What gifts they were! Bob Odum, sisters Leah Zapalac Tietjen and Lestell Zapalac Villanueva and I remember childhood Christmas presents that made our hearts flip in excitement. Here are our memories.
Hop on the bike, Bob
Bob Odum of Katy, Texas, and his older brother, Paul, grew up in Smackover, Arkansas, in the early 1940s. There was a difference of 13 months in their ages.
“Looking back, it seems we developed sort of a jealous streak that I suspect wasn’t much different than lots of other brothers who were close in age,” Bob says. “We were especially resentful when we didn’t get the same thing.”
What a gift!
One Christmas morning, the brothers got what Bob recalls as a “whopping surprise.” Brand spanking new bicycles were stashed away on the front porch.
Although many of their friends already had bikes, the Odum boys were surprised at their good fortune. They knew how hard their dad worked for every dollar he earned as an oilfield mechanic and welder.
“Saying we were elated doesn’t come close to describing how we felt.”
Since the weather that Christmas morning was perfect – cold but sunny – the boys jumped on their new bikes and sped off on the first of many adventures and good times.
Bob’s bike versus Paul’s
“I guess it was only natural that we started comparing the features on the two bicycles. Although they were the same size, they were not even close to being identical.”
Paul’s bike was manufactured by Schwinn, “the holy grail” of bike makers. Baby blue with white trim, it had a luggage rack over the back tire and battery-powered headlight and horn, plus whitewall tires.
“Whitewall tires were the “wow factor” in those days,” Bob recalls. “They were recognized as the top of the line not only for bicycles but also motorcycles, automobiles and other rolling stock.”
Minus some options
A cycle company called Murphy had manufactured Bob’s bicycle. Maroon in color with white trim, it had no headlight, no horn, no luggage rack and no whitewall tires.
Noticing the discrepancies, Bob at first experienced a stabbing pain of jealousy but later appreciated how well his bike was built.
“That proved to be very beneficial in the long run,” he says with a wink.
Wannabe racecar drivers
When racecar driver Jimmie Lynch and his Death Dodgers performed at the fair in Shreveport, Louisiana, Bob and Paul watched with open mouths. In that wild and crazy demonstration, Lynch drove through a hoop of flames, jumped off ramps and orchestrated live crashes to the delight of the audience.
The brothers devised their own daredevil antics as they regularly raced out into the country, especially after the family moved to the outskirts of Shreveport.
Bob’s bike held up to the abuse just fine.
Rearview mirror thought
“I thank my parents for our bikes because I now know they made financial sacrifices to bring such joy to their two sons that Christmas,” Bob says.
Can he still ride?
“Absolutely. That’s something you never forget, but none of that daredevil stuff now!” Bob adds.
Looking good, Leah and Lestell
Leah Zapalac Tietjen of Rutersville, Texas, has never forgotten the Christmas when she was about 10 years old. She made weekly shopping trips to Jacob’s Grocery in La Grange with her parents, Lester “Buddy” and Florice Zapalac, sister Lestell and younger brother Bubba. That December Leah stopped dead in her tracks.
It was love at first sight!
Leah was dazzled
On display was the most extraordinary doll Leah had ever seen. Wrapped in a cellophane covered box, the beautiful blonde was almost as big as she was! On the way home, Leah could talk of little else.
She couldn’t wait to go to Jacob’s again.
The next time the family went to the store, however, Leah was greatly disappointed. The doll, the only one of its kind on display, was gone.
But you guessed it: when the children opened their presents on Christmas morning, that big doll was Leah’s gift! She has never forgotten her excitement and the fun she had playing with it.
Tradition, tradition, tradition
For Leah’s sister, Lestell Zapalac Villanueva of Richmond, Texas, Christmas memories center more on family traditions rather than a certain gift.
“At the home of my maternal great-grandparents, William and Hedwig Mennike of La Grange, we all took part in decorating a live Christmas tree. We strung popcorn and put silver icicles on the branches.
“Our great-grandmother Mennike would wrap clear pieces of hard candy to hang on the tree. We always had lots of that old-time Christmas hard candy that resembled colored ribbons, too,” Lestell recalls.
The Mennike Christmas tree was placed in front of the long window that faced the cedar tree in the front yard.
However, that wasn’t the only tree in the Mennike home.
“As you entered, there was a small plastic tree on the small corner table in the foyer that was only decorated with colored gumdrops,” Lestell says.
Back to the present
A couple of years ago, when the Zapalac sisters were reminiscing about Christmas, Lestell asked Leah if she remembered the gumdrop tree at their great-grandparents’ house.
