This Was Christmas

When I was a kid, after we opened gifts on Dec. 25, we’d pile into the paneled station wagon and then later the Buick or the Delta 88, and we’d head south from Buffalo to Jamestown to visit family, the car full of gifts and three mittened kids, and usually a dog stuck somewhere in the mayhem.

It was the most American of scenes, this family heading to their hometown in time for roasted turkey at their grandma’s house, back in the days when snowbanks were six feet tall by the holidays. Snow was just part of life then and I don’t remember anyone cancelling that yearly trip even in the grips of blustery weather.

Lord, we were much sturdier back then.

My mother would sit in the front seat on the 75-mile drive with the heat blasting, humming Christmas tunes along with the car radio and we’d drive down the roads of Fredonia and Gerry, through those winter wonderlands, the houses we passed so sweet and solemn on that day, Christmas trees alight in the windows, a soft glow streaming through the frosted panes. As we drove by, we could imagine the smell of pie baking inside and the tinkling of fine stemware.

But none of this is worth knowing if you don’t understand what we were pulling up to on Windsor Street. It was a house that sat a few doors from Lakeview Avenue– a fine craftsman with a wide front porch and a giant picture window that revealed the scene inside — a scene of warmth and cheer and all the things a house should be on Christmas.

My grandmother prepared for our arrival weeks ahead of time, having a tree delivered right to her door by the same tree seller from the same lot every year. The tree had to be just right or she’d send the young man back to get another one. And sometimes yet another one. And then she’d spend a whole week laying the tinsel on the tree just right–perfectly hung with no wrinkled strands caught up in the branches in a tizzy.

When we pulled up — almost sleigh-like in her driveway, the faces of my four blonde and bespectacled cousins would appear in the picture window out of nowhere and with wide grins they’d watch us alight from the car, bearing the blast of cold that swept the living room when their father opened the door to help carry in the cookies and the shopping bags and the suitcases from our car.

We scurried through the winters in those days — those frigid and snowy winters of the 60s and 70s, but we scurried even quicker on Christmas up to my grandmother’s door, where she met us in an apron, ready to offer bottles of Pepsi and Russell Stover’s chocolates, a heap of presents from Bigelows and the Sears and Roebuck catalog piled in small mountains and beautifully wrapped under her tall and twinkling tree.

At dinner, which my cousin Sandy and I mostly giggled through, we passed pickles and olives in a glass serving tray, rich gravy in a porcelain blue server, and heaps of turkey with its perfectly browned skin set on a long white platter.

It was her kitchen that made her house her house– an old radio on the counter cackling the weather report and then tinty renditions of Jingle Bells. The same ice box full of interesting things remained in the corner year after year, along with the little juice glasses with pictures of orange slices on the side that were lined up in the old cupboard.

Nothing ever changed in that house beyond her shade of lipstick.

If you’re lucky, you’ll have known someone as a child who understood how to call forth beauty, and Christmas is a time for beauty to be on display. That person always knew the perfect platter or serving bowl for certain things, always had the glasses on the table bright and shining under the lights of the chandelier, or had little bowls of brightly wrapped candy set about on tabletops. There was an elegance to their artful touches-not as easy to accomplish when you were a child before the advent of Pottery Barn and Walmart.

I’d love to run up to the snow bank to that big picture window again, and look for the smiling faces of my family. Most of the people I saw through the glass are no longer with us. I’ve said goodbye to grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles and cousins.

I like to believe they haven’t gone far, maybe just on the other side of that windowpane. Those people that loved me and that showed me what Christmas truly was.