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.