There are two kinds of Holiday traditions. There are those which transcend our individual fami-lies, and are shared by entire communities of people –– like putting up a Christmas tree, spin-ning the dreidel, or playing Jingle Bell Rock.
Then there are other traditions which are solely confined within the family. For instance, my step-cousins always show up at Christmas dinner wearing matching red flannel pajamas.
While the rest of us are sharing appetizers and spritzers before the big meal, the cousins pop open a soft drink. Not just any cola, mind you. It has to be traditional Coca-Cola in the original 8-ounce (or if they can find it, 6.5-ounce) bottle. One year, they even paid a fortune to buy Coca-Cola from Mexico, because word was that it was manufactured using pure sugar cane, like the original formula.
I don’t know why they do it. It’s their tradition, not mine. Other families have special menus, make special treats, or play special games.
Our family tradition was different. We called the plumber.
Year in and year out, our 4-inch Orangeburg pipe, which conveyed yucky matter from the smaller pipes in the house to the septic tank in the side yard would become clogged. Infiltrating tree roots brought the flow of gloop, and the holiday reverie itself, to a halt.
It was uncanny how that big pipe clogged right before Christmas every year. Granted, the house was always teeming with additional family members, all with differing bathroom habits, I sup-pose. But it wasn’t like the day after Thanksgiving –– a day plumbers call “Brown Friday” –– where big meals and bad timing dam up the works.
Our plumber in those days was named Lemme (LEM’ mee), probably short for Lemuel, but I don’t know that. All I do know is that Lemme was a character. He was hilarious, and was always welcomed from five miles up the road with more elation than cousin Donald, who drove all the way in from Missouri.
Lemme wasn’t what you’d think a plumber would look like by today’s examples. He didn’t drive a fancy van with decals on the side. Nor did he show up wearing an antiseptic, brightly colored uniform.
Instead, he drove an old pick-up truck, later a rusty light blue step-van, and wore his trademark blue denim overalls. He was about 5’7” tall, and had thinning white hair and round glasses. He didn’t have much of a white beard, but a significant jolly paunch in front meant he looked to us children like he belonged at our house during the Holidays.
I’m sure there were other plumbers around, but it never seemed so. Lemme knew everyone, and everyone knew Lemme. I don’t imagine he even had a business card, and the only advertis-ing he did was planting an old toilet seat in the flower bed in front of his house, with the family name scrolled on the open lid. (Those of you who live in West Central Indiana know who I’m talking about, now, don’t you?)
Without doubt my favorite Christmastime visit with Lemme was when he explained –– jokingly, I believe –– that the whole plumbing fiasco had been caused by my Aunt Betty’s fruitcake. Aunt Betty had spent two days baking her bulletproof bricks as gifts, and the thought of everyone tossing them down the toilet sent her to her bedroom in a Scrooge-worthy sulk.
It was only when Lemme suggested loudly that it was the best looking fruitcake he had augured out of a pipe in forty years that Betty rejoined the family. She even made him a turkey sandwich to go.
One year my father was so happy that Lemme came out on a particularly snowy pre-Christmas day that Dad gave Lemme four tickets out of his stash to see the next Indiana Pacers basketball game.
I wish you had been there to see Lemme’s face. I guess you could say that he was quite flushed.
John O. Marlowe is an award-winning columnist for Sagamore News Media.