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Christmas on the Farm

Volume V, Issue Four | December 2011

My older sister, Donna, and me, 1941.

The first five years of my life, I lived on a 25-acre farm near Burke, Virginia. Burke is now a suburb of Washington, D.C., but in the 1940s, it was a rural community, no more than a crossroads, and Braddock Road, now a major highway, was a dirt road in front of our house.

Dad, who worked for the General Accounting Office in Washington, raised corn and other crops. We had pigs and chickens, a cow and a calf named Lottie and June, Skiddles the cat and Snow White the dog, and a duck named Hitler, because we were going to kill him and eat him. The house was small, maybe 800 square feet. Heat came from a wood-burning stove. Mom prepared meals on a cook stove, and because there was no running water or plumbing in the house, we hauled what we needed from a pump outside. Mom heated the water for laundry and used a scrub board. Of course, we used an outhouse.

My folks had had it rough during the Great Depression, and they thought they were the luckiest people in the world to have such a home. When my older sister, Donna, asked if we were poor, Mother replied, “We may not have money, but we’re not poor.”

In fact we had wonderful things. Mom attended farm auctions and sales at old plantation houses, where she bought ice cream chairs for a quarter, marble-top walnut dressers for a few dollars. Out in the pasture was the rusted frame of an abandoned car with springs where the seat had been. No custom-made auto could have been a better plaything for my brother and me.

Every Christmas, Dad cut down a tree and dragged it to the house, only to find he’d misjudged and the tree was too big to fit through the door. He’d cut a second tree and sometimes a third before he got one small enough to stand up in the house. Mom gathered bittersweet and greens to decorate—and holly.

Dad, Donna, and me, 1939.

I remember walking through the woods with Dad and coming across a magnificent holly tree, the sun shining on the green leaves and red berries, against the white snow. Of course, I was four and any tree over five feet seemed huge to me. I don’t even know if there is such a thing as a holly tree, but that’s the way I remember it, and you can’t convince me it wasn’t the most awesome sight in the world.

It must have been 1944, my last Christmas on the farm, that our presents from Santa failed to arrive. Mom and Dad had ordered them from the Montgomery Wards catalogue well ahead of time. But Christmas week, they received a letter telling them the railroad car in which the gifts had been shipped had been directed to the wrong part of the country and our presents wouldn’t arrive until January. After all, a war was on, and things did go array. That might have been a calamity, but it wasn’t, because Gram, my wonderful grandmother, had made rag dolls for my sister and me, and we found those in our stockings on Christmas morning. (I don’t remember what my brother got, but he was only two.)

Gram was a whiz at sewing—she made clothes for me until she was 90—and those dolls were charming, a black boy in overalls and girl in calico dress. Their faces were embroidered, and their hair was made from yarn. I still have them.

Those Christmases on the farm were magical. The trees were dusted with snow, and Dad pulled us on a sled through the woods to our neighbor Mrs. Garrison’s house. On Christmas night, we sat by the wood stove and ate nuts and popcorn and the divinity candy that my Grandma Dallas sent from Kansas. We sang carols, and Mom read from the Bible.

Poor? Not us.

April 24 Publication Date for True Sisters

True Sisters, the story of four women who travel from Iowa City to Salt Lake City in an 1856 Mormon handcart expedition, will be published on April 24. You can read the first chapter on Sandra’s Sandra Dallas Author page on Facebook. We’ll tell you more about the book and why Sandra wrote it in the next issue of Piecework.