Tag Archives: 1960’s nostalgia

Furbaby Friday with Shenandoah Valley Artist and Author Mike Reisenberg!


I am happy to have animal lover and expert, Mike Reisenberg, on the blog to share a beloved dog memory, and wonderful stories drawn from his life. I have known and admired Mike for years, and was a faithful listener of his radio show.

Abby & Mikey:

Sometimes we dog and animal lovers go looking for a dog. It’s time. We’ve been without a pup since our beloved Champ, Rex, Tinki, or Bear left us. The pain of that loss may have inspired promises we would never have another dog. The pain fades and being without a dog, for a dog lover, is a void more painful. We know the breed that fits us best because that’s the breed our family or we have always had. Pug people are pug people. Lab owners swear they will always have labs and that sentiment is extended to almost every breed by some group or another. Those of us lucky enough  to have shared a house with a Mutt, are not as limited in our search. A trip to the SPCA or shelter almost always guarantees a psychic connection and the next family K-9.

Sometimes happenstance inserts itself and delivers a dog when you positively are not thinking or looking for that K-9 companion.  Normally this happens to first-time dog owners, even those who say they do not like dogs. It often happens to dog lovers not quite ready to replace or add a puppy to their home. It especially happens to those of us thinking we may get a dog, but knowing our family or economic situation, we make the decision to wait. That is when the best dogs find us.

Pam and I and daughter Charity had owned cats. Charity liked cats. We didn’t want a cat and a dog, and I had a basement full of tropical fish and some cockatoos and a red rat snake. If Pam had let me, I would have filled our house with animals, and I’m sure a dog would have been included.

Instead of an in-house zoo that would have threatened my marriage, I purchased The Animal House Pet Shop. About that same time, we were thinking about adopting a baby. Any thought or talk of a dog was quickly hushed as being too much work with a new business et all. The Animal House took in mixed breed dogs for sale. We had them checked by a veterinarian, paid for the required first shots and worming to ensure good health. We then made a modest profit selling them to dog lovers. The idea was the new dog owner would purchase many dollars worth of toys, bowls, leashes, collars, beds and grooming services. Puppies were vet checked before they were accepted and any major health problems were avoided.

The litter of black puppies arrived before Christmas. Their mother was a Heinz 57; their father was unknown. The scruffy litter looked like Scotties and would sell fast. All had that ‘you have to love me’ look and the friendly playful way that endears dogs to anyone with a heart. They checked out, had their shots, and the adoptions started. After a few days, one of the smaller ones became sick. A follow up revealed an infection and hernia that would require surgery and shunts. The little pup needed compresses changed, and I brought her home for my daughter to nurse. I had full intentions of taking her back to the Animal House and selling or giving away a healthy pup.

Charity named her Abby. We took turns with the compresses, and Abby was there to stay! You’re thinking I should have known that? We then had a new business, a cat, and a puppy. Abby ended up looking like a long body Scotty fooling even some Scotty owners into asking who the breeder was. We also adopted a son, Mikey. Abby welcomed him by craping under his bed. He would become her favorite.

Like most of her kind, Abby was not a finicky eater. After a day in Charlottesville, we arrived home to find Abby bloated and her face covered in fish guts and scales. She had also perfumed her body by rolling in the remains of her feast. Our neighbor Jim had cleaned his fish and buried the guts and scales behind his shed. Abby was not a welcomed sight. As luck would have it, Pam’s mother was visiting, and Pam, in a firm, fussing rant, wanted to know why Opal and Charity hadn’t bathed the dog. They had twice! Three times Abby had figured a way out of the house to the waiting well aged fish. Pam’s mom said, she’s your dog and two baths were all she was doing.

Abby was mostly Mikey’s dog; she followed him everywhere. Mikey walked at ten months. The reason for his early two-legged jaunt was Abby. Mikey would grab hold of her back hair, pull himself up and then walk along beside her. Abby seemed to know not to go too fast. Mikey’s little legs grew strong as he gave up crawling for walking alongside his dog. His ten-month solo was at a Christmas Party. Abby barked with delight. They spent the next twelve years running and playing. As dogs often do Abby grew older faster and passed away.

