by LeAnn R. Ralph
Rural Route 2/Christmas In Dairyland
From the book: Christmas In Dairyland (True Stories From a Wisconsin Farm)
After wearing a damp coat and stocking cap for the last hour, I felt chilled, and I was hoping the heavy wool blanket would help me warm up. We kept a blanket in the living room for just such a purpose, and this particular blanket had been issued to my brother when he served in the U.S. Army. That’s what was stamped on the edge of the blanket: “U.S. Army.”
“It’s snowing,” I announced to my mother as I sat down on the couch and reached for the olive-drab wool blanket to wrap around my shoulders.
The snow had started while we were milking. Every night after supper I went out to the barn with Dad. It was my job to carry milk to the milkhouse, and after the milker came off the last cow, it was my job to feed the calves. Once the calves had finished drinking their buckets of milk and the buckets had been rinsed and stacked, my chores were done. Dad still had to feed hay, but he said he didn’t need my help to do that.
Each time I carried a bucket of milk to the milkhouse, when I returned to the barn, my coat and stocking cap were covered with a layer of snowflakes that began to melt as soon as I went back inside. On my way to the house, I had stopped for a minute to admire the fluffy feathery flakes as they fell from the black sky.
Across the room, my mother occupied the big easy chair next to the window where she always sat. The davenport, she said, was too low, which made it difficult for her to stand up.
“It’s snowing?” Mom said, turning her attention away from the television to look at me. “Very hard?”
I shook my head. “It started when we were halfway through milking. There’s maybe only about an inch on the ground so far.”
“Well,” she said, “I hope it doesn’t snow too much. Dad and I are supposed to go Christmas shopping tomorrow afternoon.”
My mother had never learned to drive, and after she had been stricken by polio sixteen years before I was born, the paralysis made it impossible for her to learn how. If she wanted to go somewhere, she always had to rely on Dad or my brother or my sister to take her.
“What time did the television show start?” I asked.
“Just a little while ago,” Mom replied.
Every year a few weeks before the holidays when the Christmas specials began appearing on television, my mother liked to watch them after she had finished washing the supper dishes. The shows featured different entertainers who sang Christmas songs and performed elaborate dance routines with groups of pretty ladies wearing Santa hats and short red dresses trimmed with white fur.
To be honest, I preferred Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, and Mr. Magoo’s version of A Christmas Carol.
My mother turned her attention back to the television where a horse stood in front of a sleigh. I wondered how they had gotten the horse inside the building so he could pretend that he was taking people for a sleigh ride.
To me it seemed that bringing a horse into a television studio would be a little like bringing a horse into a house. Dusty, my brown pony with the white mane and tail, liked coming into the barn, but I could very well imagine that bringing her into the house would be a different story all together.
In the first place, Dusty would have to climb the porch steps, and after she made it up the steps, she would have to squeeze through the door into the house. If I asked her to do it, I knew she would probably oblige. I wasn’t about to try it, though, because I was pretty sure that if I did, my mother would disown me.
The people on television really must have wanted everyone to think they were outdoors. As if the horse and sleigh weren’t enough to make it seem like winter, they all wore coats and scarves and mittens and hats.
As the minutes ticked by, I discovered that many of the songs they performed were familiar to me, and when I knew the words, I sang along. Singing was fun. And Christmas meant that I had many opportunities to sing—at home with the television but also at school and at church while we spent hours practicing for our Christmas programs.
During the various songs, my mother occasionally glanced in my direction, but since she smiled and didn’t seem to mind my off-key contributions, I continued.
Then another man appeared on the television screen. I didn’t know the words to the song, although when the refrain came around again, I began to sing.
This time when my mother glanced at me, her eyes were filled with tears.
I abruptly stopped singing.
“What’s the matter?” I asked
My mother shook her head. “It’s—no—it’s nothing.”
She reached for her crutches, pushed herself into a standing position and then slowly made her way toward the kitchen. I knew better than to follow right behind her. Mom became upset if someone followed her too closely because she said it made her feel like she was in the way and that she should hurry—except that she couldn’t hurry.
A little while later, I went out to the kitchen and found my mother sitting by the table. She was crying.
