The long old oak table gleamed like golden honey, someone’s effort to wax and shine evident in its warm glow. All six extensions were in place, stretching the usually small oval form from one end of the ancient farmhouse’s dining room to the other. Grandma and Aunt Sally hosted Christmas each year, one week before the big day, so we celebrated not one but two Christmases. Happy chatter filled the rooms bursting with all eight of us Wilkinson kids, Mom, Aunt Rita, Uncle Fred and their three kids, our cousins, Scott, Annie, and Larry.
Even the youngest, including me, were allowed to help properly situate the crisp white tablecloths over the seemingly endless length of smooth wood. A slight hint of pine arose as Scott and Don shook them before settling askew, as we helped pull the edges so it hung just right, one cloth slightly overlapping another. After storage in cedar lined trunks, they’d been ironed and starched, the soft thick cloth slightly stiff. The kid’s cloth-covered card table tucked to the side would be my seat, along with Stevie and my cousin Larry.
Next we set out plates, then silverware, cloth napkins, glasses, coffee cups with saucers, salt and pepper shakers, ladles, serving forks, and the sugar and creamers. Doing my best to fold the napkins with precision took time, and then the silverware had to be placed in exact order. Annie, older by seven years, held court, directing us younger helpers, then added the finishing touches by lighting all the candles. The room warmed with a soft glow, the flickering light beckoned for all to gather.
Uncle Fred stayed reclusive even among us. He’d force a smile, and then remove himself from the lively gathering as quickly as possible with excuses of a hot football game back at his house across the road. I couldn’t understand why he’d leave the gay party. His structured smile always softened when he said “hello‟ to me. But Aunt Rita rocked with holiday fervor, pounding out carols, while I sat on the piano bench next to her, following along, loving the songs of Christmas, and loving even more that she knew how to play them, turning the pages when she nodded her head. Mom and Aunt Rita exchanged a look that cooled the atmosphere briefly, and it wouldn’t be until years later that I’d learn what caused that soured rift, Mom used instant potatoes in her dish to pass instead of making them from scratch.
Sitting down for the big meal was just something to get done with, barely tolerated, especially by the three of us at the little table. It seemed to take forever to eat. Warmth and activity filled the kitchen along with smells of roasting turkey, bubbling gravy and other mysterious tempting aromas wafting from the oven. We moved through the bustling kitchen quickly with gentle scoldings. “You kids stay out of here,” could be heard from one smiling chef or another.
We jumped into the living room, exploding with excitement to examine the tree again, which filled the bay window alcove. The floor-length windows shimmered with brilliant colors reflected back, mirroring the festive scene, intensifying it. Underneath, prettily wrapped presents in assorted shapes awaited happy hands, the old- fashioned, fat, colored bulbs enhancing their mystery and attraction brightly. Silver tinsel, thickly adorned, streamed downward, glittering with movement in the air current. My favorite ornament sent bubbles into its colored liquid when plugged in, the water inside the tiny tube heating up. The tree’s branches hid several white envelopes slipped in-between branches, but those didn’t captivate us. Our eyes quickly skimmed past them to the gifts below.
Moving constantly with high-test kid energy, the tree securely the same as only moments before, I flounced to the other end of the living room, braking at the treat table to study the candy dish. Its contents overflowed with beautiful striped colored candies of various shades—yellow, green, orange, red, and some swirled with two colors together. That would be for later, the sugary thin brittle ribbon, fun to break into bite-sized chunks, crunching the sweetness, trying to detect each individual flavor: mint, cherry, orange, lime or lemon? The opened box of chocolates next to the fancy ribbon twirls didn’t stand a chance.
Not old enough to be trusted to fill the punch pitcher, I followed Don out to the frigid breezeway where the tall kettle held gallons of fizzy red holiday punch. He used a long-handled porcelain covered dipper to refill it, and I rubbed my arms up and down jumping in a circle to stay warm. The breezeway kept the punch at a perfect temperature without freezing it. Reentering the bright kitchen felt like suddenly being wrapped in hot blankets.
Feasting time approached. Potatoes were scraped into serving bowls, gravy and the rest of the fixings all transferred from cooking pots to Grandma’s multi-colored Fiesta ware. The rolls were handed to me, and I set them on the table before joining Stevie and Larry at our own table. The others began to gather ‘round and settle in for Grace.
