Sunday, December 22, 2013

Christmas Eve in Appalachia

These are the combined memories of the years I spent at Granny's house on Christmas Eve--sweet, precious memories of the greatest family on earth.

View from the front window of my childhood home. The mountains are almost invisible due to oncoming snow. We could sit there and watch it cover the mountains and then drift down the hollers.

“Oh, please let it snow.” I squashed my face against the front window and searched for a snowflake to fall from a gray Christmas Eve sky.

“Karen, you’re messing up my freshly cleaned windows. Get off…”

“Mommy, do you think it’s going to snow tonight. Oh, look, somebody just pulled into the driveway,” I squealed in anticipation of a Christmas gift.

“Who is it?”

“I don’t know. But they’re in a blue car.”

“Well, hurry and get ready so we can go on over to your granny’s and help her set up for the party.”

I wiped away the fog from the window, leaving finger swipes in the wake, and pulled on my red sweater and shoes. Mom and Dad warmed our coats by the stove. We pulled them tightly around us, filled our arms with food, pokes stuffed with presents, and my baby sister. Frigid air hit us as we crossed the porch and headed to granny’s house next door.

“It smells like snow out here. Oh, it just has to snow. It’s Christmas.”

We tromped onto Granny's porch and burst into the house, already filled with relatives and laughter. Mom put the food on the dining room table as Dad and I put gifts under Granny’s aluminum tree. A lamp with pie pieces of colored light sat on the floor and turned the tree red, blue, gold and green as it slowly turned.

We tossed our coats onto Granny’s bed and then the hugging commenced. Aunt Joyce and her family, from Cincinnati, led the group in laughter. Aunt Myrt (short for Mary Ruth) told us stories about all the wonderful things she did this past year in Lexington. Myrt has a talent for tall tales, too. Uncle Junior trapped me in a chair and came at me with his pinching fingers, like a crawdad, saying, “I’m gonna give you some sugar.” I tried to escape, unsuccessfully, as he pinched my knees in just the right spot, making me wince in pain and scream for mercy. He always laughed like he thought I enjoyed the attack. I didn’t.

Before the party, this is what Granny's tree looked like.

I sat quietly in the corner watching the tree as it reflected the light and colors in the room. I also perused the brightly decorated packages heaped around the tree. I hoped the prettiest ones had my name on the tag. Voices filled the house with boisterous laughter and teasing. Each time a new group of relatives arrived, the pile of presents grew until they created a mountain of bright colors, resembling an Appalachian autumn.

Granny laid out all her presents for the family on her bed as she wrapped them. We would help her carry them to the tree.

As the chill of the house became more obvious, we took turns standing in front of the fireplace to warm our fronts. Then, we turned around to warm our backs. We stood there long enough to heat our legs just enough to burn a little. That seemed to make the warmth last longer.

I breathed in the fragrance of burning wood mixed with fresh-cooked food now heaped on the dining table and buffet. Nothing compared to Granny’s house at Christmas.

Granny appeared in the archway and announced, “Food’s ready, everybody. Come and get it!”

Plates of food covered the table and buffet. My stomach wanted some of everything. Instead, I chose the dishes I already knew I loved—apple salad, Granny’s sage dressing, cornbread and butter, shuck beans, pea salad, and my favorite baloney salad sandwiches.   

My aunts--Mona Jo, Joyce, Mom, Myrt

Every year, I watched Granny make the baloney salad the day of the party. She peeled the red wrapper off a huge log of baloney and cranked it through the metal meat grinder attached to her kitchen table. Then she added sweet gherkins and boiled eggs to the mix. I loved watching the ingredients squish out the metal plate, looking like baloney spaghetti. Then she added the mayonnaise, stirred it all up in a huge pale green bowl. When it was just right, she spread the mixture onto white Bunny bread, sliced the sandwiches corner to corner and put them in the fridge to get cold. There is nothing as awesome as baloney salad sandwiches on Christmas Eve--except, maybe, my mom’s family recipe fruitcake. I like jam cake, apple stack cake, fudge and banana pudding, but no dessert compares to my mom’s fruitcake.

The men of the family always seemed to get to the head of the line first. I secretly prayed there would be some food left by the time my turn came. We filled our plates and found an available seat from the menagerie of chairs and sofa placed in a ring around the living room. Laughter and conversation dimmed as fork loads of fabulous mountain food were scooped into our mouths.

Mom and Aunt Mona Jo

After we filled our stomachs to capacity, we opened presents. As Granny sat in her easy chair, aunts and uncles passed out the gifts. I always noticed that Granny received more gifts than anyone else. Aunt Mona Jo always grabbed the gift Granny bought me and handed it to me so no one could miss it.

