The excitement would start to build a couple of weeks after Thanksgiving. We would gather on the tiny concrete stoop of a front porch on Martin street, where all seven of us lived, to look at the Christmas lights on the courthouse. Everyone would be ohhhing and ahhhing as I danced around, jumping impatiently, trying to see above the tree line, until my father would pick me up so I could get a brief glimpse. Huge lights strung from the top of the courthouse to the four corners of the square in downtown Newnan always heralded the season for me. There they were, it was official.. The countdown was on….
My mother would have us look through the Sears catalog to get an idea of what we wanted, we had to make a wish list. She used the term wish list so we would know that “You don’t get everything you want, but Santa can probably make sure you get some of it..” needless to say, each year it was several pages long. The Christmas tree would be put together by my father, you had to wait in the kitchen… Our job was to decorate the tree under direction of our parents. The main decoration I can remember putting on was the tinsel.. We used so much of it that the tree would often look like a huge tinfoil pinecone.
Activity around the house would escalate as time went by, more comings and goings than usual, odd smells from the kitchen, more people around… then the trip to my cousin’s place. With that one trip we knew it wouldn’t be long until presents and fireworks made their appearance. Most years there was a singing that we attended at an aunt and uncle’s house. Song sheets would be passed out and everyone would stand in their full to bursting home and sing Christmas carols at the top of their lungs.
The Christmas specials would begin airing on television. We would pile up on the floor with pillows and blankets as Santa came to town, Hermey and Yukon vanquished the bumble, and the Grinch made off with the towns goods. The ones that always stuck in my head were Charlie Brown and the Little Drummer Boy, with those specials you seemed to get more of a message. I was too young to fully comprehend it at the time, but the Linus scene when he explained the meaning of Christmas and the lyrics, “I played my best for him..“ always moved me, I could never quite shake them or understand why they made me feel that way.
For us, the culmination of the holiday took place on Christmas eve. I would wake to a house filled sounds and smells that would set my head spinning. Until that moment the only thoughts that seemed to take any purchase in my mind were of toys, but on that morning everything would shift to food and people. I would come down the hallway to discover that my parents were gone for breakfast at a cousin’s house, and hear the dire warning, “Don’t touch anything in the kitchen…” We would wait for what felt like hours for my parents to get home and the car to be loaded before we headed out for my grandparents house. My mother would get to the point of simply pointing to the kitchen door whenever we would run in with the call of, “When are we going to Daddy Doc and Granny’s???” The verbalization of the time would disappear around the seven or eight hundredth dash into the room…
Coming down Doc Perry Rd. was when I could barely contain myself… I would begin looking for the curve in the road that led down to the driveway of that magical little cottage. My grandfather built that place sometime back before calendars were invented. It sits at the very end of the road and was always a welcomed sight for anyone that ventured near it. The construction was the type of a small, plain, mill village house, with four rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom. The concrete front porch held a swing, a glider, and a couple of rocking chairs, a small sign by the door let your know that Jesus was well loved in that home. As we walked across the driveway the warm glow from the windows and the loud noise from inside made you feel like you had been traveling for months and were about to get home. The door would open to an explosion of sound and heat. There would be thirty to fifty people crammed into the house, every room was filled with laughter and constant talking. The tree they had in the living room would be piled high with gifts and covered with ornaments that predated all written knowledge. Felt covered elves, angular glass pieces containing tiny Christmas trees with a mirror finish on the back, small drums with two sticks glued across the top, the ornaments of my youth. Green, red, and silver tinsel covered the tree from top to bottom, it would be topped by a tall silver piece with a cut away view of something in it, I never could make it out.
The front room had a couch, two recliners, a huge gas heater filling the no longer used fireplace, the heater would be flanked by a folding chair on each side… my grandfather would make sure there were chains of individually wrapped candy, gumballs usually, hanging by each door so the kids could run by and rip one or three off as they tore through the house. The compact car sized console television sat on one wall, and every surface of wall, mantle, and television was covered by photographs of my grandmother’s children and grandchildren.
