When I was a little girl, we would leave Tupelo, Mississippi early on Christmas Eve and head to Yazoo City to join my grandparents, aunt and uncle, spouses and seven cousins. Three hours was the eternity required to get there. In those days we passed the time with sticks of Wrigley’s spearmint gum and the anyone-can-play road trip game from A to Z that goes like this: A is for Antonio who married Aphrodite; they lived in Antartica where they sold amphitheaters (extra points for the unusual).
The rambling Griffith house on Canal Street was a modern affair for the Mississippi Delta, but it lacked certain essentials. Centrally located was the one and only, albeit extra-large, bathroom. The idea at purchase was to later divide the space, but as my Grandmother often repeated, “We never got around to it.”
When the time came, we were condemned to sit on the throne and nervously monitor three of the four walls from which a door could open. This left us a tad off balance especially during the holidays when stomach viruses prevailed, and the resident washing machine rocked loudly in its attempt to balance a steady overload of dirty clothes.
The house haunts my dreams in a mystical way as I made it my business to explore every inch of the place. I was a nosy little thing, curious about things inside of things, inside of drawers, baskets, cupboard and closets. I can close my eyes and recite the contents of each receptacle.
Still I day dream about the mother of all closets which was dead center inside the ivy covered stucco structure. Between the kitchen and an eternal L shaped hallway which opened to most rooms in the house, we referred to it as Noah’s Ark because my Grandmother said that it contained two of everything.
Noah’s Ark was lined top to bottom with narrow bookshelves painted dark green. Such a hideout was endlessly fascinating for all the cousins because of its diversely curated heap of stuff. It was wide and roomy too, enough to accommodate my Grandmother’s pedal sewing machine, a rack of keepsake clothing and a cedar chest.
If you asked my Grandmother what was behind the closed door of the inter sanctum, she simply said, “Doodahs, millions of doodahs.”
Upon arrival, the cousins rooted around for clue-related doodahs connected to their particular parent. My specialty was to rustle through my mother’s party dresses and letters from old boyfriends of which she would never discuss to my satisfaction. A lot was explained when Glen Campbell’s hit, “Everyday Housewife,” climbed the charts. She would lament the lyrics: “How depressing.”
My Aunt and Uncle would pre-arrange communication plots with the North Pole. One year they placed a collect call to Santa’s Workshop by way of a party line on the heavy black telephone perched on the tiny telephone table coiled to the hall wall. One year a telegram arrived. We studied it in detail as if Santa actually hunted and pecked each word for us prior to hitching the reindeer.
My Grandmother was prone to read the Dear Virginia letter and The Night Before Christmas every Christmas Eve. She humored Daddy one year when he usurped her storytelling in order to read his own family rendition: By A McKnight Before Christmas. Though the poem was at her expense, she could never resist his dimples and the way he made his bed every morning when visiting.
At mealtime all fourteen of us settled around a dining room table padded for protection with a cumbersome cushion designed for battle. Fortunately it was topped by a fancy white tablecloth. I don’t remember the food being anything special, but there was plenty of it. CM and Margaret were retired from managing hotels and restaurants, and they were all about getting the spread to the table in an overheated condition.
When it came to sweets, we could be sure of a tin filled with sugar cookies and a plated pound cake. Pecan halves were available for snacking. My Grandmother was always dieting but never spoke of it. Somehow we knew.
Because I was her namesake, I was first in line to share her bed. I loved it because she was so big and soft. “Just like sleeping with a bag of needles,” she would report her experience with me to any listener the following morning.
On Christmas Eve my grandfather would wrangle a few of the boys to set up heavy steel fold out cots down in the basement. It was my good fortune that I never had to sleep in the super creepy basement with one tiny window which hovered at ground level. The smell of Mississippi red clay permeated the concrete steps that one descended in order to shiver off to sleep.
Pitch black was a situation to tolerate except when the door opened and one could snatch a light filled glimpse of a true to size Hereford painted on tin which illustrated the gone by era of Griffith Farm. It leaned against a wall caddy corner to millions of home preserved pears which rimmed a nearby long shelf.
Each night after everything simmered down, I would stroll the sidewalk with both Grandparents near the canal all the way to the Lamar Hotel where we would spend the night unloading their house guest number by three. CM and Margaret revisited their memories as Lamar Hotel managers until we nodded off.
On Christmas morning we hurried back to Canal Street to wait in line up formation along the frozen hallway. Forbidden to enter Noah’s Ark, the cousins hopped around while the adults wrapped arms and blew frosty breaths; each of us studying the framed ancestors hanging from the wires that descended by faraway ceiling hooks.
My Aunt loved to play up the anticipation by holding the cousins at bay until my Grandfather gave word that the gas heater was lit and the front room where a single decoration, the sparsely strung tree, hovered over Santa’s deposits. Stage right.
We were in! Spreading in all directions, we claimed our gifts. The day was committed to outdoor play in the canal, sparklers and firecrackers, board games and trolling for hard candy stuck to the bottom of our felt stockings.
We didn’t see our grandparents much that day. Now I know that the sixth decade required some regeneration, and they could be found in the back bedroom with their feet up.
At the time I counted on those days as everlasting tradition, but really the gatherings only amounted to a few spectral Christmases. Images in black and white roll out for me like a movie then dissolve into individual stories which can still be linked though assembly is required. What L.P. Hartley said was true: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”