“We’ve scheduled your husband’s heart procedure for tomorrow. If all goes as planned, he should be transferred to the rehabilitation hospital the following day.”
Although Christmas was only four days away, I embraced that incredible news.
Our family had gone from the doctor saying, “We can’t ever say there’s no hope, but it doesn’t look good,” to witnessing unbelievable recovery. A heart attack, stroke, fall resulting in a severe brain injury, and lack of oxygen from an extended period with no heart or lung function—any can result in death for anyone. All together…death is almost guaranteed. Almost.
As soon as EMS loaded him for the hospital transfer, I made a beeline home to pack essentials for the weeks ahead. I also grabbed a small crocheted Christmas tree and miniature nativity scene.
A few friends and family joined us Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. We also had several hours alone. During that time, I found myself gazing at our tiny decorations. They reminded me anew of the significance of Christmas and the gift of love and life offered to our world.
I gained a greater appreciation for Mary and Joseph’s predicament as well. Far from home, they faced their medical dilemma and unknown future alone in a shelter intended for livestock. They had visitors, but not the people they knew and loved. How intimidated they must have felt with the unparalleled task that lay before them and their newborn son.
So I gave thanks. Thanks that we were together. Thanks that we had abundant medical and emotional support. Thanks for a warm, comfortable place to stay until our return home. Greater still, thanks that, because of God’s presence to earth that night so long ago, we would never have to face the future alone.
Taylor County RECC
It was a rough year for Dad. Ninety years old, in a nursing home, and without his soul mate, our mother, for a year. They lived completely for each other, so her loss was hard. Still, he found joy keeping up with his three boys and all his grandchildren.
Being his second Christmas without Mom, I thought I’d visit him on Christmas Eve. More family members were coming to visit him the next afternoon, Christmas Day, and that would make him cheerful.
Entering his room, he looked up and said, “Oh, I’m glad you came today. I want to tell you about the program they put on last night. It was amazing.” A gentle smile spread across his face. He looked so alert and happy.
He described a Christmas pageant put on by “local people.” He did not know who they were, but the program was remarkable because of how it was structured and performed.
He continued, “They would say their lines, then pause as if not sure what was to happen next, listen to someone, then continue their dialog. It was like plays your mother wrote. She had to be speaking to them and directing them. It was so strange and so beautiful.”
Puzzled, I told Dad I would go ask who the group was. However, the nurses reported there was no pageant, just a gospel quartet in the recreation hall. He was asleep and did not attend. I returned to his room, but all I could say was, “They don’t know who it was.”
“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “Your mother meant it for me. It was beautiful.”
“What was she telling you, Dad?”
“That I’m not alone. She’s with me and everything is okay.”
We were quiet for a moment.
“I’m glad, Dad. Merry Christmas.”
Our first Kentucky Christmas
We ventured to Kentucky 10 years ago from Minnesota because of my husband’s job promotion, ready to take a chance on Kentucky living. (Yeah, you betcha.) We arrived in Burlington well past 10 the night before Christmas Eve.
We had no beds, no chairs, and no idea what we had gotten ourselves into. We slept on the floor in sleeping bags, and awoke to a sunny, Kentucky Christmas Eve. The previous homeowner had instructed us to keep or toss whatever he’d left behind, so we went scrounging. There were lots of items, including an old bath vanity, but sadly, not even one chair. A trip to Target solved that.
After Christmas Eve Mass, we sat in the sunroom, akin to a Minnesota cabin. In record time, our breath fogged the floor to ceiling windows. There was a wood stove, but no wood. Shivering in our winter coats, we shared our increasing fears about the unknown that lay ahead. Doug missed strumming his guitar (packed on the moving truck). I missed my heater far more, and soon the family was chased out by Jack Frost.
For a reason Doug cannot explain, right then he climbed into the garage attic, claiming he hadn’t thoroughly checked the corners earlier. I heard him yell out. Had he been attacked by some Kentucky critter? Not quite. A large electric heater descended from the hole in the roof. Back up he went.
He yelled out again. I burst into tears as he descended the ladder holding a dusty, old guitar. His face was shining pure joy. Was this a dream? The heater oozed warmth. The guitar strummed; our whole family was gathered together, not around a tree, but the blessed heater in the sunroom, warm, laughing, and feeling at home, y’all. Best. Christmas. Ever.
