This is an excerpt from Malcolm Franklin’s Bitterweeds: Life with William Faulkner at Rowan Oak (1977) Born in Shanghai in 1923, Franklin was the son of Cornell and Lida Estelle Franklin. After what’s most often described as a “cordial” divorce, Estelle married William Faulkner in 1929, and he began living in Oxford, Mississippi. Franklin served as a medic during World War II, studied medicine and herpetology. He died in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1977.
Of all the holidays at Rowan Oak, Christmas was the most festive. An air of great excitement prevailed everywhere, even in Chrissie’s and Andrew’s little cabin.
I recall one cold, crisp December mid-afternoon, when the various members of the family gathered in the library in preparation for the expedition to get the Christmas Tree. This was the very beginning of Christmas, when the tree was found and cut.
Each was bundled up against the cold. This year there was Jill, Pappy, Victoria’s husband Bill Fielden, myself, Mama, and Andrew bearing the axe. It was Pappy who chose the tree-a cedar that had less of a chance to become a large tree. In making his choice he was also careful to thin out the woods properly, leaving extra growing space for the ones not cut, for our Christmas Tree always came from Bailey’s woods on Rowan Oak’s grounds.
After the tree was felled, Andrew and Pappy spread the khaki-colored tarp smoothly on the ground. Then the tree was carefully wrapped in the tarp, leaving an area at the base free so that Pappy and Andrew and all of us could take turns pulling it through the woods to Rowan Oak. This was done to protect the branches as the tree was pulled along, for it was far too heavy to carry.
The tedious chore of getting the tree up and ready for trimming was then completed. By then it was late afternoon and a cold sharp light came in through the living room windows. The trimming was left to the ladies with the men offering a suggestion now and then. Boxes of ornaments lay open on the floor. Tinsel lay heaped on the parlor table. When the decorations had found their way onto the delicate outer branches and the tinsel, sparkling and clear, reached to the very top ornament, the tree was a beautiful sight to behold. Across the hall the library door stood open. A roaring fire crackled in the fireplace. A bourbon bottle stood open on a silver tray. Cut glass waiting to be filled caught the reflection of the fire. (Christmas was preceded by trips for Christmas cheer to Memphis, seventy-odd miles away, the nearest place offering a wide selection of bourbon, wine, and of course champagne for the New Year.)
There were other trips to the woods for greens and decorations, all to be gathered before Christmas Eve. The gathering of the holly and mistletoe was quite a task. We had to drive almost eight miles out into the country to the place where it grew. This was an old Chickasaw Indian Boundary line, where the holly trees were used to mark the line running east and west. In the trees high above these hollies grew the mistletoe. So high up were they, that it was necessary to shoot the mistletoe out with a .22 rifle. Only a few berries were lost as the branches fell.
It was Christmas Eve morning. Pappy had taken Mama to Oxford in the old touring car to do last minute shopping. She had left instructions with Chrissie that if any packages or boxes should arrive while she was out, to just have them left in the house or on the verandah. Where I was at the time no one was sure. After all, it was Christmas Eve.
Toward the middle of the afternoon Chrissie was summoned by a sharp rap on the front door. It was the driver of the Railway Express van, with several large boxes for Mr. Franklin. Upon Chrissie’s instructions he and his crew neatly lined up three boxes on the verandah and drove off.
As the afternoon became colder and a grey sky brought early darkness, Mama and Pappy turned into the driveway, headed for the open fire and a drink. When Mama reached the top step on the verandah and saw those long boxes, all three of them, she was astounded. “Billy,” she called out, “What on earth do you suppose Malcolm’s receiving in these boxes?” As Faulkner reached the verandah he took one look at the boxes and called out loudly for me. **Buddy,” he said, “What on earth are these things? Come here!”
I had just come in by the back door and had not seen the boxes. I hurried through to the front verandah, took one quick look and knew. Dear God! They had sent out to me three cadavers meant for the Anatomy Department of the University!
When Mama found out what they were she took off for the library saying “Get rid of them! Get rid of them!”
I turned to Faulkner and explained. “Pappy,” I said, “I told Dr. Hogg that if anything was sent to the Anatomy Department during the holidays, the Express Company could call me and I would go over to the Department and let them in! I didn’t tell them to deliver cadavers here!”
“Well,” said Pappy. “We cannot have an array of cadavers gracing the verandah on Christmas Eve! You’d better phone Railway Express to pick these up immediately.”
