Volume VIII, No. 2, Winter 1980
RECOLLECTIONS OF A SPECIAL YEAR
by Jerry D. Cox
"Dad, soon as you warm, start cracking those hickory and walnuts. I'll need all I can pick out this year," Mom said, heating water in the dishpan for breakfast's dishes. "Jerry, soon as you get your wood in, you help, too."
Enough winter wood ricked on the back porch seemed impossible for an eight-year-old boy whose big brother helpers had gone off to war. Of course, there were Bonnie and Zelma, but girls weren't expected to do a boy's work at our house. But I knew it must be done. The first snowfall had covered the winter-plowed fields and that meant more wood to burn. Mom's mentioning walnut cracking set my imagination moving as fast as my carrying in that wood. Walnut cracking weather meant two things--hot nut cookies and toys for me.
"Yep, guess we'd better get started on the hickory nuts. Course, there's only one of the boys to help this year."
"That means preparation's more important than ever this year," Mom interrupted Dad.
"Guess we'll be having a tree hunt, too," Dad said, feeling if his gloves were burning where they had been drying on the Heatrolla, the big black stove in the middle of the front room. Just today it coughed up its seasonal roar.
"Burley's store is my best customer. They want at least four quarts this year," Mom said, bundling my mackinaw around me. "Forty-five cents a quart isn't bad while things are so scarce. We'll have a tree, but the nut cracking comes first. There's time enough to be thinking of a tree hunt."
So, I remembered my youth and the ritual of Christmas time at our house, a sixty acre hillside farm deep in the Missouri Ozarks. Those hills didn't produce more than a few potatoes, some nubbins called corn, a patch of weeds that Dad passed off as hay, hickory and walnut trees and lots of scraggy cedars, one which became our Christmas tree. And after thirty years, whether it's the Christmas of '56 or '76, my memories of holidays are always recalled to that special year of 1944.
In spite of the war, there was much to keep a wide-eyed, eight-year-old excited, and I looked forward, past the early nut gathering to the moment Dad put the star on our cedar tree, signaling Christmas had come. The first project, however, was cracking those big black walnuts.
"Now don't start eating those meats too early," Dad said. "We'll never get enough cracked if we start eating before we have at least one pan full."
It always took so long, that first pan. I'd start saying, "It's full," soon as the tin bottom didn't shine.
"Not yet," Dad said.
I'd crack a few more. He'd crack a few more, and I'd say, "Now, it's full," soon as those golden mounds of sweet ivory meats mounted in the tin.
"Keep cracking, and don't mash them up so. Those Burley's people like big chunks," he said seriously.
It wouldn't be long until my dad'd whip out his shiny horseshoe nail from his bib overalls to use as a nut pick. He'd flip out a nutmeat completely unbroken.
"Here," he said, "See how long you can chew on this."
Course, I'd want to take off my brown jersey gloves so as not to taste them too, but the winter's cold would tell my fingers to put them back on. What's a little glove taste mixed with the black hull and shell of the walnut. It all tasted dandy to me.
"Hope the boys get theirs," Dad said, eating some of the nut meats. He knew I wouldn't snitch to Mom on him. "Ray likes them raw, like us, but Joe likes them best when your mom mixes them in her rolled oats cookies. Of course, you know the girls. They like to help their mom make cookies and like to help eat them."
This talking about my big brothers made me remember our earlier than usual nut cracking this year. A few days ago Dad took the anvil down, and we sat around it on tow sacks cracking nuts for my brother's packages for mailing overseas. I liked cracking and picking out nuts for my brothers who were in Luzon and someplace in Italy. Dad would do the cracking. He'd always hit that big black walnut just one time, and its shell would fall from around the meat. He'd hand it to Mom, and she'd clean the inside, saving the little bits in one jar, placing the larger chunks into another. She'd smile when there'd be an entire half-walnut piece unbroken. I'd take several pecks at a nut with my hammer.
Dad'd say, "You're choking the hammer to death."
