Wednesday, November 30, 2011

My Childhood Christmases

The Christmas Season is officially here and my thoughts are drifting back to my childhood Christmases. Christmas was always my favorite holiday! I would start the year out with a Christmas Club account at the Lapeer County Bank & Trust, depositing my thirty-five cents every week in anticipation of the gifts I would be able to buy everyone. As I got older, I upped my bank account up to fifty cents a week – I was a big spender!

The season began with “The Hanging of the Greens” at Trinity Methodist Church, across the street from the hospital in Lapeer. I think this would have been the first Sunday night in December. It was always so exciting, decorating the church with ropes of greenery and red bows; it all looked so beautiful. It was warm inside the church while outside the wind howled and the snow flew. Everyone was dressed in their Sunday best; the Christmas music, cookies and punch made it all so festive. On several occasions, I was the acolyte for the evenings service. Dressed in a white gown and carrying a lite brass taper, I walked slowly down the center isle of the sanctuary, being careful not to let the flame go out. I would first light the alter candles and then candelabra on each side. When I finished, I would sit in the pews up front, opposite the choir, waiting to extinguish the candles at the end of the service.

Finally, the time to cash in Christmas Club accounts would come and I would start my Christmas shopping. I always tried to buy a little something for the entire family. One lucky person received a world globe shaped pencil sharpener from me! I think I bought Old Spice After Shave for Dad most years. Can't remember what I bought Mom, maybe some stationery or maybe some of that Evening in Paris perfume.

I loved to go Christmas shopping downtown on Friday nights. It all seemed so magical with the lights, the snow and the cold. Downtown Lapeer was a busy place back then, no empty buildings. I would shop at McCrory and D & C dime stores. D & C had lots of penny candy to choose from, I'm sure I bought a little something for myself there. There were two hardware stores to choose from, The Lapeer Hardware and Gwinns. At one point there was a toy shop, my dad worked there! There were two drug stores downtown, selling much more than just drugs, Vincents and Zemmers. Lyons & Smith, Gages, Thornes, Vosburgs, and JC Penney were all lots of fun to look through, but I couldn't afford to shop there. I can't remember when the Hallmark store opened downtown, but once it did I was a constant shopper. I loved the Christmas kick-off they would have every year with free calendars, cookies and punch.

Decorating for Christmas at home was fun. Mom loved candles and we would make our own. Melting down paraffin wax, we would add crayons for color then pour the wax into a waxed paper milk carton with a string suspended from the top, tied to a pencil. Next, we would melt some more wax, but not add any color, then we would beat the wax with a mixer until fluffy and apply it to the outside of the hardened colored candle we had already made. The uncolored wax would look like snow and with the lights off at night and the candles lite, the colored wax would show through. We would display our new candles surrounded by greenery – cut from the bottom of the tree. 

Mom always liked to have all blue bulbs on her Christmas tree and I must say the effect was beautiful! Lately, I've noticed a few houses decorated with all blue bulbs, it makes me think of her.

Mom loved music. Her stereo was sure to be playing Christmas music all season long. The Little Drummer Boy is one of the albums I remember. I'm sure Perry Como was playing, too. Nate King Cole singing, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” makes me think of Dad, along with White Christmas by Bing Crosby.

I don't remember our doing any holiday baking, we didn't need to, Dad received so many gifts of cookies and candy while he was working as a rural mail carrier. He received homemade cookies of every kind, huge fancy brass tins of store bought cookies, fruit cakes and candies. I especially loved the tins of chocolate and vanilla caramels! I don't know where you can get those chocolate caramels now.

Occasionally, we would get together with my mom's family at Grandma Taylor's house on Madison Street in Lapeer. I think this would usually be a week or two before Christmas. Card tables would be lined up end to end in the living room, to accommodate all the people. I think we usually had ham and potatoes of some kind or maybe a turkey. Aunt Ernestine usually brought a delicious rainbow layered jello salad with cream cheese in it. I'm sure we had the perennial favorite, green beans with mushroom soup – probably made by my mom. Can't forget the brown and serve rolls.

