I promised to publish Chapter 8. It may not be perfect, but I wanted to post it during the holidays. While chapter 7 was somewhat sad and dealing with the passing of my sister, all the even chapters relfects back to our crazy childhood. I hope you all had a blessed Christmas, and wish you a Happy New Year ahead. Enjoy!
“Remembrance, like a candle, burns brightest at Christmastime.” Charles Dickens
The city of Suffolk spoons the North Carolina border, and like all southern winters ours produced more rain than snow. When old man winter blew through the countryside it was a big deal, for the limited snowplows never found their way down our street. We were yard-locked until the thaw. Momma insured the fridge was stocked, our faucets dripped, and we were layered up in pjs, jeans, and sweats. To be honest, we didn’t know what proper snow gear was. Momma layered our hands with socks and topped them off with mittens. Our boots felt two sizes small due to the layers of fabric covering our toes.
We stepped out onto the porch. I gasped.
In one quiet night, Winter humbled its siblings by shrouding the dead landscape in something beautiful. For a moment, I marveled at the perfection of it all, before Tricia and Brandon dove off the porch and sliced their boots through with destructive intent.
I high stepped in the opposite direction. Hearing each flake was unique, I scooped up a mitten full, but realized each crystal was too tiny to capture its distinctions. I started to drop the snow, just as a snowball slammed into the side of my head. “Ouch!” I said, holding the side of my face. We played war often with pine combs. This left a different kind of sting on my cheek.
“Gotcha!” Brandon said laughing. I balled the snow in my hand and threw it at him as hard as I could, but he dove out of the way. A chase ensued and just as Brandon spun around to run, he slipped on the snow sprawling out by Tricia’s feet. She straddled him and I climbed on. We pounded him with our weaponry.
“Girls! Alright! Mercy!!” He said laughing.
“Don’t you hit me again!” I said. The cold seeped through my mittens and my knees felt wet. I’d had enough. I walked back up to the porch and tried the door but it was locked. I banged on the wood.
“Where you going Tam?” Brandon said. “We just got out here.”
“I’m freezing,” I said.
“Tammy’s a sissy.” Tricia said.
I spun around. “No, I’m not! Take it back!” I said. In our family, there was nothing worse than being called a sissy.
“Yes you are!” Tricia said.
I saw a shadow pass by the window. “Momma let me in! I’m cold.”
“Tammy, I spent an hour bundling you, now get your butt out there and have fun,” Momma said.
“My body hurts.”
“Your blood has to acclimate. Ten more minutes!”
My teeth chattered, my bones hurt, snow was absolute torture. One of my picture books was a story about a penguin who was the oddball in his family and unable to stand the cold, so he fled Antarctica to live on a tropical island. I found validation in that penguin story. Sorry Winter, your good lookin’ and all, but you’re not my cuppa. I like a season that can keep a girl warm.
Ten minutes later, I banged on the door. “Momma. Let me in.” She peered out the window as if I was a bill collector. I yanked off my coat and boots and laid them out on the wood stack to show her I meant business.
It worked. The door opened. “You will be quiet and not make a mess, or I’ll send you back out.” I slipped past her. The aroma of chocolate greeted me. “There’s hot chocolate on the stove if you want some.” Now, hot chocolate was my cuppa.
Inside, I was careful not to bother Momma, for I didn’t want her to lock me out in the snow. By the window, I escaped into another world via my imagination, occasionally glancing outside where Tricia and Brandon rolled snowballs into walls and climb on top, proclaiming themselves “King of the Snowball.” When the snow glowed blue from the moon’s light, they came in for dinner. I practically ran to greet them at the door.
Snow was a rare occurrence at Christmas time. Tricia and I popped Christmas records into the player the day after Halloween. Our favorite record was titled The Christmas Tree that Ran Away. It was a story about a Christmas tree who felt unloved. I puttered around petting and consoling my Momma’s houseplants, leaving their leaves bruised and split.
Every November, we begged Momma to put up the Christmas decorations, but she was a firm believer in savoring each holiday as it came, and Thanksgiving should never be slighted its attention. Granny, Pawpaw, and Aunt Brenda’s family came to our house for Thanksgiving dinner. I think it’s important to note, our maternal grandmother broke the mold. Blessed with a youthful appearance, she wore false eyelashes and heels, and never stepped out without her “face on.” In public, she instructed her grandkids not to call her Granny, but Evelyn instead. Momma and Aunt Brenda rolled their eyes at this, but we found it liberating.
Tricia and I took turns spending the night with Granny and Pawpaw on the weekends, and as much as I loved being with my grandparents, I hated sleeping with Granny. It was like sleeping with the wife of Frankenstein, for she wrapped her hair in toilet paper to keep the style fresh and crossed her manicured hands over her chest. Durning the night, I’d lick my finger and put it under her nose to make sure she was still alive.
