My Motherís spirit was her gift. She never complained about the hard life that was her lot, but come December, it seemed her usual cheerfulness was mysteriously magnified, as if her very soul were sprinkled with magical potions of love. Her spirit drifted into my own heart, and Christmas was a season that lifted me far beyond the mundane existence of my young life. Born solely from the spirit that was hers, my world became a place of wonder, a place where dreams lived and love thrived. Sans monetary wealth and glitter, our kerosene-lamp-lighted house was a transformation of quiet enchantment.


I was the youngest of ten children and the last to leave the nest, so at Christmas time, if I was not playing on Daddyís sawdust pile, I was busy helping Mama get ready for the big event. We would begin our preparations by cleaning our house from top to bottom. Mama always believed that "cleanliness is next to Godliness," and at this special time of year, I came to understand that our house had to reflect the very epitome of spit, shine, and polish. There was no getting around it, and I didnít want to anyway. Yuletide was a season when Mama didnít have to coax me into helping with household chores. Her enthusiasm was contagious, and I was eager to help.


We washed every window until it gleamed to perfection; every curtain was washed, starched and ironed -- Mama also ironed the bed sheets and pillowcases! Although our quilts had already been washed before we put them away in the spring, Mama always washed them again at Christmas time so they would "smell fresh"; and even in the coldest weather, we would drag all our mattresses outside to air and sun.


When these preliminary cleaning procedures were completed, Mama and I would scrub our bare wood floors with lye soap and hot water. Using a scrub broom made from corn shucks, we scrubbed those floors until I knew they were clean enough to eat from! Sometimes Mama would tell me stories as we worked; sometimes she would tell me that big brother was bringing his new bride home for Christmas -- and Iíd push the old scrub broom even faster.


After our house was thoroughly cleaned, I would cut notebook paper into strips, color them red and green, glue them together into chains, and hang them on that magnificent pine tree Daddy had cut and set up in the corner of our front room. Mama would fashion a star out of brown paper sacks, wax paper, or whatever material she had, and together we would fasten it on the top of our tree. Today, on looking back, I know that the pine trees Daddy cut were squatty little bushes. Being the financially-poor farmer and sawmill man that he was, he would not have sawn down his best trees for any reason other than to cut them into logs to sell. My mind reasons thus, but my heart remembers the most beautiful Christmas trees I had ever seen, then -- and since.


Three days before Christmas, Mama would begin baking cookies, cakes, candy, and pies to be served on Christmas day. Mama made everything from scratch, and I never saw her use a recipe. I am certain there was magic in the hands that prepared those nut-filled coconut and chocolate confections, because the scrumptious aroma that filled our house filled my heart with such anticipation I could hardly wait until Christmas day!


On Christmas morning the smell of fresh ham and hen boiling on the wood-burning stove awakened me early, and I would jump out of bed and run to the kitchen where I would find Mama singing and rolling out dumplings. I knew the big day had arrived at last. Soon our home became joyfully alive with family members, everyone laughing and talking at once. Happily I played with my cotton-stuffed doll Mama had made, while my older sisters helped Mama in the kitchen. Daddy and my brothers sat in front of the crackling fire and talked of two-by-fours and log chains until they heard Mama call from the kitchen, "Time to eat!"


Although assets were few, and for many years my family had to skimp and get by on meager food supplies, Christmas day was an exception. I know now Mama saved her pennies throughout the year so that she could present her family this one feast on this special day -- HER day, the day she dearly loved, the day she wanted to share with the people she cherished most.


And what a feast it was! Our old wooden table literally sagged from holding the delicious food Mama had cooked: chicken and dumplings, chicken and dressing, chicken and rice, ham and sweet potatoes, potato salad, every vegetable under the sun, corn bread, buttermilk biscuits, and the goodies I couldnít wait to sample -- chocolate cake, coconut cake, raisin cake, peppermint candy cake, all kinds of melt-in-your-mouth cookies, meringue pies, custards, banana pudding, and an assortment of peanut, pecan, and chocolate candies.


How thankful I am for my Christmases with Mama, with all their inexplicable joys; Christmases that simply were; Christmases wrapped in love.


Many years have passed since Mama left us. A few years back, Daddy went on to join Mama; the little country house no longer stands. I live in an electrically-lighted house in the city. I have four grown-up children and six grandchildren. So much has changed since my Christmases with Mama, yet, this Christmas season, as always, I journey back in poignant memory to my country home, and I become a child again.


Mamaís Christmas meaning lives on. Soon my children and grandchildren will arrive. My family will truly be together on Christmas. We will all laugh and talk at once; we will share our love for one another; we will enjoy the baked goodies Iíve prepared and forget about the battle of the bulge one more time.


And up There, where the angels sing, I know, come December, Mama's eyes will be twinkling.



This article was first published in Anterior Monthly Review December 1994.

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