When I was a boy, I loved Christmas at my Grandfather’s house. We were living in Las Vegas, Nevada at the time while my father was trying to establish an educational television system in that state. But my grandparents on my father’s side, whom I knew as Grampa Sam and Nanny, lived in their home of many year in the rural community of Beaver, Utah. My brother, Gerry, and I would pile into the back of my father’s Pontiac Grand Prix and tear off down the highway north-east out of Las Vegas with my mother and father in the front seats. That Grand Prix was a muscle car with sleek lines and far more engine than was necessary. It was a time before seat belts were required by anyone, including my parents — and my brother and I would gambol about the back seat like unrestrained puppies as my father sought out the boundaries of the ‘Safe and Prudent’ speed limit signs that flew past on our way to Christmas.
The interstate system of divided highways was barely underway then and we very quickly ran out of that luxury and continued on — at a slight reduction in speed — across the desert on two-lane highway. Eventually we climbed over the snowy and somewhat trecherous summit west of St. George, Utah, dropped back down into the valley, drove the length of the main street in town and made the long curve northward, passing through the length of every town along the way. Mainstreet WAS the highway back then. Little towns could flurish off of the traffic that moved through them. These towns would dry up and wither years later when they were passed up by the interstate, but back then they were bright with tourist commerce and neon.
Climbing up out of the desert we would hit serious snow squalls as we became a moving lesson in differing climates. The heavy snowfall in the headlights of the Pontiac flew past the windshield. My mother was concerned but I was enchanted: it reminded me of the stars going past the view screen of the Starship Enterprise on ‘Star Trek’ — a show regularly watched at my house. I perched myself on the center arm-rest of the back seat and imagined myself as Captain Kirk, my parents bucket seats in front of my perfecting the illusion as the snow-stars streamed past on our voyage to the distant parts of galactic Utah.
Whenever we arrived at my grandparents home, my Grandma Nan would have something on the stove for us — a simmering pot of navy beans perhaps and fresh baked bread to go with it. My grandfather’s white hair would be slicked back from his forehead and his smile would beam at us.
My brother and I would often draw the ‘back bedroom’ in the house. Grampa’s home was originally built by early pioneer settlers and the main part was constructed out of black rock stone that my brother and I were convinced was now less that three feet thick. The back bedroom was something of an archetectural aberation: it had two entry doors but both of them came from other bedrooms. You could only leave this room by going through someone elses bedroom. It also had the unique quality of having no heating mechanism whatsoever. We were certain that you could hang meat in that room and the only danger would be the meat freezing solid. The double-bed in that room was a four-poster with a soft matress and a most seriously thick pile of blankets and comforters that was unquestionably a full foot thick to ward of the arctic conditions of the room. Hot water bottles were a required skill for survival.
My brother and I loved that bed because my Grampa Sam would toss us into it with such enormous arcs that gravity was completely defied for gloriously long periods of time. Gerry and I would each take turns being launched into the air, squeeling with each toss as we flew, actually flew. We were bedroom astronauts giggling into our matress splashdown, only to scamper out of the bed once more and beg, oh, please, for just one more time.
Morning would be cold, but my brother and I had a system. We would turn up the heat first thing on the thermostat in the small hallway next to the bathroom and then rush back into the living room where there was the warmest heat register in the entire house underneat the book case. We would both get out our books, plant our feet on that forced-air vent and wait for the warmth to blow between our toes.
There were preparations to be made for the Christmas to be properly celebrated. We had to borrow my Grampa’s International Harvestor Scout and drive up into the mountains to hunt down the family Christmas Tree. My father would tell us scary stories about the ‘Indian Creek Monster’ that lived up in those woods — but we always managed to escape with both the tree and our lives.
“Evergreen,” my father would say. “It’s a symbol that because Christ was born, we will live forever.”
Then in the afternoon, my father would tie ropes out the back of that same four-wheel-drive scout and attach them to the front of our flexible flyer sleighs. The object here was a game from his youth where he would drive through the snow-packed streets of Beaver with my brother and I clinging to the sleighs for our lives as he dragged us around the corners of the town.
Again, this was a time without seat-belts … let alone air bags.
On Christmas Eve the family in town would all gather together at my Grandparent’s home for a feast. Then we would have our Family Christmas Program. Much of the previous day had been spent by my brother and I along with our local cousins creating a puppet show of ‘The Littlest Angel.’ Despite a few production issues with getting everyone behind the card table and the angel’s molded play-dough head falling off twice inside the cardboard box that was our stage, the applause and enjoyment of the family was enthusiastic. My uncle Gordon played his accordion, my father read a Christmas poem and many songs were sung.
Then my brother and I were thrown across the sky of that back bedroom again by my laughing Grandfather and, hot water bottles at our feet, we waited for the interminable night to end so that Christmas would come.
Looking back, I remember very few of those presents that I got on those Christmas mornings. What I do remember is the warmth of my family home, the laughter around my Nanny’s kitchen table and the loved that warmed us on those cold winter nights. They all shine from the Polaroid pictures and live in my mind.
My beloved grandparents are now gone… and my brother joined them too soon. Yet now I look on the Christmas tree and know that they will always be mine and that I will always belong to them.