This is a short story I wrote over the Thanksgiving break. It's based on a true event, but I took the liberty to fictionalize where I saw fit. My sisters may remember this differently.
A MAGICAL CHRISTMAS
My Memaw and Granddaddy didn’t bother with a Christmas tree for just the two of them. They had a potted palm in the living room, and sometimes Memaw would hang wrapped candy canes on its few stalky branches.
That palm was the one living thing in the house that served to filter the air while Granddaddy took drags from his unfiltered Pall Malls. He smoked them chainlike, lighting up one after another even though he never took more than a few puffs from any one cigarette.
He mostly smoked in the kitchen, a big room that was also a kind of family room. Besides the out-dated appliances, a metal kitchenette table, some matching chairs with red plastic seat bottoms, and some counter space stacked with old magazines and a checkerboard, there was a TV, Granddaddy’s Naugahyde recliner, and Memaw’s padded rocker with a matching footstool. After supper, my grandparents would put their feet up and watch Andy Griffith. That Gomer Pyle was a hoot.
On cold nights, they would close the two doors that led to the rest of the house and turn on the space heater. And Granddaddy would smoke, dropping ashes into an ashtray with a three-foot stand that was its own piece of furniture. You had to walk around it and respect its place in the floor plan.
Everything in the room was coated with a layer of yellow nicotine tar—you could use your fingernail to scratch things in the crud on the TV screen, things like your name or “wash me”—and that coating gave the room a certain glow. You know how the atmosphere outside changes colors sometimes before a storm? You look out a window or step out to get the mail from the box, and you’re startled by how yellow it all is. And you wonder what bad thing the weather is about to bring. In Memaw’s kitchen, the yellow glow wasn’t a sign of foreboding. It was just sticky residue from Granddaddy’s bad habit.
I’m not sure what year it was—I may have been eight or nine—when my mother decided we needed to make the twelve-hour drive from Indiana to Alabama as a Christmas surprise for Memaw and Granddaddy. Our annual visit was a June trip, so showing up in December would be unexpected.
We packed up the car with snacks and presents and comfort things like napping pillows and the canning jar that held some water and a washcloth. My mother prepared the jar before every trip just in case someone would become carsick on the road. You might not know it, but it’s nice to have your face and neck washed after vomiting in the ditch beside the highway. Mama kept the washcloth jar on the floorboard in front of her seat and held it upright between her feet.
We left the house at six in the morning before the sun came up, and we drove straight through to Hamburg, Kentucky. That was our planned lunch stop because we knew there was a Kentucky Fried Chicken just off the exit ramp. We stopped there for lunch on all of our June trips, and that was the only time I was allowed to have Kentucky Fried Chicken. That year, I got to have it twice, and I thought it was a sign this would certainly be a magical Christmas.
It was sometime in the early evening when we pulled into the driveway in front of the house. A stand of pine trees lined the right side of the property, and another large pine was the centerpiece of the front yard. Except for those rich, green trees, everything else had turned brown for the winter—the pastures to the left and right and the harvested cotton field out back had all lost their summer color.
There were no climbing roses on the fences or honeysuckle beside the house or grapevines on the arbor. I had never seen Alabama at Christmastime, but I ignored the sepia grass and bushes and scrambled up the front porch steps to stand behind my parents when they knocked on the door. I couldn’t wait to see Memaw’s face when she saw us there with our arms full of wrapped gifts. Memaw and Granddaddy opened the door and drawled, “Well, I’ll be!”
We all hugged one after the other, and Memaw wiped her eyes. She and Granddaddy had just been sitting in their chairs watching the Jim Nabors Christmas special, O Holy Night seeming a little jaundiced, and they were thinking they would have to spend Christmas alone.
We filed into the kitchen, shutting the doors behind us to keep in the heat. Memaw pulled leftovers from the refrigerator and dragged out pots and pans to warm things up. There was corn bread with honey and butter, green beans canned from the summer before, stewed chicken, and a chess pie just baked that afternoon.
“Cut you a piece of that pie,” Memaw sang as she stepped around us and made sure we were all fed and satisfied.
After supper, the men sighed and sat back to gnaw on toothpicks while the women cleared the table and filled the washtub to wash up the dishes. Memaw washed while Mama dried, and they talked about how we decided to make such an unexpected trip and how many days we would probably stay. They would call the aunts and uncles to try to get everybody together at least once.
I slipped out of the warm and hazy room through the side door into the living room and furrowed my brow at the potted palm by the fireplace, a handful of candy canes stuck here and there on it to make a sad Christmas tree disguise. I gathered the presents we had brought with us and arranged them around the plant. I stood the larger ones in the back, and I scattered the smaller ones toward the front in an avalanching display.
Memaw made our gifts every year because she couldn’t afford to go shopping. One year, we all got bars of soap stuck with colorful pins and artificial flowers so they looked like little baskets. She had learned to cut up dish soap bottles and crochet onto them to make purses, purses we would never use but loved for Memaw’s sake just the same. I put her gifts to us in the very front because we would open them first.
Memaw used to shred old clothes and braid them into colorful rugs to cover the cold floors in her unheated house. I scooted onto the big living room rug she had made from warn-out work shirts and house dresses. I held my legs to my chest and rested my chin on my knees, wishing I had colored lights and some gold garland to weave around the Christmas palm.
In the next room, the muted, lilting voices of my grandparents sang a song half giddy and half pitiful. First, they rose up: “We sure didn’t ever expect this. No, sir. We sure didn’t.” Then they descended: “We thought we’d spend Christmas alone, just the two of us.” And then up again: “And now look at y’all here. Have you some more pie.”
Well, I decided, tree lights or no tree lights, garland or no garland, the potted palm with the candy canes and the arrangement of presents would have to do. From my spot on the floor where I could listen to the family in the next room, full from Memaw’s cooking and warm from the big surprise, that Christmas seemed to have shaped up into something pretty magical.