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The Ghost of Christmas Past

Written by Jeff Drake
12 · 22 · 17

It’s Christmas time, so I’m feeling rather reflective right now and faced with an urge to share my thoughts. Consider yourself warned. LOL!

Recently I’ve been reminiscing about some of my Christmas memories as a young boy growing up in Duluth, Minnesota. I’m gravitating towards pleasant memories, but I know that if I tried, I could bring up sad memories about other Christmases. We’re lucky, I guess, that we can bury painful memories deeper as we grow older. Fortunately, the warm memories I have of my childhood come easily to me. And I cherish them.

The earliest Christmas that I can remember was when I was 4 or 5 years old. I was living with my grandmother Ina and my Uncle Mike in the top of a duplex in West Duluth around 57th avenue. The duplex was all wood, top to bottom, with a coal furnace. I can still summon the memory of its scent after a long, hot day. The warm air fills your nostrils as the strong scent of warm wood hits the top of your sinuses and you can taste in in the back of your throat. It’s a pleasant feeling, really. The landing in front of our door had room for boots and other stuff and I would sometimes play there. It seemed large to me, but I was looking at it with the eyes of a 5-year-old.

This Christmas memory starts with me inside our flat with my grandmother, when the door suddenly opens and my uncle comes in pushing a brand new red Radio Flyer wagon! I think that was one of the happiest moments in my 5 years of life. I can remember feeling overwhelmed as the excitement of that moment washed over me. Ah, childhood.

As a child, of course, Christmas is always about the presents, isn’t it? My uncle Paul and Aunt Doris, who lived in Two Harbors at the time, used to give me a Tonka toy each Christmas. I wouldn’t learn until I was an adult that Tonka toys were built in Minnetonka, Minnesota; thus, the name. I was too young to appreciate what lavish gifts they were (Tonka toys were not cheap), but they gave me many hours of entertainment, especially my yellow Tonka dump truck, which was so perfect for playing in the dirt! I loved that truck!

The next important Christmas memory I have happened a couple years later, when I was seven or eight. (I say “important” because these are events that are always at the surface of my memory, retrievable in a nano-second. I imagine that’s because they were events that had an impact on me emotionally.)

We were now living on 7th street in Central Hillside, in another upper duplex. The house was owned by Mr. and Mrs. Deal. He was tall (to my 6-year-old eyes), wore glasses, had black hair and looked like the actor who played Dennis the Menace’s dad on TV. His wife’s name was Lydia. (Wow, I can’t believe I remembered that.) She was German and had the accent, which I thought was really cool. I think Mr. Deal must have been stationed there in the military when they met.

Below us lived the Grundahl family. They were… interesting. I remember Mrs. Grundahl as a small woman with a wiry frame. I do not remember a Mr. Grundahl. They had two boys. The older boy was named Helmer, the younger was named Richard, but we called him Dick or Dicky. I remember Helmer as if he were an adult, but he probably was just an older teen, maybe 17 or 18. I do remember he was big.

Looking for someone to play with one afternoon, I came across Helmer one under the porch in the back of the duplex with my cousin, Mary, who was a year younger than me, so six or seven. Helmer was trying to convince her to take her clothes off. I saw what was going on and told Mary to not listen to him and ran away to tell my grandmother. I don’t actually remember what happened as a result. I think Mary’s mom raised holy hell with Mrs. Grundahl and that was the end of it. I vaguely remember that Helmer later went away somewhere. Maybe he was put in a home of some kind. I’ve wondered over the years whether he was finally prosecuted for child molesting at some time. Personally, I would bet on it.

But, I digress.

Back to Christmas in the Deal house… this was a special Christmas for me in two ways. First, it was when I discovered there was no Santa Claus. Actually, I think I simply confirmed a suspicion I’d had for some time. Second, I received a very special gift – my very first bicycle. It was small, of course, with training wheels. It was painted red and white. Riding a bike would later become a part of my DNA and my identity.

