According to the government standards defining poverty in the 1950’s, I was poor. My father did not hold a regular job. My mother took in ironing for neighbors before landing a job in the Bethel School cafeteria washing dishes. We rarely ate meat except for Sunday dinner and my mother sewed all of my clothes. Yet, I never once thought of childhood as deprived. As my father often reminded me, we had food on the table (albeit beans and cornbread) and that was more than he had as a child in the 1920’s.
When December rolled around, the weather became bleak and chilly. My father’s mood matched the weather. Cold weather made his legs — crippled from injuries in the war — ache, and he knew that we had no money for Christmas gifts. My mother tried to put on a happy face but her memories of a bleak childhood in Madison County where holiday joy was considered a sin kept her from truly reveling in the season.
Despite the hardships, I loved December. I had fantasies of Santa Claus arriving at our small frame house and answering all of the requests in the letters that I had meticulously written to him. I would religiously leave cookies and milk by the hearth in hopes of receiving the store-bought items that I longed to own. I wanted Barbie dolls, an Etch-a-Sketch, a Slinky and an Easy Bake oven — all commercial items that I had heard about from my friends. They never came my way, but I was given something far better — gifts from the heart and memories to last a lifetime.
My mother’s homemade clothes were always under the shabby little tree that we found in the woods. When I was older and longed for Go-Go boots and mini-skirts, my mother would sew a small wardrobe of shifts (the kind with pleats on the side) and a-line skirts of a sensible length. My father would construct a toy from wood or simply give me some Indian arrowheads that he had found in the fields near our house. I loved collecting arrowheads and pieces of pottery.
One year he and my mother built a dollhouse for me. My father took an old display case from a general store that he had once owned and with paint and imagination constructed a spectacular house for my meager collection of dolls. He built furniture from scraps of wood and my mother sewed curtains and made small lamps from wooden spools that had once been covered with thread. He even wallpapered the house with remnants from the red velvet wallpaper that he had used to paper the new Red Dog Saloon at Ghost Town. The house with its glass front was truly a work of art — as unique as a Frank Lloyd Wright creation. I don’t think that I’ve felt as rich since.
Thanks to these early lessons, I learned to create gifts from the heart. I made Christmas cards and Valentine cards decorated with pieces of construction paper, left-over lace and stray buttons. I painstakingly copied poems from Leaves of Grass or made up by own messages. My mother and I baked cookies for gifts and my teachers at Bethel Elementary seemed to love them.
When I first married — still a teenager — I was anxious to share my love of home-made gifts with my new in-laws. They worked regular jobs and made more money than my family. They loved to buy expensive store-bought gifts for my husband and me and for some reason, I never felt comfortable around them. My first Christmas with my new family, I wrapped gifts of homemade jams, warm yeast breads, and a host of tacky little crafts that I had made. I painted English walnut shells a bright red, dotted them with black spots, and glued a piece of green felt to the top to create “strawberries.” I placed them in a green plastic tomato basket that I had woven with ribbons. I thought they were lovely but my face still burns with embarrassment as I remember the disdainful looks at my homemade gifts. I never saw the gifts again and they were most likely stashed in the back of a closet.
Fortunately I learned early on that time-intensive gifts made from the heart were not appreciated by everyone. I took to saving Green Stamps, pasting them into the little books and trading them in for store-bought gifts at the Green Stamp store in Canton. The gifts were sterile, lacked any real imagination but were appreciated by my in-laws far more than my cross-stitch samplers and cookies.
When I married my current husband, Tom, I was delighted to learn that his mother baked 50 cakes every Christmas to give to her many friends in the small southern town of Grovetown, Ga. Miss Ginny knew everyone’s favorite — lemon cheesecake, chocolate layer or pound cake — and lined up the cakes on her screened-in porch like soldiers headed for battle. She was locally famous for these cakes and continued this practice well into her ‘90’s. As she sat in her wicker rocker on that wonderful porch, she would greet each recipient of her cakes with heartfelt kindness. Despite her failing eyesight and unpredictable memory, she knew that the best gifts come from the heart, not the pocketbook.
