Note to readers: This column is dedicated in loving memory to Linda Shepard Roberts, who lost her fight with cancer on Jan. 2, 2010 in Sisters, Oregon. Linda was one of the first friends I met when we moved to South Beach in 1983. Even though she enjoyed most of my columns, this story, written for the News-Times in 1987, was her favorite. Perhaps it was a reminder of her own childhood. Linda lived in Newport for years and was special to many, especially when she was director of the Lincoln County Animal Shelter.
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For many people, a fireplace is no longer such a big deal. But in the 1930s only the well to do in my Nebraska hometown had fireplaces in their homes. Our old frame house, built by my Swedish grandfather at the turn of the 20th century, was heated by a belching coal furnace in the basement.
The December I was 5 years old, I asked my father how Santa Claus could possibly come down a chimney if there wasn’t a chimney for him to come down. As the only girl in a family of boys, there was no doubt who was the apple of his eye, and there was no doubt in my mind about the reality of Santa Claus.
“Well,” said my father, lifting me into his lap, “Santa has ways of doing what he does, but maybe it’s time we helped him out a bit.”
Dad then disappeared into his basement workshop after issuing orders for all of us to stay out. A few days later, a “fireplace” miraculously appeared in our dining room. By pulling the big oak drop-leaf table out into the middle of the room — where it usually stood for company meals — the fireplace fit neatly against the dining room wall. I could not believe its beauty.
It didn’t matter to a girl of five that it was constructed out of orange crates and covered with paper that resembled red bricks. It didn’t matter that the “fire” consisted of wadded-up red cellophane that glowed because of a light bulb hidden behind it. To me, it was the most glorious fireplace in town.
That December, I sat before the fireplace for hours every evening, Saturday mornings and before church on Sundays, dreaming of Santa Claus and fantasizing like crazy.
If I tipped my head toward the ceiling, I could almost hear the sound of reindeer hooves on the roof. I knew the red bricks were only paper, but that didn’t mess up the fantasy. I could smell the wood burning and hear the flames crackling. For kids with big imaginations, the world of pretend can be a full one.
The picture was completed by Dad sitting in his overstuffed chair reading the newspaper, but returning my ear-to-ear grin whenever I looked his way. One cold, snowy evening, as Christmas neared, my brothers were playing Monopoly at the kitchen table. Mom was knitting, and I was in my usual position in front of the fireplace. Dad walked into the room carrying a magazine.
“Why don’t we turn down the lights a bit.” he said to our mom. “I want to read something special to my little girl.”
It was the first time I knew of the poem, “Twas The Night Before Christmas.” The sound of it in my father’s deep voice was the most amazing thing I had ever heard.
By the time he got to the part about “the stockings were hung by the chimney with care,” my brothers had entered the room and were sitting cross-legged next to me, elbows on their knickered knees, eyes fixed on the “flames.”
For a few years after that, The Fireplace was set up every Christmas by popular demand and a certain amount of whining — mostly from me. Eventually, the red brick paper disintegrated, and the orange crates ended up as go-carts.
But in my memory, The Christmas Fireplace is still there against the dining room wall, and a little girl is sitting cross-legged, gazing dreamily into the glowing red cellophane.
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Merry Christmas everyone!
Bobbie Lippman is a professional writer who lives in Seal Rock with her cat, Purrfect. She is the author of “Good Grief: A Collection of Stories As One Woman Journeys From Heartbreak To Healing Through Honesty and Humor.” The book, with all proceeds going to Rotary International Foundation, is available on Amazon, at JC Market in Newport and directly from Bobbie, who can be contacted at [email protected]