by: Wes Ishmael

When you're blessed with family and friends, it's hard to imagine life any other way. Conversely, such blessings are too easily taken for granted amid life's constant striving.

My Mom, Virginia Lee Alley was born on the Arrington Ranch in Barber County, Kansas. Her Dad (my Grandpa), T.O. Alley—a baby when his folks and siblings moved to Oklahoma from Tennessee around the turn of the last century—and her Mom, Eva (my Grandma), were a pair to draw to—loving, honest to the core, straightforward, full of laughter and plumb tough. As a young man, Grandpa cowboyed for the Matador Ranch in Texas. Eventually, he was foreman of the Z Bar Ranch at Barber County, which included the aforementioned Arrington Ranch. His younger brother, my Uncle Lester, was foreman for the Z Bar at Strong City. Both ended up with their own ranches by the time I got to know them. Grandma and Grandpa Alley's was near Alta Vista, Kansas, while Uncle Lester and Aunt Viva ran cows near Cunningham.

I got to know the rest of the family—the ones I never met—through Mom's memories, her way with words and her desire that us kids would always remember where we came from. What follows are some of her Christmas memories from the manuscript of an autobiography she completed about a week before she passed away in 2008.

This Christmas, Hooter and I wish each of you the joy and comfort of such memories.

Christmas Eve was always celebrated at a little two-room country school called Bethel School House out in the middle of Greggs' pasture. Grandma and Grandpa always furnished the tree and it was always set up the night before the service. Grandma and Aunt Maude made bushels of popcorn balls, and every man woman and child went home with one (or more). The school tree and remaining popcorn balls were taken home after the service; the tree was reassembled for the Alley Family Christmas the next day.

Mom would drape yards and yards of red and green Christmas rope (crisscross) across several rooms and adorn them with icicles that were very evenly spaced. She had the beautiful old fashioned bells that folded flat for storage, but opened up into lovely decorations and they hung from the middle of the rooms, graced windows, or brightened up any other spot that she thought needed a cheerful note. A good sized tree loaded down with ornaments was the final addition and our home was a place of real beauty. I still marvel at the time and effort it took to accomplish all of that, but hard work never fazed my Mother.

Grandma and Aunt Maude started making candy, including taffy, divinity, fudge and a caramel candy that was called divinity but was more like caramel fudge. We had peanut brittle, peanut clusters, you name it. The narrow little staircase that led upstairs was surrounded on three sides by a walkway and there was a window in the north end. It was colder than an igloo up there, the perfect place to store candy.

Gifts were bought and wrapped. Whether it was a 10-cent piece of hair ribbon or a three-dollar cap, everybody who came for Christmas got a gift.

When we were fairly young, we had our visit from Santa Claus on Christmas morning. Christmas Eves were full of orders to, “Get to bed, you don't want Santa Claus to see you still up or he won't leave you any presents.” All of the excitement made it hard to sleep and it didn't take me long to figure out that my parents and Santa Claus were in cahoots. I would hear a doll cry, a wind-up tractor crawl its way across a table or a muffled “pow-pow” as one of Santa's helpers made sure a cork-gun was in good working order for its recipient. I remember hearing my Dad laugh and Mother's ever present “Shhhh!” Sleep eventually overtook me and before I realized it, that awaited moment had arrived. What glorious times they were as we tore into all of our gifts. Mom had to get breakfast for all of us and Dad and the boys had to hurry off and get the cattle fed so we could go to our respective Christmas dinners. In an effort to simplify the whole thing, Mother finally made arrangements with Santa Claus (how convenient) to come to our house on Christmas Eve. That worked better for everyone concerned. Everybody had time to enjoy the festivities and eat all of the candy and nuts they could hold. Mom bought pounds of hard candy, nuts of every kind, orange slices, peanut clusters and Christmas chocolates that were so icky-sweet that I can hardly stand to think about them even today. Huge mixing-bowls of the stuff were everywhere, and more huge bowls of it went to the bunkhouse. Everybody was on a sugar high for weeks.

After the cattle were fed on Christmas morning, we always went to Grandma and Grandpa Alley's where the whole family gathered with covered dishes, gifts and good spirits. Everyone brought food that would go with the Alleys enormous roast turkey. Grandma also made lots of trips to the cave (what they called the cellar) to add whatever else was needed. Lots of relatives and friends showed up, and it was a wonderful get-together.

My Granddad always managed to meet every carload and lift each child out of the car and kiss them before he set them down. What a beautiful man he was, and his joy of having you with him was so apparent that it would have been impossible to have felt other than blessed and very, very special.

Grandma and Aunt Maude met you at the door with a hearty Merry Christmas and ushered you inside to greet the others.

Grandma always hung a giant white fold-out paper bell over the dining room table. A beautiful feast was served about 1:00. After Grandpa said Grace the banquet was on. Everyone filled their plates and ate wherever they could find a place to sit down. It didn't matter if you sat on stair-steps, on a bed, the floor, or wherever. We were together and we loved it. Where there are Alleys, there's always laughter and I consider it one of our greatest attributes.

After dinner, the dishes were done. Just as the last dish was put away, we would hear bells jingling and Santa Claus would come racing into the house with a big sack of gifts on his back. We were always in a state of awe that he could know just when to arrive. He sat on a few laps, allowed a few of the ladies to feel of his beard and handed out goodies in his sack. Then Santa left with a lot of Ho-Ho-Ho's! Everybody yelling, “Goodbye, Santa Claus. See you again next year!” Another little oddity was that my Aunt Eula or one of my many cousins arrived about a half hour after Santa Claus's departure. How strange!

After Santa came there were presents under the family tree for everyone, even though there was always lots of us. Often that tree held the most unbelievable treasures. One year Grandma took plum crates and built Edna Mae and I a doll trunk. Mine was royal blue with black trim; I still have it.

After the presents, we feasted on that good homemade candy: clothesline taffy, peanut brittle, divinity, a light brown candy that Grandma called divinity, but wasn't, Aunt Maude's homemade marshmallows with toasted coconut on them, and those good popcorn balls. What a monumental job to make enough for a crowd of this size, but to think they had made enough for the Bethel Sunday School Group to have on Christmas Eve the night before as well.

Before the afternoon was over (sooner or later) you would see Grandma in her rocking chair surrounded by her three boys and all of them enjoying their time together to such a degree that they were hardly aware of anyone else. It was a beautiful thing to see and I will never forget the happiness on those faces as they fellowshipped together.

Those are days that I'll never forget. It was a weary crew that fell into bed that night, and another Alley Christmas went down for history. Thank you, God, for loving us and for giving us such a wonderful family. Most of all, thank you for making us your family.

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