A Pet Supply Christmas Catalog arrived and in it was a page of dog ornaments. One was the splitting image of Abby dressed as a winged angel. She has been on our Christmas Tree ever since. She hangs each year next to Mikey’s paper hand.
MR

Beth: What a touching story, Mike. I loved it.

Mike: I am new to e-books and Kindle. My first five entries are short stories. The titles are  Boots, the Best Dog in the World. The Cave. Rooster Eggs? Fish-tales, Snappers and Fishhooks. The Haunted House at Hopkins Farm.

They were all taken from a larger book that I am still working on. Each event is from my preteen years to age fourteen. Here are some brief passages from each one.

Boots:

The grownups in the neighborhood called us the Hartwell Boys. We called ourselves the Snakes. As soon as school let out for the summer, we would spend Saturdays hiking and exploring the woods behind Drake hospital. We would rise early, raid the fridge, make sandwiches, and pack our own lunch.

We ate anything and everything from apples to liverwurst to sardines. Our creative combinations between two slices of bread would make Dagwood Bumstead proud. Peanut butter could be spread with anything. Our hope was that Mom didn’t have any chores for us. We were a band of five to seven adventurers. Boots, our dog, came too.

Cave:

After a drink from our communal canteen, we circled the sinkhole and felt the cool, inviting wisp of escaping air. The leaves had been washed away by recent rains, and the opening looked more friendly than usual.

I stood looking down at the dark hole and welcomed that most pleasant mix of fear, excitement, and anticipation. Like standing in line for your first rollercoaster ride. “We should have brought more ropes.” I heard myself say.

Rooster Eggs:

After Lenore’s first day, she sat at the end of the walk, her feet in the road, sobbing into her apron. She wanted to go home. Her hands hurt, her legs ached, her body cried for sleep, and her eyes tried to wash away the thought of dishes needing cleaning. She would have fled if she had had a place to go.

She may have left on tired legs down that dusty road if she had quit crying before Luther found her.

Fish Tales:

“That’s a BIG turtle” he boasted as if he had caught it himself. “What you fixin’ to do with it?”
“Take it back to camp and eat it.” declared Richard.
“They are good eaten that’s for sure. But hard to clean. You boys ever clean a turtle?”
I nodded yes.
“ Now I know no white boy young as you done cleaned a turtle. Not as big as this un.” He hedged.
“Yes, I have! I helped my Grand Dad in Virginia.”
“Helpings one thing, but cutting through that hard shell…

Haunted House:

The heavy door creaked open, and all but Fritz strode in. The dim was stripped with shafts of thinly sliced sun dancing dust in ribbons of gold, opaque against deeper, darker, bluer shadows. We walked and turned, mouths agape, as if part of a slow-motion square dance, choreographed to silent music, playing the same song, in all our heads. It felt as if the barn was turning around us. Our partner in a song of wonder.

The loft with hand hued ladder; hay bales still waiting to be used; horse collar and plow, buckets, hoes, rakes, egg baskets all placed ready for the days work. A workday that never came ‘till now. Now they would be our tools assisting our work. The best kind of work, the play of young boys.

Thanks for reading.

Beth: Fabulous stories, Mike. Some remind me of my childhood, and my brothers’. I remember your pet shop. The kids and I loved going there.

***Be sure to visit Mike’s Amazon Author page. He is a highly talented artist and also has some wonderful paintings  on that page. He designed his book covers.

To visit his page and browse his kindle books visit:

https://www.amazon.com/MIKE-REISENBERG/e/B079WP7QTM/

Thanks for stopping by. Please leave Mike a comment.

Christmas Memory from the Shenandoah Valley by Beth Trissel


Chapel Hill at Christmas

When I was new and the world was young, at that wonderful age of six,  my younger brother, John, and I celebrated our first Christmas in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia at the Churchman family home place where my Dad was born and raised.  Called Chapel Hill (all these old Southern homes have names) the gracious Georgian style house has been in the family since 1816.  In those early days, John and I had only just grasped the concept of Santa Claus because our family had spent the previous three years in Taiwan where my parents taught English and only returned to the states that previous summer.