After I'd pecked and pecked on it, and the walnut still wouldn't break, he'd say, "Heck, hit it!"
I would. And Mom'd say, "Too hard, now another one's wasted."
We cracked the early nuts for Mom to pack the raw meats and to make cookies for my brothers' gifts. Watching Mom wrap those two packages was just about the most exciting thing for me. I wanted her to unwrap them as soon as she'd finished wrapping them so I could know the excitement my two big brothers would feel when they'd open them. Mom laughed. She said, "I won't have enough twine string if I keep snipping it just to unwrap them for you."
Hearing that brown paper wrinkle and crackle was just about the most exciting noise I'd ever heard. Just wondering what the unwrapping of that paper would disclose would set my imagination alive. Even though it always revealed the same socks, nuts, cookies and stationery, it was so much fun. It isn't that I didn't like the soft white tissue paper sound that my toy usually came in, but I'd never had a brown paper present, and I sure did love those loud crackly sounds.
"Ouch," I hollered, my memory shattered as the hammer missed a walnut and smacked my thumb. "Ain't we cracked enough yet?"
Dad agreed, and we took our pans, heaped above the brim, into the house. Mom took Grandma Rachel's silver nut picking needle. It was long and sharp, and her nimble fingers quickly put Dad and his horseshoe nail in second place. Even Bonnie and Zelma, trying to fill their jars first, couldn't keep up. Before dusk had turned the window panes to mirrors, they had quart fruit jars all cleaned and packed full of goodies. Usually Mom'd wrap the jars in white tissue paper with a red ribbon around the lids, but seeing the jars packed full, she said, "They're too pretty to wrap."
She shined the jar lids and rings until they shone like brass. The zinc, glass-lined lids for the Mason jars were like pewter. She lined them in the window sill to admire the art work. I, too, liked to think how the buyers would admire them. But most of all, I'd like the cookies that she'd bake from those pieces of smaller nuts, and think of the toy she'd buy me from the forty-five cents she'd get from Burley's store.
With the cracking and peddling of the nuts behind us, finding and decorating the tree was the next
ritual of Christmas at our house. My brothers used to help me; now the job was mostly mine. It
was impossible for Mom or Dad to convince me that the tree would dry out if cut too early.
Before mid-December when the old stove glowed like a red demon, and the house smells lingered
of vanilla and ginger spices, I'd inspect the cedar
trees as I'd bring in the cows for morn and evening milking. the rocky hillsides of our farm appeared protected by the sentinels of green soldiers. I searched acres of holiday trees for one to adorn our living room. If it only came to my head, it simply would not do. Some were one-sided or too brown. The perfect tree had to be full, and big enough so that Dad would have to pull it behind him. And it had to have little blue berries. Mom knew the scent of blue berries among the prickly holly made a tree smell fresher.
Dad put the chopping ax on his shoulder, and we took off down the hill to several trees I'd spotted. Since he'd never cut the first one anyway, I'd take him to my third or fourth choice first. By the time I got him to my favorite, he'd be ready to quit and agree to my choice, a brave, handsome specimen perfuming the air. The first sound of his blade slicing the tree resolved all the problems an eight-year-old could have. I knew as soon as the tree was downed, come Christmas morning, garland and greenery would make the brightest Christmas ever and there'd be something under that tree for me.
Soon as we'd get home, I'd holler for Mom to come and see while Dad searched for some pieces of wood to make a stand.
"You got another good one this year," Mom said. "Every year I think you won't get a pretty one, but you do."
"I found it, Mom! I found it!" I'd say, feeling she was speaking more to my dad than to me.
Dad made an even cross from wood. Then he tacked on a couple pieces of wood so all four ends would set even on the floor. Down the center and into the trunk he'd drive a sixteen or twenty penny nail and drive some smaller ones around it. Then the tree would stand straight and tall, nearly touching the living room ceiling.
