Thanksgiving has come and gone. With frantic Black Friday a memory and many families beginning preparations for Christmas, I am reminded of Christmases past. One of my most memorable Christmases was the year we almost didn't have a tree.
In August 1944, my mom had moved my brothers and me to State College, PA. In 1946, we were living in our third apartment in that town. We lived on the second and third floors of a house owned by two "maiden lady" sisters. That house across from the Penn State campus is still standing. In fact, I was easily able to find it two years ago, when my cousin Janie and I made a side trip to State College. We had been tracing our roots in Central Pennsylvania where our maternal grandmother had grown up. I could not be that close without heading for State College. I still remembered the address—216 East College Avenue, just across the street from the site of Old Main. The lower level is now a restaurant with apartment buildings on the upper floor.
As we ate lunch, I told Janie about the Christmas we spent in that house. Mom was working as a waitress at the famous College Diner—home of the well-known sticky buns. World War II had ended in August 1945, and the college had an influx of new students attending on the GI Bill. The diner was a hangout for students, and although Mom was always busy, tips were minimal. (College students didn't have much money!)
I did not realize at the time how tight our family finances were. What child knows—or even cares—how much (or how little) money parents have? In September I had told Mom that I thought she should buy me a watch for my birthday since I was now a teenager. Instead of telling me she couldn't afford a watch, she teasingly told me that I should not have asked her for it. She didn't actually say, "No, but told me I needed to wait another year.
As Christmas approached, Mom told us we were staying in State College for the holiday instead of traveling back to Wilkinsburg to be with our family. With the wisdom of age and hindsight, I now believe she probably could not afford the bus fare for the four of us. She explained we would not have a Christmas tree as we had no lights or decorations. Dave, Bill and I were disappointed. It wouldn't be Christmas without a tree. To this day, I don't remember whether we talked Mom into buying a tree or whether she surprised us with it. What I do remember is the beauty of that tree when we had finished decorating it. No lights? No problem! We made shiny ornaments to reflect the light in the room. We cut and pasted paper chains of red and green construction paper, decorating them with sparkly stick-on stars. Mom came up with some old Christmas greeting cards which we cut into pieces and hung on the tree. A couple of boxes of icicles, some cotton at the base and fake snow shimmering in the ambient light in the living room, and we were mesmerized by the beauty of that tree.
Perhaps I have embellished my memory of that Christmas, but I still believe that tree was one of the most beautiful ever. It was certainly one of the most unforgettable trees of my childhood.