Memories of Christmas 1956: Pictures of Perfection

 

The film is dark and grainy, and the room is poorly lit. None of the cast is wearing the proper sort of clothes or makeup. And all of them, particularly the father of the little moppet with the starring role, are bursting with their pride in the first member of a new generation in the family. It’s the iconic Christmas of my childhood, my first real memory, one I have been able to call up at a moment’s notice all my life, but which lived only in my heart and in my mind for almost 50 years. Until, that is, a most unexpected gift from Dad gave it back to me “for realz,” as the children say.

Granny and Grandpa’s. 104 Church Lane, Handsworth Wood, Birmingham 20, England, UK. Northern 4749, if you wanted to phone and have a conversation. (This entailed going under the stairs where the telephone was located, and hiding yourself away for the duration, almost as if there was something a bit untoward–nay, rude even–about standing there talking into the air, as if to someone who was actually in the room with you, but, really, wasn’t.)

The old air-raid shelter under the living-room floor, where my mother and Uncle John used to lie awake at night and listen to the bombs raining down around them. The kitchen, with its tiny gas stove and old stone sink, and its attached pantry, which usually had a cake of some sort front and center in it. The cereal box (All-Bran), emptied of its original contents, and kept on the old teak draining board, where Granny used to stuff the tinfoil lids from the milk bottles, and then, when it was full, send them off “to the seeing-eye dogs.” (I never could understand how covering up the eyes of “seeing-eye dogs” with gold and silver tinfoil disks [for that was how I imagined them being used], was at all helpful. It was decades before I “twigged” and realized that it was actually a recycling project.)

The enormous old cast-iron and wooden mangle in the wash house, with rollers about three-feet wide and eight inches in diameter, full of splinters just waiting to embed themselves in my freshly laundered underpants and undershirts as they went through. (The washing machine itself is also worthy of special mention, a Rube Goldberg [they say “Rowland Emmet” in the UK] contraption of spectacular inefficiency and complex mechanical maunderings.)

The oak seat in the upstairs “loo,” with the split in it which pinched your bum every time you sat down (it was still there the last time I visited Granny, in 1984, and just as memorable). The “box room” in the attic, a child’s paradise, full of the toys and books that my mother and uncle had played with, and read, as children themselves. The beautiful, tiered, garden full of lovely roses: Queen Elizabeth, Princess Margaret, Peace, and other varieties — heavenly scents that don’t seem to exist anymore. The raspberry and gooseberry patch all the way at the bottom of the garden that, magically seemed to denude itself of all fruits whenever I was in the vicinity; Granny kindly blamed the birds. I’m sure that was it.

So much love. So many memories.

Christmas, 1956. There was a sprinkling of snow. A “White Christmas” outside, and bitterly cold in British terms–this means that the temperature was probably in the mid-thirties (when the temperature in the UK was still expressed in rational units of measure, and when people still bought and paid for things with real money, too. Before all this high-falutin’ “decimalisation” business started and the rot set in. (BoJo, please call your office and tell them to put those two things at the top of your list, next up after you’ve “got Brexit done,” K?)

I was just two, We’d come home from my first sojourn in Nigeria, and it was Christmas! Granny was there. My mother was there, young, bonny, and carefree. Great Granny was there (she must have been 87 at the time, having been born in 1869, four years after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. She died in 1968, several months before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. GG was a fearsome old lady, mostly bedridden for the last decade of her life, with a knobbly walking stick which she would rap on the floor to indicated displeasure (usually at something I’d done), but even she unbent this Christmas, excitedly unwrapping packages with her first great-grandchild.

And my dad was there. Lord, I miss him every single day. It was impossible not to feel happy and safe around the force of nature that was Dad. And to know that, no matter what, he’d never falter or fail. That he’d never let me down. And he never did. He was so proud of his little girl. I tried to learn the lessons he lived, and I hope I got most of them right, particularly the most important ones: He taught me to be loyal, to be kind, to be truthful, to be brave, and to be strong. And when I couldn’t manage the last two by myself, to ask for help. Like (I think) most people, I’ve had to do that a few times, and I’m grateful for my friends who’ve held me up and carried me through. Some of you are here. Thank you.

