Christmas 2006 Newsletter

Dear Friends,

I had planned something altogether different for this Christmas edition of my newsletter than what you're about to read.  I'd intended to write something new and had actually spent some time brainstorming an outline.  But for some reason this morning I was reminded of something I wrote five years ago...shortly after September 11...and when I read it again, I realized our world is still reeling from that devastating event.  As you read it, you'll see it was written at a time when the war was centered in Afghanistan.  We thought it would end there.  But as we now know, sadly, it continues to rage in an ever-widening area of the Middle East.  So it seemed appropriate that I should share this old article with you here today.

This Christmas, my prayer is that we will reach deep inside ourselves to find the peace that we each can bring to bear in the little corner at a time.


The Christmas Gift

 by: Rhonda Jones

December 25, 2001, Christmas day of my 39th year, and just over three months had passed since the worst terrorist disaster in history.  New York and Washington, D.C. had never felt closer to Greeneville, Tennessee than in those three months.

Now, I sat quietly in the corner of the hospital room, trying hard to disappear into the woodwork.  An occasional nurse wandered in, briefly disturbing the normal sights and sounds.  The only constant in the room was Granny’s labored breathing.  Her chest heaved with each futile attempt to draw oxygen from the tube in her nose into her weak lungs, and I couldn’t help thinking of the fish we sometimes caught in the nearby lake.  Granny gasped at the air that didn’t seem fitted for her lungs anymore just as those fish did as they tried desperately to stay alive.

This was the first Christmas of my life that Granny, our matriarch, wasn’t there for us - not in the home where my father and two aunts were raised, not preparing a huge country dinner, not serving her traditional jam cake and pumpkin pies, not welcoming us back together again – aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers and sisters – for the holiday celebration that so defined us as a family.  This was turning out to be a very different Christmas indeed.

For most of my life, I just assumed that everyone, all families everywhere, were just like mine.  From inside the warm cocoon of my youth, the world seemed very small, very homogenous, very safe and predictable.  My most early recollections are filled with the familiar surroundings of Granny’s house.

As a child, Granny and Grandpa’s house seemed no less than a mansion to me.  A white house atop a hill, it had tall gables unlike our flat-roofed house down in the hollow.  The green roof shingles matched the green and white-striped awning over the front porch as well as the painted green foundation.  A long, straight sidewalk led from the house through towering oak trees to the wooden, one-car garage that matched the house.  Two things adorned the front of the garage: an old rusty, homemade basketball rim with no means of attaching a net, and a metal sign identifying my Grandpa as a proud Farm Bureau member.  My sister and two cousins and I soon learned, while staying with Grandpa during summer break from school, that if you aimed the basketball at the Farm Bureau sign it would produce a perfect bank shot every time.

My grandparents had three children: one son who is my Daddy, and two daughters.  All three married and had two girls apiece – six granddaughters.  But, two of my cousins never lived near us since their Daddy was a military man.  So, we rarely saw them.  And, just like New York and Washington, D.C., the places they lived sounded so far away as to almost make them seem nonexistent.  For better or worse, we had our own small sphere of existence.

We, my sister and two cousins, spent our days, not only perfecting our bank shot, but also playing out all sorts of imaginary scenarios that made our world seem huge to us.  We built a playhouse in the garage using an old, discarded area rug from Granny’s den.  Then we imagined that we were florists, digging up and re-potting everything from interesting looking weeds to morning glory vines.  That fun ended abruptly, however, when my sister got poison ivy.

In our spare time, when not playing with poisonous plants, we created our own singing group.  The American Sweethearts, we dubbed ourselves.  For the life of me, I still can’t figure out how we came up with that.  It certainly wasn’t because our elders referred to us as such.  But, we surveyed the competition in our little play world, found that we had none to dispute our claim, and therefore deemed ourselves the sweetest, whereupon, we proceeded to perform concerts under the canopy of the monstrous oaks, maples and dogwood trees.  Our repertoire was quite limited, however, since radio listening for us consisted of a few selections on the local, country station, WSMG, heard during the short drive to Grandpa’s in the morning where we stayed while our Granny and parents worked at the local television factory.  The play list at the radio station must have been extremely limited, because for what seemed like an eternity, I heard Donna Fargo and Tom T. Hall over and over and over again.