Everything about an American Christmas was new and wondrous to us, especially the amazingly generous fat guy in the red suit who was just waiting to give us presents.  But it seemed that he required snow, the cold white stuff we had not yet witnessed, for sleigh travel with his flying deer.  A bit eccentric perhaps, but I was an imaginative child and willing to indulge him.  It wasn’t lost on us, though, that this weather phenomenon didn’t fall from a clear blue sky.

Beth and JohnOur parents hadn’t made much of Christmas in Taiwan.  We were tiny tots and toys  scarce, the few there were being some that other missionary families shared with us from those their children had outgrown.  There were no toy stores in Taiwan then like there were here.  Chewing gum was a major treat.  We caught our breath at the delights we saw in the American shops.

Barbie dolls had just been introduced and I longed for one with hair to comb, an endless perfect wardrobe, and furniture of her own. John had his eye on a racing car set.  We’d seen picture books with Santa in them and there was always snow.  What to do, what to do?  Nothing but wait and hope.

The journey to Virginia began in the mountains of Tennessee, jolting along in our old Ford on Route 11 to Augusta County in the Shenandoah Valley.  Our grandmother, whom we all called Mommom, Aunt Moggie, Uncle RW and our five cousins awaited us on the family farm.

Dad spent what seemed like days in preparation for the trip, packing and repacking the car.  Finally we got underway.  I’m amazed as an adult to find that the trip normally takes about six hours, or less, because I have vivid memories of this ride going on all day and far into the night, playing ‘I Spy with My little Eye,’ and singing carols until we were hoarse and my parents must’ve been nearly half mad.

horse and sleigh

Mom taught us a song on the way about Santa, ‘You’d Better Watch Out,’ a worrisome ditty.  I wasn’t an exceptionally naughty child, but knew there were the occasionally times when I had been what, in some person’s minds, might be construed as bad. What if Santa, this wonderful provider, had seen me at less than my best?  What if I got switches?

My father told us about his Uncle Gus who’d received switches.  Horrors of horrors.  Deep down I felt it was no more than I deserved if my every move had been carefully noted. I hoped Santa was a forbearing fellow, but doubts lurked, a new worry on top of the snow thing.

Eventually we arrived in the Valley and the paved highway turned into bumpy dirt roads as we wound deeper into the country with its unique smells.  My father pointed out the lights of Chapel Hill glowing in the distance, then unbelievably we were driving up the long lane and the yard filled with family to warmly welcome the weary travelers.

The first night we went straight to bed.  I slept upstairs in the yellow room––every room has a name––with my two cousins, Margaret and Elizabeth Page.  In the morning, John and I got our wish.  We awoke to heavily falling snow, a magical world.  We went sledding down the lane, made a giant snow bunny with my father and had the time of our lives, clambering back into the kitchen ravenous and soaking wet.  We peeled off layers of pants––no snow pants back then––and took our wet clothes and mittens to hang them by the stove in Mommom’s room, before downing bowls of homemade soup.

Dog UNDER CHRISTMAS TREEThe day before Christmas finally came and the old brick house filled with tantalizing smells.  The kitchen door opened periodically, the sleigh bells on it announcing the arrival of yet more friends bringing yet more gifts.  Friends, neighbors and family all exchanged gifts, even if it was only a plate of cookies exchanged for yours.

Presents were stashed in every corner of the front room, covering the old piano and stacked beneath, wrapped in paper and ribbons which I found almost too beautiful to bear. I knew there were some for me among them, that I was not in total reliance on Santa.  Even so, I longed to be kindly remembered by him.

As any child can attest, Christmas Eve is the longest day of the year and one in which we made extreme nuisances of ourselves, asking endless questions and climbing over and under the furniture to see which gifts were ours.  At last we gathered together in the front room in the presence of the magnificent pine decorated shortly before our arrival.  My uncle cut it from a nearby woods and I loved its fresh smell, also new to me.  A stern glance from him quieted us down and my grandmother read the Christmas story from The Book of Matthew.

