201224ind Cranston

While 2020 has been a year like no other, there are still classic reminders of the holiday season and local traditions throughout Southern Rhode Island, like the Christmas lights in Updike Park in Wickford.

Christmas 2020: The culmination of a year like no other. For some reason, this year has gotten me to reminiscing even more than normal, and normal for a guy whose nonprofit’s motto is “Living in the Past” is some pretty serious reminiscing. So anyway, I have thought about Christmases for awhile, and I settled comfortably upon Christmas 1964, back when we still lived in the funeral home before my dad died. That is when we really lived in Wickford, and besides, that was the best Christmas we ever had. So in the vernacular of the boy I once was, here’s a South County Christmas to remember.

Probably the first thing you are thinking is, “How can you have a great Christmas when you live in a funeral home?” Well, I’ve heard that sort of thing a million times before from the guys. It used to bug me a little, but I don’t let it anymore. Jeff Ryan’s dad always comes home smelling like meat; why, I think he even has meat under his fingernails, and Jim Wilson’s dad makes him wear plaid pants. Davey Champlin’s dad smells like dead fish. Heck, even his truck smells like fish. Tommy Bender’s dad spends his whole day doing math at the bank. How boring can that be? Everyone’s dad around here does something in town that other people need him to do (unless, of course, they work on the base and help win the war – that’s surely important, too). So we’re all about the same, I guess, at least that’s what my Grandma Cranston said. She said, “Everyone dies someday and someone’s got to take care of them. That’s what we Cranston’s do, and we do it well.”

So you see, it’s not so bad living in a funeral home. Besides, Christmas is one of the few days you can make as much noise as you want. Even if someone dies, they never have the funeral or calling hours at Christmas, so there’s never anyone shushing you. That makes me think of something else Grandma Cranston told me. She said, “You’re the third generation of Cranston boys to grow up here and every one of you had as your first sentence, ‘Shh, it’s calling hours!’” I asked my mom and she said it’s true. They all think that’s such a great story. I just don’t know.

Well, back to Christmas. That year was great for many reasons. First off, Julie (my little sister) and I got to buy mom a present all by ourselves. We walked down to the jewelry store in town on Brown Street and picked something out. She got mom a little pin with her money, but I asked Mrs. Sharpe for something big. She got out this huge pin, made out of paper mache, or something, and it looked just like a flower. She had to brush a little dust off of it, but I thought it was just perfect. Julie said it was too big, but what did she know – she’s a girl. I figured Mom would like it.

Then we went across the street and put the rest of our money together to get a card at Earnshaw’s. Julie picked it out. She’s better at that. Besides, I had to check out all the comic books on the big shelf by the front window – that is, until Mrs. Earnshaw came over and said, “Now Timmy, you know this isn’t a library.” My mom says that, too, so I figured I’d better go help Julie with the card. Not to mention, no matter what Julie and I do there in the village, by the time we get home, Mom already knows about it. It happens to all the kids in town. We think someone spies on us and calls our moms. A kid can’t get away with anything in Wickford.

When we got back home, we hid our gifts under our beds and then had to go shopping with Mom. Some last-minute presents, she said. I figured we’d be going back into town, but we got in the car and drove up to Post Road toward East Greenwich. It was then that I knew we were going to two of the stores I hated the most: The Little Tot Shoppe and Browning’s. All guys, even dads, hate these stores. The Little Tot Shoppe is full of clothes for little kids and babies (mostly girls) and Browning’s is full of breakable stuff. The minute we walked in the door, Mom said, “Put your arms at your sides and don’t touch a thing.” So you just stand there like some kind of toy soldier, afraid to move until you leave. What kind of fun is that?

My Dad hated the place, too. “Cranstons are clumsy,” he would say. I don’t know why we had to go up on Post Road anyway. You could get anything you wanted in Wickford. The only good stores on Post Road are The Bird Cage Candy Store, where Mrs. Ward would give you free samples, and Western Auto, where they sold bikes. I always ask my mom, “Why is it called Western Auto? This is the east.” She says, “Don’t worry about such things.”

On Christmas Eve, we always go to church down at St. Paul’s. The weather was nice that Christmas, so we walked. We passed lots of people on the way and they all seemed to know my parents and grandmother. “Everyone in Wickford knows everyone else.” That’s what Mom says, and I guess she’s right. The service was packed with people. We sang all the best Christmas songs and it made me feel good. One other thing about Cranstons is that they sing loud. Aunt Gail and Uncle Dave and my dad could really belt it out. Luckily they all sounded nice, so it was okay.

