Save room for dessert?! Are you kidding me?!

collardsIt’s funny to me how all the pictures of families gathering around the table to enjoy a Christmas meal together seem to have as the focal point, the turkey… or maybe a ham too.  The reason this is funny… or rather a bit strange to me is my family could never be accused of being master chefs of the carnivorous types.  I read about people injecting with spices…. soaking in a brine…. stuffing with herbs and fruit…. deep fry it, smoke it, bake it… covered, uncovered or some combination of both.  It wasn’t like that with my family at all.   We just tried to get it done enough to eat without killing off anyone.

While we weren’t much with the bird… our specialities were the side dishes and the desserts.  Now THAT is what I always looked forward too.  I always knew we were at the holidays when I could step outside of the car at my grandmothers house with my single toy I was allowed to bring with me (please note the bitterness still in my tone here) and I immediately could smell the pungent, aromatic smell that could only be collards cooking.  If you are not from the southern part of the US this is a smell that you have never known, and if you have had the good fortune of it, you would wonder why on God’s earth would someone eat something that smells like that.  this, I can not even begin to explain but it wasn’t Christmas unless I ate “a mess” of collard.  (For the less chocolate cakeinformed, “a mess” is just a colloquial term for a lot… we do have to complicate things some times).

In addition to the collards, we would always have some wonderful potato salad, and my aunt made the world’s best chicken salad, usually green beans, rutabaga and beets.  And there were the breads…..there was corn bread and my grandmother’s biscuits that my sister has come close to replicating but not.. quite there.  And the desserts… my favorites were multilayer chocolate cakes and pecan pies.  My grandmother also made the worlds most wonderful bread pudding.  I don’t know that it was really a dessert but when you could get some right out of the oven it was a small taste of Heaven to me.

The smells, the colors, the sight of this bounty covering every inch of my grandmother’s table and kitchen counter tops.  Oh, what I wouldn’t give to sit at the kid’s table just one more time and dive head first into a plate or two of this!!


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Oh come on now…. we all know what it’s all about….

christmas bikeUnlike today, there wasn’t much that could wake me up during the night when I was a kid.  Generally speaking I would lay down and go right to sleep.  Back then I was a morning person so I would normally wake up shortly after sunrise to welcome the new day.  But between when my head hit the pillow and that sunrise… I would barely even move.

There were two things though, that would definitely wake me up in the middle of the night.  The first was snow… or rather, the threat (or should I say, promise) that it was coming.  It didn’t matter whether they were calling for a dusting or a blizzard, the affect on me was the same.  I would periodically have to get up during the night to make sure that the forcasters had not been lying about the entire event.  The other thing that could wake me up during the night was… Christmas.

Christmas eve was the most difficult night for me to get to sleep back then.  The excitment of it all was enough to make me feel like I was going to just explode.  I remember sitting down for hours on end looking through the Sears catalog… going through the toy section page by page circling nearly every thing on every page.  I would sit and stare at those pages and imagine myself with my toy guns, or GI Joe, or Hot Wheels cars.  It must have driven my parents crazy trying to figure out what I really wanted.  But they always managed to do a great job given the lack of specifics that I would provide them.

And so I would stay up as late as I  could manage.  That was until I thought I heard something on the roof!  I knew I was in trouble if I didn’t get to sleep quick then so I would lay real still and keep my eyes closed, just in case the big man happened to wander down the hall and peek in my room.

Hours before the sun came up… and usually within just a couple hours of having closed my eyes, I would wake up!  I’d sneak next door to my sisters room and see if she was awake.. if not, well, she would be before I left out of there.  I always wanted a co-conspirator with this sort of thing.  So we would decide together if it was time to go see what Santa had brought.  And of course, regardless of the time… it was ALWAYS the perfect time to go see!

