Memories of a much more simple holiday

Otho “O.W.” Washington Mears died at his home four days after being interviewed and photographed for this story. He would have turned 94 on Thursday, Dec. 19. — Editor.

Otho “O.W.” Mears, almost 94, of near Parksley, is shown with clay marbles that was his sole Christmas present when he was about 10. The stool, made by his uncle, was used by his mother as the base of a cedar sapling Christmas tree. The tree was his only gift that year. The container for the marbles was made more than a century ago by Accomack County families from pieces of pine cones sewn onto an oatmeal box. They were sold, like homemade holly wreathes, to get “Christmas money” for the holiday.
In the palm of his wrinkled hand, the Otho Washington “O.W.” Mears cradled about 20 marbles. Each is made of clay, and each is much smaller than a grape.

He looked through the curtained kitchen window, across the field of brown weeds, and leafless trees to the winter snow clouds beyond and into the Christmas of his youth.

Country children of his youth, almost a century ago, did not get the few dozen gifts that are now showered on today’s youngsters, he said, as he rolled one of the smooth reddish-brown marbles slowly between his fingers.

Mears, 93, a retired auctioneer, lives in the house where he grew up and sleeps in the same bedroom where he was born on Dec. 19, 1924. It became his home when his parents moved from the farm into nearby Parksley, just a few years after he married Violet, then 16. Married for 70 years, they have been here ever since. For 94 years now, it’s always been a country Christmas on the 25-acre farm that was purchased by his grandfather, George Washington Mears, a man  who only had two days of schooling in his life.

The first Christmas gift, he said, was a small iron car. “I was about five, came down stairs hurriedly and on the couch — made of pine boards and a homemade pad — was the little car sitting there. I picked it up and said ‘Is this all of it?’ and my mother said ‘Yes, that’s it.’ So I went to playing with it.

“There was not a piece of candy, a piece of tinsel, or a piece of Christmas in view, other than the car,” Mears said. Here and there about the two rooms downstairs were sprigs of fresh holly.

“Mother did lay around a right good bit of holly. We had one holly tree that stood alone in the middle of the field. She always had pieces that she broke off and tossed around.”

“But there was no tree because there were no balls to put on it,’ Mears recalled.

His parents, he said, had no money.

“One year, when I was a boy, daddy’s whole proceeds from growing white potatoes here was $73. We had mules or horses, a cow and hogs, and 50 layin’ hens on our 25-acre farm,” he said.

“When I was seven my mother sold some eggs and bought some glass balls for a tree and hangers and a little plastic-like (Celluloid) horn that you could play.

“Mother told me she took the hatchet, went across the road, and chopped down a couple of little cedar trees, smaller than the  diameter of a quarter and two feet long. When I was born my uncle made me a little wooden stool. My mother took that stool and nailed one tree on one side, one on the other. That was my little tree and stand. That was also my Christmas gift that year. I still have the stool and I gave the horn to my son, Lennie.”

Seated at his small, worn, antique oak kitchen table, Mears folded his hands on the little stool, then pointed to the set of nail holes on each side. Proof his tale was true.

A Christmas tree made up of a handmade stool, two cedar saplings with a few glass balls purchased with egg money. As he got older he accompanied his father into the woods, with the ax from the woodpile, to search for the right tree, always a cedar tree, to bring home and decorate.

The question on his mind could be seen in his eyes. How could so little have meant so much and today so much could mean so little?

“One Christmas, maybe I was 10, I got this little sack of marbles, ’bout 25 was in it. It was my only gift.

“I took two or three of the marbles to school. In those days they played for ‘keeps.’ I became shy when I lost two or three and the rest I kept in my pocket. That’s why I have them now, I couldn’t afford to lose them because I knew my parents couldn’t replace them.”

To a youngster who waited all year for just one Christmas present, the marbles did indeed seem to be as valuable as gold.

They are kept in a most unusual container. “Back in the Depression, we ate a lot of oatmeal, and it came in a round paper box with a lid. People in Hunting Creek and Lee Mont would go in the woods and get pine burs (pine cones) and cut the butt part seed end off and glue or sew the pointed pieces to the boxes. Then they took pine shatters (pine needles) and twisted them and make a little circular ring on each side of the taller boxes for handles.”

The prickly containers were sold along the streets in Parksley by the makers for “Christmas money.”

“This box has pieces of pine cones sewn on. That’s where I keep my marbles safe.”

The marbles have little monetary value. Mears has kept them all these years because they are rich in sentimental value.

“I have given, one, two, or three away over the years to little kids.”

Eighty-five years later, Mears still has the remaining 20.

