Christmas Rant

(from SECOND BLESSING)

While Momma, Daddy, and Arthur were alive, I was forced into doing the traditional Hallmark, Currier and Ives Christmas. Starting in September after Labor Day, I cooked, cleaned, bought, decorated, ran myself ragged for one afternoon of another’s glutton pleasure without so much as a thank you.

I hauled out the same old decorations. Dusted them off. Put them in the same places. The pinecone bell hung in the bathroom hallway. Wreathes were nailed to the doors. The tinseled tree stood before the picture window in the parlor. Always had to search for Baby Jesus, He kept falling out of the manger. Through the years, I must’ve peeled a crate of oranges for ambrosia, wrapped a present for everybody in Alabama, licked a mile of stamps, and baked a ton of fruitcakes.

Tapped her right forefinger against her chin. I do believe that there is still an orange sliced one in the bottom of the freezer from the year Arthur died. Dropped her arm. Sighed. Snorted. Humph! Pish and pshaw! Oh well, freezer burnt now.

Christmas is a melodrama staged, rehearsed, and performed. You follow a script embellished through the years by Moore, Dickens, Irving, Hallmark, Currier and Ives, anybody else that can make a buck off the season. Even the churches chime in. When Frankie was little, for the first time Christmas was pleasant, almost enjoyable. Seeing his eyes sparkle on Christmas morning was a joy.

After Frankie died, Christmas, like everything else, became a burden. Something to tolerate like dreadful kinfolks. Even when I was a child, Christmas was an overwhelming chore. Getting ready for all the aunts, uncles, and cousins. In her younger days, Momma put on a grand production with all the trimmings. The other holidays were dreadful too, Thanksgiving dinners, Easter egg hunts, Fourth of July picnics, but Christmas was the winner. You always expected something that never happened.

Humph! Pish and pshaw! Kept up the charade while Momma, Daddy, and Arthur were alive to make them happy, but when it got down to just Milton’s family and me, I wised up. Asked myself, “Mildred, what’s the use?”

We would all sit around the table pretending to be happy. Hoped each other would choke on the next bite. Maybe this year will be different with Catherine here. Maybe she will bring back some of her father’s joy. Surely suffering isn’t what the Good Lord had in mind for His Son’s birthday!

Now Milton’s daughters and daughters-in-law take turns hosting the burden. I’m always invited and always manage not to attend. At my age, aches and pains are reliable excuses even though “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” story lingers in my memory. They think it’s Christian charity to take pity on the poor old widowed aunt during the holidays, but okay to ignore her the rest of the year. Humph! Pish and pshaw! Christmas is the season for fronts. Sorry, but family doesn’t work that way. Either associate with me throughout the year or not at all. We go for months without speaking. We’re blood yet strangers. That’s another one of God’s cruel jokes, making folks kin who don’t care a hoot about each other.

Humph! Pish and pshaw! We’re all sold a pack of lies about how wonderful family life is supposed to be, but it ain’t ever that way. Even from the beginning kin fussed! Look at Cain and Abel. God would’ve saved everybody a whole lot of heartache and grief if He’d just set them in different parts of the world to begin with. Maybe that’s the problem, kinfolks living so close together, knowing each other’s business? God knows I’ve thought about moving. Arthur and I even discussed it after Frankie died, but now I’m too old to go anywhere new and start over except for the nursing home. Then I’ll be so weak and feeble in the head it won’t matter. I could be in Timbuktu.

Humph! Pish and pshaw! Life would be easier if folks could choose their own kin. Cut down on the number of outcast wandering around. Sometimes there’s a justifiable reason. The person really is crazy or a pervert or has destroyed every brain cell with drinking or drugs. But most estrangements result from a misunderstanding that have festered so long folks forget how the wound happened. A family unit can’t stand somebody different, independent, or brave enough to go it on their own. Look under most black sheep and find pure white wool. Eventually the black sheep discovers it doesn’t need the flock to be happy. It doesn’t need their approval. The only one it needs to impress is itself. Members boast about family loyalty and other such rubbish, but that’s only important when it’s convenient for them. Humph! Pish and pshaw! I’ve lived all my life for the convenience of others. There has never been just time for me.

