On a snowy, December train ride into Cleveland, Ohio, in the year 1922, a five-year-old girl’s life would be changed forever. She and her mother had a chance encounter with a feverish young soldier who insisted that the girl sit on his lap. It seemed he had recently bid goodbye to a daughter just her age as he left for duty. She became deathly ill several days later with diphtheria. Fortunately for her family, they had a close friend who was a doctor that worked at the W.R.U. School of Medicine. They had a new serum that doctors were only beginning to use that would later become the diphtheria vaccine. She was one of the first children to receive the injections, for fourteen days straight, and by what was always called a Christmas miracle she lived. That little girl’s name was Genevieve, but we always just called her Aunt Jimmy.
She and my uncle Paul, along with their two boys, lived on a very sharp turn on a very busy Superior Road in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Although we didn’t see them very often, our yearly visits were always preceded by great anticipation. As children we looked forward to these visits for many reasons, most important of which was that she was the best baker in town.
We knew that she would have freshly baked goodies. We knew that she would have lovely books for us as gifts. We knew that our Uncle Paul would take us to his musty basement and show us his newly polished stones, or other fascinating scientific discoveries. We knew we would be able to snoop through our cousin’s rooms- that were always filled with amazing toys and more scientific gadgets that they used in all their mad scientist experiments! We also knew what we thought our parents didn’t – that hidden in her attic, and tucked under large layers of clear wrapping paper was a magical, mystical, incredible candy-filled city.
My aunt and uncle were known far and wide (in Cleveland) for their incredible candy creations. They weren’t your ordinary candy houses. Oh no, to these young nieces and nephew they were mansions! The biggest and bestest candy houses ever known to mankind! My sister and I would sneak up into the attic when we thought no one was looking and begin the hunt.
We would find these creations and peel away the coverings to gently reveal the treasures underneath – exposing each architectural wonder. We stood and gazed at them for what seemed like hours, and to this day I can remember the smell and the feeling I had gazing at these wonders.
I am reminded of Aunt Jimmy’s candy houses each time I get ready to tackle the task of making them in my classroom. Although we’ve had to re-name them over the years (Christmas cottages, holiday houses, candy houses and finally, teddy bear cottages) the spirit in which they are made remains the same.
With candy, icing and confectioners sugar flying, the children burst with the excitement and joy of the season. And during the cottage construction, if you’re really lucky, you’ll be privy to some enlightening conversations:
“I don’t know why Joseph and Mary couldn’t have slept on a pull out couch at a friend’s house. That’s what we do.”
“I DID see Santa. I am not kidding.”
“Mom my made me give a dollar to Jesus. Now I only have nine.”
“My cousin celebrated Hanukkah and they lighted a Menudo.”
“And I know there was a star. And when you follow the star, it leads you to SANTA!”
And finally, I sent the children out the door covered with confectioners sugar, glitter, and a package of “reindeer food” that we magically mixed together with glitter, marshmallows and love. One of my little girls was asked by a child in another room what it was. Her response?
“I think it’s for the goats.”