Stuck in the Mud Santa

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This Christmas I got carried away with my hand-made gifting. Mom called and asked me: How are you going to knit three sweaters before Christmas? And she’s a super knitter/crocheter/sewer giver! Nine pair of PJs, seven hats, and three sweaters later, Loved-One exclaimed, “You really are working your fingers to the bone!”

It must be all the cancelation that made me do it. COVID-19 sure has wreaked havoc on what I have come to expect at this time of the year. Until last night, we didn’t even have snow.

All this made me think of one of my favorite childhood memories.  One where everything seemed to go wrong.  Maybe 2020 will leave behind memories that we look back on with appreciation, if not fondness.

For my loyal readers, yes, this is a repeat story.  But wait, isn’t that true of all the best Christmas stories?

Just like any little girl, I could hardly wait for Christmas.  I studied the Sears & Roebuck and Montgomery Wards catalogs daily and made up my list for Santa.  The things I wanted could fill Santa’s sleigh up all by itself, so I knew only some of the gifts I asked for would arrive.   I marked a star by the most important ones:  A cowboy hat and a derringer just like Bat Masterson’s on Have Gun Will Travel.

I prayed for snow, ’cause how was Santa going to get to my house without snow?  The grey clouds only spilled down raindrops and the heavy frost in the morning would never do.  I knew, ’cause when I took my sled out on the frost, Mom yelled at me, “That’s going to dull the blades.  Take your sled back in the garage.”  I dragged my sled back over the grass and down the little sidewalk to the garage.

“Good Lord, that sets my teeth on edge,” Mom said covering up her ears.  How could a sound hurt her teeth? I thought, Guess that’s what happens when you get old.

I was probably selfish praying for snow, ’cause I just wanted Santa to come.  Anyways, it didn’t snow; it just got warmer, until not even frost was on the ground.  Mud was everywhere.

“When I was a little girl, Grandpa told me Santa came to houses alphabetically, and our house was last because our last name was Zyber,” Mom told me.  “That’s why some years there were just a couple of toys left in Santa’s bag.”

Holy Makerel!  At least my last name started with C.  There I was being selfish again.  All that selfishness might land me on the naughty list.

In bed at night, I heard Mom’s sewing machine whirring away like mad.  In the morning, everything was closed up tight, the sewing machine tucked down into the cabinet and not a thread in sight.  Hmm… that was super-strange.

Christmas Eve, Deanna, Bonita, and I got the biggest knee-high stocking we could find out of the odd-sock bag and hung them over a chair.  Santa came in the keyhole at our house, ’cause we didn’t have a fireplace and the chimney landed Santa in the furnace with no way out.  Mom wanted a fireplace like nobody’s business, ’cause she said our house was the draftiest thing she ever lived in and when she died she was gonna be cremated ’cause then, at last, she would be warm.

Just like always, I got down on my knees and said my prayers out loud so Mom could check me.   I was memorizing the Our Father ’cause I had to know that for First Confession along with all my sins;  Our Fathers got assigned for penance after Confession scrubbed my soul clean.  Catholics only said memorized prayers; we never made up prayers on our own, like they did over at my friend Betty’s house.

Up the stairs to bed, we went, ‘Slap the Bear’, just like always on the way up.  That’s where somebody yells “slap the bear, everybody included,” and starts slapping the hind-end of the person in front of her.  Only the first person in line had a slim chance of getting away, and of course, the last person who had nobody to slap at.  Mom probably invented that game to get us up the stairs faster than blue-blazes.

We brushed our teeth, and climbed into bed.  It was Bonita’s turn to sleep on the cot, so I cuddled up tight to Deanna to keep warm.  “Get your hair out of my face,” she said.  She hated my hair, so she drew a line down the middle of the bed with her hand, and told me to stay on my side.

“We forgot the cookies and milk,” Bonita sprung up like a jack-in-the-box, looked out the window, just in case Santa was out there on the lawn, like in that poem.

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Trees and Tinsel

Everybody has their traditions, especially around Christmas.  We had lots of baking, sewing, decorating, and making construction paper chains; and of course,  getting the Christmas tree.  I’m not sure where we got our Christmas tree when I was really little, but I sure have a lot of memories of cutting down our own; right out in the field on our farm.

Dad had a good friend from work named Don.  I was never allowed to call him Don, ‘cuz that’s disrespectful, and I had to respect my elders.  There’s no commandment about elders, just parents.  Still, my parents said I had to, so if I didn’t, it was still a sin against honoring mothers and fathers.  Anyways, I called Dad’s friend, Mr. B, cuz that’s respectful, the same thing for his wife, too, only she was Mrs. B, of course.  Anyways, Mr. and Mrs. B bought some land from Dad and built a house, and became our neighbors.  They had a son, Scott, and a daughter, Sandy.

