Arnie got fishing gear that Christmas; no big surprise. Delores, a sky-blue angora sweater the color of her pretty eyes. Mom, from Dad, a ruffly red nightgown that raised eyebrows and generated snickers. Eddie was going in the Army so he liked his OD-green travel bag and the leather Dopp kit. Great-aunt Kit, Grandma Egli, and Aunt Vinnie all got lavender powder and bed clothes. There was no bicycle under or near the tree, so I knew it was yet another year when I did not get the bicycle I prayed for. My birthday was in February, I reminded myself. Small consolation, right then, that did not make the sinking, kind-of-weeping feeling go away. Every other ten-year-old in town had been riding her bicycle to school for a year or more. I had been reminded that I could walk that one country block to school, but that was not the point. I wanted to feel the wind in my face.
My shattered heart felt wedged in clumps in my throat, but I would not…would not… cry. What took my mind off the bicycle for a time was a small wooden box covered in red floral fabric—strange and exotic to me—inside which lay two exquisite—though I would not have known that word at the time—Japanese dolls, resting on rectangular red silk cushions. The dolls were molded of porcelain, painted pale-skin pink, their bodies dressed in hand-painted, delicately-embroidered, floral silk kimonos, one red, the other green, with complementing obis, tabis, and zōris. The dolls’ straight black hair was real hair and I felt knocked out, and somehow not worthy of or ready for, these foreign, elegant creatures. But I had emphatically asked my parents not to give me another doll. I was ten, not five, and I had two dolls on my bed I no longer played with. Did anyone in this family ever listen to me?
Still, these were not doll dolls. They were objets d’art, although I did not know to describe them as such then, mostly felt confused, unknowing of how to feel about them. I helped clean up the wrapping paper blizzard, then took the dolls into my bedroom where I could be alone. I sat on my bed and stared at them. I could not forget that they were not a bicycle, or that I was done with dolls and too young for art. I examined them, beginning with what was under the kimonos: not much, tiny strips of red silk. Where on earth did these delicate dolls come from? My parents were not wealthy. We had nothing we could call art in the house, except one painted vase Aunt Kit had given us the previous Christmas that sat on the big Philco radio near the window.
Aunt Kit tottered into the bedroom to sit beside me on the bed. Handsome, tall and lean, hair still (bottle) red at eighty-four, makeup smooth and flawless, she drags her left foot and shields the arm compromised by her stroke. She had come up on the train from San Francisco; Dad and I had picked her up in Ukiah two days earlier. She had gotten up very early this Christmas day to make herself presentable to our gaggle of family, more coming late afternoon for Christmas dinner. She was a lifelong city slicker but we loved her anyway. She had been the socialite wife of Dr. Bertrand Roché, a celebrated dentist and dental tool designer in the city, until, after the Depression, he had taken his own life and Aunt Kit had fallen into a cautious, sophisticated retirement, watching the doctor’s investment and patent portfolios dwindle by the month. Despite her fall from wealth, until her death at ninety-four, she appeared—to us anyway—to be straight out of Vogue magazine. Before she died in Memorial Hospital, I went by to see her and she immediately rose to her elbows and hissed, “Ida…Ida… I’m so glad to see you. Quick, help me get my makeup on. The doctor’s coming.” We made it, and after the doctor left, Aunt Kit and I laughed together, she joking that the handsome doctor could “…slip his shoes under my bed anytime.”
“Aren’t these exquisite dolls, Ida Rae?”
“Exquisite?” Is that good or bad? Sounds like good.
“Beautiful, yes, they are Japanese art!” Aunt Kit was excited about the dolls. But art? Were dolls art? These were unusual, for sure, and so pretty. “Just look at their silk clothes! Those hand-painted porcelain faces. They even have real hair. Aren’t they something? You are a lucky little girl!”
I was catching on. These dolls were special, like grown-up dolls you don’t play with. “What is silk, Aunt Kit? It’s soft.” I’m slipping it between my fingers.
“Oh. Silkworms make silk thread and the Japanese weave that into fabric.”
I break out laughing, thinking she is kidding me like Dad does. “Funny!”
