Small Town Christmas Vignettes

A FRIEND and I were lunching on Joyful Thai food at the Okanogan Grange, because that is what one does on Mondays in the Okanogan.

Joyful Thai, the only Thai restaurant in the valley, keeps its overhead to a minimum by going to its customers, serving from various venues throughout the week: Mondays at the Okanogan Grange, Wednesdays at the Oroville Grange, and Fridays at the Tonasket Community Cultural Center. Despite an impressive selection of entrees, sides, and soups, Joyful Thai does not offer desserts. To celebrate the season, my friend brought a paper plate filled with Christmas cookies—the labor intensive kind that are cut out in Christmasy shapes and frosted.

“My neighbor makes them, and they’re delicious. I look forward to them every year,” said the friend. As we nibbled, a couple more friends stopped by to chat. My friend offered them a cookie, announcing that the neighbor (She-Who-Shall-Remain-Nameless) made them.

One of the women raised an eyebrow and responded: “No, she didn’t. My daughter-in-law made them. She’s been making Christmas cookies for SWSRN for years.”

There was a moment of silence followed by howls of laughter. As Shakespeare noted, truth will out. After we’d collected ourselves, I realized the truth in this case was probably more complex than we’d initially assumed. I didn’t think there was fraud involved.

“I know your neighbor pretty well,” I said to my friend, “and I know she would never claim to have made the cookies when she didn’t. But I also suspect that if you wanted to assume she made them, well, she wouldn’t disabuse you of that notion.”

My friend agreed that was probably so. It could be SWSRN has been getting the last laugh for years. I reached for a candy cane-shaped cookie with pink frosting. Its provenance may have been dubious, but it was delicious.

THERE’S NO such thing as six degrees of separation in the Okanogan Valley. At most there may be two. If you meet someone for the first time, it will take only a few minutes to determine at least one person you mutually know. Not only that, it’s highly likely that the mutual person is related to one or the other of you. I learned right away when I moved here forty years ago never to say anything insulting about anyone. I wasn’t trying to be saintly; it’s just that family connections run deep. It seems most folks are second or third cousins, sharing a great- or great-great-grandparent some generations back.

When a friend held a holiday open house last week, I invited another friend to go with me.

“But I don’t know her,” said my invitee. “Are you sure she won’t mind?”

I assured her the friend would be delighted, and she was. We’d settled onto the sofa, cups of holiday punch in hand, when the inevitable game of finding that mutual connection got underway. It was predictably short. The hostess gave her mother’s name, which my friend immediately recognized because they’d worked on various projects together.

Other names started dropping as they established more mutual acquaintances. Ultimately one name prompted a gentleman, who’d been listening quietly, to prove my second point, with a twist.

“She was my first wife,” he said. Perhaps in some circles that would have led to an embarrassed pause, but no one had said anything mean and we just sailed on. It’s the Okanogan version of Linked In.

SHORTLY BEFORE Christmas, I looked out my my kitchen window into the dark, winter evening to see red and blue flashing lights reflected in the snow.

“Santa Claus!” I thought and rushed out the front door as though I were five, not seventy-five. I wanted to make sure that the children across the street were alerted. Santa was about to ride past in his brilliantly lighted sleigh, led by a police car. For decades, volunteers have maintained this tradition, touring various neighborhoods as a lead-up to Christmas, allowing children to catch a glimpse of the saint of their dreams.

As I started toward the neighbor’s house, I noticed the police car was still a block away and not moving forward. Because of its flashing lights, I couldn’t tell whether the sleigh was behind it. Maybe Santa was pausing to greet children in that block. On the other hand, maybe it was just a police car responding to a call. Domestic violence? A burglary?

In my neighborhood, police investigations do not happen with the regularity of Santa’s annual visit, but they do happen. I didn’t want to become some kind of false Christmas prophet, knocking on the neighbors’ door, announcing Santa’s imminent arrival, only to disappoint. I stepped carefully into the street, avoiding patches of ice, trying to see through the dark, wondering with childlike uncertainty, “Is this Santa coming? Is this really Santa?”

At last the police car began to inch forward. As I mounted the stairs to the neighbors’ front door, I finally could see the blazing lights of the sleigh and began to hear Santa’s amplified “Ho! Ho! Ho!” So, apparently, did the neighbors. The front door opened wide to reveal a first-grader, ready for bed and barefooted. His mom quickly wrapped him in a blanket and carried him to the top of the stairs. The brilliance of the sleigh lighted the little boy’s face as he gazed at the spectacle with a mixture of disbelief and awe.

I ran back down the steps, collected candy canes from one of Santa’s helpers, and delivered them to the boy and his mom. As the sleigh disappeared up the hill and into the night, I thought about the boy’s disbelief and awe.

This can’t be happening. This IS happening. Isn’t that pretty much the Christmas story?


No Ducking the Issue

Ducks of a different feather swim together

On the first Sunday of Advent, the children in my church traditionally begin reconstructing a Nativity scene. During the worship service each December Sunday, miniature replicas of Christmas story participants are tenderly placed at the stable. On this first Sunday, forest inhabitants are to be situated among the trees outside the stable. Mary, Joseph, angels, shepherds, etc., will arrive in due time.

Since there were few children in attendance (presumably off with their families for the Thanksgiving weekend),  adults were encouraged to take their place.

“There are no ducks,” I murmured as I looked through the inventory of forest creatures. I explained I’m worried about a particular duck who has been swimming in the river by my house. Later, one of the men set a teeny duck on the piano as I was playing.

It was a mallard. I’m not worried about mallards. My concern is over an oddball duck who showed up last summer. Though I’m not an authority on water fowl, I believe this duck is an American Pekin. It’s a domestic duck, bred to be eaten. It apparently escaped from someone’s farm last summer and joined up with the local flock of mallards. The Pekin, much larger and mostly white, looks nothing like the mallards, yet they don’t seem to mind its company. The Pekin never leaves this stretch of river, which is why I’m worried.

“He can fly away.” A visitor who claimed to know something about ducks tried to reassure me when I asked what would happen when the river freezes. Her claim was countered by our popular oracle, Google. Because the Pekins are bred to be fat, they don’t have the wing strength to get their tubby bodies off the ground.

My worries had heightened the morning of Dec. 1, as temperatures dipped and large sheets of ice floated down the river. The mallards were gone. The Pekin remained, dodging the ice floes. I interrupted my morning routine every few minutes to watch. Suddenly, I spotted a single mallard swimming close to the Pekin. Was the mallard trying to encourage the Pekin to follow the current downriver, to join the others in the open Columbia? I wondered what E.B. White—who wrote magical stories of pigs, and spiders, and trumpeter swans—might imagine these two ducks to be saying. Was I witnessing the inevitable, icy end to a friendship that could not endure the unforgiving elements?

The mallard floated away. I watched the Pekin walk, all alone, across the ice to a quiet backwater by the river bank. I’d never before seen this duck out of the water. By afternoon, the temperature had risen, a light snow was falling on an open river, and the mallards returned along with my favorite winter waterfowl, the goldeneye. The Pekin swam among them as if nothing special had happened.

Surely I can find better things to fret about this winter than a wayward duck. Offhand, though, I can’t think of anything.