Annual Christmas Tree Hunt

I am the product of a mixed marriage. Mother embraced Christmas with all the enthusiasm of a four-year-old while Daddy had to be pulled, kicking and fighting into the season, dreading the ruckus and expense. Mother felt the Christmas tree had to be up no later than December 18, to get maximum joy from it. Daddy dawdled around as long as possible, insisting December 22 was the earliest it could go up. He always put it off until Mother was about to blow a gasket.

Finally, he’d hook the trailer to his old tractor, fetch his power saw and call us to all pile on for the search. We’d bump over rutted farm trails, hanging on for dear life. Mother and Phyllis would be clinging to the little ones while Mother yelled for Daddy to take it slow. Daddy had plenty of kids and assured Mother we were having a great time as we clutched the rails. Most of the time we were. Before long, we’d be combing through several groves while Daddy rejected tree after tree. Finally, he’d steer us toward the one he’d earmarked weeks or months earlier.

The roar of his power saw signaled the fall of the tree. Sometimes, Mother wouldn’t be quite satisfied and would bring home an extra, which she wired together with the first to make it fuller.

Eventually, the tree trimming was complete, every ball, string of tinsel, and special ornament in place. Mother garnished it with shimmering fiberglass angel hair. Every year when the lights came on, we oohed and ah’ed our gorgeous tree, assuring ourselves that this year’s was the most beautiful we’d ever had.

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The Great Doll Funeral

The same Christmas I got Rocky the Rocking Horse, the best Christmas present of my young life, and Monkey, my sidekick(until I left him outside for the dogs to chew up), I got a big hard, plastic baby-doll with molded hair. It came with a bottle, was dressed in pajamas and had exactly one diaper. That diaper was history once Mother demonstrated its amazing ability to pee its diaper. It made me mad when I saw the baby doll, anyhow, since I’d told Mother, “I don’t want a doll. I hate dolls.” The wet diaper was the last straw. I pitched it into the bowels of the toy box to keep company with Tinker Toys, broken crayons, and last year’s despised doll.

Before Christmas this year when Mother asked what I wanted, my list included a live pony, cowboy boots, pistols and holsters and a real monkey in a cowboy suit. My list did not include a doll. Insanely, she had insisted, “But, every little girl has to get a doll. Now what kind do you want?”

Remembering last year’s floppy baby doll, I tried to come up with something I could stomach. I heard girls at school say they wanted a Bride Doll. In my complete disinterest, I forgot exactly what kind of doll to ask for. “Uh, I GUESS a wedding doll would do.” I didn’t want one, but at least it wasn’t a stupid baby doll. When another baby doll showed up under the tree, I was disgusted, thinking I had confused Mother into thinking I wanted a “wetting doll, not a “wedding doll.” Daddy handed me my final gigantic gift from under the tree. Since I’d already gotten Rocky the Rocking Horse as a pony substitute and a stuffed monkey instead of real-live monkey in a cowboy suit, this was my last shot at pistols and a holster set. I ripped into the package, and horror of horrors, discovered a tin tea-set with a Dutch Boy and Girl on a background of blue and yellow tulips. Mother went into raptures over it.

“Oh, I always wanted a tea-set like this when I was a little girl.” Well, if she’d had that tea-set and I had a feather up my butt, we’d have both been tickled to death. Fortunately, I’d learned long ago to keep my mouth shut when I didn’t like presents. Rocky and Monkey and I went on our way, making the best of that Christmas. That tea-set, still in the box, went under my bed.

Months later, one of the neighbors died. I didn’t get to go to the funeral, of course, but my cousin did. It sounded pretty entertaining to me. We decided to stage our own. I scavenged through the toy box and found my Christmas doll and dug the tea-set out from under my bed. Dumping the dishes, I lined the box with one of Mother’s better towels and we prepared the body for burial. My cousin Sue and I conducted the services, complete with plenty of hymns and wailing. My brother Billy and Cousin Troy attended, but only because we promised to provide penny candy afterward. It was a lovely service, the burial site mounded up with gorgeous roses we’d rounded up from the bushes belonging to Mrs. Dick, the seventh-grade teacher who lived next to us. Mother made us return the roses to Mrs. Dick and apologize, though I can’t imagine they’d have been much use to her since we’d snapped them all off right below the head. There would have been enough of them to fill a tub for a romantic rose bath, though I seriously doubt the lady was in the mood judging from the expression on her face when we apologized.

