Holiday Memories 2010: Make-do Christmas tree lives forever in her memory |

Holiday Memories 2010: Make-do Christmas tree lives forever in her memory

Courtesy Pamela Castner remembers this make-do Christmas tree made out of cactus wood.

By Pamela Castner

During the early 1960s, I was a young girl living in Hawaii. My father was a chief in the Navy and attached to a submarine named “The Growler,” which is in a museum today in New York. This was during the middle of the Vietnam War and the Cuban Missile Crisis, and before the Navy had two crews for their submarines, so my Dad was never home. It was about the third year in a row he wasn’t going to be home for Christmas, but this year, he was coming home toward the end of January.

Christmas trees were really expensive. They had to be shipped and usually were about half dead by the time they made it to the islands. Add the heat and you were lucky if the needles stayed on by Christmas. My mother was a very creative person and decided we would make a tree that would last until Dad got home so we could share a little bit of the holidays with him.

We were living in Navy housing up by Salt Lake, a natural salt lake inland from the ocean. Back then, the land all around the lake was undeveloped and we even had an old Army bunker in our backyard that we played war games in. All around the lake were cactus plants. When the cactus died, the skin would fall off and the wood underneath looked like lace. So, Mom had my brothers and me go out and collect all this dead cactus wood. I remember using my little red wagon to bring the wood back home and piling it up outside of our lanai (patio).

We cleaned all the wood and then wired it together forming a trunk, branches and limbs. It was about 6 feet tall when we were finished.  After the structure was made, we spray painted the whole tree silver and used tin foil as the Christmas skirt. 

When it came to decorating it, Mom wanted to use one of her favorite colors. So we used hot pink bulbs, ribbons and strings of beads to decorate our ever-lasting tree. Boy, was Dad surprised when he finally got home. Mom and I never wanted to take our tree down, and in my heart, it will always be my special Hawaiian Christmas.

• Pamela Castner lives in Dayton.

A visit from an angel

By James McMullen

The year was 1935 in the city of Lawrence, Mass. Textile mills were the source of employment. When the mills were running at a profit, the city was in good shape. America was trying to slowly recover from the effects of the Great Depression. Lack of orders forced the mills to close. Unemployment became a reality – no work, no money, bills had to go unpaid.

Unable to buy food, some families were on the brink of starvation. In those days, there was no safety net – no unemployment insurance, no food stamps. The city welfare soon ran out of money. Desperation was more than a word, it was a feeling that self-worth and human dignity were being lost.

Our family consisted of Mom, Dad, myself, my older brother Don and three sisters. I was 6 years old and unaware that bad things were happening that were beyond the power of Mom and Dad to fix. Our family had the same problems common to most in the city – just trying to survive until things got better. The outlook was bleak, but somehow, our family was managing to survive.

It was now Christmas Eve, the weather had turned nasty. A winter blizzard was in the making. Wind was making high-pitched sounds as it hurled cold, wet snow against windows and doors. Our family was huddled around the oil-burning stove trying to stay warm. We children were waiting for bedtime where bedcovers might provide more warmth.

Mom’s face looked sad. She must have been thinking how to explain to us children there would be no Santa Claus or presents this year. Mom’s problem was worrying how to feed her family at Christmas on a jar of peanut butter and a few rolls. It was silent in our house, really nothing to talk about, just resignation as to what would happen next.

Earlier in the day, Mom told us kids that tomorrow was our Lord’s birthday, and to try to think of the Christ child being born in a manger. She said Jesus was born poor.

The silence was broken by Mom saying, “Dad, I think I heard a faint voice saying ‘Merry Christmas’ and a soft knock at the door.” Dad opened the door, and cold air rushed in as Dad lifted a heavy box which he brought inside. The box contained a large turkey, potatoes, gravy, stuffing and lots of other good food. The family spirit came alive. Tomorrow Christmas would be a joyous affair and empty stomachs would be filled.

To this day, I have no idea what person or persons would venture out in a winter storm, and by a single act of kindness, give our family new hope and a Christmas to remember. I believe earth angels are all around us.

• James McMullen is from Carson City.

The greatest treasure each and every day is family

By Ann Bednarski

It will be a genuine pleasure to welcome with open arms the year of our Lord, 2011. When I reflect upon this year we are about to end, I experience a whole host of emotions. It was a busy year, a difficult year, a year of surprises and the unexpected. In some ways it was a nightmare and in other ways, some dreams came true. 