Vintage American Christmas Card--excited boy peering through windowThe ancient story evoked a new-found sense of awe at the holiness of this night as I gazed at the little wooden crèche and the figures carved by my father.  I felt the love in the room and understood that it had something to do with this sacred child whose birth we were celebrating.

All right, Jesus loved me, so did God, but what about Santa? After all, he was the one to fill the stocking I’d hung carefully in between my cousin’s on the mantle under the portrait of our great-great grandmother.  All of our stockings had been knitted for us by an elderly relative and had a scene of Santa on one side and a reindeer on the other with little bells that jingled when I lifted it.  A reminder of his imminent arrival.

After the stockings were hung and The Night before Christmas read, we heard sleigh bells ringing far off in the meadow.  Good heavens, Santa was that close.  We tumbled over each other in our haste to get to bed lest the old guy should discover us still up and promptly leave.  Touchy fellow, peculiar ways, but ours was not to question why.  We scampered under the covers and did not dare to peep until dawn.

Vintage Santa Christmas CardAfter that, it was every child for him or herself.  We launched out of bed, vying to be the first one to wish each other “Christmas Gift!” then paced about in acute impatience while the adults had a leisurely breakfast.  Who could eat at a time like this?  And dressed with slow, careful deliberation.  I was wearing the same clothes I’d donned two days ago.  As for bathing, only under duress.

We practically gave up all hope of ever seeing inside the front room and paced outside the closed double doors where no child could enter until everyone had gathered.  Mommom, her blue eyes twinkling, reported that Santa had come and relieved our troubled minds.  Uncle RW told us he’d seen reindeer hoof prints in the snow on the roof of the house.  Imagine that.  We never once questioned what he’d been doing on the roof.  Not that this would make the slightest difference if we eked out our days waiting in the hall.

Then, glory hallelujah, the family assembled and lined up according to age, as required by the law of our clan.  The all-important doors opened.  Great was our wonder.  There was the tree lit, the stash of presents sorted into individual piles, and the stockings filled.  Mine bulged with promise.  Praise be!  The old fellow was extremely tolerant.  I’d truly feared to see those switches.

It’s ages later now and Mommom has gone on before us.  Lining up outside those omnipotent doors with my brother, cousins, parents, aunt, uncle and her at the end is a distant cherished memory.  Christmas is a place I return to in my thoughts whenever I need the sense of joy and reassurance it brings.  And I remember that time so long ago when my brother and I despaired of snow.

A Very Virginia ChristmasThis account is included in A Very Virginia Christmas collection by Wilford Kale

*Pics of Chapel Hill, the old Virginia Family homeplace in the Shenandoah Valley

*The dog under the tree is Mia, a friend who has passed on, taken by daughter Elise. Images of vintage family Christmas cards by our mom, Pat Churchman.

*Pic of Beth Trissel and younger brother John Churchman from our Taiwan days taken by our mother.

Image of Old Order Mennonite horse and sleigh passing our farm in the valley taken by my husband, Dennis, last winter

What’s in the Box?


antique chestThe mystery of boxes, what they might–or could–hold, has long intrigued me. Ornate or simple, all have great potential. While growing up, a good cardboard box was hard to come by and cherished. The ideal repository for all my worldly goods, such as they were, like those 1960’s Superman, Spiderman, and Batman comic books left behind when we moved. Mom didn’t want so many boxes in the u-haul to deal with. I had to choose. The dolls, stuffed animals, and books went, the comics stayed behind. This sort of thing is the reason those old comics are so valuable now. As a child, I built a doll house by securing cardboard boxes together, and fashioned most of the furniture myself. I was enthralled with my creation.

Boxes may contain real treasure, or those things that have significance only to the person who hid them within its recesses. The famous, long sought after Ark of the Covenant, (Indiana Jones comes to mind) is the ultimate special box. And not one you want to be messing around with should you find it.

wrapped Christmas giftAnd then there are Christmas presents. Back to what’s in the box? How I loved to speculate while awaiting Christmas morning. Oh the angst of that seemingly interminable wait, so long ago. My Uncle R.W. made wooden boxes in his wood working shop that he gave us to put our special things in. Great concept and gift. I still have mine. Not to overlook jewelry and music boxes. The list goes on.

