If you’re wondering…Vernie is my mom. She has told me this story since I was a little girl. It brings such joy to my heart to be able to share it with you.
Grandma Howard prepared for Christmas for 364 days a year. The second Christmas day was over she was already planning for the next year. Every relative from the Howard clan would travel near and far to get to Grandma and Grandpa Howard’s for the holidays. Grandma would dive into the sewing room and round up every blanket and pillow she could muster. She would quilt all year round to make more blankets for the many bodies that would need to be warmed in her little house.
About a week before Christmas, relatives would start arriving; some big, some small, and some in between. They would arrive by Trailways bus, old jalopies, a train they called The Owl, and some even hitchhiked.
Aunt Mema was the only relative in the bunch that made her arrival via an all-Pullman train called The Lark. She was the haute tauter of the bunch. and wouldn’t be caught dead on the Owl train that most of the family rode on. Much too common for her and besides, whatever would she do should she run into some kinfolk in the diner. Or worse, in the lavatory!
Uncle Jack always arrived by hitchhiking, being a bit of the black sheep of the family, but the kids adored him, what with his wild piratical adventures he lived hitchhiking all the way to California. Grandma always put Jack at the kids table at Christmas as a veiled warning for him to grow up, but he didn’t mind. He loved being with all his nieces and nephews, flicking boogers and snorting milk through their noses.
There was little Vernie who was eight. She had the most beautiful locks of hair, always with black tipped ends on her hair owing to that rotten Morton Digger at school. Morton would always dip Vernie’s pigtails into the inkwell on the desk, and Vernie’s mother, Ruth, could never quite get all the ink out of Vernie’s hair. That branded her with the nickname “Paintbrush” at school.
Vernie, like all the other girls in class, wore dresses made from material cut from feed sacks. Each month the mothers of all the elementary-age schoolgirls would hurry down to Kramer’s Five Dime and Farm Store to see what new designs would be printed on the feed sack bags. Some sported little pink roses while others featured cute little ducks. But if you didn’t happen to arrive at old man Kramer’s first thing in the morning, you might wind up with a dress printed with cowboys, and that was a fate worse than death for an eight year old little princess. It was bad enough that Vernie went without those black patent leather shoes she dreamed of, but to have a dress made of cowboys was downright humiliating.
Vernie was Uncle Ralph’s favorite and Vernie felt the same way about her Ralphie. She loved his great big smile and his guitar playing, and though they were about fourteen years apart in age, Ralph was more like Vernie’s older brother. He wouldn’t be able to come for Christmas this year because he was off fighting the war, but she had written a stack of letters she was going to mail him as soon as she could pry some postage stamps from her mom and walk the letters down to the train depot and put them in the mail slot on the side of the postal car. One time she put a letter into the slot, and a hand popped out with a lollipop, tossing it to her as the train pulled away from the station. That was exciting, sure, but it wasn’t the main reason she wanted to take Uncle Ralph’s letters to the station. It was because she had decided she wasn’t going to trust her precious letters to Mr. Perryman.
Mr. Perryman was too new on the route, since the old mailman, Mr. Okizawa had suddenly left town. She just couldn’t understand, as hard as good jobs were to find lately, why one day he delivered the mail like always, and the next day Mr. Perryman rolled up with his funny little mail cart. She liked Mr. Okizawa because he was nice, of course. But also because he said her name funny. “Here is no letttaahh fo-uh you Misss Vuuuhhhnnneeee. A gooot deh to yooo, hey?” Every day, the same thing. Then one day, Mr. Perryman.
Once all thirty-four of the Christmas relatives would arrive, the preparation and fun would begin. The porch overflowed in baggage and it was the kids’ job to get them sorted.
