Thursday, December 25, 2003

Christmas in the Holler

Christmas Eve Service was always wonderful at the Booger Holler Holiness Church. Sister Hazel Budder, the wife of Pastor Woodrow Budder was in charge of the choir an' them folks practiced since summer on the songs they sang on Christmas Eve. The Church was decorated just right an' aromatic cedar trees were trimmed an' lighted to get everyone in the mood.

Brother Woodrow reminded folks the reason for the season in a short message of 'bout five minutes at the end of the singin'. Ms. Hazel invited Uncle Billy Gilbert to come over to her house for Christmas dinner. Since Aunt Del died Ms. Hazel had done set her hopes on Uncle Billy. Everyone but Ms. Hazel knew that were a lost cause.

He thanked her, but said he was goin' to stay home. Other folks invited him without the hidden desires Ms. Hazel had an' he would smile an' turn them down too. He told folks Old Dog needed company tomorrow. 'Course, they invited Old Dog then, but Uncle Billy Gilbert just would smile an' again say no.

Christmas Morning in Beloved was glorious. There was just enough snow to make a white Christmas like a greeting card in the little town. Annie Pankey's store, Pankey's Hankies, had the window lighted an' her Santa collection called to hearts young and old to stop an' look. Beloved Baptist Church had it's bells playin' Christmas Carols quietly all morning. Folks that lived in town got out an' swept the sidewalks, just as an excuse to visit with each other. The wonderful smells of Christmas dinners cookin' filled the cold mountain air.

Up in the holler, Uncle Billy an' Old Dog got up early, as usual. He put a pot of coffee on after he let Old Dog out. He sliced a piece of fruitcake (laced with rum, but I'm not a'tellin') that his son Bill sent him. Bill had tried to get him to come up north for Christmas. His son meant well, but that boy's wife just didn't have goodwill in her voice as she fussed in the background of that call. He declined graciously. He just wished Bill would come home one Christmas an' bring the grandkids to spend Christmas day with him.

He'd stirred the fire when he got up an' now he added some coal to make it burn long and slow. Some folks didn't like the smell of a coal fire, but Uncle Billy Gilbert knew the smell was the heart of the hills. Coal was the heart, the lifeblood and the burden of the mountains.

Later in the morning, him an' Old Dog dozed in front of the fire. He planned on goin' for a walk up in the hills sometime during the afternoon. Plenty of day left for that.

All around Beloved folks were celebrating Christmas with their families. Customs were a little different, but the basics were the same, family, cheer, the joy of giving an' little ones gathered close to see what Santa left.

Meals were served and bellies filled as the day past all too quickly. Belts slipped to the next notch an' quite a few folks sat and dozed while company droned on about work, family or the common woes of life.

Hap Ledford sat for a while studyin' on somethin' after an early Christmas dinner. Evelyn could tell somethin' was on his mind an' she asked him what was in his head.

"Would you mind if I didn't help with the dishes an' went down to take Uncle Billy a little plate or something?"

"My goodness, Hap, I was waitin' for you to ask. I have a basket ready for you to take. I baked him a loaf of sour dough bread like he likes an' sliced him a couple of pounds of that country ham. You know how he likes them country hams he cures, but won't hardly keep one for himself. You go on an' spend some time with him. Tell him we all love him."

Hap grinned as Evelyn walked from the kitchen with a basketx filled with bread, country ham, and some of her prize winnin' strawberry jelly. He thought Evelyn didn't see him as he stopped in the shed an' put a quart jar of his elderberry wine in the box. She was standin' inside the door watchin' through the window, grinnin' like a possum over roadkill.

Roscoe Collins was sittin' by his wood stove in that chair Uncle Billy had made him back in the summer. Roscoe swore that them store bought chairs just didn't feel near as good as a chair Uncle Billy crafted. He wondered out loud what Uncle Billy was doin' on Christmas Day an' Rhoda was out of the kitchen, through the covey of grandkids an' lookin' at him with her dark black eyes.

"Why don't you get out of that chair an' go see? You know the chair I mean, Roscoe? The one you asked Uncle Billy to make. The one he wouldn't take a dime for."

It didn't take him long to get his coat an' head for the door. Rhoda handed him a grocery bag filled with turkey, oyster dressing an' half of the stack cake she made. That cake was wonderful, seven layers with jam between each layer. For good measure she sent Uncle Billy a whole vinegar pie. Men needed a little sweetnin' this time of year.

