In north Mississippi, where the Father of Waters skirts the edges of the Appalachians, the land undulates mile upon mile between river bottoms and wooded ridges. Here the sun is strong, and by the time December comes around a weary green still lingers along the roads. Rain arrives after warm days, ushering in longer spells of drier, colder weather. If snow falls, rarely more than enough to cover the ground, it’s made into muddy, leaf-littered balls and stacked in the yard, or gleaned cleanly and mixed with sugar, vanilla and cream.
Though winter still comes the same way, much has changed there since I was a child. While not rich by any means, most of my family was well off when few were, but Jess Jr. made no bones about being a child of the Depression. He and those older remembered hardships at a more distant time, but the young, as all young at all times, had little yet to remember.
In our home, Thanksgiving amounted to a modest overture to Christmas; just after the turkey was eaten, 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, one a loblolly pine draped in angel hair studded by tiny blue lights and hung with glittering glass ornaments. In the den, smilax, holly and magnolia draped the mantle; bowls of walnuts, almonds and pecans, oranges, tangerines and hard candy topped the tables and on the hearth stood a bucket of dried pine cones to start an open fire where we made popcorn in a long-handled shaker.
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. The bounty of our home was there for all who called, and none left hungry.
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 and jovial, generous and gregarious. For him, Christmas was to be celebrated with everyone, not just family and friends, but with his world.
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; then 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 head to the black neighborhoods.
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 relieve those of others.
Now I am an old man, far from home and missing my people who have passed on before me. I spend my holidays simply and in little company, but the living memories of my childhood are with me, my heart is warm, and I know no want. My father’s gifts live on.
For those of you who knew Tom well, it should come as no surprise that he left very specific and detailed instructions to the conduct of his funeral; in three single-spaced typewritten pages, Tom covered everything from boutonnieres to backhoes. We have done our best to adhere to his wishes, but I can’t help but feel that he’s somewhere taking notes on our shortcomings.
I’m sure we’ll all catch hell for it one of these days.
Tom wanted words from the heart, but he qualified those as well, wanting me to speak about what set him apart from what he called “the rest of the human herd”. This is why I began by mentioning his exhaustive instructions for this ceremony, because they serve to illustrate the most essential element of Tom’s nature.
Tom Yancy was a perfectionist in an imperfect world. Somewhere along the way, he decided that whoever was in charge of the production was fucking everything up, so he set about putting things right. From his father, Tom inherited a passion for order; from his mother, an accentuated sense of propriety. These were his primary resources in a war against a world filled with sloppy architecture, bad beauty show contestants and other violations against his impeccable and justifiable standards. His epic indignation was a bar by which I and others set our own standards against the dictates of reality .
Tom declared–I don’t think Tom ever really “said” anything–that I read a selection of literary passages, but these three pages of addenda (for that is what they were) have been lost in a tragic act of negligence on my part, so I’ve elected to read a passage by Tom’s favorite author, Eudora Welty. Tom loved Welty because, like him, she was interested in the foibles and eccentricities of people, the quirks of character that make us stand out in what Tom called a herd of humanity of which he was an errant, beguiling shepherd.
“The funeral was what you’d expect if you’d ever seen Polk—crowded. It was hot as fluzions in that little front room. A lot of Jacob’s-Ladder tops and althea blooms sewed on cardboard crosses, and a saliva wreath with a bee in it. A lot of ferns hauled out of creek bottoms and drooping by the time they got ready for them. People, people, people, flowers, flowers, flowers, and the shades hauled down and the electricity burning itself up, and two preachers both red-headed; but mainly I felt there were Peacocks. Mrs. Peacock was big and fat as a row of pigs, and wore tennis shoes to her daughter’s funeral—I guess she couldn’t help it.”
Like Welty, Tom enjoyed telling stories about people; but like his father he also loved to hear stories about himself. I implore you all to go from here and tell your tales of this wonderful, wonderful man.