"We're home!" announced my 9-year-old daughter Elizabeth, bounding through the front door ahead of me. "Wow! Where did all these presents come from?"
The two of us had been doing some Christmas shopping. There were still three weeks before Santa arrived, and our Saturday jaunt into the holiday insanity at the local mall had left her exuberant and me exhausted."Are there any for me?" she asked, rummaging through the large brown box in the entry hall filled to the brim with gifts wrapped in festive Christmas paper and bows.
"A lady brought them while you were gone," my older daughter reported from the kitchen. "She looked familiar, but I couldn't remember who she was. The presents are from Grandma Jensen-on-the-Corner."
"Grandma Jensen?" I asked. "How could that be?"
I hastily picked up one package, then another. It was true. Each gift had been carefully labeled with a tag telling who the gift was for and followed with: "Merry Christmas! From Grandma Jensen."
The muscles in my throat tightened and my vision blurred with tears. How could these gifts be from my grandmother? Grandma died in October.
Grandma Jensen was the new bride my grandfather had brought home to his house on the corner of our street when I was 10 years old. Grandpa had been a widower for nearly 20 years, content to live in the cobwebs of the past and the dust of the present. I loved his untidy home and often thought of "running away" to live with him to get away from my mother's constant need to have her house in order, which for some reason always seemed to require my help. Then, at age 63, Grandpa took a new bride who was 16 years his junior, and things changed in my world and his.
Grandma didn't believe in untidiness any more than my mother did, but somehow Grandpa and I both adapted. Grandpa, who had taught me it was easier to wipe my nose on my sleeve than find a handkerchief, now was leaving anything he touched in order.
He couldn't do enough to make Grandma happy. He remodeled the house just for her, adding a utility room, a new front porch and lime stucco to the outside walls to cover the faded brick and mortar. Grandma added her own touches inside. New carpets, fresh paint and wallpaper, airy curtains, and refurbished upholstery with crisp, crocheted doilies on the arms and backs of each overstuffed chair and sofa. But best of all, she had grandchildren of her own, and so I had the fun of meeting and playing with new cousins.
One of the biggest changes, however, was the way Grandma celebrated birthdays and holidays. Grandpa had never been one for gift giving. He had a large jar filled with pennies that he'd let my sister, Ann, and me "rob" on our birthdays. And at each Christmas he'd pin an old sock, under duress, to the dusty dining room curtain to appease our persistent prodding. For him, loving someone was enough, and giving gifts couldn't add anything more to that love. Throughout his life, he loved us in his undemonstrative and quiet way.
Grandma's love was different. To her, holidays and birthdays were events to be celebrated, and Christmas carols finally echoed from the "house on the corner" from early December until New Year's Day. Grandpa found himself putting up a Christmas tree in the front room, while she filled the room with pine boughs, candles and twinkling lights. During the months before Christmas, her hands were never still. They were either crocheting, tatting, quilting, knitting, guiding material under the presser-foot of her sewing machine or cooking in her kitchen.
The first Christmas she spent in our family, she excitedly drew my sister and me next to her Christmas tree, brilliantly lit with bubble lights and silvery icicles. She presented each of us with a doll's wardrobe case that she had created from a cardboard box, covered with wallpaper. It stood nearly 2 feet high and opened like steamer-trunk wardrobe. It was complete with a handle for carrying, a fastener for closing the door, and inside were drawers and a closet filled with handmade doll clothes for our dolls. My doll could be attired in a red velveteen dress with white corsage sewn at shoulder and waist, a pink blouse with a plaid gathered skirt, a blue corduroy coat with lining, or flannel pajamas and polished-cotton robe that matched the sleepwear she had made me for Christmas.
"When my own little girls were about your age, I made a wardrobe for their dolls," she said smiling, "and I thought you girls would enjoy one too."
That was our introduction to the way Grandma felt Christmases should be celebrated, and we certainly hoped that Grandpa would not change her mind.
"Let me trace your foot on this sheet of paper," Grandma would say in hot July.
Christmas would come, and a beautiful pair of crocheted bedroom slippers would fall out of the wrapping paper while eager fingers fumbled with the ribbon.
"What is your favorite color?" she'd ask in May.
Come December and you would unwrap a flannel nightgown, or a Sunday apron, or a crisp handkerchief edged with crocheted lace.
As Christmas drew closer, her kitchen became a favorite stopping place on the way home from school. She might be in the middle of making her chocolate fudge that surrounded fat nuts and raisins and melted in your mouth. If you were quick, you could sneak an extra piece when she wasn't looking, pop it into your mouth, and then hope it wouldn't dribble down your chin and give your theft away. Then there were her Boston creams that were as smooth as whipped butter, and divinity that sat on waxed paper like puffs of clouds turned pink by the setting sun. There was no candy store as wonderful as Grandma's kitchen at Christmas time.
