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Woodworking column: The first Christmas I can remember

Memory's a funny thing. Some folks say I have a good memory. Sure, for remembering who played the villain in "David Copperfield," Basil Rathbone-Roland Young, take your pick. Or where we dined and what we ate on my first date with Ruth (Glass House in Toledo, Fondue Bourguignon.) Or where we ate in Paris that had the worst toilet (Cafe des Beaux Artes).

Pretty good, eh? Unfortunately, I'm not quite as apt when it comes to important things to remember. Like close the cupboard doors, even when they're staring me in the face. Or the name of our health insurance coverage. Or when prepaid taxes are due. Or how to negotiate each year's tax forms handed me by our accountant. Little things, you say? Au contraire, monsieur. Very Big Things.

Then on the other hand, I remember such infinitesimal events, events I shouldn't remember because they happened when I was too young to remember how to pee-pee standing up.

Now that Christmas is upon us, I remember when I was about 3 years old. Daddy was laid off for a time at Gillette Rubber in Eau Claire and we had moved back to Whitehall to a small apartment above Grant and Margaret Klebig on Scranton Street to wait out the strike. That morning I had been across the street to Grandma and Grandpa Wood's waiting for a visit from Santa Claus (whoever that was) who came in the person of milkman Reuben Rasmussen, who delivered milk from his family's Fair Oaks Dairy and donned a beard and a cap every year in order to be the skinniest Santa Claus in Christendom. I was scared, scared of getting a load of coal because the day before John Berg and I had disobeyed our moms, played in a huge snowdrift that would have caved in had not Mom and a scoop shovel arrived in time. But Reuben brought no coal. Just black rubber pull-on boots, with rings around the top.

Now it was Christmas Eve, whatever that was. Mom slid on her cunning high heeled galoshes, picked up her bowl of glorified rice from the linoleum-covered kitchen table, donned her fox coat and was ready to roll. Dad donned his black homburg, his velvet collared Chesterfield. I had no idea that these were my folks' clothes from a better time, before the Great Depression, but one made do with what one had. I figured they were pretty cool. No, I didn't. I didn't know cool from Adam.

Dad set me astride his broad shoulders and we made our way through gently falling snow a half block to the big house, which was alit for the evening.

It was warm inside and candles crackled in the osier window. The dining table, Grandma's pride and joy, was set in the big dining room. A crystal chandelier hung above it casting the reflections of 100 crystal baubles. Another wedding present from a half century before. Grandma had sent Grandpa on his annual "booze run" to buy a 1/2 pint of gin at Risberg's saloon to wash the baubles individually (a waste my dad, said) and to buy a fifth of 190 proof grain alcohol at Fortun's Drug store, the only store in town allowed to sell the vicious stuff.

Grandpa made his way to the kitchen to prepare his "hot ones" (one sugar lump mashed with a lemon peel and a half teaspoon of burnt sugar, a scant ounce of 190 proof, 3 ounces boiling water, stir.) Grandpa was brought up a Baptist, but there were a few things he could learn from his Scandinavian neighbors.

We were a small family and it didn't take long for everyone to arrive. Uncle Ray, his wife, the beauteous Aunt Helen, their daughter Nancy, three years my senior. She immediately walked over to Grandma's potted palm and ran her thumbnail and forenail down its huge leaf. "It won't turn brown until we get outta here."

As the men drank their hot ones and asked for more, the women busied themselves in the kitchen with the modest dinner. Rich stew made with oysters from the barrel at Karl Schaefer's butcher shop. Rollepolse open-faced sandwiches, a bow to my grandma's Scandinavian heritage. Dill pickles. Then coffee (Nancy and I got warm water in coffee cups), krumkake, rosettes, sandbakkles, fattigmand.

And then presents. I can't remember (!) them all, but Grandpa got a True Western magazine, Dad got a Zane Grey Western, I already had my black and red boots. Nancy got the most because she was the youngster who was oldest. When the presents were all unwrapped, Nancy sat in a pile of tissue paper that covered her like snow had covered John Berg and me earlier.

And what did she say?

"Is this ALL?"

I mounted my father's broad shoulders and we made our way home from the first Christmas I can remember, because it's burned to my mememoy like the skin on the bottom of turkey roaster.