Thursday, December 24, 2009

I was. I am.

With my 55th Christmas coming up, I have to admit that they all blend together, and they come around so much faster than they used to. I have watched the days click off in a different manner since I retired --- so rapidly that Christmas sneaked up on me like a bad pair of undies.

As a child we slugged it up Interstate 85 to visit my mother's family in Lynchburg, Virginia. My father was an only child, and his parents dead before he met my mother. My dad embraced my mother's sisters, four of which were unmarried, and they spoiled my siblings and me but loved us so as we were their only nieces and nephews.

My mother's two sisters who did get married were childless, and my mother's two brothers deceased, one in a car accident in 1940, another a suicide after WW2, a post tramatic syndrome hushed up around the family when we were kids -- a fact that I didn't know about until I was in college. It was always called "a shooting accident," and his wife, even though she remarried, was always a part of the family who was talked about, but her move to California making her elusive and mysterious to me.

We always drove up 85 -- my parents bundling us, still asleep, into the car way before dawn to get a beat on the traffic, and as my dad loved to say, "to make good time."

I'm sure they enjoyed the peace and quiet they got in the car before the four of us were awake and ready to pick at each other until somebody cried. My mother packed a lunch, and we would make a stop at a rest area or a road side table, sometimes shivering in our coats, where we ate bologna sandwiches, wrapped in wax paper, and potato chips that left the fingers greasy, before my mother doled out the single stick of Dentyne, the only gum she approved of since it cleaned the teeth.

That Dentyne was a treat -- I know, hard to beleive.

When we left really early, we were given one of the small packs of cereal, which we ate in the car for breakfast; I thought those little mini packs of cereal were fabulous -- it was the only time we were allowed sugary cereal such as Frosted Flakes or Cocoa Puffs. We had some serious fights over who got what cereal. I have no idea how those decisions were made. I'm sure it was diplomatic and fair. Eh.

Those little boxes were like crack to me -- but again, guarded like gold by my mother, a nutritionist who thought it was an addictive substance. We got one for the trip up and one on the way back. According to her, they were not a good way to spend your money.. "ridiculously expensive" she would comment.

Three of my aunts lived in a three-story house in Lynchburg, and another one would drive down from Washington DC to share, usually, a four day holiday together. We usually arrived the day before Christmas eve and left the day after Christmas -- or at least that's the way I remember it.

My aunt who lived in Washington worked for the CIA, and we loved the mystery and intrigue of that job since she never told us exactly what she did. I always imagined spies, flashlights, Communists, and blacklists with my aunt wearing a black, satin hat with a feather quill, smoking a cigarette [which she did], and burning secret files in the fireplace while her boss lurked in the shadows in the background.

When she died in 1994 and we were closing up her house and putting it up for sale, the only relic left from that career was a box full of blue fountain pens with US Government blazoned on the sides that we found in a desk drawer. This was the aunt that I was named for -- I will have to write a single blog on her at some time. She was smart, funny, and interesting.

She pulled one of those blue "government issued" pens from her purse when she wished to make a note, and we coveted those pens as kids -- she never gave them up readily. My mother called her "Hallie" growing up -- but somewhere along the line, my aunt put her foot down -- and she was called Harriett. Since that was her name, in my family, I was called "Harriett Sue," so that when we were all together, it was to distinguish to whom was being called or talked about.

My aunt was the only other Harriett I knew until I went to college. Harriett is still not a name common enough to be found on those cool plastic key chains you can buy at Stuckey's.


In that house in Lynchburg with its three floors, my family was spread out --- my parents slept in grandpa's room -- one of two bedrooms downstairs -- and before my grandparents died, my parents slept on the fold out couch in the living room --- my brothers were put on army cots in the basement, covered in old wool blankets smelling of moth balls and kerosene, and my sister and I slept upstairs, in the attic bedrooms that had slanted ceilings on the sides -- that as we grew, we had to "watch the head." We were tucked "under the eaves" on cots as well and weighted down with quilts that went back two generations.

That house was snug -- twelve of us, hunkered down for celebrating the holidays... and we shared two bathrooms. Lawd -- things were simple then, weren't they? Maybe we were under bathed.

My aunts decorated the house with a flair. Wreaths on the doors -- Christmas tree with handmade ornaments and crammed with gifts, wrapped festively, and red candles in the silver candelabra on the dining room table -- they always made the home as welcoming as a Christmas card.

We descending on them with our child loudness, our needy selves, and we hung out together and worked puzzles, ate, and celebrated the season.

I have nothing but fond memories except for the Christmas evening performance that my mother had made us practice for and perform for my grandparents and aunts. One time, she asked the folks of the Christmas letter to watch as well. [See two blogs ago...]
Egads. I just wanted to throw up.

My mother believed in us knowing the true meaning of Christmas -- the Luke 2 version --- and my oldest brother, who had a lovely speaking as well as singing voice, usually memorized the verses. Then my sister who could sing as well, my other brother, him too, and I, not so much, would be the supporting cast. We sang Christmas carols, carried candles, dressed up in Sunday finery, and performed something every year for my aunts and grandparents.