There are always those couple of Christmases that stand out as far as the toy receiving goes… the one that is most vivid is the year I got my bike.   My sister had gotten a new bike sometime earlier and I had been using her old bike… so I was so stoked to see my bright shiny new bike.  That was the best!  Oh yeah.. and the year I got the snare drum…. and the year I got the Winchester rifle that fired roll caps.. and the year I got…

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The best Christmas present and a visit from a 10 year old me…

216809_1759999952238_6185954_nWe met in September 1969.  It was the first day at my new school (5th grade) and I was a little anxious.  I was a bit overwhelmed by it all and so she just blended in with all of the new faces that day.  As the days and weeks went by, things began to fall into place… cliches were formed… friends were made…. fights broke out and love was born and died… you know, the typical stuff.  Irene didn’t really stand out from the crowd.  She was just an average person in a world of average.  We were always friendly to each other and occasionally we would chat but mostly we ran in different circles.  That year, like so many others when I was young went flying by with a speed that my few years of experience could not appreciate.  Next thing I know, I am graduating from high school.  Yeah, I remember seeing Irene in class occasionally or at some of the social functions that we went to back then.  We would speak and maybe laugh a little but then again, we would drift off into our separate worlds again.  I remember chatting with her on occasion at the Kentucky Fried Chicken when I would drop in for a quick snack and it was always good to catch up on things.  I never will forget when I was home visited many, many years later and my mom was telling me about Irene’s transplant.  I just couldn’t imagine what her life must have been like.  I always asked my mom about her when we would chat, but life always seemed to be taking me in a different direction and I never made the effort to reach out to her.
Now 34 years had past since we graduated from high school and through the miracle of the internet (most specifically Facebook) many of my classmates were reconnecting.  Lo and behold, there was Irene again!  I quickly came to understand and appreciate that if there was anything you wanted to know about the Northeastern High School class of ’77, Irene was your ‘go to’ person.  She kept up with us all!  Several of us began to talk of a 35th class reunion and Irene was right there in the mix.   She always attended the reunion committee meetings and worked as hard, if not harder than the rest of us to make sure we had all the information we possibly could get about our classmates.  As fate would have it, Irene was unable to attend that reunion… but yet, her optimistic spirit was always around us.  The spring following the reunion I attended the Potato Festival and gave her a call.  She wasn’t able to come out for the festivities so I invited myself to drop by her house.  She and I sat and talked and laughed for a couple of hours.  It was the best time.

She was the most upbeat and optimistic person I believe I have ever known…. and then there is this story… the one that means the absolute most to me… I have come to realize that Irene wasn’t just a member of the Northeastern High School class of ’77… or just a friend to her other friends…. she genuinely cared about us….. she loved us all… and I have come to love her too.  I said good-bye to Irene a couple of days ago.  To say I will miss her may be one of the greatest understatements ever.  I feel an emptiness that I know will never be filled.  I don’t have many regrets in my life but not spending more time getting to know Irene is one of them… but I do have to say, I am unbelievably blessed to have gotten to know her over the last 4 years.

(This story was written in December 2013… thanks again, Irene… for everything)

Letter to Mrs BaileySeveral days ago I got an inbox message on Facebook from a friend from high school that I hadn’t talked with in a while.   I always love to hear from folks from high school.. I think a lot of that is because of the history we share… they are the roots… the source so to speak of my life.

Well, anyway, all she said was that she wanted my address.  She said she had something she wanted to send me.  Since a bunch of us had reconnected in the last several years because of reunions and such I was curious but I just assumed it was something related to our class… so I kinda put it out of my mind… well, for a little bit anyway.

This morning when I was looking through the mail I came across a large envelope with her name on it.  In a very strange way, it felt a bit like Christmas morning.  There was this  very ordinary looking envelope that gave up no indication as to what may be inside….so I hurried to open it.

Inside there were several different pieces of paper… plain white ruled notebook paper with a very plain and yet very familiar looking cursive writing.  It was a letter inside a sheet protector sleeve.  This was a good thing because as I read the letter, the tears began to well up in my eyes… this letter was dated 1970.  It was a letter I had written to her mom as part of an assignment back in the 5th grade.  In addition to this letter there was another one that I had written to her mom.  Apparently we did a lot of letter writing that year.  There was also a copy of a newsletter from our 7th grade class… names I hadn’t seen in 40+ years.  The memories just washed over me in a flood.

As I sat there and read over and over the documents and relived events from my youth, I couldn’t help but think… this has got to be the best Christmas present I could ever get.  I struggle a lot this time of the year.. with all the commercialization of the holiday and trying to have it live up to something that it couldn’t possibly ever meet.  But to have something like this happen brings it all back into focus.

I am so glad that I such wonderful memories of my youth… I am glad that Santa still lives in the heart of my dear friend, Irene.. and it was so great to run into the 10 year old me for a little bit.  It all just brings a smile and a joyful tear.  As my letter said… I have to go now.  Merry Christmas to you, Irene!!!

