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Piper City Christmas

Lessons learned long ago

Written By Frederick Borsch

My grandfather Houk was an undertaker. He lived in an Illinois farm town some forty miles south of Kankakee and ninety miles south of Chicago. The year my mother Pearl was born six hundred and fifty people lived in Piper City. Only a few more than six hundred and fifty live there now.

My grandfather was the most important person in Piper City. The few other professional people—a doctor, a lawyer and a clergyman—came and went, but grandfather was there to stay. He had been with many of those families through their toughest times. Although only educated through the eighth grade, he was sought out for advice on numerous matters.

He also owned a furniture store uptown, as they called the little cluster of stores lined up on both sides of the Toledo, Peoria and Western railroad tracks. A generation earlier an undertaker in similar circumstances might have made his own caskets. Now Ernest Houk sold furniture and caskets.

The caskets, however, were not in the store. They were in the house that was both a residence and a funeral home. Two rooms upstairs had open caskets on display. Downstairs, across from the kitchen, there was a preparation room for the bodies and a hand-drawn elevator to bring the caskets up and down. I thought that elevator was one of the greatest inventions in the world.

Out in back was the barn. A generation or two earlier a predecessor of my grandfather would have kept a horse-drawn hearse there. My grandfather had a big black motor hearse that he used to bring the bodies to the house as well as bear them to the cemetery later. Sometimes the hearse doubled as an ambulance if an accident occurred on one of the nearby highways. Also out back was a horse named Toots, who belonged to my Aunt Vera.

I remember the barn and the house as being huge. My older sister tells me this isn’t so. Maybe the rooms were not as large as a small boy recollects, but there were a lot of them. There had to have been at Christmas time when we came to visit with my two sisters. Usually my two aunts and uncles and five cousins had already arrived. Sometimes we were so crowded that I slept on a cot outside one of the rooms with the empty caskets. I don’t think that ever bothered me. I may have thought that a lot of grandfathers were undertakers.

Downstairs there was a living room and a kind of large middle parlor and still another room behind that. We ate Christmas dinner in the middle parlor, but sometimes around Christmas, and especially when I visited my grandparents during the summer, there would be a body laid out in the middle parlor. From time to time there might even be another one in its casket in the rear room. Often the funeral services were held in the middle parlor. I remember in the summer the folks sitting there on folding chairs looking sad and hot, whispering and fanning themselves with fans that said “E. H. Houk Funeral Home.”

There could be long stretches, however, when no one was in that parlor except the body in its casket with the top half propped open. It was so quiet and mysterious I could not help but be intrigued, a solemn-faced boy, sometimes stepping quite near and gazing at the dead face, hands folded on its chest. Once in a while it would be a younger person. One time, I remember, it was a child, and that did kind of scare me. But for the most part the bodies looked very old. They lay on satin pillows to make them appear comfortable, but I wasn’t fooled. The casket must have been very hard beneath them, and, despite my aunt’s cosmetic efforts, they seemed very dead to me. My younger sister was scared they would move, but I knew they never would. I knew that grandfather had drained the blood out of them and pumped in formaldehyde and water.

I wondered what had happened to them. I wondered what it was like to be alive and then to be dead. I wondered how they had died. I wondered where they were now. The grownups said they were at peace.

I was pretty sure that under the half of the casket that was closed they didn’t have on any shoes. What would be the point? I kind of wondered why they wasted dressing them in their good clothes. Some of them wore their glasses too.

A few times I came so close that I touched them, putting my hand on their foreheads. It was like putting my hand on a cold stone. I discovered that if you pushed on the nostrils of a dead person they would stay in. I don’t imagine I was allowed to do that more than once.

We usually arrived on Christmas Eve about suppertime. Excited as we were about Christmas and seeing each other, after supper we soon fell into the deep sleep of kids. But the next morning it was quickly one up all up. We eyed the presents under the tree, making our guesses and tantalizing one another if we thought we knew what someone else was getting that year. Aunt Vera played the piano and we sang. Some of the songs didn’t have anything to do with Christmas: “You Are My Sunshine” and “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” though I suppose one could think of that as the star of Bethlehem.

