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Sunday, December 18, 2011

No. 93 An unexpected Holiday Visitor

The man at the door was wearing a suit and tie; a really nice one, and his shirt was starched and almost shining. It was obvious that he was a stranger not just by his looks, but by how he acted, like he knew he was on unfamiliar ground, and maybe even a little lost. It was just after sundown on December 23rd, more than thirty years ago, and it was highly unusual to see anybody, even a traveling salesman, working on that day and especially at that hour. Even more ominously, the stranger had pulled out and opened his wallet, and held an identification so as to show who or what he was.

As my cousin opened the door of his small rented mobile home, what we then called a trailer, the visitor stretched out his hand with the picture showing and announced, “Good evening. I am special agent Taylor* of the I.R.S.”

Within no more than a few seconds he would explain who he was looking for and why he was there. But in those seconds, and before he could utter those words, my cousin’s whole life history passed swiftly though his mind.

He was reminded that he had dropped out of school even before finishing the eighth grade, (and thus avoided having to leave the Island for High School). He recollected that he had never held a job other than working in the water, and that unlike most of his family he had never owned a boat of his own. He had instead worked as a crewman for any of ten or more friends or family who took him along for a share of the catch. Like almost everyone else he had been paid strictly in cash, in a barter economy that kept no records and reported no earnings.

He contemplated that he didn’t even get a social security card until he was in his thirties, and then only because he had been told that this was the only way he or his wife would ever be able to draw any kind of pension. And most of all, he thought about how he had never once filed his taxes – either federal or state, since as far as he was concerned he had never earned a real income.

In only a second or two all of this came back to him, and not just that. He assumed, it had come back to haunt him!

As my cousin struggled for what he might say or do, at first pretending that he did not hear or understand what he was being told, the stranger at the door tried to continue his introduction. He wanted to explain that he was there only to ask for directions. You see, in the days before 911 identification, homes and even streets on the Island were not marked, except for an occasional mailbox with a “Star Route” number that had absolutely no order or sequence. The agent was looking for a recent newcomer to the Island, one who had appeared to be a successful businessman searching for a quiet place to retire. But he obviously had some unresolved tax issues or else a government agent would not have been seeking him out in person only less than two days before the most important holiday of the year.

But before he could, my cousin gave way to both the fear and the resignation that had overwhelmed him. Stretching forth his hands so as to easily be shackled or cuffed, he looked the stranger in the eye and asked, “How come you waited until this close to Christmas to come get me?”

Saturday, December 10, 2011

No. 92 Christmas Traditions (old and new)

Christmas Traditions 1992
(originally published in ©The Mailboat Christmas 1992)

Christmas Eve has always been the biggest day of the year for my parents. All of their children, with their families, would gather at Mama and Daddy's for the big Christmas party and to retell the story of the Nativity. When I was younger, the brothers and sisters, there are ten of us, would exchange our gifts, but as we grew older and the crowd grew larger, that became impractical. So eventually we just enjoyed each other's company for a while before watching Mama and Daddy as they opened the presents they had received from their ever expanding number of progeny.

Hancock Girls -Christmas 1981

Eventually the group grew so large that neither my parent's home, nor any of their children's, could accommodate us all. With spouses and youngsters, our group has surpassed one hundred persons. So for the last several years we had met at the Rescue Squad Building or at the Church. Then the great Christmas snow storm of 1989 caused us to miss our "Night before Christmas” for the first time since my parents started their family. Though it was still enjoyable to be with everyone two days later than usual, one of my sisters observed that a party held four weeks early seems to have more of the Christmas spirit than one held a single day afterward.

Then again last year, my niece had a baby just a few days before Christmas and we decided to wait until she was able to come home with her "Christmas present" to have our party. (Susan and I could sympathize with how she felt, having had three of our children born in December, and another in late November.) Again, the gathering was fun, but something was missed in waiting until after the traditional time.

But if something was lost, something also was gained. After meeting together with my parents' family it would usually be 10:00 pm or later before we could all make it back to our own homes. Only then could we gather in our own smaller groups for a final portion of that day's Christmas spirit. That was too late to do much more than say "goodnight" to our younger children. But these past two years I have enjoyed being at home for the entire evening with just my wife and our six children, and starting our own Christmas traditions.

Just after sundown, Michael, our youngest, began to ask how much longer before we could begin to open presents. He asked the same question at least fifty more times before we finally satisfied his impatience. But before we did, we gathered around the dinner table for a candle-lit Christmas Eve dinner. With beautiful music playing in the background, each of us took turns in giving thanks for the blessings we enjoyed, the most special of which was the birth of the Savior. Thankfully, not very far down each one's list was their appreciation for being a part of our family, and for the love and happiness we share in our little home.

After dinner we went into the living room, around the tree, and shared in reading the Christmas story from the scriptures. Finally, before going to bed, each of the kids was allowed to open some of the presents that had enticed them for a week or more under the Christmas tree. Then began the long process of trying to get six children asleep in time to allow Santa to position what they all had been awaiting since even before Thanksgiving.

As we watched them sleeping on Christmas Eve I was reminded of what my mother has told me repeatedly in the past several years; "You're eating your white bread now, and you'd better enjoy it!" She is trying to impress upon me that NOW is the best part of my life. I suppose she is right. The kids are all still at home, and even though the two oldest are in high school, I'd like to think that our family remains the center of their lives, if not of their expectations. Others warn us that everything will get much more complicated once the children begin to fashion lives beyond the confines of our little world.

