By Janice Dunnahoo
Special to the Daily Record
Ernestine Chesser Williams was a volunteer for the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives, a writer, a friend to my mother, a teacher, a rancher’s wife, a member of a big, long-time ranch family here — many of whom still live, work and ranch in this area. She shared her stories in many publications, such as “The Old Timer’s Review” and left the file drawers at the archives full of many of her memories.
Following is a sweet, or rather bittersweet, Christmas story she left us that I want to share with you this week. This story was published in the winter of 1982-83, in “The Old Timers Review.”
“Old Days, Old Times, Old Friends
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“In my lifetime there have been many memorable Christmases, but none more-so than Christmas of 1926, when our neighbors spent the day with us. We were good friends then and for fifty-five years some member of each family has kept in touch with some member of the other family.
“We Chessers were farmers, living south of Roswell, New Mexico. There were nine of us children and our parents. The oldest, David, was fifteen years old then, and the baby was barely walking. Money on the farm was scarce but food was plentiful — mostly because of the efforts of our parents in preserving all they could of the farm produce.
“Our neighbors, the Haggertons, who had recently moved from Oklahoma to New Mexico, weren’t so fortunate. In the late spring Mr. Haggerton had died, leaving his widow with twelve children. Their leased farm had not been productive, and work for a woman and several children was hard to find.
“As the Christmas season neared, my parents had made no preparation that called for money. There was no tree, no decorations, and no presents. However, we children knew there would be a big bag of oranges and a variety of hard candy and mixed nuts.
“‘We will ask the Haggertons to spend Christmas day with us,’ my mother said. There was no way she could have realized her gesture of friendship would make a Christmas, never to be forgotten, by either them or us.
“Before the holiday arrived, we dressed big fat hens that were to be baked with cornbread dressing. My mother made pumpkin pies and spicy cakes. We brought a generous supply of apples and all sorts of canned fruits, jellies, preserves, and vegetables from the cellar.
“Christmas morning dawned cold and snowy with temperatures well below freezing. Milking, and feeding the livestock were done early, and the big wood box behind the stove was filled to overflowing, so the chores would be finished before our friends came. The tantalizing aroma of the chickens baking, of corn bread dressing with sage and pepper, and of rich creamy gravy, permeated the entire house.
“The Haggertons arrived, all thirteen of them, crammed into an old open Model T. They were all bundled up in quilts as a protection from the bitter cold.
“As we opened the door to greet them, they stomped the snow from their shoes on the concrete porch and came quietly into the living room and hovered around the heating stove. There were no loud shouts, nor running and racing through the house as I see children do so often today.
“Mrs. Haggerton and her two oldest daughters went directly to the kitchen to help mother with the cooking. The little girls made a playhouse in the corner of the back bedroom, using an apple box for a table which they set with tin lids filled with orange sections, a most delectable treat for them all.
The little boys, with their overall pockets full of candy and nuts, went to the cottonseed house, where they dug caves and played at burying each other. The remainder of us, all young teenagers, played games of our own origin, first inside, then outside in the snow, then back to the warmth of our big stove.
“When dinner was ready, the grown folk and the smallest children ate at the first table, as was the custom then. Since there were twenty four of us, we divided in half. My father, seated on one side of the big oval table, said the blessing, then helped the plates as they were passed to him. I stood to one side and refilled empty bowls, watched the biscuits that was still baking in the oven, and helped the little children with their food. I refilled the cups (we didn’t use glasses) with milk, as that was the only drink provided at the Chesser house at the noon meal.
“When those at the first table had finished eating, I served dessert from the side cabinet — not individual servings — but I merely passed the pies and cakes around the table so they all might have a choice, which they ate from their already used plates.
“With the first table finished eating, the Haggerton girls and I quickly washed the necessary dishes, replenished all bowls and platters from the pots and the big roaster on the stove. The second group sat down to eat with much less formality than the first, each person helping themselves as the food was passed around the table. Talking and laughing (but not too loud) was acceptable at the second table, but not at the first.
“By the time the dishes were cleared away, the sun had broken through the gray sky and was shining bright and clear on the sparkling snow.
“‘What a perfect time for a picture,’ I exclaimed as I ran into the bedroom and got my most treasured possession, a small camera – a Kodak, we called it then. I am sure I didn’t even know the word camera, just Kodak. A roll of film with six exposures was a luxury item to be used with discretion. There was no snapping here and there, but each shot was very selective.
My mother called all of us kids together — twenty-one Haggertons and Chessers — in a group, or maybe it was a huddle.
“We girls took an extra minute to run a comb through our straight, short, bobbed hair, and the boys gave a little attention to their pompadours, which were combed straight back from the forehead, pasted down with Vaseline, and held in place with a cap made from the top of one of mother’s worn out stockings. Why the grooming, I don’t know, because they put their caps right back on.
“We stood out in the snow only briefly, the tallest ones in back and the very small ones in front, shivering in the cold, while mother with the little Kodak, took aim, then ‘snap’ she had us.
“Throughout the years, I have looked at that snapshot dozens of times, thinking how little we knew in those early days what life has in store for us. For a few years we were closely associated as neighboring farm families, but the time came when one by one we went our separate ways. Among us there were ranchers, farmers, mechanics, big equipment operators, builders, school teachers, storekeepers and many other occupations.
“Then came the Great Depression and we were faced with the abrasive realities of life. Each of us found that those years on the farm have taught us the basic laws of survival: work hard, waste not, and use what we made to our advantage.
“The war came, and seven of the boys (see picture — five Chessers and two Haggertons) were in some faraway place fighting for their homeland. The first casualty was Tommy Haggerton, fighter pilot, shot down over Germany. The next was H.B. Haggerton who died in a plane crash in England. In due time, their bodies were sent home and buried in the Haggerton lot in South Park beside their father, and of course the Chessers shared the grief of the family. The other five, my brothers, eventually came home.
“Only a short distance from the Haggarton lot in South Park is the Chessers lot, where, one by one, we have buried our loved ones. Every time there is a funeral in either family both Chessers and Haggertons are there. All these years we have offered comfort to each other.
“Only last summer, on a hot day in July, as we stood near an open grave in the Haggerton lot, the oldest girl, Nanny, was buried near her mother. I looked at the group gathered there and tried to count the ones who were in the picture. There were children and grandchildren whom I had never seen. I saw some young men helping an older man with white hair out of the car. At first I couldn’t believe it, but it had to be the oldest Haggerton boy, Bert.
A group from the church sang ‘Going Down the Valley One by One’ and ‘In the Sweet By and By.’ After the casket was lowered, we older ones stepped a short distance away and gathered closer to visit briefly. We weren’t thinking about ‘going down the valley’ or about ‘meeting in the sweet by and by,’ we were thinking about the days that used to be.
“‘Do you still have that picture of all of us that your mother took on that Christmas Day?’ Bert asked of me. I assured him that I did.
“‘I still think of that as being the best Christmas of my life,’ he said, and then asked me if I would send him a copy of the picture. His sisters joined in the conversation, and as we stood there sweating in the summer sun, we talked about the snowy Christmas we had all spent together, shortly after they had arrived in New Mexico when they had felt so devastated at the loss of their father.
“Fifty-five years is a long time, but can be spanned momentarily by a backward look to a time shared by two neighboring farm families.
“Never a Christmas morning,
“Never an old year ends …
“But someone thinks of someone,
“Old days, old times, old friends.”
Janice Dunnahoo is chief archivist at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.