Treasure chests and Pirate chests are also boxes. Don’t mess with pirate treasure if you find that either. Generally cursed.

Back to cardboard boxes. The small people in my life love my penchant for holding onto boxes. Amazon delivers a lot of them to my home. All sizes. The ‘smalls’ grab tape, scissors, markers, and they’re off creating everything from armor to battle wind fairies, (my niece Cailin’s idea) kitten houses, (kittens can never have too many) ships…hideouts for themselves…you name it. All highly decorated. When I informed them that I’ve been accused of having too many boxes (hoarding, actually) by some members of the family, they regarded me sadly. How could anyone not recognize the vital importance of boxes, they asked, saddened by such ignorance.

vintage wooden boxIndeed.

And then there’s the idea that people are like boxes. What’s inside?

A box without hinges, key, or lid, yet golden treasure inside is hid.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 18921973)
“There are people who put their dreams in a little box and say, “Yes, I’ve got dreams, of course I’ve got dreams.” Then they put the box away and bring it out once in awhile to look in it, and yep, they’re still there.
 Erma Bombeck (U.S. humorist, 19271996)

The Story Behind My Christmas Ghost Story Romance


Somewhere the Bells Ring is book three in my ‘Somewhere’ series with a Christmas theme.  The common thread in the series is that the story opens in one place, so far an old Virginia home, then transports the reader ‘Somewhere else,’ either back in time in the same house or another place such as the Scottish Highlands in Somewhere My Lass.  *Fans of that story and the  secondary character Fergus will be glad to know I’m at work on the sequel.

Back to my latest release, Somewhere the Bells Ring.  Set in the old Virginia home place where my father grew up, a beautiful plantation home from the early 19th century, the story opens in 1968 during the tumultuous age of hippies, Vietnam, and some of the best darn rock music ever written.   That nostalgic era beckoned to me  (clamored) as did an earlier one, 1918 and the end of World War One.

I’ve seen the early 20th century family photos and often pondered that bygone age, gracious in many ways apart from the war(s).  Having a Marine Corps Captain grandfather who distinguished himself during the thick of the fighting in France during The Great War and then tragically died when my father was only three influenced this story–dedicated to the grandfather I never knew, but grieved all the same.

But the biggest influence was a poignant dream I had years ago about a young woman visiting this house during the holidays and the mysterious gentleman she met.  That dream nagged at me every Christmas until I finally wrote the story. If you enjoy an intriguing mystery with Gothic overtones and heart-tugging romance set in vintage America then Somewhere the Bells Ring is for you.

Blurb: Caught with pot in her dorm room, Bailey Randolph is exiled to a relative’s ancestral home in Virginia to straighten herself out. Banishment to Maple Hill is dismal, until a ghost appears requesting her help. Bailey is frightened but intrigued. Then her girlhood crush, Eric Burke, arrives and suddenly Maple Hill isn’t so bad.

To Eric, wounded in Vietnam, his military career shattered, this homecoming feels no less like exile. But when he finds Bailey at Maple Hill, her fairy-like beauty gives him reason to hope–until she tells him about the ghost haunting the house. Then he wonders if her one experiment with pot has made her crazy.

As Bailey and Eric draw closer, he agrees to help her find a long-forgotten Christmas gift the ghost wants. But will the magic of Christmas be enough to make Eric believe–in Bailey and the ghost–before the Christmas bells ring?~

***Somewhere the Bells Ring is available in various eBook formats from The Wild Rose Press, Amazon Kindle, All Romance Ebooks, Barnes & Noble’s Nookbook and other online booksellers.

