Christmas in California by Jerry O’Dovero
17 plus years ago I moved to sunny Northern California, or the Bay Area as it is often called. I’ve been asked lately by several people why I packed up way back then and moved to San Jose. I’m the type of person that can leave my apartment and strike up a conversation anyone. Once I start talking, it takes days for me to stop. So in the next few weeks I’m going to tell how I decided to move to California those many years ago. I will say this; I never planned on leaving Marquette. Some people are born with the burning desire to leave their town of birth especially if it’s a smaller rural type of town. I consider Marquette a smaller rural type of town mainly because the people there know their neighbors. If you’re broke down on the side of the road, which I was on a few occasions, someone you knew driving by stopped to help you, But it’s near Christmas and this year my Christmas is going to be different then my past several. For the past several Christmas’ I’ve spent it up North in Oakland with Jackie and Mark Two of the nicest people on earth that opened their home to me on a very special day. Sadly that tradition is ending. I’ll miss those wonderful evenings chatting with them until the wee hours of the night. The smell and crackling sounds of the fire in the fireplace; the meal fit for a king, which I was made to feel like and the true friendship that I felt while there. Now some people don’t do well with change. A mother gets empty nest syndrome when their children leave home. Some people stay in jobs or marriages even though they’re hate it because the fear of change. To be honest, I don’t think my brain is wired quite right. When I look to the past, I tend to remember only the good things. And when some doors close, I know new doors will open. I never go to the same restaurant and order the same meal time after time. I look forward to the changes. I’ll always love yesterday, but I’m excited about my tomorrows as well.
I started writing these blogs thinking I’ll give some insight to others with disabilities, but as I’m writing I’m finally realizing what I’ve accomplished in my long life. I like me. I always have. The earliest Christmas’ I remember were when my family lived in Harvey Michigan. After opening presents at our house, we’d pack up the Ford Galaxie 500 with mom, dad and 5 or 6 kids and head to grandmas and grandpas house in Mellon Wisconsin. It was always dark on the drive there. For some reason I remember my father driving 75 or 80 miles an hour down highway 77. My mother would be telling my father to slow down which only made him drive faster. Sometimes we’d be pulling a trailer with three or four snowmobiles which only slowed my father down on the corners.
My grandparents lived on a farm. They made their living raising dairy cattle. At 4 o’clock in the morning and 4 in the afternoon they’d head to their barn to milk 30 or 40 cows. Here’s a trivia question; what type of cows produce milk? Don’t know? A cow that has had a calf. A mother. My grandfather had his farm next door to his brother Otto and Sister Marge. Is that her name? Hope so. She was married to uncle Freddy. I had a lot of respect for him. Marge passed away when I was young. Otto and Freddy both had their own houses. Freddy’s house was the social house and Otto’s house had the 20 foot dining room table with 25 or so tall back chairs. You hung out at uncle Freddy’s house and ate at uncle Otto’s house. They each had their own barns as well. But like uncle Freddy’s house was the social house, uncle Freddy’s barn was the social barn us city kids would go to to see the cows. Because the farm had two families it was known to us as the ‘’big farm.’’ For nonfamily it’s called the O’Dovero farm. Not only do they continue to be a dairy farm, it is also has a store that sell fresh meats. If you’re like me and like your t-bone steaks a 1 ½’’ thick, you can go there and they’ll cut you the thicker steaks right in front of you.
Christmas at the O’Dovero farm always had a Santa Claus. Either Uncle Joe’s son Larry or a friend of the farm would dress up as Santa Claus and pass out presents while the adults watched and socialized. Christmas on a farm was always fun. Seeing the cows, chickens and the other animals made Christmas different. Christmas on a farm in a rural setting is just different. The cows still needed milking and the eggs collected from the chickens. Not only was there the family at the farm, but neighbors often stopped by to say hi. Someday when i’m old (next week) I could retire on a farm. The next day there were the multiple games of 500 rummy with Uncle Fred. I’ll bet I’ve played 500 games of 500 rummy with Uncle Fred. If you remember when I was 5 years old to 9 years old I’d spend parts of my summer break from school on the farm.
