People often ask me if I do any “real” writing … “besides your blog, I mean,” they add.
I do … mostly short stories … most of them tied into my childhood and rural upbringing. This piece was intended for a Memoir Writing Contest, but with all of 2020’s curve balls, I set it aside and didn’t finish it up by the deadline. Somewhat ironic, given this is a year for being locked inside … a perfect formula to force writers into finishing up projects … apparently that formula doesn’t work on me tho’. (Smiley face)
The timing for getting back to this does have the perk of falling into the right season. And it’s been therapeutic right now to compare the rural life I was raised in to the one I’ve recently returned to.
Note: Some names have been changed in this. Also, I’ve decided to divide it into two parts because it’s so large for a regular blog post. Hope you will find your way to Part II (the true meat of the story)when I post it in a couple of days. A two-parter lines up with my childhood experience of listening to radio programs like The Cinnamon Bear at Christmastime … having to check back the next several nights to hear the whole thing. Promise … I won’t drag it out that long … just two parts. Enjoy … I’d love to hear your thoughts and your own memories.
Grandpa was a lot of things: handsome, a dependable farm worker, an avid hunter, and a binge drinker. He was both likable and crusty. When sober, he was respected by all, sought after. When drunk … well … my Grandmother locked him out of the house
The Christmas morning of these memories, I recall him as a smiling, laughing man. Uncharacteristically giddy, even. It was he who burst into the bedroom I shared with my sister and hurried us down the stairs, but not before stopping across the hall to lift my baby brother, stinky diaper and all, out of his crib. My older brother had much earlier made his way to the fought-over, fat, cushy, purple chair next to our tree. The tree created a great mystery because overnight it birthed a room full of sparkly wrapped packages. Julie Andrews carried on about Three Ships of Christmas morning from the record console in the corner. My brother grumbled that if “the babies would ever get up, we could get on with presents and the good stuff.
My Grandmother owns part of the memory too. At 5’4, she was a plump little round ball next to Grandpa’s half-a-foot-taller, lean mass. Like Grandpa, she was a mix of many things: a good cook, a fair gardener, fond of quirky riddles, fond of anything sweet, and a bit of a mouse. “Mouse” understates her. Whenever she was nervous she started sentences with her pet phrase, “Aren’t you afraid?” “Aren’t you afraid no one will come to the party?” “Aren’t you afraid we’ll run out of money?” “Aren’t you afraid you didn’t study enough?” “Aren’t you afraid of … well … everything.”
I can think of only a few times that Grandma appeared determined without apologizing. She insisted that she’d take any piece of chicken except “the one that went over the fence last.” Then, there was the story passed down from my mother where Grandma locked Grandpa out of the house for coming home too late and too tipsy. He had managed to drag a ladder from their shed and teetered his way to the second floor. There he found an unlocked window and passage into one of the sneezy rooms used only for storing furniture and canning jars. She locked the door to the stairwell too, and he had to bang on it the next morning, mumbling forgiveness before she let him out for his toast and coffee
This Christmas morning was one of Grandma’s “so determined” days.
“Breakfast first.” She stood unmoved at the stove with a wooden spoon in her hand
Grandpa clearly didn’t have breakfast on his agenda. He stood in the doorway between the kitchen and room full of presents, looking towards the tree with longing eyes. Grandma shifted only to move back on her heels as if they were suddenly nailed into the floor, and she tapped the spoon against her palm. I’m not sure what that signaled to her husband, but he slumped his shoulders like a pouting boy and told my brother, “Hurry up now. Wash your hands and eat something.
Oatmeal … thankfully heavily doctored with cinnamon and raisins … I hated oatmeal …and orange rolls dripping with butter frosting … the hungry yeastiness of them filling the room with such ferociousness that we forgot about unopened gifts for a moment … this was the breakfast of Christmas champions.
My parents were there, but faded into the pale and cracked plaster-coated kitchen walls. Mom took over and changed Baby Brother’s diaper, but otherwise let her parents fuss away. Dad sat in the corner, folding and unfolding lanky legs, mindlessly rotating a steaming cup of coffee with one of his hands, waiting for it to cool. He didn’t drink coffee unless he first watered it down with cold tap water, but he wasn’t going to say anything to my grandfather who had served him without his asking. With his other hand, he toyed with the button on his shirt pocket, wanting to pull out one of his hand-rolled cigarettes – a habit he’d picked up in army days – but must have figured my mom would scold him. When my grandparents weren’t around, he smoked all day long.
I don’t remember how we got into the living room, but suddenly Grandpa was in charge again and we were there, in front of the crooked pine, hauled down from the nearby Idaho forest back in the days when permits weren’t required. Plump red and orange and blue and green and yellow bulbs peeped out between the branches, throwing happy shadows of light around a room still gray at the edges from the cloud-frosted morning outside.
Toys. There were so many toys. Dolls. Metal trucks. Coloring books. Water colors. Wooden airplanes that you had to snap together. Handmade doll clothes. A two story dollhouse, open on one side so that we could reach in and arrange the little painted rooms with little plastic furniture. Building blocks. Stuffed lions and monkeys and bears. Cap guns.
And candy. Candy cane shaped tubes filled with red and green M&Ms. Ribbon shaped suckers. Red and green jellies. Foil wrapped chocolates formed into the likeness of Santa and reindeer. A box of pink peppermint bark … but this was for Grandma alone … to share only if she chose, which she always did. Round peppermints with red stripes, wrapped individually and destined to be the last candies we would eat in the weeks after the holiday, and only then, if we were desperate for something sweet. The strong peppermint scent reminded my nose of medicine.
And there were peanuts at the bottoms of our stockings.
And oranges, fat and juicy.
“You’re spoiling them, Daddy.” This was my mom to Grandpa, but the softness of her eyes said it was okay. My own dad worked hard at two accounting jobs and repairing machinery for various farmers, but money was always scarce He had talked of a slim Christmas this year, but Grandpa had other ideas. Dad shifted uncomfortably, like he wanted to say or do something, but he finally slumped back in the square-backed wood rocker and more or less relaxed. He even smiled throughout the morning, especially when he unwrapped a can of fresh tobacco and a new pipe. He looked pleased, too, when mom ooo-ed and awwww-ed over a terry cloth bath robe and lilac-scented body lotion.
Grandpa glowed like a gas station sign at midnight, arms still folded but a grin on his face. Grandma scurried around the room, crinkling her nose as she reached for the wrapping paper around our feet. “Sorry, but please, don’t rip the paper … we can use it again.” She then smoothed the rescued pieces into tiny neat squares. It was a room with three adults who had lived through something they called the Great Depression – this included my dad who was a lot older than my mom. Wasting anything became a personal insult to them.
It’s only as I write, that I realize that there were no presents for Grandpa and only the candy for Grandma, at least that I remember. Yet they seemed happier than anyone.
But this memory isn’t really about Grandpa or Grandma or those gifts … at least I don’t think it is. It’s about a little Christmas liar lurking outside of our door and her big, fat, Christmas lie that tried to ruin that wondrous Christmas morning.