Published December 24. 2010 4:00AM
The Ghost of Christmas Past always leads me to a corner of Salem where, year after year, my husband and I and our young children journeyed from Boston for the holidays.
Our destination was the family homestead, adjacent to spacious fields and woodlands, where he and his brothers and sisters grew up.
My association with that venerable colonial farmhouse, The Mumford House, goes back even farther, to my initial visit as a bride-to-be.
My first sight when I entered was of a young neighbor riding her miniature pony around the dining room table. Frisking at its hooves were a couple of mangy-looking but amiable dogs. In that moment, this startled city girl, raised in a Manhattan high-rise, knew without hesitation which star she'd be hitching her wagon to.
Every Christmas morning, my mother-in-law Rose would rise hours before dawn — even ahead of the excited children — to put the huge turkey into the oven and prepare "ambrosia," a lovely concoction of fresh orange slices and coconut. By the time the rest of the household was astir, there were cheerful fires in the dining room and living room.
Beneath the fragrant Christmas tree would be a gay medley of presents of all sizes and shapes ready to be passed around. I remember anticipation as each was opened — and gales of laughter over the occasional "re-gifting" contretemps. ("Ahem, your present to me was my last-year's present to you.")
But it is the memory of Christmas dinner that I most treasure. Leaves were inserted into the dining room table to extend it to maximum length. Everyone — that is, all of the women — helped to set the table and prepare side dishes for the feast.
At last all was ready, and Rose rang the dinner gong that once had summoned her children from the far fields to the house for supper. With my father-in-law Hiram, the gentle, white-haired family patriarch, presiding over the head of the table, and his lovely and gracious Rose at the other end, two generations of children and grandchildren somehow squeezed into seats in-between.
Before the turkey was carved, we harmonized the family blessing, "For health and strength and daily food." I recall lively conversation around that table. Opinions flew freely. No one was ignored; no one, not even the littlest, felt left out. In this house, children were meant to be heard as well as seen.
Following dinner came the washing-up, and this time the men helped. Afterward, those who were not too full to budge poured out onto the front lawn for a competitive game of touch football — a match that lasted until it was too dark to see.
Back inside, we repaired to the "music room" for a hymn-sing, where Grandmother Rose played the piano and Grandfather "Harry" accompanied her on his beloved cello as we sang a medley of Christmas carols and hymns.
Our two children and their many cousins grew up with and cherish to this day their own memories of Salem Christmases. What made these occasions poignant and blessed was that pervading the accommodating old farmhouse were the love and kindliness of Rose and Harry Bingham, not just at Christmas but throughout the year.
And to this day, though Grandmother and Grandfather — along with the years — have passed, theirs is still the Christmas gift that keeps on giving.