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TALKING TO MYSELF - Christmas Columns Past - December 2015 - How I wish I could go home for Christmas at Mother and Daddy's one more time. And I will, in my heart. In my memory.
My mother spoke to me for the last time on Christmas Eve. I suppose for some such a memory might cast a pall on Christmas forever after, but the events of that evening cause me to hold the season closer.
You have to understand that I was Mother’s only child and that she synchronized the beating of her heart with my happiness. You have to understand how much effort she put into selecting the perfect Christmas gift for me each year, and for everyone else on her list, too. You have to understand how special Christmas Eve was to our family –
Julius Caesar wrote, “All Gaul is divided into three parts.” My childhood world was split into only two. Half of the population, maybe less, celebrated the birth of Jesus on Christmas Eve, and the other fifty percent, maybe more, on Christmas Day.
My family belonged to the Christmas Eve believers, and like most sectarians, I grew up thinking our way was a little better. The reasons my people held with Christmas Eve have been lost to history. I suspect it had to do with impatience. All I know for sure is that roughly a hundred years ago my maternal grandparents started the tradition of a six o’clock Christmas Eve feast followed by the opening of gifts around the tree. The extended family would gather and celebrate until midnight. My mother continued her parents’ ways. Even Santa co-operated, dropping my toys out in the barn no later than eight p.m. on the 24th as he hurried on to California before dawn.
Mother was not a theatrical person by nature, but she approached her annual Christmas Eve production like the opening of a Broadway show. A week or two before opening night, we’d begin work on the stage-set with a trek across the hills of our Owen County farm to find the perfect cedar tree to cut and decorate for the living room. Of course, there is no such thing as a perfect cedar tree. Nature did not intend for them to be Christmas trees, and they defiantly grew lop-sided, too fat, too skinny, or too tall. Even when one was deemed passable, a cedar tree’s branches were too weak to hold ornaments like the pines we saw in magazine pictures.
Mother was undaunted. With three or four cans of spray snow, hundreds of little white lights, and some plastic icicles, she’d transform our Charlie Brown tree into a Winter Wonder. Then she’d sit and stare at it night after night, whispering like a child, “Isn’t it beautiful!”
The days leading up to Christmas Eve were like a sappy holiday script – except it was for real and Mother had the starring role. Christmas shopping required a rare fifty-mile trip to Lexington where she gushed over the displays of twinkling lights and the singing chipmunks in Stewart’s Department Store window. Then, no matter how cold it was – in my memory it was always near zero—she would tramp up and down Main Street searching for just the right gifts. Mother was an endurance Christmas shopper, not a sprinter. Beginning at Purcell’s, which stood about where Rupp Arena does today, she’d trudge to the far end of Main to Wolf Wiles, located in what is now the Grey Construction Company Building, and then back and forth a time or two until she met her self-imposed standards for the perfect gifts.
She would persuade Daddy to drive us miles over crooked roads to glimpse a live nativity scene at Bethlehem, Kentucky. She would sing holiday songs in her awful voice – the only time of year she would sing – and create singular desserts like dense blackberry-jam cake and melt-in-your-mouth marshmallow fudge.
But the climax of the show was the Christmas Eve feast. Its methodically planned menu required a cross-country jaunt to the largest supermarket around to locate hard to find items. On our return, she would begin cooking. The “old” ham was placed in a lard can and baked to tender perfection overnight. The salads – congealed, frozen, and fruit - could also be put together the day before. Christmas Eve day was spent roasting the turkey, prepping traditional vegetable dishes like mashed potatoes and new-fangled ones like steamed cauliflower with cheese sauce. And our family’s secret recipe for soufflé -like dressing took a lot of attention.
At 5:30 our guests would arrive, the uncles and aunts, the cousins. At exactly 6 o’clock, we’d sit down in a roomful of laughter at the mahogany dining room table spread with the best dishware we owned.
There came a time, though, when the party passed to me and my house. Plagued by glaucoma that narrowed her field of vision, and arthritis that eventually put her in a wheelchair, Mother was no longer able to host it. But she never let go of her excitement about Christmas Eve. She continued to fret over her gifts, especially her gift to me, and ooh and ahh over the tree and outdoor light displays with childlike wonder.
In October of 2006, Mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. It’s a silent disease, often undetected until an advanced stage, and this was Mother’s situation. In November, she had surgery, and the doctor said the cancer was even more invasive than he’d expected. He warned me she had only weeks to live. And so in early December, I took her home as she asked me to do, and tried to make her comfortable.
On December 21, my Mother fell into a deep sleep, and I could not rouse her. I moved her, then, to a Hospice bed in a local hospital, and began praying she would not die on Christmas Eve.
At exactly 6 p.m. on December 24, the hour our family had sat down for Christmas dinner for a century, she woke up for the first time in 3 days.
“It’s Christmas Eve,” she said with her usual authority. “I have to get up.” Euphoric, I rang for nurses to help me lift her. A pitiful-looking, but brave little tree appeared on her dresser in an instant, wrestled from a storage closet by a kind stranger. My husband found Christmas carols on his laptop computer, and turned up the volume. Then, spooning vanilla ice cream from Dixie Cups, we began our Christmas Eve dinner.
For an hour or more, we sat and talked like we always had. Lucid as ever, she asked about each of my children and my grandchildren.
After a while, Mother said she thought she should lie back down. She never woke up again. We buried her on New Year’s Day.
So maybe I believe in prayer and Christmas miracles. Maybe I believe a mother’s love transcends death. I do know this for certain. My mother’s last Christmas gift to me was perfect.
©Copyright Georgia Green Stamper (excerpt from Butter in the Morning, Wind Publications, 2012.)