Family Gatherings


HOLIDAY SEASON is a time for telling stories. Family gatherings always work that way, but in these days of high mobility and shifting economies, holidays and funerals are often the only multi-generation occasions for many families.

I used to listen with ears full of dreams and incredulous eyes when my father described his Christmases as a boy in Chester, Pa. My mother's stories of mischief with her sisters and brothers in the small nearby town of Morton never ceased to amaze me, either. But the tales that seemed made in Fairyland to me during the late 1940s were always the ones told by grandparents. Those stories didn't just come from another era. To me, they described another world.

Milk and bread companies in the post-World War II era still used horse-drawn wagons for door-to-door delivery, so I could visualize what it meant to use horses for everything. Farm life was very close by, not pushed back out to the far country like today, and some farmers still used horse-powered apparatus and drove horse-drawn wagons into town.

In Morton, the Rose family across the street from my grandmother's house kept horses, and I enjoyed the occasional treat of riding with their youngest child in her grandfather's sleigh in the winter.

Still, listening to the older Thompsons and the Adamses, my mother's family, talk about the Old Days was better than a radio show.

Now I know what the grown-ups felt like watching my face. Time really does remove young people from the world that went before, and only survivors who lived through the events of the past, mundane as well as world-shaking, can make it believable.

Sunday, sitting in the kitchen of a recently discovered Baltimore relative, Jo Ann Henson, I swapped a few tales of holiday seasons past and watched our offspring swap glances. Connie, my sophisticated, college-student daughter, looked at Rochelle, her sophisticated, college-student cousin, and it was clear they would never have put up with such primitive conditions.

Imagine -- people didn't have the appliances we take for granted -- no electricity in a lot of places. What, use a kerosene lantern to find your way in the yard, or even in houses? Everyone knows, electricity comes out of the walls. Plug in and there it is, ready to do your bidding.

But half of the conveniences we depend on hadn't been invented in our parents' day. Or if they had, only people with a lot of money could afford them.

Take indoor plumbing. The Romans had pretty good systems of indoor plumbing, according to my high-school Latin text, and twentieth-century archaeologists were amazed at how ingeniously they controlled water flow and waste disposal. During the early part of this century, however, many American homes didn't have full connections.

For my father as a youngster, that meant taking baths in a galvanized steel tub. That was after you had heated enough water in tubs and buckets on a wood-burning stove in the kitchen. It also meant going to the outhouse in the dead of winter when you had to "go."

I trekked to a few outhouses as a youngster in Chester, for municipal sewers hadn't reached all neighborhoods by the early '50s. But only in the summer, and then only if I was too far from houses with real toilets. Outhouses were scary things when I was a small boy. Everything just went down a dark, smelly hole. Suppose you slipped and fell in, too?


One outmoded thing Jo Ann and I shared good memories about was the old coal-burning stove. Lots of houses had coal furnaces during our childhood, and that meant coal bins, great places to hide, play in and get filthy as beggars. Places that didn't have furnaces had pot-bellied stoves. These burned "pea coal" and sat in the middle of a room, putting out a warm red glow. They often were found in neighborhood barbershops and stores, and older folk would sit around them, telling the tales that reminded them of homes in other places, people no longer living and good times that seemed better with the telling.

My boyhood home didn't have a pot-bellied stove, but it did have a big coal-burner in the living room for winter heat. The kitchen had its own enameled wood- and coal-burning range, and chopping kindling for both and keeping them fed with coal and cleared of ashes was one of my daily chores. I hated the cleaning part, but loved the chopping and feeding part. It made you feel important to have your family depending on you. You were growing up.

It's hard to explain to today's youngsters the good feelings that went with the mechanical chores of daily living in days when you had to walk a fair distance to complete most errands and put your back into a task your parents set you. But their days will come, too. All younger generations look on fascinated, half-disbelieving and sometimes repelled when their elders get together and tell old tales. They all get to take their turns at being the older generation and telling their tales, too.

That's one of the things you learn in family gatherings.

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