WATERVILLE — The holiday season would start for Ernest Verrill and his 12 brothers and sisters when his father brought home a $5 Christmas tree from a nearby lot.
The whole family participated in decorating the tree. Verrill’s favorite ornament was a painted snowman. When he was an adult, his mother gave it to him one year as a present. He has it still.
The family operated with the understanding that Christmas presents would mostly be practical in nature, Verrill, 60, recalled as he sat in the community room at Lakewood Continuing Care Center Tuesday. Still, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, the children would pore over a Sears catalog to mark the things they wanted most.
It took hours.
“They were nice and thick, those catalogs,” he said. “When you can only pick a few things, it takes a while.”
Like many of his fellow residents at the nursing home, Verrill has rich holiday memories.
Verrill’s parents, who both worked at Lipman Poultry Co. in Augusta, raised 13 children, packed three or four to a bedroom, in their home on Stone Street.
One present Verrill never asked for was a sled or toboggan. Even today, 50 years past his prime sledding days, he argues for the advantages of sliding down a snow-covered hill on a nice, sturdy piece of cardboard.
“Especially if you got one that was waxy,” he said. “You’d go very far.”
He admits that the inflatable tubes he sees these days are more comfortable.
“But it was a lot easier to bring that cardboard back up the hill,” he said. “Plus, it was free.”
Verrill’s family attended St. Augustine across the river, on Northern Avenue. A nun there couldn’t keep all of the 13 Verrill children straight, he said, so one year she announced that she was going to call them by number rather than name.
“She would tell me to do something in the church, and after she walked away, my friend would say ‘Why does she call you five?'”
The church organized carolers, including the Verrill children, to visit the homes of elderly residents in the neighborhood, regaling them with “The Little Drummer Boy,” and “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”
On Christmas morning, Verrill and a brother would wake up early and rush through breakfast only to begin an agonizing period of waiting.
“My parents would say, there’s no sense hurrying,” he said. “No one’s opening any Christmas presents until everyone’s up and eaten.”
Most of the wrapped boxes under the tree on Christmas morning contained T-shirts, socks, underwear and jackets.
“We was brought up to appreciate what we got,” he said. “My mother would say, ‘We have to be crafty. We need stuff for school and we can’t afford everything.'”
Somehow, though, there was enough for each child to receive one or two toys.
It is the toys he still remembers today. When he and a brother were 8 or 9, they got battery-operated airplanes that flew on the ends of a long cords.
“It was really cool,” he said. “We took them out to the woods and played chicken with them.”
Another year, it was Lincoln Logs, which he kept in a big jar and used to build log cabins.
“I loved them,” he said. “I was tickled pink.”
One year, all the children received painting sets.
His sister Kathy completed a paint by numbers picture of a rose and gave it to their mother a few days after the holiday as a belated Christmas present.
“My mother has that to this day,” he said. “She says, ‘You gave it to us for Christmas and I’m not giving it up.'”
With so many children in the house, he said, it was easy to find someone to play with. “If one kid wanted to play Monopoly and another wanted to play Sorry, each kid could find a group to play with them. I enjoyed those Christmases when I was a kid. We played games for hours.”
Christmas dinner, served around two in the afternoon, always included both a turkey and a ham, with a range of side dishes and pies for dessert, all cooked by his mother.
“Once in a while, she would invite someone over,” he said. “My mother was real big on charity. She still is.”
Looking back, he said, he doesn’t feel like his Christmas was any worse for the scarcity of presents. What he remembers most are the traditions he took part in and the time he spent with his parents and siblings.
“Family is very important,” he said.
By that measure, he said, his Christmas still holds a special meaning for him. His room at the nursing home is decorated with a prominent string of garland that bears three small stockings.
For the past few years, Verrill, who uses a motorized wheelchar, has left the nursing home on Christmas to visit with family, but this year, he asked his daughter to come visit him instead. Verrill was looking forward to seeing his grandson, who he plays chess and checkers with during visits. Verrill said that when it comes to presents, his grandson’s expectations are a little higher than his own were 50 years ago.
“He’s eight years old, and he asked for a cellphone and a laptop,” Verrill said, laughing. “It’s a little different these days.”
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287