You Don’t Have to Have Money to Be Rich

This is a revisit of a story I posted last year.  My mother, Kathleen, was raised during The Great Depression.  She often told this story of a happy Christmas when her family had no money, but didn’t let that stop them from having a joyous Christmas.  In the photo below, Kathleen is the small blonde child.  Back left is her cousin, Johnny Bell, center back  sister Annie, back right, brother John.  They are pictured with her parents, Lizzie age forty and Roscoe aged about 50.  Johnny Bell was the son of Roscoe’s beloved orphaned niece, Katie.  Katie’s mother had died in childbirth, so she was raised by Roscoe’s childless, widowed sister.  They all lived together till Roscoe’s marriage.  She was like a daughter to him, so he probably thought of Johnny as a grandson.   R G Holdaway Family with Johnny Bell early 1930's

We don’t have the money.” I’d heard that so many times I knew not to ask for candy, bright rubber balls, or coloring books at Miss Lonie’s store. If Daddy had a few cents to spare, he’d fill three small brown paper bags with candy for us…..peppermint sticks, gumballs, bubble gum, lollipops. Kits and BB Bats were five for a penny. A few cents would buy a pretty good belly ache if I’d done like John and gobbled it right up. As soon as John finished his, he’d be eyeing my candy. Demanding at first, then wheedling, he’d eventually try to win me over by being nice, a sure sign something was up. I’d fold and unfold the small bag till it was shredding and soft as cotton long before the last jawbreaker was gone. Annie’s candy could last for days. Sometimes she’d surprise me with a gumball or lollipop a week later.

Times were hard for my folks during the depression, but never having known anything else, I didn’t feel poor. Clothes were homemade, food home-grown and canned for the winter. As the days got shorter, Christmas was on my mind. More than anything else, I wanted a red bicycle with a basket and horn. When Mama said they couldn’t afford it. I reassured her, “That’s okay. I’ll just just ask Santa Claus to bring me one.” Hoping I’d forget about it, Mama said maybe I’d like a pretty rag doll with yellow hair. Knowing what a good girl I’d been, I returned, “Oh, no. Santa’s gonna bring me a red bicycle with a basket and a horn.”

Finally, Mama just had to tell me. “Santa won’t be bringing you a bicycle. He’s having a hard time too, and we don’t have the money to help him.”

“But that’s just not fair. Rich kid’s parents have money to buy things and Santa Claus still brings them bicycles.”

Mama agreed, “It’s not fair, but that’s how it is.”

Normally after supper, we gathered in the front room as Daddy read and smoked hand-rolled cigarettes while he and Mama talked of all that went on that day. Mama usually had mending or did some embroidery or handwork and played on the floor at their feet. When the older kids finished their homework, Mama read a chapter or two from a book Daddy had borrowed or the kids had brought in from school, but as the evenings got longer and colder, Daddy busied himself in the barn and Mama took to keeping her sewing basket covered, telling the kids curiosity killed the cat. That was okay because Annie and I had our own secrets. We cut up an old sheet to make handkerchiefs for Daddy and John, snipping and pulling threads along each side to make a cutwork pattern and hemming the edges. We made Mama some tea towels and a dresser scarf. Mama helped me make Gingerbread men for Annie and John. Christmas Eve, I was so excited I could hardly sleep, hoping Santa Claus might leave me a bike, despite what Mama had said. For once we hopped straight out of bed when we heard Daddy starting a fire and Mama making coffee, but Daddy made us go back to bed. It seemed like it took hours before Mama said biscuits were in the oven and Daddy said the room was warm enough for them to get up.