“Be still!” Her long red fingernails, whipped around shoving me back into the mattress.
Needless to say, she was a light sleeper.
Pawpaw played dominoes, watched cartoons, and ate junk food. Anytime he saw us he yelled, “Hey Tammy Wammy you big faaat cat, want a coca-cola? Trisha Wisha, you fat cat grab those cookies on top of the fridge will ya?” All his grand kids were fat cats and he showed his love by making us fatter.
Pawpaw and Granny grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. Pawpaw claims when he left to serve in the Navy, Granny was a little girl. Upon his return, a beautiful woman caught his eye at the Five and Dime. They dated two months, before he went awol to marry her. By the time the military police showed up to arrest him, he was on the train heading back to port. His captain was furious Pawpaw held up the air craft carrier. He was the only electrician aboard, and they couldn’t leave port without him. Cleaning the heads was his retribution, but Pawpaw said it was all worth it to marry his Moo Moo. I don’t know why Granny put up with him calling her Moo Moo, but then again, she called him Poo Poo which is way worse.
Every Thanksgiving, Moo Moo and Poo Poo arrived toting a bowl of Granny’s potato salad, a staple at our holidays that has become legendary. Granny’s potato salad is a creamy potato concoction with finely diced dill pickles, onions, and boiled eggs. Ya’ll don’t knock it ’til ya try it. At dinner, Brandon sat at the head of the kids’ table, and entertained us with his impressions. We never wanted to outgrow the kids’ table, and to this day wherever Brandon’s sitting I’m beside him. Thanksgiving was the kick off for the Christmas season. Momma always said it’s important to spend time being grateful for what you have before you look forward to gettin’ something more.
The Saturday after Thanksgiving, Momma lemon oiled the furniture and vacuumed the floors, then out came the manger scene, the elf, the snow man, and long strands of garland she draped on anything that would stand still. We foraged in the woods for wild holly, and filled vases through the house with it.
Every Christmas, Momma insisted she needed the smell of evergreen to fill our home. The years money was tight, Brandon armed with an axe, his rifle, and our dogs disappeared into the woods beyond the fields, while I kept an eye out for him.
“If you see him holler. We’ll help him pull the tree home,” she said. After what seemed like hours, the trees released a tiny figure waving from the edge of the woods.
“Brandon’s back!” I said.
She ran to the window and looked out. “Okay girls, let’s get our coats.” she said. We helped Brandon load the tree into the wagon and pulled and pushed the tree across the field towards home.
Christmas trees are a bit like people I suppose. Throughout their lives, they need food, shaping, and their dead branches cut off, to turn into a tree that points heavenward. A Cedar tree in the middle of a forest grows a bit unruly, and allows wild animals to burrow in its branches, leaving bald spots; but Daddy trimmed it up as best he could and turned the hole towards the corner. One thing is for certain a wild Cedar smells like Christmas.
One Christmas, the morning after decorating our forest tree I found a zillion tiny bugs on the ceiling of our family room. Momma leaned in from the kitchen holding her cup of coffee.“They must have hatched during the night,” she said, noticing what I was staring at.
“How are we going to kill them all?” I said.
“Kill them?” Momma laughed. “Oh Tammy, they’re the good bugs. If Christ can share His Christmas with barn animals, I think we can share ours with a few bugs. Besides, their cute.”
I couldn’t understand the woman who shot the heads off chickens for pecking her flowers, treated bugs as if they were overnight guests. I knew Praying Mantas as pinching hypocrites, not the holy insect Momma believed them to be. I spent the week with my pants tucked in my socks and eyes pointed heavenward for any mantas wanting to end it all. By Christmas, their carcasses were sucked up by our trusty Hoover upright.
In our home, Christmas was all about Jesus Christ. Our parents never taught us about the bearded intruder. Often, Daddy gathered us around the kitchen table to remind us the real reason for the season.
“Kids, why do we celebrate Christmas?” Daddy said.
“Because it’s Jesus birthday!” Tricia said throwing her arms up in the air.
“That’s right. What’s going to happen if you tell any of your cousins or friends there’s no Santa?” He peered over the rim of his glasses.
“You’re going to beat our butts!” Brandon said smiling. “Right Dad?”
“That’s right Son. It’s up to their parents to tell them the truth one day, not for you to do it.” Daddy said. “I’ll never lie to you. It’s okay if you pretend, as long as that’s all your doing and not believing.”
Christmas Eve night we had a party with Granny and Papa and Aunt Brenda’s family. Granny didn’t like live Christmas trees because of the mess they left on her carpet. Her fake tree was covered in lots of 70’s silver tinsel and these large colored bulbs which became really hot to touch. Behind her back, Momma whispered her tree was tacky. After dinner and sweets, we gathered around that tacky Christmas tree and someone read the story of Jesus birth. We prayed thanking God for the gift of a Savior, before handing out the grandparent gifts. It was bedlam, names were called, paper flew, an absolute mess.
