“Above the chimney’s yawning throat, Shoulder high like the dark wainscot, was a mantel of polished oak.”…….Amy Lowell
I don’t recall exactly when my husband , Jack, began to put all of his treasures on the mantel but I think it was in 1970, shortly after we moved to Muncy, Pennsylvania. That December, I put the first Christmas decoration I had purchased after we were married to decorate our house on the mantel. It consisted of green ceramic letters that spelled out N-O-E-L. I was in awe of myself that it was still in tact seventeen years later after three children and ump-teen moves. I stood back to admire it and my mind flooded with memories of past Christmases. The next day when I returned from work, it had conveniently been changed around to spell L-E-O-N. I heard snickers coming from my seventh grade son, Ed, his Dad and his younger brother, John, so I was pretty sure who the culprits were. I laughed (not so hardily) and put them back in their proper place. Our daughter, Cindy, was in my corner and gave them a distasteful look assuring them that they had been caught. This would become a tradition in our house with our children. They would change them to LEON and I would switch them back to NOEL. It became a game to see who would finally fold and leave them the way they were found. This tradition would continue in our family for years and is still quite alive.
Something else began to happen that Christmas. Everything that the children gave my husband, it would somehow wind up on the mantel. The first gift that I recall was a little metal tennis player that was made out of nuts and bolts. It went straight to the mantel. Next came a small statue of The Thinker, up it went to its place of glory on the mantel. Our kids then began giving him things that they thought might make the mantel cut. One year, our youngest son, (who by then was a senior in college), presented him with a ceramic hobo hanging onto a lamppost that played “It’s Three o’clock in the Morning.” Yep, you’re right, it went straight to the mantel and continued to sing every hour on the hour.
Then came the trophies. Every baseball trophy that my youngest son won was placed with high esteem on the mantel. One of the trophies that my husband was the most proud of and remained on the mantel the longest was one that he and Heinz Backhus won by winning a tennis tournament in town. They had to play the hottest tennis players on Muncy High School’s tennis team. Now, mind you, there was probably at least a twenty year gap between them and their opponents. His doubles partner, Heinz Backhus, figured out that he could shorten the gap. He made arrangements to play these young men at seven o’clock in the morning after they had been out all night at their Senior Prom. Well, it worked. The young men ran out of gas and Heinz and Jack won the covetous trophy. Did they cheat? Absolutely not, Heinz explained by simply saying that it made the match even.
Then came the US Air Force Academy Sword that our son, Ed, had carried in a review while he was a cadet there. It made my husband one proud poppa that he gave us that sword and had engraved it for us. It still hangs over our mantel to this day. It serves as a symbol of what hard work and a good attitude can do for one.
Our kids tried to find gifts for him that were mantel-worthy. If it made the cut, and it always did, they would laugh and snicker when it went on the mantel-of-famous-gifts. They thought that he wasn’t aware of their little antics, but he knew. He had learned years before about their little game and would play it to the hilt, making a big production and then place it on the mantel. I chuckle when I think about his deep bass Southern voice saying, “I’m just going to put this deal right here on the mantel.” My grown-up kids and then our grandkids would roll their eyes and snicker as they had done for years.
Every so often, I come across one of his mantel treasures that have sauntered down to the basement and long ago were hidden in the bottom of a box. It makes a smile come across my face and I can see him opening this gift, playing the game with the kids and putting it on our mantel. It was too bad that they didn’t give out Oscars for home performances because I know one would have been sitting on our mantel.
A few years ago, after my husband passed away, I gave our eldest son, Ed, our ceramic NOEL. I happened to visit his home one Christmas and there it sat, L-E-O-N, in all it’s glory on his mantel. I’m not sure if our youngest son, John, came over and changed it or if Ed’s girls had joined in the game. It didn’t matter. What mattered was that this tradition was still in tact and that some things are handed down from generation to generation. I looked again at his mantel. My son’s wife had changed it back to NOEL. I chuckled, and when no one was looking, I made my way to the mantel and lovingly changed it back to L-E-O-N. I knew they would never suspect me as the culprit.