Holiday Memories: Pearl Harbor |

Holiday Memories: Pearl Harbor

Ellen Nelson

Christmas was just a few weeks away. I was 12. My three brothers and I looked forward to a happy celebration with family and friends.

Then on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor forced the United States into World War II. I didn’t know where that base was, but like most Americans, I was surprised and angry about the sneak attack. What a rotten thing to do! “Happy Holidays” was replaced with “Remember Pearl Harbor.” Christmas wouldn’t be the same. Indeed, Christmas was very different at our house.

My father was a Navy veteran of World War I, but that conflict ended before he saw combat. He used to joke about how he “joined the Navy to see the world, went to Pensacola, swept up the yard, won the war and came home.” Now, he joined men and women from all walks of life who rushed to our nation’s defense in 1941. He tried to enlist but was turned down as being too old. Thus he was denied a second chance to physically fight for his family and country. In his mind he was a failure.

Dad suffered a severe nervous breakdown just before Christmas and was confined at the veterans hospital many miles north of our home in Atlanta. It was a long journey by streetcar and bus to visit him. The visits seemed futile. He ignored our presence and seldom spoke. Doctors said nothing could be done; dad had lost his will to live and was fading away. They offered little hope for his recovery. All we could do was pray.

Medical expenses were high. Mother thought celebrating Christmas was out of the question. She said we simply couldn’t afford it. However, my 10-year-old brother, Jack, and I convinced her to let us put up a tree and decorate the house as usual. We didn’t need presents; we only wanted dad to get well and come home. We all agreed, however, there had to be gifts under the tree for our baby brother, Henry, since he still believed in Santa Claus.

We even took dad a tiny, decorated Christmas tree, hoping it would lift his spirits. His eyes brightened, and he smiled slightly as we placed it on the windowsill in his hospital room. Ever since seeing that little glimmer of joy in dad’s eyes, a Christmas tree, whatever its size or shape, has been symbolic of hope to me.

“He’s going to get well, Mom. He’s going to come home,” I said.

Dad did recover fully and resumed is role as loving husband, father and eventually grandfather. He continued to work as an acclaimed commercial artist for the Atlanta newspapers until his retirement in 1970 at age 82.

The family love and sharing of burdens that year turned a potentially sad Christmas into a happy event after all … certainly a memorable one … and emphasized the power of hope and prayer to overcome obstacles.

Ellen Nelson of Carson City is retired from the Legislative Counsel Bureau. Her husband Glen is office manager for Garretson & Furgerson Construction. They had four children, two sons and two daughters and twelve grandchildren. One of their sons died in July of this year.