Christmas day has always been the day that my internal personal calendar pivots on. I tend to look back on my life and ask what was going on around Christmas when I was 6, or 16. Hanging an ornament on the tree may trigger a trip down memory lane. Just like in the motor coach, the trip may not always be a great one.
There are so many memories washing about in my head. Putting them down "on paper" is not all that easy. Some come out bright and fresh, others faded and worn. All become more comfortable with time.
When I hang one of the handmade clothespin people on the tree, whether it is the fireman or the nurse or one of the Three Kings, I remember Charlotte, North Carolina, and the third Christmas that Diane and I celebrated as husband and wife. She was three months pregnant with our first daughter, sick every morning and even though both of us were working we were always broke. That Christmas we sat in our little living room in front of our little color TV with snack trays watching the Waltons while painting clothespin people to hang on our very dry Christmas tree. We could hear the needles falling off that tree that we bought on sale at some gas station. It lasted about six days. I dragged that stark naked tree out the back door on New Year's Eve, leaving behind a thick trail of needles leading to the living room.
The white round glass ornament that has Silent Night etched on it is as old as me. My parents mailed it along with a couple of other antique glass ornaments and a string of bubble lights to Diane and me in time for our very first Christmas. We, along with our two kittens, were living in an old house in downtown North Wilkesboro, North Carolina. We had been married two months and, well, we were as poor as the field mice that shared our home with us. The house was two floors and we lived on half of the bottom floor and all of the second. Our main source of heat was an old oil burning circulator in front of the bricked up living room fireplace. It was cold our first Christmas and we barely had enough extra money for kerosene for the burner; there was nothing for a tree.
My uncle Jonah, who lived up in the Blue Ridge on his apple farm, heard that we were in need of tree assistance. He telephoned us and said he had one we could cut down and take home. So we made the nine-mile trip up the mountain in our old Chevy II to get our first Christmas tree. We arrived somewhat early evening; the sun was starting to set over a line of 25-foot-tall cedar trees that grew beside my Grandmother's old farmhouse. No one lived in the house and Jonah was using it for storage. Jonah was standing there armed with a large handsaw. I figured a walk in the woods was needed to find a tree, some kind of pine, most likely.
"Well, there it is," Jonah said while pointing to the first cedar on the left, closest to the house.
"What?" I said. "You are going to cut down that tree, it's hugh!"
"Just the top," he said with a laugh. "Up the ladder you go, and you will need this."
He handed me the saw and pointed to a somewhat hidden 20-foot wooden ladder leaning against the tree. I looked up at the perfectly shaped top of the cedar. I could see that it would make a great Christmas tree, but I couldn't let Jonah disfigure this beautiful cedar that had been growing there for so long and I told him so.
"I have to top them every couple of years, because they put out rust that's bad for my apples," he said. He went on to explain that it was a spore that was harmful to his apple crop and that the tree would not produce any if he cut it back.
Gratefully, I climbed the ladder with the saw and took off the top 10 feet of the tree.
Jonah and I tied it to the top of our car. It was almost as long as the car itself. It wasn't the easiest trip down the mountain, but we made it. Once home, I carried into our old formal dining room, removed the bottom foot of the tree so it would not hit the roof, placed it in an old Christmas tree stand that I found in the attic, added some water, moved it in front of the floor-to-ceiling window. We decorated it, and then stepped back for a look. It had a few strings of lights -- the old-fashioned big bulb kind -- and one string of bubble lights, a few glass ornaments, some ribbon ornaments that Diane had been making for awhile (with the hope of getting a nice tree), along with some tinsel. At the top was one of our cats.
Diane and I standing there, hand in hand, agreed that it was the prettiest tree we had ever seen.
The baked cookie ornaments on our tree were created for a special family Christmas that took place in Martinsburg, West Virginia in 1980. My aunt Hazel invited all of her family and her husband's family to spend the Holidays in a very large two story unheated garage. No one was allowed to bring any store bought decorations or presents. Everything had to be home made, the things hanging on the tree, under the tree and on the dinner table. Sounds like fun, right? It was.
There was close to thirty of us inside that garage. It was four degrees outside, while we camped in the basement on mats and sleeping bags. We stayed warm by a pot-bellied wood burning stove, until my sister Kam let it go out. Then we fired up a bullet heater and pointed it at the cinder block grease pit until the blocks turned red. It provided enough heat to keep the place above freezing, but a lot of odor and noise at the same time.
Dad and I hunted for a tree in the woods surrounding the garage. We found a nice Juniper, cut it down hauled it back to the garage and suspended it from a beam into a bucket of soon frozen water. Diane, our girls and cousins, strung cranberries and popcorn. They also blew eggs and painted them. The tree looked quite old fashioned by the time they finished manufacturing and hanging their hand made ornaments.
Christmas morning there was lots of food for breakfast, even more for dinner, that didn't need to be refrigerated, not in the conventional manner anyway. We ate a lot; we sang songs, told stories and had a grand old time.
I took a bunch of kids to visit Harper's Ferry. All of us froze but nobody cared. That adventure was the icing on a wonderful Christmas cake. It was a very unique time that no one who was there will ever forget.
Just a couple of nights ago, my father and I were talking about that West Virginia Christmas and other ones as well. He reminded me that the three Shiny Brite glass ornaments that Diane and I have were part of a set that my parents bought in 1952 while in the Navy and stationed in Jacksonville Florida. I don't know anything about that Christmas, I wasn't there. Most of my early memories are a blend of little thoughts and feelings mixed with some things that have happened. Christmas dinner on base in Norfolk, parties where there were lots of Marines in uniform, trips to downtown Norfolk to look at window displays at Smith and Welton's Department Store and while there waiting in a very long line to visit Santa.
