In north Mississippi, where the Father of Waters skirts the final foothills of the Appalachians, the land undulates mile upon mile between river bottoms and wooded ridges, the sun is strong, and in December a weary green lingers in the woods and roadsides.
There I spent my childhood. While not rich by any means, most of my family was well off when few were, but my father Jess Jr. made no bones about being a child of the Depression. He and those older in his day remembered the grinding hardships of a more distant time.
Our lavish Thanksgiving comprised an overture to Christmas. Soon after, my mother Barbara filled the house with glowing towers of glazed glass jars, papier-mâché crèche figurines and ornaments light as air hung with shining ribbons. Her trees took days to decorate, among her most memorable was a loblolly pine draped in angel hair studded by tiny blue lights and hung with glittering glass ornaments. Smilax, holly, and magnolia adorned mantles and lintels, bowls of walnuts, almonds and pecans, oranges, tangerines and hard candy topped the tables. On the hearth stood a bucket of dried pine cones to start an open fire where we roasted peanuts and made popcorn in a long-handled perforated pan.
Barbara provided a groaning board. What she didn’t cook herself, she shared food friends and relatives brought for her table: ambrosia from Aunt Gay, bread-and-butter pickles from Ruby Zane, tea cakes from Aunt Leila, peanut brittle from Betty Edwards, pecan divinity from Ora Crocker, a coconut cake from Zara Arrington. A splendid cook, Barbara spent days on the Christmas feast, making pans of chicken and dressing, baking a turkey, a ham, and yeast rolls, candying sweet potatoes and stuffing dozens of eggs. This largess was there for all who called at our open door.
Above anyone I’ve ever known my father Jess loved Christmas, threw himself completely and unreservedly into the essence of the season and drew everyone he knew along in his wide wake. He was the Spirit of Christmas Present, bigger than life, colorful, jovial, generous and gregarious. For him, Christmas was to be celebrated with everyone in that world he called his own.
By the first week of the month, Jess had set his plans in motion, beginning with a party at the community building at the city park on the south side of town where local bands provided music for dancing (an activity widely frowned-upon at the time) and the local blue laws banning liquor were casually set aside while he pumped his friends for contributions to fund his Christmas expedition. After the party, he would make a trip to Tupelo, to the Lady Lee outlet store, where he would buy boxes of firecrackers and bottle rockets, huge sacks of Tootsie Rolls, cinnamon candies, peppermint sticks, and butterscotch rounds. From there we’d head to Cockrell Banana Company where he’d buy crates of oranges and tangerines.
These he brought home where they were put in a spare bedroom, and in the days before Christmas my brother Tom, sister Cindy and I along with a cadre of neighborhood children would sort them out and stuff them into small paper sacks, staple the tops together and pile them into boxes. On Christmas Eve, we’d pile into a car, at best a station wagon commandeered from a neighbor, at worst a ’65 Mustang convertible, and we’d drive across the tracks.
Jess wore a Santa suit, and Barbara would dress us children as elves. He once drafted his brother-in-law Jim to play Santa while he sauntered alongside laughing and greeting. When we rolled across the railroad tracks, we collected a troop of children flanking our route, shouting and jumping, reaching out to catch the sacks of candy and fireworks. Jess would make sure that those children who were too shy to come to the car received their share, and he would often walk into homes where he knew of special need bearing a ham or an envelope with money.
Jess was in his glory then, doing what he felt was the most important thing he did all year. His career in public service gave him an opportunity to help many people, but seeing the eyes of these children for whom his visit was the only Christmas many if not most of them would have gave him a sense of wholeness that few men are afforded. His largess, his sense of noblesse oblige, was untainted by any shadow of arrogance; he remembered the deprivations of his own childhood and sought to ameliorate those of others.
Now I am an old man who spends his holidays without family and in little company , but the living memories of my childhood are with me, and my heart is warm. My father’s gifts live on.