Grandma Howard prepared for Christmas for 364 days a year. The second Christmas day was over she was already planning for the next year. Every relative from the Howard clan would travel near and far to get to Grandma and Grandpa Howard’s for the holidays. Grandma would dive into the sewing room and round up every blanket and pillow she could muster. She would quilt all year round to make more blankets for the many bodies that would need to be warmed in her little house.
About a week before Christmas, relatives would start arriving; some big, some small, and some in between. They would arrive by Trailways bus, old jalopies, a train they called The Owl, and some even hitchhiked.
Aunt Mema was the only relative in the bunch that made her arrival via an all-Pullman train called The Lark. She was the haute tauter of the bunch. and wouldn’t be caught dead on the Owl train that most of the family rode on. Much too common for her and besides, whatever would she do should she run into some kinfolk in the diner. Or worse, in the lavatory!
Uncle Jack always arrived by hitchhiking, being a bit of the black sheep of the family, but the kids adored him, what with his wild piratical adventures he lived hitchhiking all the way to California. Grandma always put Jack at the kids table at Christmas as a veiled warning for him to grow up, but he didn’t mind. He loved being with all his nieces and nephews, flicking boogers and snorting milk through their noses.
There was little Vernie who was eight. She had the most beautiful locks of hair, always with black tipped ends on her hair owing to that rotten Morton Digger at school. Morton would always dip Vernie’s pigtails into the inkwell on the desk, and Vernie’s mother, Ruth, could never quite get all the ink out of Vernie’s hair. That branded her with the nickname “Paintbrush” at school.
Vernie, like all the other girls in class, wore dresses made from material cut from feed sacks. Each month the mothers of all the elementary-age schoolgirls would hurry down to Kramer’s Five Dime and Farm Store to see what new designs would be printed on the feed sack bags. Some sported little pink roses while others featured cute little ducks. But if you didn’t happen to arrive at old man Kramer’s first thing in the morning, you might wind up with a dress printed with cowboys, and that was a fate worse than death for an eight year old little princess. It was bad enough that Vernie went without those black patent leather shoes she dreamed of, but to have a dress made of cowboys was downright humiliating.
Vernie was Uncle Ralph’s favorite and Vernie felt the same way about her Ralphie. She loved his great big smile and his guitar playing, and though they were about fourteen years apart in age, Ralph was more like Vernie’s older brother. He wouldn’t be able to come for Christmas this year because he was off fighting the war, but she had written a stack of letters she was going to mail him as soon as she could pry some postage stamps from her mom and walk the letters down to the train depot and put them in the mail slot on the side of the postal car. One time she put a letter into the slot, and a hand popped out with a lollipop, tossing it to her as the train pulled away from the station. That was exciting, sure, but it wasn’t the main reason she wanted to take Uncle Ralph’s letters to the station. It was because she had decided she wasn’t going to trust her precious letters to Mr. Perryman.
Mr. Perryman was too new on the route, since the old mailman, Mr. Okizawa had suddenly left town. She just couldn’t understand, as hard as good jobs were to find lately, why one day he delivered the mail like always, and the next day Mr. Perryman rolled up with his funny little mail cart. She liked Mr. Okizawa because he was nice, of course. But also because he said her name funny. “Here is no letttaahh fo-uh you Misss Vuuuhhhnnneeee. A gooot deh to yooo, hey?” Every day, the same thing. Then one day, Mr. Perryman.
Once all thirty-four of the Christmas relatives would arrive, the preparation and fun would begin. The porch overflowed in baggage and it was the kids’ job to get them sorted.