I.  The First Christmas I Can Remember

Age4

  The first Christmas I can remember clearly is the Christmas I heard Santa laugh and received my heart’s desire, the curly-haired Red Cross doll that beckoned to me from the display window of the Empire Drug Store.  The year was 1943 or 1944, and I was either four or five years old.  The War was still raging in Europe, and I was living with my parents in a two-bedroom rented bungalow on Fir Street in Longview, Washington. 

For many people in Longview, maintaining a household was a challenge during the War.  Goods and money were in short supply.  We used ration stamps when we paid at the grocery store, and we paid sales tax with tax tokens, little grey-green cardboard disks that had holes in their centers.  My father was a teacher, considered a necessary occupation at the time, and he also had bad feet and bad eyes, so he was not drafted into the military.  Thus, my family was better off than the families that lost their breadwinners to the military, but not by much; a teacher at the time did not take home much income.  With this in mind, I know now that expecting Santa to bring a Red Cross doll from the Empire Drug was a long shot. 

At the time, however, all I knew was that if Santa was true to his word and image, he had better have that doll in my arms by Christmas!   And every time my mother and I walked to town and passed the Empire Drug, I made sure that my mother knew I wanted that doll.  Each time I mentioned the doll, my mother told me that I would not get it, that Santa couldn’t afford to bring me an expensive doll like that because he had so many other children to supply with Christmas gifts.  Her explanation made sense to me, but it did not stop me from wanting the doll.  To complicate matters, I learned a few days before Christmas that we would not be home on Christmas Eve because we were going to another town to spend Christmas with friends.  Despite my mother’s reassurances that Santa would find me anywhere, I spent those days before the Big Day worrying and complaining, two activities that did not add to the holiday spirit of those around me, I’m sure.

Christmas Eve found us in the tiny, cigarette-smoke-filled bed-sitter of family friends.  All the adults were jovial, enjoying the bottles of cheer and their Camels, Luckies, and Pall Malls as they played their poker and bridge games, sat on each other’s laps, ate candies and cake, and listened to Bing sing “Adeste Fideles” and “Christmas in Killarney.”  At some point, I went to sleep on the living room carpet. 

I was awakened at midnight in time to hear the bells of Christmas bursting forth from the Philco.  Then I was hustled into my pajamas, somebody made me a bed on two kitchen chairs pushed together in a closet, somebody else safety-pinned a stocking to my pillow, and I was told to go to sleep.  By that time, however, I was wide-eyed and sleep was impossible.  Suddenly, as I feigned sleep, I heard a “Ho!  Ho!  Ho!  Has Jeanie been a good girl??”  Somebody replied in the affirmative, and then, as I lay there ever so still, a bundle was placed on the floor by my makeshift bed.  When I thought it was safe, I felt the bundle, felt the hair and the hat, and I knew Santa had found me and had fulfilled my dream.

I wish I could say I cherished that expensive doll, kept her in mint condition, and still had her to this day.  Alas, my childish curiosity got the best of me—and of her—and in my attempt to figure out how she opened and closed her eyes, I mutilated her beyond repair.  If only I’d had access to the Internet, that fount of all knowledge, I could have satisfied my curiosity without sacrificing the doll, but at the time computers were merely a gleam in the eye of their inventor, and nobody then probably even dreamed of traveling on the cyber highway.  So that Red Cross doll, which I named Mary Ann, met her end in the garbage can, and a disgruntled Santa never again made the mistake of bringing me a doll.

 

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2.  The Family Christmas Tree

 

In addition to that memorable Christmas, there were others, of course, perhaps less memorable, when I was a child.  I may not be able to remember all those other Christmases in detail, but I can remember some Christmas generalities.  For example, my parents always had a real tree, and my mother made most of the ornaments until my brother and I were old enough to add our  clumsily-produced ornaments we made in school.  The first step in the process of decorating our tree was to anchor it in its stand.  That was my father’s job, and normally he accompanied his work with a lot of cursing and words I was not supposed to repeat.  In fact, sometimes my brother and I were sent on an errand while my father, a Lucky dangling from his lips—somehow he had mastered the art of cussing without letting his cigarette drop–put up the tree. 