The waiting seemed forever. Grandfather would go up to the furniture store to have coffee with his cronies and probably Christmas schnapps as well. There could be no Christmas dinner until he finally came home, carrying shiny silver dollars for each of us cousins.

We would take turns running to the corner to see if we could spot him coming. He always had his gray fedora hat on his rather square head. He was a taciturn man. I do not remember his ever saying much to me, although he did teach me how to play checkers with the strategy of making kings early.

On Christmas morning I think I felt angry with him, making us wait like that. And, when he did come, it seemed as though he was laughing at us. Years later I learned that he had been waiting up at the store for grandmother to call and say that dinner was ready. All along it was grandmother, born Minnie Mabel Munson, but whom the grandkids called Momo, who was the one making us do the waiting.

But then the meal appeared in all its steaming glory: wonderful mounds of mashed potatoes one could sculpt to create a place for gravy and for floating a few peas, turkey and dressing, and pumpkin pie with a big dab of whipped cream. It was Thanksgiving all over again.

Too soon we had torn into all the presents, played with the ones that weren’t clothes, and taken a few out into the frigid late afternoon where our breath turned into visible puffs that the cold wind blew away. Sometimes there was a fight with a cousin, and afterwards, tired and with feelings I couldn’t sort out, I might sneak off and watch Toots snort and shuffle around as the last shafts of winter sunlight slid away, and it began to grow dark in the barn.

There were several things I think I was beginning to learn on those Christmases. The first had to do with the waiting. Waiting can be hard, but it can also help to figure things out. There can be an attentive waiting that is not just not doing anything. It is something like being a bird watcher. It is a way of being. One sees things that otherwise might not be noticed. One learns to appreciate. I laugh to remember that, because of its initials, the Toledo, Peoria and Western railroad was also known as Take Patience and Walk. I have more than a hunch that the people who lived in Piper City in those days had something to teach me about waiting and patience.

I later came to realize that there is a considerable amount of waiting in the Bible: for children, for escape from slavery in Egypt, for the promised land, for the prophet, for return from exile, for wisdom, for rebuilding the holy city and temple, for the messiah, for the kingdom of God, for God’s presence. And there is a lot of waiting in our lives: for Christmas, to grow up, for a career, for love, perhaps to be married, for children, for success, to be wiser, to be mature, to retire, for a diagnosis, for the meaning and value of life. None of these ever arrive perfectly, but in careful waiting one may come to see what might most be worth waiting for.

A second thing I think I began to understand is that good things can happen in small ways. At Christmas time we sang “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and retold the story of the tiny baby in the manger. There were also angels singing from on high and wise men coming from afar, but one could not miss the point of the apparent insignificance of it all in that stable in out-of-the-way Bethlehem. It makes me think still of the barn and house in little Piper City and the ways Christmas came to us there.

There was something solemn about those Christmases too. One Christmas, the sliding doors off the middle parlor to the rear room were shut because someone was “at rest” there. Another Christmas night, after all the children were finally in bed, I heard grandfather back the hearse down the driveway to go out into the darkness on one of those necessary errands of his.

When I was older, I learned that in the church calendar the day after Christmas is Saint Stephen's day when the church remembers its first martyr who was stoned to death. Two days later is called Holy Innocents, the commemoration of all the little ones King Herod was said to have slaughtered when he was trying to kill the baby Jesus. We remember as well all the children killed in war or by human cruelty and indifference. In Piper City I was already beginning to understand that Christmas does not come apart from tears. The deepest meaning of the joy of “God is with us”—of Emmanuel—would have to happen in that home with its caskets and presents, all my relatives and the bodies at rest, Toots and the hearse, the feasting and love and sobbing.