The Way We Were
Award-winning columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson looks back on Christmases past while looking forward to this one on the coast.
Plastic candle sticks with blue flames burned in our suburban windows. It was beautiful.
Mother also made countless trips to favorite stores. I can see her now, leaving on what she cryptically described as “Christmas errands,” wearing her khaki-colored all-purpose coat that had a lining that zipped in and out to accommodate the weather. In the days before Internet and catalogue shopping, somebody had to brave the elements.
She was relentless in making and checking off lists of things she believed we should want. Usually we did.
My father was more the last-minute shopper, the one department store clerks wearing Christmas corsages on their sweater sets saw coming. They could convince Daddy he needed to buy the most expensive thing left in the perfume or jewelry counter, items my mother often returned the week after Christmas. Once she swapped a string of pearls for a new vacuum cleaner.
He drank at the office Christmas party, which drove my mother crazy. He also drank at the seasonal bird hunts, mixing shotguns and whiskey the way many men do. One afternoon he returned from a hunt on a high. My two younger siblings sat with him in the small den watching as he emptied the shells from his shotgun. He accidentally left one in its chamber.
I was in the living room – divided from the den with a thin piece of Sheetrock – when I heard the blast that ripped open the ceiling. I was too scared to speak for a long moment, but then called out for my little brother and sister. They were frightened silent and silly but physically fine. Daddy was embarrassed – and sober.
My mother spent that Christmas staring meaningfully at the hole in the den ceiling, not saying much but making her point with an upward glance, a raised eyebrow and a shudder.
Despite a few dramatic turns, you could depend on things at Christmas. We always went to visit grandparents at some point, driving the three hours from our Alabama home to peanut country in southwest Georgia. My grandmothers were the yin and yang of matriarchal majesty, the one hiding her approval in some unseen place like the snuff in her cheek, the other exuding warmth and love and hugging us so hard that flour erupted from her apron.
At both homes the quilts were turned down atop feather mattresses and the tables groaned with enough food to feed a Kardashian wedding. It was like being back in the womb.
I lost the magic for a while. Once you become an adult, the seams show. All of a sudden you are the one blasting holes in Christmas.
Then, in the early ’90s, I moved to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. I lived in a Gulfport rental house north of the tracks. There were two tiny bedrooms and a gap cut in the porch railing through which the resident before me had rolled his motorcycle. This was not a gracious seaside residence.
My parents visited once, at Christmastime. I took them to see the lighted boat parade. I drove them past the Biloxi lighthouse all tied up in tinsel, a fair damsel on the holiday tracks. For the first time ever, the folks congratulated me on my choice of a place to live; I had moved a lot. I guess Gulfport at Christmas seemed a million miles from peanut country.
I decorated a big tree. I hung a wreath over the hole in the railing. I put lights in the live oak. It was good.
My grandparents are gone. My parents, too. My mother died last summer. I might have chosen to give decorations and parties a miss this year. Only I’m living on the coast again, at least part time, including the season of Christmas. And the backdrop of the Mississippi Sound is as seductive as it was the first time I saw it. The child in me, the one who believed in Santa and that you could hear the sea in a shell, will rally for Christmas.
Mother would approve.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson is a 40-year veteran of Southern journalism and author of several books. She has worked as a columnist for newspapers in Memphis and Atlanta and today is syndicated by King Features of New York.
She writes original monthly essays for The Cleaver from her home across the bridge in Pass Christian where she spends roughly half of each year. The rest of the time she lives in Iuka, Miss., in an old farmhouse in a cold, dark hollow. Rheta's books are available at Pass Books and Bay Books, as well as through national booksellers.