Finally sixteen people seated themselves and our eldest cousin, Scott, led the prayer. We bent our heads, clasped our hands, then the meal began, the quiet suddenly erupting with tinkling silverware, clinking dishes and, “Will you pass the gravy? Do you have the pepper?”
No one bothered to tell us what food we had to eat, a plus for the separate table, but once we were done, we had to sit there till everyone else finished. The wait felt like an eternity. Then the clearing began which we helped with, glad for some activity. After the dishes were delivered to the sink area, we flounced impatiently on the couches near the tree, while the clatter of washing dishes continued in the kitchen. Next? Dessert.
I suddenly perked up. I guess I could wait a little longer, but the question begged, which one? Grandma traditionally offered a two-layer chocolate cake topped with fudge frosting, so massive you needed a sharp knife to cut through the deep wad of fudge that dropped off the edges of the almost black confection. Aunt Sally ensured someone had made a run to the city creamery for the perfect, special, peppermint stick ice-cream, pink, and sweeter around the real pieces of slightly crunchy red and green candy mixed inside. And the required pumpkin and apple pies filled the counter, served plain or à la mode, along with dark, rich, freshly perked coffee from Grandma’s plug-in percolator.
So the shuffling for chairs began again as everyone sat to ingest the sweets, complaining of how full they were. We picked at our desserts and chattered as the ice cream melted in our dessert cups, excited that soon we’d be ready for the tree. This time clean-up went quickly. Paper plates with Santa faces were dropped into large trash bags, held by Scott or Don. Some took their coffee with them as they left the table. And then the time came, we blasted into the living room. Finally, the tree!
Sitting cross-legged on the floor, as close to the tree as possible, my fingers clasped and unclasped impatiently as we eagerly awaited the dispersal of gifts. The main event had begun. Everything we’d been waiting for over the last several months culminated into this, wishes to be answered, dreams to come true.
When the Sears Wish Book had arrived before the snow flew, Stevie and I pored over every page. That catalog represented the bible of toy heaven. It held beautiful color images of toys we had never imagined. Our wish lists grew long. Then the studied list had to be organized from most wanted on down. This serious business took time and diligence, more fevered energy devoted to it than to any dedicated to homework. When the list felt just right, perfectly displaying our hearts’ delights, only then did we deliver it to Grandma.
And wishes do come true. The previous year my list topper had been a doll that pooped and peed, vacillating between her and an Easy Bake Oven. The dolly that pooped won out. Over time, the wish list matured, and included a glorious long-haired, blond Barbie doll, complete with extra fancy clothing: a long silk gown, heels, a purse, and of course a tiny hairbrush and comb, accompanied by a closet-like case to keep her and the numerous accessories in. Little hangers were even included, like a real closet, with small drawers below for shoes, hats, or jewelry.
As preadolescence approached, gifts that plugged in would become desirable; the most favored, a record player able to handle 45s and 33s, with a little attachment to hold a tall stack of the smaller one-song 45s. One after another, the latest hits dropped down. After all of the records played, they were flipped over for the songs on the other side to reverberate. “Pretty Woman” echoed through the bedroom walls repeatedly, as my friends and I danced and gyrated. But this year all the rage was Chatty Cathy—pull the string in her back and she talked!
I barely sat still. Scott seemed to take quiet pleasure in drawing out the process. Grandma opened a black leather handbag that looked just like the one she already had. Aunt Sally’s gifts were given out one by one, always a book of interest, and especially chosen to meet the tastes and needs of each recipient. I loved reading due to her tireless efforts, reading all the golden books out loud to me, as we lay together on the couch at night. I cherished books, and my gift anxiety for my long awaited dolly was momentarily relieved while opening a hardcover storybook that now belonged only to me. My ability to read hadn’t evolved to thicker chapter books, but with years to come I’d receive many grand titles including the Nancy Drew series of which I read every one, My Friend Flicka, The Yearling, and so many more treasures that took me to far-off places.
The time had arrived. A big, gaily wrapped box was laid on my lap. Noise, light, and laughter stopped, tuned out; all that existed was the pretty paper, ripped off immediately. There she lay, gloriously beautiful Chatty Cathy. Opening the box, my arms enveloped her close to my heart; my smile surely must have matched the joy I felt inside. The little white envelopes handed out next weren’t even noticed, as I got acquainted with my new friend who talked. I swooned with rapture. She had gold ringlets and a frilly blue pinafore dress. She never left my side, going to bed with me that night and all the nights after. Christmas was complete and everything I had ever wanted, I had received.