Two summers before Linda Sue married Billy Hillard and took Catherine away to live in Louisiana, Clara’s daughter, Lucy, went out west to visit Roy’s folks who are, as I hear it, well-to-do real estate people selling land to the stars. Roy Nelson was in the military, Air Force I believe, stationed in Biloxi. It’s rumored that he and Lucy met in one of those sleazy downtown Mobile bars though I’m not sure even though I once asked Clara pointblank who immediately reverted to her scatterbrained self never confirming or denying. At least Clara has the good sense to keep her mouth shut about some things though she dresses like a nightmare.

Anyway, Lucy came back all snotty and uppity. Called supper dinner and other such airs. Announced that Clara couldn’t see her grandbabies too much or spend too much time together because she, Clara, was a bad influence and her, Lucy’s, babies were at an extremely impressible age and, I quote, “Pick up rural ways”.

This went on for about a year until one night Roy came down to the supper table and announced he was leaving. Again Clara wouldn’t say why. There was a quick divorce and Lucy decided if that’s how fast things are in the city, the slow country ways are best. Now Lucy is married to Hank Burke. Who I hear has a temper.

At the time, I’m ashamed to say, I wasn’t much support. I was too involved with my own misery. Which is selfish because Frankie was dead and gone, and no amount of squalling would bring him back. Clara would call me up bawling and blubbering, telling the same stories over and over. Each word spoke thousands. Every minute motion had a mammoth motive.

Finally, I couldn’t stand hearing anymore. Said real sarcastically, which isn’t the world like me, “This is just one of those things you’ve got to accept. Burn bridges and move on without looking back.” Then I never dreamed of the shoe being on my foot. As Momma always said, “Everything that goes over the devil’s back must come under his belly.” I’ll go to my grave apologizing to Clara for those words.

Now I understand why Aunt Sue, put in the Golden Dawn Convalescent Center after her fall, wouldn’t go back home. Even though she was able to move around with a walker, Aunt Sue would sit in the car all-silent and stone-face while her daughter, Lois, ran in and got what was needed. Aunt Sue knew she could never live in her home again alone so it was best to just shut that door and move on. Another example of us women doing what we must.

Still, and this is another wound I’ll carry to my grave, I couldn’t accept in my heart being torn apart from Catherine. My only true blood kin left on Earth except for Milton who doesn’t count. My pain was greater than a sore expanding, festering, and bleeding. Worst I imagine than torturous, agonizing dying from cancer or another hideous medical book disease because eventually there has to be an end. A body can just bear so much torment. I’m still not sure how I pulled out sane except that the Good Lord was there.

Humph! Pish and pshaw! I put up a rough front before people, but inside I’m softer than a feather pillow, weaker than jelly. Sometimes you must reach an understanding even if it doesn’t make logic or sense. One morning I woke up and told myself, “Okay, Mildred, this suffer has got to stop. You’re racing to the grave. Catherine may be away in distance, but she’s always going to be here in your heart.”

Sighed. Snorted. Wagged her head back and forth. Humph! Pish and pshaw! Of course, I could’ve read that in a Hallmark Card, but sometimes you’ve got to travel through the pain.

Every year on June eighteen, I baked Catherine a birthday cake. Lit the correct number of candles. Watched them burn out. Weeks later threw the cake out over the fence without eating any.

One year I broke down and tasted a bit. It was like putting a fork full of sawdust into my mouth. The cake wasn’t one of those cheap store-bought mixes either, but Momma’s double fudge chocolate recipe. Which always turns out perfectly. Rich as can be with seven eggs, two sticks of real butter, a cup and a half of cream, semisweet chocolate bars and dried cocoa. God knows the number of potluck suppers and funeral gatherings I’ve taken that cake to and reaped praise, but trying to eat a birthday cake my grandbaby couldn’t enjoy made me physically ill.

Would put Catherine’s Christmas presents under the tree weeks before mailing them off. The pretty paper and bows gave a ray of hope, though false, that carried me through the season. I even hid Easter eggs that were never found.