Considering the hundreds of dollars in gifts many youngsters today get at Christmas his handful of clay marbles is humble indeed. “Many a youngin’ been ruined by too much stuff,” he said with a slow, soft voice accented with wisdom.

By the time he was 11, he got a special kind of gift. “I got three kinds of nuts (Brazil and English nuts and almonds) and a handful of black raisins. And there were four pieces of gum candy.

With so many families just “getting by,” none seem to know they were poor, he said.

“If my father went in town for a 100 pound bag of chicken feed, he’d prop it up on the back bumper of the Model A Ford, because we didn’t have a truck, and bring it home. He’d go up into Maryland and get the pigs he’d fatten for the end of the year for slaughter in the fall. He’d put the pigs in burlap bags and cut a hole in each bag for their snouts and haul them home in the backseat of the car. They were squealing and carrying on.

“My father told me when they were building the stone road from the highway into Parksley, he hired on with the state with his mule and horse cart. There was a sand hole near here. He went to the sand hole, guys loaded his cart. Then he drove to the site going to  town, tipped the cart up, dropped the load, put the stops back in and went back to get another load. He got a quarter a load.”

Mears was born in a country farm house without plumbing, insulation or telephone. Water was drawn by a bucket from an open well.

He would be into his mid-20s before electric was installed in the house.

He also came into the world when country doctors routinely made house calls. His December arrival was marked by a miracle.

“When I was born, here in this house, the doctor said ‘he’s not living, he’s stillborn,’ and laid me on another bed. At that time the grandmother was living and she got a basin of cold water and doused me and I made a gasp. The doctor quit attending mother and attended me, saved me.

“About a month old I developed a huge — we called them ‘risings’ or boil — on the back of my head. The doctor said ‘I’ll do all I can, but it will kill him. I’ve never seen one this big on a child.’ I got over that,” he said.

The years passed and Christmases came and went.

As an only child he thinks he wasn’t spoiled because there was no money to spoil him with. He grew up in conditions known to many Eastern Shore families.’

Poverty was always just around the corner.

Not many presents, but always plenty to eat.

Christmas dinner would have been a chicken or “yard duck” or seafood —clams and oysters.

“We also eat every rabbit we could get a hold to,” Mears said.

“My mother told me grandmother would pick chicken heads and we had chicken brains for dinner, too.

“Mother made eggnog. Made good eggnog, with cow’s milk that was fresh and pure, not pasteurized, and plenty of eggs, lots of cinnamon. My mother put whiskey in her eggnog. They only let me have a little bit for fear I’d grow up to be a drunkard. We always had to have it at Christmas.”

Poor as many in the community were, folks saw to it that their neighbors and friends had “something extra” at Christmas with gifts for adults.

“You went to church to get the bag of stuff they gave way on Christmas Eve. It was a small, brown, paper bag. Inside was two or three English walnuts, two dark nuts, a few almonds and an orange and apple. Everyone in church got a bag,” he recalled, and after a pause said,  “and people would ‘pound the preacher.’ ”

This peculiar tradition, which probably dated at least to post Civil War days on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, was practiced by individuals and groups.

“You went to the store and got a pound of coffee, a pound of hominy and a pound of cheese. That was your (gift) limit, your ‘go-buy’ limit. to give to people who needed it. Some people couldn’t afford to buy all three pounds, so they bought what they could. Times were tight.

“There were two old gentleman, brothers named Colona, who lived along the bay and had an oyster-roast, and people came. It was a roaring fire, and at least a bushel of oysters were roasted on chicken wire over an open fire, cooked until the juice ran out and the oysters were a little dry. There’s nothing else like it, a special flavor for the taste buds.

“The brothers had no money, but shared their oysters with lots of people.” Then, close to Christmas, people in the church “pounded” them to help them out over the winter.

His Christmas experiences were very much like that of other country kids in the area almost a century ago. As the years rolled by, he realized the treasured humble gifts of is youth had no value with the younger generations. He also noticed that youngster couldn’t recall a special gift from previous Christmases. And yet, after 84 years had passed, Mears still has the precious clay marbles.

“A few years ago we went to a friend’s house to watch the children open presents. There had to have ben at least 35 gifts. Violet and I watched as they tore through the wrapping paper. When the last gift was opened, they grabbed some candy, turned on the television and jumped on the couch,” he said. “Or they’d sit there busy on their phones. No appreciation for the presents they got and no interaction with others. They have nothing to hold fast to. It’s a shame.

“Looking back over the Christmases that were and the Christmases that are, we’ve definitely lost something special,” he said. “Even though I had nothin’ I was rich. Seems kids today just have the ‘wants.’ ”

 

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