Here is a little Christmas story I wrote in 2001, the year that Wilmington Trust decided I was too old for them anymore and forced me into retirement. It is, as Hollywood often puts it, based on actual events. (Photo by the author.)
ALONG THE CLIMBING WAY
Larry Eugene Meredith
Grew up on a farm and learned to read weather early. Little turn of breeze and a good season can go south on vacation and leave you high and dry or two fronts will bump up against one another like long lost lovers and flood the Spring seed out of the furrows into a river that a month before was a mud hole sucking the soil dry. Freezes can pop up early and kill the orchard or the heat can grasp a hold of late summer to wither the tomatoes and shrivel the corn. You weather it out with a bank note and a church prayer till the next season comes with its own surprises.
Life follows it own seasons of drought and plenty and we hit a blizzard of want in the autumn of ’88. We is Charle Raye and me. I married Charle out of high school at eighteen just March mad in love with the boy, and there wasn’t any dissuading us. It weren’t any shotgun wedding. We was ten years into our marriage ‘fore I had a first kid in the oven. That was the girl, Amy Sue. We had Charle Junior two years afterward, and then no more in the chute. By Thanksgiving ’88 the girl had turned ten and the boy was on the edge of eight.
Charle had stayed on his dad’s farm first three years we was hitched, but at twenty-one he got his call up greetings from Uncle Sam and hauled off to the Army for two years. It was the concluding years of Vietnam and didn’t seem much purpose for the boys they called those years, ‘cept to be cannon fodder and go die in a losing cause, but Charle had a lot of patriotism flowing through his blood and never much complained, though I did a bunch of praying the whole time.
Was no trick for me to step over and take up his chores on the farm. Milking and plowing were things I’d done since I was eight. It was a hard hitch for us both, I reckon, but the farming kept me dog tired ev’ry day and I slept through most of the loneliness while Charle sat up in a barracks in Saigon for the last year of his hitch, till his outfit was evacuated out and that sad war came to a end.
When he come home he had no more taste for the farm life. In a couple months he had his Teamsters’ button and started hauling steel up the turnpike; tough life but good money for a twenty-something, and though the overnighters left me lonely much the week, we made it up pretty hot and heavy over those weekends.
Trucking got us right free of our farm roots. In a few years we was able to pick up an old bungalow out on Route 23 up in northern Chester County, just south of Pottstown. Guess the soil swam pretty thick in my blood, though, cause in no time I planted my own truck garden up back of the house and sold the produce from a little stand along the road. Wasn’t but summer money and never ‘mounted to much, still it gave me my own means and staying home never made me feel dependent on Charle, and he never minded either.
I got restless after a couple of winters, him on the road and me only looking after myself for meals and cleanup ‘fore the kids come ‘long. Empty time piled up in my mind like dust, and after a couple of seasons of it, I invested some of my produce money in smalltime franchising and started making the rounds through the cold dead months burping Tupperware at demonstration parties and banking another lightweight income. Went through almost two decade this a way without so much a fluff-cloud in our sky, but I never forgot the lessons of the farming life, so when the storm came I wasn’t taken by surprise. It was long overdue by my mind.
Didn’t right quite see it coming, though. Nineteen eighty-seven had been a banner year. Steel was shipping at double time and Charle was picking up extra runs and fat overtime. It left me high and dry lot of weekends, but it let him pay off his own truck and soon after the green sheet came from the bank he comes up behind and starts nuzzling at my ear.
“Been thinkin’, Bess?”
“How’d you take it if I turned gypsy. Petey Lentz done it last fall an’ he tells me he could hook me up with some guys to run wide-loads and hazmat on a regular basis.”
He kissed my neck. “You done any that?” I asked.
“I’ve done my share of wide-load, but I’d have to qualify for a hazmat license.”
“This get you home more often?”
“Okay, I’d probably get sick of seeing your face if it did.”
He laughed and grabbed a hold a me and we was wrestling around and Charle going independent was a settled point.
Charle figured it would take him a year to pick up the hazmat license and set up contracts to haul, but the whole plan got snatched from him in ’88 when the shipper went under and he was left without a sure paycheck. Never know in this world where the hurricane’s stirring. That year the hurricane was Japan dumping steel in the Midwest and it spread a deadly virus of cheap prices that weakened and killed one big steel works after another, like flicking fleas off a drowsy hound.
