Mama told me a holiday story about our family during their early years in Mayday, Georgia. Before they had telephones it was understandably difficult to reach family members far away, and even sometimes those reasonably nearby. One year Grandma and Grandpa decided to pile the family into their yellow 1947 Willys Jeep (the first car the family ever owned) and visit Grandpa’s brother down in Tampa. They would visit with Uncle Robert and Aunt Mary then travel on to visit other relatives in Plant City. They piled in and made the long trip to Tampa only to find that no one was home. With no way to contact them they had no choice but to continue their trip and go ahead to Plant City.
Upon their arrival back in Mayday they found that Uncle Robert and Aunt Mary had been to their house while they were gone (mind you, these were the days when everyone knew where the key to the house was kept, if it ever got locked at all). Somehow the families had passed on the road and missed one another. Uncle Robert and Aunt Mary left surprise presents though, mostly clothing, which they had laid out on the beds.
My mother remembers the beautiful clothes that they left for her and her sisters. Lovely, expensive clothing that they might not have had otherwise. Grandma and Grandpa were nothing if not sensible, that left little room for expensive cashmere sweaters with beadwork around the neck or fancy embroidered dresses.
Remembering the sense of elation everyone felt in finding the surprise gifts in turn made my mother think of a Christmas we had when we lived in the north and how hard one particular year was for her. We children were not cooperating, the disdainful beings that teenagers can become was spoiling things for everyone. She remembered how difficult it was to maintain any spirit for the season. At least, difficult until my stepfather went to the post office and returned with The Christmas Box. It was from her mother. Full of candy and presents, there was something for everyone. All of a sudden it was Christmas! She says that box just ‘made’ the season for her that year.
I remember receiving one of my mother’s Christmas boxes. I was young and living in Austin, Texas. Far away from Mama and home. I was working for minimum wage at a convenience store which basically means I lived from paycheck to paycheck and couldn’t afford extras like cable and food. Well this particular Christmas was going to be just another day. I had a fella but neither of us had the money for a tree, never mind ornaments, lights and wrapping paper. I sent him to the store with the last of our money to get some bread, milk and sliced turkey. I thought I could make some gravy and put it on the sliced turkey, that, some bread and a box of macaroni and cheese would have to do for our dinner. He came back with a can of French soup and, yes I think it was sliced pastrami. I don’t remember what we had for Christmas dinner. I don’t recall what I gave him for a present, it certainly wasn’t much. He gave me a setting for four of Corelle. I was so very proud of that, matching plates! But that was the extent of the gift giving.
I was homesick, missing my family. The day before Christmas I got a box in the mail, from my parents! Oh, I held onto that box and just about cried. Inside were a new winter coat (how did Mom know I didn’t have a good one??) and a beautiful new sweater. She was kind enough to include a few presents for my boyfriend too. He had no family in the area so our few presents were the only ones he received that year. It was finally Christmas, Mama was with me (in spirit at least). It was such a surprise, that box. I had forgotten but my mother surely didn’t. There’s just something about getting presents from family. Presents from someone who knows you, people that you have history with. Someone who cares.
I come from a family where Christmases were spent together. On Christmas morning we all gathered around the tree my stepfather cut down, which had been decorated with ornaments that we kids had been using our entire lives. Our home, while modest, was decorated with garlands, lights and cards everywhere. The entire Holiday Season was spent with Jingle Bells frolicking on the radio, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer flying across the television, everyone playing UNO at the kitchen table and laughing until we cried. My mother and stepfather were the glue that held this happy whirlwind together. My stepfather has always been one of the funniest and most generous people I have ever met. And Mama, well she was pure magic at Christmas. Hiding presents from 3 teenagers and a toddler couldn’t have been easy. Putting lights and popcorn garlands on the small tree in the front yard one year. Hanging tinsel garlands in the doorway to the kitchen. Smiling while we kids debated where to hang the mistletoe. She was always coming up with something creative to do. She made a ceramic Mr. and Mrs. Santa one year, a gorgeous little ceramic Christmas tree another time. She also made the most amazing Christmas candy; platters and platters of it every year.
Mother came by all that candy making honestly, and has always been particularly good at it. Divinity. Orange balls. Macaroons. Peanut brittle. Chocolate Rice Krispies candy. Fruitcake cookies. Ribbon candy. Fudge, fudge and more fudge. These are just a few of the delicacies that she and Grandma made for Christmas. Their buffets were always piled high with platter after platter of chocolate covered pretzels and many other delicious things. Boy they could hear the rustle of plastic wrap a mile away. “Mmm, get on out of the fudge now,” Grandma would warn if it was near to mealtime.
A big pile of food is always festive, but when corn syrup is involved another level entirely is achieved. No one, I repeat, no one walked into Grandma’s house without taking at least one bite of something during their visit. Most left with a plateful. Her candy was legendary (at least it was to us kids) and I‘m here to tell you we ate a lot of it! Grandma made that candy and gave it out to everyone she came in contact with. Co-workers, church families, neighbors, even the postman got a box of candy. There used to be small wooden houses at the end of Howell Road here in Mayday. They used to call that area “The Quarters.” Some of the people who lived there weren’t as fortunate as others, so Grandma shared her bounty with those families too.
My sister remembers getting Christmas boxes of candy from Grandma when she and her husband were stationed in Germany. They meant so much to her when they were over there, far from family during the holidays. My sister reminds me that “the small things a Grandma does for her children carry on long after she has gone.” Grandma has been gone for almost twenty years now, hard to believe. And this Christmas, we will think of her as we pack our cookie tins and Christmas boxes for others.
Editors note: Submitted by the author, which is a revised version of the original printed in The Valdosta Magazine’s Winter 2010 issue.