Not 30 miles south of Bismarck, the capital of North Dakota, just off of a blacktopped two lane Highway 6, sits an old farmhouse. Originally built in the early portion of the 1900s this particular farmhouse has sat on two separate foundations, has been added to, subtracted from, resided from its original wood frame to its now yellow fiberboard siding. Its bright coloring make it an easy mark to spot, even from down the highway.
Windswept and eroded green and brown hills gently rise from prairie grasses that in summer time wave under incessant breezes, but on this December day sit mute and dampened under grey skies and white snow. Fields that in other seasons bear the fruits of golden wheat and green timothy hay sit empty and brown; ragged scars that refuse to heal up, even under majestic white snowfall.
Various farmsteads sit nestled in clumps of trees, near natural irrigation ditches carved into the landscape by the glacial past. It’s the one with the yellow siding that is sought at this special time. Surrounding farms sport new tractors and grain silos, fancy ranch vehicles and state of the art buildings. This particular farmstead has slowly faded into the history of retirement, the empty chicken coop now but a memory of summer days, catching the fattest chicken to butcher for that night’s dinner. Sagging roof panels are the hallmark of the red pole barn and decayed wooden gates serve to pen in the nonexistent hogs. A few cattle still mill about but these past years the main source of income has been water pumped out of the nearby slough and paid for by the highway department as widening and resurfacing of Highway 6 turned in from little more than a glorified gravel road to a proper roadway.
Christmas Day, the ultimate day of gift giving and receiving, is all but upon the land. Presents shall abound and be strewn through mountains and tunnels of foiled wrapping paper, fancy cut ribbons and bags of bows collected for someone’s mother. 8:15 p.m. The countdown is T-36 hours until that magical moment arrives. For the moment, anticipation is the name of the game.
Slowly relatives have begun to arrive from all corners of the state, and the country. Vehicles of all shapes and sizes are stacked bumper to bumper, in the gravel driveway and dooryard of this tiny farm; one of the many that dot this prairie landscape. License plates tacked to these vehicles speak of roads traveled and miles added for these joyous if all too brief occasions. Cousins reunite and hug as if no time has passed at all since their last meeting. Aunts pinch the cheeks of their nieces and nephews, commenting on how big they have gotten since they last saw each other, even if it was only last Monday.
Smells of hot chocolate with mini marshmallows and spiced apple cider with cinnamon hang heavy in the humid air of the kitchen as the ham slowly roasts itself to golden perfection in the old white oven, not too far from the watchful eye of a dutiful kitchen taskmaster (Mom, Dad, Grandma, and Grandpa have all taken their turn in this capacity). Mashed potatoes and stuffing slowly hiss at each other from cast iron pans and pots, as if they too are savoring the moment when they will be drenched in a bath of homemade gravy, made from meat drippings and corn starch. Relish trays of baby carrots, celery, pickles and black olives (there are never enough black olives) sit in the center of the “Adult’s Table.” Spiced pumpkin plachendla, meant to be one of the many desserts, is slowly picked apart handful by handful by adults and kids alike who pass the table, earning a not so subtle HARUMPH of distaste from Grandma. Soon the ancient pie tin bears not much more than a few scraps of the homemade crust.
Dutifully, the “Kids’ Table” is set in the corner of the living room, adjacent to the dining room, across from the tree, but where parents can still keep an eye on the gleeful youngsters. Cousins of all age gather around this folding card table because there are no looks of disapproval when mashed potato mountains erupt with gravy lava all over the disposable plastic table cloth. The fine linen table cloths are reserved for the adults table.
Pies that were placed into that very same white oven, earlier in the day, are now slowly cooling on the back steps; old concrete steps that have a metal pipe handrail bolted to the house’s siding to provide traction when they become iced over. Tubs of frozen whipped cream sit next to the pies, sweating from the temperature difference.
Even though temperatures are dipping into the low 20s, the back door is cracked open, to keep the readout on the thermometer in this tiny, humid kitchen bearable, allowing the mournful whistle of a frigid December wind to mix and mash the savory aromas from said kitchen and deliver them to the waiting guests who are congregating and gabbing and laughing, in and around the living room.
