I’ve been 64 for exactly one month. As I look at my photo folders on my HP’s hard drive, I realize something that’s a bit alarming. My memories of Christmases revolve around the photographs Dad took of us after we opened our presents. Normally, we’re standing or sitting in front of the Christmas tree, Jody holding a toy or doll, me with my hand in a baseball glove or holding a basketball against my hip. Dad didn’t seem to grasp that he could take off-the-cuff photos of us opening our gifts.
Another thing: I no longer remember specific events from those past Christmases, both at our houses in Rialto and Corona, California, and at relatives’ houses in Ohio. My memories are getting fuzzy. One time, maybe twenty-five years ago, I asked Mom about an episode from her childhood, and she said she could no longer recall specific details from her childhood years. Oh, my goodness! I’ve become just like my mother.
When in my twenties and thirties, I could sit on the couch in my Mom’s house in Beverly, Ohio, peruse the family scrapbooks… the photos would spur hundreds of precious memories. They still do, but they’re not quite as plentiful. The earlier the Christmases, the deeper they hide in the recesses of my mind. It takes a bit of coaxing to get them to converse with me.
See the photo from Christmas 1959 at our house in Rialto, California… of eight-year-old Mike and his two-year-old sister Jody? Mike’s sitting on the couch, Jody’s standing beside him. Next to her is an open camera case. Before Jody and I could leave our bedrooms to see what Santa had brought us, we had to wait until Dad attached the lights to his 16-millimeter movie camera. Then we’d walk through the hallway into the living room, which on Christmas morning was always ablaze with light cast by the camera’s auxiliary light bulbs. We couldn’t see a thing. Even when Dad stopped filming, we couldn’t see for excruciating seconds – until our pupils decided it was safe to open again.
Dad’s home movie camera… that’s one of my memories. Jody and I have those home movies on CD/DVD now. For years we watched them on Dad’s projector that almost always suffered a blown light halfway through a showing. Dad usually had trouble threading the film. He’d always get sputtering mad. In the ‘90s, I took the film to a VCR repair man, who converted it to a videocassette tape. Then, about 2007, we put the home movies on DVDs. Mine’s packed away in one of the boxes I have stacked in the closet. One time Jody wanted to show the movies when I was at the house, but her girls were not really interested. All three are in their thirties. One – Quinn – has two kids, Griffin and Grayson. I think Jody’s daughters are starting to have a much better appreciation for family history. Thanks to my cousin John Snyder we have photos of relatives that go back several generations, some who were actually born in the mid-19th century. John’s father Harold, who passed away this year, called them Precious Memories.
We moved from Ohio to Southern California in 1957. We took alternated celebrating Christmas with my maternal grandparents. In 1958, we traveled by train to Ohio to spend Christmas with them and Dad’s parents. Then in 1959, my maternal grandparents – Grandpa Frog and Grandma Mid – came by train to San Bernardino and spent Christmas with us at the Rialto house. We continued to take turns until 1965 when we moved back to Ohio. We have photographs of Christmas 1958 snapped at Grandpa Frog’s house, 27 South Fourth Street in Rittman. I really don’t remember too much from that time. One photo shows me with my first record player, and I do remember playing records on it. My first record? A Disney recording that featured When You Wish Upon A Star. To this day, I do have memories of my Uncle Denny’s Lionel Train. Grandpa Frog would set up the track so the train would chug around the real Christmas tree.
I’ve also watched Dad’s home movies of a Christmas spent at Sharon Center, Ohio, with my fraternal grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. In the film, Grandpa Bud is admiring his new power saw. He pretends to saw a board. He died less than two years later. I was just eight, so my memories of him are grainy. When I see that Christmas day snippet of him and his new saw, I can’t summon the detailed memories of that Christmas get-together. They’re so buried in my head I just can’t get at them.
I do recall some ancillary memories surrounding the Rialto Christmases of the late 1950s and early 1960s when I was in elementary school. My best friend, Bobby Benza, lived a block away. We spent hours at school and at home gabbing about TV Christmas specials. When Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Tale premiered in 1962, we were introduced to Charles Dickens’ classic tale of a greedy businessman taught the error of his ways by ghosts. Bobby and I dissected that animated movie for days and days. When we were in sixth grade, Bobby got the role of a wise man in Meyers Elementary’s Christmas pageant. He told me all about the rehearsals, had me enthused for his upcoming debut. Here’s what’s funny: I can’t actually remember watching the pageant. That’s probably because my head’s filled with pageants from movies I’ve seen on TV. Can a head get so cluttered with memories that some of the older ones get squeezed out and vanish in the ether?
Those Christmas Day memories from Rialto and Corona are sketchy. One stands out, though. It’s a Christmas in the early 1960s in Rialto. Grandma Mid and Grandpa Frog were visiting. I had a toy rifle, and Grandpa showed me how to do the present-arms drill. He’d been in the Ohio National Guard back in the 1920s. He told me he’d been a member of the Honor Guard for President Warren Harding’s funeral.
In the autumn of 1965 Dad got a new job with the tire division of B.F. Goodrich in Akron, and we moved back to Ohio. The first snow flurries fell in Wadsworth in late October, and in early December Mother Nature dumped a foot of snow on Wadsworth, Rittman, Sharon Center and Hackney. The snows were harbingers of the kinds of Christmases my family would have during my teenage years. Each December through junior high, high school and college, the Christmases were three-prong Christmases.
