Christmas Inspiration: White Felt Stockings for Everyone
The Story Behind Our White Felt Stockings
In our family, one of our most treasured traditions is hanging our white felt Christmas stockings up for Santa. These are no ordinary Christmas socks. They were hand-made by my Grandma Eileen, who after making them for her own children naturally made them for us too.
The "Christmas Socks" as she calls them, were made from heavy white felt that she cut with pinking shears to create a zig-zag effect on the edges. On the front of the white Christmas socks she appliqued multicolored felt pictures, ornately cut and layered and hand-sewn with beads and sequins. Each sock, though sharing the common white felt design, zig-zag edging, and turned-down cuff, was unique, just as each person was unique. And at the top of the sock, the person's name was stitched neatly in red lettering.
These Christmas socks are one of the pleasant memories that make up my early childhood. In the early 1970s, I lived with my mom, my grandmother, my grandfather, and my infant sister on an Indiana farm, where my grandfather grew rows and rows of corn in the fertile Hoosier soil. My dad, a GI, was stationed in Turkey at the time. Although he was allowed to bring his family with him, he took one look at the Turkish soldiers holding automatic machine guns on the tarmac at the base, and decided that it would be better for us to stay in the States. He never regretted this decision, but was forced to return home when his father was dying from lung cancer.The American Red Cross flew him home, and even made sure he had a little spending money to get there.
My memories of those times are sketchy. I remember the doll-sized patchwork quilt my grandma made for me out of scrap cloth from potato sacks. I remember the brilliant red robes she sewed for me and my sister, and lengthened over a three year period because we were gangly, skinny kids, and we loved those scratchy homemade polyester robes!
And I remember my grandfather before he died. He had lost all of his hair and he was worn and emaciated from the cancer. He had a soft bristled hair brush, and he would let us comb what was left of his hair. He was a gentle man. My grandma says my husband looks and acts a lot like him. I remember when my grandpa passed, I didn't feel sad, because I thought I could write him a letter in heaven. Christmas hadn't been too far in the distance, and I remembered writing a letter to Santa, who received the letter and even brought me a few of the things on my Christmas list. So writing to my grandpa Bob in heaven wouldn't be too different, and I was sure he'd write me back.
On the day when someone, maybe my father, or perhaps my grandmother, told me that I could write my grandpa Bob a letter, but he would never, ever write me back, I then understood the finality of death. I was only four years old.
My own father was only 23 or 24 years old when his father died. The Air Force reassigned him to Grissom Air Force base, named for the astronaut Gus Grissom, which was only about an hour's drive out to the farm. My grandmother moved away from the farm out on Thompson road to be closer to her work, and bought a little house on Kelly Street.
I don't remember how my grandmother took the death of her husband. I only remember weekend drives to her house where she fed us delicious home-cooked meals featuring my favorite food--corn on the cob! I remember her faded couch, which was once a shade of blue between turquoise and aquamarine. I remember her finger-rolling my wet hair and fastening it with bobby pins, so I could look just like young Shirley Temple, and I remember that she painted my fingernails red, just like hers. And I remember that she loved to feed us grapes. But grapes were a luxury, and we were only allowed to eat 20 grapes each.
Back then, I knew very little about my Grandmother's past. I knew only that she was my grandmother, and that she lived on a house on Kelly Street.
On Friday or Saturday night we watched the Jim Henson's Muppet Show on the floor in our scratchy red robes with our wet hair destined for Shirley Temple curls. On Thanksgiving Day we watched the Macey's Day Parade, and on Christmas we decorated the Christmas Tree with messy silver tinsel and hung our white Christmas socks in eager anticipation of Santa's arrival.
Everyone had a sock, except for my grandmother. My father's sock depicted a train, a Christmas tree, and a rifle, among other things. My aunt's sock has a larger Christmas tree than the rest, because hers is the first sock my grandmother made, in 1956. My sock has a little red wagon, a christmas tree, and a rocking horse. She made that one in 1972.
I called my grandmother today, who still lives in Indianapolis. I had a theory, and I needed to know if I was right.