We lined up, smallest to biggest, and for once, it was good to be small. I tiptoed into the room to the magic of our Christmas tree illuminated by the warm glow of the fireplace, the room scented by the rare treat of Mama’s sweet, hot, chocolate. Only Christmas held this special joy. our lumpy stockings were so full they were about to pull away from the mantle. Santa had filled mine with bright wooden blocks, an apple, the biggest orange I’d ever seen, chocolate drops, ten new pennies, a bright rubber ball, a giant candy cane, and a brazil nut at the very toe! More riches than I’d seen all year! Thrilled, I dropped to the floor to play with my blocks and ball when Mama said there might be more. High on the tree hung a beautiful rag doll with yellow yarn hair, brown eyes, pink lips and cheeks. She was dressed in a blue flowered dress and bonnet and flour sack bloomers with the letters Ai Fa printed on the seat and rick-rack edging on the legs. So that’s the surprise Mama had been hiding. It was so beautiful! I’d seen this same pattern on the feed sacks at Miss Lonie’s Store. While I was still pondering the glory of my doll, Mama and Annie gave me a gift they had worked on together for me: a matching dress, bonnet, and bloomers with Air Fair printed across the seat, and rick-rack edging on the legs, just like my doll’s. No girl had ever had anything so perfect! When I was as big as Annie I’d have the whole label, Airy Fairy Flour on the seat of my bloomers. When I’d had time to play with my doll a few minutes, Daddy brought out what he’d spent his evenings working on: a little doll bed and a table and chairs just the doll’s size. This was the most wonderful Christmas of my entire life!

Ann got a dress and matching scarf, a card of bobby pens, and a bottle of Evening in Paris Perfume, John, a wooden pop gun, a sling shot, a shirt, and harmonica, along with the things Santa put in their stockings. Happiest of all were Mama with her tea towels and dresser scarf and Daddy with his handkerchiefs. You could see they’d never had such wonderful gifts. How lucky they were to have us!

Christmas dinner was a wonder. Mama had killed an old hen the day before and made chicken and dumplings and dressing. To go along with it, the table was heaped with mashed potatoes and gravy, Mama’s wonderful canned green beans, okra and tomatoes, biscuits with homemade butter and sweet potato pie. Grandma and Grandpa and Maude, Mama’s snooty baby sister showed up with ham and Aunt Ellie, Cousin Katie, and Johnny walked over with a berry cobbler and fried squirrel. There was so much, my stomach would be hurting before I could even taste everything.

Johnny came over showing off his new trucks and toy guns. ‘ It just wasn’t right the way Aunt Ellie spoiled that Johnny. She only gave me some peppermint and a handkerchief. He was no more to her than I was, even though Aunt Ellie had raised his mama when Aunt Sally died and left Katie motherless about the same time Aunt Ellie’s only baby died. I was so sick of hearing about how Johnny’s daddy had died of tuberculosis when Johnny was only eight months old, and he and Katie had lived with Aunt Ellie ever since. It did look like Aunt Ellie would get tired of raising people’s left over kids and pay a little more attention to a nice little girl she wasn’t stuck raising. Aunt Ellie brought Johnny something every time she went to the store, and hardly ever even got a lollipop.’ Even though it was unfair as usual, Aunt Ellie’s partiality toward that rotten Johnny had worked out in my favor once. At some time in the past, apparently forgetting Johnny was a boy, Aunt Ellie had bought him a china doll with long, curly blonde hair. This dainty charmer was dressed in pink silk, patent leather shoes, and delicate lingerie. She came with a change of dress, coat hangers, and could be tucked neatly into her own trunk for storage. She was eventually passed on to me after Johnny ignored the doll for a couple of years.

Uncle Dave and Aunt Ethel’s car pulled in, packed tight with and the kids in the back seat. Kathleen and John raced to hide their stuff while Aunt Ethel waddled in with nothing but a bowl of greens. ‘Why in the world would anybody bring greens to Christmas dinner?’ Robert Gordon and Wayne fought their way out of back seat pounding each other for the privilege of being first, though it was hard to imagine why it mattered why unless they needed the toilet. John, Johnny, and I certainly didn’t want to see them. Whatever Robert Gordon and Wayne couldn’t tear up, they tried to haul home. Between us, John and I didn’t have a shoebox full of toys and had no intention of letting those little demons of Satan make off with them. Thank Goodness, John was big enough to hold them up by the ankles and shake them while I grabbed the stuff that fell out of their pockets. There was nothing too bad for those heathens to do. Last time they were here, they ate a whole quart of crackers and a quart of mustard. They chased the chickens and threw eggs against the barn till Daddy put a stop to that. Most of the time, John and Cousin Johnny teamed up and picked on me but it took all of us to keep Robert Gordon and Wayne from taking the place apart.