Each Christmas Eve we piled into the family car and drove the 12 miles to my Aunt Gloria and Uncle Jack’s house in Granger. The celebration resembled a reunion, except it wasn’t as large. Besides my family, we had my dad’s mother and her two sisters, Avis and Hortense, and Dad’s Down’s syndrome brother Steven; Gloria, Hortense’s daughter, and her husband Jack and their two kids, Gloria and Jack; Jack’s mother, and starting in 1966, Dad’s sister Emmy, her husband Bill and their children, Billy, Kim, Ken and Brian. Emmy and her family had lived in the LA area since the mid-1950s and moved back to Ohio shortly after we made the trip eastward.
We ate dinner, the adults at the big table and the kids including the teenagers at the smaller one; in the evening, Jack motored to Akron to do his Christmas shopping. Christmas Eve was jam packed with tradition. I’d wait, fidgeting, eyeing my wristwatch, waiting for Jack to return with his arms full of sacks of concealed gifts. Even after he came through the front door, we had to wait until he went upstairs and wrapped his gifts. I’d look wistfully at the huge Christmas tree in the rec room, oodles of wrapped presents arrayed all around the tree. Oh, how I wanted to open presents, but I was one of Jack’s hostages.
Sometimes, we kids would put on our coats and gambol outside. Snow invariably covered the yard, and I swear that year in and year out the white gleamed under a full or near-full moon. Yes, I realize it was probably cloudy some nights… I just don’t remember those nights. Granger sat on the edge of Cleveland’s Snowbelt. While Wadsworth, just twelve miles away, had no snow on the ground, Granger was a snowy paradise for lovers of wintertime. Towns and cities downwind of Lake Erie received more snow due to the interaction of cold air and the lake’s warm water.
We’d have our family Christmas on Christmas morning at the Wadsworth house and later the Beverly house in Southeast Ohio north of Marietta and the Ohio River. After opening presents, we’d eat breakfast and fruitcake that Grandma Nan always bought for us. By ’65 we’d dispensed with the silver tree and its rotating color wheel. We had a green artificial tree. I really didn’t miss a real tree; after all, Jack had one and on Christmas Eve I could enjoy its pine-needle fragrance. I really don’t remember much about our home Christmases in Wadsworth and Beverly. It’s the Christmases at Granger and Rittman that stayed with me through the years.
We had a fairly large turnout for our get-togethers in Rittman – the four of us, Grandma Mid, Grandpa Frog, my Uncle Denny and his then wife Dee, and their kids Kim and Kevin. Sometimes Aunt Ethel would join us, if one or both of her sons and their families weren’t in town. Grandpa Frog would drive his Ford (he’d bought nothing but Fords since the 1920s) to Aunt Ethel’s downtown apartment and pick her up. Her late husband Raymond had built the house on Fourth Street for his new bride. Now her sister Mid and Frog lived in the tidy house. It’d been in the family for more than 50 years. By the mid-1960s Grandpa had shifted to an artificial Christmas tree and Denny’s Lionel train no longer came out of its storage box in the walk-in storage closet. But it remained a house where the doorbell rang constantly throughout Christmas day. Grandma Mid was one of thirteen children. And the children of Grandma’s brothers and sisters – my Mom’s cousins – made sure to visit if they were in town.
At Grandpa Frog’s house, we always ate a huge meal on Christmas day. With this post is a photograph of one of Grandma Mid’s sumptuous meals. I think it’s at Christmas, not Thanksgiving… I don’t see a turkey on the dinner table. Nothing compares to the food she cooked and baked for us. Her applesauce was unique, made from Early Transparent apples picked off two backyard trees. The store-bought kind is a pale imitation. Notice how she and my Mom are standing while the rest of us sit in our chairs? Grandma preferred to stand as the rest of us ate. I sometimes thought the apron was a key part of her dress.
One memory of those teenage years sticks with me. For Christmas 1967, I asked for cash, no gifts. I wanted to buy a high-quality telescope. You’ve heard of me speak of my cousin John Snyder and his father, Harold, one of Aunt Ethel’s sons. A college professor, Harold built telescopes as a hobby. In ’68, before we moved to Beverly, Harold, his wife Juanita and their two sons, Ron and John, stopped at our Wadsworth house to deliver my new telescope. I used that telescope for years; finally, in 1989, I gave it to a friend’s nephew.
At Grandma Mid’s house on Christmas Eve in 1968, just before we headed to Jack and Gloria’s house for the traditional Christmas Eve get-together, we watched astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders describe the lunar surface as they orbited the Moon aboard Apollo 8. They ended their live broadcast by reading the Genesis account of God’s creation of the Universe: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon….” I was 17 years old when Apollo 8 orbited the moon; I’m now 64 and we haven’t been back.
This post has meandered a bit, much like my memories. I can’t be sure of which ones I can tease to consciousness. Still, the ones that bloomed, if only for a few moments, they’re good, sweet ones, and I’m glad I could share them. I’ll end this with Charles Dickens’ words in A Christmas Tale: “And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!”
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I’m an author. Two published fantasy novels – The Emperor’s Mistress and Thief’s Coin. They are the first two books of a trilogy. The third one, Assassins’ Lair, will be released in January. I also have short stories in two anthologies, Boys Will Be Boys and All About the Girls.