by Nan McKenzie
The greatest excitement to date in my young life was waking up Christmas morning impossibly early, and having to wait until Mom and Dad were up. Dad lit the fireplace, turned on the tree lights and started coffee. My two sisters Faye and Sue (Kona wasn’t born yet.) made sure we were all warm enough in our pajamas and wrapped with blankets. We all three shared a bed, very uncomfortable because I was the smallest and the most picked-upon. In the winter, the blankets that touched the outside wall froze to the wood.
Finally, Dad opened the bedroom door and we would rush out, racing to the tree to see what Santa had brought. One year, we all received sleds, magical, big wooden ones with heavy metal steering guides on the front. Another year, a small saddle was sitting on the back of a chair, a beautiful light tan one that just needed a horse to be complete. I’d been agitating for a horse for a long time, and just knew that one would be forthcoming in the spring. Misty did come, but I was supposed to “share” her with Sue, who wouldn’t give up the reins often. And my saddle had disappeared by then, no doubt lost in a late night poker game, probably the same way it was won.
Dad went off to Alaska about then, looking for gold, but working for the railroad. The deal was, he was supposed to send money back to us, but that didn’t happen, and we were very broke for a couple winters. I became tired of eating elk meat and venison, but was glad Mom was such a good shot.
Mom did come up with some old wooden skis from somewhere, probably six-and-a-half feet tall, and weighing about fifteen pounds. There is a still a picture downstairs at the Summit House on Big Mountain, showing me reaching for the rope tow. I had on a too-big, long wool coat, blue jeans and just shoes with galoshes, but I was thrilled to be a genuine skier. The rope tow would shred a pair of heavy gloves in a day, but I didn’t care, just as I didn’t care that I had to eat a peanut butter sandwich for lunch while everyone else bought hamburgers. It was two dollars to ski, and fifty cents for the ski bus each way. Don’t know how Mom managed to scare up the money, but she did.
I remember the terrible cold, often twenty and more below zero for days at a time. I’d come in from goofing around outside our house and my hair would be frozen, my nostrils frozen shut, my eyelashes heavy with frost. The clunky galoshes would fill with snow and rub rings around my ankles, but I never wanted to come in when Mom would holler it was time for dinner.
It was the best of times, the worst of times, which Dickens said in A Tale of Two Cities, the book that made me cry buckets when I read the end. But the memories have stayed with me, and softened through the years. Now I wish I could sit in the living room and watch the snow plop into the lake once again.
Nan McKenzie, December 10, 2016
Nan, the reader feels the warmth of your memories, the biting cold of the winter, the lot of being the youngest, the mother who figures out how to put food on the table and still scrap up the two dollars for the rope tow. And most of all, what comes through is the determination of the littlest who goes for outdoor activities with gusto, regardless of any discomfort, because it is the outdoors that feeds her soul! Thanks for the Christmas gift!
What a beautiful memory. Thank you for sharing. ~ Ann
Your mom must have been one strong woman, Nan. Her little girl had pluck, too. Thank you for this lovely piece about childhood during tough times in Montana. You did, indeed, recreate a world for us. Karen