Heading towards the telephone, shaken by the array of cadavers, I called back to Pappy. Please pour me a stiff drink while I make the call!
As the number was ringing the thought flashed through my mind that, as it was late Christmas Eve afternoon, there just might not be anyone there. But We had barely finished our drinks when the Railway Express van drove up again to the front Verandah. Faulkner then volunteered to drive me to the science building where I unlocked the door and made room for the Railway Expressmen to deliver the cadavers. As they emerged from the building Faulkner pulled from his pocket a pint bottle and passed it to each man.
When we arrived back, Rowan Oak was brightly lighted, and the glitter of the tree could be seen as the car came down the driveway and pulled up under the porte-cochere. Entering the library we headed toward the fire to warm up again. The aroma of various hot dishes drifted into the foyer from the dining room, where a buffet was being placed on the table. Norfleet appeared carrying a water pitcher. He bowed to Faulkner as he set the pitcher in place on the tray next to the bourbon decanter and glasses. For many friends would find their way up the cedar-lined driveway of Rowan Oak on Christmas Eve, leaving gifts or stopping by to say “Merry Christmas,” and perhaps sampling one of the hot dishes on the way to replenish a glass. This evening there were Dr. and Mrs. John Cully, Colonel and Mrs. Evans of ‘Minmagary” fame, Colonel Baker and his charmingly vivacious wife Kate, and many, many more.
The hour was a little past eleven, and younger members of the family were preparing to leave for the midnight service at St. Peter’s. A great flurry of activity could be glimpsed beyond the parlor door as coats were being held, gloves pulled on, and scarves flung across shoulders with an occasional impatient “Hurry or we’ll be late.” Older guests also began to disperse, leaving Pappy and Mama to go upstairs, where the stockings lay waiting in Mama’s room to be filled. Christmas Eve had suddenly become very quiet as Rowan Oak waited for the arrival of Santa. Even the dogs seemed somewhat subdued.
Daylight had hardly crept across the east lawn and touched the great cedars before young couples were astir in Rowan Oak. Jill’s and her young cousin Vicky’s were the first voices to be heard. Then there would be Pappy’s voice, trying to subdue the exuberant chatter as the girls headed for Mama’s room where the Christmas stockings hung waiting. Chrissie had already brought “Miss Estelle’s” coffee tray up, and was peeping from behind the door and saying “Christmas Gif,” and flashing her brilliant, warm smile. She caught Pappy on the stairs, tipping down to fix his own breakfast. Chrissie knew that Mr. Bill would be the only one to eat a proper breakfast: eggs, bacon, and grits covered with melted butter, topped off with hot coffee.
On Christmas Faulkner was always a fastidious dresser. To start the stocking-opening ritual in Mama’s room, he wore an elegant and ornate silk Chinese robe. In this he would have his breakfast. Even for the early part of the ceremony of the tree he would be so dressed, for by nine-thirty the young people were there beside the tree in the parlor. It was at this time that Mama would make her appearance wearing a lovely Chinese wrapper in soft, muted pastel shades.
The younger members of the family, including the colored servants, Broadus, Norfleet, Estelle, and others, gathered around the tree. Pappy in his colorful dressing gown officiated. He offered a prayer first. Then he picked up a package and called a name. That person stepped forward and received it. This continued until all the packages were passed out, amid a flurry of paper and ribbon the boxes were opened.
The time had now come for Faulkner to receive his gifts. These consisted of little bundles of pipe cleaners, some in assorted colors, others snow-white. There were all kinds of pipe cleaners in various bundles clinging precariously to the branches of the tree, each with its little tag. There was one package of Dill pipe cleaners, which Faulkner liked particularly. The tag on this read: “To Pappy, Love Buddy.” The next, a gaily colored mixture, said “To Pappy, Love Jill.”
For Faulkner would accept only pipe cleaners from the family with the exception of an occasional handkerchief from Mama. If he received any other gift, he would carefully take it to his office and there it would remain unopened.
Colored members of the family went merrily off to the kitchen to open their gifts. There were pints of bourbon for our colored friends: Henry Jones, Wade Ward, and Wallace, who hunted with Faulkner, and of course Andrew.
The dining room table had been made ready early that morning. The Christmas punch bowl glistened ruby red, the flowers were gracefully arranged. Punch cups were placed about the ornate lace table cover. The bowl could be glimpsed by members of the family as they made their way upstairs to dress for the day. This was a Christmas punch created by Faulkner for the holidays. It consisted of apples, bourbon, dry burgundy and soda water, chilled by a generous portion of ice chunks.
