August 27, 2008 · Updated 8:54 PM
It was a world of one-car families, one salary incomes, one-car detached garages, and one bathroom homes. So long as that was our neighbors situation, we figured it was the normal state of affairs, and it was. It worked well to have one parent orchestrating family life while the other brought home the bacon.
My home was a two story house on the corner of Park and Carlisle in the Spokane Valley. Eds Market lay three blocks south near the Great Northern tracks and Jaynes Pharmacy four blocks in the other direction, close by the Spokane International railroad tracks. One way or another, the two establishments figured large in Graef family Christmases.
Two or three weeks before each Christmas, a trucker would dump a load of Christmas trees beside Eds market. Eds wasnt noted for high end merchandise. In fact, he had deals with Spokanes produce companies to take spotted bananas and wilted greens off their hands. Thats not to say his trees were substandard since a stop at any other tree vendor of the time would suggest that 1947 Christmas trees were anemic by modern standards.
Christmas trees of that era should be thought of as free-range. Un-pruned and un-sprayed they were cut in the wild where birds flitted among their wide-spaced branches and deer browsed on their tenderest parts. Bald sides allowed them to be set up close to walls. Trees with two bald sides were just right to fit in corners. They were Douglas firs. All Douglas firs. No Nobles, Spruces or fancy hybrids were displayed at Eds.
Tree stands of the times were fashioned from two crossed scraps of board, a spike driven through their juncture into the trees butt. To buttress the tree upright, pieces of slat were toe-nailed into the base and trunk, the whole project requiring little more than a half-hour with hand-saw and hammer. Once in place, no thought was given to watering. Trees were decorated in late December and pitched out with the scraps from New Years dinner before they had a chance to rain needles onto living room floors.
With two strings of electric lights for our tree, we Graefs were pretty up-scale. This was before the advent of low-amperage circuitry so the wires lacing bulbs together were stout. The bulbs, themselves, had an industrial heft to them. Brass screw-in bases and thick glass envelopes and filaments like fence-wire should have lasted forever. The glitch was that no one in the bulb factory had yet figured how to make colored coatings stick to glass so it flaked off to rattle around inside, shorting out the filaments or displaying little mosaics of color and bare glass.
The light cords were plugged into a four-way splitter tapped into the overloaded outlet behind the couch. Three wall plugs served a large living room that dated back to a time when the luxury of an electric floor lamp was enough to set the neighborhood abuzz. With two high-wattage lamps, a radio and two strings of tree lights drawing current, pre-Christmas evenings were scented with the odor of scorched bakelite emanating from behind the couch where flammable dust-bunnies lurked.
Like today, the strings of lights went on first. Then we distributed our precious two boxes of glass globes and a new package of tinsel and that was the end of the store-bought stuff. From there on it was strings of popcorn and mangy tinsel ropes that had shed their charm some Christmases before. To me, the effect was quite grand.
About the middle of December, packages from great-aunts in Waseca, Minnesota arrived and every year the contents were the same; a little gunny-sack of home-grown popcorn and home-knitted mittens for all of us. Near to that time we got our Christmas package from Grannie in Salem. Having grown up in Waseca, she kept tradition by sending us another round of mittens but varied the formula by substituting a sack of Filberts from her orchard behind the barn.
Mom and Dad managed to up our allowances enough to finance all four of us kids to a shopping spree at Jaynes Pharmacy where a dizzying display of personal care items awaited. Bush and comb sets, perfumes, fountain pens, fancy boxed stationery, hand mirrors, billfolds. Stuff for parents. When we kids shopped for each other, we hopped the bus for The City, Downtown Spokane and Center of the Universe where everything imaginable could be found at Newberrys, Payless, or any of the other five-and-dime operations.
Each of us hoped for one significant gift from Mom and Dad, and though the gifts werent fancy, I now recognize how much soul-searching and sacrifice they represented. One Christmas I got a Red Ryder b-b gun. Another, a used Elgin bicycle. Other Christmases brought a fly-tying kit, a crystal set, a Babe Ruth fielders mitt and a B-17 model airplane kit that I labored over for months and hadnt yet completed when Teddy, our Chow-Shepherd got his fangs on it.
Stockings by the chimney could be counted on to yield jack-knives, baseballs, and Boy Scout stuff like a compass or new merit badge books that Dad suspected I wanted. An orange, hard candy, marbles, a fresh folio of music to practice and a new fountain pen filled mine to bursting.
Christmas dinner had to be more than a one-chicken affairs. To keep the table free of battles over who got the wishbone or drumsticks, Christmas became a two-chicken feast. With a hen-house full of layers and a cold-storage locker full of fryers, we were definitely a chicken-protein family. Add walnut stuffing, Moms aspic salad that we not-too-secretly detested (yuck), Dads favorite rutabagas (double-yuck), carrots and potatoes from the root cellar, pickles, olives, cranberries and the treat to end all treats, home-canned pickled crabapples (yum) and you have an old-time Graef feast.
Mom and Dad werent church people but since books were a large part of our life, they made sure the heirloom family Bible was on the table to guide us through the story of Christs birth. That touch makes me hope that Christmas gatherings in my kids homes will bear more significance than one more extravagant feast and sharing of material gifts.
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