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Ghosts of Decembers Past. . .

 Image result for snowy berks county pennsylvania
A snowy section of Antietam Creek in Berks County, Pennsylvania (my old home turf) by Joel Styer Fine Art Photography.  The woods surrounding my maternal grandparents' place not far away look exactly like this during the winters.

Ho, ho, ho. . .  And not the hoochie mama kind, either!

Online shopping is such a wonderful thing.  I spent about 60 minutes late this morning taking care of most of my Christmas shopping for the year -- Thank you, Mr. Bezos! -- and all without having to brave a shopping mall.  Online shopping is a wonderful thing for the misanthropes among us. 

Almost finished with final grading for the semester just ended, and naturally my thoughts turn simultaneously ahead to Christmas 2019 and the ghosts of Christmas long past.  Growing up in southeastern Pennsylvania -- District Township in Berks County outside Philadelphia -- in my maternal grandparents' house has left my sister, mother, and I with many happy and amusing memories that we periodically share with one another whenever something occurs that brings a previous experience to mind with a smile and laugh or two.

For example, in very early December 1981, my grandmother, mother, sister, and I planned to meet Uncle David, our mother's younger brother, at the mall in King of Prussia for Christmas shopping one weekday afternoon followed by dinner at a nearby colonial inn.  Granny and Mom picked us up at school as the day ended, and we left from there.  Well, no sooner had we arrived and met him in the mall when Uncle David revealed that he had either lost his checkbook, or been the object of a pick-pocket. 

"This is just GREAT!" he intoned time and again for the next several hours. 

Needless to say, that loss of his checkbook cast a pall over the late afternoon and evening, and I'm not sure that the five of us ever got around to having dinner following the Chinese fire drill than ensued with talking to the customer service and mall security offices.  I seem to recall that there was a pair of Valley Forge or King of Prussia police officers involved at some point although the checkbook was never recovered, and my uncle had to call his bank early the next morning to stop payment on any and all checks should someone try to cash them.  I don't remember that we had the chance to do much shopping either before the four of us turned around and headed for home and my uncle returned to Rosemont where he was living at the time, the young curate of an Episcopal church.  

The trip itself was ten days or so out ahead of two Christmas open houses that my grandmother and mother had planned.  One for my grandfather's colleagues and spouses from New Jersey and the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton area, many of whom worked with him in Manhattan, and another for the largely Pennsylvania-German locals with whom my grandparents were friendly.  Part of the plan behind journeying to King of Prussia in those pre-internet days had been to pick up some things necessary for entertaining a large number of people.  

The open house for my grandfather's former work colleagues and their spouses (he had just retired about three months previously) actually was about two days after Christmas and went off beautifully.  All of us -- family and guests -- were dressed, there was considerable snow on the ground, lanterns at either end of the bridge over the creek that separated the house from the area where we parked our cars, woodfires in both fireplaces, and the windows of the 200-year old restored fieldstone farmhouse were decorated with evergreen boughs, candles, and colonial hurricane shades.  The large number of guests ebbed and flowed as people arrived, visited happily, admired everything, enjoyed seasonal hors d'eouvres, and bid a adieu after an hour or so, much like one does when the invitation is for an open house. The atmosphere was festive without anyone having too much to drink and making an ugly spectacle of him- or herself.

The open house for local friends, which was on a Saturday evening two weeks before, at the middle of the month, was a different beast.  While it had its more pleasant moments, there were also a number of incidents during the evening that I can only chalk up to people not knowing any better.  Most notably, there was one couple in particular who took it upon themselves to bring along their extended family, who had not been included in the invitation.  In all about 10 or a dozen people as opposed to the two who HAD been invited to the open house.  

If that weren't enough to scandalize my grandmother, who was a very proper old southern gal, they arrived almost an hour before the specified start time (my grandmother and mother were still upstairs dressing) and proceeded to sit down at the buffet table where they remained for the next three or four hours as other guests were forced to maneuver around them.  To their credit, my grandparents and mother remained gracious throughout, but they weren't exactly what you could call pleased -- growing up around them you would naturally recognize certain, subtle "tells" -- and there was a palpable sigh of relief when the offending family finally asked for their coats, hats, and mittens and ventured back out into the snow late that evening for the 10-minute trek home.  

The funniest part of the whole episode was that part of the extended family included a 20-something daughter who had just given birth to their second child not ten days earlier, her husband (an apparent genetic throwback from somewhere), the new baby, and a toddler sibling who shouted off and on all evening to his father, "Go pee-pee Daddy!  Go pee-pee Daddy!"  

Young Frankie, as he was called by his parents, could be heard clearly a number of times above the general hubbub of the evening.  My grandmother was mortified by the time they left, and my uncle and I took great pleasure in kidding her about Young Frankie for years thereafter.  She was not amused.  Hard to fathom that Young Frankie must be in his early 40s by this point!

While the evening went reasonably well otherwise, and most of the guests seemed to enjoy themselves, there are a few relevant lessons that people would do well to remember in 2019.  First, don't included any last minute add-ons to an invitation that has your name and the name of your boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse/partner on it.  You don't want to put your hosts in an awkward position.  Second, very small children shouldn't be brought along either unless specifically mentioned on the invitation.  Get a sitter.  It's just better for everyone concerned.  Finally, give very careful thought when compiling a list of potential guests for any kind of gathering.  It really pays great dividends to consider carefully how people will (or won't) be able to mix with others in a social situation.  In short, avoid inviting absolutely everyone you know, since there are bound to be a few wet towels, wallflowers, and socially awkward cases in the bunch.

Yet another memory from another Christmas a year or two later crossed my mind yesterday.  The four of us -- grandmother, mother, sister, and I -- headed off in the snow with very slippery roads 'round about December 15th or so to cut down the Christmas tree at a local Christmas tree farm.  Mom, my sister, and I had found and tagged it in October, but of course we couldn't easily see the name tag given the five or six inches of snow that had already fallen and continued to accumulate steadily and rapidly late that afternoon.  Although the three of us remembered the general area where our tagged tree was -- keep in mind that my grandmother had not been part of the earlier tagging expedition two months before -- my grandmother insisted that the tree must be somewhere else on the sizeable tree farm and took off in the opposite direction some little while before Mom, my sister, and I finally found our tree covered by the heavy snow.  

Like a couple of teen-aged St. Bernards, my sister and I had to head back out and find her after the three of us had found, cut down, paid for, and lashed the tree to the top of the car.  Good ol' Mom waited in the car with the engine running and watched the snow pile up.  I seem to recall that our grandmother was actually a little testy once we finally found her and trudged through the snow back to the car.  The sign?  There was some rather vehement, heated, and pronounced silent puffing on her Kent III 100 in the car for a few minutes as we headed back down that treacherous hill in the woods below the Christmas tree farm.

And speaking of hoochie mamas. . .  The Young Master asked out of the blue at the dinner table one evening last week about who and what and these women were.  I wonder what they're teaching them in 4th Grade these days?  Needless to say, I simply explained that they were women who used to hang around speakeasies during prohibition imbibing the hooch.  I left out the other part of that particular morally questionable equation.  That's a talk for when he's just a bit older I think.  Maybe 25, or 30.

And so, to paraphrase Dickens' Tiny Tim, God help us, everyone.

-- Heinz-Ulrich


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