Normally when I can’t run, it is a bad thing. My head, knees or hips won’t let me. Today it was a good thing to quote Martha. My running interfered with where I wanted to be in my head. Usually, I create stories when I run to avoid the pain endured while running. This was not the case today. In my head, I was remembering the “Ghosts’ of Christmases Past.” Consider this a Merry Christmas or Happy Holiday present to you regardless of whether you celebrate Christmas or not. I don’t think it will offend anyone’s sensibilities and, rest assured, I love all your sensibilities…and idiocrasies. Peace on Earth! We can all agree on that along with good will toward men…and women. I miss my wide-eyed wonderment during the Christmases of my youth. Having to grow up was and is a trap and I have been caught in it for far too long. Hopefully my memories will help free me from my snare…although considering the alternative….
A most vivid memory is of a Christmas Eve trip to Monroe, North Carolina where my family normally shopped. It was just my father and a seven or eight-year-old me. Mom was busy at home preparing for the onslaught of people who would attend our evening celebration and little Stevie was too young to make the trip. This was a type of yearly tradition for my father. He didn’t have to go; all the presents had been wrapped and placed under our tree…or hidden away until Santa Claus made his appearance. My father would go and buy nuts and fruit…maybe a trinket or two. I just think he liked being in the Christmas crowd…and Woolworth’s warm and salted cashews was something he could never pass up.
Had people been raindrops, Monroe would have been awash in a torrential downpour. Usually a small and quiet Southern town, it was bursting with activity. As we made our way toward Woolworth’s and Belk’s on Main Street I remember being maneuvered through a throng that included several panhandlers who we avoided like the plague. We paused in front of the Belk’s storefront to look at the mechanical Christmas scene…or so I thought. Sitting below the storefront Christmas scene was a man near my father’s age. He sat on a pad which was attached to a board with small wheels. The unknown man had lost his legs just below his hips and his pants legs were folded and neatly pinned under him. In his hand was a small tin cup containing new yellow pencils. My father had paused in front of the man with no legs, not the windows. Reaching into his pocket my father withdrew his billfold and placed a ten-dollar bill into the man’s cup. It was a considerable donation for the time. I watched my father’s eyes tear as he bent and accepted the pencil and the man’s tearful “Bless You.” My father took my hand and while looking over his shoulder choked out, “No, bless you and Merry Christmas!” In my mind, it is easy to create a story involving a World War Two veteran who paid the same high price our vets are still paying today.
In the small rural community where I lived, most of our activities revolved around our school and our churches. Christmas was no different. Church Christmas plays featured shepherds in bathrobes with towels wrapped around their heads, angels with coat hanger halos and wings covered in Christmas tinsel and Wise Men with homemade crowns. A Betsy Wetsy Doll starred as baby Jesus. Taken straight from the Gospels, the story of the birth was read and acted out. Familiar Christmas hymns were sung by the congregation or choir with “Joy to the World” bringing the play to a close. Downstairs in the fellowship hall Christmas cookies and cakes waited to be shared as the children waited impatiently to see a secular Santa Claus who looked and sounded a lot like my Uncle James. In later years, there would be Aunt Joyce’s Christmas Cantatas, my favorite being the one including “Jubilate, jubilate, King of kings he’s born today” performed by the combined choirs of my church, Belair, and Osceola.
In my day (Doesn’t that sound old?), in my day Christmas break began with a half-day celebration of Christmas at school. Classes had drawn names and presents were traded as we sat around a freshly cut donated evergreen tree decorated with ornaments made from construction paper. It would seem socks were the gifts of choice. Our teacher began our sugar high with decorated sugar cookies in the shape of reindeers, stars or elves. For their trouble our teachers received small ornaments, many handmade pastries and desserts, and, of course, socks. A concert featuring the band and chorus would close the day and, if you were not in the Christmas spirit by then, you had no pulse.
