I wrote a bit about those old family Christmas cards a few days ago in “The birthday season.” I had most of the cards my mom and dad made during the years they had together when we were children, until my mom died in 1966.
I couldn’t put my hands on two of them: 1964 and 1965. 1964 was the year the last of the Prescott siblings was born, Cathy, on December 7. I think my sister Sally has a copy and I will get my hands on it soon!
But Sally did find the one from 1965 and looking at it now, I was reflecting on its simplicity.
Like the rest of the series begun in 1956 when George was born, it has each of our faces cut into a Christmas scene. These kind of graphics are popular again. They are just so cliche and that is what makes them cute and timeless. Jana gets the privilege in this one of placing the star on top of the tree as George holds the ladder for her. (Just for the record, Daddy was the only one who ever put the star up there!) The rest of us are all lined up in age order to pile the presents under the tree. This is the only card that has our names on the front. I guess there were so many of us by now they needed to remind everyone who was getting a card who we were. And even Cathy – only one! – was bringing a present.
The inside of the card had a simple message, and for once, the back of the card was printed. Yes, there was one more family member added that year. Candy the Saint Bernard had come to us sometime during the spring or summer. My Uncle Bob, a bachelor at the time, thought we should have a dog. On a visit to Omaha from Milwaukee where he lived, he stepped off the plane with a furry bundle of joy. A gift for his nieces and nephews (not sure Mommy and Daddy smiled at this one) of a puppy who would grow to be larger than any of us. Thank you, Uncle Bob!
With almost fifty Christmases between this one in 1965 and now, my memory is fogged on details. I am sure we spent Christmas Eve at Grandpa Piskac’s house with the rest of our extended family. There would have been Uncle Tony and Aunt Hon, Uncle Jerry and Aunt Tillie, Aunt Suzy; maybe Aunt Heddy and Uncle Jerry would have come in from Lincoln, and all the cousins who went with these brothers and sisters of my dad. I know Grandma Piskac would not have been there because she had died earlier in the year, but the rest would have been there.
We would have had Aunt Hon’s Christmas tree cake and Aunt Tillie’s always festive Christmas cookies. There would have been some dried fruits with those delicate little plastic forks to spear the fruits with. There would have been a Christmas tree in Grandpa’s living room, somewhere in the corner by his fish tanks. And there would have been piles of presents for all of us. And everyone would have given Grandpa a can of tobacco for his pipe. (All these years later, I love the smell of a tobacco-filled pipe being smoked. It always reminds me of Grandpa.)
In the morning at our house, there would have been a great big pile of presents as well. Our stockings would be hanging on the fireplace at the house on 105th Street that we had just moved into that September. Our first Christmas in a new home! We each would have a net bag of goodies – apple, orange, sack of salted peanuts in the shell, candy cigarettes, Brach’s chocolate stars – from the Shriners. Uncle Jerry was a Shriner and he always made sure that we each got one of these bags of goodies. There would be shredded paper everywhere once the gifts were opened. And then we would go to church.
But what I remember looking back now is that 1965 was the last Christmas that my entire family – all those names on that Christmas card with the dog on the back – had together. It was the last Christmas Eve and the last Christmas morning and the last Christmas card designed by a couple who loved each other and loved each of us and wanted everyone to know it.
Mom died March 27, 1966.
Looking at the card from 1965, it made me remember one of my favorite Christmases. I’ve shared the story with others when someone asks, “What is one of the best gifts you ever received on Christmas?”
It was Christmas, 1966, the very year after this last card. I’m sure we spent Christmas Eve at Grandpa’s. I am sure all the aunts and uncles and cousins were there and that we ate Aunt Hon’s Christmas tree cake and Aunt Tillie’s festive cookies. I am sure the dried fruit and the little plastic forks were on the table as well. The tree was laden with gifts and the fish tanks were there nearby. Grandpa got the usual supply of pipe tobacco and the smell from his smoking added to the memory.
The next morning there would be the stockings and the Shriner goodie bags. But there weren’t many gifts. Really, there were just two. One for the girls and one for the boys. I can remember it quite distinctly. There were two car-racing sets that had come from the Texaco station down the street. And that is all. And it was the very best Christmas gift I ever remember receiving.
And here is why.
What does a father of seven do for Christmas when his wife, the mother of his seven children, dies nine months before? Ten years and six months and seven children after they said their “I dos” she is gone.
I think he grieves. He grieves in private so the seven young children are unaware of his loss. He grieves privately because they have grief of their own that he needs to tend to.
Nine months go by and he realizes that the presents she would have bought and wrapped and put under the tree aren’t going to materialize. So he does what he can. He stops at the gas station at the end of the street where they are selling these Texaco-themed car race sets and buys two, one for the boys and one for the girls.
He takes them home in the middle of the night and assembles them and sets them up under the tree, ready to play with the next morning – Christmas morning – before church.
The funniest part of this story is that Jana and Susan were in on the surprise. The three of us shared a bedroom upstairs just down the hall from the living room. I was in a deep sleep – sugarplums, no doubt dancing in my head. Jana and Susan heard something, however. Thinking it was elves they crept down the hall to discover Daddy putting together the car sets…and he let them help.
It makes me smile to look back on this gift. It remains the best gift I remember receiving. Daddy going out in the night to make sure his children had a Christmas. Daddy who worked so hard every day to provide for seven children in all their needs, loved us so much that he didn’t want us to miss Christmas. And we didn’t.
Love. That is the best gift. And sometimes it looks like matching car racing sets from Texaco, at least it did in 1966.