“This one’s for Kurn Lynn.” (the hillbilly way of saying Karen Lynn). “Go ahead and open it!” She smiled as my face flushed. I tried to wait until everyone returned to their own presents, but she wouldn’t let me off so easily. “Go on and open it. Let’s see what it is.”

I think she knew what was in the box before I opened it. Actually, I knew what was in that box. I received the same thing from Granny every year—underwear. If I hesitated, Mona Jo helped me by ripping off the paper and opening up the box for me.

My face turned the color of the coals in the fireplace as I slinked down in my chair. I wanted to slide under the chair. Actually, I wanted to put Aunt Mona Jo under the chair.

“Oh, look at what Kurn Lynn got, everybody. Drawers! Ain’t they purty? Hold ‘em up so everybody can see how purty they are.”

There was a lot more than this to clean up.

When the last gift had been opened and the room was littered with remnants of festive paper and bows, my aunts and mom sneaked out of the room in whispers. They returned a moment later with the final gift for Granny—a Christmas stocking. It wasn’t the normal red flannel stocking you might expect. It wasn’t a knee sock like I hung from the window frame near the coal stove in my own house next door. They brought in real nylon stockings, filled to the top with little gifts, fruit, nuts in the shells and a variety of Christmas candies. It took the four of them to carry it into the room. Laughter erupted again.

Mona Jo, Granny, Uncle Jr.'s wife of the time, Uncle Jr., and my mom.

The party ended with a special treat Uncle Junior brought from Chicago—pink champagne. The kids weren’t allowed to taste it. We sat and watched as the adults giggled when the bubbles tickled their noses.

Clean-up whizzed by as everyone stuffed festive debris and leftovers into trash bags. Arms filled with gifts and a variety of leftovers to enjoy on Christmas day, we made our way back across the yard to our beds in the hopes sleep would come quickly to allow Santa to do his job.

“Look! It’s snowing. I knew it would snow. Woo-hoo! We’re going to have a white Christmas.” I danced across the yard, my head bent back to watch the snowflakes fall from the sky.

Mom called back to the relatives, “Y’all be careful driving back tonight. These roads are gonna be slick.”

Christmas tree at my house.

Ready for dreamland, I stood in front of the stove to warm myself enough to face the cold of my unheated bedroom. Stinging from the heat, I ran and jumped into bed as my dad pulled the heap of quilts over me.

“You’d better get to sleep so Santa can come, little girl.” He gently kissed my forehead and ran his hard-working fingers across my hair.

“I will, Daddy. I sure hope it snows a lot. Good-night.” I yawned and rubbed the hard knot of baloney salad sandwiches and fruitcake in my tummy.  I smiled as my eyelashes fluttered and I soon dreamed of the toys on my Christmas list, deep white snow covering the mountains and trees, leftover baloney salad sandwiches, and NO underwear.

One wonderful Christmas morning when snow fell in abundance.
Another Christmas with snow, glorious snow!

Wishing you a Christmas season filled with precious memories. And please, don't forget the reason we celebrate Christmas--the perfect gift we received that offers us something even more sweet than mere memories.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

What is Peace on Earth?

Sitting on a shelf in my little bathroom (the one closest to my desk) is a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. Last year I found a plush Linus, dressed as a shepherd with his blankie on his head. I was so excited when I placed him next to the tree and squeezed the “press here” sticker on his foot. Every time I visited my little bathroom, I smiled at the scene and squeezed his foot to hear the familiar voice tell me the real meaning of Christmas.

Now, I understand the memory available on these little guys is limited and they couldn’t record the entire scene, but the more I listened, the more troubled I became. The edited version of the entire scene, something all writers must deal with, seemed to change the focus of the message.

“For behold, I bring you tidings of great joy which will be to all people and on earth peace, good will toward men. That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

Do you see what I mean? They left out the part about the baby Jesus and focused only on the peace on earth part. The more I pressed his foot and listened, the more I realized how like our world this is. The masses are eager to spend their money on gifts, decorate their homes lavishly for holiday parties, and maybe toss some loose change into a Salvation Army bell ringer’s bucket as their good deed for the season. But, they leave out the baby Jesus. 

Peace on earth sounds like a good thing. However, the peace spoken of at Christmas is possible only because of the baby. Don’t let the Christmas lights blind you to the Truth. God sent His Son on Christmas, as a baby. He is God and man. He is the Prince of Peace.