I remember my uncle was very excited about this Christmas. He’d been sober and working, had a good job I think, and so he spent some money on gifts that year. My uncle really wanted me to see the gift they had bought me and didn’t want to wait for Christmas day. So, this was another first for me I guess, because this was the first time we opened presents on Christmas Eve. This later became our tradition.

My uncle and grandmother sent me over to my aunt Patti’s house to get me out of the way for a few minutes. LOL. I remember aunt Patti laughing when she found me at the door asking for a cup of sugar. They wanted me out of their hair so they could arrange the gifts, I guess. But I knew something was up. So, when I came back I snuck a peek through the window and that’s when I saw the bike.

My excitement and surprise was immediately tempered by my realization of two things: First, that Santa Claus must not be real, meaning all this time Ina and uncle Mike had been giving me gifts at Christmas; and second, that my uncle and grandma were going to be really disappointed if they knew I saw the bike before they could surprise me with it. So, I took a few deep breaths to calm myself, entered the house, and pretended that I was completely taken by surprise. That’s really all I had to pretend, since my original excitement and happiness about the bike soon came back in force. I think I rode that bike into the ground. My uncle and grandma went to their graves never knowing this story.

The apartments we lived in while I was growing up were necessarily small units because money was tight. A lot of my memories of living with my uncle and grandmother have to do with one specific room in the apartment – the kitchen. We had a dining room in some of the places we lived, but we spent our time divided between the kitchen or the living room. The kitchen table is where we had all of our family discussions. If there was something important to discuss, it became a “family meeting”. My uncle would pull out his pack of Pall Mall cigarettes and my grandma would fill her coffee cup with her favorite Folgers coffee. And we would talk and talk and laugh so much, sometimes till it hurt.

I remember I was 12 years old when my uncle and grandmother were sitting at the kitchen table talking about the upcoming Christmas. My uncle was unemployed and my grandmother was only living on social security and a stipend from AFDC (Aid for Dependent Children) for taking care of me. They were really bummed, but told me that this year they could not afford to buy a Christmas tree.

Hearing them talk about this caused an idea to suddenly pop into my head. My friend, Dick Hadrich, and I used to hike up to the TV towers in Duluth for fun all the time. The towers were located on the hills overlooking Duluth. In fact, there was nothing but pine woods up there. Dick and I used to hunt rabbit and squirrel there with our 22 rifles. So, I made a decision and told Ina and my uncle Mike that I would go and chop down a Christmas tree for us. I don’t quite remember the conversation that ensued, but they couldn’t talk me out of it. In fact, I got the impression from my uncle that he was rather proud of me for offering. So, I went and got us our Christmas tree, After this I went out and chopped every Christmas tree we had until I was 18 years old.

The hike to the TV towers in search of the perfect tree every Christmas is a warm memory to me. I didn’t know who owned all that land up there, but I didn’t want to get into trouble, so I made sure I did this under the cover of darkness. There’s something magical about a really cold, moon-lit Minnesota night, walking through snow up to your knees in the woods, all alone. I felt that it was a great time and place to think about how lucky I was to have my grandmother and uncle.

I hope everyone reading this will be able to spend this Christmas with someone they love.

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  1. Tom Steinberg

    Jeff, this is a really good essay. Very moving. I’m in Roseburg, celebrating the Solstice with Nancy’s daughter Clover, her spouse Ira and, of course, Hayden & Claire. Merry Christmas.
    — Tom

  2. Barbara Kressman

    Hello Jeff, I enjoyed your Christmas post as I do ALL your posts. You were a very fortunate child to have a loving grandmother and uncle to love and take care of you! They raised a fine young man and I am sure they would be very proud of you.
    The Kressman house whole wishes you and your family a Wonderful holiday season and many healthy and happy years ahead.


    • jeffdrake-wp-admin

      Thank you Barbara, for the very kind words. I really do appreciate it. Best wishes for the new year to your family.


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Jeff Drake

Retired IT consultant, world-traveler, hobby photographer, and philosopher.
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