Buttermilk clouds riffle across the wide expanse of the sky this morning, as another mild day unfolds in the hills. One of our sons complained this morning “it doesn’t feel a bit like Christmas.” It is true that we have had an extended fall season of warm weather, and with no snowflakes filling the air; it is hard to imagine that we are only a few days away from Christmas. Still, I am convinced that Christmas is all about memories anyway. My mind drifts back to a Christmas spent at an old Jackson County farm. Lazy snowflakes zigzagged through the air and settled softly upon the dry grass of the lawn before melting. It had been a warm, late fall, and the ground was still unfrozen. It was the first snowfall of the season, although it was just three weeks until Christmas.
I looked out the window where the big, weathered barn reigned over the long meadow. The gooseberry bushes that crouched around the upper end were becoming liberally frosted by the continuing snow, making a picturesque country scene. My heart was far from cheery, however, and I turned away from the window with a sigh.
The rolling Jackson County hills were different from the hills of home, and it was hard to get used to people living so far apart. Most of the surrounding farms contained from 300 to 400 hundred acres, so neighbors were few and far between. Sometimes it was weeks before we saw anyone except the old bachelor who lived on an isolated farm much further above us. He made a daily trip down the mountainside to visit, usually in time for the evening meal.
Even the soil was different. We were used to sandy soil, and in some places yellow clay. Here the gardens were a strange red color, and the streams that flowed down the hillsides cut sharp gullies deep in the ground. The creek banks broke sharply down to the water in deep red slashes, and were totally unlike the gentle, sloping banks of the creeks at home. Home was only a county away, but right then it seemed a million miles.
It was time to cook again, so I lifted the cap on the huge woodstove and placed a handful of kindling inside. Pine logs were plentiful there, and Criss always made sure the kindling box was well stocked. After the splinters of kindling began to burn, I added several sticks of stove wood from the supply that was stacked on the long front porch.
Picking up the zinc water bucket, I stepped out on the back porch and let the bucket down into the dug well. I shivered as a blast of wintery wind howled around the corner of the house and bit through my thin sweater. Winding the rope up on the windlass, I pulled the bucket of clear, cold water to the surface. Hurrying back inside, I poured it into the reservoir built into the side of the cookstove.
We had moved into the old two-story farmhouse earlier in the summer, but too late to plant a garden. Criss had gotten a job at Kaiser a few months before, and we had hoped it would be long-term employment. It was 1957, a recession year, and jobs were scarce. We moved there with high hopes on the isolated, run-down farm with our two little ones, Mike, age four, and Patty, age two.
Criss was laid off two months before Christmas.
We had both been brought up to make do with what we had, or do without, so hardship was no stranger to us. The unemployment check came in every two weeks with the magnificent sum of $22 and it was spent for dry beans, meal, flour, macaroni, and CoCo Wheats cereal. Mr. Warner down at the general store had offered us credit, but we had a fear of going into debt. Anyway, the chickens lay eggs in the barn, and the milk cow gave a bucket of foamy milk. Wild game, especially groundhog, provided our meat, and we were making it.
It was that toy Air Force jeep in the Montgomery Ward catalog that I had my heart set on ordering for Mike, and it was $24.95. Patty’s gift was no problem, as I had bought a doll earlier and hidden it away. She was too little to understand much anyway. By saving a dollar here and there, I had accumulated half of the money. It looked impossible to get the rest. My heart felt as heavy as the icicles that hung from the porch roof in sharp spears.
Morning dawned, and Criss set out for the general store and post office. It was a two-mile hike through the snow and cold to the main road where the car was parked. Midmorning he returned, announcing his arrival by pounding his boots on the front porch and yelling, “You got a letter from your Mom!” Inside was $20 from my father.
On Christmas morning, the Air Force Jeep was parked under the Christmas tree, and Mike’s brown eyes shown as bright as the lights reflected there. We were going back home for a turkey dinner, and all was right in our world.
That was many years ago, and the sweet memories linger still…Ah, Christmas memories.
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