Christmas 1947 revisited
It was a cold day in 1947 when my parents began to ask what I wanted for Christmas. In a split second I said, “I want a black baby doll and buggy to carry it in.” Now in those days a black doll was very hard to find. Parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles all began to look and ask about a black baby doll. It was in Louisville that my grandmother found and bought my doll for Santa to bring me on Christmas morning.
As a happy and excited 6-year-old girl, I couldn’t wait to show my doll to everyone. After Christmas was over Mother got all of us dressed and food prepared to help with the family dinner at my Aunt Margret and Uncle Robert’s house. Their home had a grocery store in the front and they lived in the back. Everyone was excited to show off Christmas gifts.
Suddenly, someone began to knock on the store door. Aunt Margret opened the door to a very needy black man and little girl who needed milk for a new baby at their house. Of course, childlike, we all wanted to see who it was and what they got for Christmas.
I saw and asked the little girl what she got from Santa. Sadly, she said Santa didn’t come to her house. Quietly, Aunt Margret began to fill a sack with candy and fruit and I was smart enough to know my doll was like her.
Lovingly, I kissed my doll and put it in the arms of the little girl. I told her I had more dolls at home and she could have my doll. My parents and grandparents told me it was better to give than receive, and I had done exactly what Jesus would want me to do for this little girl on Christmas Day.
Years and years passed. In fact, 23 years later, I was enrolling a black child in my room at school. The mother asked, “Are you Martha Matthews?” To my surprise she was the little girl I gave my doll to on Christmas morning in 1947.
The warm yellow lights shine from the evergreen tucked quietly in a corner. The fire pops and cracks as it emits an orange glow throughout the living room. Candles burn a cozy cinnamon aroma that pours throughout the house. Mom, Dad, and I are cuddled up on the couch with our hands wrapped around a cup of hot cocoa, watching Christmas classics.
When I was younger, I could fly with the magic that the joy of Christmas brought me. It was the presents that brought me that joy, or so I thought. What I never realized was that it was never really about all the gifts spilling out from under the tree that gave Christmas that magic. As I grew bigger, the presents grew smaller, but the magic was still there.
I now see that it wasn’t just the presents. It was the paper. The mystery behind it was what made it fun and exciting. It was the fire, the ornaments, the way the snow glazed the Earth like icing on a cake. It was the thought of Santa as I spotted a trail of candy from my stocking leading out the door and up our driveway. It was the half-eaten cookies left out for Santa. All these things meant more than any gift.
As I look at my family, and how blessed I truly am, I realize the magic was not in the gifts and expectations, it was love and mystery. I am getting older and I can finally see how precious these little moments really are. Just the thought warms my heart, and somehow pushes a smile up from deep within me. Now, I can look at all those gifts and see all of the Christmas memories that they will continue to carry with them.
Meade County RECC
“Not alone”Tamale tradition
I am the baby of the family and I remember clearly when I was 7 or 8, a couple days before Christmas, us kids would decorate the tree and put up Christmas decorations all over the house so anyone coming or leaving knew we were celebrating Christmas. Since we had no gifts, Mom always put baby Jesus with Mary, Joseph, and the three wise men under the tree.
The day before Christmas, we all got together to help make tamales—we made beef with red sauce and chicken with green sauce. I remember it took a long time, but it was good family time. When that was done, we had good times sharing Christmas memories.
On Christmas morning my big brothers came with Mexican bread to have with coffee or some menudo (Mexican soup) to have for breakfast. If we were lucky, we got some gifts, but there were lots of times there were no gifts. But Mom always said we had a roof over our head and food in our bellies, so what more did we need? And best of all we had each other!
I sure miss our mom so much, but now there are three generations making tamales. What a memory of Christmas.
Monica Aguilar Darag
Case of the missing popcorn
The Christmas I was 14, Mother decided we should have an “old-fashioned” Christmas tree in honor of my sister’s homecoming. My sister’s husband was in the military at the time, and her holiday visits were infrequent and therefore all the more cause for special celebration. Mother commissioned one of my three brothers and me to make a popcorn garland for the tree.
My brother and I popped a couple of brown grocery bags full of popcorn, gathered our needles and thread, and set to work stringing popcorn. Well, being siblings (and teenagers), the endeavor just naturally turned into a friendly competition to see which of us could get to the bottom of his/her bag first. We began threading popcorn, going at it “hammer and tongs,” but after a while my brother insisted we check to see who was ahead. We’d both been working quickly and steadily so both of our strings should have been fairly equal in length. Imagine our mutual surprise when his strand was several feet shorter than mine.
