The Year Christmas Almost Wasn’t
Jennifer Hill Ertmer
When I was a child, back in the olden days of the 1950’s, Christmas always meant that my uncle who lived down in Monroeville, PA, his wife and their five children and my uncle who lived in Hagerstown, MD, his wife and their daughter, would be here for the holiday.
That meant there would be ten extra people in the house, plus my grandparents, my Mom and me so trying to figure out where 14 people would sleep in a house with only three beds, one lumpy sofa and an old, hard as a rock, colder than a witch’s you know what because the cover on it was old, crackly vinyl (plus it was out in the barely heated sun porch area of the house too) was my Mom and Grandma’s biggest concern. For me, it meant the opposite – fun and games as my cousins Ray and Dave, from Monroeville and I for sure, would get to sleep on the floor. In retrospect – liking comfort as I do today – I wonder why this was such a big thrill but, it was for the three of us.
The timing of the arrival of my uncles and their families was also big excitement for me too. I would wait out in the sun porch, watching the headlights as one car, then another, would come down our road and wonder if this would be the one bringing my cousins, Ray and Dave, here to spend the next couple of days with me.
Their dad, my Uncle Bert, usually left Monroeville early enough that they would normally arrive here by 7:30 or 8:00 p.m. Late enough so they wouldn’t be here for our normal Christmas Eve supper of the luscious Swedish dish I loved – Lutfisk – but that I knew my cousins hated even hearing about the stuff although I doubt they had ever in their entire lives tasted it. Their arrival was always so they would definitely be here with ample time for all my cousins to change clothes and be ready to attend the midnight church services here too.
My other Uncle, Ralph, would generally arrive later – sometimes getting here barely in the nick of time to make it to the church by the start of the service at 11:00 p.m. He had his own business in Hagerstown and so, couldn’t always leave town early in order to arrive home here in an earlier or more timely fashion. My cousins, Ray and Dave and I would really be excited though waiting for him to arrive as he was the real fun-loving uncle in the family and loved to tease all of us kids, but especially we who were the three youngest of the grandkids here then.
One year though, when Uncle Bert hadn’t arrived here with his family by 9:30 that Christmas Eve, I was getting depressed and tired from waiting for them – too young then to worry why they weren’t here yet –but my Mom and Grandmother were both getting stressed out and wondering aloud where they might be. Perhaps they had a late start someone suggested – probably my Grandmother. Mom, who drove a car and had more ideas of problems one could encounter with a vehicle, began to muse and worry though that maybe the car had broke down on them someplace. Grandpa put his two cents in on that idea though as he said he figured if they had any problems with the car like that, Bert was a good mechanic and no doubt, he could fix just about anything.
Near as I can calculate, this most likely was the Christmas of 1953, maybe 1954, because it was the last Christmas I think that all five of Uncle Bert’s kids were here as the oldest was either a senior in high school or had just graduated and the very idea of one of Uncle Bert’s kids staying at their home, alone – well that never would have washed with him or his wife, my Aunt Nellie either. Nope, you came here to our grandparent’s home for the holiday and there was no ifs, ands or buts about that. You didn’t argue –ever – about things involving come back to his homestead, to see his parents, with my Uncle Bert!
Close to 10 p.m., there was a knock at the front door and there stood our neighbor from across the road, telling my Mom that she was needed and had to come to their house to take a phone call. That was another thing too – back then and my entire life growing up here, we had no telephone so if someone needed to reach us, they called this neighbor across the street.
Mom hurried and threw on her coat and boots too because it was snowing too –very heavily and was those huge, wet but oh so beautiful snow flakes that guaranteed you would have good stuff with which to make a snowman, build a snow fort, go sled riding on the hill across the road and yes, even pitch an occasional snowball at whoever just happened to pop into your view. Good snow to my way of thinking; bad snow to Mom’s as she tried to stay calm, knowing this phone call couldn’t be anything good at that hour and with my uncle and aunt and their family now officially among the missing here.
When she returned home, she was visibly upset because the caller had been Uncle Bert.
He was calling to tell her that they had been in an accident. No, no one was hurt but the car couldn’t be driven and there was no place available at that time of night and especially on Christmas Eve open to help him. He had gone into a skid, rounding a really wicked curve and with the snow on the road, had hit the guardrails and had a flat tire. Apparently, although I don’t remember this part, he must not have had a spare or if he did, it must have been bad too.
So, there was Mom who had a car but it wasn’t trustworthy enough to try to risk driving over 50 miles to go pick them up and truth be told, I think for the first time probably ever in her life, she was too nervous to drive there alone too.
So, she set to thinking of who she could possibly ask to help her and go with her then to rescue Uncle Bert and his crew.
Finally, she decided she would ask our neighbor two doors up the road from us. Herbie had a newer model car than Mom’s, he was a fairly young guy and probably wouldn’t be afraid to drive that far on a night like this and so, she went back out into the night, and the snow, tromping her way to his home to ask him if he could do her this really big favor.
And, he said he would.
He pulled his car up in front of the house about 15 minutes later to get Mom – of course she had to come back home and put on a different coat, one that wasn’t all raggedy looking you know, and she had to have a hat, and of course, a scarf along with an old pair of slacks pulled on under her dress for a little more warmth. The necessities of going out in the middle of a snowstorm and to make a trip of that distance – one had to go dressed for the occasion as well as prepared!
Today, that trip would take roughly and hour each way – probably the same amount of time snow or no snow – only freezing rain or solid ice on the roads today would slow folks down that much compared to the time it took them to make that trip down to get the family members and back to home again.
It was very close to 3 a.m. before they got back to the homestead here.
And, what a sight they were too. Grumpy, tired, cold – you better believe it but I remember as soon as Uncle Bert set foot in the house, his expression immediately turned into his big wide smile – something he was notorious for displaying as soon as he saw his parents!
His kids, all five, were still growling about how cramped it had been in the car for the last part of their Christmas Eve journey.
You see, Herbie’s car was a 1950 Ford – I don’t know the model type – but I do know that those cars were not really made to pack four adults, three teenagers and two smaller children into in the first place.
And the fact my aunt was a little more than a trifle on the heavy-set side, as was Herbie, the driver, and Uncle Bert, while not overweight, was not exactly a small man either.
So the ride from the accident site to here – had to have been the most cramped, most uncomfortable ride any of them ever had in their entire lives.
The family missed going to the midnight church services that night but Grandma probably prayed more here at home than she would have had she been able to go to church anyway that her son, his wife and her grandchildren would soon arrive here safe and sound.
And me – I was just really, really relieved too because now, I knew Christmas would happen after all because finally, we were all together again.
And, the next day, I knew too, Ray, Dave and I – along with all the kids in the neighborhood, would be out on the hill across the road, sled riding, having a great time, while Uncle Bert and Uncle Ralph spent the day driving back to the little town where the car was parked to fix the bad tire and get the car here then.
We could finally relax then and let the holiday begin!