We’re snowbound in southern Minnesota. The plan was to head south into Iowa today, but highways are closed due to blowing snow, so we’re staying put, watching the ice float down the Mississippi, reading, visiting the National Eagle Centre just across the street. More on that tomorrow.
Right now, I’m sitting in a cafe using their wi-fi–Jenny’s internet service isn’t working so well for us–listening to Christmas music and watching residents of this little town exchange greetings and gifts, realizing how close Christmas is, and grateful that the Mayans were wrong.
In recognition of the season–here’s a little story I wrote some time ago about celebrating Christmases with my two grandmas.
Two Grandmothers, Two Christmases
When I was a little girl, my favourite place for Christmas was my Grammy Wilson’s house – a five-hour drive from home. Grammy never seemed to grow old. Her hair stayed the same strawberry blonde, she wore pedal pushers and halter tops over her ample bosom, and she told off-colour jokes. With its three-dimensional, back-lit cottage scene on the wall to knick-knacks on every surface, her house made my parents squirm with embarrassment. I loved it.
At Christmas, Grammy loaded her tree with every sparkling, blinking, ringing, and singing ornament she could find. A small flock of gossamer-winged angels competed for the place of honour at the top, looking down on pine needles coated with a soapy substance to imitate snow. In the front yard, Santa and his reindeer, laden with their gifts, nearly collided with the three wise men, laden with theirs, while a plastic Baby Jesus slept peacefully, apparently undisturbed by the flashing halos of Mary, Joseph, and the heavenly host.
On Christmas morning, Santa Claus and Grammy blended into one great benefactor. When Mom thought I was too young for a plastic compact with lipstick and powder – Grammy came through. When Dad insisted that a 45 rpm record player was a waste of money – Grammy knew better. And every Christmas, every grandchild received a stuffed toy – sometimes with a sewn-in music box, sometimes with eyes that blinked, and always with a fuzzy body that smelled of new, synthetic material. That was because Grammy worked in a toy factory. Even after I had outgrown the toys, I saw them as a sign of Grammy’s status in this world – for she would often point out that she, personally, had sewn this bunny’s ear or that monkey’s tail.
If Grammy Wilson never seemed to grow old, it was hard to believe that my other grandmother – Grammy Smith – had ever been young. She wore house dresses with a broach at the neck, big aprons with bibs, and strange, large underwear with laces, which I saw once when I was quite small and never forgot. Her grey hair was parted in the middle, stretched tightly across the crown of her head, with thin braids that began above her ears and made a circle at the nape of her neck. There was nothing frivolous about her at all.
Even if Grammy Smith had had a front yard, she would not have filled it with flashing lights and plastic figures at Christmas. She celebrated the holiday with the reserve of a good Pennsylvania Dutch Lutheran. She attended church activities. She baked molasses and sugar cookies in the shape of santas, birds, trees, and wreaths. She set a table overflowing with overcooked food. She bought modest gifts for her family. And in honour of the season, she wore special Christmas aprons and a special Christmas pin.
The brightest spot on these holiday visits was the stockings. These were no ordinary Christmas stockings. They were long, beige nylon snakes – discarded nylon stockings before the days of pantyhose – distorted by strangely shaped, paper-wrapped lumps. To each one was pinned a little scrap of paper with a name penciled on it in Grammy’s wobbly hand.
As soon as the wrapped gifts were opened – sensible sweaters, pot holders, a wallet – Grammy passed the stockings around, one for each child and adult. For the next half hour we worked our way toward the toe, deeper and deeper, until we had nylon scrunched up to our armpits. I always got a barrette (the same barrette) with my name on it. My mom always got a little box of smelling salts from a funeral parlour. There were combs from insurance companies, little calendars from banks, cellophane-wrapped jacks from the Wheaties box, campaign buttons from a recent election, a tiny book of Bible stories, samples of toothpaste, soap from motels, pens advertising real estate agents, shiny hard candies, flat white mints, an orange, an apple, some nuts, and always, in the very toe, a penny. To remind us how lucky we were.
Grammy Wilson was lively, fun, energetic, irreverant, often inappropriate – a perfect grandma for a little girl. But it’s Grammy Smith I feel looking over my shoulder as I roll out her molasses cookies and nodding in approval as I hoard free samples of toothpaste to tuck into the stockings.