I haven’t realized until recently the uniqueness of my childhood Christmases. My family wasn’t large but long. When I was a child, there were five living generations including four grandparents, six great-grandparents, and one great-great-grandmother. Seven of them lived within a few miles of each other. The others were less than thirty minutes away. Beginning noon Christmas Eve and culminating Christmas evening we would visit every one of them. Sure, there were presents, I remember a few of them, but what I remember most are the wet grandma kisses.
Our day began at noon with a customer appreciation meal at Wuethrich Oil in Eureka. Grandpa Kindred, Mom’s dad, worked there as an alignment specialist. Every year they would clean up the garage and offer hot ham sandwiches for all that dropped by. At that time it was a Texaco station with both Fire Chief and Sky Chief gas pumps. A car pulling up would ring a bell and someone would run out to pump the gas and check your oil. They also had a full-service garage and none of the convenience foods of a modern gas station.
After ham sandwiches, we drove to Peoria. Over the years the exact order varied some but we visited all six great-grandparents. Great Grandma Kindred was the poorest of the lot. During our visits, she was either in one of Peoria’s housing projects or staying with her daughter on the south side. In my eyes, she was a large woman living with little. Nevertheless, she always had a small gift for each of us. And of course, my younger brother and sister, David and Dianne, and I all got hugs and a big wet kiss on the cheek.
Our next stop was the Bandeko’s, Grandma Kindred’s parents. They lived in a house on Hollywood Circle in Creve Coeur just outside of East Peoria. Would that be a suburb of a suburb? I always wondered about that. They had nine children who, with their families, couldn’t all fit in grandma and grandpa’s small home. The rule was simple, come over sometime Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. They always had plenty of cookies, snacks, and coffee. Great Grandpa was a retired Caterpillar worker with an ornery streak. Great Grandma never moved around much because of her health. Besides their children, the light of their lives was a little parakeet. Pretty Boy had the run of the house, much to my mom’s dismay; she didn’t like being around birds in confined spaces. I think it may have been the only carnivore parakeet I’ve ever seen; Grandpa shared his bacon with the little green and yellow bird every morning.
We never knew who would be there when we dropped by on Christmas Eve. There were more aunts, uncles, and cousins than I could keep track of. Also at the Bandeko home was my great-great-grandmother. Somewhere there’s an old photo of myself, David and Dianne sitting next to her. She didn’t say much, but that visit always had two wet grandma kisses when it was time to leave.
After the Bandeko’s we’d bundle into the Galaxy 500 for the trip back to Goodfield. By that time the sky was growing dark. The radio gave out news reports of Santa’s progress. The most magical times was when it snowed. Thirty minutes or so and we were at Great Grandma and Grandpa Reeser’s, the family of my Dad’s mother.
Goodfield at that time was a small village of about 300. Mom had grown up in town, Dad a few miles out of town. At that time we also lived a few miles from the close-knit village. Close enough that I could bicycle to baseball practice in the summer or to either grandmas for a visit.
The Reeser’s also had a large family of two boys and four girls. And they loved to get together for family meals. Sometimes they’d all squeeze into the basement at Grandpa Heinold’s. The 4th of July was under a spreading oak at Uncle Tic’s place. His real name was Harold, but I always knew him as Tic. That was Grandpa Reeser’s doing, he nicknamed just about everyone and was not shy to express an opinion.
Christmas was also a time for the Reeser’s to gather and eat. Sometimes we’d make it for the regular sit down meal on Christmas Eve. Sometimes we’d just show up for dessert. Invariably Grandma Reeser would be in the kitchen while Grandpa was in his favorite chair in the living room with the rest of family scattered throughout the house. I knew these aunts and uncles and cousins better than the Bandekos. Maybe it was because we saw them more often or because many of them also lived around Goodfield. We’d eat and play for a bit and then it was time for our last stop of the night. But not before Grandma Reeser gave each of us a wet kiss on the cheek and some cookies to take home.