In 1955, my grandpa was recovering from a spinal fusion in the downstairs of their white clapboard farmhouse. My father was a self-employed farmer, so they didn't have health insurance. My grandmother worked odd secretarial jobs. She was a talented typist, and typed over 100 words a minute accurately. She was organized, and smart, and was able to help pay their medical costs to the doctor who performed the surgery.
Because grandpa was recovering from the surgery, he spent two months sleeping downstairs while Grandma slept upstairs with her two children. Two days after Christmas, disaster struck. Mice from the surrounding corn fields got into the house and chewed through the electrical wiring. The house went up in flames, and they lost everything, including my grandmother's prized cedar rocking chair, which she inherited from her father, who died and left her and her three brothers orphans during the Great Depression. She lost her baby furniture: a crib, a playpen, a high chair, and the children's bronzed baby shoes.
After the first house on Thompson Road burned down, my grandma and grandpa had to rebuild their lives. My Grandma Eileen continued working as a secretary to repay medical bills, and my Grandpa Bob continued his work on the farm. They grew corn and potatoes, and raised turkeys. They kept an enormous garden and sold eggs to the grocers.
In 1956, my grandmother made her first Christmas sock. She had gotten the pattern from a friend. I have heard family stories about the devastating effects of the fire on Grandma Eileen, my dad (who was only four), and his six-year old sister. It was a trying time for a family recovering from such a loss, and maybe these stockings, so white and perfect, represented a new beginning.
Jump forward to 1983. My father once again is stationed overseas—this time in Lakenheath Royal Air Force Base, a joint venture between the British Royal Air Force and the United States military. Once again, he receives terrible news. Grandma Eileen has been diagnosed with a brain tumor, and she is going to have an operation. The chances of survival are slim.
We hurried back from England to be with my grandmother. I remember we made friends with a girl on Kelly Road who lived three houses down with her parents. We played with some scruffy boys who lived in the neighborhood and caught headlice playing with them. We caught lightning bugs and stayed a week with my Aunt Fayne and Uncle Paul. Uncle Paul was my Grandma's younger brother, and he was tall, and handsome, and had a big smile. His house had a basement, and we played Monopoly on several different days with my 13-year old cousin and her boy-next-door friend.
The surgery was a success. The tumor was removed, and she was miraculously alive.
Except, when we returned to see Grandma Eileen, she didn't look the same. One half of her face was sagging, as if she had suffered from a massive stroke. Her mouth hung down on one side, one of her eyes was sewn half-shut, and she had lost control of the entire right side of her body. Her right hand and right arm worked poorly, if at all, and she could no longer sign her name, let alone thread a sewing needle.
This was a difficult period for my grandmother. She had lost so much. She lost her father when she was 8 and had to live in the Indiana Masonic Children's Home, an orphanage in Franklin Indiana. She had lost her home in 1955. She lost her husband in 1978. And now, she had lost her mobility, her ability to walk unaided, her ability to sign her name, work as a secretary. Most of all, her prized independence.
In the years that followed, my grandmother had to learn to walk with a walker, to drink from a straw, and to use her left hand to sign her name. It has been a long, rough road. But to Grandma Eileen it was just the life she was dealt. And she knew she had to perservere.
In July 2008 my third daughter, Evangeline's sock arrived in the mail. The stitching is uneven, and the red lettering on the top of the stocking reads "Elvie."
I remembered that my Grandmother has been making these stockings with her "bad hand" for the last 25 years. And my heart softened. I imagined my grandmother holding the needle with her left hand, which she has learned to use imperfectly, and with much less precision than she'd like. But the work is so beautiful. Sometimes it takes Grandma almost five minutes to position the needle behind the felt in the proper position so she can do the quality of work she prefers. She has been comissioned to make over 30 of these stockings during the last 25 years.
When I picked up the phone today, my Grandmother remarked that she had been hassled by a telephone sales rep. He wanted her to buy handcrafts made by the handicapped. She would have liked to help out, but she was on a fixed income, and she has stockings to make.
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