Authors: Dorothea Benton Frank
Tags: #Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Romance, #Contemporary
When I was a young girl, the glorious celebrations of…
It was Pearl all right. I began to shake.
I knew it was Christmas morning as the warm first…
When I was a young girl, the glorious celebrations of the Christmas season were a very different affair than they are today. Of course, I am as old as Methuselah. Ninety-three. When I got out of bed this morning, every bone in my body creaked like the loose boards in the front staircase of this ancient house. Can you even imagine what it would be like to have lived so many years? It was hard to believe that I had done it myself. But there it was. I was an old nanny goat at last. However, I
preferred to be thought of as a stylish dowager, the doyenne of Murray Boulevard, staving off her dotage. The fact was that if
and incapacitating decrepitude couldn’t take me down in ninety-three years, I might squeak my way to Glory unscathed. Hallelujah! Another blessing!
My, my! The world has certainly changed, although many other, more important things have remained the same. After all, as
we are the self-appointed guardians of all traditions worthy of preservation. For example, it was 2006, I was
my family’s home, as my mother and grandmother had done. Probably my great-grandmother before them, too. My memory is a little bit fuzzy about that. Regardless, the point is, I never left. Why would I?
Unfortunately, our home has become a little threadbare. Everything from the plaster to the plumbing could use some attention. It was not that my offspring or their offspring couldn’t gather the resources to correct the creaks and leaks; it was that no one seemed to be worried about how this state of dilapidation looked to outsiders. What kind of Charlestonian no longer cared about appearances? Apathetic slackers, I’m afraid to say. It made me sick in my heart. The house deserved better.
Like any classic Southern stately home, ours has massive white Corinthian columns strung along the front portico. The foundation and the portico flooring is handmade brick, as is most of the entire house. My parents loved wrought-iron work so much that they added lots of detail—handrails, a balcony, and so forth.
Each generation—that is, until now—added some distinction to the house and grounds. I was the one who commissioned the gates forged by Charleston’s greatest blacksmith, Phillip Simmons, himself! Yes, it’s true. I will never forget the day he came with his men to install them on the sidewall of the house. They are superb,
like black iron lace, with delicate snowy egrets set in ovals in the center of each side. He brought with him a small plaque bearing his name—
. He asked me if I thought it was all right to affix it to the bottom. I said, you go right ahead, Mr. Simmons, because you are truly an artist! So he did.
In the yard are sprawling magnolia and live oak trees dripping with great sheers of Spanish moss. In the rear gardens are azalea and camellia bushes that are as old as Noah’s house cat. Most of the landscaping is original to the house, except for the few things we lost during hurricanes, disease, or because of hostile visitors, if you know what I mean. Naturally, we have fig ivy crawling up the front steps that grows so quickly it makes me wish I carried pruning shears in my purse. Truth? Everything needs pruning and a good coat of paint.
I couldn’t dwell on it. What was I supposed to do about renovations and repairs when my life had come to a place where I was practically a guest in my own home? Not much, I’m afraid. In any case, I was determined to maintain a positive attitude.
I was preparing to celebrate Christmas with my darling daughter, Barbara, her family, and their spouses and children, who had all arrived for the holidays. To give you the family map, Barbara and her husband, Cleland, who are both in their early sixties, live here
with me. Their grown children have children and live in their own homes in Atlanta and Charlotte. I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I’m glad they do. Bless their hearts, they are a truculent bunch. Yes, they are, but I mean that in the nicest possible way.
It might interest you to know how the house retaliated against their presence. Every time my whole family gathers under this roof, the walls rattle, the chandeliers downstairs flicker, and every portrait goes crooked on its nail. You see, along with the living comes the dead. Yes, our house is very haunted. It certainly is. Or it is sinking. Or perhaps both. I was never quite certain which because Charleston, especially the tip of the peninsula where we live, was built on plough mud. However, I can see Fort Sumter from my bedroom window. Knowing all that the mighty fortress represented gives me ample strength to deal with them.