I Remember When–1960’s Nostalgia


The bubble-head Barbie came out in the early 1960’s, her hair style influenced by Jacqueline Kennedy. When I was eight, I was  overjoyed to receive a red-headed one for my birthday.  Presents were simpler and fewer in those days. Most of my Barbie’s wardrobe was laboriously made by my mother, the ‘store bought’ outfits being too pricey for us. Even so,  my grandmother felt we were quite spoiled.   Anyone who lived through the Great Depression did.  Plus she grew up in China, the daughter of missionaries.  Talk about poor…that dear lady once sewed a collection of my great uncle’s old ties together to make a skirt for me.  I was a teenager, so didn’t wear it.  She always told me there was no room to stand on pride when you were hard up.  But I took a stand on that occasion.  Now I wish I’d saved that skirt.

Books were particularly special in my childhood, my collection small and continually reread.  The thrill of my life was when my mom ordered a box all the way from England filled with C. S. Lewis‘s the Chronicles of Narnia, not yet available in the U.S. To say I was influenced by The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe (and the rest of the series)  is an understatement. I’m still looking for Narnia.  I assume everyone is, but apparently they’re not all…weird.

Given my love of reading, trips to the library were savored. With three younger children to take care of, mom let me check out as many books as I could manage myself.  Thin arms laden, the pile stretched from my knobby knees up to my arched chin as I staggered to the car with my take.  I devoured everything, fiction, nonfiction…even the biography of Lotta Crabtree, which I suspect most children haven’t read.

I remember dirt roads with bumps we’d beg to ride over fast, and endless highways before the age of the interstate.  Traveling from one place to another in our old Chrysler was an arduous affair with warm sandwiches smashed in between wax paper and tepid, metallic sips of water from my father’s Marine Corps canteen.  And that had to date back to the Korean War, unless it was his father’s and then we’re talking WWI.   Air conditioning in the car was unheard of then and rarely enjoyed anywhere.  Mostly public buildings.  Few homes possessed such comfort.  Only a fan stirred the heavy stillness of our sweltering summers.  We finally got air-conditioning  in our farmhouse when the older children were well into elementary school with one window unit in the family room where we all camped out together when the nights were really hot.  We now have several units, the height of comfort, except for the parts of the house that don’t.

Childhood trips to the movies can be numbered on my fingers.  Maybe not even using  both hands.   Cinderella and The Sound of Music stand out in my memory.  My college English teacher father, who spent several years getting his doctorate, wasn’t overpaid.  And then I married a farmer, also not overpaid.  As for television, a small black and white set sufficed until I was thirty-something.   Only recently did we acquire a more advanced means of obtaining channels other than the battered antenna, constantly zapped by strong winds, that required my hubby to climb up on the garage roof for adjustments and yell down at the person in the kitchen doorway below, “Can you see it now?” The answering shout was relayed from the person in the living room until better reception was achieved.  I was delighted to discover  Netflix.

As for clothes, refer to the long-suffering mother mentioned above and selfless grandmother at their sewing machines, and hand-me-downs.   I reveled in what some would call a ‘missionary barrel’ of hand-me-downs when my father was in graduate school, my younger sister on the way, and our family as poor as church mice.    I thought a pair of ‘to me’ fashionable flats made me look like a movie star and dreamed big dreams.  When I reached the advanced age of thirteen I was awed by a pair of fish net stockings and my first ever lipstick, a pale pink by Bonnie Bell.

Back to fashion.  When my children were small, I labored at my sewing machine and even made over some of my own clothes into little shirts, pants, and smocks for them (and embroidered the fronts). Again, mom and grandma sewed much appreciated contributions, and Grandma knitted sweaters.  Children weren’t expected to be as well dressed in my day, or my children’s, as they are now.  As long as we had something suitable for church, and when I was small that meant petticoats, white gloves, and a hat.  Sales had to be really good for my mom to buy ‘ready made’ clothes.  Ditto for  my kids.  They even sold sweet corn at a roadside stand in the summers to earn money for back to school clothes.  But all of this built character, right?  Made us more appreciative of what we have.   (*Image of little Beth)

No Kleenex in my childhood.  We used handkerchiefs which were washed, and if one was  fastidious, ironed.  Some of them were quite fancy, possibly family heirlooms.  Again, I wish I’d saved some.  I’d dress my Betsy McCall doll in the prettiest ones.

