By Roger Barbee
This morning my brother and I were talking on the telephone. Like siblings who live far apart, we shared news of work, children, grandchildren, sisters, and our mother. However, it was when he began telling me about buying a box of oranges for a fundraiser of one of his grandchildren that a memory came into focus. And, like so many memories, this one had lain dormant for many years in my mind, but when my brother began talking about peppermint sticks and oranges, it and more of those Christmases in Shadybrook came to life.
In a world of technology, social media, and limitless gadgets that keep us, if we choose, in touch with the world, those long-ago Christmases will seem strange because of what we children expected. We had little and expected little at Christmas, so any gift, no matter how small, was great. And one of the gifts we came to anticipate was fresh fruit, nuts, and some candy. That is where our church played a major role.
All it was, was a No. 2 brown paper bag given out the Sunday before Christmas to all the children. In each bag the deacons had dropped a mixture of nuts, an apple, an orange, and a peppermint stick. The peppermint was red and white stripped, the apple small, and the orange thin skinned. The nuts, except for the pecan, were difficult for little fingers to open. However, we were hungry, and this was food, especially the orange and peppermint stick.
As I remember, there was an order to eating the contents of those little brown bags. Because of its condition, the small apple was consumed right away. It was often bruised, and if not out and out mealy, it was soft and somewhat brown, so it was eaten right away.
Next came the thin-skinned, small orange. Using what we called a case-knife out of mother's kitchen, a pyramidal hole was cut in the top and out of this hole all the juice was sucked until the orange was limp. It was then that the peppermint stick was peeled of its thin wrap and the straight end inserted into the orange. If you were fortunate, the stick and orange treat would last for an entire morning or afternoon. Finally, when everything had been eaten but for the nuts, we would attack them with the handle of the case knife. Sometimes we could glean enough meat from one of the nuts to eat, but often the small hands and knife handle managed only to make a mess of shattered shells and pulp under the metal-topped kitchen table.
A Christmas like those we shared in Shadybrook seem almost foreign to me now, in 2014. If my brother and I had not agreed on so much shared memory, I would doubt the accuracy of mine. Yet, our world then was so small and limited and poor that a brown bag with two fruits, some nuts, and one candy cane was something to look forward to with anticipation. As I think about gift-giving today, I have to question it, and I wonder if more is more or is more less or is less more. I see what children are given today and while not resentful, I doubt its wisdom. The merchants of America have been selling us consumers "stuff" for Christmas presents since just after Halloween. We are told that more is better. We are offered deals. We are consumed with consuming. We enjoy giving and receiving stuff. But I doubt.
On this balmy Monday afternoon two days before that birth, I reflect and have to wonder. I can't go back in time and re-live those early days of oranges and peppermint sticks. I can't change what was in order to see if I would have felt happier with more than those brown bags. But, I can still feel the excitement of being given that simple gift at church and carrying it home as my mother walked with us along Bethpage Road. Inside our little house she had managed on her mill wages to have a Christmas tree fully decorated and each of us would have a present under it. Somehow. And we had our orange with peppermint, an apple, and those gosh-awful nuts.
Roger Barbee is a retired educator who lives in Edinburg with his wife Mary Ann, four dogs and five cats. Email him at email@example.com.