Papa’s Christmas Turkey by Mary Reginato Hudson

Editor’s Note: Christine Hudson sent us this story, with this introductory dedication, on behalf of her mother, the storyteller Mary Reginato Hudson. It’s one of over a hundred stories Mary wrote about her childhood.

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Dedicated to Mary Reginato Hudson 1923-2021 by Christine Hudson

My mother wrote these stories about her parents over a period of many years. After her parents died, my mother was sad and she was grieving, but she did not let it overwhelm her. Instead, she chose to deal with grief by remembering what was good; by remembering cherished moments in her life that brought her joy. And so, she put these memories on paper. She did not write them consistently. One story one week, another story the next month. Sometimes the stories were similar, but different.

My mother never intended to write a book or a novel about her parents. She was just writing down these precious thoughts so she wouldn’t lose them. Mother wrote stories about growing up in Dunsmuir, a small railroad town in Siskiyou County in northern California. She wrote memories about growing up as a child of Italian immigrants. Her parents, who were uneducated and illiterate, had no real resources. Her family never had a lot of money, but they always had enough. There were many times when life was hard for her family and her parents. There were many times when life got the best of them. They were many times when her parents’ failed dreams got the best of them.

But my mother’s love for her family, for her parents, for her town, her heritage, and for her childhood experiences enabled her to let go of what was difficult. She let go of the bad memories and held onto the good. And all that was left was the pure, and sweet, and the love she felt. And that is rare. These simple, heartwarming memories are full of wisdom and lessons for all generations to come.

My mother overcame great obstacles in her adult life. Widowed after seven years of marriage, she was left with a two-year-old and another baby on the way. Trying to be a single mother in the 1950’s, with very little money, and living in a neighborhood of married couples that did not welcome a single woman back into their circle, was an eye opener about life. So, she started to write. She wrote about everything.

Overcoming enormous loss in her life over and over again my mother carried on and wrote her stories. She would not be defeated because she loved life. She wanted to live and be a success. She met every challenge as they came and used her past to move her forward to the future.

Her stories are all true. She made none of this up. Every single one of these stories happened just the way she described it. She just chose to leave out and not talk about the hard times or sad times or what was painful. Her stories are written through the eyes of a child who only saw what she wanted to see. It seems my mother truly had a special lens through which she saw the world of her childhood and youth with amazing sensitivity to the deeper layers of life. The result is a beautiful series of precious thoughts and memories that are not dark and isolating, but wondrous and uniting.

She and her brothers and sisters did have a wonderful life. A wonderful childhood. And that is why they all kept coming back to their small town, year after year after year, until they died. Several of them are also buried in Siskiyou County, although they never lived there as adults. Some of them also wrote many stories, just like my mother, about their childhood and about growing up in this wonderland. Even their children come back now, and the grandchildren. And just as my mother predicted, these grandchildren and great grandchildren have fallen in love with Siskiyou County. They have fallen in love with their Italian heritage. And just like my mother predicted, they honor it and search for it and yearn for it in today’s very complicated world.

And that is why this book is dedicated to my mother, a woman who lived life with amazing gusto. A woman who honored and loved her parents, her family, her heritage, her children, and everything good that came into her life. A woman with vision.

My mother lived to be 97 years old and was still planning a trip back to Dunsmuir to see the old house and to visit her parents’ graves. Now she’s buried next to them under the beautiful Mt. Shasta. And the house she grew up in is still there. As always, quietly and gently sitting with the river.

Mary Reginato Hudson
Italian American
Storyteller

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Papa’s Christmas Turkey

The mountains were full of snow. The snow tractor had cleared the streets, and the snow had piled high along the sides. At night, when we walked up our long street, the snow would sparkle like diamonds, and the icicles were six inches long, along the edges of the old roofs. This was the one and only winter that it had snowed 15 feet, and school was out for a month.

I was about 10 years old, and my brothers were ages 13, 15, 17, and 18. This was also the winter that Papa came rushing home, and told the boys that the Southern Pacific Railroad was paying well – 75 cents – for all the young men to go clear the snow at the depot. For the passenger train was coming in from Oakland, and the snow was falling fast and thick. The snow just lay on the ground like cotton.

My brothers laughed and hurried. What fun! They grabbed their boots and caps, and ran up our street, which was one block from the railroad depot. Papa always found jobs for the boys, in the winter shoveling snow, and in the summer working in the McCloud Box Factory.

This Christmas and the next were all the same. Mama and Papa had only love to give us…and lots of food. Papa was a railroad man. He was strong, and he believed the staff of life was work and more work. Mama’s days were long also, getting up at 4AM to put more wood in the only stove in the house, and to knead the bread, which she made every other day.

I remember I had about 60 cents to spend for Christmas, and of course, presents were unknown to us, except to buy a small gift for Mama. Our town was all mountains. We had paved streets, but to get to Main Street, we had to climb the Jail Hill or the Bank Hill. The Jail Hill was called that because both the City Hall and the jail were on that hill. The Bank of America was on the other hill, with a huge Christmas tree in the center. It was fun to ride our sleds down the icy slope. Mt. Shasta, covered in deep snow, hovered over us.

The last week before Christmas, Papa would take us up in the mountains to get our tree. Papa had no concept of what a perfect tree looked like. We would all walk a mile or two to where the trees were thick, deep in the forest. Papa would be holding his axe and blowing his nose.

Often, when he saw the right tree, Papa would swing his axe and down came our lopsided tree. We all helped carry it home.

Papa would take the tree to the basement and put a stand on it. We then brought out the old suitcase full of the old, worn-out ornaments. But to us, they were beautiful. Our front room was 10 feet by 9 feet, and I am afraid that all you could see was a big Christmas tree for seven children.

Our Christmas dinner was well planned. Mama always cooked a 20 or 30-pound turkey. And we had sweet potatoes with brown sugar, gravy and mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie, and old-fashioned cookies. Mama had a special white tablecloth she used only once or twice a year. When the table was set with our only set of China dishes, we all sat down, along with our star boarder, Charlie. All you could see was a big table with 10 people, a wood burning stove with real hot food, and a huge turkey. It was magnificent!

Papa always sat at the head of the table, and he would carve the turkey. Mama used to shout, “You’re butchering the turkey.” Papa would say, “Well, John, do you want that turkey leg? Are you sure this turkey leg is not too big for you?” John was 13. We all listened for his answer, and of course, he took the leg.

My gift to Mama and Papa is these short tales of us at a special time. Their gift to me is a lifetime of “pure love of the meaning of Christmas.” I can still hear Mama shouting at Papa, and when I look out the window from the old house, and see the white flakes falling, I hear, “You’re butchering the turkey.” Then we would all laugh.

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Art: Author’s own collection (picture 1 – a b&w image of a train, picture 2 – a sepia image of a forest, picture 3 – a colour picture of Mary Reginato Hudson, smiling widely in a family home)

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Christine Hudson is a retired Deputy District Attorney for Santa Clara County, California. During her almost 30-year career, she prosecuted almost every kind of criminal case. But her specialty was child abuse and neglect. She also did a 10-year special assignment representing those abused and neglected children who had been removed from their parents. She definitely saw the dark side of life, but prefers to think about the good outcomes and joyful solutions. 

As a retired person, her passion of course is writing. She definitely takes after her mother, who was an avid writer of short stories, memoirs and imaginative children’s stories. Christine spends much of her day in her garden, which she calls her sanctuary. She loves to grow and nurture flowers of all kinds. And it is there that she finds the inspiration to write stories and spend time with her animals, her dog Savannah, her cat Moira, and her little backyard squirrel, whom she calls Chippy. 

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