“No…. Really, it’s true. The Japanese raise these little white silkworms that eat some kind of tree leaves and spin cocoons to metamorphize in… to grow in and turn into butterflies in… moths actually. The Japanese unravel the cocoons and use the fine thread to weave this fabric.” She looks at me as though I just came in from a cave, because I’m still snickering, thinking she is joking. Her forlorn stare says I’m a hopeless hick, my family nearly-ignorant country bumpkins. This is not entirely true. But then Aunt Kit and I stare again at those exquisite (my new word) Japanese dolls and fall in love with them.
My sister Delores, a decade and two weeks older than me, and still as bossy as when we shared a bedroom, has come home for Christmas from Marin County, where she is a bigtime telephone operator. She brought me small red velour Lady and the Tramp lamps to sit on either side of my bed. I still feel dumbfounded. Two nice presents in one Christmas? Is this what being a grownup will be like? As I find out later, decidedly no. Delores runs into the bedroom and shoos Aunt Kit and me out, slamming the door, as Eddie pounds on the other side, yelling, “Those are my cigarettes, Delores. Give ‘em back!”.
Back in the living room I wiggle into the already-full couch, between Grandma Egli and Aunt Vinnie—her given name is Viola. Warm, warm. Aunt Vinnie is telling Grandma about losing her ministry in Santa Monica to the Rev. Billy Graham, an upstart, about how Graham just floated in and crowded her out of the call God had made directly through prayer to her, and how she was working with a lawyer to sue Rev. Graham for taking away her calling. When she was not a live-in new-baby nurse in the homes of the rich and famous in Hollywood, she managed a congregation of sewing women crafting quilts for the Navajo in New Mexico and Arizona. We all know Aunt Vinnie is a force. I think that Rev. Graham had better tread lightly.
Aunt Vinnie arrived by train earlier in the week. Dad and I drove into Ukiah to pick her up in our new VW Beetle—a big mistake. The pickup truck would have been better. She brought with her several suitcases of books, presents, clothes, half-finished quilts, cooking pots, and foodstuffs for recipes she would prepare. She’s a terrific cook, a zillion or so miles ahead of Mom. I was squashed in the backseat of the VW with the valises and two wicker baskets—plus, we had needed to strap one really large suitcase to the roof of the car, Dad grumbling about getting scratches on the top of the car.
Dad sometimes called Aunt Vinnie a spinster, a strange word; Mom called her an old maid. Either way, I realized there was something wrong with women who did not marry. And it wasn’t just that she was old-fashioned, wore those tie-up, thick-healed Mennonite shoes Grandma Egli wore, and the print dresses covering her to the wrists and ankles. Both wore white mesh caps snug around the chignon at the back of their heads. No makeup or jewelry—although the night before, she sharing my bed, I had watched my grandmother take off her cap and unpin her chignon so her rope of long hair dropped across her shoulder to fall in a clump in her lap. She began braiding it for bed. It was silver near her scalp, gradating to deep chestnut brown at the end. Wow! I thought. Had she ever cut it? “No,” she said. But then her hair caught on a tattered old chain she wore around her neck—hidden beneath her ruffle-necked nightgown—on which lolled a plain, thin, gold ring. Seeing that I had spotted it, she gently touched my shoulder. “Your grandfather gave me the ring, though I scolded him for spending the money… after our little Edith died of whooping cough. Mennonites don’t wear jewelry, dear… vanity. But I keep it here, near my heart, now that he is gone.” I will never forget the look that dashed across her face before she caught it and smiled—that spoke to deep adult grief, about which I knew nothing, but by then could recognize. “My little Ida,” she said, squeezing me to her. I had been named after her, and I felt proud of that.
