Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A Christmas Memory, 1975

One week before Thanksgiving in November 1975, Northern New York was hit by a freak ice storm. The little hamlets of St. Lawrence County were well prepared to deal with these conditions, but this came up so quickly, there was almost no way to get the sand and salt out in time.

Temperatures plummeted, rain turned to sleet turned to freezing rain, and roads became treacherous. Luckily, all the kids were already in school, and even more fortunately, the weather changed just as quickly – warming up enough to melt the ice in time for the buses to hit the roads and return the students home.

As I did every day, I got on Bus #16 and took up my usually seat, with best buddies of mine, Barry and Greg. Then it happened: my space was invaded by not one, but two of my cousins, Squirrelly (Shirley) and Blabra (Barbara). OK, what in blue blazes were they doing on MY bus route? – they lived in the next town over, another tiny burg which funnels all its kids to the same school as our town (we’re talking small here – one K-12 school for 3 towns, and still only 720 kids total!)

It got even stranger…they got off the bus at our house. And walked in with me. And sat down at the kitchen table.

In my house.

And they didn’t know why. Nor did I.

Too weird. And soooo out of the usual patterns of my well-organized 2nd Grader’s life.

Well, in a magnanimous gesture, I hauled out some of last year’s toys for us to “share” while waiting for an adult to arrive on the scene to make some sense of all this disorderliness. I mean, there had to be some logical explanation, right?


Sadly there was. The Ice Storm.

Not long after, Mom walked in the door – with ANOTHER cousin! Squirrelly and Blabra’s little brother (or little Bother, as I liked to call him), Wesley.

OK, enough already. Would someone like to explain this to me?

And she did. Mom took me upstairs to my room, sat me down on my bed and sank down wearily next to me. Most of what I remember that followed was her asking me to be patient and understanding, that we all were going to make some adjustments and then a lot of other things that didn’t quite register…but what I did understand was this: Shirley and Barbara and Wesley would be staying with us for a while because their parents, John and Paula had been in a terrible car accident in the ice storm...John had been killed and Paula had been badly injured and the doctors wouldn’t say one way or the other if they thought she’d make it.

And now Mom had to go break this news to the kids.

I was grateful that I didn’t have to be in the room when Mom took all three of them to her lap in the big rocking chair – I peaked around the banister, just to know where not to be. It was the quietest I’d ever heard our house – usually full of the five of us kids, terrorizing each other, practicing the clarinet/piano/flute/drums/trumpet, playing records, yelling from one end to the other.

Utter quiet.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Mom and Paula were about the same age and had been pregnant with me and Shirley around the same time – there was no question where the kids would go when the call came to the school that morning. Paula’s parents were too old to take that many young kids and John’s parents were too far away.

Paula was one of 8 kids, and her siblings rallied to help: it was a whirlwind of visiting relations and food and preparations for the funeral. I was given the choice of whether or not to attend the service for John’s funeral – I declined, and went to spend the day with my favorite neighbor, Marian. (She and her husband Kermit had 5 daughters and so I was her special little boy – and I LOVED it!!)

The flurry of activity continued through Thanksgiving (we served about 35 for a sit-down dinner) and then suddenly quieted down again as we headed back to school. I was now sharing my room with Wesley, and Dad was quickly finishing up the back room for Barbara and Shirley. It was now apparent that Paula was going to live, but it would mean many months of recovery in the hospital, with several surgeries to rebuild her pelvis, hip and right leg.

Now, we were a farming family. We had the space for 3 extra kids, both in the house and out in the 90 acres we all knew intimately. I never would have thought of us as poor, as we always had food to eat, a roof over our heads, beds to sleep in – all the amenities. I did not know at the time how little there was to spare, or how we would have been categorized as poor compared to many other families throughout the US.

But. Add three more kids to the mix, and it was tough. At the time, I certainly didn’t understand quite why or how it was tough. None of us ever went hungry and I don’t really comprehend how Mom and Dad did it, but I could sense their tension as Christmas raced toward us.