Thank Goodness, Mama didn’t believe in making kids eat at the second table. She told the women to fix their kids a plate and let them go play. Grandma, Aunt Ellie, and Aunt Ethel didn’t think it was right, but Mama said she wasn’t going to make her kids to starve while the grown-ups sat around eating, drinking coffee, and talking all afternoon. Mama didn’t insist we eat everything, just try just a bite to see if we liked it. She didn’t make us eat greens at holidays, though. It just didn’t seem right to insist greens at Christmas when they had the rest of the year for that! Mama didn’t have enough plates to go around, so as a special treat on holidays, she let us kids eat on syrup can lids and sit on the floor, just a little something special for company meals. As soon as we’d had our fill, we headed for the barn, anxious to get Robert Gordon and Wayne as far from their Christmas loot as possible. Though Robert Gordon was a year younger than me, he was bigger and a lifetime meaner. The last time he was here, he’d entertained himself by hiding behind corners and jumping out on my back, knocking me forward to the ground with him on my back. I’d complained to Mama and we’d hatched a plan and was ready for him this time. I sauntered alluringly past the barn door several times, till Robert Gordon leapt out, locking his arms around my neck. Prepared for his attack, I collapsed backward, banging his head against the barn wall, his shoes scooting in manure. He squalled into the house tattling that I’d had hurt his head, but got no sympathy when John, Johnny, and I got to tell our side of the story.

Soon he was fully recovered. Looking for trouble, Robert Gordon and his partner in sin ambled toward the pasture, where the hellions spotted Nanny Goat, grazing peacefully near the barnyard fence, her bag already engorged. Her young kid goats were penned nearby, already bleating hungrily, denied the comfort of Nanny Goat till evening milking was done. Satan possessed the boys as they ran at Nanny, chasing her till she collapsed, exhausted, then stripping her of her milk in a way no Christian ever would. All this in full view of her horrified, hungry kids and any neighbors who cared to watch, a equally deep sin in Mama’s view. Nanny’s terrified screams dragged the diners from the Christmas feast and it was clear that not only were Daddy and Mama furious at the abuse of livestock, but the look on Mama’s face showed she was outraged knowing “what the neighbors would think.” As for poor Nanny; she was so traumatized, she didn’t give milk for the next three days. Thankfully, our horrible cousins soon left to make the long trip back to Clarksville. We settled in front of the cozy fire to enjoy the remains of another wonderful holiday all together.

The Heartbreaking Tale of the Post-Mortem Fruitcake

Egyptian archaeologists discover the world's oldest fruitcake.

Christmas revolved around fruitcake.  Mother pinched pennies for weeks to buy the candied fruit and nuts required to bake the perfect fruitcake.  On December 22, everything else was in readiness for FRUITCAKE baking.  She chopped the nuts, candied fruit, brought out her spices  and pulled out her time honored recipe for the perfect fruitcake which only graced our table during the Christmas Season.  Baking the fruitcake was a sacred tradition, which we looked forward to it simply because it meant Christmas was almost here.  The eating of the cake was irrelevant.  The tradition was what mattered.

My maternal grandmother died December 16, 1964.  We were all devastated. She was the indulgent figure in out lives. Her rare visits had a holiday quality.  Her gifts were provided a few luxuries in our lives  I couldn’t imagine life without her.  She had mailed her Christmas gifts to us on the morning before she died in the night..  It arrived two or three days after her funeral.  It was a macabre feeling, being anxious to find out what she’d sent, knowing she was in her grave.

In the way of kids everywhere, we rallied and had a wonderful Christmas.  The gifts had special meaning, knowing they’d be the last.  I still have a tiny jewelry box from that year.  My poor brother managed to turn this sad situation into a mess.  Grandma had included a small fruit cake in a red tin box.  Mother put it up, intending to serve it on a special occasion.  Naturally, this fruitcake from her mother was elevated to the sacred.  Well, my brother Bill must have had a special occasion of his own.  Mother found the empty fruitcake tin hidden in his room, not a crumb left.

She was furious!  He had eaten her dead mother’s fruitcake……….the last gift she’d ever sent.  He lived to regret his theft.  She didn’t let him forget it for weeks, getting weepy every time she saw the shiny red box, sitting in a place of honor on the table. She keeps buttons and thread in that box till today.

