A Christmas Story: Grampa’s Old Gun Rack

Copyright 2016 – Stephen Redgwell

1982. That was the year we lost my grandfather. It was also the year that he reminded us about family, tradition, and the importance of the season.

I don’t remember when I first noticed Grampa’s old gun rack. It was always there, hanging on the wall in his study. It was an ancient piece of wood with wrought iron supports, made to cradle a rifle. The wood was old, beat up and badly in need of refinishing. The iron was rusted and full of pits.

Grampa never kept a gun on it. Sometimes he’d hang his hat or coat on the wrought iron, but he kept all his rifles in the bedroom closet, except for an old 30-30 lever that was propped up against the wall, beside his desk. Grandma said he bought the rifle new in 1946, after coming home from the war, and paid less than $100 for it.

Even after his passing, Grandma left it there, saying that it wouldn’t feel right not seeing his old Winchester beside the desk. She also made me promise to keep it clean because it would be mine one day.

That old gun rack got a new lease on life in the weeks after Grampa died. Dad and I were cleaning up his study when Grandma suggested we take it home.

I never noticed anything unusual about it until I put it on the work bench. I was going to clean the metal and maybe stain or varnish the wood, when I noticed the back. There were a bunch of names carved on the back, the first being,

Adelbert Emil Schneider, 1776-1829.

There were others.

Stephan Adelbert Schneider (1801 – 1889)

Isaac Stephan Schneider (1822 – 1849)

Eugen Friedrich Schneider (1829 – 1911)

Isaac Eugen Schneider (1859 – 1919)

Matthäus Schneider (1888 – 1940)

Stephan Johann Schneider (1912 –

The last entry was Grampa.

I ran upstairs and told my father what I had found. Intrigued, we returned to the workshop for a look. You could have heard a pin drop as he held it up and stared at the names.

“Matt, you’ve stumbled on an important piece of our family history. I never knew that this old thing was an heirloom! Dad told me that the farm had been in the family since the early 1800s and hid a lot of secrets, but I never knew about this!”

I was amazed that it just hung there for so long without being noticed.

“Who carved all the names onto the back?” I asked, and ran my fingers over the wood.

“The sons of the Schneider who died, I guess.” Dad said, “I’ll have to do that for your Grampa now.”

Dad’s eyes teared up. I’d never seen him that way and it made me feel sad. That was when it hit me, and I realized that we wouldn’t see Grampa again. I began to tear up too.

It was hard to accept that he was gone. It was selfish, but I had just lost a wonderfully kind man who played with me, took me fishing and to the movies. He was always there. He could fix a broken bike, bandage a scraped knee, and make a crying child laugh.

Dad saw that I was upset too and changed the subject. He pointed to the names and said, “I know something about the last three, but nothing before Isaac Schneider. Tomorrow, we’ll talk to Grandma and take a trip into town. I want to talk to Pastor Martin.”

We sat down at the work bench and Dad started reminiscing.

“Of course, you know Stephan Johann. Everyone called him Steve. That’s your Grampa. He was born in 1912, got married in 1933, and raised three children. Me, your Aunt Pat and your Uncle Henry, or ‘Hank’, as everybody called him. It’s been years, but I still miss the little runt.”

“When did Uncle Hank die?” I asked.

“About two months after you were born, in the fall of 1966. Hank was in the army and on peacekeeping duties overseas. Grampa was very proud of him, and your Grandma always worried. I guess that was to be expected.”

Dad stopped talking and stared into space. Later, I remembered thinking that I shouldn’t have asked about Uncle Hank, but that old gun rack stirred up a lot of memories. This time it was my turn to change the subject.

“I was named after great-grandpa Matthäus, right?”

Dad smiled and nodded. “It was Grampa’s idea. Everyone called him Matthew. He died in a farming accident. Grampa thought it was proper to give you his name. Your mother and I agreed.”

The mood brightened considerably when Dad started talking about growing up after the war and how the world was changing. But that didn’t really affect the Schneider family too much. They kept producing milk and lived a simple life.

Dad’s favourite thing was telling stories about Christmas when he was a boy, and what the family used to do over the holidays. It had little to do with presents or decorations. It was about family, getting together with your neighbours and taking time to remember the child born in Bethlehem.

Then he looked at me, and in a stern voice, reminded me that this was before television, the space race, and rock n’ roll music. But he couldn’t keep a straight face and started laughing. Dad had a great sense of humour!

“But I do miss the old days, Matt. Every year on Christmas Eve, we had a bonfire in front of the house. It was a tradition. We toasted marshmallows, drank hot chocolate and ate treats that Grandma made. Later, we attended a special midnight service at the church.”

Dad said that even though it was the 1940s, the whole family rode into town on a buckboard. Everyone would be wrapped in blankets and they carried Coleman lanterns. Grandma prepared more treats than they could ever eat. Everyone sang carols and laughed for the 30-minute ride into town. Dad chuckled when he told me about Grampa being dressed in a proper suit and hat, but wearing rubber boots!