New age tunes from the Trans Siberian Orchestra song “Ornament” are spilling from the speakers of a nearby CD player. This is a stark contrast to the traditional sounds of Bing Crosby that is usually played on a battered, wooden record player which takes up one entire corner of the tiny living room, competing for space on the far wall with an equally ancient and battered piano. Grandkids are growing up and suddenly they have a voice in what music will be heard this Christmas season, creating an out of sync, yet still harmonious rhythm. Christmas music, no matter what decade of origin, will always find a way to come together.
Adults mill about the living room, conversing in hushed tones so that the music can still be heard, while sipping cups of coffee that have been discreetly laced with shots of Kahlua. Others are in the basement, smoking unfiltered Lucky Strike cigarettes because it’s too cold to smoke outside, and Grandma won’t allow them to smoke upstairs where the kids are. Briefly someone attempts to play a harmonica in tune with Trans Siberian Orchestra, but as quickly as it starts, it ends. A haunting melody…
There is no formal dress code for this event, as turtle neck sweaters, faded blue jeans are a standard affair.
Children have pilfered, and continue to do so, handfuls of Grandma’s homemade caramels and have been stuffing their cheeks full of them, not minding the occasional bit of foil that gets stuck between their teeth. Tin foil wrappers become instant wads of valuable silver to be hidden by cousins and then later “discovered” by other cousins, who hoard those wads as if they were indeed precious metals.
Trails of air popped corn litter the scarred linoleum floor of the kitchen and the dining room as these very same children sneak handful after handful to the back bedroom where games of Chinese checkers, Scrabble and UNO are scattered between Lincoln log forts where GI Joes and Lego characters do battle.
Here in the back bedroom children can be as loud as they want because they are far enough away from the adults for anyone to mind. Down the hall, on the opposite end of the house, is Grandma and Grandpa’s bedroom. Identical twin beds with hand stitched identical orange comforters and a dresser with a mounted mirror are the only furnishings. Children don’t dare play in this room, but still they steal peeks into the room, admiring those orange comforters because of the intriguing way two simple blankets can so brightly light a tiny room.
Piles of soaked mittens, boots, caps, snow pants and coats are strewn about the basement; a damp reminder of the earlier afternoon’s outdoor activities. The pungent aroma of woolen socks drying out over heater vents rises up to do battle with the aromas from the kitchen. Occasionally an adult coming down the steps, to retrieve a jar of chokecherry jam will trip over an article of clothing, muttering under their breath, but there is no harm or ill intent. Children coming in from outside are never mindful where the wet clothes fall when there is a promise of hot chocolate with tiny marshmallows.
Sleds that went rocketing down the frozen slopes of Flintstone Hill, behind the house, are now stacked haphazardly by the pies, on those same frozen concrete steps. Multiple treks up the slope, through the shelter belt of trees that the grandkids have dubbed “The Enchanted Forest,” past the cow fence, and the frozen slough, to the very top where, in the summer time, children of all ages have dug into the soft, sand coated earth, building forts of all shapes and sizes, have left child and adult alike exhausted and out of breath; that is until the next rocket ride down the hill.
Through the mayhem a child wanders towards the centerpiece of the festivities this evening. A beautiful green tree stands in the corner of the living room, compliments and adorations are thrown in regards to the beautiful, if mismatched ornaments that decorate the tree in the truly haphazard way that only the small fingers of a dedicated child artist could master. Construction paper rings frame wallet sized school portraits of bucktoothed grandkids smiling their toothiest grin that only grandparents could love, threaded with colored yard hang from the short needles of the Douglas fir purchased from The Green Thumb; an ancient looking windowless greenhouse composed of soot grey cinder block that is a permanent fixture on North Interstate Avenue, in Bismarck. In all respects a relic left over from when Bismarck was an up and coming town and the north side was nothing more than prairie. Smells of freshly cut pine sawdust hang heavy in the cool air as prospective buyers wind up and down aisles, stepping over piles of orange bailing twine and green metal tree stands, looking for that one perfect tree, ready to haggle over price with all the enthusiasm of a Middle Eastern market dweller. Each year alternates between long needle and short needle trees, just to make sure everyone was happy.