On the way out of church, Mr. Harris (everyone calls him Zeke, but we’ve got to call him Mr. Harris) was handing out giant oranges to all the kids. They were the biggest I had ever seen. Zeke is a nice man who always has time for us kids, especially now since dad died. Mom says Zeke knows something about not having a father – that’s why. I told mom that I noticed he had hair in his ears. Mom said, “Why do you notice such things, young man?” I just can’t help it. After we got the oranges we got a hug from Mrs. Belden and a handshake from Canon Belden. They are just as good as having another set of grandparents, if you ask me. Canon Belden always wears red socks (it’s his trademark, I guess) and when he shakes your hand, he squeezes the life out of it. Dad used to say it’s because he thinks of me as a young man. That’s how men shake hands.

After church it was back home and off to bed for Julie and me, who share a room. I really don’t mind, you know. It’s sort of nice to have someone to whisper with at night, but I’ll never tell her that. If we aren’t quiet, we’ll wake up our baby sister, Linda, and there would be trouble. It took us awhile, but we fell asleep and morning finally came.

What a morning it was. First, just like we always do, we looked in our stockings. I got some candy, some Matchbox cars, and a whole bunch of caps, the kind you use in toy guns. Julie got a bunch of girl junk and she got a mess of caps, too. Neither one of us could figure it out; we didn’t have any cap guns. Then it dawned on us.

We tore into our presents like a tornado (that’s what Mom called it, anyway) and when we were done we both had great cowboy outfits: boots, hats, shirts, vests, guns…the whole get-up. We couldn’t have been happier. We wore them while we ate our big oranges from the night before and we had some little pastry things, too. They were from the bakery truck that comes around to all the houses every week. Cushman’s, I think it’s called. They were delicious, like having dessert for breakfast. Mom made us take off the cowboy stuff before we went downstairs to Grandma Cranston’s. We spent the whole morning and half the afternoon there. People were coming and going. Aunt Louise, who lives here at the funeral home with us, always lets both of us sit on the couch with her and look at magazine pictures. She tells us stories about the pictures that are quite amazing. They don’t have much to do with the magazine article, but they’re great stories just the same. Aunt Louise is a nurse in Providence and one of the biggest ladies I’ve ever seen. Not fat, just big; she’s taller than some guys’ dads. She plays golf a lot and can beat some of the men. I believe it.

Men who worked for my grandfather (he just died, you know) like Mr. Bowen and Mr. Moffett bring their families by with them. Mr. Moffett has the best penmanship in the world. He does fancy writing for all sorts of people in town, baptism papers and stuff like that. He has a son named Jeff, who’s one of my best friends. He was pretty impressed with my cowboy outfit. Of course, we opened more presents.

Before long it was time to go off and make the rounds, as my dad called it. That meant we stopped by at a lot of friend’s houses before going on to my other grandparents’ house that is only just across the street. I guess that’s why he calls it the rounds. One we stopped at sometimes was Grandma Fletcher’s. She’s not really my grandma; she’s actually Davey Champlin’s and Tom Bender’s grandma, but she liked us to call her that, so what the heck. My parents and Davey’s were close friends since high school and we stopped there in the summer sometimes as well. Actually, my mom says that Mr. Champlin and Dad were detention pals at school. Grandma Cranston would make noise every time she heard that.

The last stop, before we went on to Grandma and Grandpa St. Pierre’s house, was next door at the Metzi-Ross Guest House. Mrs. Metz and Miss Ross are really old ladies (even my dad said they were old) who run a sort of little hotel in their house. Grandpa St. Pierre says they’ve been doing it since the time when trains were running in town and that they’ll probably outlive us all. Lots of people in town call them spinsters. Now, I don’t know what a spinster is, but I do know that they are nice ladies, and that’s good enough for me.

Christmas Day ended just like always, at Grandma and Grandpa St. Pierre’s house. We had another great meal and opened a few more gifts. While Mom and Dad and Grandma sat and talked, Julie and I convinced Grandpa to show us some of his Indian stuff in the basement. His basement was sort of like a museum, I guess. Dad said, “Paul St. Pierre hasn’t thrown out one thing he’s come across in his entire life.” By the look of the basement I would say he was right, but how could anyone be expected to throw out any of that neat stuff?

Before long it was night and it was time to go across the street to the funeral home. Julie and I put on our cowboy stuff instead of our pajamas and before Mom made us take it off, Dad took a picture.

I’ve still got the picture and I look at it from time to time. It’s just a picture of a near-perfect Christmas.

The author is the North Kingstown town historian. The views expressed here are his own.

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