One year, I’d asked Granny and Pawpaw for Star Barbie. Barbies all looked the same back then, but Saturday morning commercials convinced you, you needed to have the newest version with a different name. After I pulled her out of the box, I snuck off into the corner to introduce my old Barbie to my new one.
“You guys are going to be best friends,” I said.
Daddy leaned over me.
“Tammy, what happened to her hair?” He pointed to my old Barbie.
“I cut it off,” I said.
“Why’d you do that?” He said.
“Because she’s going in the army Daddy,” I said rolling my eyes as if he should’ve known that.
“My GI Joe is naked because she stole his clothes,” Brandon said.
“You never play with him anyways,” I said. “She needs camouflage if she’s going in the army.”
Daddy smiled and shook his head. “You see what I’m raising here Granny?”
“I see.” Granny smiled over at me. I knew she approved.
“Tammy always walks to the beat of a different drum,” Momma said.
Throughout my life, that was the phrase they used most to describe me. For years, I pictured Indian drums and me dancing by a fire, but then I grew up.
Christmas morning, we woke Brandon and crept into the den. The presents were stacked under the tree, but we were only allowed to empty our stockings until Mom and Dad awoke. I turned to where we laid our stockings out the night before. They sprawled over the back of the sofa… lifeless.
“Momma,” I pushed on her arm to wake her. “Momma wake up.” I pushed her dark bangs back from the one eye not crushed in her pillow.
“There you are. Hi Momma,” I said. “You forgot our stockings again.”
She threw her feet over the side of the bed and stumbled down the dark hallway into the kitchen. We followed. Standing in the light of the refrigerator, we licked our lips wondering what stocking stuffer was hidden deep in the Frigidaire. She pulled it from the drawer and spun around.
“One for you…one for you…and one for you,” she said, plopping tangerines in our hands. She shut the refrigerator and turned for a bowl on the counter. “Some for you…some for you…and some for you.” She piled nuts in our other hand. “There ya go…Merry Christmas.” She sauntered off towards her room. “Don’t wake me until the sun’s up.”
We glanced at our hands and back at her in disbelief.
Two hours later, we peered out the window for the sun to peek over the trees, and when it did. “It’s time!” Brandon said, shoving me. “Go get Momma.”
I tapped my sticky tangerine fingers on Momma’s forehead. “Momma, time to unwrap our presents,” I said.
“David… David…” Momma shoved Dad. “It’s time.”
“You go on now. I’ll be up in a minute.” Daddy rolled over and faced the wall.
We all knew not to wait for that minute. She squatted by the tree and handed out the presents. “Let’s open these first.” She handed one to each of us.
Brandon ripped into his and yelled “Yes!” to the bongo drums inside.
Tricia opened hers and it was a pair of maracas.
I ripped into the paper, and found two wood sticks. I glanced at Momma to see if it was a joke.
“Now, you guys can play music together!” she said. “Try them out.” Tricia stood up and shook her maracas as Brandon banged on his drums.
“Tammy, play the sticks,” she said.
“How do you play sticks?” I said.
“Bang them together.”
I tapped the sticks limply, while Brandon and Tricia rocked out.
That afternoon, after all the presents were unwrapped, and I’d forgotten about the sticks, Momma called us back into the family room. “Kids come play music for your Daddy.” she said. Brandon and Tricia grabbed their instruments, and played and danced. Obediently, I picked up the sticks and banged them together. With each beat, believing Momma loved Tricia more.
Later in the kitchen, as I was setting the table, Momma pulled out a chair and sat down. “I noticed you were not enthusiastic over your instrument,” she said.
I shrugged. “Their just sticks.”
“Well, I guess you could look at it that way. They were in a pack, Brandon asked for the drums, so that was a done deal. I had to decide which of my girls would get their feelings hurt the least, and which of my girls had the ability to make music from sticks. I thought it was you.” She stood up. “I guess I was wrong.”
She didn’t apologize for being unfair or for showing favoritism. She didn’t coddle me or assure me of her love. She just stated why I got the sticks. Looking back, I learned a powerful lesson life isn’t fair. When you expect chocolates, you may get a healthy dose of Vitamin C, and sometimes in the midst of the orchestra, God hands you sticks with the expectation you will play something beautiful.
Years later, after Tricia’s cancer diagnoses, we had our annual sibling Christmas dinner and exchanged our usual prank gifts. Tricia handed me a pretty wrapped package.“This is the best gift of the night!” She said bouncing up and down in her chair.
I couldn’t imagine what it could be. I tore open the package.