Christmas Past

2015-12-22 14.58.05-2

2015

Two years ago my wife and I drove up to the Shenandoah Valley for our annual Christmas visit with my mom, Mary Ellen Townsend Harris (When Love Prevails, Kindle books).  It was the last Christmas visit we would have with her.  Mom was 104 then, and an active member of the assisted living community where she resided.

One of the things we always did with her was to reminisce.  We would remember  relatives long deceased, and recollect various Christmas occasions.  One such was during WWII when my uncle Bud, mom’s youngest brother, came to visit on leave from his Army  assignment at the Pentagon.  He was my idol.  I asked him  what he was doing to beat the enemy.  I’ll never forget his reply.  He tousled my seven-year-old hair, laughed and said, “I’m squirtin’ ink at ’em every day.”  His job was writing training manuals, but that was good enough for me.

I especially remember post-war Christmases.  My paternal grandparents had a small farm about fifty miles east of Cincinnati where the whole Harris family would gather.  Those were occasions that still reverberate in my spirit.  There would be a large evergreen tree trimmed with electric lights, ornaments, shiny aluminum icicles, and garlands of all sorts.  Grandma would be in the kitchen wearing a jolly smile and her best apron, tending a turkey in the oven.  All sorts of mouth watering aromas drifted through the house, mingled with the pipe smoke my dad and his dad conjured up in the living room.

Dad would load all our gifts in the car before we left Christmas morning, so one of the first tasks was transferring them to join the array of things already under grandpa’s tree.  I was past the Santa Claus stage, but my siblings weren’t.  Much effort was spent assuring them that Santa knew we’d be there instead of at home, so there would be gifts for all.  There always were.

I don’t recall precisely when we opened gifts, but I suspect it was before dinner.  I do remember how exciting it was.  Somehow Santa always managed to leave a toy for me that was perceived as a little beyond me, so I would have to grow into it.  “You can look, but don’t touch,” dad would announce.  “Grandpa and I will have to figure out how that works later, then we’ll show you how to use it.”

Gift sharing would yield to gathering around the table for grandma’s feast, then she and mom would be in the kitchen cleaning up and sharing stories about us kids…and whatever else.  I can still hear grandma’s laugh–a sort of twinkling chuckle–echoing through the house.  Dad and grandpa would plunge into figuring out the exotic game that was ostensibly mine, then retire out back to grandpa’s shop beside the barn to play pinochle (no kids allowed), while the rest of us took naps.

Much of mom’s time was spent there, just as it was at home, looking after the needs of my brother, Paulie, who had cerebral palsy, and my sister, “Sissy,” whose physical activities were curtailed due to a heart murmur.  I was supposed to “look after her” if she needed anything, which usually led to fights between us due to a wall of independence she built around herself.

Finally the pinochle games would end, a light supper would be served, and as darkness fell we’d head for home, exhausted, each in our own way satisfied with the events of the day.

Looking back, I was aware that Christmas was about the birth of Christ.  Mom told us the stories, and we heard them in church.  We had a cardboard manger scene that we always erected somewhere in the living room.  I knew the story of the three wise men who brought gifts to the Christ child, but I’m not sure I ever connected those gifts with the excitement that consumed most of Christmas Day at grandma’s house.

 

 

 

Joyeux Noel

Hughs Wordquilts

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319th Station Hospital, Bussac, France 1957

My first Christmas away from home came within five months of my arrival overseas at a US Army duty station where I would spend the next two years.

Arriving there culminated a disruptive series of events.  Following schooling in New York, I had served a brief stint at the Pentagon, and six months at Vint Hill Farms Station in Virginia.  I’d gone home on a pass to spend Christmas with my family in 1956.

Then came the deployment overseas to the 319th Station Hospital in mid-summer.  It was culture shock from day one.  Our flight across the Atlantic on a Flying Tiger aircraft included some serious engine problems at 20,000 feet.  My buddies and I had hardly breathed a sigh of relief at our safe landing, when we were herded onto a crowded French train.  At the end of a long ride from Paris…

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Joyeux Noel

IMG_E7309

319th Station Hospital, Bussac, France 1957

My first Christmas away from home came within five months of my arrival overseas at a US Army duty station where I would spend the next two years.

Arriving there culminated a disruptive series of events.  Following schooling in New York, I had served a brief stint at the Pentagon, and six months at Vint Hill Farms Station in Virginia.  I’d gone home on a pass to spend Christmas with my family in 1956.

Then came the deployment overseas to the 319th Station Hospital in mid-summer.  It was culture shock from day one.  Our flight across the Atlantic on a Flying Tiger aircraft included some serious engine problems at 20,000 feet.  My buddies and I had hardly breathed a sigh of relief at our safe landing, when we were herded onto a crowded French train.  At the end of a long ride from Paris to Bordeaux I was ready to get settled at an up-to-date army post, hopefully someplace like Vint Hill Farms.  It was not to be.