My mother was a perfectionist, not in the fact that she wished us to sing well cause, well cause you can't wish that, but in the performance itself.


We practiced this little act in Atlanta before we left, in the car on the way up, and in the basement before the event.

I dreaded these. I hated them. The only thing I liked was the cute little green or red velvet dress I got to wear with its huge bow, tied neatly in the back, the black patent leather shoes, that usually squeezed my toe, that I got to flaunt around, and my hair, curled and sprayed stiff by my mother, all fixed for the performance. I thought I was a pretty little girl, and I like to bat my blue eyes and flip my blond curls like I was the cat's meow.

It helped that I was the youngest -- the youngest is always the cutest -- but I must have been annoying as all get out.

In fact, I'm pretty sure I was. I am.

My aunts and my grandparents always clapped, took lots of pictures -- those floating dots from the flash adding to it all, and raved at the end about how great we were, how we were just so smart and so talented, and I know they must have just been wishing they had two more glasses of eggnog before we started to sing.

Maybe, they thought it was cute. Maybe they thought it was custom, tradition, and maybe, my mother had to do the same thing as a child, but

I was really happy when those things came to an end.

I'm not sure when it was. Maybe it was after my grandparents had died -- which was 1964 -- maybe it was when we quit making the trip to Lynchburg every year, and my aunts and parents began to alternate who makes the trip where -- they would come down here, we would go up there, but maybe it was when I got too big to be cute.


But when I think of Christmas eve -- I think of those performances, and how innocent, how simple, how totally lame they must have been --- but in some ways, I miss that kind of Christmas --

the cozy, up under each other, and totally together those Christmas were.

That generation -- my parents, my aunts --- have all passed on....:(

BTW: Now, in my family -- in memory of that little Christmas eve performance, we adopted an aspect of it for my own nieces and nephews. On Christmas eve when we are all together, we do "Stockings," which means that each of the oldest generation has put a tiny gift in each stocking.
The gifts are small and cheap -- candy, socks, puzzles --- that sort of thing, but all of us look forward to it because it is fun....

Any who---- we make them perform -- one year they had to sing a verse of a Christmas carol they knew by heart, one year they had to play a musical instrument (we regretted that assignment -- Gawd. I thought David was gonna bust a gut it was so painful), another year it was write a poem.... you get the idea.

We call it "Make You Worth Your Stocking." Now, the oldest is 26 and the youngest 18 -- we do it for the laughs -- and they are all good sports. Last year, my niece's fiancee, who is German, got in on the fun He probably just chalked it up to "Crazy Americans, " or he thought this is what all Americans do. LOL

I don't know how my mother would feel about this -- her focus was intentionally honorable -- ours, not so much.

Regardless, I miss those Christmases. The Christmases where you made you own entertainment, ornaments, fun -- and you were all stuck with each other for two days.

Wait. Maybe not.


Merry Christmas, my blog readers.


  1. Harriett Sue,

    Thanks for your memories, which bring to mind many of mine.

    Merry Christmas with love. Tawn

  2. I just reread your blog and noticed the picture. Love it. You really don't look much different (except the hair color).

  3. Wait! Harriett, are you in the photo? I thought this was a photo of your nieces and nephews. The one in the red shirt looks like Stephen, but I can also see that one of the girls does look like you. I think this photo is too recent to include you.

  4. Harriet, you know I have a hard time calling you that :P, that was a beautiful story! We have traditions like that, but of course not for Christmas ;). For my grandparents, every birthday, the eight grandchildren would do some type of performance. My twin sister and I were the youngest so we never had to come up with what we did, thank goodness, I am not creative, but every year we did something. I don't know how cute it was but it was a tradition. And the cereal box thing made me laugh because with my Dad being a dentist we never got to have sugar cereals except when we went to the beach every summer for vacation and my Mom would pack the small box variety pack and every year the three of us, my brother, sister and I would have to pick a number and whoever go the closest to the number my Mom wrote down got to pick which cereal they wanted. We always fought over those coveted boxes. Hope you had a wonderful holiday! Sorry for the ridiculously long post!

  5. I am sitting here crying remembering my own early Christmases and uncles who made reindeer tracks in the dirt and took us out to see them on Christmas morning. I am burying my own favorite and last uncle on this day. Thanks for once again sending me on a nostalgic journey. I hope your Christmas was happy and fun.

  6. Hello there, Ms. Gillham! Thanks to the miracle of modern-day social networking, I stumbled upon your blog . . . I miss, so dearly, those of you who were so instrumental in my early years. ;) I'd love to stay in touch--email me sometime, Much love, Claire

  7. This made me smile. Especially the stories about cartrips with the family. I loved all of the stories about Grandma, especially the part about sugar cereals. I miss her and Grandpa!

    How old is that phone you put up? My guess is something like 17 years.

  8. I've been in your family for almost 28 years, and I never knew until now that you and your sibs also had to perform for the family at Christmas! The lightbulb goes on!