Sunday, December 11, 2005


Pop always went out into the woods around the Farm and whacked the top off a pine tree, dragging it back up to the house for use as a Christmas tree. Then Helma and I would collect our assortment of gum wrappers and ribbons and decorate the tree. We didn't have "storebought" decorations until I was in high school, when my sister, Hazel, donated a boxful of bulbs and garlands.

We were doubly excited on the Christmas I remember most, because my sister, Helen, was bringing her bridegroom, Shippy, home to introduce him to the family. The entire clan, 100 strong, gathered for that historic moment, with little children running underfoot in a state of frenzy and the floorboards of the old house shaking in excitement.

My brother, Hubert, was elected to pick up the newlyweds at the airport. Shippy was a Navy ensign who planned to enter law school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which impressed us all. He and Helen had met in San Francisco and would make their home in Milwaukee as soon as his Navy service was completed.

Hubert had a slinky, luxurious new Cadillac, which I think he won somewhere, so we knew our family would make a good impression on the newcomer. An ice storm had made the streets and roads hazardous, so we worried about the trip to and from Metropolitan Airport. In between worried glances at the road outside the farmhouse, Mom was busy making her special holiday Meat Loaf, which consisted of a few pounds of meat combined with enormous amounts of ingredients intended to "stretch" the meat as far as it would go. She could feed innumerable people with her meatloaf, her biscuits and her popular milk gravy, which sopped up the biscuits into a mouth-watering treat.

She had killed chickens, too, frying them in the cast-iron pan to a crisp golden brown, brought up her vegetables and apple sauce from the cellar, and made some pumpkin pies. Mom's pies were delicious, if a little thin. Like the meatloaf, she stretched....and made sure everyone was stuffed when they left the table.

By noon, we were all peering down the road, waiting for sign of that yellow Cadillac. The streets were a glaze of ice. My brother, Bud, spotted it first and brought us the news.

"It's at the bottom of the hill and can't get up it," he announced. "They need help!"

This was the trigger we were all waiting for. Man, woman and child threw on coats and poured out of the farmhouse, down the rickety porch, and off down the road, skidding on the ice. Shippy must have thought he was being descended upon by a horde of avengers as we surrounded the car and pushed it up the hill. It was rather an ignoble end to the journey of that luxurious car, but at least everyone was safe.

Meals were always an experience at the Farm. Mom made benches by using old planks and placing them from one chair to another. Once you took your place, you were caught there, squeezed in by the shoulders of the persons next to you. If you started passing a dish, you would get a portion of its contents. But, if the passing started across the table from you, the dish would be empty by the time it arrived at your place. I have had holiday dinners when the only things available to me were the cottage cheese, which I refused to eat, the pickles, and a dish of beets. And one time, my sister-in-law, Connie, became so frustrated that she pulled herself up on the table, picked her way through the obstacle course of food, and selected a piece of chicken for herself before tiptoeing back along the tabletop. Connie was our madcap, full of fun, and always ready for an escapade.

However, at this meal, we were carefully courteous, offering Shippy and Helen first dibs on the food. There would be plenty of time later to go back to our old ways, and we wanted to extend a good welcome to our guests.

After dinner, we went into the living room. The musical ones among us gathered around the piano to belt out some Christmas carols. Others clustered around the woodstove in the corner of the room. There, Shippy learned what we always called the "Chair Shuffle".

The Chair Shuffle began when one snuggled around a lukewarm wood stove. As the wood began to burn and the heat would pour outward, one scooted backward to evade First Degree burns. Then, as the heat abated, one had to scoot forward again, closer to the stove. This shuffle went on throughout the afternoon.

Mid afternoon, Shippy turned to Hubert and asked, "Could you tell me where the bathroom is located?"

It is the only time I have ever seen Hubert speechless. I think it was Herman who gently said, "It's outside. Just go out the kitchen door and follow the path."

So, Shippy, with the look of a doomed man, donned his coat, boots, hat, gloves and scarf and trudged out the kitchen door. I was probably the only one who knew that he would be attacked, because I had spotted that darned rooster near the path earlier in the day.

Sure enough, there was a shout and the angry squall of an attacking chicken, and I could only imagine the scene on that path. Saucy had a tendency to hang onto your pantleg to the death, and no amount of shaking could dislodge him. So it seemed like hours later when Shippy, obviously shaken, made it back into the house, followed by Mom and her broom.

The exchange of gifts came late in the day. Everyone received gifts but me. I was neglected and forgotten and could hardly keep the tears from flowing down my cheeks as I forced myself to smile and nod as others opened gifts.

Then I found a string on the floor by my feet. I started pulling at the string and it kept going. I followed it to a spot behind a chair. There, in a pile, were my Christmas gifts. My nemesis, Hubert, had struck again. I could hear hims laughing as he described the expression on my face. Hubert loved to torture me and his green eyes would shine with delight at the success of his pranks.

So, Shippy was introduced to the ramshackle farmhouse and the enormous family that welcomed him so profusely. As the years went by, he returned again and again, always full of tales about the miserable walks to the outdoor john, the misery of sleeping under Mom's heavy quilts, and the impossibility of getting any food into your plate at mealtime. He was the life of our yearly reunion, wearing an assortment of colorful print suits, sartorial splendor in the midst of our chattering clan.

Shippy recently passed away and we all miss him, that tall, expressive lawyer, a fun-loving extrovert, resembling Peter Sellers so much, who was such a beloved member of our huge family.