We all have them...precious memories. Whether from childhood, a first job, a first love, an adventure, time with family, an accomplishment, or a special moment how you celebrated a holiday...like Christmas.
Christmas has always been a special time for me. Maybe because, as a child, that's when all the family came together. To celebrate. To catch up. To enjoy each other's company. Maybe it was because there was no school for a couple weeks, and I could enjoy the Pennsylvania snow (if it had fallen by then). I don't know, but whenever I think of Christmas, I think of "home"; not home as a place, but as a feeling or a state-of-mind. Home is comfortable and warm, like a thick blanket you can wrap yourself in. It just feels perfect.
I have so many wonderful memories surrounding this time of year. The earliest Christmas memory I have is just a vague impression of a party...maybe both sets of grandparents and a few of my parents' friends at our home in Ohio. I was two or three years old. I meandered around, but pretty much stayed to one side of the living room. There was a knock on the door, and everybody got real excited. A couple folks peered through the front window. As the door was opened, in walked "The Big Man" himself, dressed all in red. I can still see that image vividly.
Since we lived three-to-four hours from either pair of my grandparents, a family gathering was always in order. My mom's folks would treat us to dinner, and sometime a special family event at their country club. As I remember, many a celebration, not just during Christmas, were held here. This is where the real Santa Claus meets all the good little girls and boys. When in Pittsburgh, we had to make a trip to Gimbel's at least once. Everything was festive. My grandparents had a rule: nobody goes into the living room until Grandpa has had his first cup of coffee (and you couldn't cheat by making noise or any other methods of waking him prematurely). There was one Christmas where quite a few of us, aunts and uncles included, huddled on the stairs waiting for the "go ahead" before we scrambled to the living room.
We've had some "full house" Christmases in Detroit, as well, in a house where my grandmother lived for about fifty years before spending her final years here in Florida. The guestroom was on the second floor, which is a sort-of loft / sort-of attic type space...much like the attics that are presented in the movies - these vaulted-ceiling grand spaces with furniture placed among storage boxes (and piles and piles of needlepoint patterns!). One Christmas Tree was ceramic, and had little plastic "lights" that were illuminated by an incandescent bulb from inside. A local "paint-your-own-pottery" place here has one of those trees, and whenever I see it, it brings back fond memories. My grandfather, I believe, made it a mission to find the largest tree that would fit in his house. There were times when the tree practically filled the living room, making some chairs and a portion of the sofa inaccessible.
Christmas always started on Christmas Eve, with a nice dinner, then church. Sometimes, we'd be allowed to open one gift (if we were good in church). One year, I remember the gift, which I got to open before church, was a special outfit...so that, of course, I could wear it that night. I suppose, really, the season always began around Thanksgiving, another great time for the family to gather. Thursday was always reserved for family, food and football, then Friday was for shopping and bringing out the Christmas decorations. Once all the ornaments were on the tree, the final step was adding the tinsel, which always was lovingly (and evenly) placed on the branches...one. strand. at a time.
We had a family friend, "Uncle Lou," who served as Santa Claus for all his friends' grandchildren, while The Big Man, himself, was preparing for his Christmas Eve mission up at the North Pole. It wasn't uncommon to get a personalized visit from Santa, or maybe even a phone call. He continued this practice for as long as we knew him...and Santa always seemed to be able to find us, no matter where we moved. Those calls continued after we moved to Houston. Later on, during our first year in Jacksonville, Florida, I was home during Christmas Break from my tenth grade in high school. The phone rings, and my mom calls from the kitchen, asking me, "Guess who's on the phone?" I remember jumping up and saying, "Uncle L...SANTA?!?" It was so thoughtful of him to continue this tradition, especially my first year in a new home, away from family and my childhood friends.
There have been so many wonderful Christmases throughout my life. We had a 13-foot ceiling in our home in Houston, and at least one year, we had a tree which left just enough space to set the angel on top. Decorating took a while that year. We visited my family in Hawaii once. Mele Kalikimaka to all. Some Christmases were celebrated at home, while others with family elsewhere. It's so enjoyable to see how different places look during this festive time of year. The historic towns in the Northeast and Midwest are reminiscent of many greeting cards, while the southern cities embrace their warmth and commemorate the holiday in their own special way.
One year, the family traveled to my home town in Ohio to enjoy the holidays there. My grandparents moved to the area several years before, after spending some time in Central Florida for a while. It was an exciting time, also, because I got to share this experience with the woman who would become part of this family a few months later. She had not traveled from the South much, and lived in Florida for the majority of her life. Being able to see snow and be in that area of the country with her fiancee for the holidays was much-anticipated. I remember my aunt saying, "I hate to be the bearer of bad news...but it's not forecast to snow until after you return home." Though a little deflated, we still enjoyed every moment of our trip.
