Rock Hill seniors recall holidays from years past

dworthington@heraldonline.comDecember 24, 2012 

They do not ever remember roasting chestnuts on an open fire.

More than once, however, they recall Jack Frost nipping at their nose and a white Christmas or two.

And when it comes to yuletide carols being sung by a choir, their favorite is “Silent Night.”

A select group of residents at Westminster Towers, according to “The Christmas Song,” will celebrate today officially as adults, because, as the song says, kids are from age “one to 92.”

May Williams, 101, is one of the more active residents at the Rock Hill retirement home. Her activities include bowling, and she rolled a 159 just days before Christmas. She is always impeccably dressed and sports a Christmas smile year round.

Hugh Barnett bowls, too. He celebrated his recent 100th birthday by dancing “The Electric Slide” for fellow residents.

Frances Leitner turned 95 just this month. She has been slightly slowed recently, undergoing hip replacement surgery.

And the young’uns of this group are the husband-and-wife team of William “Bob” Benson, 93, and Helen Benson, 90 – technically still a kid, according to the song.

These adults and elder child hold Christmas memories that are treasured and of far simpler times.

As children of the Great Depression, they remember when Santa was on his way.

“Everybody believed in Santa Claus,” said Leitner, who grew up in Charleston. All of the rooms in her home had fireplaces, but somehow Santa always seemed to find the right one.

“I didn’t see how he could squeeze down the chimney, but he always managed,” she said.

Santa somehow also had time to decorate the tree in the parlor of her home, Leitner said. No one officially saw the tree before Christmas, but if you stopped while coming down the stairs you might catch a glimpse of it through the transom window, she said.

Barnett and Benson lived in the country – Barnett near Hallandale Beach, Fla.; Benson near Salisbury, N.C. They remember clipping candles to the Christmas tree and keeping a bucket of sand handy in case of fire. Neither homestead had electricity.

Helen Benson remembered the trips – yes, more than one – it could take to find just the right tree in the woods. Seven children had a vote, and Helen was the youngest.

“We might come home with one immediately,” she said, “but often we would come home without one and go back again.”

May Williams remembered taking the boxes from her mother’s sewing machine and placing them by the fire for Santa to leave his gifts.

But Santa’s sleigh was seldom filled with lots of toys and goodies.

Christmas back then often brought a variety of fruit and one special toy, they said.

A doll was the favorite toy among girls. Barnett remembered that special Christmas when he got an Erector set in a wooden box. Helen Benson recalled roller skates were a favorite among her family – although there were never enough to go around among seven children.

Benson’s most special Christmas memories are about when her mother made a dress for her. As the youngest of five girls, she usually wore hand-me-downs.

Bob Benson said one of his most memorable gifts wasn’t a toy or fruit, but a train trip. The family took the Southern Railroad south to visit relatives for Christmas.

Leitner remembered an uncle, who didn’t have children of his own, would give each child in her family a $10 gold piece. The children held the money all day on Christmas, but the next day her father took it to the bank and deposited it in her savings account.

When the banks failed after the stock market crashed in 1929, Leitner feared she had lost all of her savings. It wasn’t until years later that she got some of the money back, she said.

Back then, they didn’t really wonder if reindeer know how to fly. Growing up in Florida, Barnett said, he didn’t even know what a sleigh was.

These children of the Great Depression became the Greatest Generation with their service in World War II. Barnett served in the Army and Bob Benson in the Navy.

They remember Christmas in such far-away places as the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago and France, as well as closer to home at Fort Jackson in Columbia and Fort Monmouth in New Jersey.

Home for the holiday was a wish, seldom come true.

After the war, attention turned to families and waiting for children with their eyes all aglow to go to sleep.

Leitner, who had moved to Chester with her husband, remembered her children finally falling asleep after going to midnight services at church, giving her just enough time to fill stockings before hearing them shout excitedly, “Has Santa come?”

“No” she would forcefully reply, telling them to get back to sleep.

May Williams remembers her son Vernon being a singing cowboy for his third Christmas.

One of Barnett’s most treasured memories was in 1959, when his family had just moved into a new house outside Atlanta. The tree in the living room was decorated, and there were presents under the tree.

As was the family’s habit, they paused for breakfast before celebrating Christmas. Barnett remembered how his daughter Ann looked as she came into the living room, gazing at the tree.

“My little Ann was floating on air, dangling in there on the way to the tree,” he said. “It was the happiest I’ve ever seen her.”

And although it’s been said many times, many ways, “Merry Christmas” is not the only wish these “adults” have this morning.

Go to the Bible, they said, read the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke, and remember the reason for this season.

“Make it a season of thanks,” they said.

Don Worthington 803-329-4066

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