Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Celeste Holm (in All About Eve) said, “Funny, the things you remember and the things you forget.” I’m going to say “Funny the things you remember all of a sudden, that you thought you had forgotten.”

I don’t think much about Christmas so I don’t remember much about it, either. I don’t want to remember the majority of the Christmases I lived through; most them were like ground skirmishes in Korea. Folks drop dead suddenly during this holiday, they get strokes, they fall out with loved ones. It ain’t no day at the beach. Beach? That’s another tale to be told. Sometime. Somewhere.

My Christmases were always washed in bourbon. They turned on the tap and let it flow, usually starting about 5 o’clock in the afternoon. You weren’t considered a drunk if you didn’t drink before 5. Well, they lined up like it was the second coming of Jesus to be ready for that 5 o’clock snort. The other rule was that you weren’t a drunk if you drank with someone else. So there was always a crowd at the tap. They did what we called “sink drinking” and this is how that song goes. First you take a 4-ounce juice glass in your hand, then you turn on the water, you pour bourbon half way up the juice glass and you guzzle that down, and then you put the glass under the water stream, fill it up and drink the water. Then you eat a Saltine cracker. That’s sink drinking. This really has nothing to do with Christmas except it’s how they drank at Christmas and any other day of the year you’d want to consider.

So you get the picture? Sink drinking and present wrapping and tree putting-up and stoking the fire logs and sink drinking and.....and.....and.... Don’t find much room in there for a child, do you? Unless that child is 40 years old by age 8. It got so bad sometimes that the child had to do all the present wrapping, fire stoking and everything except the sink drinking. They always took care of that.

So the child got used to decorating. Mama started out celebrating Christmas in the living room. That means that’s where we had the tree. She also had white carpets in the living room. Never did understand buying white carpets in red-clay country, but there they were. So she devised that she would make carpet covers out of white bed sheets and that would protect the precious alabaster-like wool. This became an ordeal when you had to move pianos, organs, sofas, and...and...and to get the white sheets down, so she finally got the idea of moving the celebration, read tree, to the “back porch”. Now the “back porch” wasn’t actually a porch at all in the strict sense of the word. It was a veranda which came off the kitchen of the house. had a tile floor and was connected at the other end by a wall with a fireplace behind which was the room for the laundry and the maid’s bathroom. The maid wasn’t allowed to use our bathrooms throughout the house. Oh no, she could put her fingers in our food and all over our food while she prepared it, but she couldn’t put her fanny where we put ours. Make any sense? I didn’t think so.

So Daddy enclosed this veranda and it became the back porch. There is no reason for that name, just like there’s not much reason for any of the habits people fall into - like shaving, wrapping, stoking logs or drinking. But it was where we moved the celebration of Christmas, read tree. It allowed for larger trees, which meant more lights, more tinsel, more balls, and more sink drinking and log stoking. But at least we had a ceramic tile floor and no bed sheets. Of course, there was a round chenille rug, but that’s also another story. And I ain’t tellin’ that one.

We started about the beginning of December to wrap presents. This was done in the front hall where Mama set up one of her 40 assorted card tables. She brought out wrapping paper, tape, ribbons and all the paraphernalia that goes along with the Christmas Burden. I was around 8 when she told me she funded this gift-giving with the double allowance Daddy gave her in December. Wow, she got an allowance, too, just like me! She gave presents to the weirdest people and I won’t go into that other than to say there were lots of people on that list who never brought a brass farthing to our back porch, or our front porch either, believe you me. But that’s not the spirit of Christmas, sinking drinking or log stoking, is it?

After all these presents were wrapped they had to be delivered. We didn’t have washing machines then, we had a wash-woman. Julia was her name and she had one of those big personalities I love. Everything about Julia was big, her eyes, her bosom and her heart. I always loved Julia and going to her house to deliver our dirty laundry. We took the clothes in a huge flat basket. Julia boiled our clothes with lye soap in the back yard and believe me that was a wonderful smell when you got it home. No chemical that Proctor and Gamble can ever come up with will compare to Julia’s. That’s why I loved Saturday nights so much. I got to slip into newly “Juliaed” sheets. She, by the way, also washed the sheets we used in the living room at the old Christmas celebration location.

