By John Dean
Christmas at Watoga State Park always meant receiving a special present from my mom. I still cherish that gift all these years later.
Of course, the park unwrapped presents year-round for me to enjoy, especially at Christmas. Watoga appeared to hibernate, but it was alive with life. White-tailed deer still foraged for food in the snow-covered hillsides. Otter, fox and raccoon tracks could still be seen in the freshly fallen snow. The male and female cardinals still landed with ease in the nearby white oak trees.
Growing up at the state’s largest park, I loved all the seasons. Winter at Watoga arrived early, usually in late November, and it snowed a lot – like, by the foot!
Here’s a little background about my family:
In the 1930s, my dad, Vernon C. Dean, and my grandfather (Pap to me), Alfred G. Dean, were part of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). They helped with various projects at Watoga. A few months before the park opened in 1937, Dad wed Mom, Devada G. Dean.
Dad was promoted to maintenance supervisor at Watoga in the spring of 1960, which meant on-site housing at the park. Dad, Mom and five of my siblings moved into a three-bedroom, one-bath cabin near the Beaver Creek Campground. Mom was pregnant with me.
I was born later that year – on Christmas night. For years, and even to this day, many people lament that I years, and even to this day, many people lament that I must not have received many birthday gifts. Although this may be true, I proudly told them that I needed neither Christmas nor birthday gifts.
Although this was true for six decades, this year is different.
I do need a Christmas and birthday gift.
The reason will soon be explained.
Christmas at Watoga
Leading up to Christmas, my older brother, Ronnie, and I ventured to nearby hillsides to sleigh ride. We built many snowmen with rocks for eyes, a large carrot for a nose and a curved twig for a smile. Snowball fights lasting hours then ensued. Later, we ventured to nearby Calvin Price State Forest to be the architects of secret passageways in the snowdrifts. When we returned home, four-foot icicle daggers frozen on our home’s gutters entranced us.
Coming in from the cold, we sat next to the warmth from dancing flames in the native stone fireplace. In the small kitchen, the aroma of Mom’s homemade hot chocolate wafted throughout. The smells, sights and sounds of Christmas at Watoga filled the air.
And then came the day to select our Christmas tree. Dad would take Ronnie and me to Pap’s nearby farm. Each year, we took turns picking out the pine tree to grace our living room at the park.
By 1968, my “baby” sister, Vicki, was five. Vicki, Ronnie and I would decorate the tree. Mom had a collection of large ornaments with a family story behind each one. Regardless of the year, Mom always made homemade popcorn for us as we used needle and thread to string festive garlands around the tree. I usually ate more popcorn than what ended up on the tree.
Growing up poor
I did not realize that we were poor until my teenage years.
Dad and Mom provided us with the necessities to survive. Dad used to say, “Be thankful that you have a roof over your head, some food on the table and clothes on your back.”
On Pap’s nearby farm in the spring and summer, Mom toiled in the fields, planting and hoeing vegetables. Later, in the fall, colorful vegetables, juices and jellies in Mason jars lined the shelves in my grandparent’s cellar.
The Deans shared that bounty to get through the winter as a family. Mom always made sure that we had something to eat throughout the year.
In 1966, Mom joined the cabin cleaning crew at Watoga to help the family financially. Della, my older sister, watched me, Ronnie and Vicki while Mom worked. A warm evening meal as a family was never missed. Christmas at Watoga arrived in many splendid ways throughout the year.
A Christmas Story Like No Other
Every Christmas Eve, Mom would tell me her story about Christmas at Watoga.
With Christmas just hours away, Mom would ask me to sit beside her on the couch. The fire’s embers still glowed. The 13-inch black and white TV had been turned off for the night.
“Johnny, when I was pregnant with you,” Mom began, “I had a craving for popcorn.”
During Mom’s pregnancy, she and my older brother, Gilbert, would eat bowl after bowl of popcorn. It had been perfected in a well-worn, time-scarred, aluminum clad kettle bearing black marks on its bottom. Gilbert was six.
On this particular Christmas Day, Gilbert and Mom continued the popcorn tradition they both loved so much. Unbeknownst to either Gilbert or Mom, something got in the way of that day’s plans to eat more popcorn. It was me! Just as Mom and Gilbert savored a few bites out of that big old bowl of warm popcorn, Mom’s labor pains began. And they would not stop.
Not known as someone who sat around and waited, Dad sprang into action. He quickly started the blue Chevy Impala to transport Mom to the hospital in Marlinton, 16 miles away. But before Mom left, she opened the screen door and glanced at Gilbert who was still clutching that big bowl of popcorn.
“Mom, Mom, here, want some more popcorn?” asked Gilbert.
Interestingly, after I was born, Mom never enjoyed popcorn the same way again. However, I love it just like Mom used to and still make it the same way she did.
Every Christmas Eve for many years, Mom always ended the story the same way.
“Johnny, you’re the best Christmas present I ever received. I love you.”
“I love you, too, Mom. Merry Christmas.”
Facing Insurmountable Odds
Even though my mom died in 1998, her indomitable courage, kindness and love still grace my life—especially this year.
Almost six months ago to this day, I sat in stunned silence at the Cleveland Clinic Taussig Cancer Institute while I absorbed those dreaded words no one ever wants to hear:
“John, you have inoperable pancreatic cancer.”
While my life changed forever with a seemingly insurmountable cancer diagnosis, little did I know that I would learn how people are still kind, generous, and loving, just like my mom was to so many. I didn’t realize all the changes that lie ahead—like asking family, friends and work associates for financial help, rides to chemo treatments or assistance with my two labs, Jack and Max.
Complete strangers and many others stepped forward and helped me, financially, spiritually and in person. They didn’t know me as Mom did. Their outpouring of love, kindness and support touched my soul. And that motivated me to stay strong and fight to live, despite insurmountable odds.
There were moments during those 12, 52-hour-long chemo sessions when I heard Mom urging me to persevere and overcome any and all obstacles, just like she did when I grew up at Watoga.
That’s why this year Mom would want me to ask you for a special present for my Christmas birthday. In fact, it’s quite simple and not expensive. I ask that you stop for just a moment after shopping, baking cookies, celebrating the season with your loved ones or maybe even stringing popcorn on your special Christmas tree. Please say a prayer to whomever you believe in and ask for a miracle for me.
That would be the best Christmas present I could ever receive.
John Dean lived at Watoga in the 1960s and 1970s. He is a legal editor, journalist and writer. Additionally, he is a member of the board of directors of the Watoga State Park Foundation.