Memories are funny things. Some are vague to begin with and disappear in an instant while others stay with you forever. Like every one, I remember millions of little details and specific events that occurred throughout my life, but none as fondly as the Christmas of ’57 when I was five years old.
In my mind, I can still see my grandmother’s home decorated like a Thomas Kincaid print as smoke curled up the chimney and the earthy-scent of hickory logs filled the room. There’s a grand tree illuminated top to bottom with blinking lights reflected in hundreds of colorful ornaments. And rivers of gleaming tinsel cascade from the highest branches of the giant tree and down its broad limbs that stretch almost the entire width of the front room.
Although both of my grandparents, Ma and Pop, lived in that house, we always called it “Ma’s house.” She was the center of our family’s universe. We’d usually get together on Sundays for a big family meal, but holidays were especially crowded.
In case unexpected company happened to stop by, Ma always kept something tasty on hand like fruit pies or tins full of fudge loaded with pecans from her tree out back. Like many southern ladies, she wasn’t happy unless she was feeding you. When family and neighbors visited they knew to come in through the back way, which led right into Ma’s kitchen. Only strangers, unfamiliar with local norms, came to the front door, but by the time they left, Ma made everyone feel like new additions to the family.
After dispensing big hugs and kisses, Ma assumed you were hungry and produced a variety of treats from her well-stocked pantry. Southern hospitality being what it was, she expected you to indulge. I might have over-indulged except that my mother kept a close eye on me. When I try, I can still taste the salt-cured ham tucked into those hot buttered biscuits.
The best thing about Christmas at Ma’s, there were so many superb cooks under one roof. Besides Ma, there was my mother, of course, plus five aunts. The feast those women prepared rivaled any luxury five-star restaurant; even better because they made it with love. The amount of food was staggering, and the meals were spectacular! We had ham, turkey, cornbread stuffing, and mountains of potatoes with gravy, butter beans, snap beans, sweet potato topped with toasted marshmallows, black-eyed peas, watermelon rind pickles, homemade applesauce, and Ma’s mouth-watering buttered biscuits slathered with wild blackberry jelly.
And talk about desserts! Our resident pastry chef, Aunt Julia, was famous for her three-layered cakes and chocolate pies. I still recall that delicious white-frosted coconut cake she had to put out of reach in the breakfront until it was time for dessert. Without a doubt, her cakes were pure temptation on a platter!
Enough already! I’m hungry just thinking about those wonderful family dinners at Ma’s!
In her poem, Nature’s Gentleman, Eliza Cook aptly described my uncles when she wrote about “the good, the just, the kind.” They may have been a rough bunch of good ol’ country boys, but foremost, they were dedicated family men. We sat in the den, and I’d listen in as they discussed manly things like hunting and fishing; real Daniel Boone stuff. With so many big, capable men about, we all enjoyed a worry-free upbringing that only comes from an unshakeable certainty you were well-loved and secure.
Growing up, my cousins, Denise, Janet, and I were inseparable. Everyone called us the Three Musketeers, but to be honest, we often misbehaved like the Three Stooges. We spent our early years together in Ma’s care while our parents went off to work the farm, machine shop, or some other enterprise in our small town. For a while, my father was away in the Air Force, so my mother and I were fortunate to have family close by.
To give you an idea of just how small our quaint town was, going “uptown” simply meant the road in front of Ma’s ran uphill as you drove toward Main Street, as opposed to “down yonder” where you’d find the florist and hardware stores, Sable’s restaurant, and the single-pump gas station. You might describe our town as little more than a wide spot in the road along Highway-15 between Oxford and Durham.
Ah, those Christmas Eve's at Ma’s! What a delightful blend of chaotic activity and frenzied conversation as all seventeen of us gathered in the front room of the old craftsman-styled home. We told stories, poked fun at each other, and laughed a lot together. Pop would pass around the special eggnog to the adults while we children enjoyed steaming cups of hot chocolate. And when things settled down, the cousins handed out the jumble of presents piled under the tree. In later years when there were a lot more cousins running around underfoot, Christmas at Ma’s house was even better. It was homey to the point of being clichéd, but it was just the way we liked it!
Traditionally, the Musketeers stayed over at Ma’s on Christmas Eve. We watched and waited for a visit by that elusive gift-giver, but never stayed awake long enough to catch him in the act. Denise, always the boss of us, teased about knowing a “secret,” but wouldn’t tell. As the Brits might say, she was a right little madam – even back then.
Not to worry because Christmas morning finally arrived. One of the girls shouted, “Santa’s come!” We scrambled out of bed, and raced down the hall to the front room. The French doors were closed so the room stayed warm as the fire slowly died. Through the filmy sheer curtains, lights from the Christmas tree twinkled with a magical glow, beckoning us to enter.
Denise, who just had to be first, burst through the doors followed by Janet and me. We squealed with excitement as we rushed in. For some curious reason, my eyes were closed tight at the moment we entered the front room. And when I looked, there were an amazing number of toys and colorful packages spread out around the tree for each of us.
Did Santa bring what each of us had wished for? Which toy to play with first? We were nearly overwhelmed, but nevertheless, we dived right in and for the rest of the morning we were in heaven – that is, until Ma made us stop long enough to eat breakfast.
When we sat down, Denise blurted out her big secret just to ruin the magic of Christmas for Janet and me as she gleefully dashed our belief in the reality of Santa Claus, but that was Denise for you. And after all these years, she’s still the same, but we still love her. Besides, it didn’t matter because I never listened to her anyway; I’ve always known there’s a Santa.
Now that I’m older, some images are beginning to fade. Of all my memories spanning a lifetime, that particular Christmas invariably comes back to me in fine detail and with such vibrant colors; a cherished childhood vision worth holding onto.
Allow me to close with a Christmas wish to all of you taken from a certain fabled poem:
“Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”
Author Notes: Thanks for reading musings from my long-ago childhood. Originally submitted to our monthly writing class, but I wanted to share with you to, hopefully, provoke warm memories from your own childhood, whatever they may be.