Popcorn, Pioneers, and Peace

Shirlee Hurst Shields, Utah, USA

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    Mom put bricks in the oven and then wrapped them in blankets so our feet would stay warm as we traveled in our car without a heater. It was 1935, and we were making the 60-mile (96 km) drive from Salt Lake City to Payson, Utah, to visit my grandparents in early December. The snow was falling lightly around us and swirled in what looked like little tornadoes on the road ahead. My big brother, Fred, and I were bundled in heavy coats and itchy wool socks and mufflers. The drive seemed endless to me as a seven-year-old.

    We made this trip every December. The Christmas season didn’t really start until we were in Grandma and Grandpa Tanner’s warm kitchen making popcorn balls. Grandpa would stoke up the fire, and Grandma would fill a wire basket with popcorn and shake it vigorously over the fire until it filled with puffy, white corn. Then Grandma would pour hot honey butter over the popcorn in a big cast-iron kettle and mix in peanuts. When the mixture cooled, we would dig in with our butter-covered hands and make festive balls to share with family and friends.

    This Christmas, however, would be different. Usually Fred and I rode in the backseat, but this year we were wedged between my parents on the bench seat up front. A small white coffin carrying the body of my one-year-old brother, Gerold, took up the backseat. A case of measles had turned into pneumonia and snuffed out his young life. Earlier we had gone to the mortuary to pick up the small wooden coffin.

    As we made the two-hour journey, Dad led us in singing Christmas songs. Mom and Dad harmonized, and the beautiful music comforted us as we grieved the loss of our baby.

    When we got to Grandpa’s house, the usually jovial crowd of family and relatives was waiting solemnly. The coffin was taken from the backseat and brought into Grandma’s spotless parlor. My grandparents’ bishop spoke a few kind words, and then we were back in the car to ride to the cemetery, where we all wept as this precious little boy was laid in the frozen ground.

    Christmas did come. The fire was stoked, the popcorn was popped, and the festive popcorn balls were delivered on Grandpa’s horse-drawn sleigh. There was sadness that day but also a resonant peace as I listened to my faithful grandparents reading the story of Christ’s birth.

    My grandparents had been born of pioneer parents who had laid many babies in the ground. As our family mourned our loss, we turned to where our ancestors had turned—to the Son of God and His words. I remembered the Christmas story with a different heart that year, for it was because of the baby born in a manger that the baby we had laid in the ground would rise again and be ours.

    Many decades have passed since then, but each Christmas I still pour honey butter over popcorn, mix in peanuts, shape the mixture into balls, and remember.