We can only find peace by accepting his promise to forgive all of our sin. We only need to believe he will. That’s faith. During his ministry on earth, Jesus healed many people of physical sickness. All they had to do was believe he could do it. It’s the same with our spiritual sickness, sin. Just believe the Savior Jesus has the power to forgive our sin and bring us peace. Peace is healing from sin.
Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
(Luke 2:10-14)

Do you have peace this Christmas season? Would you like to have the peace that defies human explanation and is oblivious to the confusion and tumult of the world around us? What do you think peace really means?

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Why Bother to Deck the Halls?

Why do we celebrate Christmas? Why do we go to the trouble to deck the entire house, inside and out? Why do we drive ourselves nuts attending every concert, play, church program, and party we can fit into our already overbooked calendars? Why do we spend more money than we have budgeted, driving us into debt, just to buy gifts we don’t like, so how can the recipient possibly like them? We’re stressed, overextended, depressed and miserable—and it’s all so we can say Merry Christmas!

Decorating and shopping have become a burden for me as my health issues limit me. However, I love both. I love the colors of Christmas, the smells, the sparkle, the music, and the snow (even if it has to be fake here in Atlanta). I also love the programs and parties. Again, my health makes attending them a hardship.

The Christmas season is emotionally devastating to many people. It is the season of depression as we face the realization that our Christmas is not the perfect Christmas. It’s also the season when the loss of loved ones smothers us in pain. Stress, loneliness, anxiety, depression lead many suffering souls to the brink of suicide.

So, again I ask, why do we celebrate Christmas?

Most Christians would heartily say it is the season to celebrate Jesus’ birth. I agree. It is the main reason many of us honor the season. But what about all the other trappings of the season? Surely, there were no ornament encrusted trees and decorative items filling the stable. There was no rendition of “Jingle Bells,” “Here Comes Santa Claus,” and “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” wafting through the hay-filled stalls.

This morning, I found myself regretting the fact that instead of taking care of my “Christmas To Do” list, I was sitting in the waiting room of my mechanic. 

When I entered a beautifully decorated lobby, with an electric fireplace, one thing was immediately obvious. The only Christmas decoration was a tiny USB-powered tree on the counter. 

Amusingly, he mentioned something about not being in the mood to put up the tree, especially since it was stuffed into a closet, blocked by pallets of antifreeze. He also mentioned that he’d had a lot of negative things going on in his life this year and he just couldn’t “feel” it.

I waited as they checked why my air conditioning wasn’t working (on a 31 degree morning). As I waited, my mind wondered as to why we SHOULD decorate for Christmas. After all, with my recent back injury, my decorations were still swimming around in the back of my van, waiting for a helpful elf to carry them into the house for me. Thoughts of being satisfied with a tree without the ornaments and a front door wreath was almost palatable--and sensible. And then it hit me.

The reason we should decorate is the same as the reason we don’t feel like decorating. It's because there are so many people experiencing suffering right now that we need to do that one little thing that can get their attention—even if for only a moment. For in that one moment, a seed of hope can be planted. In that one moment, a spark of meaning can ignite. In that one moment, a person who might not have survived otherwise can be distracted from their desire to give up. In that one moment, we might direct one lost soul to the real reason we celebrate Christmas. 

I walked over to the counter and told Dave I thought he should put up the tree. Then, I told him why. A couple of minutes later, he took a flashlight into the storage area, moved the antifreeze out of the way, and dragged out the Christmas decorations. When he came into the lobby with the boxes, his face beamed, “Yep, I need to put up the tree.”

So, as you get out there and run yourself ragged, don’t forget. One tiny act of celebration can save a life. So, smile, pass out a piece of chocolate to a stranger, wear a ridiculously overly decorated sweater, put a jingle bell on your jacket, switch your phone's ringtone to a Christmas song, wear a Santa hat, pay for the order behind you in a drive-thru, put glitter on your face and see who notices, or look someone in the eyes and tell them...

Tuesday, December 3, 2013


This story is the result of a writing prompt. I took a classic Christmas story, told it from a different point of view, and in a different genre. I hope you enjoy it.

