Notes from Napa

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

 

A CHILD'S CHRISTMAS IN ST. HELENA



I was 9 when we celebrated our first Christmas out in Conn Valley. It was the year of the Marysville floods. We lived up a mile dirt road, and used to get stuck in the adobe both going up and coming down.

Jim Pop had placed rubber doormats, and wooden 2x12 planks off to the side of the road where we inevitably slid and then sunk in. We were on intimate terms with the jack which hoisted our '56 chevy station wagon up, so we could shove rocks underneath the slick wheels.

Knowing that his father and all our relatives would be coming up for that first Christmas in '57, we filled the pick up with loads of blue shale from Montelli's so what happened to us, wouldn't happen to them. It worked.

The only people who got stuck on the road were the reporters and photographers from the St. Helena Star and the Register. They'd come up to "interview the Chief" on issues of the day. It was only two years since Brown vs. Board of Education, so there was much to talk about.

Alas, back then, there was Tully fog-and Papa Warren, ever the stubborn Norwegian, insisted on giving directions. He was invariably wrong-but stubborn none the less. Each year we would get a call from a local farmer: "The Governor's here. He's lost. Where do you live?" Though he'd moved on to the Bench, he was still "Governor" to the Californians who loved him.

It wasn't so bad that he arrived three or four hours late. The problem lay with the reporters who had arrived at noon for the interviews. To pass the time, they dove into the booze and got sloshed. By the time they left, it was dark and they inevitably slid off the road and got a tire stuck. It seemed like Jim Pop spent every Christmas down the road waiting for the Triple A to come and pull those guys out.

Papa Warren brought his family with him. There were 5 other adult kids-all married and 16 grand children total. With my Maggie's family, there were over 30 of us.

It was a zoo. And that's what the little kids liked. Real live animals were everywhere. As Jim Pop was the eldest-we were the oldest cousins. We couldn't wait for the young ones to arrive. They were more fun than any presents we would receive.

We loved saddling the horses and putting the kids on for a ride. They could pet the calves, try to milk the cow, chase the pea cocks, harass the chickens, or pull the cats' tails with abandon. For them, what could be more fun than coming to the Lazy J?

For the adults, what could be worse? The drive from Sacramento, Davis, and San Francisco was a killer. They had to get up early and leave late-then do the same thing the next day at my uncle's in Sacramento or Davis (Papa Warren wanted each of his Sons to host Christmas).

For the kids it was the best day of the year. For the grown ups it was a grind. Papa Warren would go down to Pometta's where they had picked and prepared the ducks he'd shot up in Colusa. Angie would prepare her famous raviolis.

We all ate like kings and the adults pretended not to drink or smoke. The daughters would be hiding outside, sneaking cigarettes. (Several relatives in the old days had died of TB, so smoking was a huge no, no). In later years, even Papa Warren would take me into the back bedroom where I'd pour us each a scotch, as he didn't want "Mother" who frowned on alcohol, to see us.

Here we were, a mile from the closest people, on a "ranch" with every domesticated animal known to man-but we were all in ties and jackets-even the youngest kids.

Papa Warren was very formal. He'd come up from poverty. So a holiday wasn't just a vacation. It was a day to put on one's Sunday best and celebrate. All those Brooks Brothers' wing tips tracked cow manure on to Maggie's rugs.

After dinner we'd sing Christmas Carols-mostly off key. Papa Warren loved it.

It was the only time of year his family was together. He beamed and smiled. And because his kids basked in his happiness, they put up with the travails of long drives, inevitably cranky kids, muddied shoes, and family arguments, just to make their dad and mom happy.

Like all families, we had every foible known to man. That's the way families are.

But on Christmas, it was a different story. My parents' siblings were adults, and they loved their parents. There wasn't anything they wouldn't do for them-at least on Christmas.

We were kids. And we saw all this love. So no matter what happened the other 364 days of the year, on this day, life was good, people were kind, and relatives loved one another.

And it lasted.

"And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord…. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."