“Well, of course, she did,” Lestell adds, “and Leah happened to have one decorated with gumdrops at their shop in Rutersville! Can you believe you can still order those trees from the Vermont Country Store catalog?
“I was fascinated so lo and behold, Leah ordered one for me. I put it up at Christmas for the first time last year. It was decked with green and red gumdrops! After Christmas, we took them off and ate them.”
Read On, Elaine
The very best Christmas present I ever received was after I turned eight years old. Earlier that year I was forced to stay home from school for three weeks because I had chickenpox.
Not only was I physically miserable from itching, but I also was bored stiff. My parents’ rule was that the TV at our house was never turned on during the daytime. Even suffering with chickenpox wasn’t considered reason enough to deviate from that edict.
Although my teachers and school friends sent home some books, I had already read and reread them. Also, I’d practically memorized all the stories in the meager book collection under my bed.
Misery seeks a diversion
Desperate, I wandered in to look at my sister Shirley’s bookshelf. There I found several Nancy Drew mysteries and flipped through one. Although I wasn’t reading books as difficult as that yet, I had endless hours to fill so I took it back to bed with me. When Mom came upstairs to check on me, she raised an eyebrow at the book in my hands but didn’t say anything.
By the next day, I was thoroughly hooked and bored no more. The adventures of Nancy Drew, my first heroine, filled my days and evenings until Mom turned off the light. When I went back to school, I was still talking about Nancy Drew.
At any opportunity, I quoted passages from “The Secret of the Old Clock,” “The Hidden Staircase” and “The Secret of Red Gate Farm” like an experienced book reviewer.
Unfortunately, those three were the only Nancy Drew books I could get my hands on. Instead of a dedicated library at our school, each classroom offered only a couple of shelves of well-worn books.
A life-changing present
Then Christmas morning came. The big, heavy-looking gift sitting beside the tree had my name on it and the tag identified it as being from my sister. Unable to guess what it was, I was practically giddy with anticipation. Shirley always gave awesome gifts.
Finally, it was my turn to open a present and Shirley’s was my first choice. Careful to save the paper for the following year, I gently loosened the tape and stripped it off. The outside of the box offered no hints as to its contents.
Next, I tugged at the tape holding the flaps closed. When I finally opened the box and removed a sheet of brown paper sitting on top, I was speechless. I am quite sure I must have screamed with delight.
Almost too good to be true
The box was filled with books and not just any old books.
Shirley had visited a used bookstore named Jaffe’s in east Calgary where she must have bought every single gently-used Nancy Drew book on the shelf. They were all mine now.
At the time, I didn’t realize that these fictional mysteries were written under the pen name Carolyn Keene and dated back to the 1940s and 1950s. Rather than a picture of Nancy that was featured on later releases, these books had dark solid color covers with a silhouette of the teenage sleuth holding a magnifying glass.
Heaven, I was in heaven! No gift could have pleased me more. The remainder of the Christmas holidays passed in a delightful blur of Nancy Drew’s adventures. I powered through half the box by the time I returned to school in January.
I savored every single volume.
This holiday season, I’m going to reread “The Clue in the Crumbling Wall.” Then I will give Shirley a call and thank her again for my best Christmas gift ever.
* * *
Learn more about family traditions:
- Every Day is Memorial Day for Wayne Givens - May 26, 2023
- A Woman Ahead of Her Time - May 5, 2023
- Spring in an Old Texas Cemetery - April 21, 2023
Amazing talent to tell others stories in such a beautiful way. You are so special.
I’m so glad you enjoyed these heartfelt Christmas memories from long, long ago, Gesine. I hope this topic brings to readers’ minds memories of their own special childhood gifts or family traditions.
What great stories! I loved Nancy Drew too so I felt the joy of getting a whole box of them for Christmas!
Thanks, Judy! I’m glad to know there is a little bit of that adventurous sleuth in your background too. What a publishing success story the Nancy Drew series represents.
Judy, I loved the Nancy Drew books too. I had an Aunt Betty who married my mother’s brother, Louis Oehl. Aunt Betty was a librarian in a public school in San Antonio. Uncle Louis and Aunt Betty never had children of their own, but they loved me and my cousin Katherine. At her school, they were taking the Nancy Drew books out of circulation and Aunt Betty gave the books to me. I was hooked immediately and became a “book worm!” I was about 12 or thirteen at that time. I had some cousins from Houston who got interested in reading Nancy Drew, too. Well, they wanted to borrow the books, so I let them “borrow” my books…and I never saw the Nancy Drew books again.
