Each year at Christmastime, my mom’s side of the family would get together at my Aunt Oria and Uncle Ivan’s house in Johnson City, Tennessee. Aunt Oria and Uncle Ivan lived in the historic Tree Streets neighborhood, on Maple Street, and they were gracious hosts. Their house was about a block from East Tennessee State University, near the Sigma Chi house. It had a lovely front porch that featured an amazing swing. At least half of the world’s problems were solved on that front-porch swing during some of our family gatherings over the years.
Aunt Oria and Uncle Ivan were actually my great aunt and uncle, respectively. Uncle Ivan was my Grandmother Hale’s brother—he was the oldest child in their family—but because my mom was an only child, her aunts and uncles were like our “first” aunts and uncles. Aunt Oria was a petite woman with beautiful porcelain skin, on which she used Oil of Olay products. (I remember asking her as a young woman.) For as long as I can remember, she walked with a limp, which my mother said was the result of a hip surgery. Uncle Ivan was a quiet, gentle, kind man. He loved to tell jokes and had quite a collection of them ready to share. He had an impressive library of National Geographic magazines, which was kept in the basement of the house. I remember seeing rows and rows of the bright yellow magazine spines, all neatly placed on shelves and in order. Another thing I remember was that by the door to the basement—right off of the kitchen—was the telephone and an area for taking messages, complete with a wall-mounted pencil sharpener. It was the kind a kid like me would see in a classroom, and I thought it was the coolest thing, to have a pencil sharpener like that on the wall of the house.
Aunt Oria and Uncle Ivan had two children, Carolyn and Gerald, mom’s first cousins. Carolyn and Gerald both lived away, so we usually only saw them on holidays and other special occasions, and sometimes during the summer. I still keep in touch with Carolyn and her sweet family, though, sadly, Gerald passed away many years ago and is buried by Aunt Oria and Uncle Ivan in Sulphur Springs. Along with Aunt Oria and Uncle Ivan’s family, other relatives who might be in attendance at the annual Christmas gatherings included my grandmother’s other siblings, Aunt Edith and Aunt Frances, and Aunt Frances’ family. Aunt Frances, her husband, Uncle C.T., and their family all lived away when I was younger, so it was a special time when they were in town as well. Mom’s cousins Carolyn and Catherine had children—all girls, our second cousins—so when they were in town, it was fun to have other kids to play with.
The house on Maple Street was a large house, and being so close to the university, Aunt Oria and Uncle Ivan took in boarders when I was younger. This intrigued me as a child, to see strangers coming and going from a separate entrance in the back of the house. The boarders—ETSU students—used the back staircase and had their own kitchen and everything upstairs. Back downstairs, in the hallway, a spring of mistletoe would be hanging on the light fixture at Christmastime. We’d pass under it as we went to the downstairs bedroom, where we’d place our coats and bags. In the living room, a small- to medium-sized artificial tree would be decorated with white lights and ball ornaments to the side of the fireplace, by the entrance to the dining room. In front of the fireplace was one of Aunt Edith’s beautiful white ceramic nativities. More Christmas ceramics of Aunt Edith’s—including little white angels—were on display in the living room as well.
On the other side of the large room, past the entrance to the hallway, was the piano. It was a grand, and the lure of the piano was often too strong for little kids to resist. Oh, how patient Aunt Oria and Uncle Ivan must have been! And then, there was the cuckoo clock. It was on the wall, above the doorway as you entered the hall. As children, we would gather to watch in wonder as the little bird would come out to announce a new hour or even a half-hour. I remember hearing the very start of a cuckoo, and running with great speed to catch the tail end of an announcement. To this day, any cuckoo clock I see takes me right back to Aunt Oria and Uncle Ivan’s house on Maple Street.
Of course, a big part of these holiday gatherings included dinner, which as a child was not my favorite part. Ha! The grown-ups would sit in the formal dining room, and us kids would sit at a small table in the kitchen area. I remember just trying to get through dinner so we could go to the dessert table, which was sometimes set up in a back room adjacent to the kitchen. After dinner, the ladies would clean up the dishes while we kids, who sometimes helped, waited in agony for the gift exchange, at times trying to snoop under the tree. A few times, we would put together a little Christmas play to perform for the adults before opening presents. Mom was known for bringing calendar towels (remember those?), thin mints and chocolate-covered cherries for everyone. Among my favorite gifts ever received at these family get-togethers were pencils with my name on them from Aunt Edith.
Aunt Oria and Uncle Ivan always did a wonderful job of getting the family together. They had a fantastic house for gatherings, and I sometimes drive by it when I’m in Johnson City, remembering our lovely family and the special times we shared there together. What I wouldn’t give to run up on the front porch, share the swing with Aunt Oria and Uncle Ivan, see all the pretty Christmas decorations, bang out “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on the piano, and hear the cuckoo clock announce the passing of time—although I wish it would pass a little more slowly.