Our only other radio listening occurred like clockwork right after lunch.  Grandpa would bring us to the kitchen where we gathered around the brown and chrome Formica table as he prepared the best tuna fish sandwiches of all time.  Then he quieted us before he tuned the radio to the twelve o’clock news.  We listened in hushed reverence to the familiar voice of Maxine Humphreys reading the daily, local news.

Maxine had an unforgettable voice that was to us both unique and funny all at the same time.  She sounded for all the world like a proper southern belle, although long past the youthful days of sweet, lilting speech.  Instead, her voice had taken on the grandmotherly sound of an experienced southern lady.  Undoubtedly, it was her over-enunciation – rare in our neck of the woods – which provided her greatest uniqueness as well as a little comedy, too.  We listened intently as she haltingly addressed us over the radio waves, pronouncing every syllable with great care.  “Goo-ud-Af-ter-nooon-This-is-Max-een-ump-freeze-and-this-is-the-nuuz.”

We always giggled and rolled our eyes at one another when she said funny words like “boo-lee-vahrd”.  Then we would mock her until Grandpa shushed us, so he could catch up on all the goings-on in our little corner of the world.

This was the world, as far as we could tell.  Despite an occasional glimpse of Vietnam on Walter Cronkite’s evening news or a few minutes of a Watergate hearing here and there, the world started and stopped for us within a ten mile radius of Granny and Grandpa’s house.  Everything else was only a story we listened to on TV and the radio.  And, Maxine Humphreys was just as mysterious to us as Tom T. Hall and all the other voices we heard through the airwaves.  Our world was defined by regularity as dependable as the Big Ben alarm clock that ticked loudly beside Granny and Grandpa’s bed.

From the time we entered grade school, our momma’s worked.  Grandpa, disabled with emphysema and a weak heart, was our baby-sitter.  Every morning during the school year, Momma rolled us out of bed before 6:00 AM, bundled us up and deposited us at Grandpa’s house, as did my aunt and uncle with my two cousins.  Then, they and Granny departed for work.  We would fall sleepily into couches, chairs, the floor, or whatever surface we could find on which to capture a few more winks, before Grandpa would rise to prepare our breakfast.

It was always the same: Hungry Jack biscuits buttered hot out of the oven then smothered in Bobwhite Syrup and White House Apple Butter.  We finished gulping it down just in time to run to the end of the driveway at the bottom of the hill and catch the big, yellow school bus.  Year in, year out, our bus driver was Tate Huff.  He lived in the community, and I was even kin to him on my Momma’s side.  So, it was just like riding to and from school with family.  Summertime brought only slight variation to our routine.  Sometimes, we slept late and skipped breakfast altogether.  That was pretty much the sum total of our variety.

Just as regularly, every Sunday we gathered at Granny and Grandpa’s house after church for dinner (that’s the 12:00 PM meal where I come from).  The menu was always the same: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans and yellow corn, all harvested and carefully preserved from Granny and Grandpa’s garden.  And, of course, no Sunday dinner would have been complete without Grandpa’s homemade biscuits and gravy.  We didn’t mind that the food was always the same.  It tasted like a delicacy to us as we licked our fingers clean.  The coup de grace was always the joke that never failed.  Granny would rear back from the table with her shoulders thrown back with pride and ask “Would anybody like a big piece of homemade chocolate cake?”  Fueled by the same eternal optimism that causes Charlie Brown to keep trying to kick that football, someone (usually the menfolk) would heartily respond “Boy, I sure would!” and “Yes, Ma’am!” Then Granny would smile, “I would, too.  I sure wish we had some.” She would laugh.  And, we would all laugh as though we’d never heard it hundreds of times before.  We never tired of hearing it.