I wonder where those Nancy Drew books got off to over time? Hopefully, they were passed along to other young ladies who enjoyed them as much as you did. Perhaps because we didn’t have as many books as we would have liked in those days they were extra-precious to us. I bet you always return a book you borrow! Thanks for sharing this Nancy Drew memory.
Ah, the great Chicken Pox Quarantine – I had a similar experience circa 1952 but, having a slight lisp, it came out as ‘Chicken Fox’. Slathered in Calamine Lotion and feeling as miserable as you sounded, the only bright ‘Spot’ in this sad isolation was Hot Cocoa. Mom served it in a China teapot shaped like an elegant elephant that had tiny matching cups. This set is on Mom’s kitchen china hutch in our family room and still elicits that fond memory and brings a smile to my face.
There are other items in this hutch, many with their own stories. You are inspiring. Sharing your ‘stories’ with us – spreading smiles and memories and bringing joy to so many – especially during this time of COVID isolation and quarantine. Thank you
Oh, the dreaded pink Calamine Lotion. I don’t ever remember it providing any comfort, but I sure remember how messy it made my pajamas and the bedding. What a nice memory the elephant teapot and tiny cups is! Thanks for sharing your recollections of ‘Chicken Fox,’ Jeanie and your kind words about the stories that Bob, Leah and Lestell let me record!
Great Stories! I remember reading the Nancy Drew books as well. Thanks for sharing.
So you, too, were a Nancy Drew fan. Thanks for writing!
One year I asked my parents if I could have a bookshelf put up on the wall in my room for a Christmas present. I was picturing something a couple of feet long. We were allowed to go downstairs to get our stockings before our parents got up, and when I went downstairs, their was an actual piece of furniture with five shelves and a fold-down desk sitting in the living room!
I raced back upstairs and asked if that could possibly be for me, and it was. My Dad had built it with his brother, a carpenter, in the basement of a house my uncle was building at the time. And there was a Nancy Drew book on one shelf to go with it! I still use that desk, and think of my Dad driving into town from our farm on December evenings to work on it in the basement of that house. And I remember how delighted my parents seemed with my excitement and joy over it.
Elaine, you’ll know what I’m talking about when I say many YCC submissions were written on that desk. I felt so grown-up, having my own desk to write at!
Nancy, what a vivid, beautiful memory of a piece of furniture that will always represent your parents’ love and your dad’s skill. I’m sure by the time he finished chores at night, he would much rather have settled down to read the paper or watch Hockey Night in Canada. Instead, he had enlisted the help of his brother. What an awesome gift! Yes, I can see you seated at the fold-down desk writing away for the YC Club. Thanks so much for sharing your memory. Do you still have the Nancy Drew book?
I gave them all away to a family with a big crowd of special needs children they’d adopted, after a co-worker posted a notice asking for gently used books for them. I remember unloading a few boxes into her vehicle at work – my Nancy Drew books, my daughters’ Babysitters’ Club books, etc. When I was growing up in Manitoba, our local drugstore almost always had one or two Nancy Drew books on the shelf, unless it was a month with lots of birthdays in the Nancy Drew fan demographic!
Wishing you and all your readers all the best for 2021!
Now that was a big gift – to part with your Nancy Drew and other much-loved books. I know you have never regretted sharing them. So the drugstore carried Nancy Drew books? How neat is that? They knew what their customers were interested in and girls of a certain age loved Nancy Drew. Thanks for sharing these special memories, Nancy.
Another lovely set of stories, Elaine! I remember my brother getting me out of bed early on Christmas morning when I must have only been about 5 years old. There, sitting against the faux fireplace in our living room was a black and white stuffed bear. I grabbed him and brought him back to bed with me, as Mom or Dad scooted us back to our room. I still have Benny after all these years. He is named in honour of Buckshot’s sidekick on our local tv station.
Anne, we are happy to make the acquaintance of Benny, Buckshot’s sidekick. We appreciate the links to ‘more on that story,’ as well. Long may Benny have a special place in your home and heart. Is he part of your Christmas decor?
Great story Elaine. That brought back memories of my Christmas long ago. We never got store-bought Christmas presents. My father would make presents for us, of course, I thought they came from Santa.
One Christmas morning I opened my present and it was a Steam Boat made from Tin Cans. My dad had soldered it together with a tank in the middle that you filled with water. There was a small candle underneath and two pies coming out it the tank. At the time I had very little idea how it worked. My Dad spent a couple of hours with me as he would fill the little tank with water, light the candle and placed the little steamboat in a large trough of water.