Chuckled. Sidetracked for a moment. Clara made me one of those ‘Better than Sex’ cakes the other day and after a couple of bites, I realized I ain’t missed nothing. Humph! Pish and pshaw! Of course, it could be Clara’s cooking. For her, boiling water is a challenge. Mildred’s hand swished air as her head wagged back and forth.

Another one of my blessings is remembering dates. Rattling off birthdays and anniversaries of those living and dead like ABC’s. In school, the only way I could remember a history date was relating it to one personal. For example, while all of my third grade classmates were reciting, “Columbus sailed the ocean blue in fourteen hundred and ninety-two”, I remembered the date because in 1929, Shelby, my cousin on Momma’s side who I adored, was fourteen years old and twenty-nine reversed is ninety-two. That is more practical to me than memorizing a silly rhyme.

Often when Arthur and I were going through an ordinary day, I stopped whatever I was doing. Stared off faraway and remarked, “Today is…” so-and-so’s birthday or some other auspicious occasion.

Arthur paused. Shrugged. Looked amazed, but not surprised because he knew I was right. Went back to what he was doing.

When we first married, Arthur checked me against the register in the family Bible. But after about a dozen times declared, “What’s the use? You’re always right”.

If I happened to slip up, rarer than two blue moons appearing in the same month, he took my word as gospel truth. Argued that the date was copied down wrong. I can hear him now bragging to folks how his wife was better than a calendar and The Old Farmer’s Almanac. Then, after giving that quick wink and rusty snicker of his, add, “And a lot softer, too.”

Nodded. Cheeks glowing. Tapped her right forefinger against the corner of her chin. Humph! Pish and pshaw! Arthur was always such a card. It’s little things like that, which keep a marriage going. I could write an advice column, better than Abby and Ann combined. Nowadays married couples don’t communicate, don’t joke with each other, that’s why there’s so much divorce. “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.”

Except for Catherine, Mildred felt closer to her dead relatives than the live ones. Especially Milton and his crew. Most folks don’t think family history is important. They go through their days marking time, not realizing you are what you are because of your past. She could trace her blood. Knew all the connections. Understood the concept of removed.

Humph! Pish and pshaw! Why, once that silly Clara even called my home, “A living tomb.”

At first I was miffed, as with any of her off-the-wall, out-of-the-blue remarks. Then I realized for once she wasn’t that wrong. As Momma always said, “A broken clock is right twice a day.”

My home is a family museum full of possessions once owned by kin staring down from the walls. My fingers touch what they felt. I read books they read. I even cook the same, following recipes written by dead hands. Eat with Grandmamma Taylor’s silver off of Grandma Stanford’s dishes. I pay taxes on Grandpa Stanford’s eighty acres of swampland. Smiled. Closed her eyes. The past really does seem like the present, memories current events.

Tapped her right forefinger against the corner of her chin. Daddy’s parents, Benjamin Otis and Rachel Ann Grandpa and Grandma, were Methodist. Buried in the church cemetery just inside of Damascus on the north side of Highway 59 coming from Wilson City under separate, but similar, thick granite slabs. Grandpa has the Mason’s symbol in his middle and Grandma the Eastern Star’s. All of the Stanford men have been Masons and all of the women in the Eastern Star. I joined soon after marrying Arthur. It’s an unspoken rule that the only single women allowed to stay in the group are widowed and if one happens to divorce, an oddity here, she quietly leaves because here divorce is still frowned upon, as it should be. My membership in the Eastern Star is as important as my being a United Daughter of the Confederacy.

Momma’s parents, Elijah Saul and Bernice Jean Taylor, Grandpapa and Grandmamma, are in the Baptist cemetery under a joining headstone and thick slabs. Sighed. Wrapped her arms around her. Closed her eyes remembering.

Humph! Pish and pshaw! Once while visiting in the cemetery, Clara, in another one of her off-the-wall, out-of-the-blue moments, put one hand on her hip, swished the other in the air, and said snobbishly in her scatterbrained way, “I’ve always thought the headstone/slab combination was way too much. A body only needs one or the other.”

Then in her shrill giggle added, “Well, that’s one way of making sure the dead stay in their place.” Turned toward me expecting a laugh as though I thought what she said was funny.

