Sunday, December 30, 2012

Mounds of Snow

When you're a little kid, giant snowbanks are so much more. They turn into whatever a young imagination wants them to be. That's the way it was when growing up in the country. Of course the only shovelling we did was when digging tunnels into snowdrifts, linking one to another and maybe another. With fields all around there was enough space and more than enough snow for each of us to have our own snow home complete with a snow bed and if the consistency of the snow was just right-a supply of snowballs ready to go when needed. Older kids would entertain younger ones but it was built into the playing going on instead of thought of as taking care of them. Out came sleds and wooden skiis as drifts became mountains to slide down or roll down. And when there weren't enough sleds, ripped cardboard boxes worked just fine!

We'd spend hours outside. Even with wet mittens and boots full of snow we never felt cold. We were too busy turning those mounds of snow into whatever we wanted to-and eating some of the snow along the way!

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Silver Ladle


 

The house where Santa Claus came on Christmas Eve when I was growing up was situated beside a lane on a street with a bit of a hill. Whenever a snowstorm came blasting out of the north, the street would more often than not, be closed. And if school was closed too, that street would become crowded with kids and sleds and toboggans. It was a great place to live when just a youngster and the place I look back upon fondly when thinking of hanging my Christmas stocking with my brother on the taped-together, heavy cardboard fireplace our parents brought down from the attic a few weeks before Christmas. We loved the fireplace. It looked real once the flames were plugged in. The flickering effect for some reason made me feel warm and cozy. Sitting on the black cardboard mantle in the same spot every year were a plastic Santa and Snowman. Once turned on, they’d light up. The snowman became a green or blue or red snowman-depending on the little bulb my mother chose.

We always had a real tree. It always sat in the same corner of the front room. My mother insisted. She was a perfectionist when it came to decorating it after my father strung the lights. The smallest ornaments would be hung at the top. The bigger decorations, most of them bought at a local hardware store or Woolworth’s, filled-in the middle and bottom of the tree. Then each branch would be covered in heavy tinsel making it look like something out of a magazine. The decorating of the tree was a tradition-just like my grandparents and aunt joining us for Christmas Eve dinner.

They always came in through the side porch which sat alongside the lane. My grandfather would nudge his old Ford truck as close to the house as possible. They used that particular door to bring in presents-some my brother and I weren’t supposed to see. Years later I figured out my mother hid those presents on the porch until Santa came down the cardboard chimney long after midnight mass and long after we’d gone to bed-but not to sleep.

 It was a sight, seeing my aunt with her long hair and red lipstick bounding into the kitchen loaded down with the gifts that needed to be placed under the tree. My grandfather followed carrying homemade pies and breads. But it was what my grandmother carried that instilled in me a feeling of tradition even though I didn’t know such a word existed or such a feeling had a name.  Despite the fact that you couldn’t eat it or play with it or wear it or the fact that it didn’t have bells or whistles, what my grandmother carried into our home was the one thing that never changed. It was a constant. It simply was-a silver ladle wrapped inside a deep-blue velvet bag with strings that you’d pull to keep it secure. It was a custom for my grandmother to bring that sparkling heirloom to Christmas Eve dinner in the house that sat by the lane. My mother would always make oyster broth and it was the silver ladle that served the soup into china bowls sitting on a linen tablecloth that had been in the family for as long as my grandmother could remember.

It’s not the gifts or the parties that are remembered long after the tree is down and thoughts turn to spring. It’s traditions, linking one Christmas to the next and one generation to another, that remain forever in a family’s tapestry. To some it was just a silver ladle. To me it was the silver ladle in the deep-blue velvet bag brought to Christmas Eve dinner.

 

 

 

 

Sunday, December 9, 2012

It's a Marshmallow World

Winters were winters back when this photo of two of my aunts walking with friends up the buried-under the-snow-cinder driveway lined with barren poplar trees leading to the farmhouse was taken. The barn off to the right is not the barn I used for inspiration when writing The Reindeer Keeper. It's a different barn. A part of it was used to store the ice my grandfather hauled by horse and sled from a nearby river in the dead of winter. Packed in sawdust, the ice would usually last through summer. Sadly the barn is no longer there. Except for one, the mighty poplars are gone as well. Where that barn was situated is where the house I lived in with my family was built. In the summer that field between those trees and the barn was a grand garden.

Thinking about how high the snow banks grew and how deep the snow became when I was growing up makes me think of my mother this time of the year and a 33rpm record album she played over and over on a record player which was a part of a real fancy console with a radio included. She bought the massive piece complete with a storage area for record albums as a gift for the family-or so she said. Thinking back, I believe the main purpose of that console was for my mother to play the Dean Martin Christmas album. In particular, one certain song from that album-'A Marshmallow World'-was played and replayed all through December. Each of us knew every word, every pause of that song. My mother was a fanatic Saturday morning clean-the-house thoroughly person which meant I had to pitch in. Dean Martin made it all go so much faster-at least for December that is!

A favorite part of the weeks leading to Christmas was the line-up of Variey Show Christmas specials on television. Back then there was a distinct time frame as to when getting ready for Christmas began. That was after Thanksgiving and not before. So when those entertaining Variety Shows started to air in early December, we knew the Holiday Season was upon us! We'd all sit down together and watch them. Each was eagerly anticipated. Without saying, Dean Martin's was a favorite but so were the hour-long specials from Mr. Christmas himself-Andy Williams. When he sang, "Oh Holy Night", it was silent in our living room and when his beautiful, French wife Claudine Longet was performing with him, it seemed magical. Perry Como's Christmas specials were wonderful. It was fun to see where the show was coming from as the location changed yearly. One thing that didn't change was his singing of "It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas." Of course the Bob Hope Christmas Specials were always anticipated. I particularly remember the ones he performed in Vietnam. Who can forget The Carol Burnett Christmas shows or The Bing Crosby Christmas specials or The Lawrence Welk Christmas prograns. But out of all the many entertaining Christmas specials by the many talented performers and their guests one of my very favorite Christmas shows was that of Red Skelton, especially when he was in character as Freddie the Freeloader. I loved the endings of his shows. I always felt as if he was speaking just to me.

