Flashback Two: January 2, 1965

Jan 2, 1965

Happy New Year one and all. And a big, big thank you to all of you who helped make this Christmas the best ever for the Bonesteel IV’s.

So, here’s the thing.

My dad’s Charles Hartwell Bonesteel IV.

My great-great grandfather, the original Charles Hartwell Bonesteel, very nearly died and undid all of us. He caught a cold on a ship crossing from England to the US, and wasn’t expected to survive. West Point gave him his degree in absentia because he was so ill—this wasn’t, apparently, a thing they did, but with him nearly dead and all I guess an exception was made.*

And then he recovered.

His son, Charles Hartwell Bonesteel Jr., also graduated from West Point. My grandfather, Charles Hartwell Bonesteel III, did as well. My dad got the name, but not the vocation: he went to MIT.

But that wasn’t the biggest scandal around the family name. That was naming my brother Nicholas. Which may have been on my mother, who quite naturally thought hanging Charles Hartwell Bonesteel V on a perfectly innocent kid was a bit much.

(They gave me the Hartwell—Elizabeth Hartwell Bonesteel—but I didn’t go to West Point, either. Or MIT, for that matter.)

Its a typical New England winters day outside. Its overcast and grey and very cold. We don’t have any snow at present. It all melted just before Christmas when tropical air swept up from the south bringing mild temperatures and rain. It was in the 60’s on Christmas day. Imagine!

My mom the meteorologist. Christmases like that were rare when I was a kid. These days, the cold part of winter is getting pushed later and later. We haven’t lit the fireplace yet this year at all.

Our Christmas tree is still reigning in the corner of the living room but its hours are numbered. Tonight after the children are in bed it will be robbed of its bulbs and colored lights and left only with some tinsel to adorn it on its trip to the dump tomorrow. Its departure will mark the returning of things to normal after a hectic but very wonderful Christmas.

Okay, see, I don’t remember this at all. I remember year after year giving my dad the big eyes every time he said it was time to take the tree down, and he’d relent. One year it was up through April, and he only took it down because my mom pointed out it was a fire hazard.

This is why I never wanted to lose the tree: when I was a baby, they’d stealth it out the door in the middle of the night. They probably told me they replanted it in a field or something. This is the root of my fear of abandonment, right here.

I suppose you could say that Christmas began for us the day after Thanksgiving when we braved the crowd and took both children downtown to go shopping. It was a rather foolhardy thing to do but we did accomplish one thing. We finally picked out and ordered drapes for the livingroom. They were delivered just two days before Christmas so we had them up for the holidays.

“Downtown” here almost certainly means Boston. It wasn’t a bad drive from our house—maybe 20 minutes, and back then there would’ve been much less traffic.

A reminder: my brother and I were born 18 months apart. My mother went into Boston with a two-year-old and an infant to order drapes.

My mother is a badass.

One really big highlight of our Christmas was a visit from our Cape Cod cousins on Saturday the 13th. They came to see the Boston Common and all the Christmas decorations downtown and also to see their long lost cousins. It had been over a year since we’d seen them….They hadn’t seen us since I got pregnant with Elizabeth so they were presented with quite a fait accompli! We had a wonderful, wonderful visit during which they treated us to quite a sumptuous lunch from the local chinese restaurant. We are hoping to get down to visit them in the not too distant future (there’s a hint for you!)

These would be my dad’s first cousin, her husband, and their two boys. A decade or so later she started writing novels, and ended up publishing romances with Silhouette. I lost count of how many books she wrote, but she told me once she’d been translated into 54 languages. I am crazy jealous of her career.

She was a smart, sharp-eyed, good-hearted person who opened her house on Thanksgiving to all her family and any friends they cared to bring. She played the harp, and in addition to the romances wrote a trio of mysteries under a male pseudonym (Russell Mead). The only book she  ever published under her own name was a cookbook.

Most of you know by now that my really big present was a dishwasher.

Holy shit.

My dad bought my mother a dishwasher for a Christmas gift.

Maybe she asked for it…?

To quote my son: “Wow-ee!” It was a total surprise to me up until just before it was delivered.


Believe it or not the way I came by the marvelous machine was by buying Charles a really yummy (in my opinion anyway) cardigan for an extra special Christmas present.

This is the most 1960s thing I’ve ever read.

He knew I’d bought him something but he couldn’t guess what it was and I wouldn’t tell him.

Hint: Not a dishwasher.

So, not to be outdone he went and bought us a dishwasher. 