Well, I didn’t. Probably even frowned at her asinine remark. Clara commenced to pout spoiling our afternoon of visiting. God knows I’ve always been mercifully tolerant of her foolish ways, but lately Clara just blurts out whatever pops in her brain. It seems like she can’t control her mouth anymore than her bladder. The older she gets the more she rambles. She’s just a grown-up child, reverting to a time that was.

Humph! Pish and pshaw! Guess that’s God’s way of preparing us for Heaven. As the Good Book says, “We must become like little children again.” Opened her eyes. Snorted. Started picking imaginary lint like cotton off of the bed covers.

The Stanfords and the Taylors, the Harpers and the Blakes, Clara’s people, are among the founding families of Damascus. As far as I can trace, they came from North or South Carolina from England, Ireland, or Scotland. As I understand, they were Troy refugees who traveled down the Old Federal Road, which looped along the southeastern coast, to escape fighting against the King of England and their fellow countrymen. Which wouldn’t surprise me at all. You still find that sort of blind loyalty throughout the South, even when it’s wrong. Maybe that’s why slavery was such a tremendous issue and everything else that has to do with race. Once folks get set in their ways they don’t want to change, even if it’s for the best and they know in their heart what they are doing is wrong. Humph! Pish and pshaw! God knows His religion has resulted in everything except love.

Around the late eighteen hundreds, the Hayeses, Arthur’s people, came to Damascus followed by the Thompsons, the Cumbies, the Hillards, and others. Folks began mixing. There was more of a marrying choice than cousins. A common saying here is, “Be careful who you’re talking about to because they’re probably kin.”

Damascus is just one big family community. Everybody knows everybody’s business because in a place this small there’s nothing better to do. Most troubles warp with time, get distorted and twisted. Folks try to forget misery.

Humph! Pish and pshaw! Of course, with forgetting the bad, you risk forgetting the good, but that’s the sacrifice for a little peace of mind. Sometimes I see ads claiming to improve your memory. How can anybody, except for Clara, fall for such an outrageous con? Even then, it would have to be on one of her worst days. And if that were true, why would anybody want to remember all the good and the bad that happened in life? The power to forget is one of God’s greatest gifts. If you don’t bury that hurt deep inside you can’t go on. That’s what toughens you up to face the miseries ahead.

When I hear anyone say, “God doesn’t give you anymore than you can bear” I want to bop them across the face.

Humph! Pish and pshaw! That’s utterly silly. The first person to say that must have been Clara’s kin. A body can bear anything it sets its mind to no matter what. Death, sickness, lost, failure. Ain’t nothing that ain’t happened to somebody before except in different degrees. Of course, it seems like the first time when it happens to you.

Read the Bible. It’s strewn with folks suffering sorrows in both the red and black pages. And no matter your circumstances, there are always folks that have life worst off. Also better. So, in a way, everybody’s stuck in the middle. At least I now have the essential creature comforts and don’t have to struggle with the necessaries of life when everyday living was a chore. Humph! Pish and pshaw! One never knows how much water a body uses until it has to be hauled.

There are always going to be folks better off and worst off than you. The Bible says we will always have the rich and the poor. Nothing in Earth is equal or will ever be. Too bad we have to die to get that way. Folks who don’t have a Second Blessing like I do just don’t understand the trials and tribulations of life. They’re feeble in The Spirit. They can’t see troubles from an eternal view. They don’t see that sorrow improves self-worth.

God blessed me with a Second Blessing for a reason. I have a mission. He doesn’t dispense His gifts willy-nilly. He knew from the crack of dawn while breathing life into Adam that I would be worthy. I’m not fool enough to think I can bring peace and joy to the world. Sweet sentiments wished for on Christmas cards that ain’t ever coming true. And if they ever did, we would be miserable. Even Jesus knew His limitations. Worked in a dusty godforsaken corner of the world. Humph! Pish and pshaw! Bet you Mary had fits struggling to keep that house clean. Jesus knew His purpose and went about quietly doing it. Didn’t write any books, make lots of money, or try to be a big shot. His influence has and will last an eternity.

Breakfast smells drifted from the kitchen. Mildred’s stomach roared. Like Daddy always said, “Like a plow pushing field hand’s after a twelve-hour day.” Glowed inside remembering.

