Holidays in South Bend remind me of time spent with the Ashley families. All of our parents hung out and spent evenings together either playing cards at one house or the other, as well as holidays together.
We were all so close that I was surprised and not just a little disappointed to later find out that the many Ashley children were not my blood cousins, but just long-time family friends. Many years ago, my dad met Les and Jessie Ashley in Colorado. They were the patriarch and matriarch of the Ashley family. When Les and Jessie moved from Colorado back to Michigan where the family originated — before their final destination in South Bend — my dad moved as well, so close was he to the family. Later, my mom joined them in Michigan, where she met the siblings, Junior, Gene, Jerry, Carol, Sharon and Barbara (I’m sorry if I have missed any).
The Ashleys eventually moved here to our small oyster town in Washington to raise their children. Les’ brother and sister and their families also lived in South Bend and I remember them well, though I do not know when or how they arrived. Hank and Doris Ashley and children lived in a big house up the hill near Broadway, and Virgie and Bob Kelm — owners of Kelm’s Auto Parts in South Bend — and their children lived in what seemed like an enormous house on the hill behind Pioneer. One year when there was fear of a tidal wave flooding South Bend, our family packed up for the night and went to stay with Virgie and Bob.
I have fond memories of being at all of the many welcoming homes of the Ashleys. They were family.
Landing in South Bend
My parents came to visit their good friends, Les and Jessie Ashley, living in the flats in South Bend in the early 1960s on our way to California. The plan was to visit and pass through South Bend, but since dad was also looking for employment, he jumped at the chance to work with Les for the City of South Bend. He had gone with Les to town and someone mentioned the city needed someone to help with the repair of sidewalks after a sewer project. My parents loved the Ashleys and Mom and Dad loved the evergreen trees and open spaces. Mom was, however, disappointed when she realized that the ocean on the West Coast was not exactly Daytona.
Jerry and Judy Ashley — Gene and Audrey — Carol and Ed Colburn — and all of the kids: let’s see — Brian, Connie, and Rodney Ashley — Mark, Dale, and Alan Ashley — Smokie, Bill and Lindy Colburn. Holidays meant spending time together with the Ashleys, and we looked forward to the crowd, usually at our house. The festivities were well anticipated and my sister and I considered carefully our choices of what to wear, wanting to look our festive best for the company. Our house sat behind the Smiths, on the side of the Jones and down from the Remingtons. We walked to South Bend’s Chauncey Davis Elementary.
We always got a new set of pajamas for Christmas, usually homemade, but one time I received a beautiful flannel red-plaid nightgown. Another year, Laurie and I got matching silky pajamas — mine pink and hers blue and our own babydoll. Mine was chunky and I was jealous of my sister’s pretty, trim dolly dressed in a chic red jumper.
The positive about Christmas was that it would be happy times with the Ashleys. We all played very nicely together. None of our group was unkind or mean intentionally. We definitely were expected to be seen and not heard, so we busied ourselves together as children.
Tough on Dad
The bad thing, though, regarding Christmas, was that it was a tough holiday emotionally for my dad for some reason. It all went well until Christmas Eve. There were presents under the tree, all the holiday cards sent to our family taped around the living room door with a red ribbon, our traditional box of oranges and bag of mixed nuts — oh, and for some reason a coconut. Where did that come from? No idea.
But usually this is when Dad began to associate this holiday with something we couldn’t put our finger on, and he seemed to be overwhelmed with melancholia that I don’t think even he understood. He would head for the Chester Tavern and most years come home the next day. In the morning, he looked sheepish as he slunk in and saw only his presents sitting unopened under the tree as we waited for him to come home.
Even the next day, we had not lost our enthusiasm to present Dad with a token of our love. We had shopped at Olsen’s variety store in downtown South Bend, wandering the creaking wooden isles in search of the perfect gift. I searched painstakingly and thoughtfully to find Dad the present he would love the most. I knew I had hit the jackpot when I saw the 3-inch ceramic woodpecker with a tuft of fuzzy orange hair. He would love this. What dad wouldn’t? I wrapped it carefully and put it under the tree. He opened it the next morning.
One year, my sister and I got a blue Easy Bake oven for Christmas. It was especially fun at first because it came with cake and cookie packages of mix. The small tins were rounds of about four inches. After filling them, we could watch them baking as they bubbled from one compartment to the next in the lightbulb oven. Soon, there they came out the other end, browned on the outside but usually still gooey inside. After the six or so pre-packaged mixes ran out, me, Sandy and Laurie spent hours concocting our own recipes for this oven for many years, though they never tasted quite like the pre-mixes.