If you have watched the Parker Family in A Christmas Story, you know what I mean. As a side note my Mom had a hard time getting my little brother to eat also.
There is one Christmas memory that is very vivid. I think I may have been eight or nine, my brother Rodney four or five, so it could have been in 1961 or 62. We were living in a little two bedroom, one bath bungalow in the Ocean View section of Norfolk, Virginia, not far from the Norfolk Naval Base.
We did what we usually did on Christmas Eve; we boys would put on our jammies and then the all of us would pile into our yellow Chevy Bel-aire and take a drive on base to see the Christmas lights on the ships. It was an impressive sight. Each ship had hundreds of lights strung from the bow to the highest point on the ship, and then to the stern and there were more than a hundred ships. It was so beautiful it hurt to look at them.
After cruising by the ships, it was home for hot chocolate, the reading of the Christmas Story from The Gospel of Luke, prayers that God and Santa would both be good to us and then to bed for what little adrenaline laced sleep we could get.
This particular Christmas eve, Dad and I did something special before I hit the sack. We fried a hamburger and made a sandwich for a nighttime visitor. Dad said that he figured Santa might need something more substantial than more milk and cookies. We placed it on a white plate, along with a tall glass of iced tea on the living room coffee table.
Early the next morning, Rodney and I dashed into our little living room. The tree with its glass ornaments and big lights was all ablaze. We found lots of toys and goodies spread all over that small space. My brother with an excited yell, rushed over to an electric toy car wash. It came with a number of cars and it wasn't long before he figured out how to run them through the wash, brushes turning and water spraying.
I found myself becoming the new proud owner of a shiny black and red Murray Paper Boy Bicycle. It had a carrier on the back wheel with a spring catch and a big wire basket in the front. That bike thrilled me. I would not get that excited about a vehicle again, not until Diane and I found ourselves inside our first Motor Home.
In the middle of the room was a large Radio Flyer Red Wagon. The wagon was lined with some kind of gray egg carton like packing material. On top of that was a white plate with a half eaten Hamburger and an empty glass. What can I say? To a believer like me that was quite a sight to see.
It was a great Christmas. Things would change however. It would not be long before I would be forced to grow up and look at future Christmas days from a more mature perspective.
A couple of days before Christmas 1966, we packed up the old antique glass tree decorations and drove from Norfolk to Denton, North Carolina to be with my grandfather.
My grandmother had died from a cerebral hemorrhage just a few short months before. I understood my mother's desire to be with her father on Christmas, but being the immature thirteen year old that I was I didn't want to make the trip. This was to have been the second Christmas in our new home in Norfolk, and I looked forward to being with my friends, having a big tree and just enjoying all the other things that we normally did. The thing that bothered me the most was that I was told that we would be taking presents with us for my sisters, but that left no room for anything for us boys. We would have to wait till we got back to have our Christmas gifts.
My youngest sister was only a couple of months old. She was only eight days old when we made a quick trip so that my ill grandmother could see her. Penni Creola was named after my grandmother and we hoped that she would give our Memaw a bit of a spark. The visit didn't help. Memaw never realized that we were even there. We made the trip home and it was not long before we had to make a return trip for her funeral.
So, now we were on our way for the third time is as many months. It wasn't an easy trip under the best of circumstances, so it didn't help that I moped the whole way down, plus Penni was carsick most of the way.
Once there Dad had a talk with me. He explained that Papa, my grandfather was lonely and ill, and he really needed our company. He told me we could still have a good Christmas, that it was time to give and receive love, and not worry about things that were not under the tree. I thought about his words for awhile and then I figured I was thirteen and it was time to grow up a bit, so I agreed to do what he said, I would make the best of it.
Dad and I went tree hunting. This was something I liked to do. We couldn't find a suitable one on Papa's property, but just over a ditch that divided Papa's land from his neighbor's, and next to a barbed wire fence was a pretty, seven foot tall, cedar. Dad took a look at it and said that it would do just fine. So, technically, I guess we stole a tree. We also managed to knock a big bunch of mistletoe out of a large tree with a good size rock. We took our prizes home and started our Christmas.
We hung some of Papa and Memaw's ornaments on the tree, plus some tinsel and our old set of Shiny Brites went on the tree as well. Dad asked me to help play Santa and set out the Fisher Price toys for the girls. By this time we were all beat and so, without a Christmas Eve trip to see the lights on the ships, we went to bed.
I lay awake for quite awhile, thinking about the table top hockey game and the clothes and the long play albums that I had on my list, none of which I would see tomorrow morning. I also thought about my agreement to make the most of it. So I prayed to the Lord that I would remember what the day was really all about and asked him to help me to grin and bear it. I closed my little prayer with a thank you and good night. I figured that I would be doing more bearing than grinning and so I didn't have that child-like anxious anticipation that I usually had so many Christmas eves.
The next morning I woke and quietly made my may to the living room to find my sister and brother playing on the floor with her new toys. The window behind the tree looked out on Papa's yard. I was shocked to see something I didn't expect to see at all.
The ground, the bushes, the trees, they were all covered with snow and it was still falling. I was looking at my first and to this day....the only White Christmas I have ever seen.
I grinned and made the most of it. My cousins came over with gifts, and food. We had snowball fights, built a snowman and had a good time. It was a blessed Christmas and a few days later we made our way back to Norfolk. Upon arrival I found a table top hockey game on my bed. Dad told Kam that Santa must have not known we were going to North Carolina and delivered it to the wrong place.
I didn't say one word. I just made the best of it.