Didn’t seem too bad for a while. Charle build rail sides on the flat bed. He let the kid’s stand up on the bed and hand him the tools. Being away as much as he was, he did what he could to get close to the kids from birth upward when he was home. He got jobs hauling Tomatoes out a Lancaster county to the ketchup factories on the west side of the state over the summer, and with school out, he even hauled the kids along a couple times, letting them have the bunk and he slept across the seats. When autumn come with the crops harvested and the fields empty, Charle couldn’t get any loads of nothing but air and pretty soon he’s just sitting home or puttering on the truck.
Course end of summer was the end of my little roadside stand and my truck garden, too. I was just left with the Tupperware parties and what orders I could ring out of that. Problem being there never was enough to call that a living. Just a bit of mad money really, maybe enough to buy us a night on the town occasionally or get the kids new shoes come a school year. Now it was being stretched to keep some soup and bread in the panty. Worse to it was my income was dropping in that business for much the same reason we was needing it so bad. Most my customer list were fellow highway cowboys or assembly line men from the steel fabrication mills up in Pottstown. Fabricators were moving out to the Midwest to where the Japanese shipments was landing, cutting the hauling cost down, and a lot of our friends were cast off in the same leaky boat as us.
Well, that boat hit a shoal ‘bout Thanksgiving. I’d been snitching away the dinner makings for weeks and we had a whoop and holler Thanksgiving making pretend that we had things to be thankful for and digging out the Christmas music.
Charle and I done the dishes and was sitting on the sofa when Amy Sue, with Charle Junior in tow, plopped an old photo album on my lap opened up on a faded black ‘n’ white photo.
“Who’s those people?” she asked.
“The little girl’s your grandma and the man was her daddy.”
“Why’s their tree outside?” asked Charle.
I looked close at the picture. In the distance I seen the ragged edge of the corncrib and a run of rail fence along the cow pasture. Most the background was a blur of white making it hard telling sky from ground snow. My ma and grandpa stood next to a little tree trimmed in popcorn strings, kibble balls and suet. A tinfoil star was on the tippy top.
“That’s the bird tree,” I said. “Every Christmas eve they use a go up a bit from the farm yard and decorate a tree with treats for the winter birds.” Ma had done the same for a time when I was young, but then it got forgot about and I hadn’t given it any mind since I was a teenager.
“You kids wanna go see Santa Claus tomorrow?” Charle asked.
“Yeah, yeah”, they shouted.
“Then you scoot yourself off to bed now and I’ll take you into town in the mornin’”
They both ran off to bed and I closed the album and set it on the coffee table.
Charle still held hopes for Christmas. Counting out our dwindling savings at the bank he figured we could get the kids a few descent gifts if he could get food stamps to supplement our grocery needs for a few months. He went into the government office that Monday to make application, but came home empty of pocket and cursing Uncle Sam down to Blue River and back.
“Gave me this here long paper of questions to answer. Asked for things like ‘own a home’ and ‘list vehicles’. Put down the old Ford and the Brockway and turned it in. Then this here woman gives it a look over and starts askin’ me stuff.
“ ‘You own this truck,’ she asked.
“ ‘Yes m’am,’ I said.
“ ‘You’ll have to sell the truck.’
“ ‘Sorry, m'am, what? Sell my truck?’ I says.
“ ‘You have a major asset here, sir. You can sell the truck and live on that. That runs out, come back and we can help.’
“That’s government backward logic for you. Sell off your livelihood ‘till you’re dirt poor rather than give you a bridge over a gully to ground you can plow.”
Men like Charle don’t cry in the night. Those tears were there though. I could see them there behind his eyes, but he sucked them in and swallowed. I knew what he was thinking. How we gonna explain a Christmas with no Santa to the kids. One thing having kids, you puts your energy in worrying ‘bout their world and don’t never have time to feel sorry for yourself.
“I’ll take care of Christmas, babe,” I told him, holding his hand, knowing he didn’t know why I said such a thing. He nodded anyway. I smiled and patted his hand, but truth be told, I didn’t have no idear what I could do.
I walked away and stared out the window so he didn’t see the doubt on my face. Clouds had been thick’ning all days and now I seen the wind was kicking up a fuss.
