For many of us growing older in a population of youngsters, we remember Christmas-time as the quintessential season of joy for kids. I take nothing away from Christmas in the religious sense, and I join those who despair of the increasingly secular (worldly) atmosphere of this season, but our children seem to develop a special glow and excitement as Christmas approaches. For those who do not celebrate Christmas as part of their religious faith, the season brings mixed blessings and some of us may forgive the often overbearing atmosphere that must rankle serious-minded folks who celebrate another faith. For those, I write this piece in my own joy but with greetings and messages of love and respect for all those who celebrate their own holy days differently.
When I was a young boy, our family almost always journeyed at Christmas-time to our paternal grandparents who lived in Gilbertville, a town in central Massachusetts, a hundred-mile trip from our home in New Bedford on the east coast. Going inland to the hill country excited us to the likelihood for a white Christmas with our grandparents who told great stories about years gone by of the Ware River running through town freezing over and snow drifts six feet deep on New Braintree Road. Those trips to Gilbertville, whatever the season, were always exciting and full of anticipated pleasure but the hundred miles was often a problem for me, my younger brother and sister, and, of course my parents. "When are we coming to the hairpin turn?" we would bellow and our Mother would answer, "Watch for the West Brookfield sign and you'll know it won't be long. How we would know that sign on a rainy or snowy night I couldn't be sure, but we were never satisfied and we would ask the question over and over until we tired and dozed off.
Finally, when we aroused ourselves to the clear grind of driveway gravel beneath the car tires, we could peer through the windows and see Grandmother in the kitchen at the black cook stove stirring what we hoped was her usual company oyster stew and we knew the long journey was over. Even at midnight on our arrival we would walk the gauntlet of serious hugs and kisses from a line of greeters, Nanna and Bampa, Uncle Wallace and Aunt Ettie and cousins Bobby and Marion. The younger we were, the more we returned the embraces; the older, the more we turned away embarrassed and flushed, but we lived through the greeting and then spied the festive tree in the living room. "Oh, no," Nanna said. "That must wait until the morning. "Have something to eat and drink and be off with you. If Santa is awake when he passes over, he'll not stop in at this house."
We looked out at the darkness and in the shed's light we could see heavy snow flakes falling. We were ecstatic, even with Nanna's admonition about Santa. The available flues, which Santa would visit with gifts, were too hot and smoky from coal stoves in all three rooms downstairs so we hung our stockings (oversized heavy woolen ski socks) on a long clothes line across the kitchen, and crawled in for a good night's sleep at least until midnight. By then, we children had deserted our beds out of the tension of pretending sleep and we waited at the top of the stairs until we were called. We bolted down Nanna's mandatory breakfast, oatmeal, toast, and butter and bananas, orange juice and milk amid clamors of, "It's not fair. We've waited all night and we haven't had presents yet...." and so on and on for all of ten minutes.
Then the rush to the tree began in earnest. When we came to a package marked Uncle Wallace, we made sure it went to a special place on a windowsill. He always arrived late for family affairs. This morning he was milking his ten or twelve cows and processing the milk and cream before anything else in the world could begin for Wallace. I remember his living like that with chores every day of the year and a week off in the summer when a man would come and do the bare essentials while he was gone. Interesting, I think to myself now, I always wanted to be a farmer. Somehow I ended up in an equally demanding occupation.
Presents were distributed, bikes tried out on the linoleum of the kitchen and sleds on the back hillside after pulling on galoshes and warm clothes. Looking back, I think how extravagant those Christmases seem now. Most of my memories seem bitter-sweet, richer perhaps but lasting. In fact, I harbor the same thoughts even up to this day about our own families.
I remember my dad's pushing a couple of 20-dollar bills into an old sugar bowl in the cupboard before we left for home. Nanna would object strenuously if she saw him doing it but I don't think she was ever able to return the bills to Dad. I didn't realize at the time how welcome, hardly extravagant, those bills in the sugar bowl must have been when Nanna found them. I learned that poverty was only a step away from her pride, eventually a nursing job at a home for the aged for Grandmother and the WPA for Grandfather. The old mill house, a duplex, was vacant on the other side as were most of the houses in town (half-vacant) during those gloomy depression days. The woolen mill's work force was down to a maintenance few, including Bampa.
Strangely, we never attended Christmas services at church. Grandmother fainted whenever she had attended, influenced either by the confines of the building or church doctrine. I never understood that side of Grandmother who seemed able to do almost anything else.