Furniture?  In our family, with rare exceptions, you inherited it, or someone still living gave you some pieces, or you made/refinished them yourself.    Food?  A lot of home cooking/canning.  Some less than appetizing meals when mom got into a hardcore health food phase.  My sister recalls groats, but only once. Again, I can count on my fingers, maybe with both hands, how many times our family ate out as I was growing up.   And eating between meals was frowned upon or we’d ‘spoil our dinner.’  An occasional snack, maybe.

Didn’t like your supper?  Too bad.   Probably why I have the urge as an adult to eat whatever I want, whenever I want.   But we kids played outside all the time and were wiry and fast.   Little danger of obesity among the youth back then.  Those were the ‘Timmy and Lassie days’ of riding our bikes all over the neighborhood as long as we were back by suppertime.  Now we want to know where our children are every second, and understandably so with all the pedophiles at seemingly ever corner.

Have we really come all that far?  In some ways, yes, in others, not so much. When I was young, we feared the Russians, the Cold War, and Nuclear proliferation.  Now, its Muslim Extremists.  And they’re worse than anything I recall, and I was one of those kids who had to hide under their desk in elementary school as part of a practice drill for what to do if…as though that would have saved us from a nuclear attack.  We also practiced taking alternate routes home which had me stopping off in a golf course to play–alone–at the age of eight.  Great plan. (Not me in the pic, just a random child from that era doing the desk drill thing).

What are your memories?  Do you lament the old days?  Those Russians don’t seem so scary now, huh?

The Ghost of Christmas Past


When I was new and the world was young, at that wonderful age of six,  my younger brother and I celebrated our first Christmas in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia at the Churchman family home place where my Dad was born and raised.  Called Chapel Hill (all these old Southern homes have names) the gracious Georgian style house has been in the family since 1816.  In those early days, brother John and I had only just grasped the concept of Santa Claus because our family had spent the previous three years in Taiwan where my parents taught English and only returned to the states that previous summer.

Everything about an American Christmas was new and wondrous to us, especially the amazingly generous fat guy in the red suit who was just waiting to give us presents.  But it seemed that he required snow, the cold white stuff we had not yet witnessed, for sleigh travel with his flying deer.  A bit eccentric perhaps, but I was an imaginative child and willing to indulge him.  It wasn’t lost on us, though, that this weather phenomenon didn’t fall from a clear blue sky.

Our parents hadn’t made much of Christmas in Taiwan.  We were tiny tots and toys  scarce, the few there were being some that other missionary families shared with us from those their children had outgrown.  There were no toy stores in Taiwan then like there were here.  Chewing gum was a major treat.  We caught our breath at the delights we saw in the American shops.

Barbie dolls had just been introduced and I longed for one with hair to comb, an endless perfect wardrobe, and furniture of her own. John had his eye on a racing car set.  We’d seen picture books with Santa in them and there was always snow.  What to do, what to do?  Nothing but wait and hope.

The journey to Virginia began in the mountains of Tennessee, jolting along in our old Ford on Route 11 to Augusta County in the Shenandoah Valley.  Our grandmother, whom we all called Mommom, Aunt Moggie, Uncle RW and our five cousins awaited us on the family farm.

Dad spent what seemed like days in preparation for the trip, packing and repacking the car.  Finally we got underway.  I’m amazed as an adult to find that the trip normally takes about six hours, or less, because I have vivid memories of this ride going on all day and far into the night, playing ‘I Spy with My little Eye,’ and singing carols until we were hoarse and my parents must’ve been nearly half mad.

Mom taught us a song on the way about Santa, ‘You’d Better Watch Out,’ a worrisome ditty.  I wasn’t an exceptionally naughty child, but knew there were the occasionally times when I had been what, in some person’s minds, might be construed as bad. What if Santa, this wonderful provider, had seen me at less than my best?  What if I got switches?

My father told us about his Uncle Gus who’d received switches.  Horrors of horrors.  Deep down I felt it was no more than I deserved if my every move had been carefully noted. I hoped Santa was a forbearing fellow, but doubts lurked, a new worry on top of the snow thing.