I choose to focus on the surprises and leave the malicious and underhanded events to dissolve with time. You see, about one year ago today, I thought I would not see tomorrow. I did, and I will never forget the kindness friends and strangers extended to me after surgery and trying to move, unable to walk very much. They are all angels.

Until April, my life was in flux, coping was a challenge. The biggest surprise happened when I was informed I could actually become a homeowner, a dream I had abandoned several years ago. On my very little income, the dream coming true came with an enormous need to strictly adhere to my budget. I do, and happily find I enjoy doing without lots of things that eventually make life a bed of woes.

With the move came new neighbors and friends. Though it was a bit subtle, I found my priorities changed and I became a more well-rounded person participating in the community, getting involved in a church that’s like a big caring family which studies the Bible together, and helping people cope with the uncertainties of life.

With the enormous task of emptying and sorting some 30 years of stuff, I was able to relive some precious moments of my life and found many of them were associated with Christmas, the day of Jesus’ birthday. Most of them have to do with sharing the holiday with my children, and growing up in my family. I think that is how He wants us to have his birthday party.

To balance the chore of setting up a household and sorting through one box after another, I began rather haphazardly writing my memoirs. No words can describe what a cathartic experience it has been. Many chapters have been written, but there is more to write as there is still more to unpack. In both cases, it is not much, and the light at the end of the tunnel is beginning to emerge. I am not setting a date for completion of either endeavor. Rather, I find I am more focused and efficient in my writing as well as my sorting and surrendering of things, and usually feel I spent my day well when time to sleep steals me away to my dreams.

Very recently, I learned my son has cancer. He had surgery just last week and is awaiting his pathology report to learn if his battle will continue. My Gregory has a healthy pragmatic attitude, and he has the grandest will to live and raise his son. The thought of losing a son was the most astonishing reality check a parent can know. It really made me think about priorities of life.

The greatest treasures one has are their families. Nothing replaces them. Therein I find the meaning of Christmas this year, next year, and the rest of the years I have left on this earth.

• Ann Bednarski is from Carson City.

Happy memories of Christmas mishaps

By Sonja Fischer

I am reminded of the first Christmas my husband and I spent together. We were young and full of excitement. We picked out the largest silver-tip fir on the Christmas tree lot. It was very expensive, but we didn’t care. After all, it was our very first Christmas. We tied the tree to the top of our car and cautiously drove to our little apartment. We began to decorate it right after dinner. It took awhile to put on the colorful lights and hang the ornaments.

My husband hung a blue and gold paper drum he’d had since he was a child, and set it near the top, in a place of honor. I hung some glass ornaments from my childhood, which were precious to me. We had purchased new decorations, and we had tinsel hung neatly so the shiny strands glittered on each bough. On the top, we carefully placed our angel star.

After we were finished, we sat back on the sofa to admire our handiwork and were astounded when …CRASH … our beautifully decorated tree collapsed to the floor. Broken ornaments were everywhere. We soon discovered the tree stand we had purchased was much too small for our enormous silver tip. We immediately rushed down to the hardware store and it was still open. We bought the largest metal stand we could find, and Christmas was saved that year.

Years later, on another Christmas, our son came home with a black and white kitten he rescued from the streets. This kitten was very mischievous and quite frisky. He aptly named his new pet Marcus Allen, as he would briskly run around the house, and even chased after our large golden retriever.

I had placed a small nativity scene up on the fireplace mantel. It was very special to us. It was made out of an olive tree grown in the town of Bethlehem. A day or so before Christmas, I was dusting around the mantel and discovered the baby Jesus was missing from the display. I looked everywhere, thinking I might have lost it. It was only about the size of a dime. Where could it be? Then, I heard a noise from the kitchen and went to investigate. There on the floor lay the poor baby Jesus and Marcus innocently looking up at me with those big yellow eyes. He thought it was a toy, and had been playing with it on the linoleum floor. Apparently, he jumped up from our television set to the fireplace mantel, in one leap. He then grabbed the baby Jesus and ran off with him. I quickly retrieved my precious wooden nativity piece unharmed and, somehow that year, we managed to keep Marcus off the mantel until after Christmas.

