Here’s is the original version of today’s Ramblin’ column before it had to be shortened for today’s newspaper. And, Merry Christmas.
OTTUMWA — One by one, as the days to Christmas count down, more and more roadside evergreens glisten with the season. As if by magic, lowly ditch trees along Highway 34 and 63 don red glass balls and silver bells, fluffy bows and gleaming garland, shiny tinsel and an occasional American Flag.
Like Santa Claus, who appears when good little children are sleeping, Joyce Smith slips out to decorate midday, as most adults slave away. She rides in her modest white sleigh, a 1995 Jeep filled to the brim with buckets of decorations, as husband, Eudene, guides them on their way through Wapello and Monroe counties.
“About 150 is the most we’ve ever done,” says the grandmotherly white-haired elf, 81, and now in her 23rd year as the spirit of roadside Christmas.
I catch up with Joyce where the Jeep, 176,000 miles on its odometer and in need of a wash, rolls through the parking lot at Walmart, one of her favorite places to shop.
“Believe me, you can walk into Walmart and she knows half the people,” Eudene says.
“I’m a people person, dear,” Joyce says. “You know that.”
And, not snow and cold weather, not a Grinch who tried to steal her spirit, not even thieves, can stop Joyce from her appointed rounds to make those people happy.
It all began quite by accident in the days before Christmas, 1986.
“I had this bucket of old decorations I was going to throw in the ditch because they were going to bulldoze it,” she says.
Then, on her farm near Moulton, she saw a four-foot evergreen, bare in the season. She dressed it with 40 colored balls and disappeared back into the farmhouse. A night or two later she added tinsel.
“I didn’t tell anybody,” she smiles. “They didn’t see me until the next year at Christmas.”
By the time neighbors spotted her, a tradition had been born. Each year friends gave her old decorations, she’d buy some on sale, even mysterious bags labeled “To The Tree Lady” appeared at the Ottumwa hospital where she volunteered.
Out in the country, though, her husband at the time discouraged her.
“I was married to the devil’s brother for 44 years,” Joyce says.
He was the Grinch in her Christmas, telling her not to waste time decorating ditch trees. He once told the sheriff to arrest her for littering.
But that sheriff, with a gleam in his eye, told her, “Joyce, you just keep on decorating.”
So she has, through Winfred’s death and her 2005 marriage to Eudene.
“I walked into it wide open,” grins Eudene, 82. “The first time she told me what she did, I looked at her like she was nuts.”
But, always one for adventure, he knew a little about Joyce — they’d dated for seven months when they were 15 and 16.
That was after Joyce’s dad died, leaving 13 kids behind. After she went to work at age 14 waiting tables. Before she would finally earn her high school GED at age 44.
Eudene would serve two years in the Army at the end of World War II, live in Long Beach, Calif., for half a century, build airplanes at Douglas Aircraft for 35. He would be married to Doris for nearly 60 years until her death in late 2004.
That summer of 2005 would find Eudene and Joyce at the same country-school reunion where he recognized her maiden name, Brandt, and she knew “that voice.” Upon his return to California, Eudene rang up more than $200 in long distance telephone bills until telling Joyce they were either going to have to stop talking or he’d return to Iowa so they could marry.
“Well, OK,” Joyce said.
They hosted more than 400 guests at their Aug. 27 wedding in the old Blakesburg school gym, then moved into the home Joyce and her former husband had built in 1981 “out in the boonies” between Blakesburg and Ottumwa.
Not until after that Thanksgiving did Joyce surprise Eudene by preparing the decorations.
“It’s been fun, fun, fun,” Joyce says, eyeing Eudene.
“Oh, God, yes,” he says. “She’s my age. We do everything together.”
In two weeks they had decorated 73 trees and were behind schedule. “We were snowed clear deep,” she says.
But that gave Joyce time to reflect on Christmases past such as …
… 17 years ago when distinct aqua-colored decorations on one tree disappeared, only to show up at a rummage sale the next May. “The old bitty took them away from me and wouldn’t let me buy them,” Joyce says.
… a decade ago when Joyce began decorating a tree in all purple for a friend’s husband who had Alzheimers, but remembered that tree every year until he died.
… last year when Eudene’s five bypass heart surgery prevented them from decorating.
Each spring, they retrace their route to retrieve the decorations and, depending on the arrival of Easter, decorate trees with plastic eggs. Once, after vandals stole the eggs from a tree, Joyce filled new eggs with notes: “Do not steal these eggs. God will see you and Joyce Smith might.”
All anyone has done to the trees since is add decorations, including dollar bills here and there.
“There’s even been people stop me on the road and give me money,” Joyce says.
Which only means this elf will continue to brighten the season and its roadside trees.