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It ain’t all candy canes and silver lanes aglow….

Norman Rockwell ChristmasAt this time of year, I tend to look back over the past with such fond memories of Christmases past… of family and friends… great times, wonderful food and lots of presents.

But as I sit here on this cold December morning I remember Christmases that don’t fall into that category.  There was the year when my grandfather had just past away… the emptiness of the loss left a hole that has never been filled in.  Then there is the year that my dad lost his job because the store he had worked for had filed bankruptcy…. not only leaving him unemployed but causing he and my mom to lose all of the money they had saved for college for my sister and me.  There wasn’t much joy around the house that year although he and mom did the best they could to make it all it could be… and there was the year that the love of my life (well, she was at the time anyway) and I finally got around to realizing that maybe we really weren’t the loves of each others lives.  It took us a long time to get there but it went out in a whimper, not some big explosion… I think that story is out here somewhere in on my ramblings.  Now that I think of it, there were a couple of other relationships that fell apart at this time of the year too.

Maybe it’s just the reflectiveness of the end of the year that causes it to be a time to wrap up the unfinished pieces of our lives.  Or maybe the pressure to create that Norman Rockwell perfect Christmas is just too much for us.  I bet if I could actually go back and look at the Christmases of my past, they probably aren’t as great as I remember them.  I’m sure there were mornings I arose, ran to where the Christmas tree was shining from where we left the lights on all night so Santa could see what he was doing… only to find that the gift that I was just dying to have wasn’t there, or I got drug off to spend the day with the extended family when all I wanted to do was just stay home with my toys or Heaven forbid Christmas fall on a Sunday and I end up having to go to church!  How devastating that would be, huh?

I guess sometimes, the season just gets lost in our lives instead of the other way around… I just really need to make it a point to make sure that it happens the way it should… losing my life in the season for a bit may be exactly what I need.  A Merry Christmas to you all, my friends… please let the season wash over your life for a while.

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A portable shack, a red kettle, and a young boys dignity

Kramer buildingIt may have been one of the very first portable buildings I remember.  I’m sure there were many others before but this one had significance that none of the others had.  I never saw this building delivered but I knew that it was going to show up about this time every year… right there at the corner by my dad’s store… you know the one… the corner of Main and McMorrine Sts.  If you walked north on McMorrine, you would walk right past the Oxenda Newsstand.. sure you remember that.

Well, anyway, this strange little building would show up every year around Thanksgiving or so.  I can remember they would drop an electric line down to it from the awning on my dad’s store.  The purpose of the power was solely for powering a record player not unlike the one I described yesterday.  The purveyor of this temporary establishment had installed one of those outdoor speakers that looked like one of those bullhorns you see the police use when trying to talk the hostage takers into letting the hostages go.  But it’s purpose was obviously a lot less stressing.  Actually, it was kind of nice to be able to walk out of my dad’s store and continue to hear Christmas music as you walked down the street.

But the purpose of this facility wasn’t just to provide music to entice Christmas shoppers.  It was about men and women in uniforms… and a very large red kettle and a small tinkling bell.  Yes, the Salvation Army would be out in force collecting for the needy.  By the time the season was over I have to be quite honest, I was about sick of that bell.  I heard it every day when I was working and it about drove me nuts.  I could hear it constantly ringing in the background and it would grow louder and then softer again as patrons came in and out of the store.

I once told my dad that it was about to drive me crazy and he turned sharply and gave me “the dad” look.  I’m sure most of you have seen it at least once of twice in your life… heck it was pretty much a daily occurence for me.  But then immediately his facial expression softened and he said, “That is one of the greatest sounds I have ever heard.”  He then proceeded to tell me a story from his youth… of a very cold winter and a young boy that couldn’t go to school because he didn’t have clothes that were warm enough to protect him from the elements.  How this boy got behind, and was ashamed… and how the Salvation Army stepped in and provided him some warm clothes so he could return to school.  “They can stand outside my store and ring that bell every day of the year as far as I’m concerned” he said as he completed the conversation.

After my dad retired, he spent every Christmas eve standing on the sidewalk somewhere in Elizabeth City ringing that bell for them… and every time I hear it today, I think about how they helped a young boy with warm clothes…. and restored a little bit of his dignity… and you know what… I really don’t mind it as much anymore.

