Seniors share holiday traditions, memories

December 18, 2012

By Lillian O'Rorke

When asked what their favorite holiday memory is, most people will say spending time with loved ones. Dig a little deeper and the holidays are home to a whole score of memories.

Al Watenpaugh, 85, still remembers one Christmas present in particular. Around age 10, he went feeling around under the Christmas tree, trying to see if he could suss out what surprises the gift-wrapped packages held. Feeling around, his fingers moved across a shape that was unmistakable.

“It was obviously a doll,” he said. “I remember being so angry and upset.”

When Watenpaugh opened his gift on Christmas Eve, as was his family’s tradition, his anger quickly dissipated. It wasn’t a baby doll, as he had feared — but a Charlie McCarthy Ventriloquist Doll from his little brother.

“I never looked under the tree after that,” he said.

Now Watenpaugh spends every Christmas with his wife Genevieve Watenpaugh, who he married three years ago after meeting at Timber Ridge at Talus in Issaquah.

Born in 1935 in New York, Ruth Farbman doesn’t recall her family ever lighting a menorah during Hanukkah. While they were Jewish, her family wasn’t really religious. So when Farbman started her own family, she also started a new tradition of celebrating the Festival of Lights.

For the first seven nights of Hanukkah, Farbman would give her three children each a gift. But the items did not exactly intrigue the little ones. On the first night, their mother would give them socks; on the second, they got underwear; on the third, it was shorts and so on. Then, on the eighth night, she would break out the toys.

“They had to always wait till the last day,” said Farbman, who now lives at University House in Issaquah.

Now, years and a few generations later, Farbman’s family still celebrates Hanukkah.

“I’m pretty sure my grandchildren will continue the tradition,” she said. “I don’t think they will continue my tradition of the underwear.”

Velma Bak also lives at University House and said one of her fondest Christmas memories is the special treat that her mother would bake every year. It was a coffee cake with bananas stuck in it. Where the fruit sat, a pool of sweet gooeyness formed, which was Bak’s and her five siblings’ favorite part.

“We all wanted that,” said Bak, who is now 90. “It was like having something hidden.”

The piece with the banana was extra special, she explained, because her family didn’t have that much money and often her mother could only afford one banana.

Just like fruit, extra presents were also hard to come by. However, one thing Bak could always count on was her older cousins visiting for the holidays. With them, they would bring gifts for all the children — mittens with dimes in the thumbs.

Like most children, Ken Sessler’s favorite part of Christmas was waking up to the best morning of the year. Now 84, Sessler, of Issaquah, remembers running out to the living room and finding all of the presents under the tree. The packages included surprises like toy trucks and footballs.

“It was all good,” he said.

“Santa Claus had been there and we didn’t even have a chimney,” Sessler added. “I didn’t question. I just knew he got in anyways.”

Eighty-seven-year-old Jeanne Lawson now lives in Issaquah but grew up in Buffalo, N.Y. Every year for Christmas she and her sister would sit and thread pieces of popcorn onto a long string to form a garland for the tree. They’d also make popcorn balls, wrap them in red cellophane and hang them on the branches for tasty decorations.

Then came Christmas morning. Lawson remembers a lot of wonderful gifts, including a white muff.

“Oh, how I loved that thing,” she said.

She also remembers receiving a tiny electrical cooking stove, complete with miniature pans for baking. As well, every year Lawson and her three siblings could count on getting a brand new pair of ice skates, which they would take out Christmas Day to break in on Delaware Park Lake, which was always completely frozen over.

Eugene Klineburger, 93, grew up in Arizona during the Great Depression, but that didn’t stop him or his family from having a merry Christmas. One thing they had plenty of was peaches, so with them they made peach ice cream and peach pie.

“We weren’t rich, but we were happy,” Klineburger said. “We always managed to get a Christmas tree. I had two younger brothers — my dad and I would go around salvaging old toys and take them home and paint them up for the little boys.”

Sometimes, he added, they would do their Christmas shopping at the garbage dump. Klineburger was able to find so many treasures that once he built a Model-T Ford, he said, from car parts that he found in an alley.

Bud and Lorraine Cochran have called Issaquah home since 1958, and in that time they have built a lot of pleasant holiday memories. One year, the couple’s house was full, as their children and grandchildren had all come for Christmas. As a special treat, Lorraine made 14 stockings — one for each person — and stuffed them all with little gifts. She made them wait until Christmas morning, and then everyone opened their stocking at the same time.

Her oldest grandson was about age 12, Lorraine said, and told her it was the best Christmas ever — one he would always remember. That grandson is now 40 and has children of his own, and each of them has their own homemade stocking from their great-grandmother.

“I don’t even remember having stockings when we were kids,” said Lorraine, who is 89. “If you got oranges, that was something special.”

When she was little, Lorraine lived in a little logging town on Mount Rainier, where she remembers working to hook individual candleholders to the Christmas tree’s branches.

“We didn’t have electric lights to put on the trees then,” she said. “I think they only got lit a couple of times. You just really didn’t light them — they were more to look at.”

Having Mount Rainier for an address meant that every year was guaranteed to be a white Christmas. That’s not the case down here in Issaquah but Lorraine and Bud, 91, got their snowy fix whenever they traveled to spend the holidays with their son in Alaska.

“No problem as far as white Christmases up there,” Bud said. “Up there, when it comes it’s there for an awful long while.”

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