Who else was there? Well, Uncle John (Johnno), my mother’s only sibling, young, and still a bachelor at the time. Maudie Nichols was there. She spent a lifetime “in service,” (think, in a smaller way, Anna from “Downton Abbey,” or Rose from “Upstairs Downstairs”) and was Great Granny’s maid-of-all-trades. Poor Maudie. GG was a hard taskmaster, and Maudie wasn’t allowed a “young man,” even in her youth. Her half-days off were spent in church. She wasn’t supposed to read the lurid tabloid newspapers that she loved, or to play the weekly game of “spot the ball” she always hoped she’d win a fortune on. When she went shopping, she’d hide the newspaper under her coat when she got back home, so that GG wouldn’t see as Maudie took it up to her room.

Maudie loved children. She’d tended my mother and uncle when they were young, and she lavished attention on me, pushing my stroller to what was then Victoria Park, where we’d feed the swans and the ducks. She’d “rub-a-dub-dub” me in Granny’s enormous old cast-iron bathtub, then dry my hair with a bakelite hair dryer that weighed about a ton, and had an element which used to get red-hot and blew out heat like a blast furnace. And when I had a cold, she’d rub Vicks Vap-o-Rub on my little chest with her hands, the palms of which were like leather and the fingers like sandpaper, and she’d lovingly wrap me in warm flannel and put me to bed.

And Grandpa! Grandpa was there, with a sprig of lavender for a boutonniere, and a pocket full of Cadbury’s Chocolate Buttons. And, his cigarette. Always his cigarette. He taught me to roll cigarettes for him. I probably should have had him prosecuted for corrupting the morals of a minor, but I didn’t know any better at the time. (I wonder if that’s still an option? It can’t matter that he died in 1973, can it?) He had an ashtray on a stand that was about thirty inches high, and after you’d flicked enough ash into it, you pressed the knob on top of it, to send the little tray of ashes “down below” into the tub, where it would quickly spin and divest itself of its cargo, before returning itself to the top, so you could fill it up again. Sort of like the ashtray equivalent of a salad spinner. I loved it. (Sometimes, if you pushed too hard, or if it wobbled, it would send cigarette ash up your nose, or all over the room. That was especially enjoyable.)

Who else? Oh, yes. Auntie Betty. Great Granny’s niece, and Granny’s cousin. A smart, kind and lovely woman who’d have made a wonderful mother. She never married, having met her soulmate during the war, after he escaped Poland and joined the RAF. His wife hadn’t died in a concentration camp early in the war, as he’d been led to believe, and after the camps were liberated, and he found her, they emigrated to Canada, and Betty never heard from him again. In 2007, Mr. She, who’d gone to England for six weeks in the spring to help care for Dad (who’d broken his hip), took Betty a copy of A Question of Honor, the story of the Polish-American Air Group’s Koskciuszko squadron. He’d met the authors at an event in Pittsburgh, told them Betty’s story, and they gave him a book to give her, which they inscribed with a personal note. She always had it close at hand for the rest of her life.

Betty was born in 1912, three months before the Titanic sank, and she died in 2015, a few weeks before her 103rd birthday. I wrote about her here.

For almost fifty years, I carried the memory of that long-ago Christmas around with me in my heart, taking it out occasionally to smile over, and perhaps, sometimes, shed a tear. And then, in 2004, my sister, who is prone to occasional feats of Herculean organization and extraordinary managerial skill, managed to get Dad to turn over his cherished library of 8mm film (none of which had seen the light of day for decades), and she organized it as best she could from the notes he’d written on the boxes, and sent it off to get it put on VHS tape.

And a few months later, there we all were, Mum, Dad, my brother and I, enjoying a feast of groundnut chop at my sister’s house, and watching the world premiere of the Family Film Archives. It was an epic event, red carpet and all. The single malt scotch was particularly welcome. I don’t think they serve groundnut chop with Laphroaig or Highland Park on the side in Sokoto or Mubi, but it was a nice touch. Cultural appropriation Diversity, as it were.

