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Heaven Country Cousins
By Jan Ross

The words "Over the River and Through the Woods" have special meaning to me. Our grandparents had all passed on, but we had something better--cousins who lived in the country. Allow me the privilege of reminiscing just a bit....

It was like clockwork. You could count on it year after year. Early, before the sun rose, we would get up and sneak into the living room. The streetlight reflected off the white snow creating a mysterious spotlight on the tree and all that lay beneath.

Dad always heard the scampering of our feet and got out of bed to get his movie camera ready. He soon appeared with the light-bar and camera to capture us peeking at the names on all the packages under the tree. Of course, there were no sneaky pictures back then. We became good actors under Dad's direction.

As soon as he flipped the switch on the wall, the tree lit up and the Christmas train began its journey around and around and around the tree. Each year Dad added one or two more cars to the Christmas train. He loved his trains. Any other time, the basement was filled with trains and landscape scenery, and the sound of cars chugging around the tracks.

The handmade stockings were hung on the fireplace, where the embers from the fire the night before were still smoldering. A quick poke and a smattering of fresh kindling, and the fire was blazing once again.

The glass of milk and small plate of homemade cookies left for Santa were mysteriously empty, an obvious sign he'd been at our house. Dad once again turned on the light-bar and aimed the camera at the hallway. Mom emerged--the light of his life until the day he died.

Aunt Lu always spent the night on Christmas Eve. She didn't have a family of her own and was very involved in ours. She babysat us while Mom and Dad visited with friends and neighbors on Christmas Eve, their own adult tradition. Presents for her were included under the tree.

Mom was quite the decorator. Her tree was always done exquisitely with blue and green lights, blue and green glass balls, and silver tinsel. The star on top stood out in contrast; it was only by Dad's insistence she even allowed it. In later years, she called it the "sputnik" because it reminded her of a satellite. I'll never forget the scowl on her face every year he stood on a chair to put it on top of the tree. I look back and realize he probably loved watching Mom's scowl more than he loved the ornament. He was a tease--always!

Mom brought out some hot chocolate and kuchen for us to nibble on while we opened presents. We were giddy with delight and couldn't wait to see who would be first. We took turns--it was Mom's way of keeping order in her family. One gift at a time was opened, while all looked on with excitement under the hot floodlights.

Before long, all the fancy wrapping was gone and toys were stowed away under the tree. It was time to get ready for Church. Adorned with our Christmas outfits, we walked into the Church and took our usual seat in the third row on the right side of the sanctuary. Although the sanctuary was cold, Mom always made us take off our coats so everyone could see our new outfits.

Immediately after the service, we went back home. The tree looked different in full daylight. Now that the excitement was over, the magic of beautifully-wrapped gifts was gone. Dad turned on the train again as it began its eternal journey around the tree; he sat down with a cup of coffee to admire his new cars. Mom and Aunt Lu were busy in the kitchen making a snack before we left for Uncle Ray's.

The trunk of the car was already packed with ice skates, scarves, gloves, hats, leggings, and boots. Dad tied the toboggan atop the car. A quick bite to eat and we were on our way--over the river and through the woods to Uncle Ray's country home.

The trip usually took about two hours--probably the longest journey we knew as children, not because of the distance, but the anticipation of what lay ahead caused us to count the minutes until we turned down the familiar dirt road.

I couldn't wait to see Fred, my favorite cousin. His older brother, Larry, was okay, but he wasn't too interested in us until we got out on the ice. Boys from a neighboring farm joined us on the ice for a wild and frenzied time of hockey. Larry loved ice hockey, and although we only played once or twice a year, he considered us ample opponents since he could hit the puck right past us every time. Arlene was my shining star. She skated like a ballerina, so light on her feet; she was so beautiful.

Fred and I usually left the game--the older boys were too aggressive for us. We loved the barn and we'd climb in the hay, swing from a rope tied to the rafters, tumble a few times, and run through the snow back to the house. Back and forth, running and throwing snowballs, and working up an appetite for Christmas dinner.

Eventually, Uncle Ray stepped out the back door and rang the big cast iron dinner bell. Its bellow could be heard all around.

Everyone came running, tracking snow and ice into the basement door. We all brought our frozen gloves upstairs and laid them on the open oven door to dry while we ate. We didn't want to have to wait any longer than necessary to return to the winter wonderland of snow, hills, ice, and fun.

When everyone was finally seated at the huge, crowded dining room table, Uncle Ray stood to ask the blessing.

"Lord, we thank thee for this food, for family and friends, for memories of Christmas past and for the joy of fellowship today. We give thee thanks for thy Son, Jesus Christ, whose birth we celebrate together as family. For thy bountiful blessings, we give thee thanks. Amen."
JAN ROSS is a writer, musician and ordained minister. Jan has a burning passion for building and strengthening women through teaching, personal ministry and speaking, both at home and on the mission field. Jan is President of Heart of God International Ministries. http://heartofgodinternational.com If you would like to write to Jan, you can do so through the Letters page of this magazine.