After Grandfather Stevens' death around nineteen thirty, Grandmother remained single for a number of years and when she finally did consent to remarry, she married a man named Warren Peterson, who was twenty years her junior. This age mismatched marriage was cause for much gossip in and around the small settlement of Garfield where she'd lived for years. However, she and her new husband seemed very compatible together and it was obvious that "Uncle Pete" as we called him seemed to adore her and the ground she walked on. Dad, however, must have found it a bit disconcerting to have a step-father who was about the same age as he was.
Christmas just wasn't Christmas without Grammy Stevens either. Mother had a rule where Grandmother was concerned that we were never allowed to break. Christmas couldn't begin at our house unless Grammy and Uncle Pete had arrived and we had to wait until Christmas dinner was over before we could open our gifts too. No matter how much we whined about other kids getting to open their presents on Christmas Eve, this didn't cut any ice with Mother.
Mother used to put the Christmas tree up about a week before Christmas and it was always in the same place on an old bureau at the foot of the stairs in the living room. She'd wrap the few presents that she'd been able to buy or make for us eight kids and put them under the little tree ever watchful that we left everything alone until Christmas day arrived.
Over the years, my two older brothers Walt and Jake, had perfected the art of slipping one of their gifts under their pajama tops and they'd sneak it upstairs on their way to bed at night. They'd ever so carefully unwrap it and play with it or examine it for a little while then, they'd rewrap the gift and take it back downstairs and put it back under the tree. So, come Christmas day, the boys knew exactly what every present was and they'd be the last two to come down the stairs on Christmas morning. Every Christmas, Mother used to wonder why the boys weren't up and all excited to see what they'd gotten and when they finally did amble down the stairs to the living room, why they weren't more enthusiastic about Christmas and their presents.
On Christmas morning, after we'd eaten our fill of mother's golden pancakes or French toast or luscious homemade doughnuts, Mother would shoo us out of her very busy food-filled kitchen and we'd rush up the stairs to the attic where we'd all try to be the first one to get to the window. We'd push and shove, trying to scratch a hole in the frosted up window pane that looked out over our shed roof to the road and the Eastern horizon and we'd keep a vigil there until we saw Grammy's car coming slowly down the road towards our house. Some years we'd have record snowstorms and the snow banks would be plowed so high that they nearly touched the sagging electric wires on the telephone poles and we'd never see them coming until they'd pulled up in our driveway.
Upon hearing our dog Tippi's bark at the car pulling into our driveway, we'd all rush down the stairs to greet Grammy and Uncle Pete, knowing that she too, would be bringing presents, candy and good food for our Christmas dinner. We'd push the kitchen door aside and rush out onto the snow-covered porch to stand in the frigid air to greet them. Mother, seeing us waiting with anxious breath, would smile to herself, knowing that even if she insisted that we come inside where it was warm, we'd stay out on that frigid porch and freeze to death if we had to. Grammy and Uncle Pete, after having been down this road numerous times before had the stalling and guessing games down to a science.
They'd sit in the still running car for several minutes pretending that they were discussing matters of great importance and every so often, they'd sneak glances at us dancing anxiously on the snow-covered porch. Finally, after detecting the precise amount of anxiety in our attitudes, they'd causally slide out of the car and make a big to-do about looking for packages, food and whatever else they'd intended to bring to us and after gathering up all the stuff, they'd stroll thru the snow and into the house with all of us grandchildren following along behind.
Then, after Uncle Pete had made several more excursions out to the car to get whatever it was that they'd hidden in the trunk, all the packages would be carried into the living room and placed around the tree. As soon as mother slid the sheet covered turkey out of the oven, the kitchen would really get busy and we were banished to whatever room we could find to amuse ourselves in until the feast began.
Usually we'd sit as close to the Christmas tree as we dared and tried to have x-ray vision regarding our presents. Every once in a while, Walt would reach down, quickly slide a present off the top of the pile, examine it carefully or shake it and make a whispered guess as to its contents and he was usually right too.
Having cooked for all her family and siblings since the age of nine, mother had a rock solid reputation as being a fine cook and there wasn't much, if anything that she didn't cook, preserve or serve. Her tablecloths may have been humble but they were always bleached to the nth degree, patched and ironed.
Every holiday, our old rickety kitchen table creaked and groaned as mother placed dish after dish of delicious food on the top of it. The adults were always given places of honor and then, if there were any empty places left over, we kids were seated according to our ages and the youngest had to eat at a small table in the adjoining living room or they'd sit in Mother's or Dad's or even better, Grammy's lap.
Mother would outdo herself and she'd make everything from "scratch" too. She'd not only have a batch of hot white bread, she'd shove a pan of freshly made biscuits into the oven as soon as the twenty pound turkey had relinquished its place of honor. She'd begin baking two days before the event and there would be squash and pumpkin pies, mince meat pies or tarts if Dad had been lucky enough to find a deer. Raisin-filled sugar cookies, molasses cookies, fluffy butter laden mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and a crystal bowl of golden turkey gravy. Along with all the rules that Mother had pertaining to the holiday, Grammy also had a rule that if we didn't eat everything on our plates; we had to wait even longer to open our gifts. Need-less-to-say, Christmas day was a long, long day.
As soon as we were given our food-laden plates, we'd eat everything as quickly as possible and then we'd have to wait till the adults were done. We weren't allowed to hang around them, badgering them about opening our gifts either. We'd have to carry our plates to the kitchen counter and leave them there and then go back to the living room and sit quietly till Mother was done. Boy oh boy weren't adults slow and boy oh boy didn't it take them a long time to finish their tea.
Every now and then Mother, who was sitting closest to the living room door, would slid her deep brown eyes towards us to see if we were being good. Then, it seemed to us, she'd take stock and remember all our year-long indiscretions, smile slightly to herself that she finally had the ultimate revenge and slowly sip her now cold tea oblivious to the fact that we were dying with anticipation.
Finally, meals finished, deserts eaten, table cleared, leftovers taken care of, dishes washed and put away, the adults would meander to the living room to watch us make fools of ourselves over our presents. Walt and Jake having already perused all of the presents coming from our parents, quickly snatched up the ones that Grammy and Uncle Pete had brought and finding something interesting, they'd take off upstairs or outdoors to play and the smaller kids would settle down on the floor to pay with their stuff.
As the sun slid towards the western horizon, Grammy and Uncle Pete would gather all the food that Mother had packed to send home with them, give us hugs and kisses and head out the door for their home that was located just across the Aroostook River on the Garfield side of the river. Again, we'd stand in the cold, snow-covered porch to wave goodbye knowing that it had been a very special day.
We were very lucky kids, had a few toys, some lovely, homemade pajamas, a couple of pairs of hand knitted woolen socks and since Dad was a great reader, Grandmother always included some books or puzzles for us to keep. You couldn't ask for more than that.
As we waved our grandparent's car out of sight, Dad would step down off the porch, carefully scan the eastern horizon and say, "Sure looks like we've got a hell-of-a storm comin tomorrow." Mother would shoo us all back inside, asking if anyone was hungry and we usually were. She'd begin the whole process all over again, quickly warming up the leftovers and dishing out the food before we went off to bed. With a light in her bright brown eyes, she'd glance around the table, taking a mental head count, three redheads, three blonds and two brunettes. Yep, we were all there and all was right in her world.
Martha Stevens-David Column Magic City
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