In the1950s, when the December issue of Good Housekeeping, Ladies’ Home Journal or McCall’s arrived in our dusty mailbox (It never had a door, and we lived on a dirt road.), I knew it was time to decorate for Christmas. I awoke one morning this week seeing in my mind’s eye the little turquoise ceramic teapot with chipped spout steaming the holiday greeting “Merry Christmas” from its favored spot on the mantle of my childhood home. I remember that Mother actually spotted this clever decorating notion in one of these magazines, although after the first year, I eagerly placed the teapot on the mantle, taped one end of a cloud of iridescent spun glass angel hair to the spout and the other end to the frame of Mama’s picture, and secured to the stream of angel hair the letters spelling “Merry Christmas” that Mother magically provided by folding red construction paper and making a few exact cuts with very sharp scissors.
I no longer subscribe to ladies’ magazines, but the sweet memory of the steaming teapot spouting Christmas greetings reminds me that Christmas time is here. Having just barely finished Thanksgiving leftovers, I recall media coverage prior to this year’s traditional family feast reporting individuals’ dread of gathering at the table for fear of probable unpleasant conversation. Some folks actually celebrated alone to avoid family squabbles regarding politics, scandals, terror and disasters.
Although too late for Thanksgiving, I can share examples of congenial table talk for Christmas. Considering the Thanksgiving dilemma reported, I happily recall our family holiday meals together, like the one around Mama’s chrome table with green Formica top.
Mama sat at one end. To her right, perched in the wooden high chair sister Patsy and I had used was 18-month old cousin Mary Jo next to her parents Aunt Hattie Lee and Uncle Milton Gilbreath. Daddy sat at the end opposite Mama, Mother next to Daddy, while Patsy and I squeezed close on the primitive wooden table-stool Uncle Charley Hawkins built. This was the year Mary Jo repeatedly reached out her chubby right arm, beseechingly opened and closed her hand, and demanded, “Beets, beets, beets.” Midway through the meal, she also declared that she was ready for some of that “C cake.” Mama spelled words she did not want children to hear and before dinner had asked Mother to bring in the C-A-K-E.
Mary Jo’s story became a favorite at future holiday meals, each retelling bringing smiles and comments of, “Oh, yes. I remember. Wasn’t Mary Jo the prettiest little thing you ever saw?”
Although we did not discuss politics or inappropriate advances, folks of a more prim and proper persuasion may have considered offensive our reactions to some of niece Stephanie’s impersonations. For example, when Stephanie mimicked her mother — my sister Patsy — tossing her long blonde hair, flicking — then breaking — her cigarette, and yelling for her grandchildren to get inside and eat this tuna fish NOW, we all laughed hysterically. Why, you could have heard us clear down to the Parks store!
Before we could recover, Stephanie launched into retelling the time she and her sister Reshia had to drive the 11 miles from Parks to Waldron High School in Grandpa’s Bicentennial Edition white Dodge pickup with stock racks reeking. They had missed the bus, the car wouldn’t start, and they had to get to school. Reshia had the license to drive. Stephanie slunk down in the passenger seat — until the engine died when Reshia stopped at the single traffic light in Waldron. By the time Reshia kept the truck running and jerked through the light, Stephanie was on the floorboard threatening her sister with unspeakable acts of revenge.
When my family gathered for holiday meals, we waited for Mother to finally sit down before joining hands for the blessing. Hand touching hand melded our history, including the good, the bad and the ugly. With Amen, we were one, and the stories began. I loved to hear Daddy retell little Kathy Hawkins’ description of Mother’s gravy. Sisters Kathy and Judy Hawkins and their first cousin, Susie Hawkins, were my third cousins. Several years younger than Patsy and I, they very often came home with us after Sunday morning church. After playing all afternoon and eating supper, they rejoined their parents after evening church. One night, Mother warmed leftovers, including beef and gravy and cornbread. Granted, cornbread reheated in a hot oven is hard. Of course, Kathy wanted gravy on her cornbread. Biting her tongue while forcefully attempting to cut the bread with a fork, she innocently declared, “Boy, Aunt Melba, this gravy sure is tough”. Others sometimes told this story, but with his wry sense of humor, Daddy did it best.
Precious short stories of Patsy’s interpreting my early babble were often included for filler between lengthy tales. If the adults could not understand my attempts at spoken language, Patsy would say, “I think she said ... .” If incorrect, I waited patiently for her to try again. When correct, I exuberantly nodded my head and smiled joyfully.
The teapot has spoken. It’s Christmas time — time to prepare for the celebration of Christ’s birth. Which family member will retell the story on Christmas Day? Which of your family’s stories will you share around the table? Decide now and remove all dread of unpleasant conversation on Christmas Day.
I want this year’s teapot to say, “Peace on Earth. Good will to all.” If only I knew how to cut letters!
Louise Owens Finney is a retired secondary teacher and part-time minister in Fort Smith. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.