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posted: 12/17/2013 12:39 PM

The best Christmas present? All those memories

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  • Jim Penick, left, with sons Tep and Jeff in 1985.

    Jim Penick, left, with sons Tep and Jeff in 1985.
    Courtesy of Stephanie Penick


My father, now 90, owned a construction business in Muncie, Ind., where I grew up. My folks still live in the house he built in Rolling Oaks, a small subdivision with 29 other homes on the far west side of town.

When he was actively running his business, now owned by one of my two younger brothers, he built a number of houses, two of which also are located in Rolling Oaks.

For many reasons, my dad preferred commercial construction and his specialty became roofing, both of which are seasonal in the Midwest.

This year's earlier-than-usual snow provided a rush of memories of the joys we had during the off-season when my dad was more available to "play." Whenever the extended forecast assured subfreezing temperatures, I could count on my dad to build a small ice rink in our back yard.

One year he was even more ambitious. He got permission to build a huge rink on the empty lot across the street. Unlike the small rink in our back yard, filled with a garden hose, the large rink needed thousands of gallons of water. My dad called the fire department to help fill the plastic-lined frame.

I recall the excitement when many neighbors came to watch as the big hose was hooked up to the fire hydrant. What my dad hadn't anticipated was that the very slight slant of the property would make a difference. The weight and rapid force of the water from the fire hydrant broke through the plastic and all the water ended up coating the street.

In my youth, Rolling Oaks always was among the last neighborhoods in town to be plowed after a snowstorm.

The street that runs around a block in the center of the subdivision creates a quarter-mile track, perfect for sledding.

In our neighborhood, "sledding" meant that my dad would tow a string of sleds and toboggans behind his pickup truck. Whenever it snowed, kids would call for my dad!

All bundled up, we'd go around and around the block. The most daring kids rode on the last sled.

The older boys yelled, "Faster! Faster!" But safety always came first.

The other day, I received a Facebook post from my childhood friend Margaret that gave me the chills. Margaret, who now lives near Atlanta, lived two doors from us in Muncie.

"I remember the skating rink in your back yard! Thank you, Mr. Crookston, for great memories sledding and ice skating!"

This time of year when much attention is given to the "perfect gift," I'm mindful more than ever how much I cherish fond memories -- and especially ones shared with friends.

I also remember Christmases when my dad's vendors would send gifts -- bottles of whiskey, packaged fruitcake, baskets of fruit, and assorted sausages and cheeses from Hickory Farms.

As a kid, I didn't appreciate any of those gifts in their fancy wrappings. Plus, I didn't like the flavor of smoked cheddar cheese, and I still don't.

Smoked cheddar aside, these days I think consumables are the most practical gifts.

And that brings me to my most treasured gifts of all: photos. To my disappointment, I took many of my childhood photos with a Polaroid and today many have faded.

My all-time favorite Christmas photo of my husband and our two sons is one I didn't take. In fact, it was taken by our 4-year-old neighbor, Bobby, one Sunday after church.

Back then, more times than not, my husband Jim reminded the boys to tuck their shirt tails into their pants. That day, unknown to me, in the spirit of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em," Jim handed my camera to Bobby to take his photo with Tep and Jeff.

In those days, I took rolls of film to be developed at a local camera shop. When I picked them up, I'd thumb through the photos to check for "do-overs" or ones to be enlarged.

Imagine my surprise that week before Christmas in 1985, when one of my photos was a cockeyed image of the three boys in my life, all tails untucked. I laughed out loud.

Bobby's first photo, taken back before cellphones or digital cameras, captured a Christmas memory that continues to be prominently placed in our family room.

This Christmas, I think I'll contact Bobby to let him know.

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