Then it happened.
We woke up Christmas Eve morning, as everybody was relaxing, enjoying breakfast, taking in a newspaper, wrapping those last couple gifts, when, outside the window, through the blinds, we noticed everything outside was a little, grey, or could it be...white? I called Layla over to peer outside, and everywhere you looked...was snow! We couldn't believe it. All the local family was completely unaffected, telling us, "It's only flurries. Just enough to cover the ground. That's all." But it was enough for us. The last time it snowed in Florida was 1989...locals called it "The Blizzard of '89"...and the stuff turned to slush as it hit the warm ground. This was different. We didn't care if "It's only flurries." This was snow. Real, honest-to-God, legitimate snow, and we were going to take advantage of it.
We bundled up in layers and borrowed jackets (we don't own winter-appropriate clothing), and headed out to walk, play, take pictures, and even make a snow angel. We walked down to the front of the neighborhood, where the pond was almost frozen over, but for a twelve-foot space in the center, as the fountain continued to flow. My fiancee turned to me and said, "This is just beautiful. It would be amazing if we could ride horses through the woods with the snow on the ground." This thought had not even remotely entered my mind. The last time I rode a horse was once or twice at El Rancho Cima Boy Scout Camp in Texas. Layla grew up around horses, and has friends who worked with and trained horses.
So, what is a fellow to do, with T-minus-three-and-a-half months to be married to this gal do? I haven't lived in this area for decades, and back then was too young to know the "lay of the land." Not being a horseman, myself, I had no idea what to look for, so thank goodness for The Yellow Pages. Do you just call up a ranch and say, "Hey, my girl and I want to ride your horse"? Evidently. Most phone numbers rolled over to a holiday recording. I left messages when I could. One gentleman answered, and I explained what adventure my fiancee dreamt. His response was, "Well, we had a youth winter camp here last week, but we're really not open to the public." So, there you go. I can't say I didn't try.
Then he continued.
"But say...my guys and I gotta be here, anyway, to take care of the animals. If you wanna stop by, just drive up to the house, and we'll see if someone can take you out to see the horses, if you want." I didn't know how well that'd fly. It didn't sound like much of an assurance we'd get to ride, which was really the only reason why I called in the first place. But, it'd be an opportunity to get out-and-about and see more of the Ohio landscape, anyway. My folks had the car, so I got to drive my grandfather's Cadillac. In the ice and snow. Me. A guy from Florida. Who's never driven on snow in his life...well, except for one weekend in 1989. Is going to drive his grandfather's precious Cadillac. Okayyy...
Well, this was before hand-held and car-mounted GPS'es were commonplace. I believe I printed the driving directions from MapQuest. After an uneventful trip along the cold, wet roads of Central Ohio, we arrived unscathed at Marmon Valley Farm. The parking area was covered in snow (no visitors on this day), but we managed to find a farm-hand who was "just about to feed the horses." We followed him to the stable, where he proceeded to share a little information about the farm and introduce us to our horses. We mounted, and began to follow our guide on a personalized tour of the countryside.
Layla was grinning ear-to-ear, and I was having quite a marvelous time, as well. It was as if we leapt into the pages of a storybook. The entire world was white; snow, frost and ice clung to everything around us: the ground, the trees, bushes, fenceposts. We stopped for a moment to relax and take it all in. It was just one of those "WOW" moments, you know? The whole experience was breathtaking...and I don't just mean the cold weather. We continued our ride to a clearing at the top of the hill. As we looked out at the countryside below, it was like every Christmas card came to life: small, old houses nestled among trees on the snowy hillside, with wisps of smoke streaming from the chimneys.
During our return...I have no idea how long we were gone; time seemed to stand still, and our guide never coaxed us to "hurry along"...our horses seemed to know exactly where to go. This was probably the case for most of the ride -- I'm pretty sure I just went wherever my horse wanted me to go, and not the other way around. It was cold, they were hungry, and their stable was directly ahead. There was a brief anxious moment, though, when my horse brushed up against the fence, which occasionally is electrified. It wasn't at this time, but my horse reared up as a matter of reflex. Though I felt like I was Roy Rogers in that famous shot of him atop Trigger, chances are the incident was much more mundane. Regardless, I take pride in not suffering the embarrassment of getting thrown.
The whole trip was a wonderful one. Any time to relax in the company of family is to be enjoyed, but that made this trip extra-special. We would return to Ohio the following Summer for our honeymoon. Ohio, and the neighboring states, are well known for incredible, record-breaking roller coasters, and we rode every single one!
Merry Christmas, everyone!