Mid December, a light snow is falling, the walk ways in the Salem Common are covered with a light dusting of snow..In the 50's it seemed like there was always snow on the ground. More than we see now. A young woman was coming through the Common pulling a child's sled...sometimes she would have a few children with her, other times she would be alone...but each December she made the trip to Downtown Salem several times. On her way, pulling that sled, she would pass the brightly lit and wonderfully decorated Hawthorne Hotel. It was always dressed in the finest greens, red and gold bows and bright twinkling lights in every window. A uniformed doorman standing out front. A true testament to the holiday season...but this young lady walked passed, with only the slightest glance, as she knew she would never be part of that world...
It was a time when cars were not abundant so most people walked without thought or worry..safely through the streets, even at night. Thoughts of any kind of trouble were not on her mind. What was on her mind, were her 4 young children, at home, waiting in anticipation for Santa Clause to come. She knew that it would fall on her shoulders to make Christmas special for them. She was a military wife who did not travel with her husband and her husband was station somewhere other than home. Some years he would make an appearance, other years he would miss the holidays altogether. So the burden was placed on her to make sure Santa came to her children.
Life was not easy in those days. There was stress around every corner. Working at a going no where job, as a drug store clerk, just to put food on the table did not leave time for dreaming of a better life. Acceptance was the mind set for this young lady. So, through-out the year, day after day, the goal was to survive for a better tomorrow for her kids. Work, and household task, keeping track of four kids and being in a two family home with your parents on the bottom floor brought it's struggles. There was never enough food, no heat in her upstairs apartment but for a gas bottled stove in the kitchen. She was a strong woman in more ways than one. She could carry and lift those gas bottles like a man. She could also shovel coal into the cellar furnace to heat the downstairs apartment for her parents...She boiled pots and pots of hot water on the stove for Saturday night baths for the children...two at a time in the tub...and yes, she could even lift a block of ice for the refrigerator...she was fortunate to have a Dad that was the ice man, so she was never out of ice. She shopped at the corner grocery store because they delivered...she could have saved a few more pennies if she went to one of the bigger stores but how would she get those groceries home..and also at the smaller corner store they knew her, they knew everyone in the neighborhood and so, in those days, you could charge your groceries if you ran over, and often people ran over so that before the next weeks groceries were bought they were paying off last weeks groceries...it was an endless bill. But she coped, but not always well.
That kind of life brings many challenges and often it does not make for a happy household..the pressure of holding it all together, knowing that you are the glue that binds so many lives can sometimes break a person. They withdraw and then have to find new coping skills. Life in the 50's was tough for lots of woman, especially those military wives...but amongst all the unique problems of that generation there was a genuine lifting of the spirit at Christmas time...it was a month were they were able to let go of their struggles and find the spirit of the season. It was like a light was shinning just for them...and so it was for the woman with the sled..
So she began...grabbing two of her boys, she walked to the closet Christmas tree stand and they would pick a tree..not exactly a Charlie Brown but close...homemade stand of crossed wood and a tin bucket. Lovely colored balls collected over the years and lastly the most important piece...the tinsel..shinny and bright. It turned that old tree into a thing of beauty...Not another person in the neighborhood had a tree as wonderful as that tree. Wait, there was more...Orange candles in the window..orange. All the kids loved them. It was tricky business though to think of the number of extension cords needed to send that light out into the world..Two outlets to a room was not very much. Finally, the little skaters under the tree on a piece of a round mirror..with yards of cotton for snow...one could lay on their bellies for hours and imagine what the world of those skaters were like...they became real in the mind of the little girl that loved them. So, she was ready...but where did she keep those presents that she brought home on the sled...never a hint and never found by those that chose to look.
Then she moved into the kitchen to tease the children with the smells of Christmas...Banana bread, date and nut bread that she would later smear with cream cheese, peanut butter squares chock full of chocolate chunks and coconut...for weeks they would beg for just a tiny taste...but if you were not careful that wooden spoon would get your knuckles and the threat of no Santa would send you in a new direction..and she was so happy...in her kitchen with no counters, only a wooden kitchen table, her trusty full apron, and her little radio belting out Christmas carols, one would think it was a giant stereo the way she sang out in joy along with the songs. This woman, didn't know much about world events or stock markets or even TV...but she knew how to make Christmas...
The day would finally arrived...and as the house woke up...all the kids would run..for the "den"..and you would find your spot. The spot where Santa left your unwrapped gifts and your stocking..The boys shared space on the couch and the young girl got a chair. Santa was good. He knew, every year, just what it was that was wanted and needed by all 4 of those children...always a toy or two and always new pj's and underwear. If she had extra, maybe some would get a pair of shoes...but not often. It did not matter...they were so happy with what they got and they never felt that it wasn't enough...it was the exact opposite...it was always more than enough and so magical. The stockings were last...an orange in the toe and a gift from the Avon book. The perfume in the baby blue bottle shaped, like a little boy in jammies, ...savored as the year passed, was a favorite of the little girls...and none of the children thought to ask where the Mom's presents from Santa were...but perhaps it was that smile on her face that wasn't there often, perhaps that was her gift and maybe it was all she needed back then.
Other relatives would come visit for the day...We would see cousins, aunts and uncles...The next day, the joy would still surround us as we played with our new toys and with each other...Left overs were enjoyed in a more quiet enviroment...and perhaps, that night, we would crawl into bed with Mom and have a story. At the end of the week, the tree would come down, the orange lights would be packed away in their box with the tiny skaters and life would go back to normal. My Mom would go back to work, do the groceries and once again the worries would come. We knew that along with all those worries, with a the hardship she and we sometimes endored...we knew, that the snow would come , the walk ways would be sprinkled with light fluff and once again the sled would be pull across the Salem Common...and the light would return.
Today, I remember her as I bake my own date and nut bread, I'll remember to get the cream cheese. I'll share cookies and memories with my brothers. We'll talk abouth here asking nothing for herself but only that she have enough for her kids. The smiles on their faces...the laughter and sometimes the tears of receiving a toy that was beyond their imagination, that was enough. In a world gone wild, I look back on those days and I remember the joy. She instilled it in me. It's why, at this time, I keep Christmas, in her honor, just the way she would have expected. I can hear her saying,"take care of your family," and so I do. She is always with me though, as I wander around my lovely kitchen and think of her in her's...those kitchen treats were her gifts also..and we all knew that. Maybe we didn't know about Santa Clause or later, where those presents were hidden but we did know about the gifts of her time and baking talents...So now "I pull the sled."..and hope that someday my gifts will be remember...by the smile and joy on my face as I watch one of my own receive a gift...that my kids and grandbabies will understand that there is more to Christmas than the gifts (they get to many today). That the reason for joy in this season comes from giving and sharing of your time and talents. We are so fortunate today, that we should take the giving out into the world all year long...maybe, just maybe, if we could do that, we would help another person lift the burden that they carry all year. That would be the real gift...the real spirit of Christmas.
Merry Christmas to all who visit here...can you smell the date and nut bread. Now where did I put that cream cheese...and oh, let me get the tea pot on. Know that you are always welcome at my table...
"Terrible things happen. And those are the things that we learn from... The amazing thing is that despite all... the human spirit still manages to survive, to stay strong." Madeleine L 'Engle
“Our hearts grow tender with childhood memories and love of kindred, and we are better throughout the year for having, in spirit, become a child again at Christmas-time.”
― Laura Ingalls Wilder
“My idea of Christmas, whether old-fashioned or modern, is very simple: loving others. Come to think of it, why do we have to wait for Christmas to do that?”
― Bob Hope