Posted by: Jim E | December 21, 2011

Christmas Past…My Past…Maybe It Will Touch Yours…

I wrote this for Christmas 2002…it was before my Mom died in 2004…you will see the importance of that fact as you read…I re-post this because all of us have a Christmas past…this is a little of my past, where I grew up and just a peek into that time of my life…

All of us have had many Christmases…and hopefully this will make you think of your Christmas past…and what is important as we go through “this” Christmas season…may you have a blessed Christmas as we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ…the “good tidings” or “good news” of that first Christmas night…enjoy…

The Christmas I describe is past…my past…and most of the significant people of my youth are now gone…in one way that seems strange…in another it seems comfortable…like it should be…

My Grandparents on both sides are gone…Grandma Elmquist who gave us oyster dressing, and passed the recipe on to Mom…and Grandma Reggin, the prolific baker, who passed on her Hungry Boy cookie recipe…are gone…as well as both Grandfathers and my Dad…Mom, in her 82nd year, is living in a nursing home…and even though she still knows us…she has little remembrance of her present or her past…and for someone who loved Christmas as she did, that day will be like any other day…and that seems to me to be sad and a bit unfair to that wonderful woman…

Life moves on in it’s own way…beyond our control, beyond our understanding…and because it is so…our past grows in much the same way…it builds upon itself, year after year…and the memories of many Christmases layer together is such a way, that they almost seem to become one…or at least become difficult to separate…only made special when thoughts like this come to mind: “our first Christmas together”…”after we moved to”…” the first year in our new home”…”our first child’s Christmas”…”the year Grandma died”…and a myriad of other touchstone moments in time…those may make a particular Christmas special…but other than that, they seem to just run together…and that is okay…because that is how traditions are born…So my picture of the past will be different than others who where there…that’s because it is my memory…a memory slightly affected by my feelings about those years…I will tend to tell the story as I saw it…and mingled with the truth will be some of the emotion I have about what I experienced as a child…so what was many Christmases, I will view as one…Christmas Past…

My memory of Christmas always comes from the “basement house”…I know we lived in a few other places…but I only really remember the basement house…it’s where most of my growing up years happened…”What a place to have Christmas!” most would say today…but to my folks, brothers and I, it was what we had…

After the war (WWII) Dad and Mom built the basement house…there was to be a house on the top of it “someday”…but that day never came…there was a walkout basement door and inside Mom did the best she could…we had no pumbing…Oh, we had cold water running under the ground from Grandma and Grandpa Reggin’s, who lived next door but no hot water…no sewer, water ran in the sink and into a pail under the sink, that had to be emptied when it filled (yes, outdoors, in what we called, the alley, behind the shed, in the back yard…in the winter the ice would really build up)…there was no bathroom…we had an outhouse…(and at 30 below you didn’t take much time doing your thing)…Mom made the best of things…her cupboards were mostly wooden apple boxes of the time…painted and attached to the walls…she made curtains for the front of those cupboards and shelf paper on the shelves…there were two bedrooms…walls were made of 2 by 2′s with cardboard stapled to the wood…it was painted and later wallpapered to make it look better…there were no doors on the rooms but curtains that Mom made…the rest of the basement was open…the large gas furnace was in the corner of the open room…a couch, a couple of chairs…and in the kitchen area a refrigerator, a stove and a table and chairs…

This was our home..and Mom made it so…in all the years I have known my Mother, I never once heard her complain about her situation or the house she never had…I have asked myself many times how she could be content…but she surrounded herself with her family…her Mom and Dad…and others in the neighborhood and extended family who depended on her to keep their world together..she celebrated Christmas all year round…

As cook in the local school district and brought up in the depression…she could not throw out food…she brought home leftovers and gave them to neighbors who had a need..and there were many…most were no better off than we were…Mom took after her Dad…(during the depression Grandpa was one of the few that had work and he shared in many ways in that neighborhood with those who did not have jobs)…I remember when I was growing up, neighbors telling me about how “great” my Grandpa was…he was my hero…still is!!!…(simple things made him great…he took care of his family…his neighbors…and his integrity, honesty…he left a legacy with me)…

