I thought you might enjoy a Christmas Memory
PHILADELPHIA, THE EARLY YEARS
A CHARLTON CHRISTMAS
Descending on my home in nineteen forty four, the Charlton Christmas boasted
unusual traditions, due to the character of my Father. Dad believed in a big bang theory
when it came to stretching a dollar. If he ever walked through another life style, it had
existed years before I was born. Suspicions ran rampant that in his early years, Dad
had been a big spender, judging from the quality of antique furniture that made its home
We lived in a two story cottage in Upper Darby, a northern neighborhood in the
city of liberty, Philadelphia. A comfortable home with a pretty yard honed from my
Mother and Father’s passion for gardening when they were young. Beds of rose bushes
lined the front walkway to our home. I remember Dad stopping on the sidewalk each
morning on his way to work, picking a new rose and placing it into his suit lapel. In early
spring, roses stood proudly by the dozens each morning waiting for the master to choose
one of them.
I took spent roses, placed them in a glass jar, added a little water and pounded
rose petals with a stick, making perfume for my Mother. After creating a grueling mess
of water and broken rose petals, I proudly gave them to her and waited for her to use the
perfume that I had made with love, behind her ears. A proud moment arrived when she
would tell me how wonderful the rose water smelled.
On the east side of our home, Dad had constructed cold frames out of lumber and
old windows he had collected. It gave seedlings an early start in the spring, protecting
them from cold Philadelphia mornings in March until mid April. Then I helped with the
planting of the tiny plants when spring arrived in our neighborhood.
A full basement held the furnace and coal chute on it’s left side by our driveway.
The basement, heated by our boiler in Philadelphia winters, became a play area for me
after school and on weekends. Dad had turned part of the lower level into a recreational
room by painting the walls sky blue and the half windows above ground black, to keep
the lights inside from getting out at night during black out exercises in Philadelphia
during World War Two.
My Father’s relationship with the coal fired house heater became tenuous at best.
Being cranky with age, the furnace responded to my father‘s banging on it and chastising
it by ignoring every word Dad yelled at it. By winter mornings the house remained
freezing to a young boy whose ears heard every blue word my Father could invent,
yelling at an inanimate heater.
I loved the coal chute descending from the driveway on the first floor to the
basement. Puffs of coal dust tumbled into the air surrounding my slide down to the pile of
coal slumped beside the furnace. Mother shook her head at me, handing a bar of lava
soap for me to clean up with in the mop sink located across from the room. I wasn’t
allowed back upstairs into the house until I stripped to my underwear, wrapping my
clothes up and placing them in the mop sink.
During the war, air raid practice drills were common occurrences in Philadelphia.
Our entire family gathered in our basement, listening to the radio, playing cards or
reading, whiling time away until we heard the all clear siren, cutting through the silence
in a city paused for the air raid practice. It was one more experience telling my mind, the
war was a constant reminder of a strong country united in one simple pursuit, the ultimate
defeat of our world enemies.
On weekends when Dad had spare time, we retreated to our basement, making
lead soldiers for my standing army. Using scraps of lead, Dad melted them in a small
electric pot, making sure the lead was hot enough to pour into the two-sided soldier
molds. When he unfolded the mold covers and exposed a new squad of lead soldiers, he
made my happiness complete; not because of soldiers I possessed but rather that they
were hand made by my Father.
I sanded the edges smooth with emery paper until I was sure the seams wouldn’t
appear through the army green paint I applied on each soldier. Eventually, I had a
standing army of several dozen troops, some striding forward, others were crouched in a
firing position. A fearsome amount of men to mow down any enemy forces that might
have come by our neighborhood.
After Thanksgiving passed in my memory, an excitement started to build about
Santa Claus, his eight reindeer and his mysterious elves who were scheduled for a visit to
my house on Christmas eve. Department stores glowed in holiday splendors featuring
The Jesus Child, tucked away in a manger with shepherds, Mary and Joseph, wise men
and animals gathered close to the cradle. Scenes of decorated trees, candy canes, elves,
wreaths lit with electric candles and boughs of holly laced with red and green bows,
twinkling with lights, paraded through Gimbal’s and Wanamaker’s.
Outside department stores, display windows sparkled with toy villages, nestled
in winter scenes of bright snow with miniature trains, puffing white smoke from their
engines, winding their way amongst the cottages and small neighborhoods. Other store
fronts showed animated scenes from Christmas times in the past. It was magic time for a
small child, standing on the sidewalk jammed next to dozens of people gazing through
the glass, listening to Christmas carols playing from broadcast speakers placed close to
Inside, being dragged unwillingly to visit Santa Claus, I became anxious, looking
up at Santa, sitting eight feet above the department store floor, beside a set of temporary
stairs rising to meet him. Climbing steps in the open, frightened me because of the height
above the floor and the thought of being pushed down a slide by an unfriendly, bored to
death elf. I managed to work my way through the mess and didn’t make a scene at the
store even though I was petrified.
I had made my list to show Santa when he pulled me into his chair but I was too
uncomfortable to say anything to him. It didn’t matter anyway because Mother had
mailed my list the previous day to Santa at the North Pole after she placed a three cent
stamp on the envelope for postage. Appearing at the top of my list was an erector set,
complete with pulleys and electric motor. Also mentioned in the list, a chemistry set, with
instructions on how to make gunpowder.
