Just Gramps and me for Christmas
December 14, 2007
My big, black horse, Spades, put his head down and pulled us up the steep incline, blasts of condensation coming from his nostrils in regular rhythm, just like the chuffing of a steam locomotive leaving the station. It was a good 5 below 0, with about a foot and a half of new, dry snow on the ground and no wind. Gramps led the way, riding his bay horse, Slim, and between the cold and the new snow, it was about as close to perfect as it ever gets.
We crossed a low ridge and ducked down a draw into Collins Creek, with gobs of snow occasionally spiraling up from the horses’ hooves and landing in our laps, or hitting us on the arm or chest. The steepness of the descent made the horses dance in a way reminiscent of first tracks down a slow-moving powder run, and the silence made it all surreal.
The beauty, the richness of the ride was soon interrupted by the deep and compelling voice of Granddad, calling me to address the purpose of our journey. “Whaddya think of that one?” or, “That one looks pretty good, huh,” he said as we traveled up the creek bottom. The Christmas tree closest to home was as good as any, and with a whack of his hatchet and a toss of his lariat, we headed for home, Gramps dragging the tree behind his horse.
We were a two-man team, and once Grandpa got the tree situated in a living room corner, we climbed the narrow stairs to the third floor and dragged down the decorations. The yearly trees, as I’ve come to realize from looking at old photographs, were less than stellar, and to say they were ragged and nonsymmetrical might even be kind. But, by God, we thought they were good, and as Gramps sat in his rocker, puffing on his pipe, hollering out suggestions here and there about what ornaments to put where, we thought it entirely possible that we might be on the verge of creating a masterpiece.
My grandfather lived alone in a very large, five bedroom house and Christmas Day was the one time of the year when all of the family got together. For Gramps and me, once we got the tree up, that was pretty much the end of Christmas between us, mostly I guess ’cause he and I operated alone all the time and having family around threw us off our game. Although, when I was 8, he gave me one of those great Schwinn bikes, a used one because no one knew how I was going to react.
One year, I had a great urge to do something special for him, and why I did it, I’ll never know, but with the help of my dad,I made him a candle holder out of an old piece of wood I’d found along the way. I gave it to him early, hoping he’d put it on the library mantle with other Christmas stuff, and sure enough, there it was when the family showed up, complete with red candles, ready to be lit.
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I figured we’d witness that unique tallow bearer every year after that, sort of a tradition like some of the other decorations, but Granddad died before he saw another Christmas. Several years later, we moved into his “big” house, and my mother surprised me by setting out my childish rendition of a candelabrum, which had been languishing in a ranch shed since Granddad’s demise.
In the end, it’s safe to say the candle holder became a tradition after all, as I’ve kept an eye on it since. Just today, I gathered in Gramps’ candle holder, rubbed the dust off and set it up on a living room table. It doesn’t say nearly as much about Christmas as it incongruously does about Gramps and me, two lonesome ol’ cowboys who loved livin’, and whose destinies and memories will hopefully live on after my daughter inherits the damned thing.
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