There’s no other time of the year with so much emphasis on the family home. Be it ever so humble, it’s where everyone wants to be for the holidays.
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I still have flashback memories of Christmas past whenever I hear Bing Crosby’s singing “Oh, there’s no place like home for the holidays” or “I’ll be home for Christmas.” One of the miracles in the 1947 classic movie “Miracle of 34th Street” was at the end when little Susan discovers her new home, “Just like Santa promised.” The last scene in Frank Capra’s movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” depicts a happy ending for the town’s banker Jimmy Stewart, who is surrounded by family and friends at their home merrily singing.
My earliest memory of home was Grandma’s house. It was a 1850s vintage, big, two-story farmhouse built more for functionality than style. It had six bedrooms and two baths with the kitchen as the largest room in the house.
The Calhoons had lost a small trucking company in Cleveland during the Great Depression in the 1930s and moved to a small rural village in Northeastern Ohio where they owned a small dairy farm. When the war began in 1941 my father and his brothers left home and entered the service. Upon their return all that was left of the dairy farm was the old farmhouse, which Garndma had somehow managed to hold together for her boys to come home to. Every Calhoon for three generations lived in that farmhouse during some time in their lives. At Christmas it became the central gathering point for the entire clan. During the rest of the year we were at our own homes; the summers were busy with vacations or summer camp but at Christmas everyone gathered at Grandma’s house.
The house was big. It was built sometime before the Civil War and I remember it to be cold and drafty with creaky wood floors. Originally its only heat source was a rock-fireplace in the living room that took up nearly an entire wall. A few bedrooms had fireplaces and there was a wood cook stove in the kitchen. A hundred years later in the 1950s someone had installed a few steam radiator heaters fired by a coal furnace hidden deep in the basement. In Ohio during the 1950s coal trucks were as common as the propane delivery trucks we see today. The driver backed his truck up to the house and extended a wood coal chute through a window opening in the basement. The coal would pour out of the truck, down the chute and into the basement. From there it was hand shoveled into a furnace boiler or into a coal hopper that fed the furnace as needed. The clanging noise of radiator pipes always signaled the arrival of the welcomed heat.
The single-pane glass windows were nearly all original, probably dating back to its construction. In winter frost and ice would gather at the inside corners and on really cold nights the windows would be completely obscure with ice. The technology of dual pane windows was limited to “storm windows” and wood shutters would be closed at night in an attempt to keep out the cold wind from Lake Erie and then opened during the day to allow light.
The one upstairs bathroom was always the coldest room in the house. It didn’t have a radiator. During cold nights the sink faucet would be left open, trickling water to ensure the pipes wouldn’t freeze. The kitchen was the warmest room. Although Grandma had an electric GE range, the old wood fired stove seemed to be in constant use and in need of kindling. With three families under roof for the holidays, Grandma would start early in the kitchen baking bread, pies and my favorite sugar cookies.
There were so many of us during Christmas vacation we ate in shifts — kids first. Breakfast for us was cooked oatmeal with raisins, homemade bread and lots of whole milk that had been volunteered the night before by a Holstein cow named Daisy. After breakfast my cousins and I were quickly dispatched to our assigned tasks. Grandma ran her house like a drill sergeant. She was a disciplinarian demanding we all keep busy with our assigned chores that she determined by age and gender. The girls were likely assigned to household tasks while her boys were sent shoveling snow, feeding livestock, cleaning stalls and gathering wood for the fireplace and the kitchen stove. Grandma would likely spend most the day in “her” kitchen and when not mothering her sons and their wives she would listen to Arthur Godfrey on the radio.
It’s been 25 years since I visited Grandma at Christmas. She lived in that old farmhouse until she passed away at 94. The farmhouse has been renovated several times over the years and is now home to another family who will have their own stories to tell their children and grandchildren.
The beauty in that old drafty house was the people who gathered there every year for Christmas and my grandmother who, despite adversity, held her family together. She survived the Great Depression, the loss of a home and the family business. She out-lived her husband and two sons. She instilled within all her grandchildren the importance of family and the Christmas Spirit. Merry Christmas Grandma.