Most of our neighbors had decorated their homes a week before the Christmas
holidays, but not in our family. We were used to decorating the old fashioned way; on
Christmas Eve. Being led to believe this resulted from old Charlton traditions, I held
that thought well into my thirties before I realized differently.
When my brother Bill, Dad and I showed up at the Christmas tree lot around four
on Christmas eve, only left over, scraggly trees, greeted me. The tree man told my Father,
“Take any tree you want for fifty cents.”
“How about two trees for fifty cents?” Dad answered.
“You can have as many as you need, mister. They won’t sell anymore.”
Bill picked out the first tree and I the second. Dad loaded them on top of our forty
two Chevy and tied them down. On the way back to our house, a feeling of
disappointment surrounded me. These trees were so ugly compared to other trees I had
seen earlier. But when Dad strapped the two trees together and pruned them, they looked
wonderful to me. I wasn’t about to let his secret out to anyone.
We struggled to push the tree through the doorway, it was immense in size. Set up
in our living room, we started to put our lights on. Unfortunately, the lights were old and
decrepit, when one bulb went out the whole string went dark. It took a long time to place
the lights glowing against the tree branches. Next came the glass balls and trinkets from
long ago when my sister was born. Mother placed her two stuffed elves she had kept in a
small box in her dresser. They belonged to her from years in the past. Today, those two
elves sit in a small cabinet on my sunroom wall , covered by sliding glass doors. They
have earned their rest as I consider them too precious for to me to let them sit on the trees
Hearing a gentle knock on the front door, Mother opened it. I had wished Santa
had come early to watch but instead, a group of caroling neighbors, stood at our doors
singing “Silent Night.” We were invited to join them caroling in the neighborhood but
Dad thanked them telling them how beautiful the Christmas carols were and that we were
too far behind in our decorating to join them.
Beautiful electric candle wreaths were placed in our front windows with a single
Christmas bulb glowing orange, reflecting light into the darkness outside. Joy’s train set
was assembled on a simple oval track, circling our two trunk tree. Consisting of an
enormous locomotive, a passenger car and a caboose car smaller than the middle car. The
track was oversized and the train set had been given to Joy on her first Christmas as a
baby. By the time I realized what Christmas was about, my sister reached her teen age
years and replaced the train set with her new interest, boys in her classroom.
After we finished decorating our house, I was promptly taken upstairs because
Mother told me the same story every year; that Santa didn’t visit children’s homes if they
were awake on Christmas eve. Bill, my older brother didn’t seem too excited about Santa
coming, not as much as the presents he hoped would be around the tree in the morning.
Sneaking down the staircase late at night to see if Santa had come yet, we were chased
back to bed by our Father telling us we would scare Santa off unless we went to sleep.
On Christmas morning , under the tree, sat my own chemistry set and a metal
erector set with it’s own electric motor. Taking the chemistry set outside because my
Mother insisted on it, I found mixing bowls, small wooden stirring sticks, glass tubes, a
Bunsen burner and rows of chemical lined in order strapped to the lid as I opened it. I
searched through the set until I found a book of instructions showing formulas to make
things. Under gun power, a list of chemicals to be used in making it, lit the page up.
Bill had received a new BB gun and promptly loaded it, shooting the enemy who
climbed over our retaining wall that led to the back alley. Mother rushed out the back
door when she heard the pop of a tiny explosion, propelling an empty can of pears that I
had used as a rocket over the ignited gun powder.
Later in the morning, began the ritual of Mother wresting with a twenty some
pound turkey, with Dad’s help. It took all day to cook the bird covered with a piece of
cheese cloth with Mother basting that monster four times an hour. She fretted over it,
worrying she might over cook it but by magic, it turned out perfect year after year. Our
Christmas dinner was shared by all four of my grandparents. Only one more year would I
be able to share the Christmas season with all four of my grandparents. The usual side
dishes were brought by my Nana Ney and Nana Beauchamp. After the turkey was
attacked by our whole family, Nana Ney brought her dessert, a time honored event. She
had made two large glass containers of what she called “Favorite Dessert“. We made
quite a commotion over lady fingers laced in layers of home cooked chocolate pudding
being topped by whipped cream made at the last minute in Mother’s kitchen.
The first dish, disappeared with the first serving. It packed a lot of calories and
richness in the pudding, but Bill, Dad and I attacked it with second helpings. After
dinner my parents and grandparents shared a tiny glass of crème d mint by the fireplace.
As children we were allowed one sip only. It thought it tasted God awful but I didn’t say
anything about it.
Our Philadelphia weather seemed especially biting that year but I didn’t care,
being surrounded by all my family. It was a relief to put the war behind us even if only
for a day and celebrate the true spirit of Christmas which my grandfather Pop Pop Ney,
[Dr. William C. Ney] prayed about on his Christmas Eve service he conducted at
Temple Lutheran Church in Brookline. Pop Pop Ney was senior minister at Temple
Lutheran from nineteen twenty until nineteen fifty one, when he was given the honor as
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