My Hometown Series #6 — Lights! Memories of Christmas

My family did not have a lot of money growing up. Being raised by a single mom who drove to Dallas and back every day for work meant not having a lot of the things that some of my friends had. But, for the life of me, I cannot remember a Christmas during my childhood when I didn’t receive most, if not all, of the things I asked for. The funny thing is, all these years later, the memories I have of Christmas time in our house bring with them very few of those gifts. No, my memories of Christmas time during my childhood in Grand Saline aren’t full of toys, games, bikes, and clothes. My Christmas memories are full of love, laughter, and lights!

For the first few years after we moved in with my grandmother, we didn’t have a big Christmas tree. I remember going with my mom and sister to K-Mart in Tyler and buying a 4-foot artificial tree that sat on my grandmother’s antique Duncan Fife table in front of the living room window. We decorated it with all of the ornaments which had been collected over the years–handmade construction paper gingerbread men with our names and the year written in crayon on the back; silver manger scenes with our names and the year engraved on the bottom; and the many special ornaments given as gifts which meant (and still mean) far more than money could ever buy. Besides all of the ornaments, tinsel, and tree-toppers, one thing that we kept adding each year, probably at my insistence, was lights. I loved–okay, I still love–Christmas lights, and by the time we quit using that little 4-foot tree a few years later, the lights we strung around it each year was a kaleidoscopic cacophony of color, flashing, blinking, and twinkling that would make the Las Vegas strip green with envy! Eventually, we started buying bigger trees and opting for uniformity of color and opting out of flashing, blinking, and twinkling. But, the Ghost of Christmas Lights Past made its way from the living room to the front porch and the hedges.

As we retired the old lights from their indoor duties and moved them outdoors, I found new ways each year to drape them over anything that would stand still. I wound them around the posts onimg_2054 the front porch. I strung them through the handrails beside the porch steps. I wove them between the camellia bush and that other big bush that, to this day, I have no idea what it was. Then I would piece together an intricate tapestry of extension cords and plug them together ending with one plugged into the outlet just inside the front door. It was only years later that the inherent danger present in running that many string of light using 4 or 5 extension cords plugged together in one 50-year-old electrical outlet dawned on me. Fortunately, I never burned anything down, and when I plugged them all in, the results were, to me at least, magical. As the sun went down each evening between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, that old house came alive with light and color and the vibrance that is Christmas. But, back then, that was not at all uncommon. Back then, it seemed as if the whole town came alive at Christmas time.

Our house sat on High Street at its intersection with Florence Street. We were just about halfway between the hospital on Waldrip and the old elementary school on Oleander. If you stood at the end of our driveway, you could see about a half mile east, west, or south, and in those days, doing so at Christmas time promised enchanting views. It was easier to count the houses around us that didn’t have lights than those that did. Colored and clear; twinkling and steady; rooftops and treetops and driveways and hedgerows were all aglow. Mr. and Mrs. Darby, Mr. and Mrs. Stuart, Mr. and Mrs. Anderson always lit their homes during Christmas, as did almost all of the others whose names I’ve long since forgotten. In later years, before I graduated high school, the Chamber of Commerce began selling luminaries, which lined the homes and churches on Main Street from Highway 80 all the way to High Street, and beyond. Topping the hill just north of the salt mine on Highway 110 revealed the little downtown area bejeweled in white Christmas lights on top of every building, and what looked like thousands of luminaries stretching for miles out of sight on Main Street. I can still see it in my mind’s eye and it makes me smile.

img_2057As the years went on and as people passed away, and as families moved away, most of those lights went out. There were still a few folks who kept up the tradition, and although most of the buildings stood empty, the city did still light the downtown area. But, it just wasn’t the same. It didn’t seem as alive or magical as I remembered growing up. It seemed as though as the town spirit died, the Christmas Spirit died, too. During the years that I lived away from Grand Saline, I would come back from time to time during Christmas and be filled with disappointment at what had been lost. Fortunately, though, I think the tide may have turned. I made a couple of trips into Grand Saline this year at Christmas and, to my pleasant surprise, I saw a lot more of that spirit coming back. There were a number of homes lit up for Christmas–some with simple displays, and others with elaborate and even choreographed productions. As I turned off of Highway 17 onto 110 at the top of that hill, I could see some of that light from my memory. Oh, to be sure, it wasn’t what it used to be, but it was light and it made me smile.

I don’t really know what it is about Christmas lights that makes me so happy. Of all the wonderful traditions that the season brings with it, light seems to be the best metaphor for what it is all about–the Light of the World coming to dwell among us, even in our most desperate state. I hope I never know a time when I don’t see those lights each year during Christmas. I hope that as I grow older, those lights in my memory grow brighter because they remind me of a time and of a place and of people who mean a great deal to me still. They remind me of a time when life was simple and when Christmas time was magical and bright and full of hope–as it always should be.

