My great-aunt Birdie Brown went back to college in middle-age to obtain a degree in order to serve as elementary school librarian in the Gallatin County system. She had retired from that position by the time I was a toddler, but she put her experience and knowledge to work when it came to presents for Amy and me. Christmas, Easter, birthdays (not just our own)—in the late 60s and first half of the 70s, it seemed that no occasion passed without the gift of a book. She certainly loved us dearly, but she also may have done this in part to pick up the slack for her sister, my grandmother, who had developed dementia.
I had taught myself to read at a relatively early age, probably 5, and I’m sure that my parents put me in their laps and read to me prior to that, just as Martha and I did with Ben. But it is to my great regret now that I didn’t pay much mind to the books I received from Aunt Birdie. While they weren’t used, they didn’t seem exactly fresh off the bookstore shelf, either—they often had the same musty smell that permeated much of her house. The titles and authors are largely unknown today: Tommy Carries the Ball (September 72, for my grandmother’s birthday) by James and Marion Renick, Bayou Hunter (my birthday in February 75) by Louise Jenkins, Little Will the Bugle Boy (Christmas 70) by William Binzen, Jerry Jake Carries On (undated) by May Justus, and Thorntree Meadows (Christmas 74) by Roger Nett are among those she gave me. But there’s also a book from Else Holmelund Minarik’s Little Bear (April 69) series and Thistly B (my birthday 71) by Tasha Tudor.
As you’ve probably guessed by now, I still have them. A few years ago, perhaps somewhat out of guilt, I dug out Thorntree Meadows and read it. It’s a sweet book comprised of short episodes about the friendships that exist among a hippo, a pig, and an aardvark. Then, sometime late in 16, while we were doing some reorganizing in our basement storage, I came back across my Aunt Birdie collection. This time, another of the books popped out at me: The Top o’ Christmas Morning. I remembered the cover—a young girl in riding clothes leading a horse while approaching a boy in a field, indicating she was being chased by another young rider who’s jumping over a fence in the distance—very well from back in the day. I’d simply never cracked it open. Here’s the inscription.
It’s by Alta Halverson Seymour and was written in 1955. I’ve not had much luck tracking down information online about Ms. Seymour. I’ve found only one web page with biographical information:
Alta Halverson Seymour was born in 1893 in Deer Park, Wisconsin. When she was a little girl, she made up stories for the entertainment of her younger brother and sister, a facility for story-making that led her eventually into the world of writing. Prior to becoming a published author, she attended the University of Minnesota for both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, then owned, and operated a stenographer’s company in California, before finally moving to Illinois where she lived the rest of her life. After her marriage to George Seymour, an economic consultant, in 1922, she and her husband would often travel by freighter or mail-boat to out-of-the-way places. In this way, Mrs. Seymour found interesting people and unusual situation, which furnished material for her books. She once wrote, “Sometimes I write for adults, but I like best to write for boys and girls.” Many of her books draw upon the annals and experiences of her own family. Diaries, journals, and family traditions supplied the warm, human material for her books and careful research provided the authenticity of detail. Two of Alta Halverson Seymour’s books—On the Edge of the Fjord and The Tangled Skein—were Junior Literary Guild Selections.
Many of Ms. Seymour’s books appear to be Christmas-themed: titles include The Christmas Donkey, Arne and the Christmas Star, and Kaatje and the Christmas Compass (they really were influenced by her travels). None seem to be in print, but some titles are available used at Amazon and eBay. My curiosity has been sparked now; I’ll see how I might find out more about her.
Upon rediscovering The Top o’ Christmas Morning last year, I plucked it out of the milk crate housing it and resolved to make sure it was read at Christmas. Alas, I placed the book on a shelf that I walk by only when going to our storage room, so December of 16 came and went before I realized I’d forgotten about it. It nagged at me all this year whenever I passed by (I’ve been dealing with the stuff in our storage space pretty regularly lately), and finally in the fall, I took it down, started it and got maybe 40% of the way through. As Christmas drew closer, I put it out on an end table in our basement; I finally finished it three days ago.
The story takes place in rural Ireland. Its three protagonists are Sheila Courtney, the granddaughter of the local squire, and Kevin and Nora Donohoe, the two oldest of eight children in a hard-working, proudly independent, but rather poor family. They’re all between 10 and 12 years old. The book begins with their meeting (that’s Sheila and Kevin on the cover, of course) and traces their adventures and growing friendship over the final five months of the year. There are happy endings all around, culminating just after midnight on Christmas morn. The author displays sympathy aplenty for the characters, even if they aren’t particularly deeply drawn (it is children’s lit, after all). I’m glad to have finally taken it on—I’d like to think that I would have enjoyed it forty-five years ago, as well.
So, what next? Well, to write this, I got my whole collection out of that old milk crate. If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some reading that’s more than four decades overdue calling. Thank you for thinking of me, Aunt Birdie.