Relishing their citrus wrapped gifts at Mandy and Chad Ottmann's 19th century farmhouse near Langdon, Missouri, were (l r) Ryan, Trenton, Hayden, and Clay Oswald, Katelynn Ottmann, Sheridyn and Brandon Oswald, Carter Ottmann, Will Oswald, and Chad and Mandy Ottmann.

[imgcontainer] [img:lemoneaters530.jpg] [source]Richard Oswald[/source] Relishing their citrus-wrapped gifts at Mandy and Chad Ottmann’s 19th century farmhouse near Langdon, Missouri, were (l-r) Ryan, Trenton, Hayden, and Clay Oswald, Katelynn Ottmann, Sheridyn and Brandon Oswald, Carter Ottmann, Will Oswald, and Chad and Mandy Ottmann. [/imgcontainer]

This is the time of year when Rural America seems no different from the rest of the country. Christmas lights, decorations, the Salvation Army, they’re  everywhere. It’s always been that way, at least for as long as I can remember.

The greatest difference I see between today and yesterday is that most shopping takes place in the big city. There isn’t much left of retailing in my little town.

When I was a kid I could do all my shopping along Main Street in town. Not any more. If it weren’t for insurance, prescription drugs, and banking, Main Street would simply be known as Missouri Route 111.

The shopping we no longer have is just part of rural America’s problem. Another part lies with the fact that with privately owned stores came investment, tax base, shop keepers’ families, and consumers. Modern politicians hail tax breaks given to big retailers as public savings. They say that a tax credit has no net cost to government. But in reality revenue must precede expenditure or be replaced by debt.

These days government spends based on planned revenue, then cuts taxes by handing out special breaks to a few. A tax credit taken after expenditures are made costs the government —that’s you and me– when government has to borrow money or cut spending to replace lost revenue.

Among the few who benefit are big retailers, as taxpayers support competition-killing expansion. The little guys who contribute to local economies don’t have a chance.

Now we flock to the city for the best buys at subsidized malls. Even that has changed, because it used to be when we went to the city, members of the rural community were recognized and welcomed there to shop. These days a small town address hardly raises sales clerks’ eyebrows. Life has become so concentrated in urban areas that people like us could probably vanish altogether and never be missed. Not only has rural America become irrelevant, rural Americans have too.

We are trying to make the best of all this: Flooding one year, a drought the next. And there’s all the other stuff. The worse it is, the worse it seems to get. But at the core of everything is still family. It seems as though that’s all rural communities have left.

Our strengths are shared experience and shared genes, atoms in a molecule of kin. The faster they spin, the tighter we bond. Here at Langdon we’ve been hanging on for dear life.
The shared experience of my family, our nucleus and part of the gravitational glue that bonds us, is Christmas. That goes back a long way.

My grandparents showed a great presence of mind in naming my mother, born just ten days short of December 25th, Merry. She was a child of Christmas who always took her name to heart.

My sister and I knew her simply as “Mother,” but to all the grandkids and great grand kids she was always “Grandma Merry.” Her celebrations are legendary among us.

[imgcontainer left] [img:oswalds70320.jpg] [source]Courtesy of Richard Oswald[/source] “Grandma Merry” and Ralph Oswald, Christmas 1970 [/imgcontainer]

Food, decorations, gifts, all were important parts of the holiday to Grandma Merry. As time wore on and the family grew, shopping for so many children and adults was a challenge. Most of all Mother loved giving and soon came to realize that in so large a group of varying ages, cash was king.

Her parents once hung cash from the Christmas tree for much the same reason, but maybe due to the name they gave her, Grandma Merry applied more imagination to her monetary giveaways.

Part of the tradition in our family became looking for the hiding place Grandma Merry had chosen for her Christmas cash. One year it was baked into cookies, another year rolled into soda straws. Sometimes it was stashed in ornaments and once it was folded inside English Walnuts. 

Now that Grandma Merry is gone, it’s up to the rest of us to follow through. After some reminiscing about Christmases past and more than a little soul searching, I came up with the perfect spot.

A trip to the grocery store, another to the bank, and I was ready. Tiny incisions were made, the bills were rolled, wrapped in plastic and slid inside. With some candle wax melted over the cuts, I was ready for Christmas according to Merry.

At the end if the evening it came down to Grandpa’s gift bag. Daughter looked inside it, raised her eyebrows at me and handed it over. I reached inside and tossed out what was there to all the kids and grandkids, one by one….throwing in a few words of white-haired advice to my dear family about handling the mother of all bad years.

“If life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” I said. Grandma Merry would have loved it.

Richard Oswald, a fifth generation farmer, lives in Langdon, Missouri and is president of the Missouri Farmers Union.

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