Let me tell you something about my dad: thanks in part to the bizarre familial rules he was raised with, he feels guilty over weird stuff. Remember my big eyes persuading him to leave a fire hazard in our living room for months? I absolutely get how, when he realized my mom had bought him something nice, he had to go for an absolute blow-out gift in return.

You know how sometimes really smart people are dense in odd ways? My dad’s a really smart person.

I am, too. I still never bought my spouse a surprise dishwasher for Christmas.

Now that’s the kind of one-upmanship I like! Of course it is also a birthday present and a Christmas ’65 present.

Not a chance in hell my dad would’ve stood by that restriction.

The festivities really started around here with the arrival of the Bonesteels on Tuesday afternoon. They took a helicopter from Logan airport which landed them about two miles from our front door and right next door to where Charles works. Chuck took the rest of the afternoon off and we all sat around and drank and let the children show off for their grandparents. Granny came bearing gifts. She brought Nicholas a darling knit ski-type outfit – very continental – and Elizabeth a wonderfully feminine fuzzy bathrobe which she will be able to wear next winter. 

The helicopter thing isn’t as nuts as it sounds: my grandfather was a general, and we lived a few miles from the local air force base.

This is where I remind everyone that my grandmother and my mom Did Not Get On, but in grand Bonesteel tradition, they were painfully polite to each other at all times. I have no idea how little six-month-old me reacted to a fuzzy bathrobe I couldn’t wear—I suspect I had more fun with the wrapping paper—but I’m pretty sure there was some subtext there about not dressing me properly for the weather.

I like to think the 60 degree Christmas day was Mother Nature telling my grandmother to mind her own damn business.

Thursday, Christmas Eve, was a really busy day around here. We had invited Mr. and Mrs. S— for tea. That morning Al and I went out to do the last minute shopping. We still hadn’t bought the duck for Christmas dinner.

Al is Alice, my grandmother, aka The Nemesis.

Wait—duck? Since when did my family cook duck for Christmas dinner? Or, you know, any other dinner??

We searched high and low…and were just about to get a turkey instead when we found a five pound duck who was waiting for us all by himself amongst the turkeys and chickens in the freezer.

There’s a good chance this Christmas letter will make me a vegetarian.

We grabbed him (or her)


real quickly. I’m sure he was the last one to be found for miles around – forzen and ready for cooking that is! We also picked up a Christmas tree which we got for half price and a little red wagon for Nicholas. Al wanted to buy it off the floor all put together but it cost a dollar more that way so I made her buy it unassembled.

Like I said: my mom’s a badass.

With the wagon to put together…we were all assured of a busy Christmas Eve.

The S—‘s arrived about 4:30 and we all had a “high tea” consisting of various cheeses and delicious tea sandwiches (concocted by Granny Bonesteel who is marvelous at that sort of thing) served with a St. Emilion wine or something stronger for those who wanted it. It turned out to be a thoroughly pleasant afternoon. Incidentally the S—s gave us a place setting of China for Christmas.

The S—s were friends of my dad’s family from when he was a kid. I remember going to their house for lunch now and then–they lived in a mansion, for real, and had someone serve the food. (I could get seconds on dessert just by asking. I think I only did that once.) They had a massive yard and a lovely dog called Vicki. One day when we went there Vicki was gone, and Mr. S— told me she’d died. All the adults kept doing their adult chit-chatting thing, and I spent the afternoon trying not to cry. I don’t remember much about Mr. and Mrs. S—, but they didn’t scare me as much as my grandparents did.

My grandmother was indeed a good cook, but as with most things she did, there was a cost. She used to do this baked spaghetti casserole she knew I loved, and for most of my teenaged years my visits with her consisted of being alternately berated for gaining weight and berated for not eating more casserole, usually in the space of five minutes.

I imagine the cognitive dissonance very nearly gave her fits, but she couldn’t restrain herself: if I was too fat I wasn’t a Proper Girl (for which she somehow blamed my mother, and now I want to go buy an unassembled wagon for some reason), and if I didn’t have thirds and fourths (not kidding) of the meal cooked with Sacrificial Grandmother Love I wasn’t a proper grandchild.

As awful a grandmother and mother-in-law she was, she was a worse mother. When my dad drives me crazy, I remind myself it’s a small miracle he’s as lovely a person as he is, given who raised him. And the whole world is grateful she never had any girls.



*I may have the details wrong here. There were three Charles Hartwell Bonesteels that graduated from West Point, and the evidence of Charles #1’s pseudo-death is mostly in the form of a family letter my mom has somewhere. When you google you mostly get III, who was my grandfather and involved in the Korean War and the establishment of the DMZ. He also taught me how to spit watermelon seeds.


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