During the morning and through the day frequent knocks at the kitchen door were followed by shouts of “Christmas Gif!” and various folks that had worked for us during the year received in return a Christmas drink and cheerful word. This was the custom in Oxford and throughout Mississippi. Wallace, at the request of Faulkner, stood ready with a wagon to drive to their homes those who could no longer navigate.
During the early afternoon members of my mother’s family began to arrive. There was my mother’s sister Aunt Dot, and my grandmother Oldham, this time without my grandfather. He had passed away during the war. Then there was Mary Jenkins, Dr. John Cully’s surgical nurse, who lived at the Oldhams’, and had for years been almost a member of the family. She had on numerous occasions taken care of Faulkner during serious drinking bouts.
Miss Maud, Faulkner’s mother, never went out on Christmas, or attended dinner at the homes of any of her children. She preferred to have her sons and grandchildren drop in and visit her. After her husband, Mr. Murry, passed away in the early 1930’s Miss Maud never had a Christmas Tree. Instead, there were bouquets of holly, Christmas greens, and a holly wreath at the front door. About mid-afternoon Faulkner would leave for a visit with Miss Maud, usually staying an hour. Then he would return to dress for dinner.
The afternoon grew late. Faulkner, who had returned to Rowan Oak and dressed in the white tie and tails which he considered appropriate for the occasion, made his appearance in the parlor, suggesting as he did so that drinks were in order. He then headed for the library fire and a bourbon, soon to be followed by members of the family. Conversations over drinks rose and fell with merry outbursts of laughter. Ice clicked against chilled glasses as new toasts came up. Mama came gaily into the library, saying, “Billy, will you do the honors?” Those who were seated before the fire arose, and we all placed empty glasses on the tray as we passed the library table on the way to the dining room.
Faulkner was already standing at the head of the table as the members of the family reached the dining room. The long table was draped with its elegant linen cloth, and the lighted candelabra cast uneven shadows on the polished silver. Holly and Christmas greens in a low cut-glass vase formed the centerpiece. Silver goblets with crisp white linen napkins marked each place.
There were two small tables placed at graceful angles near the dining table. These were for the younger members of the family, for there were too many to be seated at one table. Small gumdrop trees were placed in the centers of these tables. Their dainty linen and lace tablecloths swept close to the floor.
Chairs were held for the ladies as Faulkner graciously designated where each was to be seated. Norfleet’s white coat flicked through the pantry as he made a smiling entrance carrying the huge serving platter and turkey. After Pappy said the blessing, the turkey was carved. Each plate was bountifully served as Norfleet held it for Faulkner. Boojack re-set Faulkner’s place as Norfleet removed the well-carved turkey, placing it on the long narrow serving table on Faulkner’s left just in front of the fireplace.
Faulkner, lifting a crystal wine glass, poured a small portion in the glass and tasted it. Then each glass was filled by Faulkner as he walked around the table. When every glass was filled, Fau toast appropriate to the occasion. Boojack entered carrying a heaping dish of rice. Just behind, Broadus appeared bearing a large bowl of giblet gravy. There was always a tremendous amount of giblet gravy prepared, for it was a favorite with rice on Christmas. Then came the broccoli with a cheese sauce, followed by a shallow dish of sliced buttered sweet potatoes. The ham was passed, and a final platter of broiled quail. The long serving table had very little room left as the dishes were placed on it.
It was Boojack who, sometime later, swung open the door carrying a large empty tray. She, with the help of Broadus, removed the dinner plates and placed the dessert plates beside Mama.
Norfleet appeared almost immediately bearing a large cut glass bowl of ambrosia, which he placed in front of Mama. Seeing the ambrosia reminded Faulkner of a story a good friend had told him. Faulkner repeated the story as the ambrosia was passed. This friend had a cook, and when she was asked if she would like to go to heaven when she died, she stood silent for a few minutes. Then, smiling broadly, she replied: “No Sir, I don’t believe I wants to go to heaven, cause all I’d be doing up there every day for Eternity is grittin’ up coconut for the white folks’ ambrosia.”
Boojack returned carrying fruitcake and a silver urn of after-dinner coffee and the cups. Norfleet placed in front of Faulkner a bottle of cognac and delicately patterned small brandy glasses. By the time the last refill of cognac had been offered and conversation become somewhat scattered it was time to leave the table. The sky was a deep black and night had come. Christmas was over.