Wednesday, December 21, 2011
Out Home At Christmas With Bing
It’s funny the things that trigger memories. I had a long road trip alone the other day, and decided to put my satellite radio receiver in the car on scan mode to see if I could find something interesting and different. To my surprise, I happened across a new seasonal channel called “Bing Crosby Christmas”. Yep…all Bing Christmas, all the time.
Now sleepy-eyed crooners from the 40s and 50s are not really my thing, but they definitely were my late grandmother’s (hereafter referred to as “Gram”), and Bing was her all-time favorite. Every Christmastime, she would pull out the Bing Crosby Christmas records and 8-track tapes and immerse all of her family in that voice as smooth as thick peppermint hot chocolate. So, I lingered on the “Bing Crosby Christmas” channel for a while and my mind drifted back to those Christmases way back in the 70s when I was a young kid. Specifically, I thought about the parts of Christmas spent at my grandparents’ place in the country. My parents always referred to it as “out home”.
My brothers and I were the only “local” grandkids my paternal grandparents had. All the others lived on the other end of the state, and typically spent Christmas there. We, on the other hand, lived nearby, so my brothers and I were fortunate to be able to have Christmas morning in our own home, and then go to visit my mother’s mother across town and my father’s parents on the outskirts, all in one day.
My grandparents lived in a fairly small house, and their Christmas tree always fascinated me. While ours at home was a six-foot tall goliath, at least a goliath from my young kid perspective, my grandparents’ tree was always about as tall as me, and stood on a little stand in the corner of their living room. It was never the classic Christmas tree shape, since every year it was one my grandfather cut down after wading through the snow in the woods behind their house. They used those huge multi-colored light bulbs that got very hot, with star-shaped foil heat reflectors behind them. We used to enjoy melting tinsel on those bulbs, watching it curl up like bacon. It’s a miracle the house didn’t go up in smoke with those things draped over the tree year after year, but they looked really cool. The ornaments were a typical mixture of homemade and store-bought, but they all had one thing in common: shininess. I think every one of them incorporated foil in some way. If those trees had been set in the midsummer sun, the reflection would have burned holes in your retinas. Even the garland was some sort of coiled golden thing that was springy to the touch. The silver tinsel was so thick on that tree you could barely see the ornaments or garland. It got everywhere, and we would often find strands of it around the living room all year round. On top of the tree was a small angel, which was about the only non-shiny thing on the entire structure. I never heard the story of that particular angel, but really wish I had. Where it is now, I have no idea.
Gram always bought us clothes for Christmas as kids. Gifts from her could always be located under the tree because they were soft. Both of my grandparents grew up in large, not so well-off farm families, and as a result they were always practical when it came to gift-giving. Gram knew that her grandkids would be plied with plenty of toys at Christmas from Santa Claus, our parents, and other family, so she went with needs instead of wants. Even though my brothers and I were all about toys at that young age, Gram’s gift of clothes were always appreciated by us, and not just to be nice. Somehow, it made sense to us, probably on some subconscious level, that she was giving us these things in the face of the annual toy avalanche. When we went to visit my grandparents on Christmas day every year, we always made sure we were wearing whatever she had given us. Luckily, she gave us the kind of clothes we would actually wear, like hats and gloves, socks, underwear, sweatshirts and such. No tacky reindeer sweaters or pink bunny pajamas from her. She wanted to give us stuff we would use. I found out later that she consulted with my mother closely before shopping for us, making sure she had our correct sizes and that she was getting something we actually needed. The world could use more people of her practical nature these days.
I went ice skating for the first time on one of those Christmases “out home”. I was probably no more than four or five, and it must have been a particularly cold December, because the surface of the swimming hole just down the road from my grandparents’ place was frozen solid. Some skates had been under the tree that morning, so when we went out to visit, my father shoveled off a part of the swimming hole, and my grandmother strapped the double-runner blades onto my feet. It was too cold for my mother to bring my younger brothers out, since they were just babies, and my grandfather, ever practical, was not going to budge from his rocker near the wood stove. He did make sure Gram took her camera to preserve the moment however. He’d live it vicariously with me later once the film had been developed. At first, I moved on the ice with all the grace and style of a drunken walrus. My grandmother then made a quick run up to the house to get an old wooden chair from the kitchen for me to use as support, and soon I was zipping around the frozen surface of the swimming hole like a pro.