Grandma would kick every man out of the house for a few days so it was Grandpa’s job to entertain. All the men (boys included) would pack up enough food for a few days and off-a-camping they would go. Grandpa Howard was known as the best camper and hunter in the San Joaquin valley. Maybe even Kern County, too. He claims it was his Native American blood; that nature talked to him. Sometimes we all wondered if he was right. One time, when they were all hiking and hunting, Uncle Jon got separated from the group. Everyone else went back to camp but Grandpa tracked Uncle Jon and found him by the creek shivering and cold but all right.
At night, before they would crawl into their tents, Grandpa would tie the cantaloupe and the bacon high up in the trees to discourage the bears from bothering them. One night Grandpa woke to the sound of bear grunts. He peered outside his tent and spied a female bear on her hind legs reaching for the cantaloupe. Her paws were barely clipping the net that held the sweet, tasty melon in the tree. The sight of his morning melon being bruised like a tetherball turned grandpa eleven shades of beet red. He stormed out of the tent, clad only in his underwear, in an angry, desperate bid to rescue his ‘lope from the bear. By then she had broken open one of the nets and the sight of those juicy, ripe cantaloupe strewn all over the ground inspired Grandpa to run full force toward that mangy bear. He began throwing the hard, un-ripened cantaloupe at the bear’s head, who had such a look of surprise on her face (as well as all the camping guys) that she ran off. “NO one messes with my cantaloupe.” muttered Grandpa. Not even mangy ol’ she-bears.
Grandpa would pack an empty coffee can full of worms for fishing. Problem was this was the same coffee can that he made his muddy coffee in every morning. The coffee tasted slightly of dirt and worms but you got used to the flavor after a while. It was the gritty thickness of the coffee that was hardest to get used to.
Back at the house, Grandma and all the women were fiercely cooking up the food. Aunt Ethel fixed the dressing while Aunt Mims baked the pies. Grandma’s kitchen looked like it was about to explode from all the bodies bumping through the tiny space, all the while chattering and gossiping about every family member who was not there.
Grandma and Vernie had turkey duty. Vernie would chase the turkey into the tightest corner in the yard and Grandma would take care of it quickly and painlessly. Then all the womenfolk would descend and feathers flew. That turkey never knew what hit him.
Once all the food got to cooking, the girls were responsible for bringing in the firewood and making every corner of the house into a bed for a relative. All the little girls fought to sleep with the beautiful family quilt. The quilt contained a piece of family fabric from generations back attached to it. If you got the quilt, it was said that you would have good luck for the whole year. The girls wound up drawing numbers on who got the quilt.
Once every little bed was put together, it was time for sorting presents. Most of the gifts were homemade but treasured nonetheless, each wrapped in a different way; some with brown paper, some with bright paper, and some with newspaper. You could always tell the gifts that Uncle Jack brought, because his were always wrapped in toilet paper.
Once the women got everything set; the food, the presents, and the beds, Grandma would go outside and whistle. Grandpa would cock his head and tell the men it was time to go home. No one could ever figure out how he could hear Grandma’s whistle but he always did. The fellas and their little soldiers would march up the path like the dwarfs from Snow White, all in a row and grinning from ear to ear singing, “Jingle Bells” with a huge pine tree dragging behind them, and a basket full of trout.
The women folk would be sure to fawn over the men and boys for the trout and the beautiful Christmas tree they had brought home. Then Grandpa and Uncle Jack would get the tree set up and the children would descend and trim. They hung popcorn and cranberry garlands around the tree, and white paper angel ornaments on every other stem with bright red and green ribbons tied on the tips.
Jack would sit at the brown little rinky-dink piano with a big red bow tied around his head and everyone would sing Jingle Bells. Jack would start playing the song faster and faster until he would collapse onto the floor, pretending to have fainted. All the kids would jump him and he would tickle each and every one.
Once the little ones went to bed, all the grownups hung stockings for the twelve children. Each one got an orange in their stocking, and that was it. But back then it was a treat to have a whole orange to yourself. Jack wanted to stick some coal in the stockings as a joke but Grandma nixed that out of hand.
