An Unexpected Guest; High Jinks and Hilarity
When I was 11 I experienced a Christmas I’ll never forget.
It started on a night when the entire family (aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents) had gathered at our house for a rare celebration of Christmas on Christmas Eve; … (the air crisp and cold, the sky crystal clear, snow the size of fat cotton balls falling on a soft white blanket sparkling like diamonds each flake reflecting a different star, … when my grandfather, who worked for the Grand Trunk Railroad, brought a lady home from Canada who had become stranded at the depot with no place to go or sleep that Christmas Eve. after blizzard conditions forced cancellation of passenger train service to Chicago.
The addition of a stranger in our midst added an air of excitement to the festivities. Knowing rules would be more lax in her presence, we gave little effort toward restraining our laughter and sense of mirth reveling in the joy we created as our Christmas gift for her.
I can still see her sitting in the blue ‘Naugahyde’ chair next to the fireplace her head thrown back, mouth wide open laughing along with all of us after Uncle Bill, while bouncing around on a pogo stick in the middle of the living room lost his balance knocked over a lamp then rolled over onto the shade while trying to stand up.
Up In Flames
This was the same year several of my cousins gifts; pajamas and other girly things, went up in flames after they were accidentally gathered up with all the Christmas wrappings and thrown into the fireplace.
Everyone was sympathetic while she cried. My brother and I thought it was hilarious.
This was also the year my dad decided that, since we were hosting more people than usual, we’d have a traditional roasted pig with an apple in its mouth for dinner on Christmas Day.
Our oven wasn’t big enough to slow cook a whole pig all day so a baker named Mr. Gregory who lived downtown above Gerry Gregory’s Bakery gave us permission to use his big gas fired oven with rotating shelves. to slow cook the pig.
Shortly before sunrise Christmas morning with temperatures well below freezing, we parked in the alley behind the bakery. We used a key to let ourselves in. The big oven was located several feet from the back door.
Mr. Gregory, who baked bread every morning starting at four a.m. didn’t mind getting up early, even on Christmas Day, to light the big oven so that by seven a.m. when we arrived it would be preheated.
What a surprise when we opened the oven door! Warm dry air flowed over our face and hands like a desert wind instantly warming us. A startling reminder of how cold it was a few feet away outside the door behind us.
An electric motor attached to a chain moving over a metal sprocket turned the shelves around the blue flames hissng through b.b sized holes along a metal tube the width of the oven.
Our pig rested on a square cast iron skillet with curled edges so that the juice wouldn’t leak inside Mr. Gregory’s oven AND to capture the juice that my grandmother would use to make her delicious gravy that soon, I’d be spooning over my mom’s mashed potatoes.
After turning the motor off we lifted the pig onto the shelf where my dad used a wooden bakers ole to slide the cast iron skillet into the center close, but not too close to the blue flames.
Before leaving we turned the motor on, locked the back door and drove home but every two or three hours we’d return, park out back to check on its progress.
The dining table was big enough to comfortably seat ten people: one aunt, one uncle, two girl cousins, a grandmother, a grandfather, a brother and mom and dad and our guest from Canada.
My dad carved the meat into chunks of meat that were so tender they fell apart when served. A combination of flavors filled the air making my mouth water. I finally understood what “melts in your mouth” means.
My grandmother’s gravy formed golden pools on top of my mom’s creamy smooth mashed potatoes.
We ate scalloped corn and scalloped oysters, fresh green beans quick fried in bacon fat with sautéed onions crumbled pieces of bacon tossed with apple vinegar and a touch of sugar.
My grandfather ate mint jelly with his meat. My cousins, my brother and I drank tall glasses of milk, my grandparents drank black coffee while the parents drank red wine.
For desert there was apple and pecan pie (my favorite). Each year my dad made a creamy rich sauce in a double boiler from butter, sugar and an egg that made even fruitcake taste good.
We had mince meat pie made from the venison of a buck my dad shot during deer season.
My grandmother made a fake apple pie that everyone raved about before telling us it was made from Ritz Crackers.
While we ate, the adults kept us entertained with funny or interesting stories about growing up or daily life.
We relived Uncle Bill’s accident with the pogo stick. Each of us told what we saw from different points of view. Everybody’s story was different but they were all the same! We laughed harder with each re-telling.
My brother said it looked like Uncle Bill was shot from a cannon when he flew into the table knocking over the lamp.
The lady from Canada told us her sister lives in Chicago where she worked as a bookkeeper at the Chicago stockyards and that she lived in Thunder Bay, Ontario where she booked fishing expeditions on the Alcona Railroad into the Canadian bush country.
Grandma and grandpa told how they met at the annual county fair during a band concert. They talked about how hard they had to work growing up on farms 10 or 15 miles from town back when there were few cars, tending the big family garden, canning fruits and vegetables all sumer long, stocking up for the long cold winters, caring for the farm animals seven days a week, gathering hay before hay ‘balers’’or harvesting corn by implements that seem ancient today. All of this plus there was no electricity or indoor plumbing.
My mom and Aunt Jo remembered the beautiful costume dresses my grandmother made for them when they entertained gatherings at different towns, counties and around the state. They relived their experience of riding the train to Chicago to tap dance on a popular radio program.
Uncle Bill told us another funny story about a pet crow he trained to perch on his arm while he fed it red cherries from a tree in his back yard.
Each time the crow ate a cherry, a pit from a previous cherry popped out of its butt! Nobody believed the story until I told them it was true because I saw it happen!
I have many boyhood memories from Christmases past but, they are all separate episodes.
There was the Christmas Eve I rode around town with my dad leaving turkeys on the doorsteps of families not as fortunate as ours.
There’s a partial memory I have as a very young boy walking down the aisle at the Congregational Church cradling my favorite gift, a white football that l gave to some less fortunate boy or girl.
Then there’s the year I got the second best gift ever (the first being a new bicycle) a new pair of black figure skates with runners that, as my dad pointed out, were made of Sheffield Steel.
Next morning too anxious to wait any longer I grabbed my new skates, snuck out the back door before breakfast, headed for the ice pond a block and a half away where I skated in a magical world devoid of human movement or sound carving out figure 8’s any size I wanted. I was free to skate as fast as I wanted before turning to dig the teeth at the front of my skates into the ice spewing chips curling away on both sides like fractured waves before stopping on a dime.
All the Christmas memories are special. But, the year we celebrated Christmas Eve by opening our house making the Canadian lady part of our family was special maybe because we gave her a place to sleep when there were no rooms at the inn … Her presence was much a gift to us as our inclusion of her into our family was for her.
She brought to us a spark that released extra measures of laughter and joy. By her presence she caused us to be the best people we could be; more full of love and giving than were she not in our midst. i
Her presence gave proof that giving to others is as much a gift to the giver as it is to the receiver which, isn’t this the true meaning of Christmas?
By the time she left on the passenger train to Chicago she had become a part of us and we were part of her. She still lives inside otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to write this wonderful story!
Funny how it turns out that THAT Christmas is the only Christmas I can still clearly remember from beginning to end.
My Christmas wish is that we be united by the knowledge that we ALL share special memories of Christmas because memories are all we have and Christmas memories are the best. May we re-live them with renewed appreciation while adding more wonderful Christmas memories this year .
As Tiny Tim said, “God bless us every one.”
Merry Christmas 2017