by William Arthur Dwyer,
as remembered by his grandson, William Francis Dwyer
My paternal ancestors emigrated from Ireland in the 1840s and eventually settled in the center of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula as pioneers. My great-great-grandfather, and other Irish immigrants, named the counties of Clare and Roscommon in Michigan after their Irish home counties. My grandparents, Will and Mildred Dwyer moved south to Jackson, Michigan, so that grandpa could take a U.S Post Office job that involved being in charge of the mail car of a Michigan Central RR train that ran daily between Jackson and Saginaw.
When I was a little boy in Jackson, my brothers and sister and cousins and I would each get a Christmas Eve telephone call from Santa Claus, asking us what we wanted for Christmas and if we had been good. Santa would then ask to speak to our parents to double check with them about whether we’d been good or bad children. As we got older we came to realize that Grandpa Dwyer was making the calls, but we went along with it for the sake of the younger ones.
On Christmas afternoons, our family always piled into Dad’s station wagon and drove up the brick paved Francis Street hill to Grandma and Grandpa Dwyer’s house for a traditional Christmas dinner – stuffed turkey, baked ham home-made cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and gravy, candied yams and lots more. For dessert, Grandma had made pumpkin pie with whipped cream, mincemeat pie and the best fruitcake I’ve ever had. (Grandpa didn’t like any of these desserts, so she also made rice pudding with raisins, just for him!)
After dinner, Grandpa would sit by the Christmas tree in the front parlor and take his time about reading out what gift was for whom, and pass it to the intended receiver. He always drew the process out for as long as he could, leaving the children for last, so we would get all worked up and excited. You were supposed to wait while each family member carefully opened a gift, said thank you, and showed it to everybody before Grandpa would read out the next gift card. The kids would roll their eyes while Aunt Frances or Uncle Ted showed off their new sweater or whatever. Then it was the kids’ turn at last! Afterwards, I remember sitting next to Grandma on the piano bench while she played carols and we all sang.
I recall these Christmas afternoons and evenings very fondly. But I especially remember one particular Christmas. We were sitting in the living room waiting to be told when dinner was ready, when Grandpa told me this story while smoking a cigar.
* * * * *
Billy, I’ll tell you a story about one Christmas when I was a boy like you.
I guess I must’ve been six or maybe seven years old, like you are, when this happened. You know, don’t you, that your granddad grew up in a lumber camp? Well I did. You see, my dad was the camp cook and worked real hard fixing three big meals a day for the lumberjacks, ‘cause they didn’t have families like ours, bein’ single fellas mostly, with big appetites from the hard work. There were some as had wives and kids and those kids, ‘specially the boys, were my playmates.
All us boys tried to act big ‘n grown up, o’ course, like boys do. So that meant we learnt all the cuss words we could pick up from the lumberjacks. If you wanted to be like a man, you’d cuss and swear, sing dirty songs and spit a lot. Those lumberjacks used to chew tobacco and spit all the time. So as a little boy I had a filthy foul mouth, as my mother would say – that’s your Clare Grandma. She used to wash my mouth out with soap, but that didn’t stop me. If she caught me sayin’ a ‘specially bad word, she’d paint my tongue with gentian violet, so I’d go around with a purple tongue for a week. But that only made me a hero to the other boys. So Mother was at her wits’ end over what to do with me, ‘cause she was a nice, proper lady, you know.
Well, winter started coming on. I remember old Tipsico, one of the wild Indians, was in camp after months in the woods trappin’ beavers, wolves, bears ‘n foxes for their skins. Now old Tipsico was an expert on the weather. He’d look up at the sky, lick his thumb and hold it up to test the wind and say, “Mebbe rain, mebbe snow. Mebbe Tippsico don’t know. But winter’s goin’ to come for sho.”
Mother and Dad must’ve gotten together about that time and made a ‘plan to cure me of my cussin’. One night after supper they sat me down, and I was sure I was gonna get scolded and spanked for throwin’ snowballs at girls again. But what they said to me was that Santy Claus had told them he was thinking of leaving me off his list of good boys and girls, and that I’d better watch my language or all he’d bring me for Christmas would be a coal in my stocking.
Now I knew better than to get on Santy Claus’s bad list, ‘cause I’d been thinking about all the good things I wanted him to bring that Christmas. So from then on I was the best little boy in the camp, and Mother was real pleased.
So time went by, with me bein’ such a goody-goody that by Christmas Eve I was sure to get everything I wanted from Santy Claus. I’d even helped Mother string cranberries and popcorn to decorate the tree, even though it was something for girls to do. My brother Earl and me were sent up to the cabin loft to bed and told to be extra good and go right to sleep, ‘cause Santy Claus wouldn’t come when we were still awake.
I thought, “Well, we’ll just see about that,” and so I tried real hard to stay awake with my eyes closed, listening for Santy Claus to get there. I though it would be a great thing if I could tell all the boys how I actually met and shook hands with Santy Claus himself! Well, I must’ve dozed off anyway.
Now, without me knowing, my dad had been building a little sleigh for my dog to pull me around in the snow with, and that was going to be one of my Christmas presents. When he was bringing it in the cabin Christmas morning to put under the tree, I guess he couldn’t resist giving the sleighbells a little jingle. So when I heard that, I knew it had to be Santy Claus! I bolted up out of bed and down the ladder in my nightshirt, and hollered “Goddam! There’s the old son-of-a-bitch now!”
Dad grabbed me by the collar and paddled my ass back up the ladder. He said, “Willy, it’s a damn good thing your mother was out in the henhouse gathering the eggs so she didn’t hear that!
Now you stay up there and say your prayers until she calls you and your brother down for breakfast. And you better say an extra prayer to Baby Jesus to for give you swearing on his birthday.”
So I never did get to meet Santy Claus, but he was good to me that Christmas.
(© 2012 by Bill Dwyer)