On Christmas morning, we awoke to the smell of trout cooking and biscuits baking. The kids would wake up one by one and the house would get louder and louder until there were blankets and bodies everywhere along with the wonderful smell of biscuits with butter and a hint of freshwater fish. Breakfast was like standing in the cafeteria line. You sure didn’t want to be the last person in line just in case the food ran out.
Once breakfast was out of the way, Jack would become Santa’s elf and hand out the presents, one by one, so that everyone’s presents got the spotlight. There were polite exchanges and thank you’s and even some rolling of the eyes with some of the gifts. Usually the eye rolling was due to one of Jack’s gifts to the children. He had painstakingly wrapped each of the twelve gifts in toilet paper and had wrapped one hand-printed alphabet letter for each child. He told them they had to figure out the present from the clues, so they all opened their alphabet letter and went to town trying to unscramble the letters to learn what their gift was. This kept them busy for two hours straight. He kept telling them it was well worth the wait.
The letters spelled, “Stand in a line.” All the kids stood in a line and Jack solemnly instructed them each to hold out a hand, which they all dutifully did. He them informed them that on his way to California pirates had tried to take his treasure so he felt the treasure would be safer with each of the kids. (The true story is Jack got caught up in a poker game and won.) He then placed a ten dollar bill into each child’s hand. The adults, as well as the kids, let out a collective gasp.
None of those kids had ever touched a ten dollar bill much less owned one. Mothers were crying with gratitude and fathers were patting Jack on the back. “There is only one rule,” Jack told the children. “You can only spend it on something you want…not need.” The parents stopped patting Jack’s back and tears dried up. All their dreams of where that money was going had gone. “This money is the kids’ money.” How could anyone argue with that? And so the kids started making money plans. Jack promised to take them to the mercantile the day after Christmas.
Christmas dinner was ready and all bowed their heads to thank the heavens above for their bountiful feast, or fountiful beast, as Jack called it, much to the delight of the children. Each person around the table would say a small something. When it came to Vernie she asked that Uncle Ralph be safe.
Everyone nodded and then the feasting began. Cooked yams, dressing, turkey, cranberries in honey sauce, butter rolls, not a salad in sight, just comfort family food. As the table was cleared, the children would sit around the radio and listen to the Lone Ranger drama with Jack, who would act out the different parts of the radio show even down to being the Lone Ranger’s horse, Silver.
Vernie sat on Jack’s lap as she listened intently. She kept hearing a faint rhythm and it grew louder and louder until it sounded like it was at the front door. Grandma opened it to find Uncle Ralph with his duffle bag playing his guitar, a brightly wrapped package in hand. Vernie couldn’t believe her eyes. She ran to Ralph and he dropped everything for his beautiful little princess with the black-tipped hair. He handed her the package and watched her as she opened the box, pulled back the tissue and revealed the shiniest blackest patent leather shoes she had ever seen. She squealed with delight, kicked off her oxfords, and put on her princess shoes. Santa had gotten her exactly what she had wanted for Christmas; her Uncle Ralph.
The day after all the kids headed to the mercantile with Uncle Jack and returned home with only the things they wanted. Grandma was already planning, along with all the women, the next year’s big feast. As everyone packed up to leave, Aunt Mema asked everyone to gather around. “I may be old, but I’m still not going to let that Little Jacky outdo me.” She reached into her purse and pulled out a twenty dollar bill for every family. “Take that Jacky!” Everyone screamed and hollered. Jack slyly grinned at Uncle Ralph saying that Aunt Mema had finally let some of her old money go to where it was needed.
Soon everyone went their way by bus, train, and jalopy. Except, that is, for Jack, who left by thumb. And Uncle Ralph, on leave from his ship and safe in the bosom of family, stayed on a ten day leave from the war that in the last day had become so distant. The only thing he would do on this Christmas night was watch Vernie dance in the moonlight in her new patent leather shoes, and thank providence for being a part of a family and the love they all shared.