Last week I wrote about the Christmas trees my grandfather mailed us each year from his mountain ranch in Northern California. This week I'd like to tell you about what went under those trees.
My father is and always has been a train nut. Supporting a wife and a family of five children didn't leave him much discretionary income, so Dad's passion for trains found only very modest outlets in the occasional purchase of a Model Railroader magazine, and in photographing every train he saw (though we didn't see many in suburban Southern California).
Every year, however, Dad found a grand way to let off his train-loving steam: by building an HO gauge train layout to go under the Christmas tree. And what a layout it was. Dad would work on it every Saturday throughout the autumn, designing and building it from the sawhorse up (using parts from the previous year's effort). He laid the tracks and wired it, then painted and embellished it with tiny trees and buildings, cars and houses. There was always a mountain in the center or at one end, painted in shades of white and brown to represent snow and rocks, with the Christmas tree rising from the top (the mountain was hollow to hold the Christmas tree stand). And of course there was always a tunnel under the mountain for the train to go through.
Dad was good at sharing his toys, and let us kids run the trains as often as we wanted. It was great fun to switch on the controls; to choose an engine and cars from the siding - with delightful dithering between freight and passenger train - to place them carefully on the rails, engage the couplers, and set them going.
The size of the layout changed every year - sometimes smaller, sometimes larger, according to Dad's fancy or ambition (or available time and funds). One memorable Christmas it stretched across the entire width of the living room, and we had to climb over the tracks into a sort of well in the middle to get to the control panel. That year's layout had at least 4 separate tracks on which the enterprising model engineer could run several trains at once. What a thrill it was to see the trains pass each other, go into the tunnels and come out the other side. (Occasionally the trains would derail while in the tunnels, which required careful extraction and re-assembly. It was all part of the fun.)
Dad is in his 80s now, and still loves model trains, although he hasn't built a new layout in years - preferring instead to re-use the same one. On my visit to California last July, I saw it sitting shrouded in the garage, waiting for Christmas and its brief foray into daylight and the living room.
But there will be no train for Dad this year. Health problems, both his and my mom's, have taken center stage and he simply doesn't have the time or energy to clean the tracks and get the layout ready to go. This is the first year I can remember without a train under Mom and Dad's Christmas tree. (In fact, they aren't even putting up a Christmas tree - my mom's hospital bed is taking up the space the tree would have occupied).
When I called my dad today to tell him I was thinking of the trains we always had under the tree, he laughed with pleasure. And when I thanked him for letting us play with what were essentially his toys, he replied (in all seriousness), "They're not really toys. They're considered a hobby."
Thanks, Dad, for sharing your hobby with us, and giving us joyful memories of Christmas.
Do you have a favourite Christmas memory or tradition? If so I'd love to hear about it. Leave a comment, or use the button at the sidebar and write a post of your own about a Joy of Christmas Past (or Present).
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