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Reflections: The Christmas Bug Hits Mulberry Farm

Ray and Jane-Ann Heitmueller
Ray and Jane-Ann Heitmueller

Struggling with overwhelming waves of nausea, stabbing jolts of stomach cramps, and debilitating weakness, it took the ailing couple nearly 10 minutes to slide the lightweight foam mattress a mere 20 feet from the back bedroom to the den floor. Once there, the feverish, miserable pair immediately collapsed with exhaustion.
Following the death of Grossmama Eda Heitmueller in November 1967, Ray and Jane-Ann purchased the family homeplace, Mulberry Farm. Future plans for renovation to the old farmhouse would have to wait. Arrangements to host the annual family Christmas dinner became the paramount chore for now.
Little did they realize that a nasty flu bug had made prior reservations for the holidays at their new residence and brought special gifts of its own for the two latest unsuspecting occupants.
The only source of warmth in the drafty old house, built in 1873, was the large, potbellied coal heater in the dining room, and none of that heat reached the frigid back bedrooms.
“Why don’t we move the mattress to the den?” Ray suggested. “We’ll be a lot warmer there while we battle this bug, and it’ll sure be much closer to the bathroom.”
But he hadn’t dreamed of the magnitude of that chore in their diminished physical state.
As is normal in many southern families, the task of preparing a common meal is a shared endeavor; no single person bears the full weight of that responsibility. This practice held true at Christmas in the Heitmueller family. Radah traditionally brought turkey and dressing. Aunt Margaret contributed a salad, vegetables and rolls. Aunt Arnice added a Lane Cake and ambrosia, and Aunt Eda, as the eldest family member, contributed a dish or two of her choice.
Jane-Ann had been taught well by her mother, who had always practiced the rule of the six p’s: Proper prior planning prevents poor performance. She had seen Mom successfully apply that rule over and over through the years when facing an upcoming event, so it was second nature for her to incorporate it in her own lifestyle. The dining table had been set well in advance, and additional food was cooked and waiting in the freezer. Fortunately, before symptoms of the flu had so rudely barged in to upset their celebration, she had enjoyed leisurely decorating the house for the holidays.
The only remaining deed was to assemble a Christmas tree in the parlor, but since neither she nor Ray felt well enough just yet to tackle the job, they decided to postpone it a couple of days.
Suddenly, it was Christmas Eve, and if they were to have a tree at all, it had to be cut now.
“I noticed a small pine up the road alongside the ditch near the pasture gate,” Ray said. “I think it might be just the perfect size and shape.”
Since Jane-Ann seemed to be feeling a bit better, it was decided that she should take on the challenge of retrieving the little tree that cold afternoon. Gathering as much strength as she could muster, she grabbed a hatchet from the toolbox, struggled into a warm plaid jacket, a pair of leather boots and woolen gloves, and staggered through the deep ruts of the muddy driveway into the full brunt of the biting north wind toward the pasture fence, determined to come home with that Christmas tree.
After sliding off the steep clay bank into the ditch several times and stopping every few moments to catch her breath—wondering why in the world she had ever been so stupid to attempt this—she eventually gained enough stamina to chop down the little tree and triumphantly, though slowly, drag it home.
Since she had been gone well over half an hour, she knew Ray would be beside himself with worry and guilt for agreeing to let her undertake such a foolhardy mission.
Even to this day, neither of them can remember setting up nor decorating the pine sapling that evening. In the fog of their illness, everything remained a blur for the next several days.
“I faintly recall the sickening smell of food, the clinking of silverware, and snippets of laughter and conversation as the rest of the family gathered for a festive lunch in the dining room on Christmas Day,” Jane-Ann said. “All I wanted to do was curl up on that soft mattress in my cozy flannel nightgown, pull my warm red toboggan over my head and sleep forever.”
And so it was that the Christmas of 1967 came and went, bringing both surprises that were unwelcome and memories that remain crystal-clear after 50 years.

Jane-Ann Heitmueller and her husband relish a life of retirement from the field of education on their 134-year old, authentically restored German homeplace, Mulberry Farm. A mood of nostalgia and whimsy permeates the writings of this mother of two and grandmother of two as she attempts to reflect upon what are often considered the ordinary, mundane aspects of life, both past and present. Heitmueller’s poetry and short stories have been published in newspapers, magazines and books. 

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