Gretchen Staebler Commentary: Passage of Time Doesn’t Halt Vivid Memories of Christmas


Fredrick and Nelson, downtown Seattle’s biggest department store, is long gone now; but my memories of Christmas there linger.

We made the two-hour drive to Seattle at least twice a year: in August for new clothes for school and at Yuletide. At Christmas, the Bon Marché and Frederick & Nelson windows displayed wondrous scenes of The Night Before Christmas or A Christmas Carol; a different theme every year. Mesmerized, we stood on the steps constructed for small children to move from window-to-window watching the fantastical life-sized mechanical figures twirl and bow and reach. 


Once inside the elaborately decorated first floor, my personal destination was the candy case, and I fidgeted impatiently until we got to it. Row upon row of beautiful chocolates, petit fours, and sugar-coated “fruit” slices. Frango mints (a F&N exclusive) and chocolate-covered orange peels were my favorites and always showed up Christmas morning in my stocking. For years after I left home, my mother sent the candies across the country to me.


Daddy was a forester, and each year the crew brought a load of Christmas trees down the mountain for the Weyerhaueser employees in Centralia. Daddy always requested three scrawny Noble firs, which he put in a three-hole triangular stand he designed for them. We did not just have a Christmas tree, we had a whole forest in the living room. A couple of weeks ago, my sister and I went out to a lot to find our tree. Unlike in the South, where they never heard of Noble fir, and I was never satisfied with the substitutes (though the right Fraser fir is tolerable), we got the first one we saw. It helps that we were looking for the same thing: tall, slender, not cone-shaped, space between the branches so ornaments have room to hang. I am a Christmas tree snob; but even here in the PNW, it’s not what most people want, so they sit forlorn and overlooked in the lots. 


This year I have moved across the country, back from the Southeast. For the first time since I left home in 1976, no box of greens arrived on my doorstep from my mother. Each year, with my dad when he was here and later by herself, Mama went out and cut fir and holly and salal (which was not my favorite), wrapped it in a plastic bag with wet paper towels, boxed it up, and mailed it 2500 miles. When it arrived at my door, I eagerly hauled it into the house. Being a lover of anticipation, often I let it sit there on the kitchen counter for a while. Then I opened the box and pulled out the bag. Slowly unfastening the twist tie, holding the bag closed with the other hand, I put my nose down close to the opening. Releasing my grip, I enlarged the opening just enough to accommodate my face. And then, I inhaled. I drank in the incomparable scent of the Pacific Northwest: the green, the damp, the mountains, my home on the hill. In that one first breath, home compressed into a bag, my being filled with memories of Christmas.


I am back home now. My children and grandchildren will gather on the other coast with their father and stepfamily. It will be quiet here in the home on the hill where I celebrated the Yule with my sisters for so many years. And they will be here, too. We will make preparations for our mother, rather than the other way around. There will be no wide-eyed wonder, but we will remember through the power of our storytelling.


Gretchen Staebler has lived in three eastern states since membership in the first graduating class from the new Centralia High School, Class of 1970. She writes a weekly blog called, “My View from the Garden”