A Christmas Visit
By Susan Eaton Mendenhall
I love the magic of Christmas. The house changes its everyday clothing into festive lights and garlands of green. The living room makes way for the tree and the dining room prepares for the extension of the hosting table. Carols are heard on the radio and hummed as the accompaniment to housework and cooking tasks. Sweets, only eaten at Christmas, are made and stored in square and round holiday tins. Cards fill the mailboxes, hearing from family and friends. We ready for the arrival of special company who help to make this a distinctive and extraordinary season.
As a child, Christmas meant the arrival of Grandma Eaton who would stay a couple of weeks. Because she slept in my room, I moved in with my brothers across the hall. My brothers had a captivating room. Their constructed model airplanes hung from the ceiling by fish wire. I am uncertain of the number, but their presence above our heads added ambience and intrigue. My fold out bed snuggled next to a wall where metal logos of the major railroad lines were arranged. Lying on the bed at night I was fascinated by each of the designs and traced my fingers over the ones I could reach. Our father loved trains and as his children, we did, too. Recognizing these logos was part of my railroad family tutorial.
Sharing nighttime with my younger brothers, Tom and Jeff, added to the magic of this season. We talked until we were quieted by our parents, then whispered until one of us fell asleep. On Christmas Eve, we listened for the arrival of Santa, straining to hear the reindeer bells, then fell asleep filled with wonder and excitement.
Grandma arrived by Greyhound bus at the Black Hawk Hotel. The bus was always late. My brothers and I would look out the window at the front of the hotel or dash outside to see around the corner. Was it coming? Eventually, the Greyhound racing dog was visible and maneuvered into its designated place in front of the hotel. She was the only one I knew who traveled by bus. Waiting to see her at the open door, I noticed her fellow travelers, wondering who they were, where they lived, how they were celebrating Christmas. I loved to listen to the stories she told as we drove home - about the stops the bus made along the way, where they had lunch, conversations she had with fellow passengers, the crocheting projects she created while traveling. Living a few hours away in a retirement home, this was her mode of travel unless my dad went to pick her up. I recently learned from brother, Tom, that when he got his driver’s license our dad sent him to pick her up. Even he was surprised by this opportunity to drive the family car so far and by himself. I have no memory that I was ever asked to do this and now wonder if my ‘encounter’ with another car shortly after getting my driver’s license was a factor in this lack of invitation.
Once we arrived home, Grandma Eaton began unpacking her single pearl white suitcase with gold trim, hanging clothes in the closet, and settling into my bedroom. This meant positioning her potions, creams, medications, and hair combs on top of my dresser. A blue bottle of Milk of Magnesia stood the tallest. She would request a drinking glass from the kitchen to hold her false teeth at night, another novelty about her visit. I marveled at the transformation of my dresser as it held something other than my horse figurines. I wondered if all old people brought bottles and such when they traveled.
It was not uncommon for me to pop into her room while she was finishing her morning routine and watch her place the clear combs that secured her beautiful white wavy hair into place. Because of an injury years ago that did not allow one of her elbows to bend, reaching above her head required her entire arm to accomplish this task. I now wonder how she injured her elbow. Did I ever ask? Most probably, I saw this as part of who she was, a unique characteristic that did not interfere in any way with my love for her. With a compact of facial powder in hand, she dabbed her cheeks and nose, put on red lipstick that extended slightly beyond her lips and put on her earrings and necklace – rarely one without the other.
I vividly remember two specific outfits she wore during her Christmas visit. Both were a matching knit sweater and skirt - one in white and the other in holiday red. By themselves they were plain until she added her colorful and sparkling rhinestone jewelry, often including a Christmas tree pin near her shoulder. With her hair as white as snow, she looked festive and in the holiday spirit. My brothers and I considered her elegantly dressed, as if ready to go somewhere important, when that somewhere was most often just the living room.
Family time together during her visit was spent making popcorn balls, fudge, and cutting out sugar cookies. On several evenings, we would gather in the living room in front of the fireplace to watch old 8mm home movies of family events that had happened between her visits and always, films of Christmas’ past. We feasted on our decorated cookies and hot chocolate while the film clicked through the movie projector.
After coming home from church on Christmas Eve, my brothers and I jumped into pajamas, snuggled on the couch next to Grandma Eaton as she read, T’was the Night Before Christmas. Cookies and milk were set out for Santa and off to bed we went.
I adored Grandma Eaton. She was the kind of grandma who liked children and tolerated the family dog. She was feisty and strong in her opinions which she shared without reservation. While I am sure I received some of her vocal admonishments, it was my father who was the most frequent recipient. Comments were often about being overweight and not doing ‘something’ she felt he should do, like visiting his cousin Margaret, who lived close by. His comeback was to suggest that they go visit together. This usually found Grandma Eaton deciding it was not necessary this trip. Even as a child, I knew visits to Cousin Margaret were exhausting. My mother appeared gracious on every level in her relationship with her mother-in-law, although she, too, was strong willed and vocal. I imagine that after Grandma Eaton’s visits both mom and dad gave a sigh of relief.
When she moved to the retirement home in Fort Dodge, Iowa she was asked to play the piano as people came into the dining hall for their evening meal. She volunteered in the gift shop, donating many dolls whose clothing she had crocheted. She joined a current events club to be aware of what was happening in the world. In her late 80’s she took a painting class and started turning out bouquets of painted flowers and landscapes using the images found on the front of greeting cards. Her paintings were always 8 x 10 in size. My dad asked why she only painted an 8 x 10 to which her reply was most practical. “That’s what I can paint in a 45 minute class.”
One of the loves Grandma Eaton passed down to me was that of having picnics. My parents also loved picnics. In the days before McDonalds and fast food restaurants, small tree and grassy areas were found along the highway, known as wayside parks. These provided a place to stop for picnics and stretch your legs. I am sure this was the model for today’s interstate rest areas. Our trips to see Grandma Eaton usually included packing a picnic lunch and heading to a park. The small wooden table in the photo is one I now have. The short legs fold up making it able to be carried like a suitcase. Seeing this photo with the picnic baskets, plaid blanket, and the preparation required in making an outdoor lunch brings back fond memories. I can visualize the sandwiches my mother wrapped in wax paper, carrot strips, and shoestring potatoes in a can. Memories that stretch back several generations of simpler times and family togetherness captured in black and white photographs.
*Photo of my dad, Jim Eaton, me, and Martha Eaton, my grandmother