Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Contrarian's Christmas

There were enough merry Christmases in my youth to compensate for my indifference to that holiday in later life. I now refuse to celebrate spending money. To me, the greatest holiday of the year is that day in early April when barn swallows return to Tennessee skies. The only winter holiday I mark is New Year's, and my tradition that day is to re-read Charles Lamb's essay "New Year's Eve".

"Every man has two birthdays", wrote Lamb,who counted the first day of the year as one of them .And he wrote as well -"No one ever regarded the First of January with indifference. It is that from which all date their time, and count upon what is left. It is the nativity of our common Adam".

Old women look back, and semi-old women look back more clearly, which is why I am writing this vignette about my father's family. I will leave my mother's family in Heaven, where they belong. Especially my grandmother Clara Robertson Palmer, a lover of Longfellow and Whittier and Bonnie Prince Charlie. It was she who once told me about my "great, great grandfather James Robertson, who went down through the Cumberland Gap-". (She was an honest and good woman, and I've no reason to doubt her).

My other grandmother was cut from different cloth. She was the mother of many, all of whom spent their adult years moving farther and farther away to get away from her. Just a rumor that she was relocating to be closer was enough to start the calls to United Van Lines. In her life, nothing had made her happy, and this she wanted to share. Her husband, Hubert S., tried to ignore her by smoking and working. He worked at New Departure, and was selectively forgetful. He never learned the names of any his twenty plus grandchildren. I was the only one he acknowledged, for I was the oldest. He called me "Brooklyn", because I was born there. Once, he left his family sitting in a downtown diner in Bristol while he went to park the car. He did not come back, and one of his sisters found him hours later, home asleep on the couch. In later years Grandmother S. exacted spotty revenges. I remember a family dinner when she pointed to her husband and told the table "When Hubert here finally dies, I'm going to Florida and live like a queen".

Her family complained that she would not cook for them, but after a while I am sure they realized that this was a blessing. She once served me chicken soup with the chicken heart bobbing around in it, right in my bowl. I had just turned thirty. She had not seen me in a few years, and her greeting was " Well, I see you haven't gotten fat yet".

Her children were resourceful. They had to be, and my Uncle Donnie told me he once had to shoot a chicken out of the tree himself, just so they could eat dinner.

Oh, Uncle Donnie- time has come between us. You were my favorite.

I remember sitting on the porch of the great multi-roomed house on top of a hill off the main highway. Playing a game with Donnie, guessing what color car and what make would go by next. I ran away from my Aunt Philly, who was always trying to brush my hair and turn me into a girl. I would hide with Uncle Donnie, who was as much an uncle as a teenage boy could be. He played "Green Door, What's that secret you're Keeping?" for me over and over on his record player."They got a big piano, and they play it hot behind the green door!', I would howl.

The other song he taught me, and I share it with you now ,was the saga of the two brothers Herman and Sherman.

"Little Herman and brother Sherman

Had an aversion

To washing their ears

Grandma washed them

With some Lysol

And they haven't heard a word in years".

How strange are the things we remember, yet I would not forget them for the world.

Stupid songs. Counting cars. A stubby, scowling materfamilias, waiting in a diner for her husband, who has been gone 3 hours. I never heard what she said.

But I can imagine.


Out on the prairie said...

I value the memories of family and the holidays the most.Many are wishing to have something to share, and a simple story can be nice.I see a bit of myself in your uncle. Yesterday I dropped a check at the food bank to make my season eventful.

Clementine Moonflower said...

This is hilarious! You should write more about your grandmother and try to get it published. She sounds like quite a character.

Sam said...

Thanks for that story Bets,Donnie was everyone's favorite, I still quote him.
I was just sharing some of my childhood memories of you with Mitch (Charles), now 17 if you can believe it. :)