Christmas at my other grandparent’s farm was quite a bit different. My mother had nine brothers and sisters. We’d also spend a night at their farm as well. I don’t recall, but I’m guessing it would be a day or two after Christmas. The other difference was kids. I’ll bet I have close to 50 first cousins on my mother’s side. Going to the Warren farm was kids play. The farm was on top of a hill with a valley on both sides with small creeks flowing on them. The hills or slopes going down to the creeks made perfect hills for sledding down. You could always tell who received new winter coats or boats for Christmas. Several of the cousins brought board and card games to play. Some of the games could turn into marathons. The one thing I remember fondly was the exchanging of gifts among all aunts, uncles and cousins and being careful not to spill grandpa Warren’s full coffee can of snuff juice. He was a snuff chewer and had a large coffee can next to his favorite chair that he spit into. My grandmother and grandfather on my mother’s side raised 10 children in a small house with only two bedrooms. When it came time to exchange gifts, the little house would be wall to wall people. It was wall to wall people all happy to be there. Oh, every year I used to give both my grandparents rolls of yarn. Then the next time I visited I’d get two pair of knitted mittens.
I’m a lucky man. I look back at my childhood and I had it really good. My Christmas’ could be Norman Rockwell paintings.
But things change, people get older, doors close while new ones open. My Christmas as an adult was spent in Marquette. I have six brothers, two sisters, several in laws (for a while they were boyfriends and girlfriends of the family members) and nieces and nephews. With the large family, we’d have a family Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve then exchange gifts afterwards. My Christmas Eve day would start at Shopko around 10am. I’d finish, or often start my Christmas shopping. I’d also buy the wrapping paper, ribbons, tags and tape at the same time. Once I’d finish I’d wheel across the parking lot to JT Shafts. The place would be packed by noon. I loved it. Not only friends from Marquette, but several dozen friends I grew up with that had moved away. From the time I entered the door until the door hit me in the ass when I left I was talking – nonstop. All the stars were lined up for me on Christmas Eve day.
The family dinner was always scheduled for 6 o’clock. I don’t wear a watch. The watch band would get caught on the pegs of my wheelchair wheels. When it happened one of two things had to happen. Either the watch band had to break, or I was going to be pulled out of my wheelchair – in an instant. So getting home for the 6 o’clock family dinner was always a challenge. I’ll bet I never made it by 6 once, but never later then 6:30. It was usually 10 to 15 minutes past 6. Even though it was only a few minutes past 6 there was always that someone that would give me crap for being late. I didn’t care. I had more important things on my mind. I needed my presents wrapped. To get that accomplished, I’d give a niece or nephew all the gifts, wrapping paper, ribbons, tags, tape and a $20 bill. By 6:30 my Christmas shopping was complete, the gifts were wrapped or close to it and I was eating Christmas dinner. After dinner the 30 plus family members would gather in the large living room of the family house and open presents. The black marble fireplace would have a hot glowing fire in it. The young nieces and nephews excited when a gift had their name on it. One of the parts I enjoyed was watching the nieces and nephews growing up. It was fun watching which ones would take the leading role in passing out the presents. Again, Christmas on 322 East Ridge Street was a Norman Rockwell painting. One of my Christmas presents was a bag of pistachios. On Christmas day I’d sit in the basement eating them. Once that bag was opened, I wouldn’t stop. Before long, my lips and tongue would start hurting from all the salt, but I wouldn’t stop. Over the years I received many nice and even expensive gifts, but that bag of pistachios was the one I looked forward to the most. It was my Christmas day tradition to eat them until my mouth hurt.
