The Best Christmas Present Ever
Christmas time was a special time around our household. Decorations at home, decorations to put up at the store, treats being baked for the holidays, mom putting together music for school, music for church... presents slowly filling in under the tree covering the tree skirt. Our Christmas Eve gathering/gift opening (yes, we always did Christmas Eve not Christmas morning... that's just how we rolled) was our family (Mom, Dad, Chris, Matthew and I) and then the two grandma's (Grandma O and Grandma Gert) and Rolly and cousin Sara. So the gifts would fill in pretty quickly and quite numerously.
I remember one year when I was about 7 or 8 that presents weren't filling in for me and I was getting very antsy for more to show up sooner, so I took it upon myself to make some presents, even though I didn't know how to wrap a present nor did I have any gifts to wrap. So I made some. I put two paper plates facing each other creating a pocket of sorts... big enough to put SOMETHING in... and I did. I don't remember what it was, but I put some little trinkets in them and then taped them shut. I put bows on them and wrote the "to" and "from"s and put them under the tree and then convinced Mom that we should open some presents... my presents. It was like hors d'oeuvres for the upcoming Christmas Eve... it was enough to hold me over... I didn't really care about everybody else, I just wanted to open something.
My wish list every Christmas was never TOO crazy. My parents would usually ask for a list and I'd get one thing off that list. I had to be careful; ask for too much and I'd get the worst thing on the list... ask for too little and I'd get too little. It was the only kind of gambling I played as a kid, and I was not very good at it.
We'd get the JCPenny Christmas Catalog in the mail before Thanksgiving and it became my main source of reading for the next month. The gift section (toys) was half the catalog and I'd browse that thing front to back then back to front then all over again. I'd circle the "maybe's" and then evaluate my choices and re-evaluate those until I was sure where I wanted to land with my final list.
Every year there was something that seemed to be "shooting for the stars" and I always wondered if it was even worth throwing it out there. I didn't want to miss out on an amazing opportunity... If I didn't shoot for the stars, how would I ever get the amazing "whatever"? I can remember thinking that each "thing" that was so amazing was going to be the most amazing thing I ever got. One year it was a remote control car. I got it. Was it amazing? Meh. not really. The next year it was a miniature pinball game. I got it. Was it amazing? Meh. Not really. This pattern repeated pretty much every year of my youth. Wish... Get.... Meh. Wish... Get... Meh. It's not that I was ungrateful, it's just that I was getting caught up in WANTING a gift more than what the gift was for. I could be found counting the gifts as they built up. Finding the one that was marked with my name and try to figure out which thing off my list it COULD be. When left home alone or near the gifts for too long, I'd most likely be found near the pile of presents sizing mine up. Shaking, weighing, sliding back and forth... and yes, I can admit it now (considering Mom and Dad are no longer around) I carefully unwrapped one present then re-wrapped it. I had never performed such delecate surgery and it rattled my nerves. Afterwards, I knew that I didn't like that I had done that, so I never did it again. I do remember that often I'd call a friend or friends up and see what they got so we could figure out what we were going to play with the most. Did Peter get a BB gun or did Jeff get that one cool video game? The photo call was brief and just a rundown to compare notes, maybe wish each other Merry Christmas.
As I got older the gifts got a bit more selective and I remember being a bit more disappointed every once in a while. But I also began to realize that the gifts weren't why we were doing what we were doing. The music began to sink in. The words began to make sense to me. I began to realize that the Grandma's weren't going to be around forever. What I didn't count on was that the number of Christmases that I'd get to experience as a family like this were coming to a close quickly. I didn't know that Mom and Dad were going to divorce about the time that I headed off to college. I didn't realize that shortly after that I'd love one grandma and that Christmases were going to be not full of music and decorations like they were when Mom was still around. Dad did his best to keep the holiday traditions together with his brother Rolly and Sara and then us boys, but it was never the same.
Slowly, year after year, the memories of Christmas became more and more nostalgic to me. The music was from when times were Norman Rockwell-ish to me. The harmonies of the Christmas hymns were sung the same year after year... they became tattoo'd in my brain... I'd follow the tenor line in the green hymnal and sing along ... every year... year after year... and I still do. I don't have to even look at the line anymore, it's the only notes I hear when I hear the songs now.
