Coming home for the holidays stirs up different emotions for everyone. Here, a few regional writers share their memories and reflections on what family and home mean to them.
When You’re Here, You’re Family
by C. Robert Jones
My mother grew up in a small town in South Carolina and was fond of saying that small-town living is the best there is. Having lived in Savannah, Georgia; Dijon, France; and Washington, D.C., I had no way to judge this until I found myself moving to Western North Carolina. I knew a change in lifestyle was inevitable, but I had no clue just how different things would be.
One of the first things I noticed while getting used to the open spaces was that drivers in pickup trucks were waving when I passed by. I assumed they thought I was somebody else, someone they knew. After several days of this, it hit me they were just being friendly. In no time I was waving back with gusto, really getting into the spirit of things. That’s small-town living.
When I arrived in Mars Hill at my new home, it was nighttime on a hot Friday night, my car was overloaded, and I was bone weary. All I wanted was a shower and a night’s sleep on a pallet on the floor since the furniture had not arrived. I stepped into the shower. Not a drop of water. Oh, the frustration! I was new to home ownership and didn’t realize that the water was actually cut off during a change of owners. The next morning, I called the Town Hall, not expecting anyone to answer since it was Saturday, but town employee Manuel Briscoe just happened to be there. I explained my plight. “Don’t you worry, Mr. Jones. I’ll be right there.” And he was. From then on, he was “Saint” Manuel in my book. That’s small-town living.
I was told I’d need to rent a box at the post office, and it was there that I began to get a sense of the slower pace of life hereabouts. A three-minute transaction at the window could take up to ten minutes. The postmistress knew everybody, and of course it would be impolite not to exchange pleasantries and ask about Effie who was getting married and Grandpa who had the gout. I kept wondering why they couldn’t just get on with it. That’s small-town living.
Sometime later when local mover Woodrow Edwards broke a piano leg screw as he was moving my piano into the house, I was in a panic. He looked at me and smiled. “Don’t fret, Mr. Jones. I live here, too.” It was his way of reminding me of his ethics and love of the town we shared. He became my instant hero and remained so until he died—and my piano is still as solid as the day it was built. That’s small-town living.
Not too long after I got settled in, a play of mine was produced at Mars Hill College. Three dear senior lady friends drove up from Savannah to see it. The weather turned bitter cold, and on that dark Saturday night they managed to get the front axle of their car caught on a protruding oil intake pipe located near the theater. The car was stuck, unable to go forwards or backwards. The next morning—a Sunday—I called Carl Eller who owned the oil company (and who also supplied heating oil to my house) and told him of the difficulty. He was there shortly in a truck with winch and cables to extract the car. Not only did he do that, but he towed the car directly to a nearby mechanic who’d be able to do the repair early Monday morning. He charged the ladies not one penny. I thought of the Biblical ox-in-the-ditch story. Several years later, Highway 213 through Mars Hill was renamed Carl Eller Road in his honor. For the much beloved man, it was a fitting tribute. And that’s small-town living.
One Friday, I developed a searing toothache. Nothing would take the pain away. In desperation that night, I called my dentist, Dr. Reese Steen. I did not know he was in the middle of his daughter’s wedding reception. “Sounds like an abscess,” he said. “I’ll meet you at the office at nine in the morning.” He did, and with no staff to help, he solved the problem. Once again, trouble arrived on a weekend, and a guardian angel had come to the rescue. That’s small-town living.
Over the years, I’ve learned to slow my pace, and these days I can dawdle in the post office with the best of them. Could I be happy in a big city again? Maybe, but why would I want to leave a place where there’s beauty, substance, and real people? Can’t ask for better than that. My mother was right: Small-town living is simply the best there is.
Charity on Hold
by Linda Goodman
A few years ago, while telling stories at a bookstore in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, I came across a copy of Studs Terkel’s Hard Times, a book of first-person stories about life during the Great Depression. One of the stories told of a father who refused to take charity, even refusing to let his wife accept milk for their baby. The baby died of starvation.
That story brought back long-buried memories to me. I was born in St Paul, Virginia, a coal mining town in the Appalachian Mountains, in 1952. People who know how my family lived say that I was born into “abject poverty.” My father, an Army-trained electrician, could not find work. Most of the people that we knew, ourselves included, had no electricity. My family of six lived in a rented one-room shack. Daddy received just $30 a month disability from the Veterans Administration. To put food on the table, he hunted, fished, and cultivated a garden.
My parents felt that it was all right to do charitable works for others, but they were too proud to take charity themselves. That is why we children were never allowed to go meet the Santa Train at Christmas time. That is why we never accepted help from organizations such as Save the Children or the Appalachian Service Project.
When I read the story in Hard Times, I wondered what my father would have done in the same situation. Would he have accepted charity if it meant the difference between life and death for one of his children? I mused on this for several days, not liking the feeling that I was wrong about my father; that he was perhaps not as wise and reasonable as I had always believed.
Finally, a story that my mother had once told me came to my mind. When I was five years old, I was sick and there was no money for a doctor. Momma treated me herself with home remedies, but after a day or two I became incoherent, babbling on about strange hallucinations of giant cats and rabid dogs. I vaguely remember certain phases of this illness: the strange dreams and my mother’s frantic ministrations.