As we did on Sunday, we also gathered together every holiday.  Easter, Thanksgiving, and of course, Christmas, were all cause for us to congregate at Granny and Grandpa’s.  Each holiday had it’s own unique feeling.  For us kids, Easter was marked by the eagerness of Spring, egg hunts in the yard, the first tree climbing expedition of the year, and anticipation of the summer adventures we would soon embark upon together with Grandpa.

Thanksgiving had a different feeling.  Sometimes, it was still warm enough for us to play outdoors.  But, for the most part, this time together was characterized by a feeling of reunion.  After about three months back in school, the strong bonds of summer had dwindled a bit as we explored other relationships and built new ties with classmates.  So, Thanksgiving came, appropriately, right at the time that we needed a reminder of the ties that would forever bind us.  We eased ourselves back into that familiar territory and began to welcome that warm feeling like the comfort of a roaring fire on a cold winter night.  The anticipation of Christmas would then begin to grow – not Christmas with our new friends from school, but Christmas with our family.  Reflections of Christmases at Granny and Grandpa’s house filled our thoughts and created new excitement in us for more.

Christmas at Granny and Grandpa’s house was a time of pure joy.  More food than dozens of families could eat spilled out of the kitchen where my Momma, Aunt and Granny ran circles around each other to keep up with it all.  The men in the family parked in the living room to talk about hunting or work or whatever it was adults talked about.  We kids didn’t know, but we never gave it a care.  For we were far too content in the den.  That was our room – always had been, always would be.  We rotated through banging out pseudo Christmas carols on the upright piano, shaking our presents under the Christmas tree that Grandpa had cut from the woods behind the house, and building tents with all Granny’s extra blankets draped over the furniture.  And, through it all there was giggling – lots and lots of giggling.  Topsy-turvy, giggle-box-turned-upside-down giggling always characterized our Christmases together, born of a pure joy to be alive and to be together – to be family.

It would be a long time before I realized that we were actually unique – that there was a big, wide world extending well beyond our small corner, even beyond the reach of Maxine Humphreys’ news report.  As though awakening from a marvelous dream so real that it takes a few minutes to realize it was only a dream, I gradually became aware that not everyone in the world had the kind of family we had – didn’t even have a family at all in some cases.  No one with whom to celebrate the Sabbath, and the first buds of Spring, the joys of Summer, the gratefulness of Thanksgiving, and the celebration of Christmas.  No bonds of tradition, no routines to guarantee their continued fellowship over the shifting sands of time.

But as I sat there alone on this Christmas Day at the foot of Granny’s hospital bed, I was never so fully aware of those bonds.  Like the regular groaning of Granny’s labored breathing, the regularity of our lives together over the years had become part of us now.  It had somehow, silently, almost secretly over the years melded us together into something greater than ourselves.

There was no escaping it.  It was inside of us, and we would carry it with us wherever we went.  And, whether we actually would gather together again at Granny’s house or not, I did not know.  But one thing I did know with absolute certainty.  The bonds born of our predictable lives together had become real and could not be rended apart by any force.  I realized at last that this had been Granny and Grandpa’s ultimate, priceless gift to each of us – the gift of family.

As I looked at Granny’s feeble body in the hospital bed, now faltering with age, I felt the torch of responsibility being passed to me.  It’s up to us now, I realized, to teach our children, nieces and nephews what it means to be a family.  To carve out a corner of the world for our loved ones.  To create our own comfortable routines.  To find reasons to regularly celebrate simple pleasures together.  And, to be fully aware that as sure as our hearts are still beating, we can count on our family to always be loving us, no matter what may come.

I looked at Granny sleeping in the hospital bed again.  The world we live in today is no more uncertain than the one in which Granny and Grandpa raised their family, I thought.  They couldn’t change the major events of their time anymore than we can change what is unfolding in ours in places like New York…Washington D.C....Afghanistan.  But I know that we can change our corner of the world.  Granny and Grandpa taught me that.  And, after all that is truly how the world will be changed…one little corner at a time.

Before I closed my eyes to go to sleep, I smiled at Granny – smiled all the way down to the bottom of my heart.  This was the best Christmas gift I ever had.

Merry Christmas!

May God bless you all richly this Christmas and throughout 2007!