My Love Affair With Bubble Lights
But first, meet my grandparents. Cleo and Illda Hughes were my mom's parents. They owned the Hughes Market in Battle Creek, Michigan for 40 years. Cleo was of French/Swiss descent and Illda was Irish/English. Cleo's mom was in love with love (most of her many marriages didn't last five years) and Illda's mom was -- well -- a business woman.
I'm pretty sure Cleo would have been a con-man if he hadn't married Illda. Illda would have been a nun if she hadn't married Cleo. Somehow, these two damaged souls found each other. On the wedding license, Cleo lied and said he was 22 years old. (Really he was 17). On the wedding license Illda lied and said she was 22 years old when she was really 25. It all worked out in the end. Illda didn't know that Cleo had lied to her until she found his birth certificate when he died.
In 1929 after The Crash, Cleo went into an almost defunct bank and applied for a $200 loan, with which he intended to start a grocery business. The bank president delivered a denial to Cleo. However, he was so impressed with my granddad's big brass cajones, he loaned him the money from his own pocket, and the rest is Battle Creek history.
My mother told us stories of her youth. According to her, all she did was work, work, WORK. Before school, after school, weekends, holidays. She delivered groceries, drove trucks to Texas and Georgia to buy fruit when she was only 14 years old. She ran the cash register, swept the floors, dusted the shelves and cleaned fish. She could stack cans from floor to ceiling and knew how to set up an enticing fruit and vegetable display. She could butcher a cow if she had to, and could cut up a whole chicken in under 10 seconds. You never, EVER ate so much as a penny piece of candy without paying for it.
In other words, Cleo and Illda Hughes were hard-ass business owners.
I found that image hard to reconcile with the Cleo and Illda Hughes that I knew. The both turned out to be extremely patient, over-indulgent, loving and kind old people. For being frugal to the extreme in just about every other facet of their lives, both of them indulged themselves and each other and children at Christmas time. And the most wonderful of all theses indulgences (besides Illda's Divinity Fudge) were bubble lights on the Christmas tree. No one else we knew had them -- including my dad's fancy folks.
In December, Cleo would put up the tree and adorn it with the bubble lights. It was a kind of tricky installation process as bubble lights had to be clipped on so that the glass vial was positioned exactly vertical. These bubble lights were very early ones, filled with oil. And the reason I know that was because I snapped the stem of one on purpose just to see what was on the inside. And Cleo, the slave driver, the whip cracker, the work-a-holic just gave me the eye and handed me a handkerchief. The oil permanently stained my yellow daisy church dress, but that's okay 'cause I never like that dress anyway.
Then Cleo would let me sit in his big, over-stuffed arm chair, right next to the Christmas tree and watch the bubble lights. He'd turn off the overhead lights and lamps and just let me watch them until I'd fall asleep. It was lovely and serene and mesmerizing. And I'm telling you, once you do bubble lights, it's hard to go back to anything else.
When Cleo and Illda moved to Florida in the late 60's they gave my mom all their Christmas stuff, including the bubble lights. When my mom died and we split up the family home, I passed on the 60 karat aquamarine ring, the 24 inch strand of pearls, the Pigaget watch, the silver heart and the emerald brooch to get the Christmas decorations that included the bubble lights. In retrospect, probably not my best decision -- but then again, I had my bubble lights, which I considered an heirloom.
Here's a video I found on YouTube, just so you can experience the attraction: