Some More Christmas Memories...

One of my earliest is lodged in the glorious scent of a freshly cut tree,  of being small enough to wriggle under its lowest branches and gaze upward through the maze of needles and see the colored lights cast their annual glow upon the many ornaments and the carefully hung, slender, shiny lead icicles.  

I had little to do with the whole business. Dad brought the tree home, fetched a galvanized 12-quart bucket full of wet sand and, with a trowel, dug a socket in which the trunk would rest for the next two or three weeks. The bucket lasted until its bottom rusted out in the ‘50s.

About gifts in those days:  In the waning years of the Great Depression, most gifts were inexpensive and practical. Just as the young Capote complained, my Bro, Stan, and I were disappointed when opening a deceiving box, which held nothing more than socks or underwear.  (Bah!)  

Money was still tight. My doctor father often accepted crates of oranges, gunny sacks of firewood, and dressed chickens or rabbits in lieu of payment for his services. That rabbit somehow went out of fashion: Mom fried it Southern style, and, as the old line goes, it tasted just like chicken.

When we were older, Dad turned us into holiday entrepreneurs.  Among his numerous backcountry patients was a dairyman named Walker, whose grazing land included the San Diego River bed, where sycamores grew, and, in them, so did mistletoe. We had permission to open (and close) certain gates and work at bringing home a trunk full of the juice-dripping parasite that, perforce, causes humans to kiss one another when caught standing under a sprig. We would set up shop on the sidewalk, near our back door.

Mom had bought a spool of narrow red ribbon, and we’d tie small bunches together for our annual (and sometimes, puzzled) customers.

“Wouldja like ta buy some mistletoe?”  

Response: “What’s mistletoe?”

We: “Well, ya hang this up over a doorway, and when someone stands under it, someone else can kiss ‘em.”  

The (usually male) customer:  “Oh, boy, I’ll take a bunch!”  

Most women understood the very green leaves and the sticky berries and also bought a bunch, simultaneously thinking of husband or boyfriend, as well as a favorite aunt or uncle.  It was just good, clean holiday fun.  After each sale, a quarter landed in our cash can, providing funds for small gifts.

As for Christmas shopping, Mom was the purchasing agent, and, since there was a good deal of Dad’s Illinois family in San Diego by then, it was not just buying, but also wrapping and all the attendant chores, cards, tags, etc.  

Dad’s shopping was pretty much limited to gifts for Mom.  Since he had been incurably smitten with Mary Oakley from the start, and had almost lost her to TB in l936-7, he settled for nothing less than an abundance of Christmas gifts for her, and at other times, as well.

We never knew when he shopped, but there would, every year, come a night when Stan and I would accompany him the few steps back to the office, where, Capote might say, we worked in a wonderful conspiracy. Dad would bring out Mom’s gifts, which were stashed in various closets and cabinets.  He also had wrapping paper and ribbon and colorful stickers we got to lick and apply to ends of packages, as he held the paper.  

For the “Big” gift, he had made a very large “tag,” which would be attached to that worthy package, and it became an annual fixture.  On plain white cardboard, he had lettered, “For the” (and next to that was a queen from an old card deck), followed by, “From her” (and he had pasted three Jacks, representing her “Men.”  

When all our work was done, the three of us would return to the house and distribute the deluge all ‘round the tree. Christmas l947 would involve a ride in the ’39 Chevy back to Dad’s office, since we had moved to Grossmont Mountain the month before.  Because the folks’ friends had a hard time finding us at first, Mom was secure in the knowledge that most weekend and nighttime patients would have to find other help or wait for an appointment.

For my part of it, the BIG BONUS at our new location was a small workshop, a good distance from the house, complete with bench and electricity, and, it was all mine!

I didn’t need anything else for Christmas, and, for the next seven  years, it would be my hangout, while Bro had our summerhouse bedroom to himself. I just slept there.

The shop afforded me an opportunity to MAKE a gift for Mom, and that was very exciting. The former property owner was an employee of the Nuttall-Styris Boatyard in San Diego, and he had brought home various pieces of fine hard and soft woods, among which I found some S4S heart redwood, originally 1” X 6”, but reduced to a half-inch thickness.

Seeing this small treasure, I began to think about what I could do with it, and after some measuring and sketching, found that I could build a small, wall-hung hutch for Mom.  I had not considered what she would do with it; I just wanted to make a present for her.  Bear in mind that I was not a woodworker, but my limited skills with building model aircraft would have to do.  We didn’t have many tools about the house, but — Ta Da! — there was a Gilbert “Big Boy” woodworking tool set!

On with the project. Working feverishly, yet with care, I sawed and fitted and nailed the various parts, and, on one trip to La Mesa, was able to buy brass hinges and red plastic door pulls without arousing suspicion.  When it was finished, I used some of Dad’s boiled linseed oil (Boy, did it smell!) to bring out the grain, and finished just in time to wrap it. It was too big for our holiday paper, so it wound up in part of an old sheet.

Well, Mom was thrilled, and, I think, wondering where the heck it would go. But I was pleased a few days later, when she asked me to hang it in the pantry, where, for 25 years, it would hold soft drinks.  When my folks moved in ’73, Mom gave it back to me.  

I’ll close with what I used to tell my students: For some on your Christmas list, a gift that you make will be especially appreciated, and for those (including elders) who may have all that they need, your presence will be the best gift of all.  Spending time with shut-ins and oldsters makes us special, too.

 

In the words of Der Bingle, May your days be merry and bright.

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