I wanted her not to return to Oregon. Even more, I wanted her never to hurt again. She had lost Grandpa in a tractor accident just months into the Great Depression, when the youngest of her twelve children, Uncle Lloyd, was two, although before that she had lost three-year-old Edith, and Willis had been oxygen-deprived at birth so would always remain her slow, sweet child. I idolized her gentle, loving manner, the way she laughed with a ho-ho-ho sort of like Santa Claus on the radio, and that she often had time to sit and talk with me, as she had last night in bed as we fell asleep, her soft voice telling a story about her chickens and her new kittens born after Thanksgiving, the end of which I did not hear. I never got enough of her. I never didn’t miss her, so far away on the farm at Hubbard. Throughout my childhood I held her in my mind as a paradigm of what God wants us to be.
Images of those Japanese dolls tiptoed around in my head. Their beauty touched me somewhere deep, although I had no idea what I should do with that. A tender, open sore felt poked when I recalled the missing bicycle in the shuffle of gifts under the Christmas tree. I resisted the gravitational pull drawing me to my closet to cry, to give into it. Instead, I convinced myself that the red and green silk-dressed Japanese dolls were something no other girl in my class received. That story nearly worked.
It was hard for me sometimes not to stare at that wart on the tip of Aunt Vinnie’s nose. It did not spoil her nice looks exactly, but did distract from her clean, strict beauty. Dad had told me that staring at people was rude, and bad manners, so I tried especially hard not to. It looked a little like that wart lead her along, marched out ahead of her, into a life that excluded husband and kids, into helping others, as Dad said. She often talked of Chester, the fiancé she passed over after her father died, sacrificing herself to help her mother raise her younger siblings—not without some obvious lament, seldom spoken of but tender when hit on. Is that when the wart had emerged, I wondered, as God’s way of helping her avoid that topic for the rest of her life? Dad said once that he thought she was just shy, afraid of the marriage bed, and I remember thinking that strange. Who would be afraid of a bed?
After a time caught again in Aunt Vinnie’s story about her stolen calling, I notice the smells from the kitchen changing from pancakes and maple syrup to turkey and pumpkin and apple pies. Suddenly, with a gust of cold wind, the kitchen door slammed open and Arnie huffed through the open kitchen, awkwardly balancing in his arms what remained of the model airplane. He had spent the better part of the past few months constructing it on a card table on the cold back porch, because, Mom said, the smell of the model-making glue would shrivel his brain in a closed room. I often wondered how Arnie endured that glue stench without passing out. He would hunch over the plans that came with the kit, seemingly unaware of the pungent smell. The finished plane had sat on the piano for a month, handsome and authentic-looking with its tiny metal engine and propeller, U.S. Air Force insignias, and clear plastic Cellovision window. Red-faced, Arnie cradled the dead body of that intricate piece of balsa wood modeling, angry with our older brother for the pile of wood chips in his arms.
“I’m sorry, Arnie…. I didn’t know….” Eddie stammered, his face pained, arms flailing.
“I told you not to take her so high! The engine cuts out. I told you!”
“I thought it would catch… restart, but…. How was I to know….”
“I told you!” Arnie’s voice blasted through the kitchen, putting an end to all other chatter; but just as quickly it faded out as my brothers migrated through the laundry room toward the back porch that was their bedroom. Arnie had gotten another model plane kit for Christmas, that soon took his mind off the broken pieces of his favorite plane. Though pieces lay scrambled in a box, that dead airplane, even years later, would remain a woody limb-rub for my brothers.
Uncle Smokey and Aunt Catherine arrived with their three children, lime and cottage cheese Jell-O, and pecan pie. Later Aunt Pearl and Uncle Ray joined us, bringing sweet-potato casserole, coleslaw, three more boys, and Carolyn, nearly Delores’s age. Aunt Agnes and Uncle Joe followed, with Pat and Jim, my pals—Jim and I were classmates throughout elementary and high school, often doing our homework together on the phone—and little Joyce, the baby of our big family, Joyce wobbling in wearing her new black patent Mary-Janes and a red wood coat Aunt Agnes had sewn for her, in her frail arms a bowl of shrimp salad nearly as big as she was. Aunt Agnes laid string beans on the stove. Then the whole clan in the kitchen, draining the second or third pot of Mom’s Maxwell House coffee, thin enough to see straight through to the bottom of the mug, laughed uproariously at Uncle Smokey Joe, whose wavy red hair gleamed with Brylcreem, “I got Catherine a dandy McCullough chainsaw for Christmas. I’m going to have to show her how to use it so she can clean up those toppled trees down by the creek.” Aunt Catherine was laughing, though not heartily. My dad said, “If I were you, Smokey, I’d lock that chainsaw up at night!”