With Grandma's help, December 25th arrived laden with gifts each year, and when new sisters and a long-awaited brother arrived at my parent's home, there were always gifts awaiting them under her tree. For no matter how many grandchildren there were, whether from Grandpa's family or Grandma's, we were all treated the same - handmade gifts, hugs and kisses, and a roast beef dinner around her dining room table.
When I was 17, my parents presented me with a cedar chest. Grandma immediately made it her responsibility to fill it.
"Every young woman needs to be able to set up house when the right time comes," she said. "Let me help you get ready."
She was an avid quilter, and her dining room always seemed to have a quilting frame, complete with quilt, permanently affixed to the carpet. Perhaps she thought a quilt would readily fill up the voluminous empty space inside my new chest, and so one afternoon I was invited to join her and her friends in their weekly quilting ritual. Unfortunately, despite the cordial company and her competent teaching, my bleeding fingers failed to cooperate, and I retreated to the kitchen for milk and cookies, never to return. Nevertheless, she undauntedly continued her mission to fill my cedar chest. For succeeding Christmases and birthdays I received pillowcases, rag rugs, dish towels, aprons and stainless eating utensils she'd bought by saving coupons from packages.
Constantly mindful of her growing-up days when times were hard and things were scarce, Grandma saved everything. She had drawers and cupboards that were neatly filled with balls of string and yarn, used wrapping paper and bows, assorted boxes and cartons, jars filled with buttons, and bundles and bundles of fabric scraps. "Waste not, want not," was her motto, and she generally found a use for most of the things she collected. Gifts were often wrapped in the same paper that had covered the gift you'd given her the year before, placed in a box that she'd cut and folded out of a larger box that she had also saved.
At age 22, with my cedar chest filled, I married a week before Christmas. Grandma thought it was a wonderful time of year to marry, and her nimble fingers fashioned fancy party aprons for my younger cousins to wear while serving refreshments to the wedding guests.
Later, when my own babies were born, they wore bibs and flannel nighties and slept in quilts all made by my grandmother. She also became affectionately named "Grandma Jensen-on-the-Corner," since my mother was now a Grandma Jensen, too.
"Let me trace your foot on this sheet of paper, Grandma Jensen-on-the-Corner would tell my toddlers on a hot July day. "I'm making you a surprise for Christmas."
One such afternoon I asked her to trace my foot also, and she stooped once more to trace around my foot, now grown as large as hers.
Grandma died in October 1987, at age 81. She'd suffered a series of strokes. Death was a welcome release for her spirit burdened with a body that no longer could do all the things she loved doing. It was one of Grandma's daughters who had brought the box of gifts.
"We've been sorting through Mother's things the past few weeks," she told me over the phone the day after her delivery, "and decided that her grandchildren might enjoy having some of the things we've come across. The gifts in the box are for your family. We thought that you could open them when you have your family Christmas party this weekend with your parents."
And we did. Mom and Dad and my brother and sisters spent the afternoon after dinner opening our "gifts" from Grandma Jensen-on-the-Corner and reliving the Christmases of the past we'd shared in her home. The package addressed to me contained one of her starched, crocheted doilies, a tatted handkerchief and a quilted address book I'd given her years before - one she'd tucked aside in a drawer somewhere waiting for a good time to use it. Inside each Christmas gift was a poem, placed there by Grandma's daughters that described Grandmother perfectly:
"Grandma's the one with homemade bread,
And the beautiful quilt upon her bed,
And elegant needlepoint dining chairs.
She knitted the booties the baby wears,
Embroidered the pillowcases under her head,
Sewed the exquisite gown for the day she wed.
Of course, she'll do all these things for me. . . !
She's the very best grandma you'll ever see."
"Thank you, Grandma," I whispered later that night, while placing these new treasures in my cedar chest next to the doll clothes she had sewn for that first Christmas, and wondered if this year she was busy tracing the feet of angels in preparation for creating myriads of Christmas surprises.
About the author
Karla Gaines is excited that her story was selected for publication in the annual Deseret News "Christmas I Remember Best" writing contest.
"I enjoy sharing my thoughts with people, for I find that often the same ideas are universally felt by many others," she wrote when asked for a biographical sketch.
Mrs. Gaines called upon a wealth of experience to write her story. She graduated from Brigham Young University, lived in Scotland for 14 months, has taught fifth and sixth grades, and has been married for 23 years. She and her husband, John, have five children.
Mrs. Gaines has studied for two years with children's author Dorothy Van Morkom and writer Barbara Owen Webb.