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A Tale of Two Christmases By HELEN RIPPIER WHEELER

Friday December 24, 2004

A Vermont Christmas 

This is about Christmas with the grandmother who was my father’s mother. Through the years, Grandma Wheeler remained accessible to the children of her sons‚ former wives, who mostly lived nearby her in rural Vermont. I sensed that I was special to her, because I was the only child of her first-born of 13. But I also sensed that my mother imposed me on the family of her ex-husband. I was never really a part of the clan. My father remarried twice. Most of his sisters seemed to accept, if not approve of, my presence, probably for Grandma’s sake. Most of his brothers made it clear by sullen silence, glaring and absence that they did not. 

In winter, Grandma Wheeler would be in her rocking chair in the warm kitchen and in summer, on the porch. The year I was 14 I visited at Christmas. A big black stove in the kitchen and a potbelly in the living-dining room heated the small rural house. The double bed in the unheated upstairs bedroom was warmed before I jumped in, and Laddie, indifferent to the sounds of the rats scampering within the walls, was allowed on for extra warmth. I thought about my father sleeping in this bed during his visits. It didn’t occur to me then that he wasn’t alone. 

All the summer visitors and city folk with houses in the area dropped in to use the telephone, get their mail—the post office was in what had once been the living room—and gush over the country folk. The phone rang on Dec. 25. It was, of course, my mother, long distance. It seems incredible to me now that I was surprised. She managed to convey to those present that she was spending the holiday alone and that I was an ingrate for not appreciating the call—true to my indoctrination, I had snapped “How much is this costing?!” 

One afternoon during that winter visit my grandmother was the only adult present, at home with the several “state” foster children and me. She must have been around 75 years old at the time, in good health except for her rheumatic knees. I am certain I was the cause of their piling too much wood into the potbelly stove. The stovepipe caught on fire. She calmly stood up and took over, raising her raspy voice slightly but firmly. To the kids: water from the cistern in the kitchen. To the oldest child: run to the nearest house and get neighbor John Bowen. To everyone: stand back while she whacked the smoke stack down from the ceiling with her cane, onto the linoleum-covered floor. When it had burnt itself out, she took a breath and, leaning on her cane, swilled down the water remaining in the dipper that she had been holding. Neighbor Bowen knew that if Grandma Wheeler sent word, it meant now. He blew in, ran upstairs, and tore open the floorboards. Then he cleaned out the smoldering mice’ s nests snuggled up against the warm chimney. 

That evening Grandma Wheeler arranged a sugaring-off party for my benefit. 


A Park Slope Christmas 

My other grandmother perished when my mother was 11 years old. In 1903 after Christmas dinner, the seven family members gathered at the dining room table for a game of Snap . . . raisins floating in brandy were set afire, and the players snapped the raisins out of the fire. It may have seemed quite harmless to them after years of dangerous candles and gaslight. (Docents leading holiday tours of historic Victorian homes describe it as a children’s game called Snap Dragon!) It was brought into the dining room and lit, and the flames attacked Nellie, my maternal grandmother, in her long-sleeved and skirted dress. Nothing available to smother the blaze—carpeting nailed to the floor—heavy draperies attached to the window frames. The horrified children watched Papa’ s futile attempts to beat out the flames with his hands. The following day they huddled together and caught a frightening glimpse when he returned from the hospital and crept upstairs to their parents’ second-floor front bedroom, his hands and arms swathed in bandages. The house, normally filled with joy and music and people, was silent. 

It became clear that Nellie could not survive. She asked for the two older children, who were brought to the hospital, a few blocks away. (I wonder how, on Dec. 24, 1903, my grandmother had been transported to what is now the Methodist Hospital.) A good little woman to the very end, she endured the ordeal almost silently, and died after 15 agonizing days. The funeral service was held at their home at 323 Fourth St., Brooklyn in the evening. The coffin was closed. The impression made on each of them—one just a babe and two adolescent females—varied, but the influence of the horrendous experience endured in different ways throughout their lives. My mother recoiled if she chanced upon a magazine picture of a mummy. Her sister never spoke of it. Their younger brother’s struggle with food worsened. Mary Dodge Wardell scrawled on the flyleaf of her diary “Nellie, my daughter dearly beloved, died Jan. 8, 1904 at Seney Hospital Brooklyn from effect of burns received Christmas Eve Dec. 24, 2003. Thus has passed away all I held so dear. My life is but little now. God be gracious unto me, until the end. Her children are yet in my possession.” She had a premonition things could get worse and added, “I do not know how long.”›