Christmas

MAMA ON MY MIND

On Christmas Day, thoughts of family come to mind more readily than anything else. Gift buying and giving, cooking and celebrating—none of it matters as much as the people who surround you. Even if they don’t surround you physically any longer. My mother’s been gone 37 years, but I’ll never forget my memories. And ever since my daughter Heidi created a collage of photos of Mom and me, I can turn my head ever so slightly from my computer and see my gorgeous, loving Mother.

My mama, as she would refer to herself in the Southern way, was a “pistol.” My dad called her “Pistol-packin’ mama”– the phrase is from an old country song. He was right: those were qualities an Army officer’s wife had to learn as she stood up for herself and her children (she raised three of us). As the seventh of eight children, Mama had practiced being her own person early in life.

Mama with Baby "Viki"

She didn’t go to college, but she knew a great deal about life and how to treat people with love and consideration. She let her heart dictate and then she went for it—whatever she chose to do—with enthusiasm and energy. Besides being the best wife and mother she could manage, her primary talent was sewing.   She tried her hand and/or Singer at almost everything stitchable: slipcovers and drapes, specialized window coverings, men’s shirts and ties, children’s clothing and almost any fashionable garment for women. When I was younger I had a Madame Alexander doll, about six inches tall, and she made tiny outfits for it.

I was remembering the last Christmas we (my kids and husband, my sister and brother and my dad) spent together: San Antonio, Texas, in 1972, and I searched for some old letters. Mom used her typing skills all her life to write letters to her large family. Since most of this extended family, which started out with eight siblings, lived in the East, she could send one letter and it would be passed on. I discovered the letter she wrote her relatives after my little family had gone home to Los Angeles. She had talked to quite a few of them around New Year’s before sending a letter.

She typed, as part of a two-page letter, “It was sure great that you all thought enough of me to call me long distance…I still get excited when talking long distance. Dad has trained me: no longer than three minutes.” (My parents never could reconcile that a phone could be a good expense and three minutes was too short.)

My mother was struggling with the beginnings of kidney disease, but none of us realized she’d succumb to it two years later. I’d forgotten that during our stay, my husband had flu, my eight-month-old son was teething, and I eventually got the flu a few days before we left. Somehow we all managed, thanks to Mom’s help and enthusiasm.

Mom had a few comments about Christmas Day, which was “exciting for all. Heidi was opening so many presents, including her own…Heidi is a darling little girl but a bit of a brat for attention and, of course, has gotten too much from her mother. She is very smart and so cute but tries to have her own way too much. Very much like Viki was as a child of three. Hansi, now eight months, is just a beautiful boy with big blue eyes and the best nature even though he was sick nearly the whole time. To make a long story short, the week passed quickly, and it seemed it was always time to eat again. Hard for me to manage nine mouths to feed after only cooking for two for over a year.”

My mother never complained to us, and she didn’t tell me she got sick after we left and was in bed for several days. Later in her letter, she typed, “Well, all is over and it’s a sad time ahead until I get used to being alone again. I miss them all so much but don’t believe I can take them all home at one time again. I still wonder how Mama Jake (her mother) could stand all the noise and confusion of all of us home and our friends too. She had the patience of Job.”

Mama Jake wasn’t the only one who had the patience of Job! A toast to you, my dear Mama!

 

 

 

A FAREWELL CHRISTMAS – ‘72

The early ‘70s were carefree times for me. The Giraud family was living in a brand new spacious home in the northwest edge of Los Angeles. My husband had a good job as a civil engineer with Los Angeles County, and I was absorbed in raising two very young children.

Heidi at 3 in her Christmas hand-knit outfit and go-go boots

My parents had retired from the hectic Army life, settled in San Antonio, Texas, and invited us to have a family Christmas together.  We all gathered: my younger sister, who had joined the Mormon Church and was getting ready to go on a Mormon mission in Switzerland, and my brother, who was attending the University of Virginia.

It was my little family’s first visit to see my folks’ new home in San Antonio. After all the years traveling the world, thanks to the Army, and living in temporary homes, Mom and Dad had settled down to a retirement of sorts. Dad was working for USAA (United Services Automobile Agency) handling investments. My mother taught exercise classes until her physical challenges forced her to stop.

They had built their dream home on 1/8 acre filled with oak trees in a lovely and expensive area, thanks to my dad’s thrifty ways and his investments. It was a new experience for them living in warm Texas climate where my mother could enjoy the yearlong sun on a large deck surrounded by the three wings of their one-story rambling home. My father had acquired expensive tastes over the years and had saved his money to buy the best furniture he could afford and insisted on peg-wood floors in the living room and separate dining room.

My mother’s sewing talents were put to work creating the difficult and time-consuming Empire shades for the many narrow contemporary windows that faced the street. She ended up making all the drapes and window treatments in the house and was proud of her achievements. It would be her last major sewing project.

From Mom’s letters, I discovered that Texas was rife with bugs of all kinds. People who could afford it had pest service every few months to rid their homes of roaches and huge water bugs, for instance. In the summer, the cicadas that lived in the oaks on the property made their shrill sounds. Scorpions, which could give a nasty sting, were rampant. The home’s builder informed me gleefully that while a concrete pad for a new home was curing, the moisture attracted hundreds of scorpions.

I was fascinated with Texas history and when we were there, we drove by the historic Alamo and got a look at the famous River Walk that wound through downtown San Antonio, close to the Alamo. We visited Ft. Sam Houston, named after a Texas hero, saw live deer, rabbits, and ducks, and checked out the miniature train and sky ride in Brackenridge Park.

My sister Joan Tupper and Heidi petting a deer at Ft. Sam Houston

My dad, who could be difficult if things didn’t go his way, was on his best behavior. The only rough spots during our Christmas visit were my son’s teething woes, which Mom solved with a finger dipped in bourbon (an old Southern remedy), and a bout of flu for me during our last few days there. I think the flu strain that year was named after me: the Victoria flu!

We took a slightly different southern route on our way home to L.A. and ended up stuck overnight in a snowstorm in the appropriately named Alpine, Texas. Seeing snow is always a treat to Southern Californians who don’t have to put up with it every winter. It was the area where the famous movie “Giant” with Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and Jimmy Dean had been filmed.

I have fond and sentimental memories of that Christmas that even the flu hadn’t squelched. I remember Mom had used her magical creative talents to sew a shirt and a dress in a loud red print for my husband and my daughter. Looking back, I am delighted that Mom had an opportunity to be a grandmother for a few years before she passed. My sister, who later had five children, didn’t have the wonderful privilege of sharing her children with Mom as a doting grandmother.

As my mother-in-law said when Mom died in 1974, “A mother always dies too young.”

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