I could see that Dad was enjoying his trip down memory lane.

“I know this is going to sound crazy, but we cut down our own Christmas tree and made all the decorations by hand. We didn’t have any that were store bought. Grandma had a few special ornaments that she saved from past years and kept in an old hat box. We strung popcorn and made lots of things from aluminum foil, scrap wood and paper.”

“Like that really old paper chain?” Mom wouldn’t let any of the kids touch it. She would take it out of Grandma’s old hat box and either she or Dad would put it on the tree.

“That’s right, Matt. It’s special because your Uncle made it when he was six or seven. It’s not about the dollar value of the ornaments. They’re not worth a penny, but to the family, they are special and part of our history. That is what makes them truly valuable.”

It made sense.

“So you see, whoever gets that box when your mother and I are gone will have a great responsibility. They will be the guardians of the family’s heirlooms.”

With that, Dad messed my hair and said we’d best get back upstairs for supper. We could talk more tomorrow.

The following morning, Dad and I spoke to Grandma. She didn’t know about the early names on the gun rack, but told us about Grampa’s father and grandfather. A few more pieces of the puzzle were filled in. We promised to come back in the afternoon, and headed into town to visit Pastor Martin.

When we got to the church, Pastor Martin was changing the notice board. He smiled and waved.

“Hello, young Schneiders. Come in! I’ll bet you’re wondering what I was doing. I like to help the new pastor keep the board updated, even though I’m retired. Sometimes he forgets.” He winked at me and smiled.

“Good to see you, pastor.” Dad replied. “I wonder if I could ask a few questions about my father.”

“You bet. He was a great friend. A lot of people are going to miss him. It’s coming on to his favourite time of year. Christmas will be here soon.”

Dad and I spent the rest of the morning talking about Grampa. Pastor Martin told us stories about their friendship. Apparently, they met in Kindergarten, and were close for 65 years.

“Fred, your dad always used the station wagon to bring you to church – except at Christmas. He used your granddad’s buckboard every Christmas Eve because he wanted to honour the passed-on members of your family. I thought it was a great idea! You might consider doing that again. It would be a wonderful legacy.”

Dad agreed and told us that effective that year, the buckboard was back in service.

“I’ll have to check things over and give it a coat of paint. Are you ready to work, Matt?”

“Oh yeah!” I couldn’t wait!

We went back to Grandma’s and told her about our visit with Pastor Martin. Dad said that he was going to clean up the old buckboard and start using it again. He also asked if it would be alright to have a bonfire in front of the house like before. Grandma gave Dad a big hug and said, “Absolutely! It’s almost like you were talking to your father. He would be so happy!”

The next few weeks were busy. I was going to school, and helping Dad with the chores. My mom, sister Helen, and Grandma got both farmhouses decorated and baked up a storm!

It took a bit of work, but Dad and I fixed up Great Grampa’s buckboard and had it ready for Christmas Eve. We piled lots of wool and quilt blankets onto the seats, fired up the Coleman lanterns and made our way through the snow to Grandma’s. We laughed, told stories and sang Christmas carols the whole way, our voices warming the still, frosty air.

When we got there, Dad started the bonfire, and everyone brought out the goodies. There were plenty of freshly baked shortbread cookies, tarts, sandwiches, and hot chocolate. I brought out a table and everyone brought a chair. Then Dad sent my sister back into the house and asked for everyone’s attention. We must have looked confused, but that didn’t matter. Dad put his finger to his lips and said softly,

“There’s another person coming.”

Helen brought out Grampa’s old chair from the kitchen and put it beside Grandma.

“Christmas is a special time for us. Pastor Martin reminded me of the importance of family and the long tradition we’ve had as part of this community. Grampa always reminded us of this too, and made it a point to remember family members that had passed on. Tonight, I’d like to rekindle that tradition, as we celebrate the birth of Christ. We’ll be joining our neighbours later, but I wanted to say this before we go.”

Dad took a paper from his coat pocket.

“We lost Dad a few weeks ago. As I was fixing the buckboard, I thought about what he would say if he was here with us tonight. Then I realized that he would be here.”

I turned my head toward Grandma. I thought she would start crying, but when I looked, she was smiling. Mom and Helen looked sad, but just sat there listening.

“Merry Christmas and welcome to everyone! And let’s not forget family who are no longer with us.”

Then Dad read this.

Christmas in Heaven

Christmas in Heaven,
What do they do?
They come down to earth
To spend time with you.

So save them a seat.
Just one empty chair.
You might not see them,
But they will be there.

That was 1982. Since then, Grandma and Dad have gone to join Grampa in heaven. I have the farm now. And every year since then, the Schneider family has carried on the tradition of a Christmas Eve bonfire and a buckboard ride to church. We have two buckboards now though; one for my family and another for my sister’s.

Christmas is a joyful time. It is now that we try our hardest to be with family and friends to celebrate the season. May your Christmas be happy and full of life! All the best for the holidays!