Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Childlike Christmas

Again, we're writing at Pom's request about a Childlike Christmas. This week, I say that a Childlike Christmas is family.

My childhood Christmases were often spent in Charleston, West Virginia, after a very long drive from Virginia or Mississippi in a crowded car. It was the 1970s. All seven of us squeezed into a station wagon and headed for the mountains.

Coming from Mississippi, we left in warmth and arrived in cold. And usually we arrived late at night. Please picture: a city of steep hillsides and winding rivers, a frigid night sky ribboned with steam and gray pollution from factory stacks. I pressed my nose to the cold car window, watching the hills. People had lit their houses and yards, and in the distant darkness, they rose into the air all around us, little old steep houses with steeper roofs, dotted in the evergreen mountains as we drove.

An early photo of the house on Garrison Avenue
I eagerly awaited Charleston. Soon we'd leave the interstate and wind our way past Westmoreland Road. We'd pass Mary Street, and Mother would tell us again that it was the steepest street in the city. Turning down Garrison Avenue, I'd see all the familiar homes. We'd pass Inez's boxy two-story, its windows twinkling. The street winds along, curving in and out with the creek that always runs in the hollow between two West Virginia mountains. As Garrison Avenue snakes deeper into the darkness, it narrows and climbs a little. Soon I see the fence, and then a small garage at street level, built of pale yellow and orange bricks. Most of the houses on this street are stick homes, or cinder block. But my grandparents built their home well and finely, when their only child was four years old. We'd finally crunch to a stop along the road. The house, a beautiful two-story with a steep roof, cute gable windows and a pillared side porch, perched solidly away up the hillside:  Fifty-six steps up the hillside, to be precise. Fifty-six concrete steps ascending the hill like a great zipper, welcoming and unwelcoming. Steeples of orange lights glowed in each window for Christmas, and a tree proclaimed itself from the living room.

It was the nicest home on the street, I believe. They blew dynamite to get the foundation set in the mountain's rocky face. My grandmother, proud of her home, lined the steps with azaleas. There were two apple trees, golden transparents, in the backyard hillside that cut sharply up behind the house. The shed along the back fence held my granddaddy's hunting beagles and it smelled strongly of them. My brothers played poker in the shed on warm summer nights.

I'm sure hauling all our suitcases, pillows, and presents up those steps took a long time in the cold, but it was no concern of mine. As the baby girl, I dashed up to the house, burst into the glowing living room and hollered my hellos. In spite of its grandeur (to me), it was not a large house. Only two bedrooms and a bath upstairs, but we five grandchildren piled on pallets and cots downstairs. Back then houses had large dining rooms because families still ate together and spent a bit of time doing it. And we had large living rooms for gathering together to watch TV. The bedrooms were just for sleeping, and the bathroom for a quick dash during the middle of the movie. Living space was what mattered.

My grandparents, Ernest and Dama
My grandfather was a silent, hard-working man. My grandmother was a fussy, insecure woman who played favorites with her grandchildren, and that's just honest. But she loved to make our childhoods glow with happiness and she adored giving gifts. Actually, she enjoyed shopping. But one year she made me, by hand, a magical doll's house, of sturdy cardboard box, glued and painted, two-storied with a front porch and tall pillars made of paper towel tubes. It was furnished beautifully and had two lamps that really lit up. Somewhere, I have a photo of myself and my friend Judy, seated in front of it seriously. Doll's house play was serious stuff. I treasured that house until it fell apart.

One Christmas we invented a novel scheme while we drove along the snowy highway to Charleston. We decided to surprise our grandparents.  They knew we were coming, but they didn't know when, so we decided to pull up in a side street, sneak along behind the house to the back door, creep in through the kitchen, and scare them to death with loud grandchildren greetings. I don't remember their reactions, or even if we succeeded. So much of the joy, the pleasure, of childhood is in the thinking of a thing, the idea. It is my idea of Charleston in its Christmas dress, that I love. Very few specifics remain in my mind. But the image of the city, the frozen houses bundled up together in tidy rows, hunkered down along their steep mountain streets, that's what I remember. Visiting the Sears Department Store and standing before the massive square counter with sweets, chocolates and warm nuts. The aroma that filled the store as it did at no other time of year! The glow of street lamps that showed the way up the twisting roads as they disappeared into the deep mountains. Miss Inez's Christmas cookies, saved in stacks of tins in her closets, which tasted faintly of moth balls. I ate them anyway, they were so festive, so friendly.

I have searched for photographs of this Charleston in my mother's old photo albums that lie dusty around me here in her upstairs. The albums have been pilfered over the years by us children, always looking for those pictures that bring back the past. The best picture of all is in my mind's eye. We're grown now, and past grown, and our children's Christmases are formed in new mountains and newer homes. I still love my Charleston in its snowy mantle, its icy rivers, its houses that were small in size but large in heart.

Merry Christmas.


  1. I love every word of this description of your grandparents' home. That's funny about the mothball cookies!
    Mind pictures are best, I agree.
    Thank you for a great Childlike Christmas post!

  2. Oh, what sweet, sweet memories. No need for photos. You tell the story vividly.

  3. The best picture is in your mind's eye....thank you for sharing your beloved and loving memories.


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