I thought ‘bout the first year Charle started driving truck and we had moved off his dad’s farm and got an apartment over a candy store in downtown Pottstown. Only year of my life I was a city girl. Most the people I met there had been townies all their born days and you don’t learn much from studying pavement all your youth as you do scrabbling crops out of dirt. Those neighbors got the Fogtown blues if a purple cloud drifted across the sun. I knew that old dark cloud might be the drink a good crop needed to sprout. This cloud I saw this a night was the start of a nor’easter ready to drop a ton of snow across the county and close most the roads out our way. That was our crop cloud for a bit.
It didn’t make for a big pot of pennies, but Charle was able to hitch up a plow to the tractor of his truck and pick up enough county road clearing money to keep the bill collectors at bay and keep some eats on the stove. Still didn’t stretch much toward the kind of Christmas your kids expect. There were no fat for presents and Christmas’ trimming once you paid off the electric company and the mortgage banker. And there weren’t some endless chain of snow-drifted roads to run up the bank account into January either. By Christmas week we was back to feeling behind sofa cushions for enough change to assure a Christmas turkey.
On the day before Christmas Eve I was cleaning up the living room. I picked up the photo album still on the coffee table to take back to the hall closet. When I lifted it a loose photo slipped free and floated to the floor. I picked it up and it was another old sepia colored photo of my grandparents and mother when she was a child. My mother sat at the feet of her parents, who sat in rockers in the old farmhouse parlor. A spate of toys lined the floor at the foot of the Christmas tree, a fluffy-haired rag doll, an ancient looking toy fire truck, a little corral of wooden farm animals and a miniature barn. My grandfather had handmade them all.
I sat down and found the page where the photo belonged, then I flipped through the book getting idears.
Next hour I’m up in the attic moving boxes here and about, searching through trunks and long ignored cartons. I knew the things was up there some place, but hadn’t given them a thought in years, but it hit that the answer to my promise to Charle was tucked away someplace under the dust and spider webs.
Christmas eve came a crisp, clear evening and a sky of stars that sparkled like tinsel on black felt. Been a full moon day before and you still had it ninety-seven percent full face and it sparkled across the icicles on the eves and gave the snow a blue hue. Anybody out along the road that night would a said they seen a bunch of crazies hiking up the hill an hour ‘fore midnight carrying a picnic basket and toting a sled piled high with blankets and a grocery bag.
We parked ourselves at the peak and then wrapped the kids up in blankets. I pulled the contents outta the grocery bag and Charle and I set to trimming a little pine that grew along the hill ridge. We hung garlands of strung popcorn and balls of suet. Then we sat down on the blankets and had a picnic supper of cold chicken, pickled eggs and potato salad and waited the midnight hour and the opening minutes of Christmas. Felt like some ancient shepherd tending my sheep; felt like the glittering stars were those old hosts of angels.
“You lookin’ for Santa?” asked Amy Sue.
“Looking at the angels,” I said, and she give me a tilted head look and a puzzled eyebrow. “But you can look for Santa. I bets you we get home Santa’ll already been there.”
Before we had left the house on this madness I had snuck down the box I’d found up the attic and arranged the corral of animals and the wooden barn, the fire truck and the other treasured toys ‘bout the tree.
At midnight, we stood on the hill before our little wild Christmas tree singing “Once Upon a Midnight Clear” and a gazing across the valley at the holiday lights on farm roof and post. You could see the colors spread out for miles, a mix of green and blue and red and yellow and purple, some a blaze all red and some a glowing a moody blue.
Don’t have much more to say. Ain’t gonna tell you that was the best Christmas we ever had. Had better ones before and better ones since, just like those changes of weather, storms and sunshine, bright days and blue nights and all of life as life is. Did revive a family tradition, though. Ev’ry year after, we’d all hike up the hill on Christmas Eve and decorate that tree with treats for the winter birds and the squirrels.
Amy Sue’s off to college in Philadelphia and Charle Junior’s out of high school and got a job as a bag boy in the Pottstown Super Fresh. We weather the seasons come what may and Charle and I still carry on the tradition, and those old toys are stored back up in the attic again for the next generation. Like next month’s forecast, you never know, so rest your self a bit and hear the angels sing.
O ye, beneath life's crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing;
O rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing!
--It Came Upon a Midnight Clear