A Bit of Yuletide Hoosier Nostalgia

‘A Christmas Recollection’ from memoir All My Lazy Rivers   by John Bolinger

Chapter 21…All My Lazy Rivers A Christmas Recollection

“We write these words now, many miles distant from the spot at which, year after year, we met on that day, a merry and joyous circle. Many of the hearts that throbbed so gaily then, have ceased to beat; many of the looks that shone so brightly then, have ceased to glow; the hands we grasped have grown cold; the eyes we sought have hid their luster in the grave; and yet the old house, the room, the merry voices and smiling faces, the jest, the laugh, the most minute and trivial circumstances connected with those happy meetings, crowd upon our mind at each recurrence of the season, as if the last assemblage had been but yesterday! Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childish days; that can recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth; that can transport the sailor and the traveler thousands of miles away, back to his own fireside and his quiet home!”

THE PICKWICK PAPERS, Chapter 28 by Charles Dickens (published 1836)

Grandma and Grandpa Starks

One recent summer afternoon I called my bank to confirm my checking balance. It was apparently a busy time, because I was put on hold for quite a while and given a mild sedative of “muzak” selections like, “The Impossible Dream,” (an especially appropriate song for my checking account), “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head,” and finally, “Up a Lazy River.” That last song made all the little tributaries of memory begin to empty into one grand repository, where many faces and events converged into all the Christmases at my maternal grandparents’ house.

Like a lost dream recaptured, the past came back and persisted, even after I replaced the telephone receiver. For several minutes I sat there remembering those gatherings at 6818 Colorado Street in Hammond, Indiana. There was always music pulsating from that house. Even as we emerged from the car on December 25th evenings, we could hear music while we made our way up the walk to the front door. Ringing the bell, Mom, Dad, David, Connie and I would wait and watch snow that looked pale blue under the street lights at the front boxwood hedge. Then the front door would open, like a big letter from an old friend, and warmth would spiral around us on the front porch. There were aromas of pumpkin pie, pecan pie, upside down cake, turkey, dressing, punch, pipe tobaccos, baby powder, peppermint, flowers, pine needles, cedar logs, and Grandma’s Chantilly perfume.

“Take off your coats, for heaven’s sake, and stay a while,” Grandma would say, standing there in her yoked calico apron. The tender familiarity of her voice was like a warm blanket on a cold night. Grandpa was always beside her, a Dr. Grabow pipe in his mouth that wore an almost perpetual impish grin. He would put our coats on a mountain of others with hats, mufflers, mittens and gloves on a bed in a guest room down the hall. There was chatter, gossip (usually whispered), and laughter from every corner of the house, interrupted only by hugs, kisses, handshakes. “Hello, darlings! How is little Buddy? My, how David has grown! You don’t mean that Connie is going to be five years old! I’ll declare!”

Every aunt had a different perfume or cologne to contribute to the olfactory festival, and not all of them were particularly pleasant. Aunt Edith must have bathed in her perfume, a scent that could make your eyes water from across the room. David and I used to imagine that she left clouds behind her and that any retired bloodhound with a poor sense of smell could track her down, even to the South Pole. We decided that Uncle Wilbur had no sense of smell, but, of course, Dad always said that Wilbur had no sense anyway, which was why he had married Edith in the first place.

The dining room wasn’t large enough to seat thirty people, so dinner was always in the basement, which was the biggest space in the house. The stairs were painted red and led down to the huge room that Grandpa had finished himself. A long Queen Anne-style dining room table from the 1920’s with twelve matching chairs were in the middle of the room and covered with linens, china and sliver. There was a procession of relatives carrying trays of food down the stairs. Along two walls were smaller “satellite” tables for the children, tables covered with cotton cloths and smaller flatware. One of the supreme honors and signs of maturity over the years was to graduate from one of the those little tables to the adult table. Of course, someone usually had to die for the family conveyor belt to move to the next level. In one corner of the basement was a smaller version of the Christmas tree upstairs.

Of all the items in the basement, the one I recall most fondly is an old player piano. It seemed to have been there always, and next to it was an old music cabinet filled with piano rolls. That piano was never really in tune, but I loved to listen to its ragtime rhythms just the same. My Uncle John would always play a bouncy version of the Hoagy Carmichael song, “Up A Lazy River” as he sang along. Some of the other adults would join in.

Up a lazy river by the old mill stream
That lazy, hazy river where we both can dream
Linger in the shade of an old oak tree
Throw away your troubles, dream a dream with me
Up a lazy river where the robin’s song
Wakes up in the mornin’, as we roll along
Blue skies up above ….everyone’s in love
Up a lazy river, how happy we will be, now
Up a lazy river with me

That song became the ragtime, tin-pan alley flavor that I would ever after associate with the season, but there was another kind of music that became part of Christmas for me.