The February air was bone cold and there was snow on the ground. My father put on his tattered overcoat and walked to town to get a doctor. I do not know how many miles he had to walk, but my mother said he was gone for hours. The doctor he found drove my father back to our home and diagnosed me with pneumonia. He gave me a shot of penicillin (I clearly remember that!), and he gave my parents some tablets for me to take later. He said I was near death, and he hoped that I would recover.
My father offered the doctor a smoked ham that had been given to us by his brother, but the doctor refused to take it. My father then offered some of the fruits my mother had canned. The doctors said not to worry about it. “Just pay me when you can,” he told my father. Then he left.
As poor as we were, my father had vowed that he would never leave the mountains. He had lived with the land all of his life and would not live apart from it.
After Dr. Cox left our home that day, however, my father made the decision to apply for a job at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Virginia. He did so as soon as I hit the road to recovery. Six weeks later, he was called to Portsmouth for an examination. He was offered a job immediately. At the age of 50 years, he had found his first steady job. Never again would he have to put off taking a child to the doctor due to lack of funds.
The first thing Daddy did when he got his first paycheck was to pay Dr. Cox’s bill. He did that even before setting aside money to bring our family to the city. Dr. Cox was astounded. He sent back a letter thanking my father and saying that Daddy was the first person who promised to pay him later who actually did so.
That memory comforts me. It makes me realize that my father valued his family’s well-being above his pride. He would not accept straight-out charity, but he could live with accepting charity on hold.
Linda Goodman is a member of the North Carolina Storytelling Guild.
Life & Death Under the Roanoke Star
by Mark Lynn Ferguson
Driving to Roanoke for a weekend visit, I nearly missed my exit. I’ve taken this turn thousands of times, but, in the dark, my mind had drifted to warm butter beans—ones Grandma said she’d have simmering. When I noticed the ramp to my left, I pulled the wheel hard and veered faster than I should have, alarming myself because local police seem to materialize whenever I make a boneheaded move.
This last-minute gaff meant that I rolled into the valley with my mind on the road, on my speed, on everything except the fact that I’d made it home. I drove for a mile like that, my eyes on the lane divides and fists tight around the wheel, not looking up until I thought to check traffic ahead. That’s when I spotted it—nine stories of neon bliss. The Mill Mountain Star beamed at me across the valley, a gaudy yet glorious landmark, a constant beacon in a world with precious few.
Whizzing past the airport and the mall restaurant where I first worked, I watched the star grow and felt my tension melt. I thought about all the nights I had spent in its glow. Every long walk home from that restaurant job. Every night I yelled “Mother may I” in a yard overflowing with children. Every time I stood behind our apartment house alone, squealing toward the sky, trying to coax bats to fly low overhead. Every dinner, every bath, every night’s sleep. The Mill Mountain Star shone through my entire childhood, and long before I existed.
It was lit bright, brand new in fact, the night my momma was born. A 1946 holiday publicity stunt that had somehow stuck around until her June birth, it welcomed her, inducted her into the first generation that would always know the star’s glow.
Momma biked right under this landmark as a girl, when it was still safe to ride around Southeast Roanoke after dark. By the early 1970s, she’d had two babies near its base, neither of which she got to hold—the first because she was just 16 years old and told to give that child up for adoption, the second because the baby was born too small to live. She married my father at the start of that decade and divorced him by the end of it, loving and fighting like all couples and having two more children in between. Once they split, I imagine she spent hours by our third-floor apartment window, watching the star and wondering how she’d manage to raise us boys, dead broke and alone.
I don’t want to overstate the importance of the star. It’s not as if it could have helped her with her problems. It couldn’t have given her a job or a car or an education beyond high school. She’d have to find those things herself, which she did, but the whole while, the star did glow. Up on the side of Mill Mountain, too big and silly to be believed, it must have inspired a thousand smiles on my momma’s face and as many on mine.
The night she died, the star was right there, just yards above us. In the hospital that sits next to the mountain, she took her last breath, having struggled through months of starvation, big tumors clogging up her insides. Her two boys, my brother and me, held her hands as she drew a final, weak gasp, not even a lungful, and then let go. We stared at one another stunned and then met at the foot of the bed and hugged, long and silent, until a nurse whispered that when we were ready, we should gather the things we wanted to keep.
I stepped outside that night with full arms—Momma’s overflowing purse, greeting cards, her cane, and a little Christmas tree someone had brought. It was December. The air was brisk but not bitter, so I walked slowly to my car. Between the hospital and its parking garage, I looked up. The star was dark, already shut off, which happens every night around midnight. Even its steel frame was concealed against the mountainside, itself a deep blue silhouette, dark as a burial mound, just too sincere.
I wanted to find the switch—wherever it was hidden, behind bushes atop Mill Mountain or in some municipal basement. I wanted to flip it, to light the star, the sky, to light the whole valley and remember every night my momma lived, the lifetime she spent, beginning to end, with nine stories of neon bliss overhead.