Scott’s dad and mine got a grand idea to have a Christmas tree farm.  They hoped to sell Christmas trees someday and make a whole lot of money, then they could say, ‘money grows on trees.’ But that never happened.  For one thing, it takes a long time to grow trees, and they sorta lost interest.  For another thing, it takes a lot of tending to get good-looking Christmas trees: pruning and training the branches to grow straight, and those two dads were way too busy working overtime for Ma Bell, to be out in the field babying Christmas trees. In the meantime, Scott got asthma from drinking drain cleaner he found under the kitchen sink, and the whole family moved to Arizona where the air was easier to breathe and Mrs. B’s hair stayed as straight as a pin and never got frizzy like it did in the summer when she was our neighbor. Those are stories for a different day. This story is about Christmas trees.

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Yesterday’s Thanksgiving

The seasons seemed so long when I was a little girl.  I couldn’t wait for summer, by August it seemed like the sweltering heat would never leave and make way for fall.  Once school started, I wondered when-o-when would the snow arrive.

I jumped out of bed when it was still dark, just to see if any snow fell.  The ground was white and the willow branches sparkled stiff.  Hurray, it snowed.  My heart gave a leap in my chest and at the same time I looked at Bonita, she looked at me. 

“It snowed,” we said right together, then “You owe me a Coke,” ’cause the first one to say that, wins.  We don’t really get Coke, it’s just a game. 

Mom never buys pop, except for Vernors if somebody is sick, or when she’s making that special fruit cocktail she makes by throwing a whole bunch of different of fruit together and then pouring brandy all over it, and letting it sit for a couple of days so all the flavors blend together. Yuuummy.  

Mom scoops the fruit cocktail into a beautiful glass that looks like the kind movie stars drink from with a skinny stem that you hold with three fingers and curl your pinky out in the air.  I saw Hoss on Bonanza do that once.  He’s my favorite Cartwright brother.

Right before dinner, Mom poured some Vernors on top of the fruit, and sat one glass in the middle of each place setting.  I had to sit still, which is kinda like torture, ’cause for one thing it looks so pretty, and for another thing, the Vernors bubbles up into my nose and makes me want to sneeze and breathe in deep at the same time ’cause of all that gingery smell mixed with the juicy, fruity smell. 

I waited until the prayer was over before digging in, then I was super careful, ’cause it’s a glass-glass and a delicate glass-glass, so easy to break.  I bet you guessed already, but Mom only made that stuff on special days like Thanksgiving and Christmas, so I was all dressed up.  Another big reason to be careful and stay clean.  I was terrible at that.  Somehow I got dirty even when I tried not to.

Anyways on days when I thought the first snow fell, I got electricity going in my legs and arms, so quick as lightning I got out the door to feed the chickens and do morning barn chores.  Darn it all, nothing but a heavy frost.  The grass looked all blue-white in the dark, but it crunched underfoot like a million robin eggs got dropped from the trees.  Nothing to scuff with my toe; nothing to roll into a ball; nothing to scoop up with my mitten and taste, all crunchy-clean in my mouth.  Darn it, only a heavy frost.  Man-o-man, when was it ever going to snow.

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I looked up at the sky:  not a cloud in sight.  The Milky Way spread out above me as far as I could see and the constellations twinkled bright as Dad’s eyes did when he tried to keep a secret; only the sky was navy-blue velvet and Dad’s eyes were light-light blue. 

I only knew how to find the Big Dipper.  I looked for my name up there in the stars like St. Therese did.  Nope.  I looked back at the grass all blue-white, teasing me into thinking it snowed.  Maybe God’s a practical joker; it was time for snow to come. He knew that; He knew everything, so He knew how much I wanted it to snow.  That would be a mean joke, like Uncle Gene’s, not a funny one like Dad’s, where even if it’s not all that funny, I had to laugh ’cause of his eyes, and ’cause the corners of his mouth twitched up begging his whole face to smile and begging me to smile, too.  That made me laugh out loud, even when I didn’t get the joke.  

Well, maybe God was busy trying to feed the hungry people in China. That seemed more like the God the Sisters told me about in catechism.  I took one more look up at the heavens before I headed back to the house for breakfast.  Nope, no snow-clouds and no  “A”; just the Milky Way and bright stars all over heaven just a-giggling down at me.

