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A Shared Story: Before the Griswolds

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Before the Griswolds . . .

were my dad and his buddy, Harold. These two men grew up during the Great Depression and served in World War II. It didn’t take much to entertain them. It just had to be shiny.

Our family’s tradition was to put up the Christmas tree on Dad’s birthday, which was fine except for one small problem. Have you ever tried to buy a live Christmas tree on December 20th? Dad would leave the house early to scour the few tree lots in our town. After examining several trees at each lot, and chatting about men stuff for what seemed hours, Dad would arrive home with his pride and joy “ a Charlie Brown Christmas tree, years before Charles Schultz even thought about the little round-headed boy. He would then mount the tree in our ancient tree stand.

While he was gone my mom and I would clear a corner of the living room for the tree, all the while making bets on how bad the tree would be. The loser had to adjust the tree while the other one judged whether we had enough live branches showing to make it look full and beautiful once the decorations were added. One year we tried to find a three-sided corner in our tiny house. Failing that, I was sent to the dime store to buy an extra pack of tinsel. We had those giant lights that got hot enough to set the tree on fire, all set on flasher mode. We also had bubble lights and glass balls “ and two cats.

Dad liked to decorate the outside too. We didn’t have money for real decorations, so he usually designed something with the tree branches that wouldn’t fit in our little corner and a string of lights.

As far back as I could remember our city workers, which included my dad, would string three giant red bells across various locations across Main Street. They covered the support and electrical wires with greenery. It actually looked festive and, for our town, classy.

One year when I was in high school and at the height of my parents are dorks phase, the city decided to buy all new decorations for Main Street. Dad brought home one of the bells (about 3-4 feet tall). He then attached a wire frame that followed the shape of the bell to which he attached a string of those giant fire-inducing bulbs. The coupe de gras was then hung from the front peak of the roof and visible for, what seemed, many miles.

Whenever anyone asked where I lived, my friends would say in unison, The house with the giant red bell. Did I mention we lived only two blocks from the high school?

Meanwhile, a few miles outside of town Dad’s buddy Harold lived on a farm, not too far off the main road. He loved lights too and each year bought some new gadget to light up his front yard. Then his uncle passed and willed all his lights to Harold. Oh boy! Harold was happy. A few years later Harold’s father passed and willed all his lights to guess who. Oh Wow!

Only one problem, Harold did not have a design bone in his body. Santas were grouped with manger scenes and reindeer grazed among the carolers. Snowmen rode the ferris wheel. Oh, did I forget to mention the ferris wheel? The one with lights strung on every support bar and seat and ran continuously?

Harold, being as prosperous as my dad, found himself working 11 months to pay the December electric bill. This could not continue, so he contacted the largest newspaper in our county to do a story on his display. Harold prepared for the crowd. He created a driveway that wound through the display and back to the road. And, he added a donation jar to help pay the electric bill. The height of my dad’s holiday season was to drive out to Harold’s house, admire the lights, chat a little and return home with visions of lights dancing in his head.

Another incident: The year I divorced my kids’ dad and was without a job, I found myself wishing for a small tree to cheer our tiny apartment. After paying bills and buying food I found a spare $7 in my wallet. Hoping for a tiny tree or some cut branches, I pulled into a tree lot and told my tale of woe to the man on duty. He said he had just the tree for me and the children. He walked to the back of the lot and brought out a gorgeous, full tree about 10 feet tall and tied it to the top of my decrepit station wagon. Once home I realized I couldn’t get the tree up our narrow stairway, so called Dad to the rescue. He and Mom came within a few minutes. While Dad and my son cut the tree to fit, the girls, Mom and I made paper ornaments.

By the time he was finished installing our giant tree, Dad once again had visions of evergreen glory. He asked what lot and which worker sold me this magnificent tree. He drove straight to the lot, spent more than $20 and bought “ you guessed it “ a Charlie Brown tree. Have you heard the phrase, mad enough to spit nails? That was my mother.

© by Sharon D. Dillon, December, 2013
Editor’s Note:  Sharon Dillon retired from State of Wisconsin. Favorite job – Aviation-Space Education Coordinator, presently working part-time at Busch Gardens, Williamsburg, and Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.  Grandmother to two and great-grandmother to three boys with the fourth boy expected any day. She currently lives in Williamsburg, Virginia.  Yes, that Williamsburg.

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