When I was growing up I developed a habit of finding time to visit alone with elderly neighbors. One of my purposes was to find out what their childhood was like. I would ask about those days of old (to me) that I considered to be romantic and full of excitement. I had read about Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, and the problems with the Native Americans as whites tried to settle into this abundant land. Sometimes I would strike gold when a little old lady, perhaps in her eighties, would glaze over, lean back in her rocker, and tell me about her life in the late nineteenth century. The narrative to follow is based on stories told to me. It closely represents what I can recall when I once asked her about Christmases in her early years. Names have been changed out of respect to her remaining relatives, if any.
A Christmas Memory, by Emily
It was a cold winter’s night just before Christmas Eve and the wind was howling and blowing freezing air through the chinking in the walls. The cold could be felt even in the far corners of our cabin, but as usual, it was toasty enough next to the crackling fire kept glowing in the fireplace. I remember that occasion the fire would ‘pop’ and throw embers onto the hearth. This may it unwise to set to close.
I usually sat on a low stool while I petted our dog, Boots. She was given that name because she had a white color on the end of each foot and the tip of her tail. I knew that her body was warm, too, so I was getting warmth from three directions. Oh, I forgot to mention I was also leaning against mom who was hard at work darning dad’s wool socks that had somehow developed a hole. The kerosene lamp next to mom gave her just enough light for her to see the sharp needle she used to pull some light thread that tightly closed the offensive hole. Mom made the excuse that she didn’t need yarn for this repair since a few stiches would do the trick. Mom was skilled at sewing, knitting and crocheting, but she explained that tonight her goal was to mend and not remake the socks. I remember she wore a thimble that protected her from stabbing her fingers. Blood might have added yet another color to the project, but I knew it would hurt, too. It was a painful lesson I learned when I got older.
This particular night I was allowed to stay up a little later than normal. Keeping warm and being with mom and Boots was all I needed. The cabin was warm except when dad or my big brother, Zak, went in or out of the door to gather up more firewood. I remember that Dad mumbled again under his breath about one day having a cast iron wood-burning stove that would do a far better job heating than the open fireplace. Mom, hearing dad’s sentiments just smiled. She looked up and allowed her eyes to meet the love of her life. It was as if her glance alone sent myriads of messages far too complex for me to understand. What I did understand was this night was special.
Mom had spent the earlier portion of the day preparing what turned out to be a wonderful dinner. Dad had enjoyed two helpings of the mashed potatoes and gravy, as did Zak, who dad insisted was a growing boy. He not only was growing but it was clear that dad loved him and depended on him to help work on our little homestead. Zak and dad cut and split the firewood, milked several head of cows, and kept up the fences. In the summer they grew a number of vegetables for mom to put up, or to take to the store in hopes of making some money.
I was allowed to help mom when she went to gather the eggs or put the chickens to roost each night. I was taught to take the eggs from the nesting place and carefully add them to the egg basket mom held ever to tightly. I helped slop the hogs, (we usually had two who mostly lived off the mast). We had a few ducks, but mom would dress them out for market as soon as they stopped laying. We kept the ducklings until we figured out which was a drake vs a hen.
That night I was surprised when dad and Zak came back in because instead of carrying a load of split wood they were carrying a small cedar tree! While mom didn’t seem shocked, I’m sure I was. The two of them cleared a small area and set the tree upright. They had added some crossed lumber on the bottom so the tree could stand. Mom sat aside her sewing, stood up and told me to follow her. She began to put strings of popcorn and some ropes of real garland all around the tree. She added a small picture of her mom and dad, and put some fruit to further decorate what became our first Christmas tree, or at least the first one I remember. We didn’t have electricity or bulbs of any kind, so trinkets would have to do.
Mom hung some socks from the mantel but she didn’t answer when I asked why. She just said, “You will see.” I slept hard that night, wondering if I’d wake to a foot of new snow. When I opened my eyes and through off the quilts that weighed me down, the room was just warming up. Mom was fixing breakfast and dad and Zak were apparently out doing the milking. Mom told me it was Christmas Eve!
After breakfast I joined in on doing my chores, or whatever mom would tell me to do. This time I noticed that she had fixed a big breakfast with sausage and gravy and hot biscuits. I figured this was a lot of food for the four of us, but I had learned not to question mom if I knew what was good for me.
Soon, when we heard the Zak outside, mom rang the ‘cow bell’ that she used to call everyone to the table. While she’d usually tell me to ring the bell, this time she did it herself. The door opened and in came not only dad and Zak, but Uncle Jake and his three boys. Wow! We had company. While two of the three boys were nearly grown, there was one of my cousins who was barely older than me and was as close as a real brother. We started talking about a toy car his dad had whittled for him and painted a bright red. While he let me touch it, I was not allowed to play with it. “This one has to last me,” he said. I understood.
Once we gathered around the table I saw that mom had put out some fruit she had apparently bought at the little store the Cyrus family ran just down the hill. Mom would take eggs down to them and usually get a little ‘egg money,’ which was important. This time she came back with apples and oranges. I remember the oranges being a little sour, but I loved the apples.
After breakfast the older males spent some time outside working on a big crate that was made of wood slats and cardboard. Every time I tried to look to see what was going on I was shushed aside. I ended up going with my little cousin back inside where I could watch him play with his new car. I just sat and watched. It wasn’t long before all the men came into the cabin carrying a heavy iron stove. DAD HAD GOTTEN HIS WOOD-BURNING STOVE!!!
It took a big part of the morning to get pipes installed in the fireplace so we could use the stove, but once installed it was like Heaven. The whole cabin became very warm! We still had to wear our winter coats when we went out to the outhouse, or do our outside chores, but otherwise we were blessed with the warmth just in time for Christmas.
That night the company left and we were four again. Dad took down his big Bible and sat down not too far from the stove. He turned to what I later knew to be Luke 2; the Christmas story. Dad and mom both wanted Zak and me to know what Christmas was really about. The next morning one of the socks mom had hung on the mantle was given to me. In it were some nuts, some fruit, and a shiny dime. Boy! I thought it couldn’t get better than this, but then I was given a package, wrapped in newspaper, to open. Inside was a really neat rag doll. Somehow mom had secreted this project from my prying eyes. I still have that doll up in my bedroom.
The last time I saw our old cabin was years after we’d moved. Dad had gotten a job with a lumber yard. Life was different when we moved to town. Still, I remember seeing the old wood-burning stove and the magical day it arrived. Somehow, in my mind I can still smell the wood burning. I’ll always remember that lowly cabin where I lived, played, studied, and ate mom’s wonderful cooking. The new house had a lot of improvements including indoor plumbing, a gas range, and separate bedrooms. While I came to love the new home, I could never forget my little cabin on the hill.