This is probably the only documented story of anyone ever actually eating, much less stealing a fruitcake!

How to gift the Finest

imageThe most thrilling Christmas gift I ever got was a red wooden rocking horse, named Rocky. I was so excited Christmas Eve I woke up half a dozen times asking if it was time to get up yet. Finally, about four o’clock, Mother and Daddy gave up the battle. We had to stay in our rooms for eons till Mother got coffee made. When she and Daddy were finally settled in the living room, they let us come in to see what Santa had brought. The tree, lights shimmering beneath the angel hair was breathtaking. Off to one side sat my red rocking horse! It was really bouncing horse on springs. I must have bounced ten-thousand miles on Rocky, the frame jumping off the floor till Mother couldn’t stand the racket and slowed me down.

Santa also brought me some other gifts. I was delighted to see the biggest box of all was for me unfortunately containing a tea set. I was initially disgusted, but later found the plates and cups very useful in my construction projects, excellent for scooping mud and sand for road building. The tea pot came in handy for irrigation. Despite my insistence that I didn’t want one, Santa just couldn’t get it through his head that I really, really hated baby dolls. This year’s model was a hard plastic life-size doll with molded hair. I hated it on sight. The icing on the cake was opening my grandma’s gift and finding her twin. There’s nothing better than two of something you hate! I was worldly enough by this time not to announce to the world that I hated dolls as I opened them, so I am here to tell the tale

Billy got the obligatory cap pistols, holster, and hat. I tried to work up a trade for my twin babies, pointing out we could hang them, then have fine funerals. I almost had him convinced till Daddy heard me trying to get his boy to swap guns for baby dolls and …………..well, it didn’t happen. Phyllis got a fine pogo stick, which worked just great till she wore out the stopper on the end. After that, she hopped around punching holes in the yard till she hit a soft spot and buried up. That could be fun, too.

It was a fine Christmas. Thanks Santa, Mother, and Daddy. Oh yes, except for that stupid tea set and baby doll. I told you I didn’t want one!

Fleas Go Home for Christmas, Willie Tharpe, Part 2

imageEven Daddy, determined to be the “Man of the House,” found it hard to defend Willie Tharpe after Willie set the bed on fire, sneaked the dogs in the house, and left us with a maddening infestation of fleas that Christmas. Though he never acknowledged his embarrassment, Daddy never invited Willie to sleep in the house again. Periodically, Willie would drop by for a visit or to see if Daddy had any work for him. Daddy usually scrapped up a job that earned him a few dollars and didn’t qualify as a handout. Willie was way past ninety when I knew him. A Choctaw Indian born in Florida, he told a story of shooting his step-daddy with a shotgun when he was only nine to stop him from beating his mother. The pair hurriedly buried the body. His mama helped him pack a few things in a goat-cart, for his escape. Willie fled Florida, making his way west till he reached Dorcheat Bayou in Northwest Louisiana. Dorcheat looked so much like home, he settled.

He made his living as a mule-skinner, working a team of mules in the timber. He was known for his expertise with a bullwhip. The object of the whip was never to hit animals, just to direct them by cracking it near their heads. Willie Tharpe had made occasional appearances during all during Daddy’s hardscrabble childhood his gifts of game and food earning the family’s everlasting gratitude. Sometimes he’d hang around a few days to fix the roof, butcher a pig, or help put in a crop. Willie Tharpe, with his gifts, fascinating stories, must have been a God-send to Daddy’s family enduring grinding poverty, near-starvation, and hopelessness after his mother was left a widow with seven young children.

Willie lived in the pre-cursor of the RV, a shack he could hoist onto his 1949 Ford Truck and move whenever he chose. The next December, during an ice-storm just before Christmas Daddy decided that he and Billy needed to check on Willie. They found his ancient truck/shack parked on the banks of Dorcheat Bayou. Knowing there wouldn’t be any heat in the shack, he feared finding Willie dead in the twenty degree weather. He strode up and banged on the door of the shack. No answer. He opened the door, a bit and called out, “Hey! Uncle Willie! Are you okay in there?”

“Uhhhh! Come on in!” About a dozen dogs lunged at him from beneath a mass of covers, desperate to get at Daddy and Billy. A naked Willie, waving his trusty shotgun followed them, cursing and swatting the dogs intent of killing the intruder.

