Thursday, December 21, 2006


A friend of mine keeps after me to write about Christmas at the Farm. There is something about a huge family celebrating holidays together that fuels the imagination of many people, and I think it is because our world has become so different, with families separated by distance, and Christmas more a stressful jaunt through department stores than a way to celebrate togetherness.

Mom and Pop certainly didn't have money for gifts back then. One year they gave Helma, Harlan (Deed) and I fresh oranges for Christmas. What a savory treat that was! I took my orange into the bedroom that I shared with Helma and hid it under my pillow. Every night, I would take that orange out and sniff it, rolling it in my hands, feeling its plump, juicy pulp.

Of course, it withered. I kept sniffing, and the orange kept shrinking and eventually turned black with rot. I never did eat it, because it seemed a desecration to destroy such a beautiful object, even though I despaired the shrinking of its size and the discoloration of its flesh. It was as though some wonderful, uplifting goodness was disappearing before my eyes.

Once in a while, now that I am past those years, I sit on my porch and eat an orange. In the Springtime, the orioles always return to my yard, so I slice a few oranges and place them in the trees. Then I sit in my swing, wipe away the juice from my orange, and wait for those colorful, brilliant birds that look so much like flying fruit, so beautiful they take one's breath away....and I always remember that Christmas orange, coming into my thoughts once again like Ghost of Christmas Past.

Mom had the house polished and gleaming on Christmas Day. In the kitchen, the old stove was roaring with ambition, loaded with wood, and Mom's pumpkin pies spiced up the air. Her pies were thin, just a half-inch or so of pumpkin layering the pieshell, but they were bland and delicious, almost buttery on the tongue. The pumpkin grew in her garden and she always saved plenty for Christmas dinner.

She always made meatloaf for Christmas. Her meatloaf was a magical dish, and I always think of it in terms of Christ feeding the multitudes. Mom took a pound or two of hamburger and started adding ingredients until that meatloaf filled a huge pan. I never knew exactly what she added to that meat, but the end result fed every one of us and was tasty enough for seconds, if a slice or two remained on the dish.

All of my brothers and sisters would be there, with their families. The house literally shook up and down with the exuberance of children. There were all sizes of children, a majority of them the same age as myself. All my neices and nephews, my companions, my buddies, my partners in crime. We were never sedate, well-behaved children. How could we be? There was seldom, if ever, any discipline. Children were put on a pedestal in my family. They were always cute, bright, brainy and amusing. They could do no wrong.

Fortunately, all of us loved to sing. We would gather around Helma's piano and sing our heart's out, only a couple of us musically talented, but all of us loud. My sister, Hazel, had the voice of an angel. She could make tears come to your eyes with the depth and beauty of her voice. That wonderful voice was bequeathed to her grandson, Rodney, who was the best male singer I have ever heard, and who died much, much too early of a heart attack.

I can remember Hubert and Gerry, his wife, harmonizing. I told her this just a few days ago, and she denied it, but I do remember it.

"I've never been able to sing," she said, but I well remember that melodic voice and her and Hubert sitting, arm in arm, as he strummed his guitar and they sang together.

Bud and Connie would sit together, too, just listening to the melee. Oh, how they enjoyed the children. They would talk to this one or that, and laugh and nod as though each child was a treasury of entertainment. Hjalmar and Nelle have that quality, too, a love of children that makes them seek them out in a crowd and chortle at their remarks.

"Look, Tony, look at him!" Nelle will say to Hjalmar, whom she has always called Tony. "Isn't he cute?"

And, together, they will carry on a conversation with a child as though he were spouting words of wisdom. Our family has always acted like this around children.

I remember them all so vividly, Harry, Herman, Homer, Hazel, Hilda, Harold, Hubert, Helen, Hjalmar, Harlan, Helma and myself. Their smiles are as clear to me today as they were back then, and we didn't need Christmas lights to brighten our holiday.

Pop would cut the top off a pine tree in the woods behind the orchard and drag it home. Then Helma and I decorated it with gum wrappers and pieces of tinsel. During the war, we had to give up on the tinsel because Pop saved it for the war effort. He had a huge ball of it, gathered from his pipe tobacco packages. Then Hazel gave us some decorations for our next tree. How beautiful I remember them to have been, big shiny glass balls that, if you stared into them, would reveal the future, the handsome prince whom I would marry, the land of plenty that would be my home, and the huge oak desk where I would write my stories and send them out for the world to read!

My brothers and sisters usually bought me gifts and, each year, Hubert would think up some way to tease me with them. One year, I thought I had no gifts at all and I sat in a chair by the woodstove, feeling pitifully neglected, but trying to put on a brave face. Down at my feet was a string tied to my chair leg and, after staring at it for a moment, I picked it up. The string seemed to be endless. I pulled and pulled and followed its course. Finally, behind a couch, Hubert had hidden all my gifts. He thought it was hilariously funny and spent the day describing my expression when I found that pile of gifts.

One of the gifts, given to me by Bud and Connie, was a diary. I wrote in it every night, recording the mundane adventures of my limited life. Then I lost the diary, unaware that it had fallen into the timbers of the old house. Years later, when the Farm was demolished, a man who helped tear it down called me on the telephone.

"Are you Herma, age 14; bust 36; waist, 18; hips 36?" he queried. "If so, I have your diary!"

"That's me!" I replied. It was a lie back when I wrote it and a lie when I claimed it, but who would ever know?

Years later, I applied for a passport so I could travel to England with my grandson. I had a very difficult time with the United States Passport office, because I could not prove I was born in the U.S.A. I did not obtain a birth certificate until I was fourteen, when I had needed one so that Hubert could send money from his Army wages. Because the doctor had not registered my birth, only the word of several family friends enabled me to get a birth certificate, but this was not enough to satisfy the Passport office. They said that I could easily have been born in Mexico or Canada. They wanted me to send them something that would verify my birth, like an old family Bible with all of the children's births recorded in it.

In my home, there is not one item salvaged from my youth. I have a faded plastic brooch with a rose encased in the plastic that my mother used to wear pinned on the front of her dress. I also have Aunt Sylvia's Bible, with notations here and there that clearly record the fact that her mind was wandering. Other than that, there is nothing to bring back the memories of those childhood years. It makes one wonder if anyone in the U.S. Passport office has ever been poor, ever grown up in a huge family where mementos do not drift down to the 12th Child, if they exist at all.

It was the census bureau and a state legislator that finally obtained my Passport, because all I could provide are memories, just like the ones I am writing today. Memories won't get you a passport, but they last longer than old family Bibles or any other family treasure. I don't have to tie them into a bundle with ribbon or keep them in a chest smelling of mothballs. I can take them out and remember them at will....remember Donna Belle's beautiful, movie star face; mine and my sister, Helma's, shared little girl fears; my brother, Deed's, teenaged struggles....all of it, a huge assortment of memories, sweeter than wine and just as intoxicating.

On Christmas Eve, sometimes carolers would come to the farm, a large group of people from a local church. They would stand outside in the snow and sing, and it was a peaceful, mesmerizing moment as those carols filtered through the boards of the old farmhouse. Tears would come to my eyes and I just knew I was the happiest and the luckiest little girl on earth, even if Ronald did yank my hair and steal the food off my plate. Mom was in the kitchen, preparing the food, Pop was in his chair with his pipe, and all was well with the world!