Bill Ward: A memorable Christmas

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 25, 2016

By Bill Ward
For the Salisbury Post

I remember some good Christmases as a child. My parents concentrated on my sister — six years younger — and me getting plenty of stuff. There was the year of the camping tent; the year of the microscope and chemistry set; and the year of the bicycle.

My dad and I had barely begun to know each other before he died when I was 12. His death left my mother to raise me and my sister, all alone. A long passage of time elapsed before I could step back and understand my mother’s feelings, including life in general. She often worked two jobs to provide us with shelter, clothes and food.

But however much I tried to understand and get along, my mother and I became estranged for a number of years. I learned quickly not to ask, “How’re you doing?” That left me wide-open for 30-plus minutes of a recital of aches and pains and a variety of illnesses, both real and imagined.

I finally decided, if for no other reason than my own piece of mind, to try and pull all of us together. So, I got on the phone and started calling: First a call to my mother and her husband, Ed, in Roanoke Rapids, to make sure it was OK for everyone to swoop in together at Christmas. Next my oldest son at the Marine Corps Air Station, Cherry Point; my sister and her daughter in Minneapolis, who would fly into Raleigh-Durham; and my youngest son whose presence I had to negotiate with my ex-wife for. Fun!

A couple of days before departing, I went to one of the big discount warehouse stores and began stocking up; bottles of perfume for all the women; other odds and ends gifts for everyone; plenty of deli meats and cheeses, candy, peanuts and large tins of popcorn. I wanted the gathering to be as festive and easy as possible — no cooking a big dinner — giving everyone a chance to talk and get to know each other again.

On Dec. 23, I packed my car, loaded my youngest son in — all the “Santa” stuff had been discretely packed in one box — and we were off to Grandma’s place, an assisted living center about five hours northeast of Charlotte. We went by RDU Airport and got my sister and niece. We resembled a band of gypsies. The car was overloaded with luggage, even after repacking the trunk.

When we finally arrived at mother and Ed’s apartment, they were watching TV. Mother sat in a wheelchair. You couldn’t be sure if that was for her benefit or ours. The scene was like American Gothic. Mother was quick to mention that they had not done anything for Christmas; no shopping for gifts and, obviously, no decorating. They just had not felt like it. We assured her that we would get it done, if for no other reason than tomorrow was Christmas Eve.

We unpacked most of the Christmas goodies and opened the popcorn, which Ed liked. I had to convince him that placing his hand in his mouth to adjust his dentures, then sticking his fingers back into the popcorn tin was not a good thing. We found a large dish and filled it for him.

We started preparing for bed — my sister and niece would go to a nearby motel; John and I would stay in the apartment. The night passed quickly. When we got up a few hours later, it was Christmas Eve, and there was much to do.

Mother and sis found the old Christmas tree ornaments and lights that we had used since I was a little boy. But the main item we needed now was a tree. Ed, John, and I got in my car to start the search. We went to all the grocery stores, checked all the places where tree lots might have been set up. All were sold out. After a couple of hours of searching, Ed said something about having an old friend who owned a farm where we might get a tree. We drove up a rural road until we came to a nicely restored country home, where Ed went to the door.

Ed was a small man. The man who came to the door looked like a descendant of Paul Bunyan. The two men walked back to the driveway. Ed got into the farmer’s pickup, and we followed them down the road. When we got to where the trees were supposed to be, a row of high hedges blocked the view from the road. John ran down to an opening in the hedges and yelled back to me, “Hey Dad, you should see it out here. There’s all kinds of Christmas trees.” I walked down to where he stood, and sure enough, row after row of trees were there, just waiting to celebrate the season.

The farmer told John to pick himself a tree. A chainsaw made short work of felling it, then the farmer put the tree in the back of my car. Reaching for my wallet, I asked how much I owed him. “Nothing,” he said. “The tree is for the little boy’s Christmas.”

Back at the apartment, we put up the tree, and mother volunteered to decorate it with some help from John. Sis and I drove over to an overcrowded K-mart. We needed some decorative containers to set out some of the snacks I had brought. We bought a red-plaid Christmas table cloth, some plastic and inexpensive porcelain dishes. So they weren’t Fitz and Floyd or Lenox china — they suited our purpose.

When we got back home, the tree was almost decorated. We set out our K-mart dishes and began to fill them with peanuts, popcorn and candy. Sis and my niece went out on the little patio and began to string some garland and lights. Soon, the apartment looked like Christmas.

I decided to attend Midnight Mass. My sister, niece and son went with me. When we came back, I put John in bed. After a few minutes, he was sound asleep, and I made sure Santa placed everything under the tree, just right.

On Christmas morning, the usual excitement filled the air. John explored his Santa loot. Jimmy, my oldest son and his wife, arrived from Cherry Point. We spent the rest of the morning “catching up,” as they say, and enjoyed a casual Christmas meal. It wasn’t big and fancy, but it was a nice holiday — ‘way back when, in simpler times.

Bill Ward is a writer who lives in Salisbury. Merry Christmas.