Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Christmas Gift: When my Grandma played Jingle Bells

Note: My mother, Ruth Heffernan (a local church organist and choir director, now deceased), could play the piano with skill and feeling. It was when Ruth sat down at the piano at Christmas time to play for her family a thrilling rendition of Jingle Bells that the magic of Christmas was realized by us all. My son, now grown and the father of three young boys, writes (below) his recollections as a youth experiencing Ruth at the piano at Christmas, especially playing Jingle Bells. Jim Heffernan

By Patrick Heffernan
I cannot describe the way my grandma could play the piano, but I will try. She had a natural gift for playing and could play anything she heard by ear immediately. She enhanced this gift with about 57 years of being a church organist and also giving piano lessons for much of her life. Unless you’ve been in presence and up close – I mean right by the piano- with someone who can play like she could, you simply can’t understand it. Her hands would fly; her feet would frantically press the pedals as she would make the piano sound like an orchestra or a big band, depending on the piece she played.  

Of course my grandma could play everything including beautiful, complex piano pieces, but in my mind there was one song that she played that was far and away her very best. That song was Jingle Bells. My sister and I loved her version of Jingle Bells so much that we would request she play it year 'round. Many times she would arrive at our house for a Sunday dinner in the middle of the summer to be greeted at the door by my sister and me begging her to play, of all things, Jingle Bells. Now I understand that it probably gave her great joy to play the piano with two of her grandchildren right by her side. I know it gave us great joy.

My Grandma’s version of Jingle Bells was incredible. She’d sit down and quietly start as we began “dashing through the snow". The song and the sounds would build and build with her hands frantically flying way, way up into the air while the keys were pressed all over the place–the left hand creating a deep booming almost drum-like beat while her right hand was way up creating the sounds of bells.   Those hands of hers…now I look back and realize, especially in her later years, they probably looked frail, but to me they looked like pure magic. I can honestly remember grabbing her hands after she played to see if she had more than the usual ten fingers. 

The song built and built–one time I think I may have seen a spark fly from the piano as the keys caused those strings within the piano to scream a beautiful sound.  At some point each time she would play, I would wonder if maybe, just maybe, even in the middle of summer, we would get a visit from someone who we called “The Jolly Old Elf” but most call Santa Claus. 

On that note, you don’t need to take my word on her piano playing, just ask Santa how my Grandma could play Jingle Bells. You see, each year on Christmas Eve we would gather with a bunch of family members and enjoy Christmas together. After all the food was eaten and all the dishes were done it was finally time for my Grandma to make her way to the piano–it seemed like it was 2 am to me but probably more like 8 pm. My little grandma would sit at the piano and begin my favorite song-and it was pure joy. Just like every other time it would build and build. But on Christmas Eve it got so loud that way, way up in the sky Santa could hear it. Can you imagine the chaos of that evening for Santa, the elves and the reindeer? At this point they were probably running behind so he had the reindeer going full tilt through the freezing sky. 

“On Dasher, On Dancer, On Comet, On Cupid” as he cracked his whip into midair. “On Donner, On Blitzen……whoa…..whoa…… Ruth Anna Aurora Heffernan is at the piano! To Duluth we go!” So down the reindeer would dive and they would go into a free fall pointing directly at Duluth, Minnesota.  I imagine Santa would arrive and peek in a window and see my grandma playing with all the kids around smiling at her playing and all the adults around smiling at the kids smiling, and of course, the song. I’d bet at this point he would say “now that is a gift”. Just about at the end of the magical song the doorbell would ring and there would be Santa. We’d hear the bells ringing and he would pass in a big, huge bag of gifts for the kids. We’d run to the door to catch a glimpse of him but, sure enough, by the time we got there he was on his way.

Every single Christmas Eve went exactly this way and it was pure joy for the young and I’m sure for the old, too. What could be better than being all together and having my grandma play Jingle Bells?   But just like everyone else, my Grandma started to get a bit older. One year it was time for her to move out of her house and into a nursing home. Her old piano happily found a home at my parents’ house where it still sits. I was about 10 years old at this point, so my memories are that of a child. I remember visiting her at the nursing home and finding she was getting foggier and foggier. I didn’t know it then, but I now realize as an adult that elderly loved-ones march into heaven too fast for your heart and too slow for your head. This was the case for my Grandma.     

I remember one time in particular my dad and I visited her and she didn’t seem to know who we were- pretty confusing for a ten year old. But I think I started to understand what was happening, as much as I didn’t want to accept it. At this time, we decided to see if she could still play the old piano. Life is pretty funny; while time and her advanced age had taken her ability to walk and her ability to reason, it had not taken her amazing ability to play the piano. Almost instinctively, I asked her to play my favorite song. And away she went, playing Jingle Bells just as good as she always did. I can assure you, that nursing home piano had never, ever been played like that–not even close. Yet again, I wondered if just maybe the Jolly Old Elf would come walking in the nursing home and in the room. 

That would be the last time I would hear her play her magical version of that song. After all those years of her playing Jingle Bells on Christmas Eve, I knew I would miss it on that special night and I sure do.  But I soon realized that, even if she wasn’t here with me, my Grandma playing Jingle Bells would be with me forever. I’m sure my grandma gave me many thoughtful gifts over the years–toys, hockey stuff, and games, but the only one I remember is the one she played on the piano for all of us. And oh, what a gift it was.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas Memories: The Coal Man cometh, with the Night Stalker not far behind...

