Updated: Jan 3
A JOYOUS, TIMELY JOURNEY
On a bright, blustery Christmas Eve of 1970, my father and I sat side-by-side in a corner of my grandmother’s tiny home on Herndon Drive in Evansville.
Eva Hitch’s small but quaint quarters weren’t nearly large enough to accommodate the flourishing family that crowded into those cozy confines each Dec. 24, but no one complained. We celebrated our many blessings, and cackled with delight each time one of my younger cousins unwrapped a gift with the gusto of a basset hound in pursuit of a T-bone.
It was my father’s favorite time of year. He reveled in teasing my grandmother. Since everyone brought a present for Grandma, it took her a long time to unwrap all her gifts.
“If you don’t hurry a little,” he chided, “we’re going to be celebrating Easter.”
Christmas is a time for giving, and each year my father made a significant sacrifice. Although he longed to spend the holidays with his family in Elkhart, he knew what sharing Christmas Eve in my grandmother’s home meant to his wife and two children. Custom called for us to spend Christmas Eve with my aunts, uncles and cousins at Grandma’s, then invite Grandma to our home to celebrate on the morning of the 25th. Since my mom has three sisters and a brother, I always felt privileged that Grandma chose to spend Christmas in our home.
On this particular Christmas Eve of 1970, Bill Bridge seemed uncharacteristically unsettled, as if an itch deep within needed to be scratched.
“What’s wrong?” I inquired softly.
“Nothing,” was his succinct reply.
But his restlessness revealed something was troubling him.
A few minutes later, I tried again.
“What are you thinking about?”
After a few quiet moments of contemplation, he came clean.
“I was just thinking about your grandpa,” he said. “I sure wish he could be with us tomorrow.”
He was referring to his father, Robert Earl Bridge, a man we looked upon as our mentor, a torch bearer of goodwill, and a truly extraordinary human being. He was “Pop” to his children, “Grandpa” to his grandchildren, and “Bridgee” to the multitude of northern Indiana friends he had cultivated during his magnificent, multi-faceted life.
Bridgee was a man’s man, an authentic outdoorsman equally adept in the forest as he was wielding a rod and reel in a bass boat. But when he retired from his position as a union leader for a South Bend car manufacturer, he turned his energies to his two other passions — gardening and cooking.
Robert Earl Bridge’s tomatoes were second to none, but the gardening gig was a trivial pursuit compared to what Grandpa did best. He was a world-class baker, and his vast variety of pies made him one of the more popular characters in Elkhart County. People would drive from Granger, Nappanee, Bristol, Dunlap, Jimtown and other neighboring burgs to sink their teeth into one of Bridgee’s blissful berry pies. You couldn’t buy a cherry, blueberry, blackberry or gooseberry pie from Bridgee. Nor would any amount of money secure you a slice of apple, rhubarb, or mincemeat pie.
Grandpa didn’t bake pies to sell; he baked them for the sheer delight of his friends and family. I don’t believe an afternoon ever passed that someone didn’t stop by to reminisce a bit before departing with a delicious dessert.
I sensed my dad was smelling those pies as he sat in that cramped corner, yearning to be two places at once. I empathized with his desire to enjoy Christmas with his parents, sisters, family and friends in his childhood home.
If only ....
A friend once explained that “If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we’d all have a merry Christmas.”
I had reluctantly returned my attention to the gala gift unwrapping in the center of the living room when Dad leaned toward me and whispered, “You know, we could drive up there tonight.”
My neck jerked around in whiplash fashion.
“Are you kidding?” I asked.
“Why can’t we?” he countered.
Well, there were some issues. Elkhart is at the opposite end of the state, snow is always a possibility in December, hotel accommodations were expensive for a family surviving on a modest income, someone would have to water, feed and walk the family pets, and what about Grandma Hitch? How could we even consider spending Christmas Day without her?
Dad, the man with the plan, responded with all the right answers. He theorized the adrenaline, generated by this impulsive quest, would keep us awake on the drive. The forecast called for clear skies, there was ample room in Grandpa’s home for everyone, my uncle would be more than happy to tend to the dogs, and Grandma Hitch would be invited to join us on the trek that would make an already memorable Christmas the merriest of all.
A cool breeze whispered through the trees as we piled into the family sedan and steered a path northward. An incredibly bright star dominated the eastern sky that night, and my grandmother and I imagined aloud what it must have been like for the people who were in Bethlehem on that very first Christmas. Bing Crosby, Pat Boone and Perry Como crooning carols on the radio further enhanced the joyous journey.
Early on Christmas morning we pulled into Grandpa’s driveway just off Kilbourne Street in Elkhart. The air was so crisp and cold it quickly formed frost on our eyebrows. My sister and I led the small entourage to the back door. Before Becky ever rang the bell I could hear Grandma Rosie’s melodic voice and smell Grandpa’s chicken and egg noodles cooking on the stove.
Words can’t adequately describe the scene that followed. Suffice to say it was a reunion that would have dissolved the stoniest of hearts. I’ve never been hugged the way my grandpa embraced me that day, and the tears trickling down his cheeks confirmed my belief Dad did the right thing by scratching that itch.
Seven months later, my grandfather died of a stroke while mowing the lawn. Dad was convinced the instinct to pack up the family and head for Elkhart on Christmas Eve was a special gift from above.
Each time I hear “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” I thank the Special Someone up above.
Contact Columnist Bob Bridge at 812-276-9646 or email@example.com.