          A frigid wind whistled through the trees, whirling the snow and creating a snow-globe effect, making the metal claws of the trap invisible. Rudolf lowered his head and aimed his budding antlers through the whiteness, guided only by the crimson glow of his nose. He wondered why Santa left a message to meet him out here in the forsaken cave in the middle of a snowstorm. Perhaps he was testing the efficiency of the red laser under extreme circumstances. You must be prepared for whatever happens on Christmas Eve. As his eyes misted over from the sting of the wind-propelled ice pellets, the trap sprung to life, clamped with vengeance around his leg, sucked him into the oblivion of the whiteness, and left only a soft pink glow visible.
          A scream jolted Rudolf into consciousness. Darkness surrounded him. Another scream reverberated until it faded away. He gasped as pain ripped through his body. Finally, he realized it was his scream. 
          He attempted to stand. Something held him in place, refusing to relent. He struggled against the unseen force and searing pain shot through his leg, causing him to scream again. He stopped struggling and tried to clear the fog from his brain. His nose glowed so weakly he could not see his surroundings. He concentrated with all his strength to make the light brighter. It pulsed faintly and faded to pale pink.
          Rudolf carefully moved his head as far as possible. He saw only blackness. Taking several deep breaths to calm his shuddering body, his nose glowed slightly stronger. It pierced the dark around him just enough to see that he lay on a table of some sort. His restraint seemed to be duct tape with a Christmas motif stamped on it. Beside the table stood a smaller table covered with items that reflected the red glow from his nose.
          Taking a few more breaths, he cranked up the intensity of the light until he could see ice-encrusted stone walls around him. Then, a shadow moved ever so slightly. He blinked his eyes. Something, or someone, hovered in the darkness.
          “Hello,” his voice sounded small as it bounced off the icy walls. “Is there someone there? Can you help me?”
          “Please. I don’t understand what’s happening. Get me out of here. At least go find Santa to save me.”
          A snarling laugh swirled in the darkness and wrapped itself around Rudolf’s shivering body. “Santa can’t save you now.”
          “Who are you? Why won’t you help me?”
          “Because I am the reason you’re here.”
          The voice sounded familiar. He tried to think why, “You are the reason? What reason? Did I do something to upset you?”
          “Upset me? You destroyed my life.”
          “I don’t understand. What did I do? I would never hurt anyone. I promise.” Rudolf’s head was now spinning with pain and confusion.
          The form crept nearer, just outside the circle of light. Suddenly, a horrible stench overwhelmed Rudolf, making his stomach heave into his throat.
          “You just couldn’t help it, could you? You flew in with your glowing nose and destroyed my plans. Because of you I have been relocated to the refuse department in the toy hospital.”
          “Oh! You’re the garbage reindeer!”
          “Refuse Manager, you mutant. And now, I shall destroy you!”
          A guttural bellow vibrated the room, causing Rudolf’s nose glow to wane. His heart pounded against the table with such intensity that he knew it could be heard. His breath came in jagged bursts as the garbage reindeer approached and flipped a switch on the side table.
          Instantly, the cave filled with bright white light, causing Rudolf to wince. Gradually, he opened his eyes and adjusted to the brightness. The figure stood looking down at Rudolf with bloodshot eyes and a snarl.
          “Oh, it’s you Damien,” he cocked his head slightly to the side. “Why did you bring me here? Is there something you want from me?”
          “Yes, there is.” Damien picked up a scalpel from the table and took a step forward.
          Pulling back, Rudolf said, “W-w-what are you going to do?”
          “I, little red-noser, am going to find out just what makes that blinking nose of yours glow.”
          “W-w-what! But, I don’t know what makes it glow. Please, don’t hurt me,” his voice cracked.
          Damien inched closer. The scalpel reflected the light, sending flashes like an LED Christmas bulb into Rudolf’s eyes.
          “Wait! Please. Just tell me what I did. We used to be friends when we played reindeer games together. What happened?”
          Damien inched closer. You, little brat, stole my dream of being number one reindeer in these stables. I am the best, not you.” He thrust the scalpel toward Rudolf.
          “I didn’t do it on purpose. I just kind of ended up here because of this nose.”
          “Exactly—that nose. I’m going to take away the obstacle keeping me from meeting my destiny.”
          “Take it away? You mean…”
          “Oh, yes. I mean to snip it right off that wimpy, undeserving snout of yours so I can regain my position.”
          “But, Santa needs my nose for Christmas. What will he do without me?”
          “Arrgh,” Damien growled like a wolf before it lunges at its prey. He whipped the knife through the air until it landed squarely on the offending red nose, slicing it cleanly from Rudolf’s face. It bounced, cold and lifeless onto the floor between Damien’s front feet. The light glowed no more.
          “What have you done? What will Santa do now? Oh, my nose!” Rudolf sobbed, tears trickling across the HO HO HO tape across his face and onto the table beneath him. The place where the nose had been throbbed and vibrated.
