Christmas in Lumberton
from Songs of Gentle Sadness
By Buie Seawell
The warm light of the room, part coal fire part low wattage light bulbs, soothed every part of the three-and-a-half-year-olds’ skinny body. Jake lay drooped across the lap of his Papa, neither asleep nor awake. Jet, an old Eskimo Spitz bitch, used the side of the wicker rocker to shield her white body from the too much heat of the fire, and wagged her white bushy tail up and down slowly. Far away in the kitchen Gran hummed “Gentle Jesus.” It was Christmas Eve, 1940, in Lumberton, North Carolina.
So much was so soon to change, but neither hint nor hope of the future intruded on that simple living room on Elm Street.
He called me “Jake” because that was his favorite name for things he loved – me, his last four bird dogs, and sometimes one of the two goats that lived out back in the shed. His White Owl cigar barely glowed, and didn’t smoke at all. He’d chomp on one end, and after an hour or so, meet the fire at the other. Then he’d toss the one inch butt underhanded onto the coals. Somehow that motion lead the old, stern puritan school master to give me a slight hug as he adjusted his body, nothing overt that anyone else saw, just a nudge of an embrace that would say to my every sinew, “I love you, Jake.”
I know nothing I long for more as the cold, uncertain future of being-or-not rushes onward than the feeling of that moment. If God there is, and if His intent is love, I’ll call him “Papa.”
Earlier that Christmas Eve Gran and Papa and I stood in their big back yard watching the low December sun set. The clouds were mauve, the air was still, there were no sounds a’ tall. It is the earliest memory I have. I’m not sure what it means. I don’t even see myself with them, but standing behind them watching my grandparents and myself looking westward. It feels exactly the same as being in his lap before the fire. I know now that my oldest memory will be, wonderfully, my final sensation.
When we came back in the house, there was an unreal clamor and clutter in the front room as Dad and Uncle Bill brought in the Christmas tree. The double front doors had to be both opened to receive the biggest tree you could imagine! It was a holly tree from the swamp! It was already decorated with red holly berries and bright green prickly holly leaves. Why it was so late arriving was because of what had happened two days before. And why it was a twelve foot holly tree I never knew. Aunt Jonce said, “Where did you get that awful thing.” But it was wonderful.
Mom had a wreck in our car that Christmas week. She was teaching school in the country and driving home the day of Christmas break, the car skidded and went into the ditch. She was bruised pretty bad. For two days she mostly lay on the blue couch in Gran and Papa’s living room and when I’d scrunch up next to her would rub my head and tell me not to worry. Gran brought her soup and tea. I was afraid without knowing why. Dad was so agitated! He mostly paced and smoked cigarettes on the front porch. Jet ran back and forth between my parents looking like the butterfly feelings in my stomach. Then Mom said, “Malcolm, its Christmas, you and Bill go get a tree.” And that’s how the holly tree showed up. Apparently nobody thought they’d get a holly tree. And certainly not such a big one! It was wonderful!
When all the fuss over the tree ended was when Papa took me in his lap. I don’t remember how I got to bed in Pearle’s room, but then it was Christmas morning.
Dad was a new lawyer in Lumberton. He didn’t make much money, so we lived with Gran, Papa and Pearle. Mom taught school. Pearle was my aunt who never grew up to be an adult, but at 30 was the happiest nine year old in the world. My favorite Pearle Christmas story is about when Aunt Ethel gave her a pin cushion, and Gran said, “Pearle say something nice to Ethel.” Looking down at the pin cushion Pearle had stammered, “Thank you. Aunt Ethel, I always wanted a pin cushion for Christmas, but not very much.”
I wanted two things for Christmas: a drum and a fire truck. There wasn’t enough money for both, but I didn’t know about that. We, me and Gran, had written “drum” and “fire truck” on a piece of brown sack paper and burned it in the fireplace so it’d go up the chimney. And then that’s what I’d get: a drum and a fire truck. Mom was upset because both things got on the list, and she and Gran talked where I couldn’t hear. Papa watched.
Under the holly tree that Christmas morning was the most wonderful drum you ever saw. Papa and I marched around the room to my uncertain but joyful beats. Nobody had ever seen Papa march. He was so happy. Gran Marched. Pearle marched. Even Uncle Bill marched. Though Aunt Jonce said twice, “Willie, don’t make a fool of yourself.”
Mom and Dad were so happy because I loved the drum so. And I was entirely happy for the most three year old of all reasons – Christmas was about me! We marched into the kitchen. We marched into the dining room. We marched into the parlor. We marched into the breakfast room. Then we marched out onto the front porch. And there it was: the fire truck! Red. Ladders on the side. A white steering wheel. A little glass windshield.
Dad said, “What’s this?” Mom said, “Mother!” Gran was scarce. Papa smiled, and chewed on his White Owl. I peed in my outside pants.
Three years later we drove home from Washington to Lumberton for Christmas. The War had come, and the world was so sadly different. I was so homesick. My Uncle Tom had died and Dad got the money and gas stamps to drive us home for the funeral. But for me it was driving home to Gran and Papa. The fire truck had gone away to the scrap drive for the war effort. The drum had long since been burst from drumming. The world was a lonely and scary place for a six year old. My Uncle Billy had died fighting in the Pacific. An eternity had passed since I’d seen my grandparents.
There we were in front of Gran and Papa’s house on Elm street. And I was running up the front steps and there they were – Gran and Papa and Pearle. He grabbed me in his old bony arms, not caring who saw him hug his grandson. All I could think to say was, “Papa, Jake’s home!”
So sixty Christmases have come and gone since then. There have and will be good times and sad — times of hope and times of fear. But looking westward after all these years, I know what all Christmases are about really — a warm fire, a safe, special place and those who love you beyond words or wonder.
Papa, Jake’s home!
The story behind the story,
Terrell had given me the old photo the year before. It was faded, cracked and smudged in places. Having taken a digital photography class, I decided that I would scan it into my computer and try to “restore” it. I had hoped to give it to Dad/Buie/Boo/Jake for his birthday, but didn’t get it finished. So I decided to give it to him as his Christmas present last year. It was truly amazing how it all came together with the writing of his Christmas story. Little did I know while I worked away and thought about the moment in time when the picture was taken that I would learn the story behind it. Little did Dad know that such a picture even existed. It is such a beautiful story and a sweet picture. Together they make me feel as if I now know Dad’s Gran and Papa too. Last Christmas Eve as Dad read the story and I sat awed with the knowledge of the present I had for him, it felt as if Gran and Papa had a hand in getting the story and the picture to come together so that their great- and great-great-grandchildren could know them too.
Merry Christmas to al!