Robert’s class rehearsed a Christmas song to be performed during a school-wide convocation to occur just before school was dismissed for a few days during the holiday season. Robert struggled to find the correct pitches when he and his classmates were singing a wide variety of incorrect pitches. He worried about what the quality of the song would be on the day when the class had to sing it before the school.
He need not have worried. A day before the concert, Robert came down with the flu and had to stay home. He hated missing school almost more than he hated being sick. He felt he was letting down his classmates, but nothing could be done about the situation. He was sick, and that was that.
This, moreover, became a pattern for almost all of the six years of grade school. Robert would come down with the flu just before the school’s observance of Christmas, and he would miss the convocation. After the first few years of catching the flu, he began to dread the beginning of rehearsals of the school’s Christmas programs, for he knew he would become ill. And, like clockwork, he caught the flu bug at that same time year after year.
“No, you’re going to be well this year,” his mother would reassure Robert.
Shortly thereafter, the fever and the sneezing would begin.
“You’ll have to stay home,” his mother would have to admit.
Year after year …
When 1961 began, Joe took the boys to visit Jim Hooker. It was a short drive into town; if it had not been so cold, they could have walked. Jim accompanied them to his workshop in the small barn beside his house. Windows along the south and east walls met in the corner where the door was. Inside, heavy work tables stretched the length of both walls. The tables were laden with homespun wood carvings.
Jim stood back with his coat open enough for him to rest his thumbs under his red suspenders. He grinned with pride while Robert and Charles stared in wonder at Jim’s creations.
Robert felt he could spend all day looking at the carvings and not grow bored. They were intricately detailed yet not photographically real. Each displayed an element of Jim’s fanciful imagination. There were miniature wagons with working wheels that were pulled by twenty teams of mules. A few of his earlier renditions of the theme had mules that were more or less alike, but his later versions featured mules that were all different, with some glancing to one side and with others switching their tails.
Many Conestoga wagons stood among the carvings. They were covered in canvas and pulled by oxen yoked together. Teams and teams of draft horses were hitched to a variety of farm wagons.
Robert did not want to possess a carving as a toy. He understood that these were works of art not to be played with and to be treasured for their beauty. They revealed the talent and the skill and the genius of their creator.
While the boys ogled the mules, horses, oxen, and wagons, their father talked with Jim about the news from around town. Robert paid no attention to their conversation; he studied the carvings with rapt admiration. Although he remembered seeing them when he was younger, he felt he was seeing them for the first time. He had arrived at an age when he could appreciate the deft movements of Jim’s carving tools recorded in the wood of the figures.
Next, Joe took the boys to see their great aunt Margaret. With a big smile, she invited them to step inside her warm kitchen. The air was balmy with the fragrance of raisin cookies, which she was baking in her black iron oven. A coal oil lamp that had been converted to electricity hung on the wall above an antique table. The light bulb within the glass chimney gleamed brightly because a mirror-like reflector fanned out behind it. The light hurt Robert’s eyes, but, as long as he kept his back to it, there was no problem. He enjoyed looking out the windows and seeing the well-manicured houses across the street. Traces of snow clung to their eaves. One large house was Dutch Colonial and featured a gambrel roof with dormers.
Aunt Margaret offered everyone a cookie as big as a saucer. She leaned forward to hand Robert his cookie. He thought her happy face above her starched apron resembled her cookies. Here and there were little wrinkles embroidering her countenance, and her eyes gleamed in the same way that the raisins sparkled in the bright light from the coal oil lamp!
“The meat should be ready in Otterbein,” Joe said. “In the next day or two, I’ll drive over to pick it up, and I’ll bring you the cuts you wanted.”
“Just this morning, I was wondering what I was going to cook this week,” Aunt Margaret said. “I had about made up my mind to walk up to Terrell’s Market to buy some pork chops, but I’m glad I put it off. Come see my Christmas cactus.”
Aunt Margaret led the group into her living room. In the south window on a fern stand was an enormous Christmas cactus with many magenta blooms.
“It was the fullest just before Christmas,” Aunt Margaret said, “but it’s still giving a good show.”
The notched branches hung in all directions. The plant was larger than a bushel basket. The blossoms were white near their centers, but the rich magenta hue was what caught Robert’s eye.
“You certainly have good luck with your Christmas cactus,” Joe said.
“I don’t know why it does so well there,” Aunt Margaret said, “but it seems to like that window. All I have to do is to remember to water it.”
“I’m considering driving up to Claude Martindale’s to see if he has any apples left. Ida wants to bake a pie.”
“If he has any, could you get me a dozen?” Aunt Margaret asked. “Did I ever tell you what Claude did when we were children? We attended the same one-room school out there not far from Marshall Rhode’s house. Claude got the idea to tie a kernel of corn to a piece of string. It was warm outside, and the window was open. When the teacher wasn’t looking, he threw the kernel out the window and held onto the string. There were chickens all around the school. He would tug a little on the string and tug a little more on the string. Before long, he had the kernel up on the window sill. Right then, a big fat chicken that was trying to get the corn flew up, grabbed hold of the sill with its talons, and squawked. At first, everyone was so startled that nobody said anything, then the children were so tickled that they laughed and laughed. The teacher made Claude stand in the corner.”
Robert and Charles chuckled along with Aunt Margaret.
“Well, I suppose we should be going,” Joe said.
“Don’t stay away so long the next time,” Aunt Margaret chided in a joking fashion.
The boys and their father climbed back in their car for the short drive to Claude Martindale’s orchard in “Oklahoma,” the nickname for a group of houses near where there had been a railway that passed the elevator east of Pine Village. Claude wore his customary black cap that resembled those the newsboys of an earlier generation had worn. His blue denim coat hung loosely on his overalls.
“Yes, I still have some cooking apples in my cellar,” Claude said in reply to Joe’s question. While the boys stamped their feet to keep them warm, Joe waited until Claude reappeared with a basket under his arm.
“These are mostly winesaps,” Claude said, as he handed the half-full basket to Joe.
“Claude, there are many more here than I asked for,” Joe said.
Claude raised his hand and shook his head slightly. “I have more than I can use before they go bad,” he said.
“What do I owe you?” Joe asked.
“This late in the season, you owe me nothing,” Claude said. “Just tell Ida to bring me a slice of her pie.”
“Well, thank you most kindly,” Joe said. “I’ll make sure you get a piece of pie.”
Joe set the basket in the back seat. There would be plenty of apples to divide with Aunt Margaret and with Grandma Rhode, as well.
Joe, Charles, and Robert had enjoyed their visits. Robert had learned that people are makers. Jim Hooker made carvings, Aunt Margaret made cookies and Christmas cactus blossoms, and Claude Martindale made apple orchards and baskets of apples that appeared from his cellar.