Homespun Christmas

David Grooms talks about an old photograph of his dad plowing a field in the Wassamassaw Swamp. Grooms was born in Australia and moved to South Carolina with his family when he was 4 years old.

DORCHESTER -- The open-hearth fireplace burned so hot that the mortar had melted gaps between the bricks. As a child, David Grooms would bring his blanket and pillow over to warm up, then make a mad dash with his brothers to the unheated bedroom.

That fireplace at his grandparents' house is what he remembers most about the first Christmas he spent in America, after moving with his family as a 4-year-old from Melbourne, Australia, to an old wood house in Wassamassaw Swamp. The long trip on the Queen Elizabeth steam liner was just one more odd turn in the odyssey of his parents' lives.

A half-century later, the memories catch in his throat as Grooms talks.

"Our Christmas was our family," he said. The wood house was "a little shortcut through the woods" from his grandparents' house back along Pigeon Bay. His forebears settled the Berkeley County community in the mid-1770s, along what is today's Groomstown Road. The house sat in the dirt in fields his father farmed with a mule taller than he was.

A story in The Post and Courier about the state recognizing the Varnertown tribe of Wassamassaw Indians stirred Grooms' recollections. It ran with a 1930s photograph of a woman of the tribe standing in front of a tiny pine-board house. His home wasn't much more than that, and Wassamassaw families lived all around him.

Today, Grooms lives in the rural Dorchester community in Dorchester County. He is about to retire after a career in construction. Pigeon Pond Bay, a 1,400-acre Carolina Bay, has been deeded into a conservation trust. His grandparents' old house still stands nearby, the place where -- after he scurried into bed -- his grandmother would come throw big quilts atop the blankets to keep the children warm.

Christmas when Grooms was growing up was homey and intimate. His father worked as a mechanic in Holly Hill and then for DuPont in Aiken.

For the holiday, his artist mother made a ritual of decorating the outside of the front door with manger scenes, forcing the family to go around back to enter. Inside there would be a tree with lights and fake snow scattered under it. A few gifts would be exchanged, handkerchiefs and the like. Dinner would be British, with lamb and Christmas pudding. His father would pour a drink, unusual for him, bourbon and eggnog.

The toys that Grooms remembers best from his childhood were a clawless hammer he wouldn't be without and a "wallaby," a play car that was steered with the feet and powered by pumping a "T" handle pump back and forth.

Grooms' father, Melvin C. Grooms, was a Marine in World War II. He fought in the horrific battle at Guadalcanal in the platoon commanded by Medal of Honor winner Sgt. Mitchell Paige, who held off an attack by hoisting a heavy machine gun and raking the enemy as his men fell around him.

Melvin Grooms caught Scrub typhus, a Southeast Asian disease transmitted by chiggers. He was in a hotel in Melbourne on recuperative leave when he and a buddy looked out the window and saw two women sitting on a horse trough.

"They hollered down something smart and the girls hollered back something smart, and dared them to come down," Grooms said. Melvin and Monica were married in a year. Two years later, David was born, the second son. His father was a Cross native and the family moved from Australia to the Lowcountry in 1945. David and his older brother arrived with full "good on yer" accents and he'd spend the rest of his life being introduced as, "Dave's from Australia," even though he grew up in Berkeley and Aiken counties.

His mom kept up a correspondence with friends worldwide, including British actor Stanley Holloway, who played Alfred P. Doolittle in the classic film "My Fair Lady." She left behind a cache of 500 letters.

"Their lives were a story worth making a movie out of," Grooms says about his deceased parents. So was his childhood.

Reach Bo Petersen at 843-937-5744 or bpetersen@postandcourier.com.