Friday, December 19, 2008

Memories of Christmas Past (Part 2): Hard-Candy Christmas, a Christmas Memory From My Daddy

The little boy in the center of this picture is my daddy. I think the picture was probably made in 1915, because Daddy was born in 1912, and he looks about 3 years old. Doesn't he look darling in his precious little knicker outfit?

He was old enough to be my grandfather. He married at the age of 43. I was born when he was 45. He adored me. My brother came along when he was 48. He was so proud to have a son.

A quiet, reserved man, he was not a big talker, so I don't have the wealth of stories about him that I do about my mother. But, I do have a few. Around Christmas time, he would tell my brother and me what Christmas was like for him as a child.

He grew up on a cotton farm near the small town of Mayflower, Arkansas. The economy of the state was primarily agricultural, and cotton was king. My grandparents were hard workers. They owned a farm, and they worked together in the fields with their children until they had several children. Then my grandmother and their oldest daughter took care of the home while my grandfather and the other children worked the fields.

My daddy was the oldest of 9 children. My grandmother had a baby every other year for 18 years. In those days, the more children, the more farm hands. That's just the way it was.

My daddy began working in the fields when he was five years old. The school year was set up to accommodate the farming seasons. When Daddy was not in school, he was working the fields. My grandfather only gave them two days a year off: the Fourth of July and Christmas.

As an adult, my daddy loved the Fourth of July and Christmas. My brother and I had more fireworks than any other children we knew. We shot them off not only in July but sometimes for Christmas too. Two weeks before Christmas, my daddy set up the tree and arranged the lights just so. Then my mother, brother and I would hang the ornaments and icicles. And the brightly wrapped packages would start piling up.

I loved it when Daddy would reminisce about the Christmases of his childhood long ago. He said they would go out into the woods and cut a large evergreen tree, and then cut the top out of it. The top became their Christmas tree. That mystified me as a child. I could not imagine why they would cut the top out of the tree and use it. He said that way it had a nice shape.

Each child had a stocking. Everything they got for Christmas was in their stocking. He said they each got an apple, an orange, a few nuts, some hard candy, and one toy. The apple and orange puzzled me. Why in the world would they be in his Christmas stocking? He explained that those were a real treat. Fruit was not readily available except during its season. The hard candy I could understand. I loved the hard candy in the candy dishes at our house during Christmas. The bright colors. The striped ribbons of hard sweetness molded into a variety of shapes.

But, one toy? I felt so sorry for my poor daddy. The story that got to me the most was the story of the year that the toy in Daddy's stocking was a pocket knife. He said, looking back on it, he realized it was a cheap knife. But, that Christmas Day, he was so excited. That afternoon he sat on the front steps, whittling on a piece of wood. The knife blade broke. Daddy said he cried and cried, not only because the blade broke, but because he knew it would be a whole year before he got another toy.

That story broke my heart as a child. Today, when I recall it, it still makes me sad. How I long to reach back through the years to that little boy crying on Christmas Day. I want to hold him and comfort him and tell him that as soon as the stores open tomorrow, we will go and buy the finest pocket knife a boy could ever hope to have. And not only that, but there will be toys for his birthday coming up on January 3. That there will be treats and surprises throughout the year. Just because I love him. That he will have days to play and just be a little boy.

This week as I thought about writing this post, I went and took this picture from the shelf in our family room where I keep it displayed. I carefully removed it from the frame, held it in my hands, and marveled that it is almost one hundred years old. Although I have looked at it carefully many times through the years, I examined it again for details I may not have noticed before. And I thought about my daddy. About the kind of man he was. About his generous spirit.

I know that it's not possible to reach back across the years, so I wondered what Daddy's advice to me would be if he were here now. And, I got an answer.

Daddy would tell me to reach out to the child who is crying today. To the hungry heart. To the searching soul. To the lonely. To the discouraged. To try to make my little corner of the world a better place. To try to brighten someone's day. And lighten their load.

That's what I can do now. I feel so inadequate. But I know God uses a willing vessel.

I have on my desk an old print. It hung on the kitchen wall of my dear mother-in-law, Katie, whom I lovingly called Mom. It was her creed. When she died, Dad let me have it.

There is a picture of an old farmhouse. I imagine it looks similar to the farmhouse where my daddy grew up. These are the words under the picture. They are attributed to Sam Walter Foss.

"Let me live in a house by the side of the road,
Where the race of men go by,
The men who are good and the men who are bad,
As good and as bad as I.

"I would not sit in the scorner's seat
Or hurl the cynic's ban;
Let me live in a house by the side of the road
And be a friend to man."

A friend. That's what Daddy would tell me to be. I'm listening.

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