All I can do all day is cluck to myself. I am clucking for a good reason. This was supposed to be a time of great joy. Unfortunately, Barbara’s family always does such a pitiful job of the production of our Christmas celebration that I wind up disheartened. In her defense, at her age Barbara can only do so much on her own and the rest of them are clueless. Sadly, no one else appears to see anything wrong with the ramshackle way things are thrown together. Truly, I don’t mean to judge them so harshly, but somehow it seems to me that they have
allowed the whole spirit of the season to erode into blatant commercialism. I could have told them plenty of ways to revive the beauty of the past. I have tried many times; however, who wants to listen to an old coot like me? I worry that it is too late. When I close my eyes for the last time, an entire library of instructions for genuinely rewarding living will go with me.
It isn’t that they do not
their efforts are sufficient. My opinion? They surely aren’t creating anything for one another that comes even remotely close to the wonderful memories I have. Maybe I was looking at them with a jaundiced eye. For the life of me, I just can’t
their excitement. Their Christmas plans seem to have become little more than a burden and a bother. Everything is rush, rush, rush!
I know I’ve been a lucky woman. In the holiday seasons of my youth, back in the early twentieth century, my brother and I believed anything,
at all, was possible. Christmas was charmed. There is simply no other or better way to say it.
. My parents, my brother, and I all lived with my grandparents right here because my grandparents
us to. Do tell! We got along just fine. Usually, that is. On a rare occasion I caught my father’s sleeve as he stormed out through the front door. I would ask him if he was angry. He would knit his eyebrows, say no, he would be back in a while, that he was going
up to the Hibernian to talk his friend out of having another drink. Oh my! How funny to remember the clever way he phrased his discontent! He didn’t have disagreements with anyone too often. None of us did. Harmony really
the norm. Why? I have to say that it was all a result of Pearl’s tutelage and, heaven knows, her perseverance.
Pearl drilled it into our skulls that it was extremely important to love and cherish one another. She would say, there are enough people to argue with
—meaning the outside world. She would flip upside down and spin sideways in her grave to see how my family behaves today.
It is true that like a lot of older people, I romanticize the past. With so little effort I can relive those days like they were only moments ago. In my mind’s eye, I look back over my shoulder. There is my youth at the end of an extremely long foggy tunnel dug through time, hung with gossamer veils. All I have to do is swing those veils aside to clearly see and remember how things really were. And it was wonderful.
What was my best Christmas? That would be a difficult choice to make, but there
one in particular that stands out from the others. My mother was still alive. The year was 1920, I think. Yes, that’s right: 1920. I would have been just six years old and in the first grade. There was a lot happening in the
real world was that dull place where the adults seemed to orbit on another planet.
Although I was terribly small, I was still aware of the headlines of the day. We had a copy of Charleston’s
News & Courier
in our house every day of the week. But to tell you the truth, I didn’t care much about the news, as it had little or no effect on me. I knew that the war in Europe was finally ended because that terrible war had been the main topic of discussions around the dinner table since I could remember any conversations at all. At last there was peace. The adults said with long, whooshing sighs of relief that the economy was getting better, that the civilized world was finally putting itself back together again. They said this about a million times, as though there were nothing else to talk about.
In my local realm, all the boys in my school, my brother included, were baseball crazy. I didn’t think it was so great that Babe Ruth was going to join the Yankees. Yankees? Were they serious? Or did I give one toot that Edith Wharton had just published
The Age of Innocence
? I was having my
age of innocence and hopping from foot to foot waiting for Christmas to arrive!
Christmas! May I just tell you what it was like? Oh my! The air positively crackled with excitement. Starting at our home, anticipation and optimism spewed
from every corner of Charleston as though all the water pipes were springing pinhole leaks, one after another, all across the city. In succession, not secession. That was a little joke.
The holidays! Grown-ups met their friends at all manner of gatherings, people whom, perhaps, they hadn’t seen all year. Small gifts were exchanged, cards were sent and received, and the doorbell rang all the time. People dropped by to see my grandmother and mother, who did many charitable things for others, just to say they wished us well. Some brought us red poinsettias, which Mother would group around the sides of the fireplaces. Others came with a box of homemade fudge or taffy that would go in a crystal dish on the dining-room sideboard whose cover betrayed us with a tinkle every time we reached in for a treat.