My brother good-naturedly accused me of chicanery. I laughed and reminded him that I had been stringing popcorn the whole time and in plain sight of him. He agreed that was true.
Puzzled, we resumed our task, but presently we heard something we hadn’t noticed before—we distinctly heard CRUNCHING! Our eyes met and grew big with questioning and together we looked under the table to see our poodle contentedly munching away on my brother’s string of popcorn. We broke into guffaws of laughter that was hard to quell, shooed poochy out of the room, and finished the job with many fits of giggling slowing down the process.
We still get a good laugh from this memory each time we remember the time Christmas went to the dog!
For a child who loves to write there is no better gift than paper and pencil. At least, that is what I thought. Every year, I would get all the latest toys and piles of clothes. Yet, the new notebooks and shiny gel pens were my favorite. Each blank page held a new challenge. I truly believed I was Shakespeare.
My cousin, Kayla, and I stayed with our grandmother during the nights. Kayla usually curled up on the couch with her phone. I sat crossed-legged in the recliner with my pencil in hand. Mamaw would always mute Jeopardy to ask what I was writing. She would sit and listen to my stories. Then, she would tell me what a great writer I was.
“You’re going to write a book one day,” she’d say.
“Would you buy it?”
“I’ll be first in line.”
On Christmas Eve 2010, Mamaw had to be taken to the hospital. Before she would let the ambulance take her, she said she had to give Kayla and me our Christmas presents. She gave each of us a gold necklace with an angel on the front. It was the prettiest necklace I’d ever seen. I looked up to thank her and saw Kayla crying. She was looking at the back of her necklace. I flipped mine over and saw the engraving, “I will always be at your side.” I held it close as the EMTs took Mamaw to the hospital.
She got to come home on Christmas Day. We celebrated that Christmas and two more before Mamaw passed away on Dec. 27, 2012. I haven’t written my book yet, and Mamaw won’t be first in line. But I don’t think I will ever write anything as meaningful as the words on the back of my necklace.
The Christmas watch
My favorite Christmas story starts in the fall of 1956, on a farm in Green County at Exie.
My family consisted of Daddy, Mother, four brothers—one married—and me. My dad had been down sick for two years now, and my brother Russell had to drop out of high school to take over the farm work at the age of 15, so our family was struggling.
I was 13, going to Lone Oak School and in the eighth grade. I don’t remember ever asking for a special gift for Christmas. We were thankful for whatever we got. But one evening after school, I told Mother that all the girls at school around my age had wristwatches. I was kind of hinting that, just maybe, I might get one for Christmas.
Christmas Eve was here and we didn’t even go up on the farm and cut a cedar tree that year, for Daddy was getting worse. So, Christmas morning came. Mother gave our gifts out. I opened mine, still hoping for that watch. It was a pair of gloves. I could hardly hold back my tears. I left the room and went out behind the house and cried my eyes out. I should have been thankful for anything.
My dad passed away the following March with leukemia. If it hadn’t been for Social Security and my brothers Russell and Robert, we younger children would probably have gone to foster homes. I owe them for keeping us all together.
Months passed by, and it was Christmas again, and when I opened my present, there was my watch. Mother remembered and it probably hurt her more than me, because she couldn’t fulfill my wishes the year before. God bless mothers!
Trevor (Treva) Sullivan
Taylor County RECC
In December of 1944 my dad was on a troop ship en route to Europe to fight in the war. Mom was at home alone with three sons: me, age 4-1/2, Larry, age 3-1/2, and Mike, 6 weeks old. We had just finished supper when there was a knock on the back door. It was an old gentleman looking for a meal. Mom said he was clean-looking with white hair and a beard. Larry and I thought he might be Santa Claus, so she invited him in.
After he ate he took her by the hand and thanked her and said, “Don’t worry, little Momma, your man will return from the war to you.” That struck her as odd because she didn’t tell the stranger that Dad was away. Later she went out to the shed to get coal in for the heat stove. There was about six inches of snow on the ground from the night before. On the way back to the house she stopped in her tracks. Something was odd. She walked all around the house. There were no tracks in the snow anywhere except where she had walked!
Dad’s first taste of war was the Battle of the Bulge. He went through several major fights before the end of the war without a scratch! She always believed she was visited by an angel. After the war, they had two more children, a son, Steven, and a daughter, Mary. Mom passed away in 2002, but Dad is still with us and is 96 years old.
William F. Young III
Read Magical memories, more essays published in Kentucky Living magazine December 2015.
Illustrations: Robert Bridges