What a Wander-ful World
There’s no place like home for the holiday memories
By Billy Ingram
“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” – Douglas Adams
I hope you will indulge me in sharing a few Ingram family holiday customs sprinkled with a couple standalone memories that I recall from growing up here in Greensboro, likely not very different from your own yuletide rituals.
Samson’s Little Helper
Every December, my father bought by the caseload bottles of an obscure hometown original, Samson’s Sauce, from his golfing buddy, Gurney Boren. Dad’s clients very much looked forward to it because that robust, slightly-spicy steak and burger garnish was crafted in minute batches and unavailable in just any store. Since the 1960s, Boren had been brewing his father’s secret recipe in a garage behind his home at 1116 Parish St., along the southern edge of Irving Park. In the mid-1970s, as I recall, Gurney’s love for a sauce of a more spirited variety began to affect production. To make sure that his friends and colleagues didn’t go without, Dad took it upon himself to raise a few cups with Gurney inside that concrete outbuilding while bottling up as much as possible. At least that was the story Mom got after Dad would arrive home, er, sauced himself. While still relatively unheralded, Samson’s Sauce is more popular than ever today. Find it in local Bestway markets, but be sure to look for the comical label and avoid the Town & Country version. Does it taste the same as it did 50 years ago? Yep, you bet . . . and that modest garage where it all started still stands.
Mother’s Gift Book
My mom was all about Christmas, so much so she kept a loose-leaf notebook that served as her voluminous gift list, replete with notations on what she’d gifted everyone over the years. Just to be safe in case she forgot someone, she always set aside a number of presents with blank tags such as cheese straws from Carolyn Todd’s, which, she insisted, carried the only proper cheese straws. It was her favorite shop and had been at least since I was a toddler. I remember fondly that the last bill she received before passing away in January 2014 was for her charge account Christmas purchases at Carolyn Todd’s.
First thing Christmas morning, Dad would prepare a boiling pot of buttery oyster stew (not to be confused with chowder) from his mother’s recipe. Consisting of shucked oysters, evaporated milk, whole milk, butter, pepper, and topped with oyster saltines, it was a favorite of my brother and sister, who each devoured it and continue this tradition. I never did partake.
After relocating to Springfield to accept a senior position at Mass Mutual, cousin Berk Ingram gifted my parents a yearly subscription to Yankee magazine. We assumed it was a joke that this Southern boy — raised in the country like my Dad — would send us a monthly digest about Yankees. Although we were always amazed at its gorgeous illustrated covers, I don’t think a single copy was ever cracked opened. Because I’m an archivist at heart, I saved a couple of issues. But it wasn’t until decades later that I actually read a copy of Yankee only to discover it was a truly excellent magazine, one of the finest publications of that era, and still is today. Turns out, O.Henry’s founding father, Jim Dodson, wrote for Yankee in the 1980s and ’90s.
Before pre-made Chex Mix was introduced in 1985, folks used to concoct their own party mix by combining the three Chex cereals (Rice, Wheat and Corn) with pretzels and whatever else they wanted to toss in (as long as it wasn’t sweet), then bake it. My grandmother’s recipe for what we called “Trash” was a little more involved. Besides the cereals and pretzel sticks, she tossed in peanuts, Cheerios and cashews. Melt a stick of salted butter with 2 tablespoons of Lea & Perrins’ Worcestershire sauce in a roasting pan; add the dry ingredients using a spatula to turn everything over and over until fully coated; then stick that pan into a 200 degree preheated oven for an hour, mixing it all around every 15 minutes.
I spent a single Christmas in Greensboro in the 1980s. By that time my grandmother and older relatives had passed away and the cousins we had over for dinner in years previous now had families of their own. In 1987, although it was a bit pricey and the old man was kind of a cheapskate, Dad sprung for Greensboro Country Club’s complete turkey dinner for a family of five to-go, with all the fixings, including those wonderful walnut sweet rolls their chef made for dessert. Unfortunately, we cut into the turkey and discovered it was raw in the middle, so we popped it into the oven until it was fully cooked. No harm, no fowl. Then again, these were the days when you thawed the bird for a few hours on the kitchen counter. Other families weren’t so lucky and became stricken with food poisoning. It wasn’t the club’s fault: A catering firm supplied the meals and provided a full refund for everyone. Dad couldn’t have been merrier!
Green Hill Cemetery
In the evening on Christmas Day, pretty much the entire family would congregate at Mom and Dad’s place to share stories about what had transpired over the course of what was always an abundant and somewhat magical time. At some point, we’d all pile into cars and head over to Green Hill to pay our respects to beloved, never-forgotten family members. One year the graveyard was padlocked early and we were stuck on the wrong side of the gates — inside not outside! Fortunately, this was in the mid-1990s, when cell phones were just beginning to come into general use. One of us actually had one handy so we were sprung by the GPD pretty quickly.
A Christmas Miracle?
Every holiday, it seems I’m the recipient of what I call a “Christmas miracle.” Nothing major, some unexpected cash when I expected to be broke, hearing one of only two Christmas songs recorded after the early-sixties that I actually enjoy (“Father Christmas” by Emerson, Lake & Palmer and “Christmas Wrapping” by The Waitresses), the rarer-by-the-year white Christmases. Like I said, no big deal, just something that sweetens the season.
Then there was this: The first Christmas Day after my mom died, I was taking a stroll around the neighborhood. It was frigid that afternoon and I thought to myself, “If Mother was alive, she’d be telling me to wear a hat because all of your body heat escapes from your head.” She insisted that this was true, but I’m not so sure. As I was passing the Blandwood Mansion, something caught my eye. Lying atop the lush, green lawn was a brand-new, red knitted cap, price tag still attached. Not something I’d ordinarily wear, but definitely an item my mother would have purchased for me.
We all accept there’s no going home again. The closest we’ll come is at the holiday season, when cherished memories and treasures both great and small may allow for a lingering glow from candles lit long ago. OH
Billy Ingram wishes each and every one of you the happiest holiday season possible.