A Christmas Tale

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Nellie’s cookie tin . . . .

As Christmas and a new year approach, I become sentimental about seasons past and loved ones who have made life a little richer.  Recent musings about Christmas on Dry Creek led me to a time when I was the chosen child for a special mission.  I wasn’t in school yet and hung around the kitchen as my mother made an amazing array of cookies, fudge and pies.  My interest in all of this wasn’t culinary so much as waiting to lick a spoon or mixing bowl when she finished with it.

After many days of preparation, her Christmas goods were carefully wrapped in boxes and tins and placed in a deep shelf over the stairwell leading down to the basement.  In those days a small kitchen window looked out over the shelf and beyond to a summer porch.  It was cold on the porch and her treasure would be well preserved, if not literally frozen by the minus 30-degree temperatures that commonly occurred in Wyoming winters in the forties and fifties.

Getting to this temporary winter storage took a bit of daring.  The stairwell was a yawning chasm of steep concrete steps and if you slipped on the top stair or could not pull yourself onto the shelf, down you went.  I can vividly recall the fear and daring involved because as I got older, my brother and I were frequent visitors to the shelf, sneaking some pre-Christmas goodies and taking care not to disturb the wrapping so Mom could not observe through the little window what was going on.  But I digress.

As Christmas Day approached, my mother went into overdrive.  After delivering my older siblings to school in town, she began dragging her storage containers of baked goods to the dining room table.  She made a selection, wrapped everything in waxed paper, and filled a stack of cardboard boxes.  What a feast was laid out before my eyes!  Peanut brittle and red and green popcorn balls; penoche, peanut butter, chocolate, divinity and million dollar fudge; chocolate and vanilla pinwheels, peanut butter crisscrosses, mincemeat-filled and sugar cookies cut into bells, reindeer and Christmas tree shapes; pumpkin, mince and apple pies; and fruit cakes.  When she had her boxes filled she began carrying them out to the car, a black 1942 Chevy four-door sedan.

She bundled me in warm clothes and I don’t recall her saying where we were going.  As we bounced along on frozen rutted roads, I held my breath as she plowed through snow drifts, hard and crusted from the wind.  The car heater was just above the floor on the passenger side and the fan was rattling and wheezing on high, blowing warm air over me.  Frost melted on the car window, making it hard to see outside and I remember being too warm in all my winter clothes.  That would soon change.

Our first stop was in Antelope Basin just a few miles north and west of our house.  We pulled up to an old sheep wagon surrounded by a few rustic outbuildings which was the home of the Taylor brothers, Roy and John.  Two old bachelor sheep men who lived alone were at the top of Mother’s list to share her Christmas bounty with and as I surveyed the desolate scene, it sure looked like they could use a little cheer.  Mom carried the box of treats, and we stumbled through the snow to the steps to the sheep wagon.  I gave a knock on the door and then we waited while their herding dogs barked and raised a ruckus.  Finally, the fierce weathered face of Roy appeared at the door.  He smoked a little pipe and it was clenched in a notch in his lower teeth which were either worn or chipped away.  He had a hunch back which lowered his face down and forward a bit and he seemed quite close as I whispered “Merry Christmas” and bolted for the car.

The heater felt good as we headed to our next destination, which turned out to be another bachelor. Clyde Williams lived in a log house on a homestead just east of Dry Creek.  He had two maiden sisters, Maude and Gladys, who some years later moved to town.  He was always available to help us with the round-up and to brand calves in the spring and Mom invited him to dinner on occasion.  He praised her cooking and could lay away more mashed potatoes and gravy than anyone I had ever seen.  He was balding with tufts of white hair, red-faced, and wore wire spectacles that made him look just like how I imagined Santa Claus to be.  As we made our way to his cabin, I was relieved to see his ornery rooster was cooped up with the chickens and would not pose a threat.  Clyde was delighted to receive Mother’s annual Christmas box and handed me a little Snickers candy bar as his way of saying thanks.  It was old and hard as a brick but I didn’t mind as I knew I would get lots of sweets at home.

The trip into Kaycee was a little easier as we were on paved road–old U.S. 87 in those days.  We left a box with my great aunt Alice, who lived alone in a house next to my grandparent’s general store.  Her place was stacked so high with books, magazines, boxes and collectibles that she could barely make a path to the porch to greet us.  We made a couple more stops in town and I don’t recall who the people were.  Then we drove up Barnum Road to leave a box with Elmer Peters who lived in a dugout with a wooden camper shell for a roof.  Carved out of an embankment, Elmer’s abode wasn’t tall enough to stand in but he had a little wood stove that kept him from freezing.  He liked to joke that he did not believe in laying in too much wood–he might die and someone else would get to burn it!  Elmer worked for Dad off and on through the years as a hired hand and would often stay in our bunkhouse.  He taught us how to play Muggins, a card game that I loved.  When you had a Muggins you could yell, raise your arm and slap down your cards in a victorious assault.  I have tried to find someone who remembers how to play, but it seems to have been erased from all our memories.  One winter evening when Mom and Dad were away at the neighbor’s house for a Christmas party, we ganged up on Elmer and dressed him in our mother’s little red straw hat, high heels and a dress over his jeans and flannel shirt.  He had a purse over his arm and pranced around our living room, drawing hoots of laughter from us.  I don’t think our mother was thrilled when she learned what we had done with her finery.

As Christmas draws near I imagine somewhere in Heaven our mother is busy baking treats for all the bachelors, loners and misfits who made it through the pearly gates.

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