The next room was their bedroom, with a full size bed for each of them, my grandmother’s was soft and my grandfather’s was hard as a damn rock, he had back trouble don’t you know. A dresser for each of them, a desk, on which sat a rotary telephone with over large numbers backed by a glow in the dark surface to make dialing at night easier. Over the door hung a shotgun, ancient and well cared for. On top of my grandfathers dresser was a police band scanner that WAS NEVER TURNED OFF, it became the running background noise whenever you were there.
To your right was the dining room, almost filled by a huge table and chairs, a sideboard, and the largest copy of the last supper I have ever seen. Toward the front of the house through the dining room was the other bedroom, my dad and uncle’s room when they were young. During those days it was used by whoever was spending the night. Off the dining room, toward the back of the house, was a tiny kitchen with one of those tables in the center that belonged in a diner, formica top and all.. Next to the kitchen was the back porch, enclosed by my grandfather, that had a large igloo cooler with a pushbutton spout at the bottom that was always filled with ice water, a dipper was hanging on a nail driven in to the side of the table top in front of the cooler. One entire wall of the back porch was covered with shelving that held sacks of potatoes, huge cans of corn, tomatoes and the like. Through the back door was the second porch… he added that on, extended the roof and built a room on the right side that held a large deep freezer.
Every chair in the house was filled with people talking to all the people that had nowhere to sit and roamed throughout the house. My grandfather would be in his glory, surrounded by his family. My grandmother would be in that humming bird state of flitting from room to room and person to person, making sure everyone was comfortable and had plenty to eat and drink….
My grandparents… lord have mercy. Every human being should be able to experience the love and adoration of a matronly, fine, Christian, southern woman… there’s nothing else like it on the face of the planet, that was my grandmother, Zeddie Perry. My grandfather was a man of relatively few words, he was built like a barrel and never stopped working on things. He was busy every second of the day. Doc Perry always wore overalls and carried a handkerchief in his pocket to wipe his head when it was hot out, he carried a pocket watch on a chain that he would let us listen to when we crawled up in his lap and asked… both of them dipped bruton snuff… a habit I never understood, but got the biggest kick out of… he built their house, and a play house out front for my dad and his brothers to spend the weekends in, a one room house with an attic and front porch. His voice… to hear it on video now sends chills down my spine. A cross between Andy Griffith and Carl from Sling blade. I think the thing I miss the most about them was listening to the both of them talk at the same time. I used to listen attentively and nod at each of them in turn, but you could barely keep up with the conversation. Why they did that I’ll never know, but sure as hell, when one of them would start talking, the other one would pick up a few sentences in… not only would they talk at the same time, but they would each be talking about something totally different. What I wouldn’t give to sit for just ten minutes and hear that again.
The heat in the house would be near unbearable and everyone would be laughing and talking at a level of a small tornado. The yells of, “Close that door!” would follow each child as they ran out in to the front yard for the seemingly never ending fireworks war. My grandfather would either make the trip to Alabama or send someone to pick up fire works for everyone. He always had the large bottle rocket types he would come out and ignite for everyone to watch, but he made sure we had plenty of roman candles, small bottle rockets, and firecrackers to go around. The evening would always deteriorate into a battle, it was just the natural thing to do. This was back in the day of the m-80, the largest known firecracker ever made. A large pipe would be driven into the ground and all manner of things would be launched from its end… light an m-80, drop it in the pipe then stick a.. say old tea kettle on top of it. That thing would fly way above tree top level, and blow all the finish off of the outside of it to boot. My signature move was to rip the wooden stick off the small bottle rockets and toss them into a gathered crowd, just as it ignited… a joyous thing to behold.