There were some continuity flubs in the movie, and things were not in exactly the right order. In some places, people seemed to get younger as the story developed, in a Benjamin Button-like way, and in others the lead actors seemed to circle the globe instantaneously, and then find themselves back where they started, within a few seconds more. So the narrative flow wasn’t entirely consistent. But, Lord, it was fun.

And then it happened! Right between the scene of the old Ford Zephyr unloading from the boat (swinging in a car-hammock above the assembled crowds in Lagos), in about 1958 or so, and the scenes of a five- or six-year-old me playing with our two adult Dalmations and their eight puppies. There it was! Christmas 1956. Just as I’d remembered it all my life. Unfolding, right in front of me again.

But wait! What’s this? Something I actually had forgotten!

All my life, I’ve favored Christmas trees decorated without tinsel, and hung with what Jenny calls “the little wooden duck” school of Christmas tree ornaments. I love them. And if they are damaged or injured, a wing missing, a foot on backwards–so much the better. Mr. She is just the opposite. For him, the shinier and twinklier and lightier, the better. Tinsel, glitter, reflection, twirling baubles–you get the idea. Never the twain shall meet. An annual battle, for a lifetime of Christmases.

I usually lose. And that’s ok. Although I defiantly hang my one lonely little wooden duck ornament on the tree every year just to assert my independence and show that I can. He’s quite old, and he doesn’t have feet anymore. But I do believe he can still fly.

And now I know exactly when my little wooden duck fetish started. It’s not surprising at all.

It started about one minute into the perfect Christmas.

I hope I haven’t overdone it or worn out my welcome here with this self-indulgent post. But this month’s group writing topic was “memories,” and I have many! I’ve shared so much of my life, and of my rather eccentric and highly individual family members with all of you for such a long time (nine years now), that, in addition to showing off a bit, I wanted you to meet them, as close as I can get to “in person” at this remove of space and time.

Merry Christmas from our house to yours! And a Happy and Blessed New Year!

There are 19 comments.

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  1. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.
    @user_531302

    Wonderful. 

    • #1
  2. I Walton Member
    I Walton
    @IWalton

    Every bit of the wonderful piece rings.  Pop went to China so we stayed with grandparents in Gallipolis Ohio for two years, which was three Christmases I think.  That was post war as it ended we were getting our shots to join him when the Communists won.  The Christmases were magical at that age in  that giant house with that magical giant attic full of wonders.

    • #2
  3. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    She: And to know that, no matter what, he’d never falter or fail. That he’d never let me down. And he never did. He was so proud of his little girl. I tried to learn the lessons he lived, and I hope I got most of them right, particularly the most important ones: He taught me to be loyal, to be kind, to be truthful, to be brave, and to be strong. And when I couldn’t manage the last two by myself, to ask for help.

    He clearly taught you very well. What a sweet film and what an adorable child you were. Thank you.

    • #3
  4. KentForrester Moderator
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    Mrs. She, you could have been a wonderful novelist.

    And what a rich memory you have.  Has that ever been a curse as well as a blessing?

    Every time I read the description of your childhood memories, the blandness of my hometown of Compton, CA, comes to my mind.  And the richness of your memory reminds me of the paucity of Mine.

    Had you been a contemporary of mine in Compton, your cleverness and looks would have put you way out of my league.  Would you have been nice to me?  Were you that kind of girl?

    • #4
  5. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    Mrs. She, you could have been a wonderful novelist.

    And what a rich memory you have. Has that ever been a curse as well as a blessing?

    Every time I read the description of your childhood memories, the blandness of my hometown of Compton, CA, comes to my mind. And the richness of your memory reminds me of the paucity of Mine.

    Had you been a contemporary of mine in Compton, your cleverness and looks would have put you way out of my league. Would you have been nice to me? Were you that kind of girl?