“You chillrun get your hands outta there, ’eah?” Pearl would call out from another room. “You’ll ruin your supper!”
That woman could hear a handkerchief flutter to the ground from all the way across town. She surely could.
The parade of visitors seemed endless to my brother and me. We would race to the door hoping it was a candy delivery from a friend of our parents and not another useless poinsettia. Gordie and I were the recipients of endless head pats and cheek pinchings, and the well-wisher would invariably say that my grandmother
Dora never seemed to age, that my mother, Helena, was just like her, but, my oh my, how Gordie and I had grown. We would smile politely at them, roll our eyes at each other, only to steal away as soon as possible to resume whatever parlor game we had been playing in between chores. Gordie was a fidgeter extraordinaire. What child wasn’t when the holidays were within his reach?
The preparations for the season were such an enormous undertaking that everyone rolled up their sleeves, pitching in to help. It began weeks before Thanksgiving, lasting the whole way through the bone-chilling gray days of January, when Pearl, with that sly look of hers, would surprise us with the last slice of fruitcake she had squirreled away somewhere. She would share it with Gordie and me over cups of hot tea spiced with orange rinds and cloves.
Pearl was my grandmother’s housekeeper/manager/ caterer/psychiatrist/best friend without whom our lives surely would have collapsed. Well, she wasn’t actually a licensed psychiatrist. She was an excellent listener, dispensed sound advice for every situation, and she was right every single time. She was naturally brilliant, very mysterious, and whenever she was around, you could always smell a trace of blackberries in the air. She had eyes in the back of her head because Gordie and I never got away with a single bit of naughtiness
unless she wanted us to. When she got excited, Pearl spoke Gullah. When she was feeling blue, she told me true stories her mother had told her about slavery that frightened me and distressed me so that I cried for hours. She was my favorite person in the world, the one I wanted to please most. Especially after Mother died.
From our perspective, Pearl was as imposing as a statue of George Washington. She had to be more than six feet tall, portly, her salt-and-pepper-streaked hair slicked back into a bun at the nape of her neck. Every single day she wore a freshly starched, black cotton dress with a long white apron. When my grandmother or my mother entertained, she wore a different apron with a ruffled edge. She also bobby-pinned a small white starched linen tiara into her hair. Just her presence was enough to scare the daylights out of most people, but we knew she loved us with the same fierce love we felt for her. And me? I lived in her shadow, never out of her earshot.
The fact that the house belonged to my grandmother was of no significance to me because Pearl was the engine that made every good thing happen to us and for us. Especially as she commandeered
of creating the holiday season’s grand affairs.
First, there was the arrival of nuts. A childhood friend of my father’s who lived way up in Sumter
had a grove of paper-shell pecan trees. Every year a twenty-pound burlap sack of them would find its way to the shade of our back door. Sometimes we got other varieties, but moist, buttery paper-shell pecans were our favorite. They were a treasure, to be sure. Daddy always tried to give his friend some money for them, but he would firmly resist. Finally Daddy would say that they should smoke a cigar together and toast the holiday with a little glass of O Be Joyful. They would sit for a spell, just drinking and visiting, laughing, retelling stories of their shared childhood and how they learned to fish or hunt.
Clearly the advent of the pecans was the trigger for the festivities of the season.
Pearl would say, “It’s time to crack some nuts. Y’all gwine help.”
Of course I jumped right to it. It made me feel very grown up. She would help me tie on an apron. I would sit on a high stool in the kitchen, cracking them with a handheld metal nutcracker, letting them drop right into a large yellow bowl. Later Pearl and I would sift through them, discarding the shells, inspecting them with a steel pick, carefully removing the bitter woody shards that lined the grooves of the nut meats. The cleaned nuts would be stored in airtight glass canisters until we had enough to make all the holiday recipes, the same ones we made every year.