December 22, 2009

Sentimental Journey Over Sugar Creek

Tufts of memories from long-ago holidays float through my mind as I prepare for Christmas. The pictures in my mind’s eye drift in from some faraway horizon fully formed--bright as a white cumulus cloud in an icy blue sky on an Indiana winter day.

Go back with me in time to 1965.

I am seven and a half years old and I have a huge gap between my front teeth. In the next year, I’ll get metal bands on those Chiclets. My hair is jet black and thick and unruly, held back with plastic barrettes. My brother will be six in two weeks, and looks like Billy Mumy in a buzz cut.

What a morning we’ve had!

I didn’t sleep much in our tiny yellow house because I was afraid I would hear Santa. When I got up, there was my Chatty Kathy doll just like I told Santa at Wolf and Dessauer's. She looks like me with a shock of black hair.

We drive from home through our small town, Christmas lights burning mid-day on light poles in the deserted downtown street. East on the highway to the hilly country road where my grandparents’ house is. We can see the 1916 Cape Cod style farmhouse from nearly a mile away. In the spring and summer it is hidden by two huge leafy trees in the front yard.

I see the picture window where my grandmother stands with a wooden spoon in her hand, watching for us to come over the hill. I look now like she looked then.

She is agitated, we are late because my mother changed her dress several times and my brother and I couldn’t leave our toys alone,

As we arrive, my brother and I run into the house, through the paneled back porch and kitchen and through the dining room where my grandfather is stoking a fire in the fireplace. My grandparents had special tiles commissioned for around the fireplace of the house, tiles that commemorate family history back to 1839. That was the year our ancestors drove an oxen team down the Tunker Road to their new farm on Sugar Creek.

My grandfather is happy to stay out of the kitchen, where my mother helps my grandmother whose anxiety level is getting higher. A few heavily-laced rum balls and she will relax. Both Mom and Grammy are immaculately dressed, and wearing aprons. Mother carefully removes the special family dishes from the "Grandma Hoard" cupboard, built into the wall.

My grandfather and father sit in the living room, reading the morning Journal-Gazette and occasionally talking about the crops.

Mother, in her white lace apron, sneaks into the dining room to sample the rum balls and the peanut brittle sent by Great Aunt Zoe from Denver.

“That’s supposed to be for after dinner,” her mother calls after her from the kitchen. The snacks are on the top of my grandmother’s white and lavender buffet. The Duncan Fyffe table has all three leaves in, and is covered with a large white linen table cloth. Six chairs with red flowered embroidered seats face the table.

My brother and I explore the stack of packages under the tree next to the hearth. We don’t want to wait, but unwrapping isn’t on the schedule until after dinner.

“Why don’t you kids go upstairs and find something to do,” said my father.

Grandpy added, “Go upstairs and have some fun.”

Upstairs! That’s where the "Tank Room" is. The Tank Room is filled with endless tempting treasures, from an old Victrola and a butter churn to sleigh bells. My brother and I look through the 78s and find a brittle disk called “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” and play repeatedly as the long needle wears deeper into the record's grooves.

One of us winds the RCA Victor machine too tightly, and it never works again. My brother sees the sleigh bells in the corner, the leather bent and brittle, but the bells still ring brightly. We shake the bells and run down the stairs to show the adults.

Oh, what fun it must have been to ride in a one-horse open sleigh.

My mother was born in this house. My grandmother and her mother and her mother's father were born in a house on this same site. I imagine our ancestors in the barn hitching a horse to pull a sleigh Where did they go, to the little church on the corner or the school two miles away? Did they visit neighbors to take some homemade divinity? My grandmother, born in 1908, enjoyed many winter sleigh rides.

Time for Christmas dinner and the six of us sit around the table, which is full of holiday goodies. My brother and I eat way too quickly, anticipating the feast of gifts under the tree.

Soon Chatty Kathy has her own wedding gown and veil, made lovingly by my grandmother.

My grandparents moved to a new house "in town" in 1973 and are now gone, he since 1983, she since 1994. Another family lives in the Cape Cod farm house. I suspect on holidays they look expectantly out the large picture window for loved ones arrival over Sugar Creek and down the Tunker Road.

Chatty Kathy lost her head, twice. Her face melted at the Indiana Dunes when I left in the car on some long ago summer vacation. My Dad took Chatty to the "Doll Hospital" in Fort Wayne, and Kathy revived after some plastic surgery. She lived long enough for my son to drag her around by her hair. Chatty went to Mattel Heaven when my son was five and ripped her head right off.

My brother has the oxen yoke the family used to drive the oxen to Whitley County hanging on his family room wall. He also has the well-worn sleigh bells, so fragile and broken with age, but still carrying a lively tune once heard in harmony with the horse's trot. I have the broken Victrola and the original 78 of "I Saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus." Someday I need to get it fixed.

On Friday Christmas dinner is at our home at the same Duncan Fyffe table (with the leaves in) and embroidered, red velveteen chairs. I will use the linen table cloth, a little yellow with age.

While the relics of memory are precious, the real gift is in our imagination, in the memories. Age gives us the present of smoothing out the rough edges of memory, leaving the bad, and enhancing the good. Merry Christmas and I hope you make more lovely memories. Quoth the raven.