After the tree was up and stable and watered, my brother and I made a multi-colored chain for it by cutting strips of colored paper and slathering on thick, mint-flavored white library paste to glue the links.  When the chain was about ten feet long, we did the best we could to drape it gracefully around the tree.  After the chain came the lights, not the tiny, twinkling lights of today but the old-fashioned larger multicolored lights—at least my family used those lights.  During the ‘50s, other families bought the Noma Bubblelights or the little twinkling lights, but my family continued to use the older lights because, as my mother claimed, they did the best job of making the tinsel glow. 

With the tree up, watered, garlanded, and lit, we took the next step, putting on the ornaments.  My mother was very picky about where the ornaments, the multicolored glass balls, especially, were to go.  She directed my brother and me, and we hung the balls.  After the balls, came the other ornaments, the school-made ornaments and the few spun-glass angel ornaments that my mother had saved from her own childhood trees.  To wrap up our tree-decorating, my mother carefully placed one or two strands of tinsel on the tip of each branch.  She would not let my brother or me do this because she said we were not careful enough; when we did this, the branches looked “clotted” with tinsel, in her opinion.  She was probably right because our tree each year was a piece of art, and the neighbors who came by with cookies and fudge always admired our tree and said they wished theirs were as beautiful.

 

 

3.  The Hadleys’ Tree

 

Looking back through time, I do believe that having the most beautiful or tastefully decorated tree on the block was extremely important to my mother, just as important to her as having a good figure and out-dressing the neighbor women must have been.  This competitive spirit was especially noticeable after the War, in the mid-1950s.  My parents owned the first television set on the block and the first Volkswagen sedan.  There was, however, one Christmas during which my mother’s tree was not the center of attention.  It may have been the most tasteful or the most symmetrically decorated, but it was not the most noticeable or the most talked-about tree in the neighborhood.  The tree that won those honors belonged to our next-door neighbors at the time, the Hadleys.

Herb and Dee Hadley moved into the home previously occupied by the Heuer family, a huge Irish-Catholic family who celebrated Christmas and New Years and every other special occasion by going to Mass and by consuming enormous quantities of food and alcohol.  To this day, when I hear the Old Groaner singing “Adeste Fideles” or “Ave Maria,” I am back in the Heuer’s steamy living room, overwhelmed by the number of bodies, the noise, the food and drink, and the mound of presents piled under their tree.  And there in the midst of all is tiny, prim-looking Jen Heuer, silver hair in a bun, directing traffic and shouting orders.  I remember that as I sit now in my little apartment, cats for company, and enjoy the silence.  To me, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, witnessing the Heuer family at Christmas was an experience I was not about to forget. 

Along with each holiday spectacle at the Heuer house came “the girls,” two of Jen’s granddaughters, Chauncy and Sue.  They were just about my age, and their presence was a definite “plus” in my holiday life.  First of all, both girls had black hair, pale pasty skin, and were covered by skin eruptions that they attributed to allergies.  In my household, nobody in the world had “allergies,” so this condition made Chauncy and Sue even more fascinating to me.  Also, the girls, both students at St. Rose’s Roman Catholic School, had a vast store of smutty stories, probably stories they overheard their uncles tell when they were in their cups.  As they said, when Mass became dull, they whispered these stories as a diversion.  Hail Mary had to take a back pew. The story-telling also gave them fodder for confession when they couldn’t think of anything else to confess.  However interesting the Heuer family may have been, though, I have digressed and strayed from the Hadley family and their tree.

When the Hadleys moved into the Heuer home early in the 1950s, then, Herb Hadley was a young man on the way up in the insurance business in Longview.  He was outgoing and jovial, two qualities that helped him climb the ladder, I’m sure.  His wife, Dee, had been a home economics major in college, and she gave him the support he needed in his career climb and cared for their children.  Herb had a competitive nature, and that quality served him well at work.  However, he also had to be the first on our block to try new ideas and to buy new products.  During the Christmas season of 1953, his competitive thrust hit a wall, however, because his Christmas tree became the joke of the neighborhood.