Mark Lynn Ferguson runs the blog The Revivalist: Word from the Appalachian South (therevivalist.info), where this essay first appeared.
The Christmas Pie Affair
by Waylon Wood
My grandma was a great Southern cook. She baked coconut cakes and cooked fat, pink hams. She fried the breast of the turkey and then incorporated the rest into dressing. She would pull a moist, golden-brown casserole of corn bread, turkey, celery, onion, and sticks of butter from the oven. Juicy pieces of white turkey, dipped in buttermilk and dredged in seasoned flour, were deep-fried and placed on the oven racks to warm.
My grandmother has three sons who married three women who then had seven sons and two daughters. With my grandpa that added up to ten men and six women. We observed only one tradition during the holidays: sneakiness. In my family you had to be on your game. The family knew and documented where all the food was. Then, systematically, we would begin to hoard. Many times I would find food hidden around the house and beyond. As if my Depression-era grandma might run out of food. Fat chance! A huge refrigerator and three times as huge a deep freezer would’ve seen us through a nuclear winter.
Nevertheless, biscuits went in pockets, chicken legs wrapped in paper towels appeared on truck dashboards, divinity fudge candy was stashed in drawers under delicates. We were secret agents, surrounded by betrayal at every turn. If you got caught, you had to eat all of the evidence. If you stumbled upon food, you ate it, like secret codes that enemies must not get their hands on.
Why all this bizarre eating behavior? Survival. Sixteen people crammed into one house at one time was dangerous. Think three-generation dining on a layered dip of betrayal, anger, hurt, fear, and humiliation. Holidays were full of land mines.
Once, during the middle of Christmas dinner, my grandpa pulled a knife out of the ham and began chasing my dad with it, saying that he was finally going to kill him. Finally—as if the thought had crossed his mind every day of my dad’s life. It was hunting season. Dad ran to his truck to get his rifle. Grandpa got to the front porch, shotgun in hand. Dad actually shot twice at Grandpa, coming so close that later they had to pick the splinters out of his face. This did not stop any of us, by the way, from enjoying the peach cobbler.
No wonder there was constant emotional eating. Battle lines were drawn and we were in the fog of war and turkey. We had favorites and, in this conflict of Southern aggression, everyone had their trophies.
I prized pie, especially sweet potato pie. Grandma only made a few of these along with the standards: pecan, coconut, custard, and pumpkin. I wanted that pie. Not a slice. Not a piece. The whole pie. In preparation for my play, I had already stuck a fork under my parents’ bed between the bed slats.
Time was of the essence. Mom and my aunts (the colonels) were out of the kitchen. Cousins (spies) were in the yard. Fathers and uncles (sergeants at best) were fishing or skinning game. Grandma (the five-star general) would have to have her back turned, preferably crouched down over the oven. As swiftly as a ninja, I swiped the pie and hid it under my parents’ bed.
Immediately I regretted it. Grandma hadn’t had enough time to become confused by the number of pies. I should’ve waited until her low blood sugar had set in, when everyone would’ve thought she was confused. But her nibbling had kept her sharp. You’d think that she wouldn’t miss one pie, but miss it she did. She wanted that pie back!
Grandchildren were marched into an interrogation overseen by the general and her corporals. I was grilled, Gestapo style, at the kitchen table alongside the other suspects. Where was that pie? Planting doubts and red herrings into adults’ minds was my strategy. No one was immune to my fire: “I thought I saw cousin Troy with a pie earlier…I could be wrong.” Bam! “Didn’t Uncle Willis say he stole a pie last Christmas?” Smack! “Aunt Pink has talked about sweet potato pie for weeks. I’d check the trunk of her Pinto.” Kaboom!
I knew what I had to do: I had to eat that pie, and I had to eat it now.
I slid under the bed. I couldn’t trust any of the cousins to help dispose of the evidence. They would eventually rat me out. I’d have to do this alone. I dove into that pie. The creaminess of the sweet potato, the hint of vanilla—I could do this. I was home free. That is until the dictator, my mother, decided to retire to her headquarters to reapply her makeup. I didn’t realize she was there until she sat down on the bed.
Maybe it was the tin pie plate banging against my fork or the noisy shoving of sweet potato goodness into my smacking maw. Whatever it was, I was found out. Dragged by the leg out of my foxhole, I tried to stuff the remaining pie plate down the back of my pants. I was marched to the kitchen to confess my crime.
It was the promised torture in the form of caning with a switch that broke me. With a pie plate sticking out of my Toughskins and tears rolling down my face, I gave a heaving confession. I prepared to meet my fate. Instead, a Christmas miracle occurred. Turning around to show the pie that was down my pants made them laugh. They actually laughed.
I haven’t spent a holiday with my family in over 20 years. Grandma died many years ago, and I find it too painful to go home at this time of year. I long for her food.
But that doesn’t mean I won’t accept an invitation to another family’s home for the holidays. I pull up a chair and wait for it all to come spilling out: the subtle look, the glare, the passive-aggressive comment about last year’s dinner. It is all a delight to me. I still make adults laugh and, every so often—just to keep my hand in the game—I fill my pockets full.
Waylon Wood is a playwright and performer in Asheville.