The call to eat would sound from the house and we would run, hell bent toward the door, because we knew what was waiting there. Everyone’s mother had been busy for last couple of days and the fruit of their labor was waiting in the dining room. Imagine it, and it was there. Extra tables had to be brought in for the food. Ham, turkey, roast, bbq, fried chicken, cornbread dressing, slow cooked green beans with potatoes, chicken and dumplings, sliced tomatoes, sliced onions, lima beans, black eyed peas, my aunt Peaty’s creamed corn that would make you nearly pass out with each bite, my great aunt Reba’s coleslaw in the blue bowl, biscuits, cornbread.. The desserts would have an equally impressive showing, banana pudding, pies, cakes… damn. Everything in that room was home made… the aroma of that food will forever linger in my memory as what home should always smell like. At the table sat my grandparents, great aunts and uncles, parents, and my dad’s brothers.. Everyone would line up and then automatic silence would fill the house. My grandfather would then deliver a prayer, thanking God for the family being together for one more year.. And when he said it, you knew it was true. The line would then begin moving. This was one of my favorite moments.. Get the huge plate and the fork.. Then proceed around the table, the first of many trips of the evening. The part I loved the most was listening to everyone as you walked through…
After everyone was sated to the point of literal explosion we would make our way toward the tree and begin to pass out gifts. Wrapping paper, boxes, toys and bows covered everything as we played into the night and the adults continued laughing and talking.
People would begin calling out merry Christmas as they started loading their cars for the trip home, and we knew the time to go was near… but… a new excitement would start to build. We knew what awaited us at home. Santa’s delivery of new toys. Food was packed, dishes washed, kids played out and then we were crammed in the car. We would be looking at the house as we pulled into the driveway, then the mad dash to the door was made. There it would be. The Christmas tree in all its glory, ablaze, lighting the groups of toys with a glow of warmth and a halo of beckoning… Time would disappear. Everything was torn open, gone through played with, tossed to the side as the next toy was grabbed, a glorious mess was made as the laughter continued. Then it would begin to get quiet. My parents, sitting in their chairs, would begin to nod off , too sleepy to carry on and we knew a call for the end of the evening was soon to come.
The next few days would be spent playing with and cataloging the toys, enjoying more family visits and eating more good food.. New years day would herald the end of the holiday season, always accompanied by a sense of sadness and loss, yet it would come.
A while back I was pondering these moments from my past and called my older brother to borrow a video tape he has featuring one of the last Christmas get-togethers with my grandfather. He had been in the hospital over Christmas and we waited until he came home to meet down there. The moment I put the tape in and an image popped up on screen I began to cry. I realized then what I missed the most about it all..
I closed my eyes and listened to the voices of the people gathered there and wept unashamedly as I heard each person. I could tell from the sound who each one was, and even where they were in the house as my brother roamed the rooms with the camera… the booming voice of my grandfather, the urgent pleas of my grandmother to “get you something else to eat”, my great aunt Reba asking him what in the world that contraption was he was carrying, a cousin asking where the tea was, “hell, I think its all gone..” that was my uncle Thomas, my aunt Peaty’s infamous reaction to a gag gift of a framed photograph of someone she didn’t like.. “you shitass.. that’s all I need is a framed picture of…” Then I heard it… the laughter of my dad… dear God, the sound of his voice sent me right back to our front porch and him holding me up so I could see those lights on the courthouse. All at once every Christmas I had ever experienced with him enveloped me, the decoration overload, the noises, the songs, the laughter… I waited for it to pass, but it wouldn’t, so I gave into it and cried until I could no longer see straight. Even in the cacophony of voices I could discern each individual person as I let the memory of the moments I shared with them wash over me.
It wasn’t until I was much older that I understood what it was about the Charlie Brown and Little Drummer Boy specials that touched me so much. I understood about the birth of Jesus and the saving of mankind, but for me it held a different meaning. Love, loyalty, family and friends. To experience life with people that you love that much is truly a blessing. You grow older, times change, people come and go… but there is a core of people there that will forever be with you, if not in person, buried deep within your heart, wrapped forever in your soul. It is for these people that I am truly thankful.
my dad getting his leg lamp from a Christmas story
my grandparents, Doc and Zeddie Perry
me on the floor playing at my grandparents
my older brother, my dad, and me when i got one of my favorite gifts.. a castle
my dad & my cousin playing with our new toy
me sitting on the floor in front of the huge space heater at my grandparents
some of my first steps
julie and my dad at my cousins for christmas
the year i got the gi joe training center.. excellent
in front of the tree at my grandparents
my dad enjoying the aftermath of Christmas dinner at my grandparents
me & my cousin tommy
the tree at my grandparents
my uncle thomas at christmas time
my grandfather talking to me as a lay on his bed... rips my heart out.
me and my cousin tommy at my grandparents
the lights on the courthouse in newnan back in the seventies..