Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Christmas finally arrives

My grandmother was born in 1898. I have to admit that seems almost impossible to believe as it seems so incredibly long ago.

She had her first child at age 16 and her last more than 20 years later.

She had a total of seven children. One daughter, Mabel, died as a young child. Sis, another daughter, died in her 40's from somewhat questionable circumstances. Some believe she might have been poisoned by her husband, but most believe it was an error on the part of the doctor.

This left five children who all survived which is no small wonder considering the lack of health care, the hard work, and for some, the wars they fought in.

Each child had a nickname and one uncle even had two. He answered to both Pill and Babe, which I guess were switched out depending on how he was acting. There was also Son, Beadie, but my dad had the best nickname, Pet.

If I counted correctly, there were 14 grandchildren, which doesn't sound like a lot, but when they all started marrying and having children, that makes for a big crowd! But each was known and loved by Grandmother and every single person got a gift at Christmas.

The "big" house, which eventually was added onto and made into a six room house, or rather seven, when the bathroom was finally added, came with a few acres that were a pasture. This was where the Christmas tree came from each year. There were no pines or spruce or any of the traditional trees for Christmas, but instead there were cedars. There is a reason Cedars are not used for Christmas trees and that is because they have very spiky, sticky branches. They smell good but will tear up your hands while you try to decorate them.

One year I remember being the first family there and we all followed dad into the pasture to help select the tree that most closely resembled a Christmas tree shape. Then we got to do the decorations which included bubble lights, plenty of icicles, and the white flossy stuff which is probably illegal to sell anymore because it was so flammable and probably made out of something like asbestos.

But what was placed under the tree was the best, of course, only that could not even be considered until dinner had been served which did not happen until all had arrived, which seemed as a child to take forever.

Grandmom had one table in her dining room which was the kind with a yellow cracked ice Formica top. This area was reserved for the men and they were served first.

The women were too busy with last minute preparations, fixing kids' plates, and pouring coffee to get to sit down. Yes, I understand how backward this seems now but that was exactly how Grandmommy wanted it, so that was what we did.

My best guess is that the meal would have been similar to the loaves and fishes, as I don't believe you could ever cook enough in her tiny kitchen to feed all the people who were expected. Grandmother started early and everyone brought some things they had already made, but this was long before you would run to the grocery store and pick up whatever you were going to bring so there was plenty of advanced planning involved. It was also done before you would pick up the phone to casually place a long distance call so the planning was done well in advance via letters.

I remember the meal as being delicious and only surpassed by the brilliant spread of desserts, sitting atop her buffet. After coffee and cigarettes the men were finally finished and the women got to sit down and have theirs. In the meantime, the kids were running in and out and getting in trouble with fireworks or burning leaves or asking for the millionth time when were we finally going to open presents.

Grandmother put a lot of thought into each gift and for many years I received a glass animal purchased at either Ben Franklins, M.E. Moses, or McCrory's, all the best 5 and 10 cent stores you could find. I still have a few of these intact and they are special treasures.

As I got older, and the number of family members increased, while the money did not, she switched to items that came in multi packs and would buy them and split them among the grandchildren. This might be a new cup towel and dish rag, or panties, which were never the right size, or socks, but something useful and at least one item for every single person.

For whoever was passing out presents, you soon realized the majority were going to one place, for grandmother. I can still see her sitting in that rocker or her recliner, with her haul spread from her lap all the way to the floor and in a giant circle around her.

She was just like a kid again and would clasp her hands and proclaim, "Lord I don't know what I have done to deserve all of this". Of course we knew and were so glad she loved the gifts we brought.

All the cousins drew names so you also ended up with a brilliant prize from one of them. Life was good!

Eventually everyone would disperse from the living room, with the men retreating outside to smoke or share a story or a shot of "cough medicine" while the women cleaned up the kitchen, fixed dessert for all who asked, and the kids began to ask the next series of questions about how long till Santa came.

When we were very young we all stayed at Grandmother's house on Christmas Eve. I think I must have been so convinced of the story of Santa that I completely ignored my parents and aunts and uncles' processional through the bedroom where all the kids were asleep carrying the Santa gifts for under the tree. Maybe it really was delivered by Santa because there is no way my parents could fit all the presents as well as our stuff in the trunk of just one car.

Tomorrow I will try to remember the rest, but tonight I have to give up early.

To grandmother's house for birthdays

When writing about my grandmother I left out an important part of her life, her front porch. While the "first family" has Camp David, at Grandmother's house, you had the front porch, complete with the swing. The porch was where you went when you needed to talk, or needed some quiet, or needed to try to catch a breeze, because the kitchen was hotter than he**, where you waited on the rest of the company to arrive, where you had heart to heart talks, where you shelled peas or peeled potatoes, or snapped beans.