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Songs of the Season….

vitrola4My dad worked in retail sales his entire life.  As a result of that, we didn’t see him much between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  At least I didn’t see him much until I went off to college.  I know that may sound strange but when I would come home at the end of the fall semester he would put me to work helping at his store.

Once WT Grants filed bankruptcy and closed their store at the mall in Elizabeth City, my dad worked in discount stores in downtown.  I actually liked that a lot better.  I would love to walk into Eagles Department Store (I think it later became the Super Dollar Store or something like that) and immediately the smell of popcorn would rush at you like you had fallen into a vat of it just as it was coming out of the popper.  I can remember the days of the Christmas parade, we would sell what felt like a thousand of those things.  Speaking of the parade, my dad would always lock the store while the parade was going on.  He always acted like it was becuase he was worried about being able to keep an eye on eveyone coming and going.  In reality I believe he just wanted to watch the parade like everyone else.

From that day forward until Christmas eve he would work 12 hour days 7 days a week… and you could tell that he just loved it.  And becuase he loved it, he required that I love it too.  He didn’t work me quite that many hours but it sure felt like it.  I remember getting there early and having to head up to the office and put the records on.  He had this old Vitrola record player and what seemed like a thousand Christmas albums.  The record player sat perched on a small halfway upstairs in the office.  It had a single remote speaker that my dad had draped the wired down the wall and located the speaker at the top of the shelves on the lower level of the store so that the customers could hear the music better.  You could stack several albums on top of each other and as one finished the next would drop down on top of the one just finished.  It was my job to always remember the album that was on the top so that I could hustle back but the stairs and be there to flip them over.  I can still here him calling my name across the silence as the I was distracted by straightening up the toy section for the millionth time.  It didn’t matter what I was doing, he expected me to drop it and get those songs back on.  He was funny about his Christmas music.  Even after the store was closed and he and I were the only two people in the store; him closing out the registers and me sweeping the floor; if the music stopped. I put the broom down and ran to put the music back on.  I can still here him humming those songs today… now that was truly the songs of the season for me.

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I’m dreaming of a White Christmas

string-of-christmas-bellsWe rarely got together with my dad’s family on Christmas day although we always did have an event together to mark the holiday.  We always referred to the gathering as “the White Christmas”.  Because the family was large (10 brothers and sisters, their spouses and all the cousins.. about 40 of us) and was spread all up and down the east coast, we always got together the Sunday before Christmas.

Since my mom and dad had grown up down the street from each other we would quite often stop at my mom’s mother’s house on our way in to say hello.  Then I would walk the two blocks to my dad’s parent’s house…. walk through the screen door onto the porch… and open the front door into the area referred to as the hall.  As I stepped through the door, the smell of my grandfathers cigar filled the air.  It was always a bit cool out in this hall and the floor creaked under the linoleum rug that covered the majority of the painted wooden floor.  The Christmas tree was always standing right there in front of the door.  And then it all started… the hugs and handshakes… the laughter and unbelievably loud talking.  And the food.. goodness there must have been another 50 people coming besides the 50 that were already there!

My grandparents house was so small that no one got to sit at the table.  It took their entire table to hold the food so everyone sat whereever they could find a place to perch.  We kids would get our plates and go sit on the steps that went up stairs.  They were really narrow steps and it was always a challenge when you needed to get more tea or dessert.  I don’t recall ever stepping in anyone’s potato salad or collards but I imagine someone must have done that at some time.

After we ate some of my cousins and I would go outside and play football or anything that would get us out of the craziness.  That was until it was time to open gifts.  Since there were so many of us we just exchanged names but even then there were more presents than you could possibly fit under the tree so they spilled across the floor like a dam had burst and a river of bright colored papers had engulfed the entire room with the exception of a small path to get through.

The gift opening just added to the total chaos of the event.  Tearing paper, shouts of joy and laughter from a prank gift… just a very pleasant mayhem.

The crowning event of the day was the ringing of the Christmas bells.  Some of my aunts and uncles would grab this string of bells and run out the front door down the sidewalk ringing the bells and shouting “Merry Christmas” at the tops of their lungs.  I would think how embarrassing that was… but now… not so much.

I miss the craziness of it all.  So many of the people that were a part of this have passed away.  Those of us that haven’t are so busy with our ever growing families and with life in general that we just can’t seem to find the time to get it all done.  It makes me a little bit sad but you know…… I am so happy that I can still find myself dreaming of a White Christmas.

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