Christmas at the Grand Traverse Lighthouse

Suddenly we turn our attention to the vicinity of the fireplace. Maggie has just discovered the coal that John has placed in her stocking the night before. She’s yelling at the top of her lungs that she is going to slaughter him. There they are, both of them, squared off to do battle. John is in his underwear with his trap door ajar and flopping with every little dance he does, and Maggie is in her shift with a garland round her head. She is a make believe snow princess straight off the make believe stage turned into a she-devil. We all sit waiting for a repeat of World War I, however, Pa quickly nips all that in the bud as he firmly but calmly states, “Now you’ve said your little piece for the day and you don’t need to get into politics.” He punctuated his statement by vigorously shaking down the ashes in the grate.

We find our stocking with the orange in the toe and the fat Brazil nuts … There are miniature wax bottles filled with sweet colored sugar water. You could only get one little sip from each bottle, but we chewed the wax afterward. Hard candy of every description filled the sock, compliments of Clarence Scott’s store which is now Dame’s. Clarence always gave Pa a couple of bags of candy for promptly paying his grocery bill. Some people only got one bag and we somehow thought they must not be as honest as Pa. It never entered our heads that it could possibly be because we had more kids. Well, we eat candy until we are sick and it is time for dinner.

We sit down to dinner of roasted turkey, dressing and gravy. The white damask tablecloth is on the dining room table and set with Ma’s best Depression and carnival glass and a special cut glass berry bowl filled with strawberries canned during the summer.

Finally darkness descends upon us and fills each and every corner of the dining room. The lamps are lit and once again a grand Grand Traverse Christmas has come and gone.

Excerpted from "The Way It Was: Memories of My Childhood at Grand Traverse Lighthouse," by Bette McCormick Olli (Lighthouse Publications, 1990).

The Lighthouse Keeper’s Son

One McCormick boy grew up to be a lighthouse keeper himself. Doug McCormick, James and Mary’s seventh child, joined the Coast Guard in 1934 and kept the light at St. Martin and Pilot islands. In 1980, long since retired and recently widowed, McCormick moved back to Northern Michigan.

Not long afterwards, McCormick read a notice inviting the public to a meeting about restoring the lighthouse he grew up in. He attended—and knew he’d come home. For the next several years he pitched in with other volunteers to return the lighthouse keeper’s apartment to the way he remembered it as a child. McCormick pried up linoleum to expose the maple floors, scraped off lead paint, and brought his mother’s furnishings back to the lighthouse. Her circa 1910 oak table graces the dining room again, the pump organ is back in the living room, and even the clock hangs in its old spot.

In 1984 McCormick moved into the assistant lighthouse keeper’s apartment to assume the duties of Grand Traverse Lighthouse caretaker and tour guide, entertaining families and school groups with stories of his childhood. Among them is pointing out the step he sat on while he waited for his turn to eat at the dining room table during holiday dinners. “I kind of egged them all along, you know, so they didn’t eat everything,” McCormick says. But his favorite trick is telling children to listen for the creaking step—the one that means the ghost of his father, lighthouse keeper James McCormick, has come to tend the light.

Elizabeth Edwards is a staff writer at TRAVERSE.

This feature ran originally in the December 2002 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine and was updated for in December 2008.

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