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Published: Thursday, 12/16/2010

Love put flash, shine in family's Christmas

Rats, the kids would say.

Mom put up the Christmas tree way over there again.

So, in the wee hours of Christmas morning, the Chandler children couldn't lean over the bannister of their East Toledo home to peek at what was, or wasn't, under the tree.

Spend a fortune on Christmas gifts?

Not in this family. Not in the 1960s when parents Don and Betty Chandler clutched pennies closely. During those lean years, their children were tickled, and grateful, to get one new toy from Santa, perhaps a ball, a tin truck, a game.

"We were fortunate. I remember I would get a doll, and to me, that was a lot," said Gwen Gregory, 54, of Toledo, one of eight Chandler children. "Our Christmases, they were good times. I wouldn't have changed them for the world."

Long gone are their toys from Christmas Past, but the Chandler children were blessed with ever-lasting gifts … gifts of family, gifts of love.

On this snowy morning, after 2-year-old grandson Dalton Buck tugs at her sweatshirt and politely asks for another cookie, Ms. Gregory tells him, "I love you." He gives her a quick kiss.

She pauses in her storytelling, glancing at faded black-and-white family photos.

"They never told us," she said. "All the time we were growing up, our parents never said they loved us. Our parents expected us to know they loved us because they provided for us."

A fire pops and crackles in a wood-burning stove, its mantel holiday festive with a trio of foot-long fanciful stockings.

When Ms. Gregory was a young girl, "we put up our own socks, the ones we wore on our feet," she said. There was no money to splurge on special stockings for Santa to fill. Besides, pint-sized socks were just fine to hold a few pieces of hard candy and some nuts, holiday treats indeed.

Gifts given by Chandler children -- Jeff, John, Chet, Gwen, Alma, David, Tom, and Steve -- to their parents were handcrafted in school. Star-shaped clay, scissor-cut snowflakes.

Strings of popcorn and construction paper chains would circle the Chandlers' Christmas tree, a tree given to them by an uncle who would drive to their house with the pine plunked in his car trunk.

But it was Aunt Joe (with her nickname spelled like a guy's) who put the flash and shine in the Chandler kids' Christmas year after year, in part because she gifted each of them with trinkets, and in part because she was one of the kindest creatures on Earth.

Aunt Joe, married to Uncle Hezie Sammons, lived within walking distance of the Chandlers in East Toledo, and the relatives spent much time together, particularly during Christmas.

Oh, those holiday memories. Wonderful recollections of aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, children, and grandchildren packed into the Chandlers' three-bedroom home on Christmas Day.

Sometimes, yes, sometimes, there was extra special food to share, such as Washington apples and Florida oranges brought home one year by Gwen's father, whose employer had given him baskets of fruit.

Mr. Chandler worked at a glass factory in the afternoons; in the mornings, he worked for a meat company. To help feed his large family, he occasionally would bring home packages of meat, swapped for his paycheck, his daughter said.

No mention was made then of any parental concerns about putting enough food on the table, and Ms. Gregory was startled when her father, sick with cancer before he died two years ago, one day asked her a question.

"He said to me, 'When you were kids growing up, did you have enough food to eat?'''

She blinks back tears.

Yes, Dad, she told him. Of course we had plenty of food to eat.

And they had a roof over their heads, clothes on their backs. Basic necessities, things often taken for granted in the hustle-bustle holiday season.

Each December, the Chandlers looked forward to the glassworkers' union Christmas party. "There was no cost to go. We would sit on Santa's lap and we would talk to him," she said. Her eyes light up with the recollection. Each child would get a toy, not expensive, but a toy just the same.

Her brother, Tom, of Toledo, fondly recalls red stockings made of netting and filled with candy, nuts, and other treats that each child received at the party.

"Things like that meant a lot to a kid who didn't get much for Christmas," he said. "We looked forward to stuff like that."

Holiday gifts for their teachers at Navarre School: Mrs. Chandler's famous banana bread.

"You always brought something for your teacher, and our teachers always were waiting for the banana bread Mom baked for them," recalled Tom, who one year got a race track for Christmas. "That was a big gift. We did not very often get big gifts."

This Christmas, Tom is out of work; his place of employment shuttered its doors and outsourced his job to China, he said.

There, on the table next to Ms. Gregory, is a Christmas card, circa 1965, with a photograph of the Chandler family.

Peels of laughter, like the sound of a Christmas bell, ring out as Ms. Chandler recalls the photo session for that card.

It was on a steamy hot summer day. Dressed in their Sunday best, the 10 Chandlers smiled and posed for the camera. Mr. Chandler, not particularly keen about the whole idea, has that look about him that screams, "I can't wait to loosen this blasted tie."

A sentimental greeting smoothed over any heated debate about the summer photo session for a Christmas card. "Best wishes from our family to yours," it says.

And there were so many best wishes from the Chandlers to others, and from others to them.

Permanent presents, these -- life lessons learned, passed down from generation to generation.

Ms. Gregory remembers how relatives would share -- maybe a pot roast or canned tomatoes -- and how they shared good food and good times with neighbors, too. Now, she shares with her neighbors, and invites them to spend time with her family on Christmas Day.

Each day, she counts her blessings.

Ms. Gregory was in nursing school when she was diagnosed with stage-four breast cancer. Go home, she was told. Spend time with your children. Put your affairs in order.

Today, she's an 18-year cancer survivor, and works for the American Red Cross.

She's known heartache … the death of her father and the loss of three brothers, one to a heart attack and two to suicide.

And she's known happiness that sparkles like a Christmas star.

"I have so many good memories. I have been so very fortunate. I have definitely been blessed."

As she talks, she twists round and round a slender strand of gold, a ring given to her by dear Aunt Joe many years ago. With delight, Ms. Gregory tells how she found the ring just the other day at her mother's house where it was safely tucked away, a treasured family keepsake.

On her necklace, Ms. Gregory wears a gold heart, and next to it, a gold cross, a precious reminder to her about the greatest Christmas gift of all.

Contact Janet Romaker at: jromaker@theblade.com or 419-724-6006



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