Friday, December 24, 2010

The Best Christmas Ever

1952 was the year I turned six. I could steal a line from Dickens and say it was the best of times and the worst of times. My mom and I were taking turns being sick; she with what I now believe to have been severe and frequent migraines and me with the usual array of childhood maladies such as chicken pox, mumps, measles, croup, etc. I remember one event which resulted in my dad carrying me across the park in front of our parsonage to the town doctor who painted my mouth with some ghastly purple stuff. I found out many years later this purple stuff was gentian violet used as a cure for thrush.

I also remember having to be dosed with a daily spoonful of cod liver oil because I “needed iron.” I could never figure out what the iron had to do with the medicine, but my mom and I arrived at an unusual ritual for my dosing: I used to crouch under the kitchen table for this hated spoonful and she would thrust the spoon under the table. I was very happy to be pronounced well enough to be rid of it - although I can still recall that hideous oily taste. *Shudder*

In spite of all of these ailments, my folks and I shared a wondrous life together. Dad was the quintessential poor country preacher (who one summer painted the parsonage to supplement his meager salary) and mom, in training to be agoraphobic in addition to her other illnesses, was very lucky that the church was right next door to the parsonage (she hated having to ride in the car, always got motion sickness). She occupied her time trying to decorate the old farmhouse/parsonage and sewed clothing and curtains when she could get out of bed.  I guess we did not realize how awful our lives were so we simply enjoyed life and each other.

The school was just up the road and I could walk the half block or so and come home for lunch from kindergarten and then first grade. Part of our family lore, told to me many times, was that when I first started school I kept leaving and coming home because I wanted to “help my mommy” since she was so sick. My folks and the school officials had to convince me that it was OK for me to be gone a bit each day and that mom would be all right without my ministrations.

It was in this town also that my parents were forced to buy their first television, to keep me home at night. The neighbors two houses away used to invite me over after supper to watch Hopalong Cassidy and not unlike millions of other boomers, I was immediately sucked in to the Cowboy Way. The Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and of course, all of these famous TV cowboys had famous TV cowboy horses: Topper, Silver, Trigger and Champion.

It was love at first sight! I wanted a six-gun, a cowboy hat, cowboy boots…and I wanted a horse!

Little by little I acquired the six-gun (but no holster, alas), and some sort of straw hat that masqueraded as a cowboy hat. But no horse seemed forthcoming. We could not afford a horse, of course, and my dad tried ever so gently to persuade me that the parsonage committee would not take to having to clean up after a real horse.

In the fall of 1952 I was suddenly banished from the basement. This did not bother me a great deal, as I recall, because it was one of those creaky old scary basements with the low-hanging furnace pipes and the finished part just kind of trailing off into dirt. The church basement was the same and I still have nightmares about it. I remember waking in the night hearing strange noises coming from the cellar but these also did not seem to bother me and any alarums of the night were forgotten in the light of day.

Well, as it turned out, my dad had decided to build me a rocking horse. He took pieces of wood from a sturdy old rocking chair and one of the men from the church cut out the head from a piece of plywood. My dad did all of the rest of the work himself, including the glossy black paint. My mother then made the thick black yarn mane and tail. Dad even managed to find some scraps of leather and rivet together a bridle.

My dad was not known for his skills with tools. Oh, he could handle a paintbrush all right, but he had never been one with any skill, knowledge or love of saws, planes, drills, screwdrivers, hammers and the like. (My paternal grandfather had been the tool guy who worked on the railroad; I have his toolbox today, with his initials in Morse code painted on the outside.)

So the fact that dad was able to create such a magnificent rocking horse for me was all the more amazing. My Black Beauty was so well built and sturdy that even though I weigh many times more today than I did back then, he still holds my weight. I marvel at the skill that came so unexpectedly from my dad’s love for me and from his desire to make me happy that year at Christmas.