Willie struggled into his “overhalls” and other rancid clothes while Daddy made a campfire and coffee. They visited a while. Willie planned to spend Christmas that year with Uncle Albert and Aunt Jewel. Satisfied that Willie hadn’t frozen and had expectations of shelter and hospitality for Christmas, Daddy complacently went on his way. I don’t believe he could have said the same had he tried bringing Willie home for Christmas a second time.

Uncle Albert lived in what would now be called a rustic cabin. Back then, it looked like conglomeration of two old houses it actually was. The front part was log, the back still unfinished graying lumber. The front room was a bed-sitting room with a fireplace whose hearth extended out into the floor. A large bedroom and kitchen completed the house, with the obligatory porch stretching across the front. They drew their water from a well and enjoyed an outdoor toilet. They’d lately upgraded and gotten electrical power, which greatly enhanced their lives. Someone had given them an old TV. It was now the center of their lives.

Willie was ensconced in the living room. He was “down in his back” and chose to sleep sitting up in a rocking chair in front of the dying fire. The dogs specifically invited not to sleep in the house, were unhappily sleeping without Willie, a very upsetting situation for them. They set up a ruckus a few times, requiring Willie to curse loudly at them and pound on the shack.

Hopefully, settled for Christmas Eve, Willie wrapped in his quilt and dozed restlessly in front of the fire, uneasy without the protection of his dogs. Not a great believer in “Peace on Earth,” he’d concealed his pistol handily beneath the quilts. After some time, Uncle Albert and Aunt Jewel, snoring away in their bedroom, were awakened by a hail of blasts. “POW! POW! POW!” Willie was firing at the walls and cursing furiously! His hosts dropped to the floor in their bedroom. Uncle Albert shouted through the door, afraid to come out till the gun was empty.

“Willie! Willie! Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot! You’re in the house! Don’t shoot!” Satisfied Willie was awake, he finally ventured out. The room was a shambles! Bullet peppered the walls and blown out the screen of their precious TV. “What in the hell happened in here, Willie?”

Willie didn’t have a politically bone in his body. “Oh, them G—- Damned %^#$%&*s was a’stealin’ my gas an’ I blowed ‘em to Hell!”

Calamity Cousins

My sister Phyllis is seating holding my squalling sister, Connie.  I am the beautifully groomed girl standing in the back row.   Mother made me wear that skirt and pink blouse I had just gotten that day for Christmas.  She made them.  The top button was the only one left by the time this picture was made.  The hem was ripped out of the skirt.  That’s what happens when you play football in a dress.

Cousins on Christmas

Cousins on Christmas

Cathy and Linda0001

Me and my cousin Cathy.  I was the tall kid.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have lots of cousins, more than forty on my father’s side of the family.  Some of them were great friends and partners in crime, some were object lessons, preparing me for life, and many are great fodder for my storytelling.  I am grateful for all of them.  There were always plenty for two ball teams.  The little ones made great bases!

There were five of us born about a year apart, three girls and two boys, my first friends.  We played, fought, and grew up together.  I often spent the night with Sue or Cathy.  It was common for our families to visit on Saturdays and again on Sunday, so there was lots of kid-swapping.  We loved it.  More often than not, it was late when we collapsed and ending sleeping in our clothes on pallets on the floor.

Of course, as we grew up and started families, we drifted apart, occasionally meeting at a family gathering, where we’d catch up a bit, making fruitless plans to get together.  The old feelings were there, just put on a shelf.

Now that we are older, we are starting to rekindle our relationships.  It is lovely.

Stolen Fruitcake: Weird but True!

My grandma died December 16, 1964.  I was devastated.  She was always accepting of me and seemed not to notice my faults.  She had mailed her Christmas gifts to us the morning of the evening of her death.  The box arrived two or three days after her funeral.  It was a macabre feeling, being anxious to find out what she’d sent, knowing she was in Continue reading

Fleas Come Home for Christmas, Willie Tharpe (Part 2)

Even Daddy, determined to be the “Man of the House,” found it hard to defend Willie Tharpe after Willie set the bed on fire, sneaked the dogs in the house, and left us with a maddening  infestation of fleas that Christmas.  Though he never acknowledged his embarrassment, Daddy never invited Willie to sleep in the house again.  Periodically, Continue reading