As the water boiled, the steam would go through the pipes out the back of the boat and the boat would start to move through the water. I was mesmerized. I still remember that little steam boat and the fun I had with my dad. My friends would all want to come to see it work. We would put in Peat drains which gave us a bigger area to sail our boat. That was just one of many Christmas gifts my dad would make for me.
Thank you Elaine for these wonderful stories that stimulated happy memories of my dad.
John, reading memories of your childhood in Ireland is always a treat. I have a great deal of admiration for your father to create such a meaningful gift that brought hours of pleasure at virtually no cost but loads of creativity and willpower! Thank you for sharing this precious memory with us.
Elaine, all of your stories and those who have also entered their stories always remind me of more stories. I think I am giving away my age since I have so many stories that I do not remember until you or others write a fond memory that sparks a memory.
John’s story reminds me of one Christmas my dad built me a dollhouse from a wooden apple crate to which he added a roof and a partition to make it look like a house. My mom bought little plastic furniture and we added padding to some of the furniture, even made little curtains for the windows. I was totally ecstatic with my little dollhouse.
I bet that dollhouse crafted from an apple crate was not only well-made but also assembled with love. Thank you so much for sharing this dear memory, Barbara.
Thank you for all the beautifully crafted stories you write; every story warms my heart. The artwork and pictures make the stories come alive. As you were reading Nancy Drew, did you ever imagine that you would be writing stories for people to enjoy?
Jo Lynn Petras
Thank you, Jo Lynn! My maternal grandmother is the one who inspired me to want to tell other people’s stories because she shared so many of hers. Even though I was a small child when I stayed with her, she treated me like an adult and told me about her early life that would have made a good plot for a book. Thanks for asking!
This is such a wonderful nostalgic look at Christmas. Thank you, Elaine! I enjoyed every sentence. The photos and artwork are great, too!
Carolyn, I’m happy that this post tapped into the joy of Christmas past for you. It was lots of fun to put together with the help of Bob, Leah and Lestell, plus my behind-the-scenes team of Klazina and Julia.
LOVED, LOVED, LOVED this particular blog…and not because you did a story on Leah and I, but because I thoroughly enjoyed reading your remembrance of Christmas! WOW! Nancy Drew books!
Wish you would have put a photo of you and your sister in the blog!
THANKS again for everything!
When writing this blog post, I was reminded that back when we were kids we didn’t get a lot of toys during the year. In fact, besides my birthday – which was a little too close to Christmas to my way of thinking – I can think of few I received during the year. Perhaps that’s why we appreciated those Christmas presents so much!
Ohhh, Elaine, this BY FAR is the best I have read in your “Slow Lane!” You and I have talked before about our fascination with Nancy Drew books and Carolyn Keene. I have been unable to find her under that pen name in the library here! Much love, Brenda
Brenda, that’s quite a copliment. Thank you! Maybe you’ll have a chance to read an old Nancy Drew book during the holidays and we can compare notes!
I love how you tell stories and help me pause and think of my own.
So pleased these Christmas memories sparked your imagination, Martha. Thank you for writing.
Very enjoyable stories of Christmas past gifts.
I especially love hearing of all the love these parents had in their hearts for their children so long ago and their happiness and Christmas wonder is palpable. Fond memories of sweet siblings, too. Happy they and you can all look back on their childhoods with so much joy this beautiful time of year.
I can surely relate to bottles of calamine lotion, but for another reason…poison ivy!
Thanks Elaine. Have a blessed Christmas.🎄
Rhonda, yes, the memories that Bob, Leah, Lestell and I shared certainly reflect strong family ties at a time when money was scarce and the selection of toys limited to local stores.
Oh, my, poison ivy and calamine lotion? Now that’s a story that I look forward to hearing sometime. I had a run-in with poison ivy this past summer while picking grapes…
Thank you all for the wonderful Christmas memories. I, too, am a big Nancy Drew fan. As an only child, I read them all plus most books in our neighborhood’s little traveling library.
My favorite Christmas present was given to me by Jake and Elizabeth Reaves. “A kitten!”. I immediately called him, Pywacket. The name of the cat in the bookI was reading, “Bell, Book and Candle”. Pywacket loved me, and only me, for almost twenty years. The feeling was mutual. The best present ever.
I can certainly see why Pywacket is your all-time favorite gift, Donna! You two had a long, loving relationship. Thinking of your special Christmas present warms my heart. Thank you for sharing this treasured memory.