Bill Aronson was an old family friend. I never really knew his connection with our family, but he was white-haired even the first time I met him, and he played a Hawaiian guitar that he always brought with him to my grandparent’s house at Christmas. For some reason, my aunts would cry when he played “Blue Hawaii.” I suppose it was because it was the closest any of them would ever come to having a dream holiday on Maui. Holding a chrome-plated piece of metal the size of an index finger, Bill’s right hand would slide up and down the horizontal strings on an instrument that had legs like a table in front of him.

Even now, as I write, I realize how strange all this must seem, but whenever I hear Hawaiian music or “Up a Lazy River,” even on the hottest summer day in a shopping mall, dentist’s office, or in an elevator, or anywhere else, I always pause to remember Christmases of my childhood.

Uncle John played the piano and ukulele, Dad played acoustic guitar., Grandpa, the double bass and Uncle Wes, the banjo. Along with attempts at singing, there were conversations, arguing, joke telling, crying among the children, Christmas carols from a radio upstairs, the percussion of dessert forks on china plates, and the click of coffee and tea cups with spoons against saucers. It was our Christmas symphony, a melange of all the sounds of a family gathering in a child’s mind and heart during the yuletide season. We were probably a mixture of the Waltons and the Addams family.

By midnight the dessert table had begun to show its age, and many young cousins were asleep in their parents’ arms. Music became softer and lazier than it had been earlier in the evening, and smoke rings from pipes and cigars filled the air with delicate and ephemeral little wreaths. There were the muffled sounds of cars being warmed up and the sound of waxed paper and tin foil wrapping up the remaining dessert treasures to be taken home. The cold night air stung our faces, especially on icy clear Christmas nights when the stars could be seen blinking on and off like tiny tree lights. The hum of our Hudson Hornet’s motor was the only sound left as we curled up in the back seat. In our driveway at home, the engine was silent at last, and there was no sound except our breathing and of the wind rushing past the opening car doors, as we walked lazily into the house to sleep more soundly than at any other time of year.

Christmas night was always easy sleeping, because Christmas Eve was so hectic. Connie seemed to fall asleep easily, but David and I had much more trouble, even though we made a sincere effort to hit the bunk beds early. The excitement was just too much. Though I no longer believed in Santa Claus, David still did and decided that if Santa liked him enough, he might get a sleigh ride. His plan was always to sneak downstairs to meet St. Nick. David was, however, always asleep well before midnight, which was about the time Dad would begin assembling toys for Mom to arrange under the tree and on on sofas and chairs. I would lie awake staring at the ceiling as workshop sounds came from the living room, where Dad was busy putting together something like a filling station, fitting metal tabs into slots and bending them over to hold walls secure.

“God bless America, but I’ll NEVER buy these damned things again! You have to be Isaac Newton to put the right tabs in the right slots!” Then Mom would quiet him with, “Shhh, you’ll wake up the kids.”

Little noises continued with an occasional “Damn it!” from Dad and another reprimand from Mom, who was busy stuffing three of Dad’s old mended socks with her usual choices for holiday treats, a tangerine first into the toe of the sock, then some hard candy, some nuts, chocolate creams, a large candy cane, and finally a big red apple. The combination never varied all those years. The creams suffered the laws of gravity due to the heavier and less delicate objects on top. Every year the sock of goodies would end up under somebody’s bed and weld itself into some archeological relic.

As on Easter, David and I were the first ones up, usually around four in the morning. David was invariably too anxious and made noisy blunders that delivered us right into the hands of the gestapo. For example, David would head straight for the loudest toy he could find, in spite of all my efforts to share my expertise with him on the subject of being apprehended. A battery-powered helicopter with whirling blades, a pop gun, a jack-in-the-box, any toys that could arouse anyone from the deepest coma, were always David’s choices.

I can still see my father weaving down the stairs in his white polka dot navy blue pajamas and wincing after flicking on the hall light. There was never any use in hiding. We knew the jig was up, and we were escorted briskly back to our beds with the warning that our life-support systems would be disconnected upon our next attempt to get out of bed before sunlight seeped through a window. Exit Dad, stage right. Five minutes later when snoring was heard coming from Dad’s room, enter David and Buddy, brave only from the intoxication of excitement. Sometimes this second entrance worked, and sometimes it didn’t. When it failed, sparks flew, and bottoms grew rosy, all in the spirit of Christmas, naturally. In the end, we were all up at dawn unwrapping gifts. My parents’ eyes then would have an uneasy look of having been opened prematurely and unnaturally kept open, as if by some invisible force. What made this even worse was the yuletide expectation that they somehow must appear jovial through it all.

This was apparent one Christmas morning when my brother presented my mother with a “Magic Slicer,” a kitchen device meant to transform the housewife’s dreary world of cooking drudgery into some kind of paradise. It was obvious that even unwrapping the package was costing Mom the last milligrams of her energy, but she faked a smile and even managed an audible chuckle. She thanked David profusely, and he insisted on demonstrating the machine right then and there.

