All the Christmas Drama and mayhem at our house was off set by the simplicity of Christmas at Granny’s.
By this I mean, my Mother’s Mother, not my Father’s Mother, who was safely packed away to the State Hospital for the Insane in Staunton and, later, Petersburg.
But we did have to go visit my Father’s Mother, Granny Susie, AKA Susan Catherine Rush Michaels, sometime around Christmas. This was always an ordeal.
This was before there was an Interstate Highway to Staunton, so we had to travel along winding mountain roads to get there. With not many restaurants or gas stations to stop.
A few times, my Great Aunts wanted to go along. Aunt Lily and Little Mary were her sisters and her brother Joe’s wife, Big Mary, usually went along, too. The one trip I remember was when we still had the station wagon- before Daddy flipped it coming home in an ice storm from Earl’s Bar and Grill. They were all lined up in the back seat in their black wool coats, hats and white gloves. Aunt Lily would always pack her lunch and refuse to share it. When I was about 5 or 6, I asked once and she told me I should have planned better.
Before we would go on this journey, my Mother would go to Belk’s Basement, where the cheap stuff was, and buy Granny Susie’s Christmas presents. My Mother would have died before she bought anything for herself or us there, but she thought it was just fine for Granny Susie. She also said it was the only place she could find some of the things, like garters and panties with longer legs, that Granny Susie preferred. Or so she said.
She would always go down into Belk’s Basement and announce to everyone: “I’m just here to pick up a few things for Herman’s Mother! It’s not for us!” People would look at her strangely, but she made her point.
She also refused to step foot in the Kreskie’s Department Store or allow us to go there because “poor people shop there.”
After I was about 7 or 8, I would sometimes take the bus downtown or across town to see my Grandmother. I was a very urban child.
Once, while traveling cross town alone, I could not resist the temptation to stop to go into Kreskie. I also could not resist telling my Mother I had done so. She was horrified and said: “Please tell me no one we know saw you there. They might think we are having hard times and I sent you.” Then she got on the phone to tell all her friends that I had disobeyed her and that all was well with us. She told them, in case anyone said anything, curiosity was the only reason I was in Kress.
Once we got to Staunton, we had to wait in the car while my Father went in to spring Granny Susie for the afternoon. While we waited, other crazy women would crawl over the car and beat on the windows and ask for quarters and cigarettes. It was quite festive. I wouldn’t see similar behavior again until Junior High School.
I’m not quite sure why my parents made my sister and I go along on this trip, as Granny Susie really didn’t have much interest in us. And she would ignore my Mother because she blamed her, justifiably, for having her put away.
Once this was over, we could go back to our usual Christmas focus: Presents.
My favorite part of Christmas was spending time at what I considered my real Granny’s- my Mother’s Mother’s house.
Granny really loved Christmas. She was like a big child.
Her simple house in the Mill Village always had a real tree and a coal fire going in the living room fireplace. It was the only time she really used the living room in the winter as the only source of heat, other than the fireplace, was in the room off the kitchen that was like a den/dining room. The bedrooms had no heat, but she said that was fine because she could store her Christmas baking in them and it was not healthy to sleep with heat. Quilts were fine.
My Uncle Wiseman lived with my Grandmother. He was a real trip. He had not left the house since some time in the late 1940’s. Today we would call him Agoraphobic. Then, he was just crazy Uncle Wiseman. But my Mother never suggested putting him away…He was really into Christmas, too, as long as it could be ordered from the Sears Catalog.
My Aunt Goldie lived in Charlotte, but still master minded Christmas at Granny’s. And paid for it. She is the only person I ever knew who was more of a planner and control freak than me. She would start dropping off wrapped presents late in the summer on her trips “home” to Danville.
Granny and I were always dying to know what was in these presents, but Goldie had threatened our lives if we touched them.
One year, after Thanksgiving, Granny could not take the suspense any longer. For someone with no real education, Granny had surprisingly good Critical Thinking Skills. One day, her eyes lit up and she said “Razor Blades” and scurried out of the room. She came back with the blades and suggested we carefully cut the Scotch tape, then re-wrap the packages exactly as Goldie had left them.
I can’t remember if my sister was old enough to participate, but Granny and I carefully cut the tape and checked out all our gifts while Wiseman wrung his hands and said he was sure Goldie would catch us and there would be hell to pay.
He was right. None of us could get them back just like Goldie had them. She came home, saw them and was furious.
After that, she started wrapping all her gifts using lots of yarn or ribbons that she knew we could not easily remove and replace. She also used about a roll of Scotch tape on every package. It took forever to get the damn things open on Christmas Day and required several pair of scissors, and the occasional pocket knife, be available to facilitate the process.
That little house was an oasis and those people made Christmas truly special. Nothing like Temple Terrace or Staunton.
There was no competition and nothing to prove. It was just about fun and family and enjoying the holidays while plotting behind their backs.
That’s what Christmas means to me…