In 1995 that door closed when I moved to California. I moved to California by myself. Also, I didn’t know anyone here when I moved here. My Christmas went from being around family to being by myself. But unlike most people I wasn’t sad. It was a new door. For the first time in my life I was responsible for cooking a Christmas Eve dinner. My meals usually start with meat. What do I prepare? I thought about prime rib. I’ve never cooked prime rib before. To this day I’ve never prepared it. I wanted to do something different, something special. I bet I spent 20 to 30 minutes looking at the meat selection trying to decide on what to prepare. People kept asking me if I needed help reaching something. I’m a talker, so I bet I explained my dilemma to a dozen strangers – in detail. Then I noticed a leg of lamb. I’ve never cooked lamb before and I bet I had only had it a few times at best. So I bought the lamb. I had to call my brother in law Mark to find out how to cook it. I also got his mothers bake bean recipe. I love those baked beans. Every year I have Thanksgiving at my friends Steve and Kristina’s house. On my very first Thanksgiving dinner there more than a decade ago to just a month ago, I’ve brought those special baked beans. I also bought shrimp and cocktail sauce and vegetables. My family never was into vegetables. One of the doors that opened to me by moving out to California by myself was eating vegetables. I truly enjoy them now. I’m not 100% sure, but my guess is I bought asparagus and made a cream sauce. I also bought an apple pie and what else looked good. I live alone and there is a grocery store on the same block as I live, so I don’t usually have a lot of food in my fridge, but just before my first Christmas dinner in California my fridge was packed.
The few weeks leading to my first Christmas here in California I received several gifts in the mail from my family and friends. I’m a traditionalist so I never opened them until Christmas Eve. While my diner was stewing in the kitchen I opened the gifts. My brother Joe had sent me a handmade wreath and a two foot high Christmas tree. Joe used to sell Christmas trees. He and a brother or two actually planted the trees on land near my grandparents. Once or twice a year they trimmed the trees to get them looking like Christmas trees. I guess when they get near tall enough they cut the top of the tree off. That simple act slows or stops the tree from growing taller, but it grows wider and fills out to look like a Christmas tree.
Every year Joe would give me a Christmas tree. I was living in the family house on Ridge Street after everyone left, so a 10 foot high tree would fit in the house. One year Joe gave me a beautiful 10 foot high tree. I had a roommate or two at the time, so they got the stand out of the attic and put the tree up. They tried and tried but it just wouldn’t stand upright without falling. It took a few minutes, but we finally realized the problem. The stem of the tree looked like S curves at a race track. Well, I have a work shop in the basement so off we went with the tree stand. We found a four foot square piece of plywood and screwed the stand to it. They put the tree back into the stand, but it still wasn’t stable standing. Even after several adjustment it might fall with just a bump. So off to the closet we go to find some heavy metal weights. When I was in the hospital in 1979, I had 20 pounds of steel weights that kept me in traction. I saved them, so we used them to weigh the plywood to hold the tree up straight. Joe was living with me at the time so when he came home that night he noticed the tree. It was beautiful with the lights and ornaments. I showed him what it took to get it to stand and asked why he gave us such a screwed up tree. In typical Joe fashion, he goes, is it a beautiful tree? Well yes, but. Jer that tree was returned three times because no one could get it to stand. It was too beautiful of a tree to throw away and I knew you could get it to stand. He was right. It was a beautiful tree and I don’t back down from a challenge.
After putting up the little tree Joe sent me and the wreath, I opened the rest of the presents. There were several nice gifts from my family and friends, but it wasn’t until I opened the gift with the pistachios that it truly felt like Christmas. I finished preparing my very first Christmas dinner and felt happy and proud of myself. This was my new life. I knew in time I’d make friends out here, which I have. As I’m writing this, my buddy Kip is taking my old crappy sewing machine out of the homemade sewing table we made and mounting my new vintage model 15-91 Singer Sewing machine that’s probable 75 years old.
Full from a wonderful meal, I relaxed and turned on the TV. I don’t think I found a show when my phone rang. It was my family calling from the traditional Christmas gathering to wish me a Merry Christmas. After talking to everyone in the family for a couple of hours I poured myself a glass of eggnog. I liked my new life. Old doors close while new doors open. It wasn’t too many years before Jackie and Mark moved to the Bay Area. For many years I’d spend Christmas with them. Now that door closed. As much as I wish it wouldn’t have happen, especially the reason why it did, I’m not sad. They’re memories I’ll cherish for ever. I’m a very lucky man. I have so many happy Christmas memories.
I’m looking forward to see what new door opens. For many years I’ve wanted to spend Christmas and New Years in Australia. A few months ago I finally got my very first passport. Maybe next year I’ll be there?