In Bordeaux I was shuffled with another guy into the back of a deuce-and-a-half truck for a 35-mile ride to Bussac in the middle of the night.  I was dropped off on a rough-surfaced street with board sidewalks.  I reported to the CQ in a tarpaper shack that was company headquarters.  Then I was assigned a bunk in a plaster and straw building that had been a German Luftwaffe barracks during WWII.  That night the two years remaining in my enlistment seemed like an eternity.

I’d hardly gotten adjusted to the new setting and routines when the first sergeant reminded everyone  that if we wanted to send Christmas cards and gifts home, we had to have them crated and ready in early October!  I’d never thought about Christmas in October!  It seemed the holiday that had always been a warm fuzzy family time back home would become a dismal sulk in rainy southern France.  

This was in the days before smart phones, tablets, laptop computers, and the internet.  People didn’t connect with the flip of a digit.  Arrangements were made for a special transatlantic telephone call from somewhere on post–but a lot of guys signed up, and if we got through at all, it was only for a few brief moments.  It was depressing.

So, when Christmas finally arrived, I discovered a tradition in our unit that transformed my expectations.  It became a joyful experience.  Our unit hosted a group of boys from a nearby Catholic orphanage for Christmas dinner with all the trimmings, carols, and gifts.  Everybody got into the act.  It turned out these kids were part of a boys choir.  After we took them back to the orphanage, we stayed for a stirring concert of Christmas music.

Joyeux Noel–Merry Christmas!

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French Orphanage

We gave those boys something that seemed small to us, but was tremendous for them.  The experience shook me out of my self-focused musings into a larger sense of where I was and the opportunities I had to help make life better for others…even overseas.  We did this each of the two Christmases I was in Bussac, and each was a very special time I have always remembered.

Joyeux Noel!  Christmas is about the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ.  It’s about God reaching into a flawed human world with an ever-fresh message that His love prevails.  Christmas gives fresh birth to hope, joy, peace and the higher stirrings of the human spirit.  It pulls us together, reaffirms the value of our lives, and offers an inner reconnect with God himself. 

We do wrap the holiday in other traditions, and its easy to get side-tracked with the wrappings, and miss the central event.  We can all get lost in that side of Christmas.  When I feel that happening, I remember a group of orphaned French boys who were thrilled with a Christmas treat offered by some American soldiers…and then thrilled us with the true Joy of the season through their music.

Joyeux Noel.

  

 

 

Like Making a Quilt

Hughs Wordquilts

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Mom was a quilter.  In my book about her life (When Love Prevails, Kindle Store) I recall her experiences with her Grandma Mary when she was a girl.  Quilting was one of the things she learned from her, and mom became known for her quilts later in her life.

Whenever my wife, Sharon, and I would visit her at the Bridgewater Retirement Community, mom would always show us the latest quilt she was creating.  Many of her quilts were auctioned at the annual Fall Festival to raise auxiliary funds.  She practiced this craft even after she lost much of her vision through macular degeneration.  Her fingers, and her memory became substitutes for her eyes.

One thing I learned about her was that she really was an artist with her quilting.  Gathering odds and ends of fabric, varieties of colors, sometimes containing images or designs, she would piece together a quilt…

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Like Making a Quilt

IMG_4033

Mom was a quilter.  In my book about her life (When Love Prevails, Kindle Store) I recall her experiences with her Grandma Mary when she was a girl.  Quilting was one of the things she learned from her, and mom became known for her quilts later in her life.

Whenever my wife, Sharon, and I would visit her at the Bridgewater Retirement Community, mom would always show us the latest quilt she was creating.  Many of her quilts were auctioned at the annual Fall Festival to raise auxiliary funds.  She practiced this craft even after she lost much of her vision through macular degeneration.  Her fingers, and her memory became substitutes for her eyes.

One thing I learned about her was that she really was an artist with her quilting.  Gathering odds and ends of fabric, varieties of colors, sometimes containing images or designs, she would piece together a quilt that told a story.  Some of the story might be things or people  each piece of cloth brought to her mind.  My brother and I are both visual artists, and we got it honestly–our talent comes from the same genetic well that resourced mom’s quilting.

In recent years I have turned to writing as a primary artistic venture.  Crafting a novel is much like crafting a quilt, or a painting.  Novels are made up of bits and pieces of life that flow from people, circumstances, places and experiences over the years.  When I embarked on my fourth novel (a work in progress at the moment), my muse presented me with a story that turns around a mountain community instead of the seacoast.  “Dinkel Island Smalltalk” didn’t seem inclusive enough now, so I expanded my WordPress blog site into a new domain:  Wordquilts.com.

Writing a book, whether a novel or nonfiction, is like making a quilt.  I’m in the early stages of the new novel now, but I have a theme, and a design, and lots of pieces of life to work with.  I even have a current social issue around which to wrap my story.  The title may change as the wordquilt comes together, but for now it’s titled, “Fear No Evil.”

I’m excited!  Can’t wait to see how this wordquilt comes out!