We were so poor – poor people called us poor.
We lived in a little shotgun Kentucky house but it was cozy with crisp curtains and hand-sewn slipcovers Mom created with great tenderness and skill. There were always fragrant flowers artfully arranged, big bowls of brightly colored fresh fruit, and yummy homemade treats tempting me on grandmother’s tiered crystal compote.
Even though we were poor, I didn’t know it.
You could ask anybody…our house was the cleanest one on the block. Mom could wear out the Lysol, Pine-Sol, baking soda, bleach, and apple cider vinegar; germs didn’t stand a chance! She taught me at a very young age the joy of a clean, welcoming, and peaceful environment; she understood the power of a tranquil yet sensory atmosphere.
Without a doubt Christmas was the most highly anticipated and celebrated childhood holiday… talk about stimulating the senses! The mingled aromas of pine, spruce, gingerbread, caramel corn, and stuffed turkey. Oh, the wondrous sounds of carolers, church bells ringing, and “Merry Christmas” greetings from young and old alike. It was the very best time of the year!
Mom and Dad usually came off the road about the second week in December, and after a day or two of rest, the festivities began. Dad and I would search diligently for the perfect tree; 7 feet tall, very full, dark rich color, damp needles, and it had to call out my name! (Don’t even ask.) Mom’s creative talent flourished as she crafted unusual decorations from lace, metallic foil paper, scraps of velvet, and a potpourri of lovely feathers and materials. While she was the designer for many of our ornaments, Dad and I were the ones who decided how and where they were strategically placed on the tree.
We spent many happy hours decorating and being serenaded by Christmas carols from our stereo: The Ray Coniff Singers, George Beverly Shea sings Christmas Hymns, 101 Strings, Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney and Handel’s Messiah. I use the term “stereo” very loosely, since it was a $39.95 phonograph turntable with built-in speakers.
After the tree trimming, Dad would usually take a favorite book off the shelf and settle in his comfy chair for the evening. My dad may be a country Gospel crooner, but he has always been a lover of classical music, timeless literature, and fine art. I guess I was learning a lot about culture in those hills and didn’t even realize it at the time.
The Friday night before Christmas, we usually hosted a party for a few friends and family which was, in reality, a holiday jam session. Those hardworking, coal miners, farmers, and grocery store clerks transformed into uninhibited, talented musicians–put a guitar or fiddle in their hands and stand back! They sang and played from their souls for the sheer joy of the music. We belted out all the Christmas songs with gusto and conviction till long after midnight.
One such night, I had an overwhelming secret desire for my own Christmas tree. I knew it was a stretch each year for enough money to have even one tree, but I couldn’t stop dreaming, “Wouldn’t it be grand to snuggle down in the plump feather bed and stare at my own little tree twinkling atop the antique dresser?”
I don’t know if I talked in my sleep or Dad invaded my dreams.
That Christmas Eve morning, I couldn’t believe it! Glistening there was my very own tree, more unusual than any I’d ever seen, emanating the sugar-sweet aroma of Mr. Dixon’s Candy Store. I threw back the patchwork quilt, leaped out of bed, and started jumping up and down clapping my hands with glee. It was prettier to me than the White House Christmas tree!
Mom and Dad heard all the commotion and came running to my room. “Your dad journeyed into the woods and found these beautifully proportioned, dead branches, drug them home, stripped off the dead leaves, and spray painted each one with white enamel,” Mom said. “He planted them in my big red enamel flowerpot, wrapped every branch candy cane style with thin ribbon, and added a string of flickering, miniature lights. Don’t you just love the peppermint candy canes and the satin red ornaments?”
“I thought the two little robins perched on the branches were the perfect finishing touch,” Dad grinned. “I’ve watched the way you sit for hours staring at our Christmas tree and writing your poetry. I just thought it might be nice to have this little peppermint tree in your room to inspire even more creativity.”
I threw my arms around him and gave a tee-tight hug. I had never felt more loved in my life. I had to be the richest girl in Kentucky!
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