At home, there was a fresh cut cedar tree with multi-colored bubble lights that had to warm up before they began to bubble. White plastic ice cycles hanging with very fragile glass ornaments all covered with tinsel. My mother pausing to listen to “Stille Niche” or playing Billy Vaughn’s “Christmas Carols” ad nauseum. Sorry. I never learned to play the saxophone as well as Billy and his band. A robot that smoked, sparked and reversed path when it met an obstruction. A model of a twenty-mule team borax wagon. My first full-sized bicycle, a red and white Schwinn Phantom, arrived the same Christmas as a freak ice storm. Can you imagine the pain of waiting to get outside? It was almost as bad as the wait for Santa. Lying in bed hoping I had been just good enough not to be getting a bag of coal. A plastic Thompson Sub-Machine gun so I could pretend to be Vic Morrow pretending to be Sgt. Saunders in “Combat.” My grandmother’s gifts, a patchwork quilt Christmas stocking she had made filled with butter mints and peppermint along with healthier fruits and nuts. There were the more practical pocket notebooks, pencils and pens, too. “These are a few of my favorite things…”
After my mother’s death, I found the first gift I had given her that I had picked out and paid for with the sweat of my brow. A cheap, red and green, cut glass Christmas tree broach from Woolworth’s. I guess she must have liked it. There was always one evening anticipating the arrival of church carolers and another to drive through the community looking at Christmas lights. Perhaps there would be a reading of “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” A much simpler time.
My mother was a child who failed to fall into the adult trap when it came to Christmas. Activity swirled for what seemed like weeks as she prepared for our Christmas Eve family celebration. Baking was one of my mother’s chores. Fruitcake, fruitcake cookies, yule candy logs, Missouri “no-bake” cookies, pies and cakes galore and her very favorite ambrosia. In the days before shredded coconut could be purchased at your local super market, it was my father’s responsibility to break open and shred the coconut Mom would use for her ambrosia and coconut cake. He would use a small ball peen hammer to punch a hole in one of the coconut’s eyes so the milk could be drained. A larger hammer would break the coconut open and a sharp knife would separate the meat from the husk. If my father was not bleeding by this time he soon would be as his knuckles contacted the hand grater. My Christmas memories always include pink shredded coconut. It also may be why I don’t like coconut desserts very much although I will eat one dessert in memory of him. Hopefully it won’t be pink.
The Christmas of 1958 would be significant and transitional although I would not know it at the time. Paw Paw would cross over in the fall of the new year. I didn’t even know he was sick much less dying. Oh, to be child-like again. In addition to our parents, Mom’s brother Olin and his wife Gayle would be there with Philip and Robyn; Will was still a twinkle in his parent’s eyes as was Terri, Joyce’s and Bo’s youngest. Their oldest Kim and Lynn would join Steve and I to celebrate. Somehow a tradition of telling ghost stories to the younger cousins and brother in a darkened closet would develop. I hope I did not warp them for all time. Impromptu but not unexpected visits by Paw Paw’s and Nannie’s brothers and sisters would continue through not only Christmas Eve but also throughout Christmas Day. I hate adult life and death has gotten in the way of those memories.
My wife and I have attempted to continue the Christmas Eve tradition, short of pink coconut. I enjoy having my brother and daughter and their families…despite the pain of getting ready. I could never do for my brother what our family did for us but I hope he understands that I try and hope my daughter’s memories are as rich as mine. If her memories are warm, it is due, in most part, to the influence of my wife, Linda Gail, a little elf who never fell into the trap of growing up but whose own memories include recent losses of and distance from family. Being from a blended-family I always had to return Ashley to her mother late on Christmas Eve. It was bitter-sweet. Bitter for obvious reasons but there was something sweet about our trip home. It is a time of private sharing between the two of us, a special time that I cherish and miss. To accommodate the red-headed little monkey, Miller Kate, along with her new brother Nolan, we have moved Christmas Eve to Ashley’s and Justin’s. My wife says it is temporary. She likes to oversee our memories.
I wish anyone reading this a Merry Christmas, Happy Holiday, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Dattatreya Jayanti, Mawlid an-Nabi or any other celebrations I have missed. For true “Peace on Earth” I wish to embrace our diversity, each for each other. That is my wish as we close 2016 and enter 2017. May 2017 be the year of “Understanding” and a step toward “Peace on Earth and Good Will Toward Men!” Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and a happy and productive New Year!
For more of Don Miller’s unique views of life, humor and Southern stories of a bygone time, try http://goo.gl/lomuQf