Gram could cook like nobody I have ever known, and she always had treats ready for us, especially on Christmas. Her molasses cookies were one of the most outstanding things I have ever eaten in my life. She made them frequently throughout the year, but only at Christmas did she use her very old cookie cutters to make them into the shapes of toy soldiers, wreaths, and reindeer. As a little kid, this made one of life’s great pleasures ever greater. There were also containers with homemade donuts fried up to be just a little crispy on the edges, and a basket on the kitchen table piled high with fresh yeast rolls. The sad part to me was that my grandmother had “sugar”, better known as diabetes, and could not partake of any of the terrific goodies she whipped up for us, except for maybe an occasional yeast roll. Between her many visitors and my grandfather with his sweet tooth, nothing ever went to waste though.
When going to visit my grandparents on Christmas Day, my parents allowed each of us to take only one new toy we had received that morning to show them. This was mainly to prevent fighting and drama between us kids, and also to ease the stress on my grandfather, who loved us dearly but could only take us youngsters and our noisemakers in rationed amounts. The choice of which toys to take was always one my brothers and I took very seriously, and I recall second-guessing which one I should have brought during the whole ride out home. My grandparents always visited our house the day after Christmas to see our entire haul, but for some reason that toy taken out to show them was important. Neither of my grandparents was really plugged into kid culture, so when we showed them the latest Star Wars vehicle or radio-controlled race car, they had the same level of curiosity as an archeologist having uncovered some artifact from the sands. Their interest was genuine, so it seemed, but they had no clue as to what they were looking at, in spite of our best efforts to explain it to them. I guess there was something special about us sharing something we knew about and they didn’t with them, instead of the other way around as it usually was.
One of the things I remember most clearly about Christmas out home as a kid was the sky. We always dropped in to visit my grandparents for a few minutes on Christmas Eve after attending the early Mass at church. In spite of the volcano of anticipation for Christmas morning that was ready to erupt within me, I remember stopping between the car and front door of my grandparents’ house to look up at the sky. It looked so much bigger and closer out in the country than it did from our house in the middle of town with all the ambient light around. You felt like you could almost reach out and touch the stars. The sounds of the wind blowing through the evergreen trees in the woods just added to the aura. When I was very little, I honestly thought I would see Santa’s sleigh come over the horizon at any second. In later years, I imagined that this was exactly what the sky must have looked like for those shepherds outside of Bethlehem those many years ago just before all of those angels knocked their proverbial socks off.
It was usually dark when we left my grandparents’ house late on Christmas afternoon. As we made our way out to pile into the car, my grandmother would plug in the string of the aforementioned firetrap colored lights with which she had decorated her annual outdoor Christmas wreath. She was quite proud of that little outdoor light display, but since there was so little traffic on their country road, they only plugged the lights in when they knew someone would see it. Gram always told me to call ahead before we came to visit around Christmastime, so she could have the colored lights plugged in for us as we arrived. I remember that you could see them from far up the road if it was dark. Once we got into the house, they were unplugged, and then plugged in again when we got ready to leave. I used to watch out the rear windshield of the car for Gram to unplug the Christmas lights again when we were just about out of sight. It’s a good thing those big old bulbs were beautiful, because they were also electricity hogs in addition to being highly flammable. My grandparents’ practical nature just wouldn’t let them leave them on if no one was going to be looking at them. (I am sure my grandparents would love LED lights if they were still alive.)
And the seasonal songs of Bing Crosby were the background music to all of it. Even if Bing’s tunes weren't playing, Gram was humming or singing them, and they lodged firmly in our heads.
My grandmother has been gone for nearly seventeen years, and my grandfather nearly twelve. She would be 98 years old if she was alive today, and he would be almost 102. I still miss them, and think about them often, especially at this time of year. A big part of the reason is the memory triggers that Bing Crosby’s Christmas music provides. So the next time you hear him crooning White Christmas or any other of his holiday classics, toss up a quick prayer for my grandparents, who did so much for my brothers and me, and made our childhood Christmases even more magical in their own special way. And maybe say one for Bing too.