Greetings, dear Reader!
My guests this week are Henry Cordes and his grandfather, James “Doompa” Luther. Henry interviews his grandpa on the topic of Christmases Past.
HC: Hey, Doompa! I’d love to know more about how “Christmas at the Hollow Tree Inn” became a tradition in our family. Do you remember who gave the book to your family in the first place? And who first read it to you?
JL: I think the book came from my mother's family, but no one still alive seems to remember. It must have first been read to me when I was about 5, when we lived in Sierra Madre, California. I say that because in my imagination the porch of the Hollow Tree Inn has always been the porch of that great old house we lived in then. The upstairs hallway there, with the bedroom doors opening out onto it on one side and a banister on the other, was always where I imagined the three Hollow Tree regulars poking their heads out to see if there was anything in their stockings.
Henry’s grandpa, wee Jim Luther (right) with his big brother, Jack. This must have been taken right around his very first Christmas.
HC: You moved to Berkeley not long after that, right?
JL: Yes, in 1942 we moved to a place in Berkeley on San Mateo Road. It was a two-story place, too. We had plenty of Christmases there. I remember my Dad setting up a spindly WWII era tree and testing the lights. Getting ready. I think this was the place and the time and the age when the expectation of Christmas really started to take hold in me and grow each year. After that was an even bigger place, with four stories if you include the big basement with its monster, octopus armed furnace and the huge attic, on Indian Rock Avenue, Berkeley. Wartime Christmases with uncles in uniform and other family and others passing through heading off to somewhere out there or going east, maybe home, afterwards. Newspapers with big headlines. Fireplace, big stairway, adults kind and friendly to us kids and our dog, Sandy. Everybody drinking something in front of the lit-up tree and warm fire. Phonograph going. My brother, Jack and I getting to stay up late a lot. Sometime in there we moved to a house on Shattuck Avenue, around the corner from Oxford Elementary School, where Jack and I went together for a couple of years. I know we enjoyed our Christmases there and at school—giant Christmas tree in the hall with all us little kids around it singing carols.
Jim (lower right, about age 6) with brother Jack and their parents—Henry's great grandparents—John and Betty, at home on Indian Rock Avenue in Berkeley, CA.
HC: Tell me more about your dog, Sandy.
JL: Sandy is what I remember most about our places on Indian Rock Avenue and Shattuck Avenue. He was our ready-for-anything Samoyed, who was constantly breaking out of our backyard and coming over to the schoolyard to look for Jack and me and cause havoc; he never hurt anybody, just wanted to play, herding big crowds of squealing, laughing kids back and forth across the playground. More than once, I was allowed (told) to leave school for long enough to get him home.
HC: What was Christmas like after you left Berkeley and moved to the country?
JL: In 1946 when I was 9, we moved to a two-story house near Fair Oaks, in Sacramento County. It was colder there in the wintertime than it had been in Berkeley. The house had a fireplace that we used a lot, and we had good Christmases there; one year I got a brand new Monarch bicycle, straight out of the pictures in the magazine ads. Then in 1951 we moved to suburbia: Arden Park, halfway between Fair Oaks and Sacramento. We lived in a small but comfortable, modern, one-story ranch style house on Las Pasas Way. Fireplace and plenty of room in front of the picture window for the tree, carols going on the Magnavox, but no upstairs to look down from. Christmases were still fun, but some of the childhood wonderment was fading a little. By age 14, I felt an obligation to be awkwardly cool. Fortunately, my little sister Joan was in just the right age-range, and that kept the Christmas innocence going for us.
Cultivating his cool. Jim, age 11.
HC: When did you start reading “Christmas at the Hollow Tree Inn” to my mom? Was that when you lived in Ukiah? What was Christmas like in those years?
JL: Your mother was 9 when we moved West Standley Street in Ukiah. And of course she and your uncle Jay had lived in a couple of places in Sacramento County, and up on Fircrest Drive for two years when we first moved to Ukiah. And there were Christmases with plenty of Mr. Dog at those places, too. But it was the Standley Street house where she spent the most time as a child and as a teenager. The fireplace there got good use because the only other heat was from electric wall heaters, which we tried to avoid using because they were so expensive to operate. Your mother can tell you about staying huddled a few feet from the fire, wrapped up in a sleeping bag because it was so damn cold everywhere else in the house! There was almost always a cat and one or two dogs. I think that Christmases were wonderful for all of us there, I know they were especially fine for me: lots of tree-lights and well-used old familiar ornaments, bringing back the Christmas memories as we got them out anew each year. Smelling the Christmas Tree smells, listening to the same familiar records of carols and Dylan Thomas’s reading of “A Child's Christmas in Wales” each year. Presents, all kinds of toys and games, and lots of wonderful things to drink and eat, especially your grandmother's famous Christmas roast beast and Yorkshire Pudding. And always Mr. Dog by the fire on Christmas Eve.
HC: Much like Christmas has always been for me. So you’ve been the official Mr. Dog reader for a long time now!
JL: I guess I have! I started reading it to your mother and then your Uncle Jason when they were small, before we moved to Ukiah. Except possibly for one year (with reminders sometimes from Mrs. Dog) I've continued to read it all these years. And my audience has grown, of course, to include your dad and your Aunt Jean, then you and your cousins, Joon and Jory—and often guests who stop in for a Christmas Eve visit. One Christmas I even read it twice: your mother was in New York and insisted on a private reading over the phone.
1993: Henry’s first Christmas, with his Doompa in the house on West Standley Street, Ukiah, California.
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