Uncle Ray confessed he hadn’t thought of a chain saw. Instead, he said, “I went into J.C. Penney and told the salesgirl I wanted a black lace brassiere about this size,” at which point he raised his widely-cupped hands, “and the britches to match!” Aunt Vinnie, standing behind the vinyl kitchen chair where Dad sat, shunned her reddened face away. She chortled nonetheless, and even I could see that Aunt Pearl suffered a little with her husband’s tattling. She handled it well, if a bit stiffly. About then, Dad pointed to his mother, and out of deference for my Mennonite grandmother, my maternal in-laws moved to keep the discussion riotous but church-pew clean.
Christmas dinner was a brave affair, Dad clanking on a glass before reminding all of us kids to “keep one foot on the floor at all times, so no reaching across the table! This should keep the calamity to a minimum. We have enough food for a regiment, so please!” I spied my favorite, a huge browned turkey with a breast as wide as mine, a horn-of-plenty of spilling bread stuffing, next to aromatic rosemary gravy, a beautiful ham from Uncle Joe’s very own pig (one of the twelve piglets we had all rushed to fondle the year before), and Aunt Vinnie’s famous yeast biscuits and pear salad—along with four Jell-O salads, lime with cottage cheese and walnuts, raspberry with canned mandarins and bananas, and plain orange and strawberry for the kids. Mashed potatoes enough for a congregation, a quarter cube of butter melted into a lake at the center; sweet potatoes with browned marshmallows; Aunt Vinnie’s homemade, almost-sweet, sauerkraut. Mom and Aunt Aggie refilled the scraped-clean bowls within minutes amid a lull of decibel chatter. Jokes and stories rolled along the line, laughter billowing in the open room.
Some of those stories are still with me, inhaled with the aromas of that room.
Our plates clean—a must in those days—we children ever-so-quietly parked our plates on the counter by the sink and slinked through the laundry room and out the back door, cunningly avoiding the kitchen chores. After a good run-around, Jim and I stood near the street and looked back at the house with its glimmering Christmas tree in the window, its lights bubbling away in a rainbow of pastels, the tinsel Mom so carefully and evenly spaced on each limb of the tree shimmering like flickering starlight in the fading sky.
Days earlier Dad had gathered us into his World War II surplus Willys Jeep—named and painted with a yellowjacket on the side—we wrapped in layers of wool: hats, gloves, throws, Mom tucking in a lunch of snacks, apples, crackers, cheese, and salami. We shivered but endured the wind that raced around the open jeep for that hour’s ride to the Mendocino National Forest above Crawford’s Sawmill, to find a perfect Silver Tip Blue Spruce Christmas tree. We hopped out a couple of miles past Lake Pillsbury and tramped around in the deep snow, sledding on pieces of cardboard and old garbage can lids. Dad joined us, and mother did too, our whoops echoing through the frozen mountain air. Eddie—almost grown up and off to help win the Korean war—dragged my sled back up the hill over and over. We made snow angels and threw huge snowballs at one another, and shoved handfuls of loose snow down one another’s sweaters. Mom tried for photographs but her camera kept freezing up. My fingers became numb, but it was outrageous fun, and we found and sawed down a perfect beauty of a tree, tall enough to barely fit in the living room, its crowning blinking star grazing the ceiling. That night we began decorating, Mom dragging out the thin glass ornaments and candy canes, she the only one with the patience to do the tedious work with the tinsel, the rest of us armchair Christmas tree dressers—at best.
