Early in 1961, when daughter Karen was about six months old, we moved to Oakland, New Jersey. The remote, far northern, mountainous area of the state proved to be a considerable culture shock for Karl, my husband, and me. My husband had always lived in New York City, and had no knowledge of driving. I, on the other hand, had a license. Unlike Karl, except for a stint on a farm in southern New Jersey during childhood, I had also lived in that big city on and off for more than half my life.
Karl was able to get a job almost immediately, and I became a pregnant suburban housewife whose driving rights were taken away from me by my doctor. He forbade his pregnant ladies to drive automobiles after the fourth month. Such action was to protect the unborn child.
Within the next two years, we added two more children to our family. Three newborns in twenty six months was its own culture shock, but we felt more than delighted by the addition of Barbara and John. Some severe medical problems were overcome in each child’s first three months. Daughter Esther was not born until three years later.
To get to town without a car, I had to put all three babies in the carriage and walk uphill to purchase groceries. The trip down home was less strenuous than the road up. Fortunately, after my removal from our vehicle, our friendly neighbors and fellow church members would frequently give me and the babies a ride to town, a mile away, during the daytime hours, so I could shop for food.
My husband, quickly tired of walking the two and a half miles to work up and down some steep hills, and was not happy with his on-foot experiences in heavy snow and bitter cold. Quickly, he learned to drive a car. For the rest of his life, he detested driving, and to this day still prefers to have someone else do the chauffeuring.
As ardent nature people, we explored the hills, waterways, and woods of the then sparsely settled region. Discovering several dozen abandoned farmlands, homes, and barns we found and picked berries, grapes, and wild herbs, which I put up in several hundred old fashioned Mason Jars we had discovered in an abandoned home. Picking apples, pears, and peaches from abandoned, decrepit home sites added to our store of food. The abandoned barns and outbuildings supplied us with furniture, garden tools, carpenter tools, and other comforts. The places’ flower gardens, gone to wrack and ruin, gifted us with surplus vegetables and perennials for our garden.
I discovered a recipe for apple butter, and put up enough for two years. Although it was delicious, we did grow tired of it by summer time, and I started gifting people with it. My favorite victims were door to door salesmen, who were not permitted in unless they accepted a pint jar. The apple butter also made delightful gifts for people at Christmas time.
Our extensive half acre garden gave us plenty of vegetables in season, including asparagus, rhubarb, and tomatoes. Every year, using the found Mason Jars, I put up the surplus. We had several hundred quarts of tomatoes and tomato sauce, fruits, and vegetables, which carried us through to the next summer.
I sewed all our clothing, and knitted winter gear for all of us. Money was short, as you may have guessed, but we were able to make do, as our needs were simple. There was no slack for extras, but we felt quite blessed in our life style. It was comforting to feel quite content and able to live in our chosen lifestyle.
The first three Christmases came and went without much excitement, but as our children grew older, we wanted to introduce them to the joy of the season. Happily, we painted the windows with Christmas designs. I sewed Christmas ornaments out of felt and we happily decorated the house with native evergreen branches from the nearby woods. Each year, we would cut down a small pine tree to stand in our living room. It was a delightful seasonal experience.
The fourth year, the children were old enough to have learned about Christmas presents, and they became increasingly excited by the thought of gifts. Money was still tight, so we bought each child a box of eight Crayola crayons as a gift. Laboriously, I wrapped each individual crayon with part of a page from the Sunday Comics. My girlfriend from next door happened to pay a visit a few days before Christmas, and she was a bit taken aback with my activities.
With great delight, I told her we had enough money for a Christmas feast, and we would even have enough money left over to buy a two foot high live Christmas tree. The look on her face was somewhat anxious, but she said nothing. It drew my attention, but I didn’t say anything.
That evening, she sadly told her husband and two young children about our Christmas plans. The two youngsters spontaneously decided they would buy a small present for each of our three. So, on Christmas Day, just after church, they rang our doorbell and presented small gifts to each one. Our children were thrilled with the unexpected gifts.
A bit later in the morning, we all admired the window decorations, and then, for the first time in their young lives, we introduced to them to presents under the tree. Filled with joy and excitement, they found winter mittens, hats, and scarves in bright colors. Other items of clothing were there to take them through the snow days until spring. Warm jackets from grandparents were welcomed with shouts. Then we went to the garage where we all welcomed four new snow tires on our car.
However, unwrapping the individual crayons was clearly the children’s biggest thrill. The crayons had a bonus gift. Karl had picked up odd sheets of typing paper he found at work which had been discarded at work for the past six months, and therefore, each youngster also had a thick pile of drawing paper, cut down to half size, to use for their art work. The following year, he would begin carving and building toys out of wood for his growing family.
If the excitement of the presents wasn’t enough, we introduced them to our little tree and told them it would be planted in our yard to grow and thrive. Before the deep freeze had set in, their father had dug a hole for it. The earth to cover it had been carefully put into paper shopping bags and was stored in our basement.
After Christmas, subzero temperatures and harsh weather lasted until spring. We wrapped the tree in burlap and stored it in our garage. With the first thaw, we transplanted the tree from its winter home. It thrived in the outdoors, and by the end of the summer, had added a few inches of height. We paid it daily visits and even talked to it. Autumn slipped into winter, and during the freeze, the tree was once again wrapped in burlap.
As spring descended on the area, the tree was unwrapped, planted, and it continued to thrive. The grass in our yard also thrived, and then our hand-pushed lawn mower died. It was unfixable. Luckily, we had found sickles and a scythe during the summer.. Talk about sharing! From my experience on the farm when I was a child, I was able to demonstrate how to use both tools. My husband sharpened the cutting tools, and was able to successfully cut the grass in our hilly back yard using the scythe.
We all watched him for awhile, then went about our business.
Suddenly, a scream … a real SCREAM! … resounded from the back, about a hundred feet up the hill. Overcome with mindless fear, I raced to find my husband. He was sitting on the ground, cursing and crying. There were no signs of blood.
Silently, he pointed to our Christmas Tree. The grass was so high, he hadn’t see it, and he had cut it down. “In one fell swoop,” he mourned.
I tried to comfort him. “Let’s buy another this Christmas, Karl. In fact, we can buy one every year and set up a fence row.”
He lifted his stricken face to me, took a deep breath, and said, ever so slowly and forcefully, “NO.” Then be picked up the scythe and went back to work.
At sunset, we had a funeral for the tree, and sadly buried the tangible evidence of my favorite Christmas.