    Oh, I’ve had that sort of conversation before with someone else.  And yes.  I am pretty sure I would have been nice to you, and that you are someone I should have been nice to.

    One of the other things Dad taught me was to look at people as people, and not to worry too much about what they looked like, what their backgrounds were, whether they had money, or were of “this class” or “that class.” (Brits still think about “class” some.)  But not Dad.  He was utterly oblivious of what sort of impression he made on others, and people up and down the social spectrum loved him.  Every so often, I will text my sister in the UK and say something like, “Just went uptown to Home Depot in a paint-stained T-shirt and a pair of filthy jeans full of holes.  Dad would have been so proud!”  And she’ll text me back and say, “Ah, but did you forget to put your false teeth in before you left?”

    I don’t have any false teeth (yet).  Dad got his when the tank he was in ran over a German mine which blew away most of the lower half of his face, and some of his jaw (you can sort of see that in the movie.  They grafted a bunch of skin from his rear end onto his face, and he was fond of saying that he was always “talking out of his arse.”

    But it always makes me laugh.  Self-importance is, I think, right up there with “pride” when it cometh to things that goeth before a fall.

    (I will note, in the interests of full disclosure, that my mother was sometimes mortified by Dad’s behavior and appearance.)

    • #5
  6. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    KentForrester (View Comment):
    And what a rich memory you have. Has that ever been a curse as well as a blessing?

    Thank you.  Yes, I suppose it can be, when the memories aren’t so great.  But, overall, I fall on the “blessing” side.

    • #6
  7. KentForrester Moderator
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    Well, you’re still one level above me, She.  I have false teeth galore. (I do appreciate them, though.  Amazing technology.  I pity George Washington.)

    • #7
  8. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Have a very merry Christmas, She.

    • #8
  9. SkipSul Member
    SkipSul
    @skipsul

    The ghosts of Christmas Past.  Memory Eternal.

    My father used a camcorder to record many of our Christmases growing up.  Someday I think I’ll be able to watch them.

    Decades ago my father used that camcorder to record several accumulated 8mm reels from my mother’s parents.  He and my grandfather just projected them on a screen with the camcorder pointing at that screen.  In the background, above the clatter of the projector, you can hear a slight running commentary as you see my mother and her cousins running around at several family Christmas parties / family reunions. 

    • #9
  10. ltpwfdcm allegedly Coolidge
    ltpwfdcm allegedly
    @ltpwfdcm

    My great-great-grandfather lived for a time in Birmingham from the 1840’s through the 1860’s as he worked his way up the ladder with the London & North-Western Railway. He started as a coach painter and eventually became the superintendent of the carriage works in Wolverton. He was at the Saltley Works before his final promotion to superintendant. By rough guess based on where he was supposed to have lived, he was about 3 miles as the crow flies from 104 Church Lane.

    What a great story, thanks for sharing!

    • #10
  11. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    ltpwfdcm allegedly (View Comment):

    My great-great-grandfather lived for a time in Birmingham from the 1840’s through the 1860’s as he worked his way up the ladder with the London & North-Western Railway. He started as a coach painter and eventually became the superintendent of the carriage works in Wolverton. He was at the Saltley Works before his final promotion to superintendant. By rough guess based on where he was supposed to have lived, he was about 3 miles as the crow flies from 104 Church Lane.

    What a great story, thanks for sharing!

    Wow! Small world.  If he was a CoE church-goer, I wonder if he went to St. Mary’s, Handsworth.

    I discovered, while reading one or another of his bios, that the author of the Jack Reacher novels, Lee Child, grew up only a couple of streets over from Church Lane.  He’s only a month younger than me, and I’ve wondered if I ever ran into him, at church, in the park, or perhaps in the shops on Grove Lane (shout-out to “Paddy Adams,” the bakery, and “Mrs. Haddleton” the greengrocer . . . ).

