Brice Stump: Through the Christmas window

The writer’s grandparents’ home, sitting on an overgrown yard on this little sand hill in Dorchester County. No one has called the place home for years and curtains still hang at the Christmas window.

The first small snowflakes began to fall, tossed and swirled by a biting wind that came strong between the holly boughs and cedar trees on the hill.

It was almost evening, when the dark clouds made the end of day come sooner to the empty house in the naked field of soybean stubble.

Almost Christmas, and there is no smoke from the chimney, no decorations, no sign of life in the wooden farmhouse in the country.

This was once my grandparents home, sitting proud on an overgrown yard on this little sand hill in Dorchester County.

No one has called the place home for years. Curtains still hang at the window and a small bird flew inside the missing sash in the small attic window. The faded blue exterior paint is cracking and flaking, revealing the gray wood beneath.

Visiting a neglected and decaying old family home-place, especially one in the quiet countryside, as most folks of age will tell you, is almost always a somber experience.

It an experience gently, tenderly, mixed with soft smiles and tears.

Yet each December, as it has for almost a century, Christmas comes and goes in the old house. Once during the winter, I try to visit the house.

This winter evening, naked trees branches scratch at the window by the corner of the porch. This is the Christmas Window. A window into yesterday.

Some 55 years ago, when a comforting ribbon a gray smoke rose from the kitchen chimney, the countryside was lightly scented with the ever so comforting smell of slowly burning wood. On the porch, just barely visible in the shadows of the late afternoon, was the most humble of holidays trees, a six-foot lanky, spindly, drooping pine tree.

Every year my grandmother had my grandfather chop a small tree and put it in the same spot, then decorated with fragile glass bulbs of the 1920s. And every year a winter wind broke several.

Inside the house the living room or parlor was bathed in the warm light of incandescent bulbs. The room was full of folks, young and old.

It was tradition that men and boys ate dinner first, then the women and girls. As the men took to the living room to talk, the women and girls cleaned the table and washed dishes. Then all retired to the small room to exchange gifts.

All the world is dark, it seems, in the country. The only light comes from farmhouse windows.

On one particularly cold holiday night, I was told to go to the car and grab presents from the back seat. Walking back to the house I noticed the window by the porch, a window radiant with warm light, and inside, inside were my aunts and uncles, grandparents, cousins and family friends sitting and standing, laughing and talking. It was Christmas in the country.

The window framed the view within. It was a living Norman Rockwell painting. I was but a teen-ager then, yet the view instantly touched my heart. This night, the world seemed to be at peace, everyone was safe and the scene inside seemed destined to live forever.

Last week, as the snow started to fall, I walked closer to the house, passing the aging porch and turned to walk up to the Christmas Window, just as I had as a boy.

I am old now, old enough to know there is no holiday gathering in the room, no laughter, no gifts. There is no comforting wood smoke, or warming light from within.

And yet, through the spirit of Christmas, it all remains in the house.

I did not get close enough to the window, with the fluttering curtain, to look inside. It is hard to see with eyes heavy with tears.

Looking at the house, it made me realize for the first time, just how hard it was for my grandparents. Even at the time of their passing in the late 1960s, the had no indoor plumbing, relying on the cold, dark and distant “out house.”

When my father and his siblings joined together to get a kitchen sink installed, my grandmother was so proud of it that she never allowed dirty dishwater to go down the drain. She washed dishes in a “dishpan” or basin in the sink and when done, carried the soiled water in the basin across the kitchen, out the screen door and side porch and emptied it in the yard.

Heat was provided by a vintage cookstove in the kitchen or a hefty coal stove in the parlor. Every fall, oaks from the back woods were cut, logs sawed and chopped and stored in the wood house. There was no oil stove or electric heat.

There was no television, but a radio strategically placed on a stool in the kitchen. My grandmother lived plain and simple. Perhaps the contents of the entire house may have fetched $500 at a country sale.

They lived, no doubt, as their country parents had lived, borderline poor. And yet, every time a stranger or friend or relative pulled into the yard, my grandparents rushed outside insisted they come in and join them for a meal.

As their children grew into adults and had financial opportunities, the tried to share their rewards with my grandparents. They tried to give them ”nice things,” specially at Christmas.

When my grandmother died, the family cleaning the house found a number of boxes of pretty sweaters, blouses and gloves, still in their original Christmas gift boxes.

I remember my grandmother telling me, once, that these gifts were “too nice” to wear. Yet she cherished what she thought were expensive, special, fancy gifts.

I’m old enough to understand now what she meant and how she felt and why.

Standing in the yard of the house, with the cold wind and snow about me, I knew that in that room, a humble, simple, kind old lady was being given gifts “too nice to wear.” Family were still talking and laughing. The world was still peaceful and safe.

They are the dear things still seen through a Christmas Window.

Reach Brice Stump at shorehistory@gmail.com.

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