“Mom? Are you all right?”
She put her hands over her face and leaned on her elbows.
I watched helplessly, not knowing what to do.
“Was my singing that bad?” I asked finally.
I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
My mother didn’t reply. After awhile she reached for a tissue and wiped her eyes. Then she smiled a little
“No, it wasn’t your singing.” She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “It’s that song. It always makes me cry.”
“The song? What’s wrong with it?” I asked.
“Oh,” she replied, “there’s nothing really wrong with it. In fact, it’s a very pretty song. I just—hate it—that’s all.”
I stared at her, feeling a certain sense of shock.
Hearing my mother say she hated a song was a little like hearing her utter a swear word. Whenever I said I hated something, she would tell me I should say I ‘intensely disliked’ it, instead. Hate in any form, she insisted, was one of the evils in the world.
“You hate the song?” I asked.
My mother paused to gather her thoughts. “You know how it is when they release a new song and then they play it over and over again on the radio?”
Dad turned the radio on in the barn while we were doing the chores because he said it helped the cows to relax so they would let down their milk.
“Yes, Mom. I know. Sometimes we hear the same song three times while we’re milking.”
“Well, that’s what happened with this one.”
“So?” I said.
“So—that was the year I was in Madison,” she explained. “When they were changing the wool packs, I would hear it. When I was in physical therapy, I would hear it. When they were washing my hair, I would hear it.”
A few minutes later, with a tissue clutched in her hand, my mother began to tell me more of the story.
You see, the song was White Christmas and it had been released in 1942, the year my mother was stricken with polio. One November day, she felt as if she were coming down with a severe case of influenza, and her legs hurt so much she could barely walk out to the pasture to get the cows for milking. Not long after that, our house had been quarantined, and my mother found herself in the hospital in Madison, Wisconsin, flat on her back. She wasn’t even allowed to have a pillow.
And while my mother was confined to that hospital bed two-hundred-and-fifty miles away from her family—her legs wasting away until they were all but useless—Christmas was going on without her. As the months came and went, she also missed her wedding anniversary. And the birthdays of my brother and sister who were three and five when she was taken to the hospital. The next time Mom saw them, they were four and six.
Eventually my mother learned to walk again by leaning her weight into the crutches and swinging her atrophied legs out from the hips, but it wasn’t until May that she was well enough to go home.
As I sat in the kitchen with my mother, I thought about the words to the song and wondered what it would be like to be away from the farm for six months. To not see Mom and Dad, or Loretta and Ingman, or my dog, Needles, or my pony, Dusty. To know that Christmas was coming but that I wouldn’t be here and that all I could do was imagine it in my dreams.
Mom reached for another tissue. “I suppose I shouldn’t let a song bother me anymore after so many years, should I."
A few minutes later, Dad came into the house.
“What’s the matter?” he asked as he hung his chore cap over the newel post.
“They played that song on television,” my mother said. “You know, White Christmas. And it…well…it brought back so many memories. I guess I shouldn’t let it bother me after all these years.”
Dad shrugged as he unzipped his coat. “Nothing wrong with that. If it bothers you, it bothers you.”
He paused before turning toward the bathroom. Dad always washed his hands and his face after he came in from the barn.
“You were gone an awfully long time,” he said quietly. “I was afraid you would never be well enough to come home.
While my mother was in the hospital for six months, Dad, my brother and sister, and my maternal grandfather, Nils, had stayed on the farm. By that time, my maternal grandmother, Inga, was dead. In between doing the chores, Dad had cooked and cleaned and washed clothes and had taken care of his children and his father-in-law.
After Dad had left the kitchen to wash up, Mom reached for her crutches.
“Let’s go back into the living room,” she said. “At least they’re done with White Christmas so I don’t have to worry about hearing it again. Not tonight, anyway.”
Maybe the television show was finished with White Christmas, but as I watched my mother make her way toward the living room, I suddenly realized that for her, it would never be over. That she would always move through life with halting, shambling steps, and could still only dream of those long-ago white Christmases—and of all the other things she used to know…
LeAnn R. Ralph is the author of the book: Christmas In Dairyland (True Stories From a Wisconsin Farm).
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