    • #11
  12. ltpwfdcm allegedly Coolidge
    ltpwfdcm allegedly
    @ltpwfdcm

    She (View Comment):

    ltpwfdcm allegedly (View Comment):

    My great-great-grandfather lived for a time in Birmingham from the 1840’s through the 1860’s as he worked his way up the ladder with the London & North-Western Railway. He started as a coach painter and eventually became the superintendent of the carriage works in Wolverton. He was at the Saltley Works before his final promotion to superintendant. By rough guess based on where he was supposed to have lived, he was about 3 miles as the crow flies from 104 Church Lane.

    What a great story, thanks for sharing!

    Wow! Small world. If he was a CoE church-goer, I wonder if he went to St. Mary’s, Handsworth.

    I discovered, while reading one or another of his bios, that the author of the Jack Reacher novels, Lee Child, grew up only a couple of streets over from Church Lane. He’s only a month younger than me, and I’ve wondered if I ever ran into him, at church, in the park, or perhaps in the shops on Grove Lane (shout-out to “Paddy Adams,” the bakery, and “Mrs. Haddleton” the greengrocer . . . ).

    I believe, for the one location they lived at in 1861, they were in St. Matthew’s parish. 

    • #12
  13. James Gawron Thatcher
    James Gawron
    @JamesGawron

    She,

    People don’t really understand the 50s do they? Everyone had managed to live through an event of titanic horror. Now just to have your own home and your own family seemed like a dream. Your father might not have seemed like a conquering hero because of his intelligence and sense of humor but he was.

    Your Dad was still alive and he had a wonderful wife and children. This would have been a dream of overwhelming goodness at that time.

    Merry Christmas,

    Jim 

    • #13
  14. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    James Gawron (View Comment):

    She,

    People don’t really understand the 50s do they? Everyone had managed to live through an event of titanic horror. Now just to have your own home and your own family seemed like a dream. Your father might not have seemed like a conquering hero because of his intelligence and sense of humor but he was.

    Your Dad was still alive and he had a wonderful wife and children. This would have been a dream of overwhelming goodness at that time.

    Merry Christmas,

    Jim

    I think you’re exactly right. People had survived the worst, and they were relieved and grateful. Nowadays, although individuals certainly have their struggles, by-and-large we’ve had it pretty easy for a while, and as a result, there’s a great deal of crankiness and feelings of entitlement on display. 

    Thanks for the kind words; they mean a lot coming from someone who actually knew us (Mum, Dad, and the three of us kids), starting only about a decade after dad took that little movie. 

    Happy Hanukkah!

    • #14
  15. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    Percival (View Comment):

    Have a very merry Christmas, She.

    Thanks, @percival, and you too. I learned earlier today that it’s the 116th anniversary of the US premiere of your eponymous opera, which opened December 24, 1903, at the Met.  Apparently this was against the wishes of the Wagner family, as the composer did not want the work performed outside Germany. Odd. Anyway, happy anniversary. You don’t look a day over 115.

    • #15
  16. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    She (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    Have a very merry Christmas, She.

    Thanks, @percival, and you too. I learned earlier today that it’s the 116th anniversary of the US premiere of your eponymous opera, which opened December 24, 1903, at the Met. Apparently this was against the wishes of the Wagner family, as the composer did not want the work performed outside Germany. Odd. Anyway, happy anniversary. You don’t look a day over 115.

    The family tried to maintain absolute control over all staged performances of “Parsifal” so that people would have to come to Bayreuth and buy their tickets for the festival. A New York court shot that down in 1903 and the production went ahead.

    • #16
  17. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    I watched the video first, then read the back story. It was good.

    • #17
  18. D. B. Robinson Member
    D. B. Robinson
    @DBRobinson

    “I hope I haven’t overdone it or worn out my welcome here with this self-indulgent post.”

    Actually, to have been allowed to share those beautiful memories, in words and images, was a wonderful gift. What an excellent way to begin this Christmas Day!

    • #18
  19. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    What a wonderful tale, and short film! This post is part of the December group writing theme: “Memories.” We still have several days open. Regift us by regaling us! Sign up soon, before the days are all taken!

    • #19

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