Dinner finished, the adult women would clear the table and was up the dishes. While waiting for presents, I would play with my cousins Brad and Roger, the two closest to my age. I remember playing Move To The Head Of The Class and a marble/maze game with a tilting table. In the closet was an old fashioned metal race car that use to go when pumped, but it no longer worked.  The View Master with reels of a cave often caught my attention. There was also a marble filled tube, you had to shake it to move the marbles from the top to the bottom; that tube drove all the adults crazy! 

Finally it was time for presents! I think we exchanged names, so we probably only received one gift each. Aunt Gern always decorated her packages so beautifully. I remember a hand crafted gift, a glass jar with macaroni glued on, painted with gold spray paint and filled with bath salts – I thought it looked so beautiful!

Christmas Eve was always spent at Grandpa and Grandma Seames' house on South Elm Street in Lapeer. The delicious smell of grandma's scalloped potatoes and ham greeted us as we opened the door. We couldn't wait to eat, not just because grandma was such a good cook; we got to open presents after dinner! One year, I remember receiving a white oxford shirt, gold link bracelet with pearls and, as always, vanilla drops from Grandma and Grandpa. The cold trip home in the crowded car seemed to last forever; our breaths fogging up the windows, elbowing the one sitting next to us. Once home, off to bed we would go, too excited to sleep, knowing Santa would be coming! I remember trying to wait up for Santa on the top landing of the stairway, but I never made it.

Waking early (probably around 4:00 am) we would check out our stockings. There was always an orange, nuts and assorted miniature Hershey candy bars in the stocking. Not too many gifts stick out in my mind, except the year we got a round pool table with a single hole in the middle (That was fun to play!) Or maybe the year Patti and I got a Barbie house (Dad must have been working in the toy store that year.) I think we got games, paint-by-number pictures, and probably some clothes. I remember wanting a Betsy Wetsy, but I never got one. The year I turned seven, my sister Dawn was born, so I guess I had a real live baby doll then.

I think Dad usually made us eggnog on Christmas day. Made with uncooked fresh eggs, milk, sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg, beaten until frothy. It was delicious – we didn't worry about eating uncooked eggs back then.

Can't remember what we ate for Christmas dinner, Mom wasn't much of a cook. Maybe we had Swiss steak braised with onions, she liked to cook that. I mainly remember bowls of nuts - that Dad could crack with his bare hands – Hershey's candy bars, and cookies. Who needed real food with all the goodies around! 

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Thanksgivings Past

Here it is November already; time is moving by so fast, I can't keep up with it. Thank goodness, we get an extra hour tonight with Daylight Savings Time ending (But I really need a least twelve extra hours.) Plans for this year's Thanksgiving are on my mind and with it memories of Thanksgivings past.  I'm not sure why, but we always spent Thanksgiving with Grandpa and Grandma Seames.  I hope Grandma Taylor wasn't sitting home all alone!  Maybe she spent Thanksgivings with Uncle Ron and his family.

Thanksgivings spent at Grandma Seames' little house on South Elm Street in Lapeer are the best memories! Coming in the front door, grandma would always exclaim, “Oh my goodness, you are getting so big!” giving us all a hug and a kiss. It didn't take much to be bigger than Grandma, she was so tiny.  Grandpa would be sitting there by the front door and the window, ready to tell us everything he had seen the neighbors doing from his perch. The house would be filled with the most delicious smells from grandma's cooking all day. The house warmed by the oven.

We would lay on the floor, maybe watch a little bit of TV or just stare into the fire in the living room furnace, kind of an early day gas fireplace. We couldn't wait for Thanksgiving Dinner, grandma was an excellent cook!

Finally, dinner was called and we all made our way to the big oval, oak table in grandma's dining room. The table pretty much filled the room, when all the leaves were used. An old brown towel sat on grandpa's chair for him to use on his lap. We kids all had our favorite glasses; glasses with cartoon figures (Originally filled with jelly or cheese) when we were younger, then when we were older, glasses with amber leaves and blue glasses with white sailboats. Those glasses would be filled with icy cold milk. The adults drank coffee made in grandma's drip coffee pot; the water was boiled then poured over the grounds to drip down below. I can smell it now; I love the smell of coffee, but I don't drink it. The table would be overflowing with food; huge bowls of mashed potatoes, stuffing piled high, the gravy boat full (With more gravy waiting in the kitchen,) green bean casserole with crunchy French fried onions, tossed salad with a mayonnaise dressing, cubes of cheese, dill pickles, sweet gherkins, olives, celery & carrot sticks in glass jars of water, radishes, brown and serve rolls with plenty of butter and strawberry jam. In later years, grandma started making this wonderful Strawberry Jello Salad, too. Of course, the main event at Thanksgiving dinner is always the turkey! It was browned to perfection and filled with the most delicious, savory dressing. Grandma Seames (Or Grandma Marg as my children would know her) sure knew how to cook!

