There are few accounts of Christmas at the Light Stations across the country. One of these accounts is from Bette McCormick Olli who grew up at Grand Traverse Lighthouse. Her story gives a eyewitness record of how Keepers and their families balanced family life with duty to keeping the light shining. We hope that you enjoy her account and remember that, even today, we have men and women serving across the world sometimes with or without their family for the holiday. We keep them in our thoughts and prayers this holiday season and thank them and their families for their service.
A “Grand” Grand Traverse Lighthouse Christmas
by Bette McCormick Olli
Above: Grand Traverse Lighthouse during winter (Source: 9&10 News)
It looks like we’re in for a Nor’wester,” comments Pa as he pours a bucket of coal into the magazine of the old base heater. “She’s blowing a gager off the lake right now.” For an instant the red coals become smothered and blackened by the added fuel, but soon the flickering flames escape the isinglass windows and dance merrily upon the living room walls. In every glass Christmas tree ornament tiny fires begin to glow. The stove burns fiery red again and each window in the old cast iron cathedral sends forth warmth and cheer. Our faces, as we sit around the heater like chicks around a brooder, become as rosy as the cranberries we are stringing to decorate the tree. We withdraw our feet from the shiny nickel fenders where we have been warming our toes after returning from the woods. Somebody says they’ve got chilblains.
Earlier in the day we had trekked into the woods, braving the elements, two of the oldest kids pulling the youngest on a huge homemade green sled which John had christened Iona. The rest of the clan followed in single file, the tassels of our stocking caps bobbing up and down as we traversed over snow covered hill and hummock. Laddie, our little brown dog, trailed behind us, joyously barking and sniffing out every rabbit and squirrel track or plowing tunnels in the light fluffy snow with his nose. Teddy Bear, the calico cat brought up the rear and complained vociferously in her feline fashion, as cats often do.
Far into our enchanted Grand Traverse forest our little train came to a halt. There before our very eyes was what we deemed to be the most beautiful tree we had ever laid eyes on. It seemed a pity to cut it down. However, after a lengthy discussion and after getting approval from the brown dog and calico cat, we chopped it down and hauled it home for parental inspection.
Pa then saw to it that the tree was standing perfectly straight in the green metal stand, all the while directing the kids to move it a little this way and now a little that way. When he decided that the tree was as straight as could be expected, the screws were tightened.
Ma’s high, reedy soprano floats from the kitchen throughout all the rooms, some strange ballad about poor young Caroline and her betrothed named Henry, all the while keeping time with her wooden spoon as she stirs up some concoction in her big brown crockery bowl. The sound of a cast iron pan scraping across the red hot cook stove lids and the ping of kernels as they explode against the sides of the pan heralds the delicious aroma of buttery popcorn. The delightful pop, pop, pop, of simmering cranberries as they split their skins rivals the sound of the popping corn.
One of the kids is sitting at the dining room table fashioning a blue basket and pink roses from crepe paper. Later the creation will be dipped in hot wax and when the wax hardens the basket and flowers will hold their shape. It is a Christmas present for Ma, which she will keep and cherish for years. In fact, it lasted until John became nervous about going to work on the Hyacinth, a lighthouse tender, and picked it all apart.
John is whittling one of his numerous little cork lighthouse boats, the shavings curling from his jack knife and falling into the kindling box behind the kitchen stove. Maybe he is making a present for his youngest brother. However, he teases and says he hasn’t quite decided who will get it.
Soon drowsiness induced by the penetrating heat from the stove overtakes us and heads unwillingly begin to nod. One of the kids wails peevishly as the red and green paper chain she is making falls apart. What had started out to be joyous undertaking has turned into a laborious chore.
“Time for bed,” Ma announces as she lights the wax candles on the tree, an annual Christmas Eve ritual. It is quite a treat to see the fluttering lights. The tree seems to come alive with a thousand winking eyes. But all too soon the candlelight is extinguished. We can’t take a chance of starting a fire. We beg Ma to play us a tune on the accordion so she plays a short rendition of “Red Wing.” Then we pick up the little brass lamps and the calico cat. Little brown dog trails reluctantly behind and the sleepy crew enters the chilly hall and staggers up the stairs. We quickly jump into bed and nestle beneath the covers, falling soundly asleep to a duet of a whirring top and the cry of a mama doll.
It seems as though we have hardly fallen asleep when someone yells “Merry Christmas!” We jump out of bed unmindful of the cold floor, race down the stairs and jam up at the bottom. The door flies open and we tumble over one another onto the living room floor. Amid laughter and shouts we tear open the packages and there among the ribbons and bows is a celluloid donkey who will walk by himself down an incline shaking his head from side to side as he walks. Also, there is a wooden penguin which waddles stiffly down a slanted plane but disdains to move his head. There are round cakes of paint glued to a cardboard strip with a brush attached which loses its bristles the first time you paint with it. A magic paint-with-water book makes beautiful red, green and blue pictures appear when painted with nothing more than water. There is a Jew’s-harp for our youngest brother, who has learned to play the instrument without knocking his teeth out. There is a harmonica for Doug who plays certain romantic “Big Band Tunes.” There are fancy bottles of ten-cent store perfume, one shaped like a violin, the other like a flower. This we girls will splash on the new lace hankies. There is a little rabbit fur monkey which climbs up a string and stinks so of strong glue that we can hardly stand the smell of him. We went along for years thinking that was the way all real monkeys stank. Then there are the usual necessities like sock, caps, scarves and mittens.
Suddenly we turn our attention to the vicinity of the fireplace. Maggie has just discovered the coal that John has placed in her stocking the night before. She’s yelling at the top of her lungs that she is going to slaughter him. There they are, both of them, squared off to do battle. John is in his underwear with his trap door ajar and flopping with every little dance he does, and Maggie is in her shift with a garland round her head. She is a make believe snow princess straight off the make believe stage turned into a she-devil. We all sit waiting for a repeat of World War I, however, Pa quickly nips all that in the bud as he firmly but calmly states, “Now you’ve said your little piece for the day and you don’t need to get into politics.” He punctuated his statement by vigorously shaking down the ashes in the grate.
We find our stocking with the orange in the toe and the fat Brazil nuts … There are miniature wax bottles filled with sweet colored sugar water. You could only get one little sip from each bottle, but we chewed the wax afterward. Hard candy of every description filled the sock, compliments of Clarence Scott’s store which is now Dame’s. Clarence always gave Pa a couple of bags of candy for promptly paying his grocery bill. Some people only got one bag and we somehow thought they must not be as honest as Pa. It never entered our heads that it could possibly be because we had more kids. Well, we eat candy until we are sick and it is time for dinner.
We sit down to dinner of roasted turkey, dressing and gravy. The white damask tablecloth is on the dining room table and set with Ma’s best Depression and carnival glass and a special cut glass berry bowl filled with strawberries canned during the summer.
Finally, darkness descends upon us and fills each and every corner of the dining room. The lamps are lit and once again a grand Grand Traverse Christmas has come and gone.
Excerpted from “The Way It Was: Memories of My Childhood at Grand Traverse Lighthouse,” by Bette McCormick Olli (Lighthouse Publications, 1990).
Source: the article above appeared in December 2015 on www.mynorth.com (see link below) from an article written by Elizabeth Edwards. Grand Traverse Lighthouse is located in northern Michigan along Lake Michigan
Photo Above: Grand Traverse Lighthouse (Source: grandtraverselighthouse.com)