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Christmas and the family tree.


The day before Christmas this particular year, Belshazzar, the German shepherd dog of my youth, got his tail caught in the washing machine. Our family should have heeded the omen and canceled Christmas on the spot, for it was our turn to entertain the whole clan on the Good, or mother's, side of the family. Because she had four married sisters and two married brothers, it would be quite a rabble.

In preparation for the big day, mother had been out on our enclosed back porch washing a few things. Belshazzar, walking past and wagging his tail, made one wag too close to the cogs of the machine, and they ground his tail up nearly to his hindquarters. Nor was he slow in letting half the county know how he felt.

After pulling the plug on the machine, mother dashed crosslots to the blacksmith's shop and yelled to Frank Cross, the smithy: "Our dog's in the washing machine!" Frank gave a final rap to a hot horseshoe on the anvil, removed his pipe, spat into a convenient keg of sawdust, and remarked, "That's a h-- of a place for a dog." But he came over, reversed the cogs, and unwound the tail. Never again would Belshazzar walk through the back porch without giving the washing machine a respectful wide berth.

Another reason this particular Christmas would go to the dogs, so to speak, was mother's earlier mandate that because of the expected crowd, there would be no Christmas tree. "There wouldn't be room," she explained. "Especially not with your Uncle Cotton coming."

Perhaps you should know about Uncle Cotton, a diamond-studded big shot from the city of Flint (Michigan, that it). He liked to say he was in the "advertising game." But we all knew that what he did was sit behind the front window of a certain Italian restaurant on Saginaw Street and eat spaghetti and meatballs from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.--with an hour off for lunch. Uncle Cotton was a big man, groaning the scales at around the 350-pound mark, it was estimated.

Anyway, word got around not to expect a Christmas tree. In its place would be popcorn and cranberry strings, and for atmosphere a few boughs of pine across the piano top. Besides the wood-burning stove and the sofa, the rest of the living room would be filled with folding chairs borrowed from the Richfield Methodist Protestant Church.

Christmas Day dawned without warning. But soon after dawn, or so it seemed, Uncle Cotton and his family were rapping at our door. Their alibi for this early intrusion was that they had heard we weren't going to have a tree, and "what is Christmas without a tree?" So they had brought one, decorations and all. Mother said they shouldn't have. She never meant anything more.

That wasn't the worst of it. Worse was when Uncle Clyde's brood showed up with a tree even bigger than Uncle Cotton's tree. Still worse, by the time the entire tribe had gathered, five Christmas trees had been erected in our living room, which left space for only a single row of chairs along the wall. Dad let the fire in the stove go out.

Here the men sat, not even trying to talk over the din from the kitchen, where the women were complimenting each other on cakes and pies and cranberry salad, the complimentees protesting that they weren't as good as usual. Uncle Seymour, at one point, parted the boughs of a tree and peeked through to ask Uncle Clymer how his winter wheat was doing. Uncle Clymer, who often forgot his hearing aid on such occasions, replied that he's be going home before dark. And that was about the extent of the men's conversation.

By this time, mother had called dad into the pantry and suggested he might find it to his benefit to keep one of the trees and to relegate the others to the backyard. As for whose trees were to be exiled and which one exalted, they couldn't agree. So all five remained, with the men pressed against the wall and the cousins required to navigate by crawling beneath the branches.

When the perennial question arose--Do we wat dinner first or open gifts? (the gift exchange had been decided by drawing names from a hat at the Thanksgiving bash)--Uncle Cotton, at two hours past the time he usually began eating spaghetti and meatballs, campaigned successfully for dinner first.

"If we are going to eat first," Aunt Sophie said, "I've got a gift stashed in the barn that can't wait. It's so cold out there." So she went to the barn and brought back a beautiful white rabbit in a wire cage decorated with a big red bow and presented it to Bridget, Aunt Fleetie's little girl. Bridget, with a squeal of delight, took it out of the cage to hold in her arms. It would turn out to be a poor idea.

"Maybe you're right," Uncle Latimer said. "I've got a gift in the car that might also be feeling the effects of the cold about now." He came back with a beagle pup for cousin Roscoe, who had already been flourishing a professional slingshot with real hunting pellets he had found under the family Christmas tree that morning.

Well, putting a rabbit, a hound dog, and a kid with a slingshot in one room is not only asking for it--you've already got it. The pup's baby bay, after spotting the bunny, was all it took for bunny to scramble out of Bridget's arms (ripping a hole in her pink voile dress in the process) and set its feet in motion for the safety of the five Christmas trees. Fortunately, the dog had trouble getting traction on the linoleum floor, which allowed the rabbit to be pretty well sequestered by the time the dog reached the living room. Roscoe, slingshot in hand, was not far behind.

"Not in the house!" screamed Aunt Agatha, Roscoe's mother, sticking her hand in the gravy boat as she leaped up to cut him off at the door. But the hunting instinct cannot be denied. Once your very own hunting dog flushes its prey into the open, a single Nimrod cell is all it takes to fit that pellet into the pouch and have it on its way--in this case, through the bottom pane of the low window overlooking our backyard. Bridget's terrified little rabbit lost no time in escaping through the hole, the dog tight on its heels.

From the women came cries of "Head them off!" and "Oh, hurry!" and "There they go now!" and "Someone do something!" which was immediately narrowed down to "You men!"

Having to move single file around the trees, the men weren't all that swift in responding. By the time they finally streamed from the house and began circling the backyard, with Uncle Cotton lumbering along behind, rabbit and dog were nowhere in sight.

"Watch out for the cistern!" dad yelled to Uncle Cotton. But the cistern top was camouflaged by snow, and Uncle Cotton was already upon it; because the top wasn't designed to support 350 estimated pounds, he was through it, then he was in the cistern itself.

Although the water level was only hip high, a whirlpool spa the cistern wasn't. In reply to Uncle Cotton's screams, one of the fast thinkers threw down a potato crate for him to stand on. The folly of this was good for a laugh all around.

Brother Meryl ran to the barn for a ladder, which occupied too much of the cistern opening to allow Uncle Cotton to squeeze past. The situation was finally resolved when someone spotted our stepladder on the back porch. Upon it the bedraggled advertising man could climb up far enough to be grasped under the arms by three uncles and a cousin and hauled out.

As for the hound dog, he had already returned. But to look for a white rabbit in the two feet of snow covering the ground was about as futile as giving a Cloret to a camel. Or trying to find dry clothes to fit Uncle Cotton, for that matter. He ate dinner seated near the stove, with a buffalo robe for a napkin.

Considering the direction the day had gone, the opening of gifts closed the occasion most appropriately. The last gift to come down from the five Christmas trees was a razor for brother Aubrey. The beauty of this latest thing in razors was that it could be sharpened by fitting it over a strop (included) and running the razor up and down. When Aubrey couldn't get the hang of it, Uncle Seymour said, "Here, let me show you!" and cut the strop completely in two on the first try.

It was the last Christmas reunion at our house without a tree. And pet lovers will be happy to know that little cousin Bridget got a replacement rabbit the following Easter.
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Title Annotation:a rabbit, a beagle, and a kid with a slingshot make a shambles of Christmas
Author:Stoddard, Maynard Good
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Dec 1, 1986
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