We also had fun in our bedroom with a projector we’d gotten for Christmas, having slide shows when we had visitors of things like Casper and Wendy Witch. Each strip had maybe five or six slides in it that projected onto our white sliding closet doors. One year we got a children’s fake refrigerator and stove. I think they were made out of tin in those days rather than the plastic ones you see in yards now that would perfectly preserve over an ice age. The stove came with rubber ham and bacon along with life-sized plastic fried eggs.
Whether it was the Ashleys, the Whipkeys, or the Smiths, there were fun times to be had in those few years in the 60s in South Bend during holidays.
I had no doubt that Santa was real. My sister and I couldn’t believe it when we fell asleep waiting for him to come down the chimney. Wait a minute… did we have a chimney? My sister even left a note once. “Santa — please — I just want one thing. Please, please let me ride in your sleigh.” It turns out that my 6th grade brother answered her note saying, “I’m sorry, I have too many kids to get to. I don’t have time to take you in the sleigh,” and he ate a bite out of the carrot that my sister had left for Santa. I must have been in third grade when I was told there was no Santa — long after many kids. My sister and I would vehemently defend the life of Santa in the school lunch line. They must be crazy to not believe in Santa, we thought. When there was no longer the question of Santa or no Santa, I was completely devastated to be told he did not exist. Then my disbelief turned to anger at having been lied to for so long. After that, I was sad — just sad at this loss. I felt betrayed. You mean, when we went downtown and Santa in a suit came riding in a wagon pitching out oranges and nuts in front of the Southwest store (Pioneer) for the past four years — he wasn’t real? Horrifying. It was true. Turns out it was a white-haired old man named Ben who I later recognized when I worked at the nursing home.
Thanksgiving was usually an event with just our family — the six of us. We sat at the dinner table — nothing fancy — just the turkey in a big roaster in middle of the table. I don’t know — maybe Dad didn’t like any holidays. I remember them as being tense. It might be because one time my Dad got angry about the gravy — didn’t like it or not enough or some such trauma. He took the roasting pan of turkey and threw it out of the window onto the lawn. We all just looked at each other — then looked down. Not a good time to start a conversation about school events.
Our first year after moving to South Bend, our family spent Thanksgiving with Gene and Audrey Ashley and family, who lived on Eklund Park. Dad had stopped drinking for a period of time, and hence there were no worries or anticipation of a skirmish — certainly no throwing of the turkey out the window. My dad loved kids and took a liking to their smallest son, Alan. He had just gotten a pair of rubber boots that were two or three times his size, but he wore them proudly. From then on, my Dad called him “Boots.”
Halloween: All good
Now, Halloween, on the other hand, brings back many good memories. No one went to the store and bought fancy costumes — no silky disco suits back then. My mom was very creative in making our costumes. Once I was a hobo, and she put patches on my dad’s jeans and shirt and made a pole to sling over my shoulder with a hobo sack on the end made of a red kerchief. Laurie, Sandy Smith and I would set out before dark and roam the town until past midnight accepting our Bit-o-Honeys or Smarties from each knock of the door and “trick or treat” we shouted.
Good times. Well, except for one time I went to the H&H Hotel and knocked on the door, unwilling to miss the opportunity for just one last Tootsie Roll. I was met with a large, angry stubbled man holding a can of Olympia and wearing a wife-beater stretched across his pot belly. Bleary eyes bulging, he leaned down so close to my face that I could smell the stale beer and yelled, “Don’t you know, you’re not supposed to bother people at hotels!” I was so afraid of him that I stood there stunned until he slammed the door loudly in my face. Good to know. Lesson learned, but he didn’t need to get all Dracula up on me.
After a full and exhausting evening collecting our gunny sack full of candy, we would go home and dump it out on the floor for an inspection, count, and a big trade of our goods. I’ll give ya three Smarties and a Big Hunk for an Oh! Henry and two packs of Sweet Tarts, etc. Then we gorged ourselves with candy with no limitations whatsoever, stuffing our mouths full of caramel, chocolate and candy. Back in the day, the town was rife with children trick-or-treating, usually late into the night.
If my mom ran out of candy after we got home with our loot, she’d put some of our candy in a bowl and recycle it to other kids coming along after hours. You didn’t have to worry — no one put razor blades or LSD in candy back then, and your children were safe until they dragged themselves onto their own front steps, stuffed with candy and exhausted. Good times.