Sure do hope Catherine remembers what I taught her on her last visit. The secret to getting a good rise out of biscuits is rolling out and patting down your dough gently. Keep sprinkling with flour. Don’t press down too hard when cutting out. As Momma always said, “Treat them as though you’re packing pieces of china traveling in a covered wagon down a bumpy road.”

Wagged her head back and forth. Sighed. Momma always did have a way with imagery. Brushed her fingers through her hair. Fluffed the ends with her palms. Licked the tip of a finger. Dabbed around her lips. Adjusted her bed jacket. Hope I look presentable.

Soon Catherine would appear with a tray. Even though I told her last night I was still capable of going to the kitchen table. Twisted. Lifted herself up with the palms of her hands trying to glance into the dresser mirror. Only saw the top of her head and immediately plopped back down.

Humph! Pish and pshaw! Oh well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I’m sure the Bible says so. I know Catherine will always see me like I do her.

Catherine planned breakfast while driving home from the hospital last night. “Half a pink grapefruit. No sugar on top, maybe a cherry in the middle for decoration. Already rooted around with a grapefruit spoon. Freshly squeezed orange juice. Strained to remove the pulp and seeds. Scrambled eggs, not too hard or runny, with cheese and chives. Buttered grits, since you don’t like it with milk gravy. Hot biscuits with a selection of your homemade jams, jellies, and preserves. Crispy bacon and sugar cured ham. A steaming pot of coffee brewed with eggshells in the grounds to get the bitterness out.” Glanced over, her face faint in the dash light. “But we can have something else if you want.”

Mildred leaned over. Patted her granddaughter’s arm. Brought up her gentlest voice. “No. That sounds yummy, dear.”

Catherine chattered all the way home. Mildred wasn’t sure about what. Humph! Pish and pshaw! Completely out of my granddaughter’s character, but crucial in order to forget. Neither of us wanted to imagine what could have happened. God wouldn’t be so cruel letting me lose her in such a short period. We are just beginning to know each other again.

Immediately swore on Frankie’s grave that starting tomorrow she would spend extra time with Catherine. No matter how exhausted I feel. Tell her stories of kinfolk long dear. How life was in the good ole days. Snorted.

Humph! Pish and pshaw! Whoever coined that phrase didn’t live them. Only a person who has braved the freezing cold by candlelight for relief in an outhouse and hauled water for miles can the flush of a toilet sound like a hallelujah choir. Smiled. Slapped air. Girl, sometimes you’re more than funny.

Humph! Pish and pshaw! I know God slips these accidents into our lives to remind us how precious time is and how quick we can lose something important, but I swear sometimes He gets too dramatic. Why burn up a perfectly good bush when a postcard would do? Guess it’s just part of human nature. We’ve all got to be hit with a sledgehammer now and then.

Mildred wanted to cram as much family history into her granddaughter as she could. I’ll get my notepad out of my purse and make a list. Of course, it will only be the good stuff. I don’t want to burden her with the dark side of life. As Momma always said, “You’ll discover it on your own soon enough, no use troubling over it twice.”

Nodded. Wiped her fingers under her eyes, as if first hearing the advice as a young girl after Tweety, her parakeet, died. Yes, life is full of harsh cruelties you accept to survive.

Tapped her right forefinger against the corner of her chin. Maybe I should start with the photograph albums. Go through the pages and tell Catherine the story behind each moment. Thank God, I had the good sense to write on the back of each photograph because you do forget. Learned that lesson when Momma and I were breaking up housekeeping after Aunt Sue died and found boxes of pictures of folks we didn’t recognize.

Folded her arms before her. Glanced at the ceiling. Humph! Pish and pshaw! Folks die and things are lost forever if they’re not handed down. Even though Momma and I were close, she died before telling me everything about her past. Maybe she didn’t know or maybe she did and wouldn’t tell or maybe she did and I forgot. Oh, well. There is a lot in life to remember. Things get confused and rumbled together. Stared out of the window. Sighed. Each moment the morning, like her, grew older.