But since the passing of my parents, especially Mom, the singing of those songs has become incredibly difficult. That tenor line that so easily came to me now just reminds me about how Mom showed me how to find my part in any song. I think about Mom playing the hymns on the organ. I think about how good the times were and how I didn't even know it.
When the music plays, often it takes all I can muster to just sing the melody let alone any of the harmony. My stomach instead sinks and heart swells as I feel the memories sweep through me. My eyes will tear up and the lump in my throat grows to a point when singing becomes impossible. I love Christmas and Christmas music, but I think that the memories of it is still too much for me to get past. And that's ok.
I try to appreciate the reason of the season. I try to appreciate what I've got in my life that's amazing. I try to appreciate what I had and how that set a foundation for me for all the things in my life now. I think about where the next Christmases may be and what memories may be created. I think about how I hope to be able to sing those songs again and how I'll still remember singing them with Mom and Dad up in the balcony in Zion.
I'm writing this now as I go to bed on Christmas Eve. Tomorrow will be a new day, a new Christmas that I'll spend with my daughter and my brother's family. We'll exchange a few gifts and likely watch a Christmas movie or two. Have some soup. Play some games. Just enjoy each other's company. Perhaps memories will come up of the time that we spent in the past together. We'll talk about the food Mom used to make and the gifts we opened. How we always opened the presents oldest to youngest. How eager the kids were to get toys and how the adults loved getting tools or soap on a rope or socks. Dad smoking his pipe lending his air to the heavy scents of apple cider and cinnamon, smoke from the fireplace and wax of the candles. We'll enjoy our time together and perhaps now, I will enjoy it all the more as I savor everybody's company and these moments of family. Perhaps I'll tape together a few paper plates and see if anybody enjoys the gifts from Little JT. Everybody likes opening gifts. I bet they won't be able to figure out what's in them. Perhaps I'll call up some friends and wish them a Merry Christmas and see what they got for gifts... see if there's anything worth going over and playing with! Maybe Jeff finally a cool video game or Peter finally got a BB gun. That WOULD be kind of fun. Maybe it would take my mind of the past and start moving forward.
If you don't hear from me, don't be offended... I tend to get chatty and may only talk to a couple people all day. But know that if I know you, you are likely in my thoughts during this season as I think back on all my Christmas memories.
The Miraculous Microwave
It was probably the third most anticipated thing that we got in our home as I grew up, second to cable tv, a VCR and just ahead of the Pac Man video game coming out on Atari. The microwave oven was going to be the solution to all of our worries.
The early model Litton microwave that we got had a rotary dial counter on it and I worried about radiation poisoning from it. When it ran, I didn't stand near it. I was a paranoid little man... I also never drank out of the faucet whenever I flushed the toilet. Yeah, I know, I had issues.
But the microwave was going to revolutionize our kitchen. So many things were going to be easier to cook! I remember hearing that we'd be able to make eggs, nachos, hot chocolate... not to mention re-heating leftovers was going to be a breeze! And we heard that soggy chips could be zapped and the moisture would be forced out of them rendering them crispy again.
I think the first thing I ever made on my own was a couple of scrambled eggs. I took two eggs, cracked them into a glassware bowl and whisked them up. I stretched a piece of plastic wrap over the top and put it in the microwave and set the settings dial to "high" and then rotated about 1:00 onto the dial. The plastic inflated almost immediately and I watched as the eggs inside the bowl popped and solidified into a mass of cooked eggs. When the timer scrolled down to zero and the microwave gave off it's *ding*, I carefully removed the hot bowl with hotpads and peeled back the now super soft saran wrap. Add a little salt and pepper to the eggs and stir them up. They tasted slightly dried or overcooked, but otherwise not entirely inedible. But I cooked them. All by myself. It was the first step to moving out on my own.
Soon I was trying to figure out how to make my own soup. I put water in a cup and cut up carrot and some celery., salt and pepper..... and that's it. I tried zapping it. One minute didn't seem to do anything. I tried a few more minutes. I let it cool a little and spooned a taste to my mouth. It was perfect..... perfectly bad. I had succeeded in making hot carrot water. The carrots were of course still crisp and the water had taken on NO flavor of the vegetables. My first failure. I wouldn't be discouraged though.