Grandmother's house was really close to the highway and at first the highway was only two lanes and you could sit out there and watch the traffic go by at a fairly leisurely pace. People would honk and wave as they made their way to and from town. Eventually it became a four lane highway and the traffic was considerably heavier, but that never deterred her from wanting to sit out there.

If she was expecting you, you could almost expect to find her there waiting. The best was to surprise her and drive up while she was sitting on the porch, especially if you brought lunch with you.

The swing had just the right creak that could lull you into a peaceful trance. It was the same swing that my grandfather would sit on and his pet chicken would come up and sit on his knee. The swing was definitely the favored place to sit as the rest of the furnishings on the porch was a wide variety of chairs that had found there way out there for one reason or another.

The front yard was huge and covered with a variety of concrete statutes, which were a favorite for grandmother. There were concrete squirrels and deer, and angels, and gnomes, toad stools and chickens, and a few rabbits.

If you met grandmother, you might wonder how she was even able to make it. Her back was so curved, her legs were blue from varicose veins, and she could barely hear thunder, but I really cannot remember her ever complaining about anything. She was so content in her life that people found themselves envying her. Her success was never financial but instead in the love she shared with everyone.

If you met her once, she knew you for life.

If you supplied her with a service for any length of time, your whole family became part of hers.

If you married into the family, you would always have a place at her table.

Your birthday was as important to her as hers was. She never missed a birthday and as long as her money allowed, there was always something in your birthday card. She completely ruined birthday cards for me because I always open them expecting to find some money. I love to include a $1 in birthday cards whenever I remember.

Grandmother also had a tradition of starting all the granddaughters a hope chest. The cardboard box was filled with a matching set of jelly jar glasses, a couple of cuptowels, and other must haves for the kitchen. When my sister and I chose college rather than marriage out of high school, I think she was convinced all hope was lost that we would ever use our hope chests. OK, so mine did end up being a hopeless chest after all.

The other favorite place for grandmother, after the porch, was her kitchen. You never had to worry about having something that was half cooked, as she had a habit of cooking the fire out of everything she fixed, including her coffee. I think the coffee pot was always full and at a full boil at all times. She enjoyed drinking her cup of coffee by pouring it into her saucer to cool it off and sipping it from there.

So while it is Christmas time, I have to write about her birthday parties first.

I think the parties grew the year she turned 80 but it could have been earlier than that. It was somewhere around that time that she made the newspaper for taking a motorcycle ride at her birthday celebration.

Christmas was more about the inner family, but her birthday was wide open to all the relatives, friends, adopted families, and everyone else that wanted to wish her well, which included some rather colorful characters.

The celebration was in the front yard and all the tables in the house and any extras were laden with more food than could be consumed in a week, even with the huge crowd that would show up. One year a very distant cousin came on down after all the bars in Dallas had closed. The pounding at the door was way too early but my sweet mother and Auntie Dora got up and let the cousin in. The two of them never turned anyone away and even though it was incredibly early they were the ultimate hosts starting that pot of coffee to try to rouse the rest of the crowd. We managed to ignore it but their kindness was repaid with enough tall tales from cousin to last the rest of us with stories even today. There was also the year the cousin who worked at La Bare showed up with his buddies but it didn't matter who you were or what you did, Grandmother loved us all and the fact that you would come to wish her a happy birthday was all she needed.

When I had brain surgery all those years ago, Grandmother was not able to be there, but as soon as she could she had to see me and see that I was all right. She had my senior class picture hanging on her wall and she would stand there and tell me, with tears in her eyes, "you don't know how many times I looked at that picture of you hanging on the wall." For the rest of her life she would say this to me and I knew that even though she was not physically in the waiting room, she was with me in spirit through all I went through.

OK I have written too late again and will have to postpone telling about Christmas another night.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

To grandmother's house we go!

When I wrote briefly about family recently, I got immediate response from my cousins of memories of Christmas at our Grandmother's house. In today's life, we have difficulty finding a time and place to get even small parts of our family together, so I thought I would reminisce about these Christmases that still bring so many good memories.

But first a little background on my grandmother.

She was very young when she got married, either 15 or 16, finding her true love early. She had a bunch of kids while balancing running the house and working in the fields, all during the most difficult economic times our country has ever known. When we asked dad what it was like to have lived through the Great Depression, he said they were already so poor by that time they had no idea it had happened.

While they moved frequently during those years, by the time I came on the scene, I only remember two different houses, the little one, and the big one, which isn't saying much since the big one was 4 rooms, maybe 5. There wasn't much use for a bathroom, as there was no running water.

There seems to be some disagreement as to whether there was a big tank that held rain water in the back but I am pretty sure that was where we filled a bucket with water which was brought in, placed on a special table by the stove and the communal dipper was replaced along with a special cup towel to keep what out? Germs?