I told you about that huge flat basket because that’s what we put the Christmas presents in to deliver them. The basket fit neatly onto the back seat of Mama’s ‘49 Fleetwood and off she and I would go like some modern-day UPS couple, on our appointed rounds. I might add that Daddy and I used the same basket on Christmas Eve to deliver gallons and gallons of bourbon to everyone he owed a favor to, and there were plenty of favors to be paid. Daddy and I went places I never knew existed delivering that hootch. But neither Mama or Daddy ever took a present to Julia.

Until I woke up one Christmas Eve and looked out the window at them bringing the Lionel train set into the house, I believed in Santa Claus. When I saw the procession headed by Ella Cooley on to the back porch I distinctly remember saying to myself, “Oh, that’s how the stuff gets here.” So much for Christmas fantasy in a young boy’s life. I moved right on to Doris Day and left Santa in the dust..

Christmas morning was spent opening presents and dodging hangovers. Usually, the noon meal was the big one on Christmas, and it was taken with “The Family” from Wrightsville. The Family consisted of one good set of cousins and one bad set. The good set usually didn’t even come for Christmas, but the bad set always seemed to show up. And the bad set had the worst teeth, teeth which were the most prominent feature on their faces. Teeth which I later learned were removable, but teeth which had never any trouble chewing just about everything Mama cooked. Then we had the ordeal of opening family presents and they did it in the most peculiar way. One person at a time opened their presents. You had to sit and wait while this one or that one got their loot and you had oo and ah and (mentally) vomit your displeasure.

This crowd went home around 4 and there was a lull in the Christmas festivities. But, don’t forget, 5 o’clock is only an hour away. Just like death, taxes and Dick Clark, time marches on. And it hopped and skipped right up to 5 when sink drinking started in full force for the Savior’s Birth. Boy, they must really have loved Baby Jesus ‘cause they sure did celebrate. Sometimes they even went to other people’s house to celebrate and they left us kids to ourselves. This was about the time I figured out the kids could have their own celebrations. These started with hamburger parties which graduated into taking the unused family car and driving all around town while the grownups celebrated Baby Jesus. Never mind that none of us had drivers licenses, never mind that nobody cared or even knew we were tearing up and down the streets. We were celebrating Boy Jesus in our own way!

But what I remember most about Christmas is one of Mama’s little treasures. It was a white chapel made of plastic. It had a high steeple and a music box inside. It played ”Silent Night, Holy Night” and she always sat it on a little sewing table beside the fireplace in the living room, even after the celebration moved to the back porch. She placed it down in this angel hair which was to represent snow. And the little chapel had a soft light inside. During all the celebrating, sink drinking, and log stoking, I remember slipping off to the living room and winding up the little chapel, plugging in the light and listening to the sweet music. The thought of it fills me with such warmth and peace. Funny the things you remember and the things you forget. And I haven’t thought about that little chapel thing in 40 years. But I’ve never forgotten the sink drinking.

C. 2008 Richard C. Wall


PatrickCuccaro said...

"...I moved right on to Doris Day and left Santa in the dust..." Sweet, Richard. In the simplest way you captured a crucial rite of passage on a wondrous gay journey to personhood. Thank you.


Liz Brock said...

That was marvellous! Love the little plastic chapel, I could just hear it...


CJ/Rick said...

All from the corner of your mind. Beautiful. I see a lot of that peculiar gift giving these days. It makes one wonder.

Anonymous said...

So glad you had the memory of the little chapel.
Also so glad you "lived to tell the tale" and to overcome so much of the insanity ( of various kinds) in which we all grew up.