I have tried to continue this tradition with my own children despite the social demands of the teenage years for “mall clothes” and music. I insisted (as I ignored their rolling eyes) that one gift every Christmas had to come from the heart and cost nothing but time and love. It was often a card with misspelled messages, a lopsided ornament, stick-figure drawings of our family or homemade cookies.
Now my children honor the tradition with ideas of their own and love the notion that great gifts can be free and still appreciated. They construct picture collages of themselves because they know that I love family photographs. They write poetry and paint lovely watercolors. They cook wonderful meals for the family and print the recipes.
Each year we love the ritual of planning and cooking a truly spectacular meal for Christmas Eve. I tend to lean toward thematic meals — old English dinners, a Deep-South menu, an Appalachian mountain meal, and recently when we spent a Christmas in Charleston, a low country meal of shrimp and grits. It’s fun to mix it up each year and throw in some surprises.
The preparation of the Christmas Eve meal is a labor of love — a gift of sharing one’s time and energy. We carefully pore over cookbooks to find the perfect recipes. I scour the local stores for table decorations and candles to complement the theme. The little touches often make the meal a success.
This year as we sat at the dining room table after a huge Thanksgiving meal, my children and I began our plans for Christmas Eve. My husband Tom is happy with whichever menu we choose — he is willing to be our gopher and taster — but admits to lacking gourmet tastes. We decide that this year we will have a “Memory of Grandmas” menu. Both my mother and Tom’s mother passed away this past year and it seems to be a good year to cook their favorites. The foods on our special menu will be cooked in honor of these two great ladies and will be our own gifts from the heart to their incredible spirits.
I decided to bake a simple chicken pot pie in honor of my mother. This was her favorite dish. She loved the crunchy pie crust that was filled with chunks of chicken and diced vegetables swimming in gravy. She would hum one of her favorite hymns as she mixed up the pie crust in her mother’s old walnut dough tray. She also loved a fruit salad to accompany the hearty main dish and would usually whip up a bowl of mashed potatoes to help soak up some of the chicken gravy.
My mother-in-law would never be happy with just one vegetable side-dish so we will need to add a bowl of freshly shelled garden peas with pearl onions — one of her favorite side dishes. The dessert will be a couple of the famous “Miss Ginny cakes.” It is hard to imagine that the cakes will be as good as hers or that we will enjoy them as much without her presence. Yet we will try to honor her and remember her loving Southern hospitality and her sweet gentle nature.
In honor of both of our mothers, we will use our best china, a lace tablecloth and fresh flowers on the table — nothing less would suit them on a special occasion. We will serve our food in serving dishes that once graced their Christmas tables. We will light two candles — one for each mother. We will recall wonderful memories of their lives and we will laugh and cry as we tell the stories that defined their lives. They were both remarkable ladies from a time past — a time when cooking a meal and holding a family together were the most important jobs a woman could perform.
As I roll out the dough for the chicken pot pie, I use my mother’s old rolling pin and my grandmother’s dough tray. I remember watching my mother’s worn fingers punching and rolling the flaky pie crust and gently molding it into the baking dish. I remember the sound of the rolling pin on the wooden counter top and her voice as she hummed “Just As I Am” or “What A Friend We Have in Jesus.” I feel her presence in the kitchen with me as I pour the warm chicken pieces, garden vegetables and gravy mixture into the crust. I know that she is delighted to be remembered and to share this meal in spirit with her dear friend, Miss Ginny.
When my mother passed away last year, I gathered stacks of notebooks that she had meticulously filled with Bible verses, hymns, her own words of wisdom, and favorite recipes. This December I have taken the time to open the giant plastic container that has housed these beautiful memories over the past year. Each spiral bound notebook is filled with neat pencil entries. Each line echoes the sound of my mother’s voice. She has listed prayer concerns for her family, her community and her country and her many thanks of gratitude for the gifts that this life has provided her.
Through my tears, I recognize this soulful collection of writings as a gift of love; my mother’s gift from the heart to her daughter and her grandchildren. When I hear a particular hymn or bake a chicken pot pie, I will feel the presence of my beloved mother. When I see a homemade cake and a wicker rocking chair on a southern porch, I will think of Miss Ginny and her gracious kindness. And I will know that these memories embody the power of love — gifts that transcends time and death, gifts from the heart.