Grandma Marg's Stuffing

1 cup onion, chopped
1 cup celery, chopped
1 cup carrot, chopped
½ cup butter or margarine
3 qt. Dry Bread Cubes
1 teas Sage
Salt & Pepper to taste
½ cup giblet broth (or chicken broth)

Put giblets in salted water and cook until tender. If you wish, giblets can
be chopped up and added to stuffing.

Saute onion, celery and carrots in butter until onion is soften. Add sage,
salt & pepper; then remove from heat and add broth and bread
cubes. Put stuffing into turkey (Don't forget the neck cavity) and put
remaining stuffing into a greased bowl of pan to bake at 350 degrees for
one hour.

Grandma Marg's Strawberry Jello

1 – 6oz pkg strawberry Jello
¾ cup boiling water
1 can strawberry pie filling
½ cup pineapple chunks, drained
¼ cup marshmallows
whipped cream (Grandma used Dream Whip)

Add water to Jello, stirring well to dissolve. Let sit until thickened then
beat until fluffy. Fold in pie filling, pineapple, and marshmallows and
pour into a pretty glass bowl or mold. Chill. Top with whipped cream.

I can't remember if we ate dessert right away, but I think we might have waited for our swollen stomachs to recuperate a little. We would lay on the living room floor or if it was too hot, go into grandma's bedroom. There the air was frosty cool because of the little perfectly round hole in the window, grandma kept a Kleenex stuffed in it to block the breeze. I don't recall ever asking how that hole came to be in the bedroom window, it is curious.

Mom and grandma would wash the dishes as we lay in agony from having eaten too much. When we were older, I do remember helping with dishes. Mostly when we kids were in the kitchen, we were making a mess! Grandma had a little pass-through window from her kitchen to the dining room, she also had a little wheeled cart and a kitchen sink with a sprayer. This got our minds working. We would use the sprayer to fill shot glasses with water, put the glasses on the cart and wheel them to the window. Then placing orders from the dining room, we would play restaurant or more probably bar, passing the shot glasses and little demitasse spoons through the window. I don't ever remember getting in trouble with grandma for making such a mess, but dad might have gotten mad.

Finally it was time for dessert! Grandma made the spiciest pumpkin pie that we sprayed with whip cream from a can. Her apple pies were stuffed full with apples, the crust flaky. Grandma would make us each our own little pies.  Of course, we had French Vanilla ice cream with those pies. French Vanilla ice cream and cookies could always be had at grandma's; they always seemed to magically appear when used.

Grandma Marg's Pumpkin Pie

1 ½ cups pumpkin
1 cup milk
1egg, beaten
1 cup sugar 
1 Tab flour 
½ teas salt
¼ teas cinnamon
1/8 teas cloves
1/8 teas allspice
1/8 teas ginger
1/8 teas nutmeg 
1 unbaked pie shell

Mix ingredients together and pour into pie shell. Use pie shield
or foil to protect edges of crust from burning. Bake at 450 degrees
for 20 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees for one hour. Cool
and serve with whipped cream.

After a wonderful day, we would all pile into the car for the trip home. That car would be pretty crowded, three in the front seat, dad, mom and one lucky child; the four of us kids in the back seat were pretty tightly packed. There was more than one complaint of elbows or someone being on someone else's side. The drive, of just a couple of blocks, seemed to take forever. The car windows would steam up from all our breaths. Eventually we would all pour out of the car and head inside to get ready for bed. Another Thanksgiving gone by.

Will my grandchildren have such fond memories of Thanksgiving at grandma's? I hope so, I use grandma's stuffing and pumpkin pie recipes, but sadly, no one seems to like her Strawberry Jello Salad. Wait a minute, I haven't tried it on Jessica or Hope yet; maybe I can still find someone to eat Strawberry Jello Salad with me!