Friday, December 7, 2007

The More Things Change, the More They Change (A Christmas Memoir)

I was born in the Lamar County, Georgia Maternity Shelter which was located about a half-mile from my parents’ house. A few days later they wrapped me up and took me home and put me in my room and I stayed right there until I went off to college. For sixteen years Christmas Day began in that house on Memorial Drive in Barnesville and for sixteen years every Christmas was about the same.

I would go to bed on Christmas Eve so excited I could hardly sleep. Of course, part of the problem was that the last words I heard from Mama before I went to bed were “Go to sleep now; Santa Claus won’t come if you’re awake.” So I went to bed terrified that I wouldn’t be able to sleep and certain that if I didn’t sleep then there would be no gifts for me. In some ways our house was not a terribly romantic place to have Christmas Eve. We didn’t have a chimney. I asked Daddy once, “Seeing as how we have no chimney, how does Santa get into our house?” I expected a clever answer like “He comes up through the bathtub drain” or “He transforms himself into a vapor and comes in through the wall” or something like that. What I got was “I reckon he just comes through the front door.” That was disappointing but it made sense because we kept a key over the front door; Santa or his helpers or Ebenezer Scrooge or Frosty the Snowman or anybody else could have come in had they wished.

Very early on Christmas morning I would wake up; I’m talking 5:00 or 6:00. The rule was that I had to wake Mama and Daddy up and let them go into the living room to see if Santa had come before I went in. The other thing that was happening was that Daddy had to get his Brownie movie camera with its twin spot lights all fired up. Finally Mama would say “Lights, camera, action!” or “You can go in now” or something like that and I would walk into Christmas morning in all its glory. When the chaos subsided we would get ready to eat lunch with Mama’s family and open presents there. Then we’d drive the nine miles to Yatesville where, immediately upon our arrival, the present opening would commence again. We’d eat leftovers for supper and then head back home. Somewhere along the way Daddy would say, “Well, that’s that for another 365 days,” thereby plunging me into a depression that I would usually snap out of by Presidents’ Day. It was pretty much like that every Christmas for sixteen years.

Christmas 1975 was the one when everything changed. Mama died in June of that year. By Christmas time Daddy had begun to take steps to get on with his life. I had just finished my first quarter of college. I couldn’t see it then but everything was up in the air and all bets were off. I wanted to cling to the way things used to be but in so doing I was trying to cling to the way things were never going to be again and, truth be told, I was probably trying to cling to the way things never really had been in the first place. I mean, it had been good, but sometimes things look even grander in the rearview mirror, especially when you know, even if you don’t accept it, that they’re gone for good.

My Uncle Johnny, who has childhood memories of the aftermath of the Great Depression and of World War II, says that he agrees with his cousin Charles who said, “I don’t want to have anything to do with firewood and chicory coffee; they both remind me of hard times.” For years I was that way about artificial Christmas trees. Now, I meant no disrespect to those who use them. But here’s my deal. My parents had bought an artificial tree for $19.95 from Maxwell’s Five & Dime Store a couple of years before Mama died. I agreed to it as a concession to the need to make things easier around the house. It was kind of pitiful but it was green; at least it wasn’t silver with a multi-colored light shining on it. A couple of weeks before Christmas we’d all put the thing together and decorate it. That year, though, I got home from Mercer a couple of weeks before Christmas and, all by myself, put the tree up and decorated it. I don’t know if I was more sad or mad. I think that’s one reason that I insisted on a real tree for so long; well, that and they smell good and I guess I liked having to water it every day and having to clean up the needles.

That year, for the first time in my life I had absolutely no trouble going to sleep on Christmas Eve. When I woke up on Christmas morning it was 10:30. I looked at the clock and rolled over covered up in the sudden realization that I wasn’t a child anymore. I realized, too, that the world had changed. I thought at the time that it was broken and busted and warped and out of whack and absurd, but I was wrong about that. It had just changed.

Goodness, but there have been more changes since then.

How I remember 1977, the first Christmas that I went to Leary to be with Debra and her family. She was wearing faded blue jeans and a red gingham shirt when I got there. I can still see her wonderfully open and welcoming face.

How I remember 1978, the first Christmas after we got married.

How I remember 1979, our first Christmas without my father.

How I remember 1981, the Christmas of the year that we sank every dollar we had into an old house in Louisville and managed to scrape together enough pennies to give each other one small gift each.

How I remember 1984, Joshua’s first Christmas.

How I remember 1986, our first Christmas in Adel.

How I remember 1987, Sara’s first Christmas.

How I remember 1993, our first Christmas in Nashville.

How I remember 1996, our first Christmas without Debra’s parents.

How I remember 2003, our first Christmas with the good people of The Hill Baptist Church.

1975 was the first Christmas that I was faced with real change. I was not wrong to grieve over what I had lost but I was wrong to fight against the changes that were coming. There have been so many Christmases and so many changes since.

Christmas teaches us many things. I think that one of the truths that Christmas teaches us is that God is in the changes. After all, the coming of the baby Jesus to Bethlehem’s manger turned the world on its head. The earliest Christians were referred to as those who had turned the world upside down. Surely God can and does work through those events that turn our worlds upside down and inside out and crossways.

My prayer for all of us is that we will learn the grace of letting God mold us and shape us and make us into who he has formed us to be. It’s a funny thing now. When I look back over my life, I sure wish some of it hadn’t had to happen. But at the same time, I’m grateful for it all. That’s part of what Christmas has taught me: the more things change, the more they change.

Isn’t God good?

Oh, by the way: this will be the second year that we have used our nice artificial pre-lighted Christmas tree. I think it’s beautiful.

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