Even though Pam Nelson left her small hometown of Dunkirk, New York, many years ago, cherished keepsakes and precious family memories fill her home each and every holiday season
Growing up in Dunkirk, NY, Pam Nelson had a city grandmother and a country grandmother.
Grandmother Whitney was the fashionable, modern, city grandmother, recalled Nelson. There were lots of grandchildren and lavish gifts on Christmas Eve in the city.
Grandmother Hube, on the other hand, wore cotton stockings and a butcher apron and lived about 10 miles from Dunkirk.
“She was always old,” said Pam, jokingly.
Christmas gifts at Grandmother Hube’s house were envelopes of small bills for each of about 20 grandchildren. The two grandmothers could hardly be more different, but she feels fortunate she grew up with both sides of her family nearby, said Pam, who now lives in the Deer Point community of West Ocean City with her husband, Bob.
It seems the country ways of Grandmother Hube have stayed on Pam’s mind. They still represent her childhood Christmases, though her grandparents’ farmhouse, in Sheridan, NY, was demolished. Grandmother Hube, along with Pam’s grandfather, ran a small Red & White grocery store there. Her grandfather was a butcher, and they’d run tabs for the local canning factory workers until they received their Friday paychecks. She doesn’t know how Grandmother Hube did it all: working in the store, raising children, making everything from scratch.
“Everything she did, she did herself,” said Pam. “She canned tomatoes, everything. She made her own ornaments.” One of the ornaments still hangs on her Christmas tree each year. Pam isn’t sure how Grandmother Hube constructed the star-shaped ornament from simple tin cans. No one was sure about the source of Grandmother Hube’s ability. They didn’t know she was a talented artist until she developed Alzheimer’s disease, and she began to draw elaborate flower gardens and farm scenes.
Along with having both sets of grandparents nearby as a child, Pam considers it fortunate she grew up on the edge of Lake Erie, in the westernmost city in New York. Times were different then, of course, and mostly better, she believes.
She raised her own children, David and Elizabeth, there.
“It’s so changed,” Pam recalled. “It was wonderful before malls. We had a little downtown. My kids grew up in a neighborhood. They walked to school.
“It was very different. The steel industry was there. Everybody knew everybody,” she continued. Even people’s pastimes were different. When Grandmother Hube — who didn’t drive — had a little time to herself, relatives would drive her where she wanted to go.
“She loved going to the woods to get wildflowers,” Pam recalled.
‘THE BEST PART’
As much as she loves the memories of her own childhood holidays, Pam said the best Christmases were when David and Elizabeth were young.
“We had our traditions. They were fortunate, as well, to have both sets of grandparents [nearby],” she added. “We were at both families’ houses, and it was always very busy. But before the children would go to bed, I would read The Polar Express, and I always cried; then we would have orange juice.”
Pam, 68, still tears up a bit, thinking about it now. She is still close with her children and grandchildren, though David, who has two daughters, lives in Cleveland, while Elizabeth lives in Atlanta with her two daughters and son.
“The best part of it for me was Christmas with my kids,” she said.
She left New York in 1989 and has spent the years since in either Florida or Maryland. She’s always lived near the water, in any case. Just this summer, Pam went back to Dunkirk, where she hunted for sea glass in the early-morning hours, with her brother, Kip. Last year, her best friend from Dunkirk gave her three glass-ball ornaments made from sea glass collected from the Erie shore. The ornaments are part of a large bowl of Erie sea glass collected over decades that rests near the front door.
Along with sea glass, Pam decorates year-round with crystal.
“I think it’s the sparkle, the light,” she said of her love of crystal glass. “It makes everybody feel good.
“I just like it all, if it’s got a sparkle to it,” said Pam, who leaves out her dearest crystal pieces — including the first piece gifted by her mother, as well as her Grandmother Hube’s antique vinegar cruet — all year. But at Christmas, she accents the home with more crystal, whether it’s antique, new or thrift-store vintage.
Pam, who looks much younger than her years, holds her keepsakes close to her heart, along with her family, both past and present. She opens the walnut hutch and gently turns a perfume bottle given to her one Christmas by her son’s friend, when he was about 12. The crystal bottle is topped by a dove carrying a holly branch. It has survived multiple moves in the years since she left Western New York.
She and Bob don’t plan to move again. They’ve finally found the right mix of friends and atmosphere. “Here, it’s more a laid-back, relaxed lifestyle,” she said.
She does plan to keep her memories, though. The tree will go up again this year, and Grandmother Hube’s tin-can star will be front-and-center. Likewise, a Christmas Nutcracker toy soldier given to her by the children of good friends will be on display, while the white-frosted table-top tree will bear a single, antique, clip-on cardinal that was her Grandmother Hube’s, one of her few ornaments not handmade.
“Most of my things have a story,” Pam said.