I remember taking a bag of chips that had been open for a while and I laid those on a paper plate and gave them a good 30 seconds on the dial. *ding* Yep.... my second failure. I succeeded in making hot soggy potato slices.
Nachos were a breeze. Tostito chips with a little shredded cheese on them and then a dab of salsa and a green olive. microwaved for just over 30 seconds. THOSE were good.
It was quickly obvious that the microwave wasn't going to solve all of our problems, but it did make our lives a little easier. I remember as more and more foods came out that were microwave friendly. I remember distinctly when they started advertising for french fries made in the microwave. This is something people today wouldn't appreciate. Yes, we had french fries in our day, but in Garretson, there was no "fast food" option. We had the Corner Cafe, the bowling alley and KC's. You could get great fries at any one of those places. My first date with Jennie Schetnan in 4th grade was going over to the bowling alley and getting an order of french fries and a couple of sodas and then playing video games. Pretty hot stuff, right there. I remember we both liked the fries salty with ketchup. But now french fries would be available in the frozen aisle and be able to be made in a snap by anyone... even me. I remember when the grocery got them and I was so excited to get them home and try them. I don't remember if it was Virg's IGA yet or if it was still Sunshine. I just know that I put the little red box in the microwave for the instructed time and let it rip. I pulled them out and was so sadly disappointed in the limp and soggy hot potato stick. I threw some salt on them, thinking that the salt would be like some magic dust that would make the fries instantly crispy, but unfortunately, no, that didn't work. It was a sad day in JT's world.
Other things would work just fine in that miraculous machine. Some better than others. But it never could overtake the cable tv or the VCR on my list of amazing inventions introduced to our home., but it was going always be well ahead of the disappointment that Pac Man on Atari brought upon the earth. THAT can be saved for another time.
That Last Christmas Tree
I grew up in family with an artificial Christmas tree. We weren't heathens. We were good Christians. I just never knew anything different than the tree we had, other than the ones on tv that people picked out from a converted car lot or something and wrapped up in twine like some crazy plot to a hostage movie and took it home on the top of their station wagon. (In my memory, everybody drove station wagons in the 70's). But we had our forever and ever evergreen that we just unboxed each year and put it up like the year before. We still had to assemble it, branch by branch and Matthew and I would both help mom find the right colored tip branch to put in next (bottom row black, then white, then red, then yellow, then blue, then gray, then the top). I loved putting that tree together. It meant that the season was starting. I loved Christmas music. I loved the decorations. I loved getting presents.
Junior High Dances
The time had finally come for my classmates and I to have a proper "dance" at school. The Junior High had traditionally (at least for a couple years before us) held a couple dances per year for the 7th and 8th grade (One in the fall and then one around Valentine's Day). They were held in the cafeteria which was the room just north of the gymnasium. It was also the concession "hang out" area during half-times of basketball games and other events. It was a wide and white room. The white ceiling tiles echoed the white tile floor.
During lunch there were three long rows of end to end tables. I don't remember any particular order to who would sit where, but the teacher's table was the area closest to the dishwashing/tray scraping area. Once in a while, there'd be a student in their midst... I think as a punishment, but I'm not sure of that.
My First Cassette Tape
I remember making the purchase vividly. We were in Miller for Thanksgiving and I think I was 11 so it must've been 1981 but it might have been when I was 12 (1982)... it was the year before or after going to New Mexico. When we were in town we usually made a visit down to the Rexall Drug that their family ran. It was always fun to go there because they had a soda fountain and we'd usually get a treat or two. There was a rack of cassette tapes off to the side and as I looked through them, I came across my celebrity crush: Olivia Newton John. I loved her since I was younger. We had always listened to her music in our family. She was in Grease and she was cute. She was easy to like. The cassettes all ran $7. I ripped open my blue velcro wallet and parted with seven of my dollar bills. I now owned music purchased by my own doing. It was exciting. To be completely clear here, though, the album was NOT that good, but it DID have her on the cover, so it was all good.
Another writing that I found from a while back. I think I had reminesced about the first day of cross country practice at about the same time that the writing about the first day of track had crossed my mind... so I think was around 1996 or 1997.
