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What’s Christmas for You?
Whenever Christmas comes, I think of George Pander.
George was a Norwegian bachelor farmer who lived in our neighborhood. He was a semi-hermit who had a knack for everything mechanical, especially cars. His farmstead and his grove was a warren of wrecked and derelict automobiles in various stages of disassembly. He had so many junked cars that he was able to repurpose a small portion of his trove into a fence for his cows.
His workshop was a miniature version of his farmstead; piles of car and tractor parts occupied every nook and cranny. It was as if a bomb had gone off in a used parts warehouse.
George’s personal appearance mirrored his surroundings. His overalls and jacket sported a layer of grime that was thick enough to stop a bullet. When I was a kid, I thought that there was much to be admired about George’s lifestyle.
Perhaps the most striking thing about George was his excruciating shyness. George could never look you in the eye when you spoke with him. He would pull the bill of his greasy seed corn cap down so low that you could barely make out his chin. And if you happened to be a member of the female persuasion, his cap would be pulled down even lower.
George’s bashfulness was manifested in his speech. He always held a curled hand in front of his mouth as if he were trying to hide the orifice. When he finally did say something, it was usually preceded by a “hmm” sound, as if he had to jumpstart his vocal cords. The words themselves were a guttural mumble and nearly impossible to understand.
For example, if George were to reply in the affirmative to a question, he would say, “Hmm yope.” If George were answering in the negative, it would come out as, “Hmm yope.” Telling the difference often meant making an educated guess.
I was told that George acquired his shyness and his speech impediment when he was a youngster. George developed tonsillitis and his father, who considered himself a doctor of sorts, decided to cure the boy by extracting the offending glands with a pocket knife. The only anesthesia was a shot of a homemade elixir that had been concocted by the elder Pander.
I don’t know if that story is true, but it certainly makes me grateful for our modern healthcare system.
George didn’t charge much for his mechanic work and we didn’t have much money, so we frequently took our tractors to his place for repairs. When I became a teenager, I began to help George when he worked on our machinery. I soon learned that he had a sly sense of humor.
During one of our mechanic marathons, George mumbled, “Hmm gimme that crescent wrench.” I eagerly retrieved the wrench from the bench and gave it to him.
“Hmm I meant the left-handed one,” muttered George.
I scrambled back to the bench and searched for the proper wrench but was unable to locate it. I glanced at George. He was shaking with silent giggles.
“Hmm I found it,” he said as he flipped over the wrench I had just given him.
At Christmastime, Mom and my sisters prepared a traditional Yuletide feast for our family of 10. Our house filled with the wondrous aromas of roasting turkey and ham. Mass quantities of potatoes were boiled and mashed; rolls of buttered lefse were piled high. The sights and smells of all that yumminess caused us to drool like a pack of famished wolves.
When the food was ready, Dad said to Mom, “Let’s make up a plate for George.”
Mom heaped a plate with ham and turkey and mashed potatoes and gravy. She covered it with foil and Dad and I drove it to George’s place.
We knocked on the door of George’s farmhouse. I’d never been inside but wasn’t surprised by what I saw when the door opened. A partially disassembled transmission sat in the hallway and the kitchen table overflowed with carburetor parts.
In the midst of this mess, on a shockingly clean end table, sat a small Christmas tree, its lights glowing brightly.
After chatting pleasantly with George for a few moments, Dad handed him the plate of hot vittles and said, “Here you go, George. Merry Christmas!”
It one of the few times I ever saw George grin. “Hmm tanks,” he mumbled as he took the plate.
It didn’t dawn on me until later that bringing the food over was just an excuse. Sharing a bit of the Yuletide spirit with a bashful bachelor was the real gift.
And that, for me, is the true meaning of Christmas.
Jerry’s book, Dear County Agent Guy, is available at Workman.com and in bookstores nationwide.