By Jim Heffernan
One of my grandsons, a five-year-old kindergartner, is concerned that he might be getting a lump of coal for Christmas. We all know why he has that concern, although lumps of coal aren’t as prevalent these days as they used to be.

A lump of coal for misbehaving was not part of my Christmas tradition growing up. We heated our home with oil, assuaging any concerns I might have had. Our next-door neighbor heated with coal, though, and I think the excitement and drama of the arrival of the “coal man” has been lost in our time.

Coal was the main source of furnace fuel when I was a child, and throughout the winter large trucks loaded with it crisscrossed the city in winter. Their boxes had a sliding trap-like door at the back with a handle that, when lifted, would release the coal into a chute positioned so that the coal could fall directly into houses basement coal bins.

If the truck couldn’t maneuver close enough, the coal man – a grim looking fellow covered from head to toe with coal dust – would load a wheelbarrow and push it into position above the coal chute. Coal was king well into the era that Nat King Cole started singing about chestnuts roasting on an open fire (over coal?).

The thing that intrigued children about the process was the hope – never fulfilled – that they could slide down the coal chute into the coal bin. Nobody in my neighborhood ever pulled that off, probably realizing that when they completed their slide they would be, like the coal man and a certain jolly old elf, covered with black ashes and soot, the result being the threat of receiving only a lump of coal for Christmas.

But rest assured, the threat of receiving a lump of coal instead of colorfully wrapped gifts beneath the Christmas tree still exists, as witness my grandson who might never have even seen a lump of coal, unless charcoal for a grill counts. I suppose it does.

But enough coal. In keeping with the Christmas theme of this reminiscence, this week I heard a program on National Public Radio that devoted fully half an hour to discussion of the movie “A Christmas Story,” which has become as much a Christmas entertainment tradition as “White Christmas” (or Not-So-White Christmases in the coal era.)

People love that 1983 movie about the boy, Ralphie, who desperately wants a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas and whose adventures leading up to the grand holiday include getting his tongue caught on a metal pole, encountering and triumphing over a neighborhood bully, a fall in his snowsuit so stuffed that he couldn’t get up by himself, and a nightmarish visit to a department store Santa Claus and his elves. No further description is needed – everyone surely has seen this delightful romp written by Jean Shepard, one best humor writers of the 20th century.

I was reminded, listening to the radio program, that actor Darren McGavin played Ralphie’s father, he of the living room leg lamp. If you have seen the movie, you know what I mean by leg lamp; if you haven’t go straight to Target where I notice they are selling them this year.

McGavin had earlier played a character on TV called “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” in which the title character investigated strange crimes of violence that the police had given up on. At the time, mid-‘70s, I was writing a column for the Duluth News Tribune and devoted one to “The Night Stalker.” I can’t recall what I wrote, but somehow in that pre-Internet era it caught the attention of McGavin himself.

Soon after I received a box in the mail from a Hollywood studio containing a nice personal note from McGavin thanking me for mentioning his show in the paper, and a narrow-brimmed straw hat, a replica of one the actor wore in his role as Kolchak (or should I spell it Coalchak?).

I wore the hat once, on Halloween one year, and now it has disappeared from my hat bag. (I do have one; it contains, among other hats, my father’s World War I “Smokey the Bear”-style uniform hat and my own coonskin cap from my Davy Crockett years.)

McGavin died in 2006, the gospel according to Google reports, hastening to add, “of natural causes.” No night stalker involved, nor any coal men, I trust.

Oh... and Merry Christmas, everyone!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Devil missing from hell; said lurking in details...

By Jim Heffernan
Here’s some good news you won’t find in the mainstream media – just in time for the holidays.

DATELINE HELL -- Officials here announced today that the devil has gone missing. “Our ruler disappeared from his golden throne the day after Thanksgiving and hasn’t been heard from since,” a Hades spokesman stated in a terse message. He denied the disappearance had anything to do with Black Friday, a perennial favorite of the prince of darkness.

Christians and others around the planet, together with multitudes already in heaven, were jubilant, although U.S. church authorities urged caution before jumping to the conclusion that the devil is dead. “Without the devil, of course, there would be no need for the churches,” said a retired Episcopal bishop who asked not to be identified by name for fear of being struck down.

Nevertheless, Pope Benedict XVI said Catholics should celebrate the news in Christmas masses, and veteran protestant evangelist Billy Graham issued a statement from his hospital bed expressing hope that reports of the devil’s demise are true. “If they are, I’ve finally won,” Graham exuded.

President Obama spoke briefly from the Rose Garden, saying, “First we got Osama bin Ladin and now I am pleased to learn that Satan might also be eliminated.” Obama faces a tough election next year.

The surprising news had the effect of shaking leading Republican candidates for president, catching them off guard. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, said he wouldn’t be surprised to learn the devil had taken up residence in the White House, “where he has often been a guest.”

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who has been rising in the polls, said on Fox News, “Beelzebub is a wily character who throughout history has been known to show up at various times and various places outside of his home base. I know him well, and he’ll be back.”

In a statement from the Netherworld, where he has resided since his death in 1972, former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover said his agents know exactly where he is. “The devil is in the details,” said the disgraced ex-top cop.

Film at 10.