Grandma told me the older she got, the faster time passed, until the seasons just blurred together.  That seemed so strange back then, but now I have that same experience.  It seems like summer just left, and now I’m getting ready for Thanksgiving and before I know it, Christmas will be here. 

Each season is alive with beauty: new growth in springtime, flowers in summer, crisp colors of fall.  Frost has its own sparkling beauty, disappears before I have my fill.   

When I was little, the seasons seemed so long, yet I missed the splendor; now that I’m older,  all that beauty just seems to slip away before I’m ready to let go.

Perhaps God does, indeed, enjoy a good joke.

Happy Thanksgiving. For most of us, it’ll be different. Maybe the most memorable of all!

Quarantine in the Old Days

All this “shelter in place” got me thinking about how diseases were back when I was a little girl.  Mostly I feel sorry for Mom because she “sheltered in place” for months at a time.

Once, when I was in kindergarten, I fell asleep during rest time.

Everybody had to bring a rug to school at the beginning of the year, and right before we left for the day, we had a 20 minute rest.  Nobody fell asleep, that was for babies.  I had a hard time even keeping me eyes shut, like I was supposed to.

Once, I did fall asleep, and the high schoolers came in a peered down at me like they wanted to say, “Dontcha know this is our room now?  Scram!”

Teacher pretty much said it for me and I high-tailed it out of there and got on my bus.  I leaned my head against the cold window and just watched the trees go by until it was my turn to get off.  For some reason, I had no interest in talking to anyone, not even Betty who was my best friend on the bus.

As soon as Mom saw me, she pulled up my dress and looked at my belly.

“Chicken Pox,” she said in that same kind of voice she has when she catches me licking the frosting off the edge of the cake before suppertime.

Mom took my temperature and covered all the bumps with calamine lotion.  Deanna had the Chicken Pox just a while ago.  She finally got to go back to school after two weeks home covered with scabby, scratchy sores.

I was in for two whole weeks of going no where until every single scab disappeared.  Man-o-man, that was the worse.  No school.  Lucky for me, Mom had Lad a Dog, from the Book

 

Mobile, and she read to me every day when the little kids were napping and I wasn’t sleeping or watching Ding Dong School or Captain Kangeroo.  Mom was the best reader in the world.  She could really make a story come alive.  When she got to the end, and Lad had to choose between the crotchety old man and the boy, we both cried.

After I got back to school, Bonita got the Chicken Pox.  She had sores all over, even in her mouth and in her front butt.  She cried and cried.  Mom did, too.  Mom read Black Beauty to Bonita. Maybe she was too young to know that was a super-duper sad book, cuz she never cried about that at all, just about how itchy and sore she was.

After Bonita healed up, Vickie broke out.  Then Loren-dee-dee-bopper, who was just a baby back then. He didn’t even know how to scratch, so he just rubbed his face around on the crib mattress and cried a lot and got snot all over his face.  He couldn’t understand any books, so Mom only sang to him and rocked him in the squeaky chair.

All that time, Mom couldn’t go anywhere.  Mrs. R brought Nancy and Doug over to play with us, so they could catch the Chicken Pox and get it over.  Mrs. S said Betty got them on her own, so she stayed home about the same time I did.

All in all, Mom stayed at home over 10 weeks.  After Julie, Frankie, Marcia, and Johnnie were born, she went through it all over again, with them.  Kids had to stay home until every single pox was gone, not just until they scabbed over.

Mom told me we all held off getting sick until the last day of incubation. “You’d think you’d all get sick at once,” she told me when I had kids of my own.

She went through the same thing with Mumps and Measles.  Each of getting sick, 10-14 days after the last one did.

“It seemed like there were years when I was in forced isolation,” she told me the other day.

The Governor proclaimed an emergency about six weeks ago.  It seems like forever.  Not to Mom.  She’s seasoned at isolation.   She reminds me that it could be a lot worse.  She lived through times when the Health Department nailed signs to houses, quarantining whole families, and their dogs.  No one could go in or out. We talked about the dire consequences of some disease, like heart disease (thematic fever,) paralyzation (polio,) sterilization (mumps,) and even death.

The Governor extended the order until the end of May.  I’m drawing on Mom’s experience and strength to get me through.  Her inspiration has served me well for most of my life.

Oh, yeah, and I’m relying on books to get me. through, too.  Right now I’m reading The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America by Ethan Michaeli and I’m listening to Andrew Yang’s The War on Normal People, recommended by my littlest brother.

 

Locked Doors

“Why do you always start the car and lock the doors before you open the garage door?” Loved-One asks me.

