Some childhood memories of Christmas past

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, December 10, 2003

A response to last week's column launched me on a Yuletide journey back to my childhood.

Calgary coffee companion Jeanne Hammer had offered the addition of "memories" to our list of beautiful words. "Many a time I have gone back to the past and relived wonderful memories," she said.

For some reason – perhaps hearing refrains from Gannon and Kent's wartime classic "I'll Be Home for Christmas" earlier in the day – Jeanne's word "memories" unwrapped a part of my life I had stashed away ages ago.

It was 1946. I was six years old and living on the West Side of Buffalo, New York, not far from the Peace Bridge, connecting the Great Lakes flour and steel city with Fort Erie, Ontario.

The Second World War had been over for more than a year, and my brother Richard, still not much more than skin and bones from his POW days in Germany, was indeed home for Christmas, together with his wife and firstborn.

From my bedroom in our second-storey apartment, I could see through the doorway to the brightly decorated tree in the parlor. And in the evening, I could look out my window at the large, lazy snowflakes settling deep on the walks and street below. Backlit by streetlight, they sparkled as beautifully as the sparkly stuff on the Christmas cards my Grandma and Grandpa Watson used to give me.

To enjoy the outdoor winter scene, however, I had to keep my window open a few inches. Frost, fascinating in its fern-like curves and spikes, was thick on the single-glazed pane. Besides, I liked to sleep with my chin on the sill of the open window so I could breathe in the delicious, cool air and hear the rhythmic sounds of tire chains from passing vehicles.

Maybe it's my enjoyment of that winter window experience that made me such a fan of Irving Berlin's 1942 "White Christmas" and Cahn and Styne's 1945 "Let It Snow" that were such hits on radio stations of the day.

Speaking of music, 1946 was the year Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song" was released. It was years before I realized the "chestnuts roasting on an open fire" were not the same as the horse chestnuts I collected from the autumn trees down the street – you know, the kind boys thread onto shoelaces for a round of conkers.

Outside our home, my world extended six blocks in each direction. At the far reaches was PS 52, the public school where I attended kindergarten. Closer in was Bethlehem Presbyterian Church, where I learned heroic Sunday School stories that have stayed with me all my life.

This particular Christmas, however, it was a tavern just two blocks away that remains vivid in my memory. Gleason's Bar and Grill had decided to treat the neighborhood kids to a special pre-Christmas dinner.

This was the place Dad loved to play shuffleboard, so he made sure we accepted the owner's kind invitation. Mom bundled me up and Dad pulled me on my sled through the snow alongside ploughed piles that seemed to me as high as mountains.

At the tavern, we took our seats at one of the rows of tables stretching the length of the long room. I remember pigging out on turkey, stuffing, potatoes, gravy, turnips – well, maybe I left the turnips untouched on my plate – and cranberry sauce. And of course, pumpkin pie and pieces of ribbon candy.

Then, to the delight of every kid there, we heard sleigh bells approaching and saw Santa come through the front door. He had a gift for each boy and girl. Mine was a set of checkers, if I remember correctly.

Back home on Christmas Eve, I awaited St. Nick's return. Very diligently, I set out a glass of milk and a plate of cookies for him, and went to bed.

But I just couldn't get to sleep that night, and after what seemed like forever I got out of bed, poked my head out my bedroom door to see if Santa had come yet, and was aghast. My sister – much older than I – was devouring the milk and cookies I had so lovingly set out!

But that's a story for another day.

"Memories" – yes, Jeanne, that is a beautiful word: evocative of beautiful Christmases past, and a hope for many to come.

© 2003 Warren Harbeck

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