Before the mid fifties, people had green Christmas trees that were alive.  Oh, a very few people sprayed white snow on their trees, and they called that process “flocking,” but white trees were rare.  However, during the mid 1950s the stores were flooded with novelties—Noma Bubblelights, those cylindrical candle-shaped lights that contained a liquid that bubbled when they were turned on, plastic ornaments to replace the more fragile glass ornaments, animated ornaments, AND  Christmas trees that were flocked in exotic colors. 

Herb was not one to stick with the old tried-and-true; no, he was one who loved to try new things and to be first on the block with whatever took his fancy. So when he visited the feed store where the family normally bought their tree and discovered that the store was offering flocked trees in a dizzying array of colors, he decided to over-ride Dee’s order to buy a white flocked tree and instead be the first on the block to have a gold-flocked tree.  Feeling somewhat uneasy about his decision, however, he decided to surprise Dee and the kids.  His family’s squeals of delight at his surprise for them, would, he reasoned, justify his deviation from orders. 

The day of delivery arrived, and as Dee let the men from the feed store into the house, she was appalled.  She asked them if they were certain they had brought the right tree, and they were entirely certain.  And then, after the men had erected the tree and it stood in front of the big window in her dining room, she wept.  For there in all its glory, standing tall for everyone in the neighborhood to see, was a urine-yellow Norwegian spruce that looked as if monstrous male dogs had lifted their legs over every limb and needle. 

After she wept, she called my mother and me and told us to come as quickly as we could.  I can remember staring stunned at the tree, not knowing just what to say under the circumstances.  My mother, always practical, suggested that the best and simplest solution to the problem would be to gob as much decoration onto the tree as possible to hide the nasty color, and she offered to help by donating some of our ornaments.  By the time we left, Dee was laughing, but when Herb came home from work and expressed his amazement and disgust, she was crying again.  The kids, however, thought the tree was fine, and they took my mother’s advice and decked it so full of ornaments and tinsel that most of the limbs were hidden.

  By the time they got the presents heaped around the base, nobody could see much of the tree at all.  The story got around, however, and Dee had to tolerate the folks who stared at her dining room window, covering their mouths to hide their grins.  As far as I know, that was the last year Herb tried an innovation at Christmas time.  

4.  My Little Brother’s Mystery Gift 

Now that I think of it, this account of childhood Christmases would not be complete without the story of my brother Birck’s fourth Christmas, Christmas 1949.  Now, my little brother was an amazing child, with hand-eye coordination beyond his years.  And this particular Christmas he put this quality to good use.

As usual, our tree was an example of my mother’s artistic endeavors and was the envy of all the neighbors.  Birck was just four years old, and I was ten, going on eleven.  To us, the artistic quality of the tree was not nearly as important as the gaily-wrapped loot under the tree.  When the tree was first up and the presents had been placed under it, Birck and I began our work.  We separated the presents into piles, one pile for each family member, and we made sure of the location of our respective stacks.  Each day we inventoried our gifts to see if any had been added or if any were missing.  Birck and I always had more gifts than our parents, and we saw nothing wrong with that.  After all, kids were supposed to get more presents than their folks.  By the time Christmas Day finally rolled around, we had poked and prodded our gifts and had identified most of them. 

On this particular Christmas, however, there were several gifts that Birck could not identify.  I wasn’t any help.  One package, in particular, was about a foot long and half a foot wide and very heavy.  When we shook it, it didn’t rattle; the contents, instead, clunked!  I was as mystified as Birck by this bundle, but neither of us dared tear even a little piece of the wrapping.  If we had been caught doing that, our gifts would have been locked up until Christmas morning.  This mystery gift was, of course, the gift that Birck would open before any of the others.  No wonder—it was about the only present that was still a surprise! 

