The first Christmas on the Creek I didn’t know what to expect. I wasn’t a baby and I knew there was no money for pretty gifts or even the fancy red apples and oranges so juicy the juice ran down your hands when you divided it into sections. Those luxuries were things of the past.
Our fireplace was black as pitch inside and large enough I could almost stand in it with the tips of my fingers barely touching the sides when I tried to stretch the width. We only had a small stack of split logs on the back porch so Momma kept only one piece nestled in red hot coals in the fireplace. It was just enough to keep the chill off the living room if you stood almost or on the hearth. The rest of the house was like a freezer. We wore heavy sweaters and slept together to try and keep warm. Momma piled the bed high with her beautiful hand-made quilts; so many it was hard to turn over. It was like sleeping under a thin mattress. Wind whipped around the corners of the house and howled low and mournful. Frigid air whistled through the cracks in the floor. When we woke in the mornings we could see our breath when we exhaled. I was glad to go to school where at least it was warm then I felt guilty because Momma was home in the cold. She stood for hours ironing for the ladies who arrived in shiny new cars and left the baskets, filled to overflowing with clothes. They spoke just enough to give Momma orders about how they wanted their laundry done. When they picked them up and handed over the meager pay they didn’t even say “thank you.” Momma said she did not mind because it helped keep food on the table.
Christmas Eve we went to bed early, as usual, to save our firewood. I lay there with a big ache in my stomach and wondered if Daddy was warm in Heaven. Did he know me and Momma were almost out of food? I thought not because Heaven is a happy place and Daddy wouldn’t be happy if he knew our situation. Then I felt hot anger boil through my body like melted lava. How could he leave us like this? I balled my hands in to fists under the cover and clenched my jaws. I wanted to hit something… anything. Then my face burned with shame. Of course Daddy would not leave us if he had a choice. If I wanted to blame anyone I should get mad at myself for running my big mouth about sharing our food when we had plenty. I took a deep breath and silently asked God to please forgive me for being so selfish and now having mean thoughts. I sure didn’t want more bad times to come our way. What if Momma died too because of my mean spirit? Her back was toward me so I rolled over and snaked my arm around her middle. She smelled like Ivory soap.
“I love you, Momma” I whispered because I thought she was asleep. “Don’t worry ‘bout no presents, long as I have you that’s all I need.”
She patted my hand and her voice sounded choked when she said “Oh sweet girl, you are a blessing.”
She wouldn’t think I was a blessing if she knew my evil thoughts so I never told her about them.
Later, I guess she thought I was asleep, I felt her shoulders quiver and she stifled a sob. Momma was crying. Momma never cried except when Daddy died.
The next morning the smell of coffee perking tickled my nose and woke me. I smelled something else too but I couldn’t figure out what it was. Coffee was good enough! We hadn’t had coffee in over a week. I eased from the warm bed and the room didn’t feel as cold as usual as I stuffed my feet into my old black Converse tennis shoes with holes in the toes.
I found Momma in the kitchen frying eggs. A pan of biscuits was on the cooling rack and soft Christmas music oozed from the old radio on the windowsill. It set there because that was the only place it would get reception.
She turned and smiled “Merry Christmas! ‘Bout time you got up I thought you had decided to skip today.”
I headed to the coffee pot. “Where did we get coffee?” I reached in the cabinet for a mug “and biscuits?”
“I saved the coffee as a treat for today and you know we always have flour.”
“But what about the lard and buttermilk?”
“We got lard and I reckon water is gonna have to do instead of milk.”
She flipped two eggs on both of our plate then started making gravy.
The lid of her big canning pot, setting on the back burner of the stove, clattered softly as the steam hissed out forcing it up then down. The smell escaping with each bounce made my mouth water. “What’s in the pot?” I sneaked a pinch of a biscuit.
“Old Red.” She poured the gravy in a bowl and carried it to the table. I noticed she had covered it with her best white tablecloth.
“You killed our rooster?” I cried not believing what I had just heard.
“Yep, but he ain’t lonely in that pot ‘cause Pearl’s in there with’im.” She motioned for me to bring our plates to the table as she carried the platter of biscuits.
“You killed our hen too! Now what are we gonna do for eggs?” I could not believe she would do something I considered plain dumb.
“Sit down Caroline and let’s thank the Good Lord for this here breakfast we ‘bout to receive.”
I knew better than to disobey her even if I did think she had somehow lost her mind. I sank onto the chair and bowed my head. I kept thinking about those two chickens in the pot as she said a humble prayer.
When she said “Amen” she took two biscuits and put them on my plate beside the eggs and smothered them with brown gravy then she did the same with her own. “Eat ‘fore yore food gets cold.”
“Caroline, you worry too much. The Good Lord always takes care of us. Ain’t you got food to eat this morning?”
“But what about tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow has got enough worry of its own so don’t borrow it for today. It’s Christmas, relax and enjoy what we got. Them two old chickens cost more to feed than buying eggs, now eat.”
We had just finished our breakfast when a man knocked on the door and asked Momma for our chairs. When she carried two and had me drag the other two to the door I knew for sure she had lost her mind. Maybe the cold done froze her brain.
I helped her make the chicken and dumplings without asking any more questions. She had already killed the hen and rooster and gave away our chairs so I might as well enjoy what we had left.
I heard people laughing and talking outside and Momma looked at me. She nodded, “It’s time” she said as she lifted the big pot from the stove and carried it to the door.
Once outside I saw that the men had made long tables by balancing them on sawhorses with chairs crowded around both and the women had covered the tables with sheets. Every family on the Creek had brought something to share for our Christmas dinner. The huge bowls of collards had steam wafting from them. We had black-eyed peas from one garden, lima beans from another, squash, fried okra and any vegetable or whatever someone had to share. There were huge platters of fried chicken, biscuits and cornbread. Someone had even brought two chocolate cakes and pecan pies. I held my breath unable to believe my eyes. The men had dragged logs and huge limbs from the woods behind our homes and had a huge bonfire snapping and crackling not far from the tables. It was against the fire department rules to have a bonfire inside the city limits but no one bothered to check on the Creek.
We all ate our fill and afterwards, the adults relaxed and drank coffee as they visited; telling stories of past years and swearing this was the best party yet. The children played Keep-Away with a bright red ball that someone probably got from Santa. We played chase and hide-and-seek; everyone was laughing and happy.
The sun was sliding behind the trees and the sky was light gray streaked with rose and yellow when Pastor Jones took out his guitar and began to strum the strings. Hot tears filled my eyes and I quickly turned my back and stepped into the shadows so no one could see me cry. Momma seemed to always know what I was thinking and how I was feeling she came up behind be quietly and patted my back. “Don’t be sad Caroline, he’s here. He’s right here with us in spirit.”
The men played their instruments and we sang Christmas carols and hymns late into the night as the fire hissed and popped and slowed burned itself out.
That was the best Christmas I can remember. Even though there were no fancy gifts wrapped in pretty paper we all had the best gift of all, the gift God gave us, the gift of love. This was the true meaning of Christmas; it should be sharing what you have and laughing and enjoying being with family and friends.
Thank you for stopping by, I hope your Christmas is filled with love and happiness and we all remember the real reason we are celebrating. God gave us His Son so we can be part of His family and share His love with all.
Please stop back soon. God bless.