Everyone, including our cat Scooter, followed my brother into the kitchen, where we stood around the kitchen table as David prepared to slice a tomato by placing it in the center of the machine under several blades that would come down under hand pressure to create “perfect disc-shaped slices every time.” We all remembered the TV commercial and those hands fanning out over perfect slices of onion, tomatoes, and potatoes. However, when David pulled the blade down, there was a sound like a water-filled balloon hitting a sidewalk. Instead of being sliced, the tomato burst, sending seeds and other insides onto my mother’s pink quilted taffeta robe. Even the cat looked horrified, but my brother was devastated in what he had supposed would be a moment of gift-giving triumph. Mom managed a little “It’s the spirit that counts” lecture while she sponged the tomato guts off her robe.

It was the one year Mom didn’t receive the usual Evening In Paris gift box from David, Connie, and me. The box had always contained perfume, cologne, and eau de toilette that came in cobalt blue bottles arranged in a brocade gift box lined with swirls of luxurious satin. She made us feel so important when she opened it and always wore it when she and Dad went to dinner and a movie together. Dad’s gift was generally a pipe or tobacco, except for the boxing gloves Davie and I bought him before Connie was born. That was also the Christmas one sales clerk talked David and me out of buying Mom a leather catcher’s mitt and mask.

Of all the seasons of the year, Christmas is still the one most tightly packed with recollections. They surface from time to time from stimuli of smells, tastes and visuals. Even some of the conversations remain in tact, like one from Christmas of 1954. Grandma and Great Aunt Florence were seated on a sofa near the tree. Aunt Flo was eight-two, plucked her eyebrows, penciling in long thin curves where the brows had been, and wore a tiny heart-shape of lipstick in a flapper style that made her look like a geriatric Betty Boop. Years later, the film WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE brought back that look in the most terrifying way.

“Flo, why are you pulling down so hard on the hem of your dress? If you pull it once more, it’ll split at the arm pits,” commented Grandma.

“Oh, Margaret, that man over there is staring at my legs,” replied Flo, pulling her dress down again and pressing her knees together so that her orthopedic shoes spread out to a pigeon-toed triangle against the sofa skirt.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Florence. That’s Alan Geldman, a friend of Uncle Frank. He’s ninety-one years old, uses a cane, and can’t even see the sofa from where he’s sitting, let alone your legs,” said Grandma.

With pressed lips and an arrogance befitting only Aunt Florence, she replied, “Well, he’s a man, isn’t he?” The hem tugging of her dress continued as Grandma looked up at the ceiling in apparent supplication that she be delivered from such folly and extreme vanity of delusional relatives.

“Up a lazy river by the old mill run
that lazy, lazy river in the noonday sun,
linger in the shade of a kind old tree.
Up a lazy river, dream a dream with me.”

About John

John Bolinger was born and raised in Northwest Indiana, where he attended Ball State University and Purdue University, receiving his BA and MA from those schools. Then he taught English and French for thirty-five years at Morton High School in Hammond, Indiana before moving to Colorado. He spends his winters in Pompano Beach, Florida. Besides COME SEPTEMBER, Journey of a High School Teacher, John's other books are ALL MY LAZY RIVERS, an Indiana Childhood, and COME ON, FLUFFY, THIS AIN'T NO BALLET, a Novel on Coming of Age, all available on Amazon.com as paperbacks and Kindle books. Alternately funny and touching, COME SEPTEMBER, conveys the story of every high school teacher’s struggle to enlighten both himself and his pupils, encountering along the way, battles with colleagues, administrators, and parents through a parade of characters that include a freshman boy for whom the faculty code name is “Spawn of Satan,” to a senior girl whose water breaks during a pop-quiz over THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS. Through social change and the relentless march of technology, the human element remains constant in the book’s personal, entertaining, and sympathetic portraits of faculty, students, parents, and others. The audience for this book will certainly include school teachers everywhere, teenagers, parents of teens, as well as anyone who appreciates that blend of humor and pathos with which the world of public education is drenched. The drive of the story is the narrator's struggle to become the best teacher he can be. The book is filled with advice for young teachers based upon experience of the writer, advice that will never be found in college methods classes. Another of John's recent books is Mum's the Word: Secrets of a Family. It is the story of his alcoholic father and the family's efforts to deal with or hide the fact. Though a serious treatment of the horrors of alcoholism, the book also entertains in its descriptions of the father during his best times and the humor of the family's attempts to create a façade for the outside world. All John's books are available as paperbacks and Kindle readers on Amazon, and also as paperbacks at Barnes & Noble. John's sixth and most recent book, Growing Old in America: Notes from a Codger was released on June 15, 2014.
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