“It’s because of what happened to Mrs. Bowman.”

When I was a little girl, the Bowmans bought an acre of land from Dad and built a little house there. Mr. Bowman worked at Ma Bell with Dad.  Mrs. Bowman worked at Ma Bell, too, but not the way the men did.

Dad and Mr. Bowman wore Carhartts to work in the winter and drove trucks and climbed poles to fix the lines.  Sometimes they crawled under houses and down coal chutes.

Mrs. Bowman wore church dresses to work and earrings and kitten heels.  I might have thought she was going to church, ‘cept no pretty hat. You always wore a pretty hat to church.

I guessed Mrs. Bowman didn’t have any kids when she first lived next door to us, cuz I never knew a mom that worked.  Well, Mom worked, but not after she had two kids.  I heard her tell Mrs. Bowman that she tried to work when Deanna was a baby, but it was too hard.

“At work I had a calendar with a schedule, and I had things I had to do, and they got done,” I heard her tell Mrs. Bowman.  “At home, every day was a new day.  No matter how hard I try to keep things on a plan…”. Her voice got sort of lonesome. “Well, it’s just too frustrating to try to control the chaos that comes with children.”

Mrs. Bowman nodded and sipped her coffee and looked at the floor.  Maybe she tried to keep her mind and eyes off all the chaos.

I heard Mom and Dad talking about something that happened to Mrs. Bowman on her way to work.  She opened the garage door and was heading for the car when somebody grabbed her.  She managed to push him off by stabbing him with her keys.  She jumped in her car super fast and locked all the doors.  I guess it was lucky she had long arms and didn’t drive a van like we did. Mrs. Bowman was so scared she just drove off and left the garage door wide open.

“Can you imagine that happening way out here where everyone knows each other?” Mom said.

“Just goes to show, you never can tell.”

“I’m going to put another sign on the door that says, ‘There’s six kids in here and they all have the chicken pox,” Mom said.  “That’ll keep any sane person away.”

Later on, Mrs. Bowman had three kids: Scott, Sandy, and Mark.  Scott was just the same age as Loren Dee-Dee-Bopper, so come to think of it, he must’ve been a born when the Bowmans moved next door.  Scott decided to drink some Draino and got asthma from it.  Mom said he was lucky to be alive and why would a kid drink something so horrid. By the time Mark came along, Mrs. Bowman decided to stay home with all the chaos and stop working. Bonita and I were old enough to babysit whenever Mr. and Mrs. Bowman went out to the show or to the beer garden.

I liked to read Mr. Bowmans science fiction magazines after the kids went to bed. I stories gave me the heebie-jeebies, and sometimes I dreamed about pear-shaped men hanging from dead trees, like in one of the stories I read.

Bonita and Adela

Once Bonita got a phone call when she was babysitting.

“Do you want a truck?” the caller said.

“You’ll have to call back later,” Bonita said.

“I said, do you want a truck?”

“I’m just the babysitter.  You’ll have to call back later.”

“I wanna know if you want a truck.”  Bonita told me the guy was getting sorta mad.

“I can’t answer you. Call back later.”

That’s when Bonita realized the frustrated man was not saying truck, but something that rhymed with truck.  She told me she could feel all the blood drain out of her face and she hung up with a bang.

I heard Mrs. Bowman tell Mom that I was so good with her kids because I liked to play with them.  Mom said I was still a kid myself, that’s why.  I remember thinking that I was never going to forget what it was like to be a kid and playing with kids is the most fun ever. How could anyone forget what it was like to be one?

After a while the Bowmans moved to Arizona on account of Scott’s asthma.  Mrs. Bowman said the dry air was super good for her curly hair, too.  She never had the frizzies like she did in Michigan.

It’s funny how one little question Loved-one asked brought back so many memories.   Bonita and I still laugh how she frustrated an obscene caller.  I never forgot what it’s like to be a kid. (Well, maybe the tough part has faded a bit.) Loren still keeps in touch with his childhood friend, Scott.

All the tripping down memory lane got me thinking about how the things one person says and does can have impact for a long time. I’m sure Mrs. Bowman has no idea how much I remember her or how much her words and actions stuck with me.  And I’ll bet Mr. Bownman never realized that he turned one little girl into a science fiction fan.

I’ll bet neither Mom nor Mrs. Bowman would ever guess that one overheard conversation would make a little girl make a promise to herself to never forget what it’s like to be a child.

Who has an impact on you like the Bowman’s did on me?  Do you ever think about looking them up and saying thank you?