We went through all the usual movements – put the tree up and got it decorated, assembled the cardboard fireplace (uh-huh, you know that one I’m talking about), and for us kids, started behaving like Big Brother was just around every corner. The strain for my parents took its toll on me and my siblings, but they were so careful not to speak too harshly Wesley, Barbara or Shirley. The sisters would spend hours off on their own, talking themselves nearly into hysterics, recreating the accident despite not actually being there. It was a long, strange time.

And then. Oh, then. One evening, less than a week before Christmas, there came a loud knock on the door. Mom still hadn’t returned from her bus route and Dad was in the barn, getting ready for milking. My sister Jo Ann went to the door and peaked out – two of our favorite teachers were standing there, arms laden with, well, stuff.

Jo Ann flung the door open and almost instantly burst into tears. We all came running to see what the commotion was – these beautiful women had spread the word through the school that they were planning on doing something for our extended family for Christmas and to say the least, it snowballed. There was a massive laundry basket (how big? Later, when it was empty, we fit a 1st grader and 2 2nd graders in it!), filled to overflowing with small gifts for everyone, but more importantly, oranges and grapefruits and all kinds of food supplies and fun things and it was so unexpected and so marvelous and so kind. And there were bags and boxes and boxes and bags of more stuff and goodies and food and decorations and stuff and so much that it was almost incomprehensible.

My brother Brad raced down to the barn to get Dad – of course, the teachers tried to duck out before he got to the house, but my sisters wouldn’t let them out the door. Both my sisters were talking to the teachers at a mile a minute, how cool this was, who’s idea had it been, how long had it taken to pull it all together – with my sisters, the devil’s in the details.

Dad arrived – flustered that he’d been pulled away from his work and sputtering that Brad hadn’t told him what the crisis was. He walked into the kitchen to see this mound of generosity – and all the steam went out of him. Not often a physically affectionate man, he flew across the room, grabbed the teachers into a bone crushing hug, held them at arms length, muttered some thanks, and then dashed back out the door, still muttering something about needing to get back to the barn and ordering my brothers to stay in the house to guard all the stuff so the “kids don’t wreck it before your mother gets home.”

Mom. I wish our teachers had been able to stay - they had families of their own to get home to - because Mom’s reaction was what you’d expect, to the third or fourth power. Tears, squeals, disbelief, blustering, hugging, shaking her head, speechlessness. And then she settled into a good solid cry, just to get it all out. I think that was the night that I first understood the difference between good cries and ugly cries. And, then Mom realized that not one of us kids (and oh, had this been tough) had touched a single thing in any one of the boxes or bags or the laundry basket – and the crying started all over again.

Over the Christmas break, Mom had all of us sit down and make some really cool thank you cards – we drew pictures of all the different stuff and things and goodies and wrote corny things and signed it “Love, …” and it was all so wonderful.

Christmas Day was another kind of dog and pony show, with all of our clan and all of Paula and John’s kin from both sides going so far out of their way to make it not just a happy day, but a Good Day. A really Good Day for everyone.

It was April of the following year that Paula was finally released from the hospital and returned home – the kids left our home a few days later. The transition back into our routine was much quicker than we expected, but it was time for spring plantings and there was so much to do.

Shirley and I have been very close since then, and whenever we speak of this time, it is with great warmth and affection – and Shirley cannot speak of my mother without getting misty eyed. Every four or five years, when Mom and Shirley actually meet up again face to face – the tears flow and the stories come out again and all the same love is there.

It was a terrible time in which some really extraordinary people made the best of the situation, shared a lot of themselves and loved unconditionally. When I falter and lose some of the beauty of Christmas, I revisit this time and place and it all comes back to me again.

Merry Christmas – and Peace to Y’all.

4 comment(s):

painted maypole

what a lovely story of true generosity - on so many levels.

I'm crying. ;) in a good way, of course.

Flower Child

oh my goodness. what a wonderful story.

soccer mom in denial

Your family is extrordinary. Like you.

Jenn in Holland

wow. Happy Christmas to you, always.

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