blades of creek grass grind in winter's capture. I don't remember feeling cold. Rather we would get so excited it might as well have been summer!

More blogs to come about Christmas and those 4 houses full of relatives sitting along a rambling stretch of country road!