Christmas was always my favorite time of year and the memories bubbling up seem infinite. But looking back over a half century later, one recollection in particular corks to the top and explodes with wide-screen, three-dimensional clarity. It reminds me of what’s important in life.
The drive to Two-Mama and Papa’s little North Carolina mountain home seemed endless in our old mud-brown 1940 Ford. Anticipation shot out my fingers and toes all the way, subdued only by intermittent motion-sickness pangs as we snaked our way up the hills and plunged to the valleys that wound upward again.
For once, I remained stoical and silent as body and spirit warred. Spirit won because the piteous nausea-moans simply didn’t voice themselves that day. Ice sheathed the roads, making the tires’ climb laborious and slow but patience took root in my eight-year-old heart, rendering the destination ever more glorious. I took little notice of Mama and Daddy’s apprehensive low voices as they leaned forward in the front seat, wiping moisture from the windshield.
Finally, the white five-room house appeared on the horizon. Candle-light spilled from the mist-kissed window, and the twinkle of Two-Mama’s small white Christmas Tree with its multi-colored bubbly lights called out welcome to us.
They met us at the door, Two-mama, Papa, adolescent Uncle Nathan, Aunt Betty and Uncle Guy. Amid hugs and kisses, laughter pealed and voices rose and fell in melodious tones of love and excitement and reunion. And the smells…an indescribable bouquet of spices. I headed for the small kitchen, where Two-Mama’s extra table hugged one wall, straining under cakes and pies, cookies and candies, and of course, PaPa’s famous Ice-Box Fruitcake.
Christmas Eve night found us sitting around the living room, so cramped our feet often overlapped but that made it even cozier. Nathan and Two-Mama played guitar as we sang Christmas songs and anything else we wanted, including my favorite, Tumbling Tumbleweeds. Coming from a musical family, the harmony was wonderful. It was during those times that I learned four-part harmony.
My living room bed that night, as always, comprised of two easy chairs pushed face to face, where I burrowed in with blankets and a soft pillow. My siblings, Patsy, two, and Jimmy, five, occupied a snug floor pallet. Nathan took the sofa. Don’t know how Santa did it without waking the three Miller kids, but the next dawn when our eyes opened, there surrounding us, in the glow of the bubbly tree lights, was a galaxy of surprises. Patsy’s doll enraptured her. Jimmy’s small wagon shined like new pennies and–oh, glory! A baton. My fascination with baton twirling had peaked that year. Years later, I would see my dream fulfilled when I twirled a baton with the Byrnes High Marching Band.
The smell of baking stuffed hens and cornbread dressing filled my nostrils and my mouth began to water. But first, Two-Mama crowded us round the kitchen table for a breakfast of homemade buttermilk biscuits, sausage, buttery grits and creamy gravy. That next summer, during my month-long annual visit, she would teach me how to make those marvelous biscuits, a craft I treasure and plan to pass down to my own granddaughters.
That day, however, she insisted that I simply enjoy. I spent the day with one ear on the upbeat, exuberant conversations while I played with my baton.
Recollections of that evening’s dinner, till this day, conjures up salivating sensations: crispy golden roasted hens, sage-y cornbread dressing and giblet gravy, tangy-sweet fruit salad, potato salad, melt-in-your-mouth biscuits and all the trimmings that make each family’s sharing time unique.
Throughout the afternoon, I migrated to the front porch, gazing at a distant mountain from which Biltmore Castle rose majestically, glistening ivory even beneath gray snow clouds. I imagined myself living in such splendor and marinated in euphoria.
After another fun-filled day and night, we loaded up our Christmas spoils and drove home. This trip seemed to go faster because new memories bombarded me. Instant replay was there before it became technical. I relived each and every moment, storing up for a lifetime ahead.
What I didn’t know then, but sensed, I can now articulate. The miracle of that Christmas was that it took place in an eight hundred square feet structure, less space than folks nowadays would use for storage, much less consider for entertaining. Traipses to an outside toilet failed to dampen our joy. We made it an adventure, and I don’t recall one moment’s discomfort or distress. Two-Mama and PaPa made it all look so easy. And fun. And I suspect that my Mama and Daddy’s sleep on that single bed didn’t deter romance at all.
That family mountain Christmas left me with a legacy of unconditional love and appreciation; of the selflessness that taught me that it’s the simple things in life that matter.
Emily Sue Harvey is a nationally bestselling author. You can learn about her and her books at our website. From everyone at The Story Plant, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!