A Simple Christmas
From Songs of Gentle Sadness
by Buie Seawell
I’m sure I don’t have to work too hard to persuade you that Lumberton, NC, in December of 1945 was a simple place. It was simply wonderful. It was simply strange.
The War ended in May. My sister, Terrell, was born in June. Mom, Dad, and I were finally back from Washington, DC, to our cosy home on 20th Street. A proud brother welcomed his baby sister to “his” room on the first floor and tried to adjust to living upstairs in the guest room. With its massive Dutch-oven fireplace, the dearest, warmest kitchen, slate roof and split rail fence, our Cape Cod cottage of a house remains fixed in my mind and heart as what anything called a home should feel and look like. Only our home in Keystone, Colorado, (where I’m writing this story on Christmas Eve of 2009) comes even close to the secure emotional-encompassing of 206 20th Street, Lumberton. It had seven (the perfect number!) rooms – living room, dinning room, kitchen, two downstairs and one upstairs bedroom, and one bathroom. Simply perfect.
Actually, when Mom and Dad and I first came home from Washington in the late fall of 1944 * we moved in with my Grandparents and their 35 year old daughter Pearl. Aunt Pearl was special too. She was – the word used in that world before political correctness – “retarded.” At seven years old I didn’t know that word. My aunt, who I called Pearl, was just my friend. Mentally we were about the same age and we both liked to be silly. In a very adult world, Pearl made childishness acceptable. People are fond of saying, “childhoods are too short . . . kids are forced to grow up too quickly.” Not Pearl. She lived in an eternal childhood. We loved each other very much.
Pearl was named for my Grandmother, Pearl Johnson Poole, the mother of Pearl. And how lucky she was to have my Gran as her mother. Gran Poole is the most loving person I have ever known. She put up with Papa, raised four kids including my Mom, ran her big house at 1107 Elm Street (phone number “135”) as a place where no one was a stranger, and made the life and gardens of The First Presbyterian Church both her work and refuge. Pearl never knew she was different. Gran made sure of that with a grace and openness to all life that came and went along Elm Street, “This is my wonderful Pearl,” she would say to anyone, stranger or friend that came our way.
My Gran had a strange younger sister named Claire. Aunt Claire was a writer and artist of theatrical proportions. She was a presence. Pearl didn’t much like Claire. Claire would talk loud while hugging Pearl and saying things like, “Oh! our special, special Pearl.” I would run out back to avoid throwing up in Gran’s parlor. One Christmas during the Depression Claire gave Pearl a pin-cushion. It was pink with white lace. When Claire came to visit from her home in Cary, Gran prompted Pearl to thank her aunt for the pin-cushion. “Thank you Aunt Claire for my pin-cushion,” Pearl said, her round, beautiful face turned up towards her towering aunt, “I always wanted one . . . but not very much.” In this and in every way, Pearl was true to who she was and to all those she ever encountered.
Gran took Pearl out of school in the 6th grade. There was no such thing as special education in Lumberton. Or depending on your perspective, any education in Lumberton in 1924, was special. Kids now and then can be awfully cruel. And besides, Gran had said, she needed Pearl’s help at home. Pearl did things for Gran like taking the grocery list to Snow’s Market on Chestnut street once a week, or going to the Presbyterian Church to help in the gardens or to prepare the silver trays with bread and shot glasses of Welch’s Grape Juice for Communion Sunday, or at Christmas time to help Gran make butter mints and salted toasted pecans.
Mint making was an event. To begin with the weather had to be just right, cool and dry. Early December days often afforded this perfect concurrence. Pearl and I would help take the white and gray marble slabs (purchased from the stone mason who made all the headstones for Meadowbrook Cemetery) out to the screened-in back porch. Gran, sometimes with Mom’s help, would get the sugar, butter and water concoction going on the big stove in her big kitchen. A candy thermometer was critical to the process, the lava of sweetness had to be just the right temperature. When it was, with admonitions to stand clear, “this stuff will scald you awfully!” Gran would take the big pot in both hands out to the porch and pour the molten mixture on the cold marble. And then from a little green bottle spirits of mint was poured on the nascent candy. Gran with buttered, delicate pink hands gingerly touched the edges of the glassy substance, and then as it cooled with folding and twisting and pulling and snipping with big kitchen scissors the magic of turning it all into white, melt in your mouth goodness was completed. When the mints were completely cooled they would be put in wax paper lined round tin Christmas boxes, and covered to sit a day or two before they softened into melting sweetness fit for the mouth of God.
One Christmas, when Pearl was living with us on 20th Street, and Gran and Poppa had passed away, my Daddy did a silly thing. Pearl always got so excited about all the family rituals of Christmas – the mints, the pecans, and especially the enormous turkey with dressing and cranberry sauce and gravy. Mom and Terrell and I had made mints and pecans with Pearl that Christmas. Pearl contributed to these festivities by talking of times gone by and all the relations and neighbors that comprised the substance of life on Elm Street. Pearl literally remembered every name and relationship that touched her life. Savant-like she would recall people and events long lost to all memories save hers. It was so enthralling to hear Pearl, in her tiny high voice, talk on and on about, what happened that year to Miss Parmalee or how Dr. Hardin had worked so hard during the flu epidemic, or why Miss Ethel never married that nice travelling salesman who kept coming by in 1927. Or how Uncle Tom (great uncle, Dr. Thomas Johnson) “was just too good to that crazy wife of his, Aunt Mae.” Pearl would punctuate each remembrance by squealing, “and Buie that’s just the way it was!”
But, as I was saying, Daddy did a silly thing that Christmas. When all the presents were opened, the great pile of wrappings incinerated up the chimney of our big fireplace, and all of us starving and talking about how big the turkey was, Dad called from the kitchen for us to sit down. Mom had made our big dinning room table into a wonder of food and decoration, and there in front of Dad’s place at the head of the table she left space where the big turkey platter would go. Pearl sat on Dad’s left and Mom on his right. Terrell and I were on each side down the table, all watching the door for Judge Malcolm B. Seawell’s entrance with roasted bird. And in he came, platter raised high, and set it before us. Only problem was, that instead of the turkey Dad had placed a little, tiny Cornish hen he had cooked at the same time, on the great platter where the big turkey should be. “I guess I cooked our turkey too long this year and it just shrank,” he said. “Pearl, I’m so sorry.”
Pearl couldn’t hide her disappointment. But looking up at my father, a small tear starting down her left cheek, she said, ”Malcolm, I know you did just the best you could. We’ll just have to make do.”
Out in the kitchen, there were some words between Mom and Dad that were not fit for this Christmas remembrance, but in short order the biggest turkey in Lumberton appeared on the platter carried by a chastened jurist. Pearle could not believe what had happened to the little hen; then she realized her beloved Malcolm had played a stupid Christmas joke.
But one thing Pearl never learned in her loving, simple life was being judgmental. The past was over and done, every second of her life “all things were fresh and new.” She was God’s incarnation of loving acceptance.
“Aren’t we the luckiest family?!,” Pearl squealed, “Thank for loving little Pearl.” The Distinguished Jurist of North Carolina’s Ninth Judicial District excused himself from the table for a few minutes. “Now where did Malcolm go?,” asked Pearl, “He needs to carve.” “He’ll be right back,” said Mom. And sure enough, red eyes and all, Dad returned to serve us all the best turkey I ever ate.
*Our house on 20th Street was still being rented by a family named Ware, who had lived there during the War. The Wares moved out in the spring of 1945.