At Christmas time, Mom made it special…we never had a lot of gifts but that is not what made it special…it was planning for the season…my Dad was not around much during my growing up years…alcohol consumed most of his time and most of the money at our house…Christmas to him was just another time to drink…Mom had to do the best at Christmas without much money…we would go out with my Grandparents to get the tree (we didn’t have a car)…it kind of reminds me of the movie “A Christmas Story”…no real choice in trees…but when we got it home, Mom would get out the lights and ornaments…she would put on the lights…we put on the ornaments (she later moved them to a better spot)…and then the fun came..tinsel in our hands became a disaster on the tree…mom would try to get us to take our time and put it on nicely…it never worked, that took too much time…so it got real thick in spots!!!…and throwing it at the tree made it more artistic to us…in any case, it always turned out “just right”…

On Christmas Eve we walked to church a few blocks away…the crunch of snow and the cold nights gave us a special feeling about that special night…at church we heard again the story of how God sent His Son to earth at Christmas time…and after, we always got candy and nuts…the ribbon candy and other hard candies…I really don’t know if we ever ate it…but it was fun to get it…as we walked home we would see the Christmas trees lit in the neighbors windows…it was almost a dream sequence in the dark, with the only light reflecting off the white of the snow…

We always visited Jim and Mary Burton on Christmas Eve…they were a elderly couple who Mom had been taking care of for years…and did so until they died…we brought them some small things for gifts…cookies, candy, a handkerchief…just small things…they were so thankful and we talked for some time…their home was dark and the furniture was overstuffed and old…clocks filled the house…all of them wind up type…and the sounds of the clocks fill the place…and in the glow of the small lighted tree, we sat there mesmerized by the stories of their past and the countries they came from…Jim from England…Mary from Norway…

We then stopped at my Grandparents house and there was always something special to eat…pickled herring, cheese, summer sausage and crackers, cookies and on and on…when it was the appropriate time we went next door to go to bed…in the basement house…but we didn’t go to sleep right away because later, Uncle George would stop in and talk with us…and we never wanted to miss it…he was funny, told stories and joked with us…it was part of our Christmas…(on Christmas Day morning, we would always go out to their house and see what they got for Christmas…I didn’t remember anything they got…kind of like us, it probably wasn’t much…but what I remember is just going there…talking, seeing the cousins, laughing and eating ham sandwiches…cutting our own ham off this huge ham in the kitchen…that was a big deal)…

We always got up early on Christmas…5:00 was not out of the question…Mom would try and talk us out of it…but she gave in quickly…Dad was another story…(he always suffered from a hangover that would put an ox to his knees)…but slowly he got up to see all that was going on…we had stockings filled full of “stuff”…fruit, (and who ate that?)…candy, small things…then it was opening the gifts…I don’t remember one gift I got…as I look back I guess that was not the important thing…it was Christmas and that’s what was important…it always has been…

All the while Mom was over putting together the Christmas dinner…turkey, oyster dressing, sage dressing, cranberry salad, gravy, vegetables, rolls, pies…and so much more…a feast…and plenty of leftovers…it was Christmas…and it was always special…

Those were simpler times, I know…but they were times that are still a part of me today…some of the traditions we still practice…some have changed…and I miss some parts of that time…I miss Grandparents, I wished I had known them better…Jim and Mary Burton…our small little church…my Dad…

And Mom, the one who made it happen for so many…for our family and so many around that neighborhood…I wish she could still remember, so we could talk of those times…that we could laugh, cry and remember together that wonderful time of life…the layer upon layer that has become my Christmas Past…

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Responses

  1. What wonderful memories and stories, Jim. This season brings the memories on, for sure! Thank you for sharing, giving us all a glimpse into the past, and have a great Christmas and a Happy New Year!

    • Thanks W.S….hope your Christmas is wonderful…enjoyed with those you love…and, as always, building new memories…Jim E


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