Christmas Eve came that year, finally, and late in the afternoon my mother, Birck, and I attended the candlelight service at St. Stephen’s Episcopal.  My mother normally did not set foot in any church, but she thought Birck should experience a few moments of Christianity once a year.  The portly old priest got through the service, and then he disappeared briefly, reappearing in a Santa suit.  He gave each of us a brown lunch sack containing a couple of huge oranges, some Brazil nuts, and a candy cane, and then we lit our candles, sang “Silent Night” in the candlelight, and walked home in the dark to our Christmas Eve dinner. 

Now, lest you imagine a huge Christmas Eve feast with prime rib, all sorts of vegetables, and pies, let me describe our customary meal.  First, because my mother was not one to dash around from activity to activity and spend time over a hot stove while trying to keep to a schedule, our dinner on Christmas Eve was extremely simple—lumpy cream of pea soup from a Campbell’s can,  singed toasted cheese sandwiches, carrot sticks, and fruitcake slices.  By the time we had walked home, usually in the rain, from the church service, we didn’t care that others may have been sitting down to roast beef and pie; we just wanted to get warm and fill our stomachs. 

Dinner over, we were allowed to open one gift each, and my mother selected the gifts we could open.   The present she gave Birck was not  the mystery gift, and no matter how Birck begged, she would not allow him to open that gift.  I can’t remember which gift he opened that night.  The gift she allowed me to open was from her two old maid artist friends in New York, Ruthie Dunbar and Mildred Stumer.  I groaned when I saw it because I thought I knew what it was.  And I was right:  two pink marzipan pigs surrounded by colorful marzipan flowers.  They always sent us marzipan pigs, and I didn’t even like marzipan! 

After that non-event, Birck and I were hustled off to bed early so Santa could have some wiggle-room.  Birck and I shared a room, so it took us a while to settle down.  I turned on my radio and put the headphones near my pillow so I could hear Christmas music, and then I fell asleep. 

On Christmas morning I awoke to curses and exclamations coming from my parents’ room.  The cause of their wrath was the banging and pounding coming from the stairs to the basement at five in the morning.  I followed them to the stairs.  There was Birck, clothed in his home-sewn white flannel nightgown, totally absorbed in his work of using the hammer from his brand new Christmas tool kit to nail tiny bits of kindling onto the steps of the basement stairs.  When I consider the task now, I am amazed at Birck’s ability to nail the tiniest bits of wood to a step without splitting the kindling.  At the time, however, my parents were definitely not amused or amazed.

I can’t remember exactly how they resolved the situation because I was eager to open my presents and didn’t pay much attention.  After all, it was Christmas morning!  And yes, the hammer Birck used on the basement steps was just one component of the mystery gift, a Handy Andy tool set for little carpenters, complete with apron. The kit also contained a saw, a small saw, but even at that, a saw that was still capable of marring the legs on our living room furniture.  The hammer and saw disappeared during the morning, but in the excitement of opening the other presents,  Birck didn’t miss them until the afternoon.  When he did miss them, my parents tried their best to locate them, they claimed, but the tools did not resurface until Birck was older and more inclined to follow the rules for their use. 

I can’t remember what Santa brought me that Christmas.  I don’t think that was the year I received the Morse Code key, but whatever I got must not have been too memorable.  I do remember Birck and the tool kit for little carpenters.  My parents did not give that to him.  I am sure that the person who did give it to him was on my parents’ hit list for the next few Christmases.  After opening our gifts that day, our house settled into its usual post-present quiet, and mid-afternoon we had our big Christmas feast of rump roast cooked until it was leathery and dry, grey peas, lumpy mashed potatoes, gelatinous gravy with scorched bits of meat floating on top, vibrant green Jello salad with carrots suspended in it, and mincemeat pie with ice cream on top.  After dinner, my parents napped, and Birck and I played with our toys and tried to stay awake.  Christmas night was an early night for all.

 

Christmas now is so different from the Christmases of my childhood, and sometimes I forget that modern kids want video games and I Pods and not electric trains and Shirley Temple dolls.  But the core of Christmas, the reason for Christmas, has remained the same for over two thousand years.  I need to hold onto that thought and let it guide me on my journey as the Star guided the Wise Men on their way to Bethlehem.  Merry Christmas!  And many more!

 Briviary

 

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