Happy Christmas! In this special holiday edition of Tim’s World, Jane’s husband reminisces about days of Christmas past…
Christmas time came with a sense of foreboding in my early childhood years. I knew it was the last time for fun that year, and that sadly, winter was here.
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Winter meant long months of trudging a quarter-mile through the snow from our house on the beach in Old Mission to Lardie’s Grocery (now the Old Mission General Store) to catch the bus for school. It also meant cold nights sharing a single upstairs room with my siblings. A room with frost on the window and a single floor register, miserly providing heat from downstairs that didn’t have too much heat to start with.
This was due to drafty, poorly-insulated farmhouses on the Old Mission Peninsula like ours, designed to be heated with giant coal furnaces. They put out tremendous heat with ducts the size of road culverts. But the beasts in the basement, as they were referred to, had to be fed around the clock. The coal dust seemed to get everywhere, and as the coal delivery truck slipped into obscurity, their fires went out for good. Usually, they were replaced with an inadequate ground floor oil space heater like ours until money could be saved for an oil furnace to replace the beast in the basement.
Ah winter … it seemed like my feet were always cold, my mittens were always wet, and no amount of snowball fights and sledding made it worthwhile.
Later on, I spent my adolescent and teen years in a small house that my parents bought on Bluff Road. We moved late in the fall, and the house was not big enough for all of us. The family now included my parents, three boys and two girls. My older brother and I would get off the bus and have dinner with the family, do our home work, and watch a little TV. At bedtime, we walked half a mile to my grandparents’ home on the corner of Boursaw Road and Bluff Road. We would stay the night and catch the morning bus to school.
Because my dad worked very long hours, he came home too late to give us a ride, so we always had to walk. Rain, sleet, snow, blizzard … walk we did. The half-mile trek along the shore faced the cold north wind coming down the bay. I was now older and it seemed colder, maybe because there was more of me to suffer this infernal weather. I was really developing a deep disdain for this season that kept ruining my summers.
The next fall, I helped my dad start an addition on the house. My little brother and I now had a room in the unfinished section of the house. There was no insulation yet, but we came by a discarded little wood stove for heat. To add insult to injury, I was still cold, but now had to get up twice during the night to tend the fire in that miserable little stove that could only keep you warm if you crawled inside it!
It was three years before we finished the addition and had central heat. By then, I was in my high school years, and fashion did not allow me to dress appropriately for the cold. Nothing is worse than being cold and stupid at the same time.
So, it was no surprise that when I graduated, I vowed to escape winter once and for all! When the time came, I followed the geese and landed in Florida. But, I found most parts of that state could still get chilly. So I migrated to the most southern part of the United States I could find: Key West.
It just happened that my good lifelong friend Debbie Kennedy, who had a similar adversarial relationship with winter on the south end of the Old Mission Peninsula, had moved there two years prior. I offered to split the rent for accommodations and found myself living in a beautiful little rock house a stone’s throw from the ocean and a short walk down to Duval Street. Duval Street is what Bourbon Street is to New Orleans. If it’s happenin’, it’s happenin’ on Duval Street!
One hot afternoon, I was walking from the beach and paused to get out of the sun by sitting in the shade of a tree where Ernest Hemingway had built a tree house. It was there that he did most of his writing. The tree house was connected to his home by an elevated walkway from which a conversation drifted down about heading back up north for Christmas.
Christmas? I found myself suddenly perplexed as the palm fronds whispered above me in the salt-tinted breeze wafting up from the ocean. How does one celebrate or even get in the mood for Christmas in a setting such as this? I was surprised that the concept of spending Christmas in what I deemed paradise would strike me as being so alien.
My mind drifted back to a Christmas Eve in the late sixties. It was late in the evening. I had just stopped my snowmobile on the crest of Boursaw Hill. The southeast view from this hill is breathtaking, and this evening was one of those where there was a fresh, fluffy snowfall. The moonlight made the snowflakes sparkle like millions of diamonds all across Smokey Hollow, as the lights across the bay from Elk Rapids reflected on the water and there was a glow from Traverse City hiding behind the horizon to the south. It was as if I was inside a postcard.
A few days later, it was Christmas Eve and I was walking to the pier. Key West has a tradition regarding Sunset Pier. Hundreds gather there at sunset, and as the sun slips below the horizon everyone applauds, thanking the sun for another beautiful day.
After helping put the sun to bed, I headed for Duval Street. Starting at Sloppy Joe’s (supposedly Hemingway’s old watering hole), I visited several venues along Duval Street. As midnight approached, I headed down the street for home and came upon a beautiful church. Its large double doors were open wide, inviting anyone to sit on the steps and listen to the singing and observe the midnight mass happening within.
I sat down on the top step with my back against the wall next to the door. I was bathed in the warm glow of the light emanating from the doorway, along with the most beautiful rendition of “Silent Night” I had ever heard. As the palm fronds whispered overhead and a warm breeze made its way down the street, my gaze turned northward. I thought again of that Christmas Eve on Boursaw Hill so long ago.
As I sat there in what I thought was paradise, I looked to the north and envisioned a very different Christmas Eve going on there. I saw a finger of land nestled between two frozen bays bathed in blue moonlight, stars twinkling in the clearest night sky and the snow sparkling like a million diamonds. It was the vision of my true paradise. Seems all I ever needed was a pair of warmer boots, some waterproof mittens and a furnace. Merry Christmas!