          Damien snatched up the dead nose, placing it under a magnifying glass on the small table. He used one tool after another to prod, poke, and dissect the nose. He used chemicals, lasers and a microscope to search for an answer. The chemistry set he stole from the hospital had its limitations; but he continued working as Rudolf lay on the table, gasping for air through his mouth, and sobbing.
          Perhaps it was the intensity of his quest—or the drive of his greed—that made him oblivious to the form that entered the cave and quietly waited just outside the domain of the light.  One by one, more forms entered and surrounded the light.
          Rudolf opened his eyes and watched as Damien worked, “Have you found out why it glowed?”
          Damien gritted his teeth and squinted his eyes, “NO! It just looks like any other nose. Now, shut up and let me work.”
          “Can you let me go, now? My leg is really hurting and my stomach is growling.”
          “NO! Don’t you get it, you idiotic little twerp. You’re not going anywhere.”
          He picked up the scalpel and turned to Rudolf, “Your usefulness is over. You’ll never walk out of this cave alive. You’re the one thing that kept me from being the number one reindeer—and now you will be dead.”
          “I don’t think so, Damien,” a voice echoed from the darkness.
          “Santa?” Damien froze then twirled around searching for the source of the voice.
          Taking a step forward, Santa loomed massive as his white beard and hair reflected the omniscient brightness of the light.
          “Oh, Damien, did you really think you would get away with this? Didn’t you know I’ve been watching you since you were born? I knew you could never be my top reindeer. You don’t love the boys and girls. You don’t love me. You only love yourself.” Santa shook his head and sighed.
          “I gave you a chance to change. I put you into the stables and hoped you would learn from the other reindeer—but you didn’t. Now, you have destroyed any chance for being a part of Santa Land. Boys,” Santa spoke and the room shook with the clack of one hundred hooves as the reindeer waiting in the shadows stepped into the light.
          Damien grabbed another instrument from the table and did a panicked dance. Realizing the situation was hopeless, he dropped the scalpels. They bounced on the stone floor, vibrating a drum roll and ending the dance.
          “All I wanted was to be your number one. Is that so awful?”
          “Damien, to be number one, you have to be willing to be on the bottom. You refused. Now you have done harm to an innocent. I’m sorry. You made your choice. It’s out of my hands.”
          Santa lifted his hands and said, “Boys, bind him.”
          He looked over at Rudolf, quietly waiting, “Comet, cut this tape off of Rudolf so he can move.”
          Gently stroking between the budding antlers, Santa said, “Everything will be just fine, Rudolf. You’ll heal in time for Christmas.”
          “But my nose… I won’t be able to guide your sleigh anymore,” the words caught in his throat.
          “Why not?” Santa chuckled.
          Rudolf furrowed his brow and looked at him, “Just look at it.”
          “I am.”
          Santa picked up a metal tray from the side table and held it in front of Rudolf, “You take a look.”
          Miraculously, as he gazed into the tray, a whole and complete nose reflected back. Rudolf gasped, “How can this be? I saw him cutting it into pieces. It was gone. I know it was.”
          Damien swirled around and stared at the renewed nose as the other reindeer prepared to remove him from the cave, “No! It’s impossible. No!”
          “I’m afraid it is possible,” Santa told him.
          With a jerk of his head and a clinched jaw, Damien said, “At least it will never glow again. Your days are done, you freak.”
          “Oh, Santa, he’s right. It will never glow again. I’m a total failure.” He dropped his head and closed his eyes.
          “Rudolf, open your eyes. Now, concentrate. Think about the glow. Imagine the entire cave is filled with the light.”
          Gradually, the white light of the cave altered to a pale pink, then to a soft red, until the entire cave filled with bright glowing red. Rudolf heard gasps all around him as everyone shielded their eyes from the brightness.
          “NO! It can’t be. It can’t be…” Damien struggled to free himself from the reindeer as he lunged for the nose and then dissolved into a sobbing mass on the floor.
          “Oh, Santa, it’s glowing again.” The warmth of the light filled his body and shielded him from the pain of his wounds.
          “How DID this happen? Why is my nose glowing again? Do you know?”
          “Oh, my little one, I think you know the answer.”
          “I do? No… I don’t think so.”
          “Just think about it. Did you do something to deserve it?”
          “Well… no.”
          “Did you buy it, or steal it?”
          “Never! I couldn’t do that.”
          “Then where did it come from?”
          “Oh, I guess it was a gift. Is that it? But, where does the glow come from?”
          Santa tapped his white, gloved finger right over Rudolf’s heart, “It comes from right here.”
          “Oh. So it’s always there?”
          “Exactly. No one can ever take it away from you. This is your gift, your destiny.”
          “Thank you, Santa—and for rescuing me.”
          Santa chuckled, “You’re my reindeer, my very special reindeer. Now, let’s get you back home where we can mend your wounds. Your family is waiting. And so are the children of the world.”