Great Grandma Heinold had two sons, Howard and Raymond. Ray was my grandfather. The brothers eventually settled within a quarter mile of each other and farmed together. It wasn’t unusual for Christmas eve to be at Uncle Howards. It was a quieter time than either the Reeser’s or the Bandeko’s. By the way, Great Grandma Heinold lived in Goodfield just a few doors down from the Reeser’s. While Grandma Reeser was short and lithe, Grandma Heinold was tall and stout but not heavy. She had kept some of the German from her upbringing – “ach” she would exclaim. You could tell a lot about what she was feeling and thinking by how she said that one word. Soon it was time to go home, a mile as the crow flies, a bit longer to drive around. And of course, we’d each get a wet German grandma kiss on the cheeks.
That was Christmas Eve. It would take us a bit to settle of course. But somehow we managed it. Mom and Dad always waited to place presents under the tree until after we’d gone to bed. It added to our excitement and wonder. And of course, Santa played his role as well. More than one Christmas I woke up really early and snuck down to see what was under the tree.
Christmas morning eventually came. As the Jim Reeves Christmas album played on the stereo, we’d open presents and enjoy a little breakfast. Mom always found time to snuggle with each of us for a few minutes and ask about our Christmas. I think that snuggle time was the only Christmas present she really wanted. But I was often too distracted by the latest toy to give it well.
Somewhere around 10:30 we’d bundle up and head out. The Heinold and Kindreds alternated Christmas dinner and supper each year. More food, more presents, more family.
Grandma and Grandpa Heinold lived on the farm. They raised their own chickens, gathered eggs. fattened hogs, gardened, and farmed the Illinois staples of corn and soybeans. But there was a problem. David and I tended to get a little too loud for Grandpa. (Make that a lot too loud.) There were many reminders during our short ride to be on our best behavior and use our inside voices. Well, we tried anyway. But it’s Christmas! Dad’s sister Joann, husband Terry, and their kids Tim and Nancy and Dad’s brother Gary completed the party. Five kids how could we be quiet?
While Grandma was putting the finishing touches on dinner, we’d compare notes on what “Santa” had brought us. Grandma Heinold loved to cook and serve. For many Christmas dinners, she didn’t even set a plate for herself but fussed over each one of us. Presents followed the cleanup, which for us kids took an eternity. Soon though it was time to gather everything up and say our goodbyes, And yes there was another wet grandma kiss.
It only took a few minutes in the cold car to arrive at our last Christmas stop. Grandma and Grandpa Kindred lived in town. Eventually, their street would be completely developed. But at that time there were only a few houses on the south side of it. Grandpa Kindred built two of them. Mom’s brother Bob, his wife Diane, and their kids Robby and Michelle would also be there for Christmas supper. While we all had new toys to play with we’d invariably get into grandpa’s puzzles and games or try to play pool in the basement. One more meal, one more time around the tree. One more wet grandma kiss as we said goodbye.
It wasn’t until I married and struggled to merge with the Christmas traditions of Betty’s family that I began to realize how unique and blessed my Christmases past were. And now as my own kids establish their own Christmas traditions with their children I am reminded of it once again. Part of me misses that desire to connect with all the family on Christmas Eve or Christmas day. Time and distance now make such things impossible.
Looking back, it’s not the presents of those Christmases that I remember but the gifts of love and time. Perhaps the meals and brightly wrapped presents are just a pretense for the more important blessing of Christmas – a chance to spend time with each other, to share memories and create new ones, to catch-up, to connect again with folks we haven’t seen for a while. It may mean offering someone the gift of forgiveness to heal old wounds or the gift of forbearance in the midst of change and differences of opinions. It may mean receiving from others what they can offer instead of what we’d like to have.
I don’t think that any of the presents or toys I received on those Christmases survived. What did last though is what I took little thought of at the time – the blessings of family and the love expressed in wet grandma kisses.