This year has been a challenge as my husband was hospitalized several times. He is home now and, thankfully, recovering. I have many Christmas memories, but this year the ones that make me laugh seem to be the most memorable.

• Sonja Fischer lives in Dayton.

Sad little tree turned into joyful memory

By Donna Batis-Wungnema

I was 10 years old. The year was 1955. We had just moved from Syracuse, N.Y., to San Francisco.

My parents had packed all of our worldly possessions in the back of our 1954 red Studebaker station wagon. The only belongings we didn’t take with us were our Christmas ornaments.

I remember when the day came to get our Christmas tree. I was so excited. My dad picked out the skimpiest tree. My joy turned into sadness when he walked through the front door. I couldn’t take my eyes off the sparse tree.

Then, all of a sudden, I started crying. I thought to myself, “How are we going to decorate the tree?” We had no ornaments.

And then, to my surprise, my mom had this clever idea. She said, “We could make homemade ornaments.” I said, “How can we do that?” She began to tell me, “First we will make red and green paper chains. And second, we will make a lot of popcorn, and with a needle and thread, we will string it along with cranberries, and finally, we will make ornaments out of construction paper.”

The next day, we got all the supplies at the five and dime store except for the popcorn and cranberries. We had to get those at the grocery store.

With nimble fingers, my mom began cutting the red and green paper for the chains. She showed me how to connect each chain. While I was making the chains, she started popping the corn. After the popcorn cooled off, she created this lovely popcorn string with cranberries sprinkled in between the popcorn.

Next came the making of the ornaments. With her skillful hands, Mom cut out different shapes and designs. She punched a hole at the top of each ornament so we could hang them. For the finishing touch, she used silver and gold glitter on the ornaments.

My dad bought three strings of assorted Christmas lights. Each string of lights was unique in its own way. Some were large and some were small.

The moment came to decorate the tree. Dad put the lights on first. Then Mom put on the red and green paper chains. Next, I wrapped the popcorn and cranberry string around the tree. My brother and sister hung the ornaments, and last but not least, Dad put an angel topper on the top of the tree. The angel looked heavenly with her snow-white dress and blonde hair.

We all stood back with amazement when my dad turned on the Christmas lights. It was hard to believe that this scraggly looking tree could look so beautiful.

In the family album of the heart, there is this lasting memory that I have of that unforgettable Christmas in 1955. It was a Christmas that was one of a kind.

This story is dedicated to my mom, Arlene Batis, who passed away on June 16, 2010.

• Donna Batis-Wungnema lives in Carson City.

Little bird was a December lifesaver

By Mary Santomauro

In the late 1980s, my husband Vince and I were living in Canoga Park, Calif. One weekend, we stopped at the post office to pick up mail. As he pulled up to the curb, I called Vince’s attention to a little parakeet floundering around in the grass. It had a problem getting into flight, leaving it prey to any passing predator.

Getting out of the car, I told Vince I was going to try to catch the little bird.

Smiling broadly, he said, “Go ahead.”

As I approached, it tried again, unsuccessfully, to take flight, landing a couple of feet away.

I stopped. A second chance might be my last. I threw myself forward, reaching out with one hand. I could hardly believe I caught it, anxious about how tightly to hold it as it tried to escape. Fumbling my way off the ground, I returned to the car, bird in hand.

Vince laughed as he opened the door. “Now, what are we going to do with it? We have no bird cage.”

I just looked at him.

He said he would go get the mail, then we could go to the nearby pet store and get a cage.

After we told the surprised pet store owner why I was carrying a bird in my hands, he offered to give us the cage at half price if we would buy feed for it from him. We agreed.

In the fall, I took a job managing a mobile home park in the San Fernando Valley. Vince kept his job at a senior center in Riverside County, coming home on the weekends.

I set up the birdcage in the front room, but later, one December morning, I moved it to the back den, two steps down past the kitchen near the stove.

The next morning, when I got up, I went to feed the bird. It was dead. Naturally, I was upset. Then, thinking about it, I found it odd that it happened right after the move to that location and the only logical conclusion I could come to was that it had something to do with the stove. I promptly called the gas company to come check for a gas leak.

I had not smelled any gas, but then I had lost my sense of smell several years earlier when cleaning a bathtub with cleanser. Not happy with the outcome, I added some bleach to finish the job.

