By: Esther Hastings Miller
The first winter in that old house was decidedly not too pleasant. We finally got heat but there was no water until the floods of spring. The following two winters were much better.
Yes, my bedroom was still cold. Yes, I still had piles of blankets and listened to my radio until late at night. But evenings were usually spent in the kitchen. Dad worked swing shift in town, leaving before we got home from school and getting home after midnight when we were already asleep. Because we were on the afternoon shift at school at least one of those winters, we had mornings to do homework, so evenings were reserved for games.
We both got hot lunch at school and Mom cooked a big meal at noon for Dad, so supper was soup and sandwiches or whatever we had on hand. Then we’d sit around the big oak table and play games. We had no TV, the radio had moved permanently to my room, and we had no record player. Electronic games had not been thought of yet and card games were yet another “work of the devil.” (Ours was a very religious, conservative household!) So, we worked jigsaw puzzles or played word games or made up games of our own. We played dominoes almost every night and learned to add in our heads faster than you could ever punch numbers into a calculator (which also had not been invented yet). Some of our games were based on the Bible. “Name all the Bible characters you can think of whose names begin with A, then B, and so on.” Adam, Andrew, Absolom on down to Zachaeus and Zephaniah.
If there was heavy snow overnight, we gathered around a radio (maybe we’d gotten another one or else I brought it down to the kitchen) to see if Clive School was closed for the day. “Hooray” if it was, grumbles if it wasn’t. If we got lucky and the snow was too deep for school, we immediately bundled up and spent the rest of the day sledding down our long hill in the front yard. If the snow was just right, we could even go into the pasture to the east of the barn, pack down a run all the way down the pasture and across the barnyard, and down the front yard—one long, truly fine sledding run! The only way to stop after such a nice long run was to turn sharply just before we hit the lilac bushes at the bottom of the yard. There had better be enough snow to cushion our tumble as we flew off our sleds. Then back up the hill we trudged to do it all again.
Christmas has always been my favorite holiday and country Christmases seem best. Our presents were usually something we needed but they were always wrapped and put under the tree. Until the last year when we couldn’t afford a tree. We knew that Santa Claus and decorated trees were not the real reason for Christmas but the idea of that big box of decorations sitting in the storage room was just too sad to bear. No Christmas tree. Whatever would we do?
The last day of school was a snowy one and again we walked all the way up our driveway, thankful for the tracks Dad had left when he drove to work. We went in the back door, hung up our coats and stashed our boots then went up the steps to the kitchen door. Ahhh…the smell of fresh bread right out of the oven. Maybe there’d even be Mom’s applesauce to go with it. WAIT A MINUTE! Over and through all of that wonderful warmth and fragrance was the unmistakable scent of a Christmas tree! There it was in the corner of the living room, kind of small, but already decorated with all of the beloved ornaments and icicles and the lights that all went out if one bulb burned out.
It was a few days before we figured out the Christmas tree was Mother’s broom stuck in a bucket with rocks. Wired to the broom handle were branches she had spent half the day cutting from the many evergreen trees in our front yard. It was the freshest smelling Christmas tree ever. And the best loved!
Note: This is the sixth of 11 stories written by Esther Hastings Miller. Follow along as she shares her precious memories of growing up in Clive, Iowa.
About Esther Miller:
My parents, younger brother David, and I moved to the old house at the end of what is now Swanson Blvd just before Christmas in 1957. The address was University Avenue and the house may have been the “Kurtz Hill” mentioned in Mildred Swanson’s story about sledding. That yard was outstanding for sledding!
I was in fifth grade at Clive School and David was in third. We lived in that house until June of 1960 when the property was sold and we had to move. We moved to the Johnston area where we went to school for a year. In September of that year, my father was severely injured at work and was never able to work again. We moved to Des Moines, since Mother didn’t drive and Dad couldn’t anymore. And then, in December of 1961 we moved to California. Mother had gone to school in a small town in Southern California in the 40s, so she had friends there and she knew the climate would be a lot easier on all of us.
Both David and I finished high school in California, then I attended two small colleges nearby and graduated, first in my family, in 1970. I worked as an occupational therapist with severely handicapped children, then took several years off to raise my own two children. I eventually returned to work until my husband took early retirement. We traveled around the country in an RV, a long-time dream of ours, until we found some place we wanted to move to.
We sold our home in California and settled into an old farmhouse in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia where we lived for several more years. I returned to California a few years ago and now live way out in the country. Do you see a trend? I love living in the country and over the years I’ve built on the skills I first learned in that old house in Clive.