The road up to the old house was pitted and filled with boulders and sharp rocks. My father inched the car carefully around every hazard he could see; some he hit just in the act of missing others. We jogged along, all of the three cousins, Dinky, Floyd Jr. and myself, thinking about what awaited us in that warm and joy-filled home.
Every Dec. 18, it was an annual ritual. If everyone was well, we gathered in the house built by my great-grandfather, five times removed. His name was William, and he had served at Valley Forge and lived through smallpox inoculations that had, in fact, killed a few men. He wrote about how sick he had been and how he sweated in the freezing weather at Valley Forge. He remembered being hungry. However, he never once mentioned regretting his decision to walk to the nearest enlistment center and offer his services to the Continental Army of Gen. George Washington.
William was well-known for his factual nature and his refusal to back down when he felt he was right on any issue -- social or political. He left his wife, Keziah Snead Keyser, with the promise that he would return and they would find their way to the beautiful mountains of what was then Allegheny County, later to be divided and known as Bath.
It was almost 20 years before he could keep that promise, but when he did, the family moved bag and baggage, horses, cows, sheep and dogs to that very spot where on that day, we, the heirs of William, would hear stories about the lives of the families who followed them. He left the house and farm to William Jr. and on down the line to my Uncle Carter and his wife Annie Brill, who hosted the Keyser family day.
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The stories began, the one about the possum that wouldn't move, and my great-grandfather saying if you pinch his ear he will flinch, but be careful, he can bite. They pinched, he flinched and then the whole room exploded in laughter as Uncle Marsh told about the near bite and the possum running madly through the house, finally being captured in Aunt Bessie's petticoat and shaken loose at the front door. No doubt a grand exaggeration, but a wonderful legend for the children to enjoy as long as that huge family lasted.
We were served, along with other morsels that delighted us, taffy that had cooled on the window sills and then pulled till it was creamy in color and delicious in taste. Fried pies that were made in that work-worn kitchen and served to the guests from the recipe left by my great-grandmother Keziah, who died peacefully in her sleep at age 84. Pleased with her life and the marvelous memories of her husband about whom it was said, he never raised his voice to her or anyone else. Quite a history when you have fathered six children of healthy stature and adventurous nature.
We listened to stories about the lives of all those men and women who had made this day possible. We heard about the simple gifts at Christmas, two oranges and, with luck, a banana, a few nuts and a new pair of hand-knitted socks made from the special wool fabricated by sheep that had names and were treasured for the immense amount of wool they furnished that was then carded, spun and knitted. It seemed to me a paltry kind of Christmas, and I felt so sorry that my father had enjoyed so little. However, I later discovered that he felt blessed with a wonderful holiday and felt honored by his father's effort of driving a horse and wagon more than 40 miles to Staunton to buy those oranges and bananas so all of his 13 children would have a surprise on Christmas morning. They were thrilled and talked about how slowly they did way with that banana.
The best story told every year on that day was the tale of the blizzard of 1888. My Dad was 4 years old when it happened, and he told the story better than anyone, because his memory always seemed fresh. He remembered his father's warning on that March afternoon. He said, "Papa told me this is going to be a terrible storm, son, get your pony in the barn." It snowed all night and into the next two days, the paths and byways to the barn were obliterated. The road to the sheep meadow was blanketed, and there were no markers. The animals stood helplessly waiting for aid, so the children, the mother, the father and the dogs bounded where they thought they were standing. Only the dogs were able to discover their location. It was, in the words of my Uncle Marsh, the worst thing he had ever seen. After locating the sheep, they had to shovel to make a space for them to stand. There was no way to move them, the arduous trip back to the house for corn and the need to keep shoveling went on for hours. The horses stomped and neighed in the barn, hungry, cold, and demanding attention in a horse-like way.
It was many days later when the newspaper finally arrived and they learned that more than 60 inches fell on the three northern states, New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island. No one mentioned Bath County, Va., but we all knew if it snowed up North, we got it too. The animals all lived, the chickens continued to lay their lovely brown eggs, the geese made more down for my grandmother's comforters. The sheep huddled together, stayed warm and ate good field corn, and the horses had molasses mixed with their food. My grandfather, Marshall Dade, set that rule, "When it is really cold," he said, "a scoop or two of good thick blackstrap keeps them warmer." The day always seemed to end with the story of the blizzard; somehow, that one was more exciting than the ghost tales Aunt Sally told.
The 18th of this month is always important for two reasons. It was my mother's birthday and the Keysers got together. It has always been a day to enjoy memories and to think back on stories and people that I loved. The last time we met was in 1955. Time has flown by, but the memories still stand, and the thoughts of those dear people who believed an orange and a banana was a big Christmas will forever live. They were citizens of the first order; they fought in every war up to and including Vietnam. They were mountain people, and I truly think that toting a gun and fighting just came naturally.
So, now we are coming to Christmas of 2008, and as I am remembering past Christmases, I hope you will remember yours, share them with your family and friends, and especially wish for you to take the time and enjoy this one. Merry Christmas!