I remember that Christmas tree in the window, the pure joy it brought to me, and the sadness that swept through me like a river of tears, about the bicycle. I felt so unseen sometimes in that big family of big personalities. Soon we kids turned to racing fun, games and shouts, coming into the house and fire when our hands felt frozen, then going outside again in the lowering darkness to race around the house, laughter and music ringing from inside the house competing with the rhapsody of the turbulent Russian River’s winter voyage through its own canyon so nearby. The powerful sound of that winter river-flow nestled into my mind, always there off-stage, reminding me that it was nature that sustains us—the family metaphor being that our logger father’s money really did grow on trees. That nature connection framed our house, fueled our fireplace, watered our summer garden, gave us vegetables, fruit, meat for Sunday dinners—and yes, lighted Christmas trees.
After Mom and my aunts had cleaned up the kitchen, washed all the dishes and pots, and the men had joked and smoked in front of the fire, there was a lazy scurry of men that lumbered into the garage, the one hanging-light-bulb radiating pale in the drawing evening through cracks in the garage door, the men’s frosty breath and cigarette smoke piling into clouds as they emerged and trailed back inside to circle and rub their hands by the fireplace, and to eat pie with whipped cream and Aunt Vinnie’s strudel with vanilla ice cream she herself had churned the day before. We kids played outdoors until our hands turned purple in the evening cold: Ante Over, Tag, Hide and Seek, yelling out “Ollie Ollie oxen free,” when we’d made it to safety.
Well after dark we kids dragged in, adrenaline still racing, our breathing ragged, starved for dessert, for those pies and Aunt Vinnie’s ice cream. I washed my hands in the laundry tray, letting the warm water run over my stiff fingers until they were almost warm, cousins jabbing their hands in, swiping my hands by the towel and my dress on my way to pie.
Carefully loading my small good China dessert plate I began to hear Grandma Egli snicker. Others joined her, and cousins Jim and Gary had looks of devilment on their faces that I paused to decipher. Why did I feel I was the butt of a joke? Had my wet, dirty socks and mud-splattered legs drawn attention? Then I heard Delores bellow, “Ida Rae, for goodness sake, get in here! What are you doing?”
“Me?” I was getting pie and whipped cream, forcefully oblivious to anything that distracted from that purpose. But when cousin Jim pointed to the Christmas tree, I turned to look at it. Yeah… it’s beautiful. So? And then I spotted it—bigger than life—a green and cream bicycle with red tassels falling from the handlebar grips, the bike casually leaning on its kickstand almost too close to the hot fire. It took another few pie-distracted seconds for me to catch the joke. The bicycle was for me! Aunt Kit stood near it, grinning like a Chessie cat, so aha, I suddenly realized, her devout interest in the Japanese dolls had something to do with preoccupying me while Dad and Eddie tried fitting the bike parts from the Montgomery Ward box together into a bicycle. In the end, apparently, it had taken a village of men eager to be outdoors smoking in the garage to get the job done. Like Dad’s slight-of-hand with walnut shells, I had not followed the loaded shell to discovery.
I was a happy girl.
As well, I felt rather embarrassed by my riches, by being the center of attention. Those beautiful dolls (I kept for decades and finally gave to my daughter), the red velour Lady and the Tramp lamps Delores gifted me that seemed to say that she really did care about me. And most of all at that moment, that spanking new green and cream bicycle that I had longed for forever.
It would never get better than that Christmas of 1956. So much was magic. The bike turned out to be functional, and at first I thought we would adjust to one another, but it always pedaled like it had gum in the gears—and no amount of Eddie and Dad’s fussing and oiling could ever correct that. When I graduated high school and moved away, I gave the bike to a younger cousin who kept it for six weeks and then dropped it off at Salvation Army. It would work fine for a tall, mountain of a mailman in Africa, he said.
Richest in my memory of that Christmas day was that I had my small, beloved Grandma Egli, my square-shouldered Aunt Vinnie and her strudel and ice cream, my shuffling, sophisticated Aunt Kit, and my family right there in the lens of my eyes. And that glittering Christmas tree we’d brought from the snow. So it felt serenely appropriate when the Methodist Church choir lined up outside on the lawn to sing Christmas carols. Cousins Jim, Gary, Christy and I went out and sang with them, clearly not doing their harmonizing any good, but “good” was never the point of caroling.
Silent Night. Holy Night.