The era of richly entertaining Christmas specials seems to have come and gone unless you go to YouTube or buy the DVDs. But watching them over the internet or via a DVD is nothing like watching them in your own living room surrounded by family as the feeling of Christmas fills your home and outside falling snow creates a magical Marshmallow World!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

A Plastic Santa in His Sleigh

Every Christmas a big, smiling, plastic Santa Claus sitting in his sleigh with his reindeer hitched up and ready to go hung above the intersection of the two main streets of the downtown where I grew up. When the wind blew really hard off the river the sleigh appeared as if it was in flight. And when it was snowing many of the shoppers in a hurry slowed down to catch a glimpse of the jolly old man waving at them through the snowflakes. Looking back I believe what mattered to those rushing by was the fact that Santa and his sleigh were right where they had been for as long as most could remember. That Santa and that sleigh and those reindeer were a holiday tradition in the community.

I loved going Christmas shopping downtown. My aunt would take my cousins and me on a Saturday. We'd spend the day-having lunch at a favorite spot of all the locals. It had plastic tablecloths and big glasses of chocolate milk. Conversations were friendly. Everyone knew everyone. Families caught up with other families on who was coming home and who wasn't. My uncle owned a shoe store so after we did some shopping we'd use his store as our drop-off point when we got tired of carrying bags and boxes. Our aunt was very patient. She helped us figure out what to buy for everyone on our lists. She never had children of her own so I think we were the next best thing.

There were so many little shops and stores in that downtown. Newberrys and Woolworths were favorites. Newberrys even had an escalator. Both had great toy sections. There was one particular store that was lots of fun to shop in. Not because of the merchandise as it was mainly clothing and shoes, but because it had department after department-each connected to the next and each slanted downward so that if you started in the department with baby stuff you could actually pick up speed as you raced down through to the last department full of women's clothing and jewelry, even luggage. This is when having an aunt who was patient really came in to play! This store was also known for giving out S & H Green Stamps with every purchase. My grandmother collected the stamps all year. Just before starting her Christmas shopping she'd pack up all her books of licked-in-place green stamps and redeem them at the S & H Green Stamp Redemption Center. She did a lot of her shopping with those stamps.

While many communities still have downtowns in one form or another, they continue to compete with malls and now super malls and the new kid on the block-the internet. Convenient and a great time-saver open 24-7 right in your home making it possible for you to wear your pajamas while you shop, the internet defaces the Christmas shopper. Technology has replaced the human element of interaction with PayPal and a button to click at places such as that friendly restaurant offering plastic tablecloths and chocolate milk.  They say change is good. But tell that to the children and their children who scurried about Christmas shopping as snow fell and a smiling, plastic Santa with his sleigh and his reindeer in flight watched over them in a downtown now but a memory. After all, that was a tradition.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Rudolph, Frosty, Charlie Brown and The Grinch

It's the Season once again for great TV Specials-the kind of television programming that you sit down and thoroughly enjoy because you've sat down and thoroughly enjoyed the same Christmas specials year after year. It doesn't matter that you remember every word and every scene of each of the 20-some minute long specials. It makes no difference if you know Lucy and Linus and the others will rally around Charlie Brown's forlorn little tree and Rudolph will lead the way and Frosty will be back again some day and little Cindy Lou Who will melt the Grinch's heart. None of that matters because these characters with their flaws and defects are woven into your childhood and when it comes to Christmas we are all children once again in one way or another. We appreciate the snowman and the reindeer and little boy and selfish grinch in a deeper sense. Their presence on our TV screens affirms a meaning to Christmas that can not be bought. There's no price tag on the Christmas spirit. Nothing can top the feeling of Home and innocence and memories of being wrapped up in a blanket in your pajamas with a bowl of popcorn as the snow's falling and the tree lights glitter and you're that little kid again sitting in the living room with other family members who are just as mezmerized as you by that winter's night scene when Snoopy glides across the ice with his ears straight out and innocent voices tell you 'Christmas time is near'. There is no age limit on feeling the Wonder. The Wonder does still exist. It is ageless. It's not in the malls or on the internet. It's in our hearts.

The longevity of two of these particular Christmas specials has alot to do with one particular man who only wanted to 'bring a little happiness into everyone's life'. Screenwriter Romeo Muller adapted Rudolph and Frosty for TV Holiday specials using stop-action animation. As is the case with all four of these TV specials none were generated by a computer. There were no special effects. Charlie Brown was produced on a shoestring budget. In fact, when the higher ups saw the final Charlie Brown product they were horrified. They felt the use of a jazz soundtrack wasn't the best choice for a children's program and they weren't happy using actual children for the voice overs.  In the end, it's the storylines that count and these storylines have endured. Generations continue to fall in love with a red-nosed reindeer and jolly snowman and little boy with a skinny, little tree and a big mean grinch who turns out not to be so mean-not through the trickery of a computer but through a heartwarming story of the Season-simply told and forever enjoyed by children of all ages sitting on sofas as the snow falls and tree lights glitter.