The front lawn of the school along Main was still hot, even in the shade of the early August afternoon and the humid air still smelt of strong summer air.... sort of a mix of hot pavement, cut grass, dust and sweat. These were the beginning of the closing days of summer and because we were starting practice today for cross country, I could tell that the end of summer of definitely closing in on us.
Winter finally arrived this last week. The arctic front raced across the brown grasslands and corn stubble of eastern South Dakota, the sparse barbed wire doing it's best to slow it down when it could, but the slight whistle of warning to zip up and put on a hat and gloves was about all it could do to contribute. So people zipped up their parkas and jackets, found their hats and gloves in the back of their closets... the arduous hunt for the pair. At first they just carry them with them... the Norwegian self-denial that it's really this cold. The German stubbornness holding onto their pride of being able to handle the cold. The realists having already been wearing hats and gloves weeks ago when the temperatures was in the 40's.
Mom's Christmas Program
Not only do I not know where to begin when talking about my mom's elementary school music programs, I also wouldn't know where to end. I was a part of them as a participant for 7 years... 9 if you count the times that she was also the junior high school band instructor and I was in junior high. 13 if you count the next 4 years when I was recruited to help set up and take down risers, run the spotlight when necessary, or be an all-purpose general helper/roadie for mom. These programs were a logistic network coordinated by mom, but the generals on the ground were all the teachers that helped pull their part and got each class in to place when they needed to be and out of the way when they needed to be. They were the supervisors of the busy little mouths that were all aflutter and excited to be both in their classroom in the evening (which was always kind of cool for the kids) and then to be all dressed up and ready to sing for their parents and their grandparents.
Before we had Facebook to remind us when everybody's birthdays and anniversaries were, we had the Garretson Band Calendar. It contained the birthdays and anniversaries of every individual and couple in Garretson that cared enough to have their name listed for 25 cents.
I couldn't find an example of the calendar itself, but I did find the receipt for an order placed by a citizen with a band student. In this case it was Dr. Marvin Wingert's bill for 16 listings and 2 calendars (He probably needed one at home and one up at Splitrock Clinic in his office.).
The calendar also predates the school calendar .pdf that is downloadable at any school's website now. This calendar came out at the beginning of the school year and contained all the school sporting events and holidays. I seem to remember the top part was a gridwork of advertisements and an image of the school band lined up in their uniforms or sitting in the concert semi-circle or some other image of the sort. I don't know who sold the ad spots... I don't remember needing to collect anything for those, maybe Sanders Printing took care of the collection of the logos and money from the sponsors or maybe the band booster parents did that part, I'm not sure.
Band members would go out door-to-door and sell calendars for $2.50 each and a spot on the calendar for a quarter. As per indicated on the receipt in the image, the was done in the spring and then they were printed in the summer and we'd distribute them at the beginning of the school year come August or September.
I remember that as a younger kid, I thought it was so cool to have my name in print and that when August 17th came around, EVERYBODY was looking at my name. I don't remember if I had to share the date with anybody, but I do remember that certain days on the calendar had multiple people listed. Other days in August right near mine were stacked with birthdays. August 13th, for example, always had 4 or 5 people lilsted on it as did a few other days in August. I think I shared my birthday with the anniversary of Allan and Ruth Hammer.
I don't know how long they continued this project, I'll have to ask around and see... probably right up to the advent of online .pdfs and/or Facebook. I do remember that we kept our's on the side of the fridge. I'd watch the days click by, watching for family members' birthdays or maybe a classmate's. It was the first social network spot that provided so much trivial information. I kind of miss that.
The Joke Tree
As I walked past the old tree on the parking that was marked to be cut down soon, I thought back. I thought back to all the memories that I held with that tree. All of my friends and I referred to it as the Joke Tree. It derived it's name from the fact that we would all climb up into it's branches then sit there and tell jokes. Late into summer evenings as the summer sun would go slowly into darkness, we would hold our posts on those branches. Sometimes there was only a couple of us, other times it could be closer to ten. Even if it started to rain, we could stay put under the natural umbrella of it's cover. It was far from the largest tree on the block, but it had the lowest and most easily accessible branches so it was the easiest to climb
I'm just a creative guy that's looking to throw all this spaghetti onto the wall and hope something sticks.