Suddenly, a yellow cloud of sulfur started billowing up in front of me and, after one breath, I raced outside, opening windows and doors as I fled the house, realizing it was only by the grace of God that I had not killed myself.

The gas company employee affirmed my suspicions. I called the park owner and advised him of what had happened.

He bought a new stove, unfortunately, too late for the friend which had saved my life.

• Mary Santomauro lives in Stagecoach.

Taking the bad with the good in life

By Ken Beaton

A part of Christmas is friends and relatives exchanging presents, getting together with food or taking advantage of the tradition under the mistletoe. There is so much excitement and anticipation before the presents are opened.

We have almost 2,000 years of Christmas songs. “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” is the top song for record and sheet music sales.

Two Reno FM radio stations have been playing continuous Christmas songs since November. Don’t forget the Christmas movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and television Christmas specials, “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer.”

It is not Christmas unless there is snow on the ground and frost in the air. People decorate while others over-decorate their homes with Christmas lights and displays. Christmas cards with an enclosed Christmas letter, a year in review of children earning a report card with

4.0 GPA or leaping tall buildings in a single bound, everything is perfect.

For years I wrote a Christmas letter to interest the reader, never bragging about my family or life. My memorable 1994 Christmas letter began, “Before you start to read this letter, sit down and brace yourself. After being married for 26 years including a silver anniversary celebration, I was told, ‘I need more space.'” Translation, I’m dumping you; I want the gold mine so you get the shaft.

Christmas is the perfect time of the year – not. Bad news never takes a vacation. I have learned a member of my high school football team died or a friend had terminal cancer in a Christmas card or letter.

Life is not perfect. Christmas is not perfect for everyone every year. If this time of the year is ever as low as you can go, seek the love and support of friends and relatives you can count on when the going gets tough, or professional counseling.

I am more excited watching a person opening a present from me than when I open my present. May the spirit of giving from your heart become a reality for you.

• Ken Beaton lives in Carson City.

Naughty and nice: Little girl gets a big surprise

By Carol Deal

I was only 8 years old when I entered our utility room and poked behind the cleaning equipment until I finally found what I had spent the last two hours searching for.

There in all their holiday splendor, colorfully wrapped and neatly stacked under the camouflage of two overturned laundry baskets, were my Christmas presents.

With the utmost care I patiently untied and unsealed each package, taking caution not to tear or break wrappings.

I couldn’t have been more excited or pleased. Each gift had been on my Santa’s list – things that I had hinted at in prior years, but never dreamed I would receive.

It had been explained to me for the last three Christmas seasons that Santa had been short of worker-elves and couldn’t make all the toys that the children around the world had asked him for.

Still, I didn’t understand why he had dropped off my gifts so early – maybe he was short of delivery elves – but there they were, everything I’d asked for, well, almost everything.

At the top of my list had been a Shirley Temple doll and the wardrobe made especially for her. But I knew that every little girl over the age of 3 was asking Santa Claus for those two presents, and I doubted there would be enough dolls to go around. I really wanted that doll, but my disappointment was soon forgotten in the excitement of the moment.

When Christmas morning arrived, I feigned delight for the benefit of my mother and father as I tore open my gifts, but inside, I felt shame. When all the presents had been handed out, I asked to be excused, muttering something about putting my new toys away.

My father stopped me and asked if there wasn’t something I wanted to tell him before I went to my room.

I looked in his eyes and knew at that moment that he was aware of what I had done, and threw myself in his arms sobbing, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’ll never do it again.”

Daddy kissed me, and assured me it was all right now. As he hugged me, he reached behind his chair and handed me a large, gaily wrapped box with the biggest bow I had ever seen. Pasted on top was a name tag in the shape of a doll with my name in bold letters.

“Here’s a gift Santa left which somehow got misplaced,” Daddy said with a twinkle in his eye.

My heart skipped a couple of beats as I ripped off the wrapping paper.

Inside the box, all buffered in pastel tissue paper, was my Shirley Temple doll. Folded neatly beside her were two additional, beautiful dresses and extra shoes and socks.

I relive that morning every Dec. 25 as I watch my grandchildren around the tree and share their expectancy and excitement. They know my story, and if it seems I love surprises a little more than most grandmas, they understand why.

• Carol Deal lives in Carson City.