For years, it was always the same. Around 8:45 in the morning, we’d pile in the station wagon and head over to church, greeted there by a couple high school students dressed as pilgrims and playing snare drums. Inside, our Congregationalist Meetinghouse was attended to by more pilgrims and a cadre of severe looking clergy in stark, black gowns.
That over with, we’d be on the road again by 10:15, driving west southwest from the Cities. Within fifteen minutes the leafless suburban trees were behind us, and we were cruising through cornfields, long since plowed under for the winter. In my memory, the drive to Gaylord is always sunny, a bright, dazzling sun, low in the Minnesota November sky, making me squint as I watched silos and barns whiz by.
Through Victoria, Waconia, Young America, Hamburg, Green Isle, and Arlington, past signs for Advent lutefisk suppers and the occasional motor lodge and supper club. After Arlington, Andrew, Ted, and I would peer from the back seat through the front windshield, looking for the first glimpse of Gaylord on the horizon: the red-capped water tower.
Dad slowed the station wagon as we approached town, rolling past the grainery and the train tracks, down Main Avenue, past Ralph Jones Motors, through the lone stop light. A right turn on 6th Street, a left on Court. Only two more blocks…
As Dad pulled the from the broad, crowned street into the driveway of 8th and Court, the back seat was a flurry of unbuckling. Mom made us come around to the back of the wagon where she’d hand us some food item or a suitcase to carry in. Then past the lamppost, up the stairs and into the breezeway.
The suburban ramblers in which I was reared didn’t have breezeways, a strange no-man’s-land between garage and house proper. Grandma and Grandpa’s breezeway had a high formica counter, several chairs, and a bench, though I don’t recall ever seeing anyone sit out there, since air conditioning arrived before I did. On Thanksgiving, the breezeway served what seemed to me its most significant annual duty: an extension of the already overstuffed refrigerator. It was a wonderland of cooling pies (pumpkin, pecan, and sour cream raisin), firming jello molds, and various other goodies.
If the odors of the breezeway were inviting, they were nothing compared to the kitchen, which we entered next. The smells were turkey, stuffing, potatos, yams (with marshmallows!), and the family’s favorite vegetable dish, the recipe for which is:
One bag, frozen vegetable medley
One jar, Cheez Whiz
One box, small croutons
In casserole, mix vegetables and Cheez Whiz, top with croutons, bake at 350 for 30 minutes
From there, the weekend took on its normal pattern. We’d hug Grandma and go say hi to Grandpa who was asleep on his Lay-Z-Boy with the newspaper over his face. Then we’d clamor downstairs to claim our beds and pull out various toys and games from our Dad’s childhood: the little steam engine build in shop class; the electric football game in which little metal players vibrated across a big metal field; the shuffle bowler; the nickel slot machine.
Upstairs, the adults drank coffee and ate pickled herring, cheese and crackers, and pickles. Then the big dinner, on china and crystal, followed by a nap on the couch (which Grandma and Grandpa inexplicably called a “davenport”), and a long walk through the vacant streets of Gaylord, wide enough to fit six cars across. Maybe throw the football in the front yard. Then pie and coffee. And a turkey sandwich before bed.
On Friday, we’d start the three-day marathon of Christmas cookie baking. Peanut butter cookies with Hershey’s Kisses; a funny glob of a cookie made with melted almond bark, cashews, and Cap’n Crunch cereal; cut-out sugar cookies in the shapes of Santa and stars and Christmas trees and, strangely, a German Schnauzer; and, the most finicky of all cookies, the spritz, for which the dough needed to be at exactly the right temperature — if not, it wouldn’t squeeze out of the spritz gun correctly.
On Friday night, we’d drive to St. Peter and eat dinner at the Holiday House Supper Club (private). Grandpa would ring the bell and a man would look through a peep hole to make sure we were members. He’d welcome us in and take Grandpa’s bottle of Old Fitzgerald to the bar for set-ups. Every year, some adult would say, “The owner’s daughter married John Denver, and he wrote ‘Annie’s Song’ about her.” Another huge meal ensued, and I remember the painful drive back to Gaylord, sure that my stomach would explode.
More cookies on Saturday, and more leftovers. On Saturday night, I’d go with Grandma over to the darkened Congregational church, where she’d arrange flowers on the altar for the next morning’s worship.
After church on Sunday, Grandma would ply us with Tupperwares full of Thursday’s remnants, scores of cookies, and always a box full of jars of homemade pickles and jams (strawberry and raspberry, with a layer of wax under the lid to ensure freshness), enough for the whole winter.
The drive back home, back to the suburbs, was quiet, but for the Vikings game on WCCO radio, and my thoughts turned to Christmas as I watched the rows of snow-dusted corn fields, my eyelids growing heavy with each passing mile.