My Hometown Series #4 – Fireflies

Last night I was driving along County Line Road between Grand Saline and Fruitvale. As I drove through the low-lying area at the bottom of “thrill hill,” under the canopy of trees whose branches extend across the entire span of the old oil top road, and mingle with their cousins on the opposite side, and filter out most of the last rays of the evening sun, creating a premature twilight, I saw a sight I hadn’t seen since I was a boy—fireflies—lightning bugs as we used to call them. There were hundreds of them twinkling along the roadside like a miniature meteor shower suspended just at eye level. I slowed to a stop and watched for a moment as they performed their magical choreography timed perfectly to the symphony of humming cicadas and chirping toads augmented from time to time by the tympanic obbligato croak of a bull frog nearby. I quietly watched and listened, careful not to let my presence interrupt their rhythm and harmony, and I was drawn back to my childhood, and to a time before the rush of reality pushed these special moments out of reach.

My family moved to Grand Saline when I was nine years old. It was the summer between my third and fourth grade years in school. When we first arrived we moved in with my great-grandmother and her sister, my great-great aunt. Their small bungalow-style house at the intersection of Florence and High Streets had been my mother’s childhood home as well. It was nothing grand; in fact, when it was built in the early 1900’s it served as the servants’ quarters for a large home next door. That house, a mansion by all accounts, had long since come down, but my family home was still there. The house had two large porches. The front porch was covered and had a brick flower box on the side where my grandmother once grown flowers, but age and years of disrepair made growing anything more than weeds a nearly impossible task. One Halloween, my sister and I managed to accidentally grow pumpkin vine there when the seeds and innards of our Jack-O-Lanterns were swept into it when we cleaned the porch. But, most of the time its single function was to provide a desert landscape where my plastic army men fought the WWII North African campaign all over again.

During that first summer, and most of the summers we lived there, we would sit on the porch in the late afternoon and evening. Back in those days we didn’t have computers or iPads or smartphones. Back then we didn’t even have cable TV, so our entertainment was whatever make-believe we could come up with beneath the shade of the dozens of towering oak trees in our front yard. Those summer evenings were spent playing ball or Cowboys and Indians or swinging on the swing set or exploring the mystical worlds we conjured up while my family sat and talked about the day’s events and enjoyed the cool of the evening. Sometimes friends of my grandmother and aunt’s would stop by unexpectedly, and my grandmother would pull me away to go get an extra chair from the kitchen so that they would have a place to sit. I especially enjoyed visits from Mrs. Starkey, a close family friend and former teacher, who would walk down from her house just a few doors away. Mrs. Starkey had traveled all over the world and I loved hearing her tell about those trips to Paris, or Rome, or cruises to the Caribbean Islands. It was a much simpler time and the things we did for fun were much simpler, too.

Each night, as the sun sank lower on the horizon, the fireflies would take flight. My sister and I would run all over the yard trying, mostly in vain, to catch one with the mason jars my grandmother gave us. Every once in a great while one or both of us would get lucky and snag one of the enchanting insects and quickly twist the lid on the jar as tight as we could. Then my grandmother would take her old ice pick and punch a few holes in the lid to provide air. Then we would wait….and wait….and wait for our captives to perform in their tiny transparent dungeon just as they had in the freedom of the open air. If we were lucky they would blink once or twice more before they died. I remember the overwhelming disappointment when my new “pet” didn’t come through like I’d hoped. But, somehow I overcame the loss, and the next night my sister and I would be in the front yard on the hunt once again.

It always amazes me that something as simple seeing some flying insects on the side of the road can cause such a flood of memories, but it did. Those memories of my childhood in Grand Saline were memories of a time when my world and the people in it were very different than they are today. Besides the insect stalking adventures in the front yard, seeing those fireflies brought back memories of riding my bike down High Street past the Darby’s, the Stewart’s, the Anderson’s and stopping to play on the playground at the Old Elementary School; then on past the Mayfield’s and the Jarvis’s to the Old Gym where kids would gather to play football or baseball on the big field. The early dying light reminded me of autumn when the days got shorter and cooler and Friday nights meant heading up to Persons Stadium to watch the high school football games. I remembered Christmas time when nearly every house on our street was covered in lights, and springtime when we would sit on the porch and watch thunderstorms roll in. I was reminded of all the things that made my childhood good and happy.

I’m not sure where all that time went. It seems like just yesterday, but it wasn’t. That was 35 years ago now and I’m a different person. We’re all different people. I suppose change is inevitable, but seeing those little “lightning bugs” last night sure made me long for the way things were back in the day when catching one of them was a moment of wild excitement.