I helped as much with the chores of getting in the wood and feeding the chickens as I could so we'd have plenty of time in the evening to decorate the tree. Even Zelma helped by soaking the cobs from the chicken house with coal oil to start an early fire. Dad never liked to milk before five o'clock, but on this day, he said, "Guess I'll milk a bit early tonight." Mom had fresh pork frying in the skillet shortly after, and I was sure by the time the kerosene lamps were lighted, we'd be in the front room decorating our tree.
Mom carried the Christmas makings the scissors, glue, crayons, tinfoil gum wrappers and string, to the dining room table. She drew several sizes of stars on cardboard for me to cut. Dad licked the paper where the gum had been, and pressed the tinfoil all over the cardboard stars.
He hung the largest star at the very top since he was the only one who could reach it. Tonight we stopped decorating a few minutes after Dad hung that big star. Mom said a prayer, and I was afraid they might take too long. The tree smelled of holiday cedar. The limbs were full. There were blue berries dancing from branch to branch, and the tree stood taller than any I'd ever seen. What were they praying so long for? But right away we were punching holes in one point of each star, putting a string through them and tying them to the branches of our pretty tree.
While Dad and I completed the stars, Mom brought in bowls overflowing with popcorn. She'd never bring the corn in until she could supervise 'cause about the only thing my dad and me and my brothers liked better than walnut goodies was popcorn. I think she popped too much this time though since we had several nice ropes of corn even though Dad and I ate handfuls from the bowls. Mom could make corn ropes that would stretch six feet. I missed my brothers who'd swing them like lariats and act like Johnny Mac Brown or Gene Autry. I didn't try to swing them this year without Joe or Ray to show me how. Next we strung berries of orange and red that we'd fought for from the thicket in the lower holler.
Mom handed me and Bonnie the Big Chief tablet and we started coloring its fat lines to make our rope chain. We always broke the red crayon. Tonight was no exception. Mom looked at me, "Now, we got four reds." After they were all cut and colored, Mom mixed the flour paste, and we made a chain of circles, hooking one strip inside another. "If Joe were here, he'd make big rings so it would go faster," I hinted. Mom demanded small rings, and this year they were mostly all small. I saw Dad make some large ones and look at Mom. She didn't scold him.
That tree was the prettiest sight I'd ever seen. I couldn't think of anything we had left off. I stood back to admire our tree and heard Mom say to Dad, "You get the wash pan with some water in it; I'll get a pie pan of flour, and we'll add one more decoration to the tree this year."
Cookies of gingerbread men, flat round ones and Santas that Mom and the girls had baked were on the tree, so what was Mom going to do next. Dad dipped several end branches into the pan of water, then Mom placed the ends into the flour and patted them several times. I couldn't believe my eyes. Snow! Yes, snow, right here in our front room on our beautiful Christmas tree. Around the tree Mom and Dad went making snow. Each limb bent with a heavy snowfall just like the cedars outside. I jumped up and down clapping my hands in approval.
"Guess the army can allow us to be just a little bit wasteful this year with two of my boys gone. I'm going to use some sugar!" Mom declared. She put a few spoonfuls of sugar into a bowl of egg whites, beat them stiff, then dripped the mixture over the floured tips of the tree. By the time she finished, ice had formed all over our tree.
Many of our Christmas evenings were similar but looking back to my youth of that winter of '44, I'll never forget that eve when Dad lit candles close to the tree. Their flickering lights made the ice twinkle and glitter as moonlight on frosted snow. The heat from the stove moved the silver stars back and forth catching the light. The berries were bright dots peeping from popcorn ropes. I looked at the top star shining so bright. I guessed those Wise Men could see a star and follow it if it had been as big and as bright as ours. We sat there looking at our tree. Zelma sat next to Dad as we and the girls began singing softly, "Silent Night, Holy Night, all is calm..." but Mom's voice cracked a little. Dad whispered, "I hope the boys are safe." Mom's eyes mirrored the candlelight and she squeezed me too tight. I wasn't sure if anything was wrong or not. Seems like there was, but I knew we had plenty of walnuts, a beautiful tree, and finally, it was Christmas.
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