I’m sure Catherine would want to hear more stories about her father growing up and me as a child. I do need to make a list. She already knows the high points, which is good. That’s one thing I’ll credit Linda Sue with, she never cut us out of that child’s life. But I want Catherine to know about our ordinary day-to-day living, what made us us.

Like the summers Arthur, Frankie, and I packed up for two weeks and went to Gulf Shores. Our joy of frolicking in the waves and soaking up the sun. Or that when Frankie first learned to ride a bicycle he didn’t know how to stop so he’ll run into a bush. It didn’t take me long to figure out why all my azaleas were looking scraggy and why Frankie was coming in from riding with scratches on his arms and legs. Believe me, when Arthur came home from the courthouse that afternoon he went straight out to the back yard without even pulling off his tie and gave Frankie a lesson on braking. Chuckled out loud seeing the picture in her mind.

This isn’t nice, and I wouldn’t dare tell Catherine, but when Frankie was ready to be potty trained, he got chicken pox. It didn’t take him long to figure out it burnt if he didn’t get up out of bed and t-t in the pot. Snickered, her face glowing. Slapped her fingertips against her cheeks. Wagged her head back and forth.

I’m giggling like after one of those risqué jokes Clara sometimes tells. Coughed. Patted her breast. Became her dignified self again.

Catherine probably doesn’t know this, but her daddy was an avid reader. While the other boys were wasting their time on comic books, he was living every adventure of the Rover Boys. Frankie also liked reading Jack London, but I finally had to draw the line because that man was a blatant Socialist.

After Frankie turned twelve, he helped out at the store on Saturday afternoons. Sweeping, straightening, carrying out groceries for customers, and everybody simply loved him. Frankie always saved his money to buy us wonderful birthday and Christmas presents. He never begged us for nothing.

That was the Hayes’s blood in him. They knew how to pinch a penny until Lincoln’s eyes bulged. Humph! Pish and pshaw! Arthur’s mother would brag, which is true, that her daddy went to his grave with the first dollar ever made sewed inside his coat, but if you ask me that’s taking thrifty a little too far. Hopefully the Pearly Gates won’t have a toll charge.

I’ll show Catherine the sacks full of soda bottle caps in the smokehouse her daddy collected. He got interested in the caps while collecting the bottles for deposit. There must be over a million of every flavor ever made. When Frankie was in the fifth grade, he started writing overseas pen pals as part of a social studies project asking them for bottle caps. I can still see him now rushing home from school showing off his first foreign language Coca-Cola cap. It was in Spanish I think, all of that foreign writing looks like scribbling to me. Anyway, Frankie got a whole bunch of bottle caps that way, and after he died, I couldn’t bear to throw them away. When Catherine has kids, they may want to pick up the tradition. Who knows, those bottle caps may be worth something someday?

Of course, Frankie always kept a menagerie of pets, wild and domestic. No telling how many dogs, cats, birds, fish, frogs, turtles, rabbits, rats and other rodents came through my kitchen door. Plus, there were farm animals from calves to roosters to sheep plus a flying squirrel, raccoon, possum, and fawn. Some days I could’ve changed my name to Noah. I bit my lip when the snake came through. It was just a tiny black one, which unfortunately got stepped on. Again snickered and blushed. I knew those big old boots of Arthur’s were good for something.

I’ll tell Catherine how the Church has been and will always be an important rock in our lives. From Day One, all of our people have been baptized and eulogized at the altar. The Church has been in the midst of our joys and sorrows. I’ll tell her about… 

Again nearly choked, but this time from love. Tears trickled down her face as memories of angelic hymns, soul-stirring sermons, all-night singings, and dinners on the ground flooded her mind. Christmas pageants once in, now watched. Reached over. Pulled a tissue from the box. Wiped her eyes and blew her nose.

The Church has been good to us because we have followed its ways without straying. That’s why I have my marvelous Second Blessing. The glow beaming inside felt brighter than any sunshine.

A soft knock on the bedroom door brought Mildred back to Damascus. Cleared her throat. “Come in, dear.”

Catherine entered carrying breakfast.

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About John Northcutt Young

I write. Remember making-up stories from spelling words in the fifth grade. A journalism degree followed. Thanks for looking.
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