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Stolen Christmas

TALKING TO MYSELF - December 2015 - Christmas Columns Past -  "Stolen Christmas" is a true story that was told at my family's Christmas table every year. Recently, our young grandson asked me to tell it to him again. Perhaps you will enjoy hearing it again, also. 

 Stolen Christmas

Long before the Grinch stole Christmas, someone snatched my grandparents’ holiday gifts. Like our pioneer trek into Kentucky, the 1937 flood, or the fire that destroyed our house in ‘49 – the robbery of 1908 has become part of our family mythology. The story is repeated around our Yuletide table every year, and my grandparents’ devastation endures in each re-telling.

The details of the story never change, but over a lifetime, I have heard it with different ears. As a child, I was horrified that there had been a Christmas with no gifts. As a young woman, learning about the unexpected ways men can disappoint, I was angry at my grandfather’s carelessness. Later, I felt sorry for him, and I was touched by the tender way he tried to save Christmas for his child-bride.

Now that I’m older than my grandmother ever lived to be, I wonder about her. She is reported to have been a beauty when my grandfather married her -- a stylish, intelligent woman who loved books and pretty things. What pushed her to leave her parsonage family when she was barely seventeen to set up housekeeping in a lonely farmhouse on Eagle Creek with a man twelve years her senior? Was it simply love as I have always thought? My grandfather was certainly persuasive, and they had a long and apparently congenial marriage. Or was early matrimony the only realistic option for a woman without means in 1908? Did she regret that she’d stayed behind when her father, a Methodist preacher, moved her lively siblings on to an Illinois city? But I digress, and you, gentle readers, are waiting to hear this old Christmas tale –

I don’t know why Grandmother did not go shopping with my grandfather. Perhaps, pregnant with their first child, she didn’t feel well. Perhaps, hoping to surprise her with his selections, my grandfather didn’t invite her. Whatever the reason, she stayed home on that cold Christmas Eve while he drove their horse and buggy seven miles into town.

In 1908, nearby Corinth was a small but vigorous commercial center in their rural corner of Kentucky. The railroad ran through it, and passengers and cargo arrived and departed at the tidy depot several times each day. It boasted several banks, a hotel, and an array of stores lined up in a narrow row along a single street. At Christmastime, it was full of farmers like my grandfather flush with the jingle of cash in their pockets after selling their year’s tobacco crop.

Gran was a careful man with his money – some would even say stingy – but at Christmas he could not resist the exotic bounty in the stores. Even when he was an old man, he would go out on Christmas Eve and return with arms loaded with treats: round, hairy coconuts; oranges and bananas; sugar coated gum drops in vivid colors and melt-away pastel bonbons; rainbow striped hard-tack candy and huge slabs of golden peanut brittle; sometimes, even a fresh pineapple. And on this first Christmas with his exquisite bride there would have been something special for her. Perhaps a cameo or a bolt of silk or even a feathered hat.

He shopped for an hour or more, and then carefully packed all his purchases into the back of the buggy and concealed them with a tarp. Time then, he thought, for the best part of the day. Time for a lunch of cheese and crackers at one of the general stores. Time to talk.

My grandfather was a highly principled man, but his weakness in life was talking. He was lured by the hum of loafers’ voices the way other men are drawn to drink or gambling. To be fair, Gran was an engaging storyteller. Already an up and coming landowner, the tall, genial redhead was welcome in any social gathering. As he moved through the holiday crowd, he was hailed by first one and then another crony.

The Corinth of 1908 was a loafers’ paradise. To encourage folks to stay in town and spend, long wooden church pews were stuck everywhere – inside near the hot heating stoves and outside in front of the store windows. The isolated farmers, hungry for conversation, assembled on the hard benches to share their views about tobacco markets and politics.

Gran enjoyed their camaraderie so much that he lingered until near dark. With a start, he realized he’d stayed too long. He made his farewells and headed to the parked buggy.

Thieves, of course, had stolen every package from his carriage. My grandfather was shocked into uncommon speechlessness. There was no money left in his pockets to buy more gifts.

The novelist Ferrol Sams writes that southern women never get mad at their men – they only get “hurt.” Certainly, that describes Grandmother’s reaction to Gran’s contrite homecoming. She didn’t get angry. She just sat down and began to cry.

She cried for hours. Maybe she glimpsed the future – her mother’s sudden, soon-to-come death in another state, the deprivation of the Great Depression, her own massive stroke at the age of 49. Maybe she was only homesick and childish. Whatever - with night settled heavily over the countryside, Gran walked to the tiny grocery store up the creek and brought back two precious Baby Ruth candy bars for a Christmas morning surprise.

Christmas was never bought more dearly.

©Copyright Georgia Green Stampe
Excerpt from YOU CAN GO ANYWHERE (Wind, 2008.)