Colored glass globes with wire hooks that always seem to disappear between holidays mingle with toy soldier and locomotive decorations purchased from the Hallmark store in Kirkwood Mall, on South 3rd. Ancient, fat bulbs with their colored paint chipping off from decades of stringing that were most surely a fire hazard looped through the sagging branches of the fir, sagging under the weight of decades’ worth of ornaments, marking milestones gone long out of memory. Topped with a ragged silver star that should light up, but often doesn’t due to its age, the tree has become the iconic celebratory decoration of the season. No longer a simple tree, but a beacon for eyes young and old alike, drawing gazes and the occasional guess as to what bounty lay wrapped in bright paper and perfect bows and ribbons.
Hand created and decorated stockings frame the tree in a postcard, picturesque setting. Names stitched into the fabric ensure no one will awake confused as to what trinkets Santa has provided for whom. Tacked to the sun faded wallpaper with colored pushpins they are no more matched than the ornaments.
Having been nudged away and silently shushed from asking about presents on several previous occasions the child peers out the weather frosted windows. For just a moment winter’s howling wind dies down and there is a break in the flying snowflakes; the light of one lone star shines down to light the face of the child.
He can see the chicken coop with the tattered hexagonal wire fencing, across the snow covered gravel driveway, the horse barn with the hayloft that is too dangerous to climb up to anymore, and abandoned pig shed. The minimal traffic of the highway seems so far away; insubstantial.
With just the briefest moment of courage, and hope in the child’s heart, he steals his father’s attention, for just an instant. In that instant he asks, with longing in his eyes, could he open just one present? Just this once? Just a little bit early? There are no other kids around and no one would even notice.
Dressed in faded work jeans and a flannel shirt, the father smiles down at the child, his unshaven face bearing a full day’s bearded stubble with years of sun wrinkles and creases at the corners of his lips from laughing, reassuring him that it will only be a little while longer before the presents are unwrapped. They aren’t going anywhere. In the back of his mind, the father briefly thinks about giving in and letting the young child open a small gift. But, that wouldn’t be fair to everyone else, would it?
With the tiniest of sighs the child silently walks away. Not in anger, but with longing. For in that instant when all the world is right; lit in the glow of a turned down lamp in the opposite corner and the electric hues of the bright bulbs on the tree that have to be unplugged at night lest they catch the dried branches of the fir on fire. Longing for that instant when it’s OK, for just for a moment, to spill your cider on the living room rug because the mounds of wrapping paper will hide the mess and when it dries, it will be just one more stain in a long history on that ancient orange shag, indistinguishable from previous markings. Longing for that instant when it will be OK to stay up past bedtime because there is no school tomorrow and the excitement of the presents will keep him awake, anyway.
What the child doesn’t know, as his tiny hands are grasping at the fingers of his father’s rough hand is that there was one present that was already opened. The father chokes back his own sigh as he realizes he was given the present of such a beautiful wife, and such wonderful children. Beautiful friends and generous and loving family grace his world in a way that cannot be measured by any amount of money or wealth. And while it is not always apparent to those around him, the father would give all that he had to live in that one instant for all of eternity. Others cannot see or feel the joy in the father’s heart as he grips his son’s tiny hand, so smooth, not yet calloused by work and the world around him.
The father has been given a present that only the wisdom of time can open. And while it’s sometimes time consuming and often bitter to learn how to properly untie that knot on the bow of that special present it’s a skill that can only be mastered through trial and error, lest the beauty of the gift be tarnished through the rushing and careless act of negligence.
And so while the snow swirls down, around and amid the cold currents of December air, the house with the orange shag carpet, hand crocheted sofa covers and strings of fat, colored bulbs from the 1960s adorning the tree and windows, lit by the warm orange glow of an arc sodium light, standing watch over the entire yard; that house has become the center of all that is right and good in the world.
The father watches his son wander through the mix of people, silently grateful, tears brimming in his eyes, as he takes a sip of his coffee. No toy or bauble or scarf or gizmo from a magazine could compare to this moment. The father is not embarrassed by the tear on his cheek.
© 2013 p.hill