“Shhhh…listen. Hear that? It’s the reindeer on the roof!” We believe, my cousins and I. Never mind that we are teens, the closer it gets to Christmas Day the firmer our shaky faith becomes.
Between middle school and college years my family makes the long pre-interstate trek from Whitehall, Ohio (an enclave of Columbus) to our grandmother’s home in Richmond, Virginia for Christmas. Twelve hours by car stopping for gas and maybe one meal at Howard Johnson’s, the only road trip place with reliable food, gets us all dog tired to our destination. Many is the trip when Mom packs lunches to eat along the way. Dad does all the driving. Once we trade the Cumberland Gap Route 40 for the more direct mountain roads of West Virginia. Once.
In Richmond, we join forces with my Dad’s two sisters and their families to celebrate Christmas. It is magical. Everyone around us feels it too and tells us so. We know. We live it. We are in the magic.
Our grandmother’s home at 6416 Three Chopt Road is the perfect Christmas house. An early twentieth century three story foursquare style home, it has a huge covered front porch. The massive front door with its brass mail slot opens onto an enormous hall. Called a hall, it is really a big open space where folks can unload packages, greet guests, and easily play kid games on the oriental rug.
There is a screened porch to one side, and to the other through a double wide sliding pocket door opening is a cozy living room with fireplace. Straight ahead is the classic plantation flying staircase that stole my grandmother’s heart. She fell in love with its free form and my grandfather had no recourse but to sell his lots on Broad Street and buy the house for her. There has been much family lamentation about how valuable those lots later became but they served their purpose, providing the perfect retirement home for my grandparents to live in. And for us to gather at for Christmas and Easter.
To the side of the living room and through another generous pocket door frame is the family size dining room. You can access the dining room from the hall too through yet another double pocket door framework. Those wide sliding doors with their detailed framing provide an airiness to the entire downstairs. They are always left open but we kids love to close them to make separate rooms for our fashion shows and productions whenever we can get away with it.
Adults eat dinner in the dining room. Kids eat in the huge kitchen which is also where a never ending breakfast complete with seriously strong coffee (long before it is the norm), red eye gravy and fresh biscuits starts everyone’s day. In the dining room there is a working servant button under the carpet near our grandmother’s foot. It is for summoning the kitchen help of which we have none. But Mother Leigh’s foot still presses that button regardless, mostly out of habit from when she did have a maid, but now never to any avail. She is always totally unaware until someone points out, “Mother Leigh, your foot is on the buzzer.” She blushes a bit and moves her foot.
My father is in the Air Force so we move a lot but land in Ohio for those Christmas in Richmond years. One year at Mom’s request we stay in Whitehall for Christmas. She wants to decorate her own tree. It is just not the same. Even Mom has to admit that she misses fretting over crushing the bows on all her pre-wrapped Christmas packages. Mom prefers to arrive in Richmond ready to party. She is all about the bridge games the adults engage in practically non-stop day and night. My aunts take turns playing a hand or two before heading back to wrapping presents. Sometimes they draft me to help with their wrapping. I don’t mind. Being the oldest cousin and betwixt adult & child hood I cherish being included in any adult activity even present wrapping. I am not experienced enough to play bridge but I can cover gift wrapping like a champ.
My cousins and I all bunk in the huge upstairs master bedroom where our grandmother has single metal beds made up in air dried linens ready for each of us. We have our own tiny turf, a bed and a few drawers in a shared dresser.
As much as I love my family and all our Christmas activity, I do have my own social life in Richmond, thanks to a since kindergarten friend (we lived in Richmond then) who always keeps me in the loop. Dad has not put the parking brake on before I am on the phone dialing AT8-7637 to check in with Patsy. It is usually mere days before Cotillion and she always insist that I attend. Far be it that they all have been learning social graces and dances for months, I still need to be included. She gives me her practice nosegay, Mom digs up something dressy for me to wear and off I go into Richmond society.
Patsy too sees that Sally Gabb has a highly sought after invitation for me to her traditional slumber party. Sally also lives in a magical house. Hers is located at the bottom of Old Mill Road, not far from 6416. There are four sisters in her family and one brother, the baby, whom they all fawn over. I love that one of Sally’s sisters gets disgusted living with her closest in age sister and moves into the so tiny (only room for a bed and a door) not in use kitchen maid’s room. The Gabb’s have a free standing phone booth in the kitchen for their real phone. (In summers they put on elaborate plays in their oversized garage.) Mrs. Gabb has beautiful German Christmas candies and she cooks fresh pizza pies for midnight slumber party snacking. We all play games and struggle to not sleep all spread out in every imaginable space in the dining room. This is where I fall in love with the game Mr Ree, a real all nighter.
Our Christmas always has its traditional moments. My uncle rounding up everyone for a trip to Miller & Rhoads for shopping and visiting Santa. “Meet me on the balcony,” with its lounge like atmosphere that overlooks the entire first floor of the store is always our battle cry. Adults take turns waiting in the endless Santa line with the kids so others can shop. Sometimes we even score a table in the oh so popular Tea Room for a bite to eat. My uncle bringing home a scruffy but tall enough to reach the 14′ ceiling cedar for us to decorate. My aunt insisting that all tinsel be strung on the tree one piece at a time, the end carefully wrapped around a branch so the long silver strand can shine brightest, that is until someone thankfully calls her away and we all quickly sling the rest onto the tree. An adult trip at midnight on Christmas Eve to the only all night drug store for batteries with a requisite coffee stop at the Toddle House. My aunt taking over the entire dining room table for her wrapping quarters. Our grandmother making her reluctantly move everything for dinner but once the meal is over back out comes the loot and fixings. She barely finishes before Santa makes his appearance.
On Christmas morning all kids assemble on the upper stairs while my uncle goes to see if Santa has visited. We truly are never quite sure what report he will bring back. When he tries to trick us we don’t know what to believe. How could Santa skip us? My uncle is quick to assure that he must be mistaken and then he goes to take another look. This time he comes back with a much better report. We all tumble down the stairs to our designated spots. Mine is the piano. Santa never wraps presents. He just tosses them off the sled and somehow they always land in perfect piles for each of us.
Then comes gifting each other. There are so many presents that it takes all morning to unwrap everything. Everyone gives everyone else something and with fourteen people that’s a lot of packages. They are simple gifts but so heartfelt. This is the age when the depression is but a faint memory, the war with all its heartache and rationing over, and the middle class coming into its own. It really is a time of Christmas magic. And we were there.