During the summer you kept all the windows open and I vaguely remember one fan but if you were hot, you could always go outside, right? In the winter, you did not have to worry about being cold, even though the walls were very thin and I am pretty sure there was no insulation, but there were at least 2 space heaters that were on full blast once the temperature dipped to the least chill and if that was not enough, she usually had the burners on the stove wide open as well. How the whole thing never caught fire has to be some sort of miracle.

Grandmom's house was surrounded by gigantic oak trees and plenty of sandy soil, which provided a wealth of entertainment for all the kids. It was just the right kind of soil that allowed you to dig your toes into the dirt and feel the coolness below. In the fall, there was no lack of leaves to rake up and eventually burn, sometimes sparking interest from the local fire department, and at least once, coming awfully close to the propane tank also. So in the summer, you went to bed with a fine layer of sand and in the fall, you went to bed with your hair smelling of burning leaves.

I mentioned the lack of a bathroom and not sure how long it took to get indoor plumbing, but I do remember when the out house was expanded to become a two seater. The walls were covered with a variety of writing including words of wisdom, memories, poems, and how to find a final resting place of a stray bird, which included directions such as regular steps and kid's steps.

Because Grandmother always wanted everyone to come visit, she made sure she had a way to have a bed for everyone, even if there were only 2 bedrooms and most families had 4 kids and there could be several families there at once. On each bed, there were at least 3 mattresses which were pulled off and put on the floor and covered with kids and quilts.

If grandmother knew you were coming and got to go to the grocery store, she would have all the food she had bought sitting on her kitchen counter, to show you how proud she was that you were there. Among the items was usually at least one can of salmon or mackerel and the rest of the meals were supplemented with fresh food out of her garden.

This wasn't just a little patch of a garden, this was a good size garden and it always had potatoes, onions, green beans, tomatoes, and in good years, corn. I almost forgot the okra and I guess there were other things but the idea of all of those things, fresh from that garden, brings back so many great memories of sitting around the table with family.

Of course it is all about family which was the most important thing to grandmother.

For Grandmom, there were two holidays each year, one was her birthday, and the other was Christmas. Attendance at both was mandatory. Of course you wanted to go so that didn't matter. Getting there, however, was a different story.

With all the thousands of trips we all must have made, I don't remember too many that involved accidents or car trouble, in spite of less than stellar vehicles and little two lane roads. It got fairly complicated when we got jobs, especially retail jobs, to convince your boss that you had to be off early to get to grandmother's but it would not have mattered what time you got off, you still knew you would head to grandmother's.

But since it is Christmas night and I, in my role as Santa, had a late night last night, I will write about Christmas at Grandmother's tomorrow.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Obituaries and reflections

I think my favorite section of the paper to read is the obituaries. No, I won't do the old joke that I make sure I am not in there each day and in fact, the only day I read them is on Sunday, but I love the glimpse into the lives and rarely do they answer all the questions that they raise.

The really long obituaries always call for a good scanning to see why this person is so famous and best guess is they have money since you are charged for each inch in print and from what I understand, it is not cheap. Usually these people's stories begin from the beginning and read more of a narrative of what all they have accomplished with their lives, their service in the military, corporations they have led, and usually end with information on their service and request for donations to their favorite foundation/fund.

Then there are those who look so young in their picture. Rarely does it tell why or how they passed away though, which I appreciate, but then if they ask for donations to a specific cause, you assume that is what caused the loss of this young life. You immediately feel the loss this whole family must feel.

Where it gets confusing is if the picture is of a younger person but the years accumulated are significantly higher. I always wonder what made them choose that picture? Is it the only one they had? Was that their favorite time in life?

Obituaries are also a source of great nicknames, not just Jim or Charlie, or Meg, or Liz, but those that you know have a great story behind them. I have always wished for a good nickname. Maybe I haven't lived the kind of life that warrants a great nickname. Seems like you have to be more of a character than I am. I might have been headed that way, but with the addition of two daughters, have decided my run of a character needed to end.

I've heard a commencement address on the importance of what happens in the dash that appears between the year you are born to the year you die. There is a great story on the Internet right now of an obituary for a professor from Central Connecticut State University. After reading it, complete strangers have voiced how much they wish they had known him.

Tonight's perusal of the most recent obituaries and with the professor's story on my mind, it made me wonder if how we live our life is backward. Maybe we should write our obituary, then try to go back and accomplish those things. Do you want to be known as the member of a bunch of clubs? Companies you have worked for? Schools you have attended? Or do you want to be known for the difference you made in other's lives or that you worked tirelessly to improve, say the access of clean water to others? Would the place where you spend the majority of your time reflect the life you wanted to live? To be remembered by?

Just wondering...