Eventually we arrived in the Valley and the paved highway turned into bumpy dirt roads as we wound deeper into the country with its unique smells.  My father pointed out the lights of Chapel Hill glowing in the distance, then unbelievably we were driving up the long lane and the yard filled with family to warmly welcome the weary travelers.

The first night we went straight to bed.  I slept upstairs in the yellow room––every room has a name––with my two cousins, Margaret and Elizabeth Page.  In the morning, John and I got our wish.  We awoke to heavily falling snow, a magical world.  We went sledding down the lane, made a giant snow bunny with my father and had the time of our lives, clambering back into the kitchen ravenous and soaking wet.  We peeled off layers of pants––no snow pants back then––and took our wet clothes and mittens to hang them by the stove in Mommom’s room, before downing bowls of homemade soup.

The day before Christmas finally came and the old brick house filled with tantalizing smells.  The kitchen door opened periodically, the sleigh bells on it announcing the arrival of yet more friends bringing yet more gifts.  Friends, neighbors and family all exchanged gifts, even if it was only a plate of cookies exchanged for yours.

Presents were stashed in every corner of the front room, covering the old piano and stacked beneath, wrapped in paper and ribbons which I found almost too beautiful to bear. I knew there were some for me among them, that I was not in total reliance on Santa.  Even so, I longed to be kindly remembered by him.

As any child can attest, Christmas Eve is the longest day of the year and one in which we made extreme nuisances of ourselves, asking endless questions and climbing over and under the furniture to see which gifts were ours.  At last we gathered together in the front room in the presence of the magnificent pine decorated shortly before our arrival.  My uncle cut it from a nearby woods and I loved its fresh smell, also new to me.  A stern glance from him quieted us down and my grandmother read the Christmas story from The Book of Matthew.

The ancient story evoked a new found sense of awe at the holiness of this night as I gazed at the little wooden creche and the figures carved by my father.  I felt the love in the room and understood that it had something to do with this sacred child whose birth we were celebrating.

All right, Jesus loved me, so did God, but what about Santa? After all, he was the one to fill the stocking I’d hung carefully in between my cousin’s on the mantle under the portrait of our great-great grandmother.  All of our stockings had been knitted for us by an elderly relative and had a scene of Santa on one side and a reindeer on the other with little bells that jingled when I lifted it.  A reminder of his imminent arrival.

After the stockings were hung and The Night before Christmas read, we heard sleigh bells ringing far off in the meadow.  Good heavens, Santa was that close.  We tumbled over each other in our haste to get to bed lest the old guy should discover us still up and promptly leave.  Touchy fellow, peculiar ways, but ours was not to question why.  We scampered under the covers and did not dare to peep until dawn.

After that, it was every child for him or herself.  We launched out of bed, vying to be the first one to wish each other “Christmas Gift!” then paced about in acute impatience while the adults had a leisurely breakfast.  Who could eat at a time like this?  And dressed with slow, careful deliberation.  I was wearing the same clothes I’d donned two days ago.  As for bathing, only under duress.

We practically gave up all hope of ever seeing inside the front room and paced outside the closed double doors where no child could enter until everyone had gathered.  Mommom, her blue eyes twinkling, reported that Santa had come and relieved our troubled minds.  Uncle RW told us he’d seen reindeer hoof prints in the snow on the roof of the house.  Imagine that.  We never once questioned what he’d been doing on the roof.  Not that this would make the slightest difference if we eked out our days waiting in the hall.

Then, glory hallelujah, the family assembled and lined up according to age, as required by the law of our clan.  The all-important doors opened.  Great was our wonder.  There was the tree lit, the stash of presents sorted into individual piles, and the stockings filled.  Mine bulged with promise.  Praise be!  The old fellow was extremely tolerant.  I’d truly feared to see those switches.

It’s ages later now and Mommom has gone on before us.  Lining up outside those omnipotent doors with my brother, cousins, parents, aunt, uncle and her at the end is a distant cherished memory.  Christmas is a place I return to in my thoughts whenever I need the sense of joy and reassurance it brings.  And I remember that time so long ago when my brother and I despaired of snow.

*Pics of Chapel Hill