Henry Kay Snoddy didn't need no proddin' over to Bear Rump. Orvina an' him had planned for this visit. Orvina hadn't slept good so she begged out an' sent Henry Kay with some fried chicken, city ham, sweet potato casserole an' a big bowl of home growed greasy beans. Uncle Billy gave her the seeds for them beans.

Daw Collins was already on the road as was Junebug Burns an' his Daddy. Each had boxes an' bags of holiday treats. Junebug had made potato candy an' fudge with his Mama an' made sure that most of it went to Uncle Billy who had never told on him for swipin' Ms. Hazel's prize winning tomatoes.

By the time Junebug got there the big livin' room of Uncle Billy's house was near full with men an' boys, all on an errand of love on Christmas. Uncle Billy answered the door an' his faded blue eyes filled with tears as he saw Junebug standin' with an open container of potato candy.

"Thought you might want a little o' my candy I made." Junebug grinned.

"Get in here, boy, or I'll be a tellin' on you."

Uncle Billy had opened all the boxes, bowls and covered plates as he placed them on the table. He got out every plate an' saucer he had along with all the forks, knives and' spoons in the house.

He spoke loudly, "Fellers, I know I can't eat all this before it goes bad. Now y'all are gonna have to help me before I let you leave. Henry Kay, I'll vouch for you with Orvina, so just you stay right there. If you don't mind, boys, I better say a word of grace."

The men an' boys stood, took off caps an' hats an' bowed their heads.

"Lord, I thank you much for the fellers that came away from hearth an' home to bring some Christmas cheer to this ol servant of yours. They humble me, Father with their love. The wives, Mamas and families they left at home to stop by here fill my heart right good with their generous spirit. 'Course, Lord, these is mountain folks an' You expect no less from us. Now, I thank Ye for the food, the love shown to each other an' the men that stand here, shoulder to shoulder. We have all stood beside each other before, balin' hay, puttin' up tobbacer, bowin' heads in church or lodge. This is my family, Lord. I am humbled an' blessed by their sorry ol' hides. Amen...Oh, an' Lord, keep Henry Kay out of hot water with Orvina for stayin' so long. Amen"

Men an' boys grinned through the tears that Uncle Billy's prayer brought. The lined up, oldest first down through the youngin's an' took plates an' feasted as only men gathered together can do.

No one noticed that Uncle Billy waited till every single guest was served before he went to the cupboard an' got a bowl. Every saucer an' plate was used. He filled his bowl with a little of everything, not wantin' to hurt any feelin's. When he went into the big room, no one had to get out of his chair, them fellers just knew it was his an' saved it for him.

Ol' Dog was a layin' by it, tail a thumpin' as Uncle Billy sat. That dog knew that Christmas dinner was goin' to be fed to him, one scrap at a time by Uncle Billy's hand. Ol' Dog had him trained that way.

There is nothin' better than men gathered together to eat, laugh an' talk. That ol cabin hadn't heard as much joy in a while. Uncle Billy sat an' grinned as he just listened an' watched each face. It was a good Christmas. He wished Aunt Del were there an' a secret tear fell down his cheek when no one noticed.

There was a knock at the door an' Junebug went to answer. A covered dish was left on the porch in front of the door an' Junebug saw Ms. Hazel's car drivin' away. He took the dish an' the note with it to Uncle Billy.

The note said, "Bill, I just know you are forgotten an' lonely in that cold empty cabin. Here is a little something to fill your sad, empty belly. Don't be too proud to stop in later tonight for a visit."

Uncle Billy grinned. He hated to be called Bill. His name was Billy, given to him by his Daddy. Ms. Hazel never would understand. He was alone since Aunt Del died, but never lonely. He was never sad an' obviously could never be forgotten by all the folks that loved him.

The cabin wasn't cold or empty, nor was his heart. It was filled with gladness of a life well spent.

Daw Collins came over about then an' started on a huntin' story. Uncle Billy knew he would have to put in his two cents about that story.

Men an' boys gathered closer as their grand ol' storyteller cleared his throat an' said, "Now, Daw, you left your part in all that out. Here is how I remember it."

There was a warm glow from the windows of that ol' cabin that night. A warm glow inside as men an' boys stayed late into the night.

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