Christmas at Onie’s

As I walked into the freezing cold porch, I could detect the odd smell of goose baking. It wasn’t something we smelled very often, growing up — only on the Christmas Eves spent at Grandma Onie’s house.

That was the night she’d break out the homemade wine from her secret upstairs closet, pull out her black roasting pan and throw in the bird which became the annual centerpiece of a truly interesting evening.

Mom would haul us kids in the big brown van, bouncing down the gravel road, probably looking like a vibrating can of marshmallows in our puffy parkas. We’d always beat Dad to Grandma’s house — Mom said he was in the milk barn, finishing chores. Now that I’m older, I realize that by the time we drove into the yard, there wasn’t a cow standing anywhere and they’d all already been milked. I can just picture my dad, leaning against the bulk tank, having a beer and a last minute of peace and quiet before heading to the folks’ house for another crazy Christmas.

Oh, Onie’s house. I can picture the chicken decor, the pink tile half-way up the kitchen walls, Grandpa Andy’s pipe resting on his big stand-up ashtray.

Andy would be sitting in his chair, wrapping up his “daily programs” on the giant black and white television. Onie would promptly push in the giant button and proclaim it was time for him to turn up his hearing aid. Truth be told, he turned it down because the sound of us kids was much louder and more irritating than anything that big box could project.

As we waited for my father “to finish milking,” Onie would explain the menu. Besides the goose and wine we would be dining on ultra-seared roast beef (which Dad called “drier than a popcorn fart”) and mashed potatoes with her special gravy which was one part drippings, one part an elixir labeled as “Kitchen Clatter meat sauce.” There was sauerkraut (homemade, which was actually good compared to when it was fermenting in the outdoor kitchen making a horrific smell months earlier), strawberry jello and corn from last summer’s crop.

Onie’s Christmas tree was an original, to say the least. She would order Andy to chop down a volunteer that had popped up in the yard, regardless of its form. That way, they weren’t wasting anything — a good tree would not be killed and a misplaced misfit would find a purpose.

That tree was covered with decorations which were mostly cardboard. I appreciated they had actually been colored by my father when he was a child — the problem was that my father was in his 30s at that point and so were the ornaments, yellowed and fading. However, she had neatly written on the back of each, in pen, the year and his age when it was created.

She loved silver tinsel, hanging it in gobs from the branches. It sparkled ever so much — and while completely gaudy, it did cover up the majority of the sad, dry sticks underneath. As she explained the tree to us, she also cussed out Andy for smoking too close — “we’re not going to have a bonfire in December,” she’d warn.

My father would eventually arrive, smelling of udder balm and Miller Genuine Draft. He’d kiss my mother, which would always bring shudders from Onie although she pretended not to notice while arranging Twinkies on a copper-rimmed plate. Each year, the Twinkie plate story was told — it came to America with her parents, on the boat from Germany. Andy would roll his eyes as if she had picked it up at the Ben Franklin store and was manufacturing a fairytale. Either way, it kept her from seeing affection between my parents and fascinated us with the thought of our ancestors sloshing over a giant ocean to live here.

After dinner, Onie would yell we were “scuffling too much” and it was “time to sit on the davenport.” Andy would grab his giant ashtray and light up — of course, far away from the dirty bomb (aka the Christmas tree).

Gifts would be presented. I’m not sure why they were wrapped because we always gave Andy flannel shirts and Onie a box of fingernail polish and files (she had magnificent, killer claws that were as strong as steel).

My mother would get mason jars for canning along with a strong suggestion she didn’t put away enough tomatoes the prior season, and Dad would receive a powerful, burning bottle of Aqua Velva.

Then it was time for us kids. Onie would yell at Andy “to get out of his damn chair and do something for a change.” The arthritic old guy would slowly distribute the packages.

I remember sitting there in anticipation. Sure, the presents were coming from a woman who refused to spend money — but there was still something inside that box we hadn’t seen before.

Onie was the queen of thriftiness. Andy always said “that woman will squeeze a nickel until the buffalo poops.” Although I never truly understood the saying, I’ll agree she could conserve money and really anything else like nobody’s business — leftover dishwater was given to the chickens; Andy had to use the outhouse and old magazines to save on the cost of water and toilet paper; and of course, there was her sewing all his pockets shut so he couldn’t carry money or five-cent cigarettes.

As we’d rip open our packages (wrapped in recycled tissue paper), we’d exclaim our joy as we had been properly trained . . . until we’d get full view of what was inside.

Each of us would get several pairs of underwear and Andy would say no one could ever have enough. The problem was that they were often ripped and unfortunately showing signs of wear and tear.

Onie said she’d found a great deal at the Clearwater thrift store and couldn’t believe the amount of underwear she could buy for a dollar.

Yes, even as a kid, I knew it was probably gross to give someone used underwear. That thought was solidified as our mother would jump to gather it all up, never allowing us to touch any of it, saying she’d “put them together so we wouldn’t lose any.” Funny, though, each and every year, that would be the last time we saw those undergarments.

Seeing a lull in the action, Onie would go to the cold sewing room to retrieve a box. That’s when the fun began — we were allowed to play with my father’s old wooden toys. The thoughts of dirty underwear would disappear as Dad would sit on the hard carpet with us, making corrals for our hand-carved horses and building a barn for the painted cows.

We’d play while Andy ran to the outhouse (he always called the goose “the Christmas gut cleaner”) and Mom sat with her mother-in-law over a couple glasses of homemade hooch (the tipsier Onie got, the less judgmental she became). The old turn-table would be brought to life and we’d listen to Christmas carols produced by the famous Lawrence Welk Orchestra.

Andy would proclaim he thought he saw reindeer flying overhead while walking back from the outhouse and my father would stick his head out the door, to confirm that the coyotes were howling because they saw Santa’s crew as well.

And every few Christmases or so, I’d see Andy pat Onie on the behind and call her “his gal.” She’d of course fly off in a huff, calling him a silly old man, but I swore I sometimes saw a slight smile on her face as she opened a hideous can of fruitcake she received from the bank.

Old underwear, sad trees, pipe smoke and the Twinkie plate from Germany. All things crazy and unorthodox — that’s what made Christmas at Onie’s something to remember.


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