I'll worry about that when I have to. As for now I am content to enjoy the gifts I have been given. And as I do I will have a better understanding of why my parents are so insistent that Christmas is not the same without their children close by on Christmas Eve. After just two years of being alone with mine, I can appreciate how the tradition became what it is. Understandably, I enjoy those things that remind me of Christmas past and how it used to be. But at the same time I recognize that what happens here and now can become equally as special in our hearts and minds. As early  as next winter, this year's Christmas will be just such a memory, and part of a tradition.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

No. 91 "No good deed goes unpunished!"

Just before Christmas, a few years ago, my brother, Tommy, and Thelma, his wife, were sitting around the supper table when they heard a knock on the front door. Most people just come on in, so the fact that the visitor didn’t meant that it was something out of the ordinary. When he got to the door he saw the familiar face of a distant cousin of who lived in a mobile home down the road. He had come to tell Tommy that his refrigerator had gone out, and that since it was the middle of the month, two weeks before his next check would come, he had no way to get it fixed.

My brother, Tommy, delivering supplies after Hurricane Irene

In situations like this, the one place that most people on the Island knew to go was to Tommy. He gives more charitable service than anyone I know, or have ever known. He has combined his love of tinkering with his concern for the less fortunate. His generosity is so well known that hardly a week goes by that he is not called upon to fix or replace a household appliance. That is why he can often be seen at the local dump, scavenging for parts, or in his backyard shop putting those parts together.

He generally works free of charge, always offering his labor, and usually the appliances as well unless it is something that he has to order from a shop or factory. Even then he sometimes absorbs the cost for those he feels are unable to come up with the money. In a given year as many as a hundred refrigerators, water heaters, ranges, washers and dryers will either get his attention or pass through his hands.

So the visitor at the door that evening had come there not just because he needed help, but also because he knew he had no way to pay for it.

“Wait just a minute,” Tommy told him. “Go on home and I’ll be there in a little while to check it out.”

And so he did. Within less than an hour he had determined that the compressor on the refrigerator had gone bad and would have to be replaced. Then, the very next morning, he drove into town and found a replacement for it that cost almost a hundred dollars. A little after noon, the part had been replaced and the refrigerator was back up and running.

As Tommy shoved the appliance back in its corner and reassembled his tools, he explained to our cousin what the repair part had cost, but that his labor was free. With some embarrassed hesitation the man apologized that he really appreciated the work, but that he just didn’t have the money to pay for it now, and might not for quite a while to come.

“Its Christmas,” he explained, “and we’ve spent every cent we’ve got and run in debt for a whole lot more, just trying to get something for our grand youngerns. I don’t know when we’ll get that kind of money again.”

Tommy had anticipated the situation and immediately responded to calm his anxiety. “Don’t you worry,” he said, “you just consider that compressor my Christmas present to you and your family, and you crowd have a Merry Christmas!”

Our cousin was so moved by Tommy’s generosity that his eyes began to moisten and his hands began to tremble as he grabbed my brother by the shoulders and gave him a giant hug. Then, looking towards his wife who was seated in the corner, dipping a stick into a can of smokeless tobacco, he spoke as if to give her an order.

Calling her by name he demanded, “Spit that snuff out of your mouth and come over here and give Tommy a kiss!”

Before she could, Tommy had closed the door behind him.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

No. 90 Christmas with Kinfolks

"Christmas with Kinfolks"
(originally published in ©The Mailboat Christmas 1991)

    Gramma's name was Bonnie Bee. I knew that when I heard him (Granpa) late at night say, “I kin ye, Bonnie Bee,"he was saying, "I love ye," for the feeling was in the words. 
And when they would be talking and Gramma would say, ''Do you kin me, Wales?" and he would answer, "I kin ye," it meant, "I understand ye." To them, love and understanding was the same thing. Gramma said you couldn't love something you didn't understand; nor could you love people, or God, if you didn't understand the people and God. 
Granpa and Gramma had an understanding, and so they had a love. Gramma said the understanding run deeper as the years went by, and she reckoned it would get beyond anything mortal folks could thing upon or explain. And so they called it ''kin.'' 
Granpa said back before his time ''kinfolks'' meant any folks that you understood and had an understanding with, so it meant “loved folks." But people got selfish, and brought it down to mean just blood relatives; but that actually it was never meant to mean just that. 
Forrest Carter, "The Education of Little Tree" 

It's no wonder that the holiday season is the busiest travel time of the year. In late December, some sort of primeval magnet begins to tug at the heartstrings of almost everyone. They are pulled, drawn back to where their roots are.

Somehow spending Easter, Independence Day, even Thanksgiving, away from home is tolerable. But when mid-day sun hangs low in the Southern sky, when the days get short and the nights seem to last forever, when fall finally gives way to winter, something seems to pull each of us back home.

I wonder what Christmas means to folks who can't be with their kinfolks. No, I'm not talking about relatives and blood relations. I mean all the other everyday people who make life and living so rich an experience.

And just as with Little Tree, home and kinfolk suggest much more than just an immediate family. In my life, home has been the people of the Island, those from whom I heard the stories and learned the real lessons of living. Even though I still live on the Island, at Christmas I am drawn to the neighborhood where I grew up.

Looking up the path from Ole' Pa's House
I love to walk down the paths, across the ditches, and through the vines that still feel so much like they did a generation ago. And as I do, most often with one or more children tagging along, I am again one of “Charlie William's boys”,  just making my daily rounds. Sno' Ball asks me something about ball, Leslie tells what it was like to charge ashore on the beaches of Normandy in 1944, Kyle and Theresa show off their menagerie of pets, Ollie asks about Mama and Daddy, and Clara always declares that she wishes it could stay just as hot as it was last July. David gives me the latest scoop on local politics and asks if I know of anyone who might need help this Christmas.

As I walk around the neighborhood I feel again the feeling of "kinship" that brings me so much peace and comfort, especially during this season. I think quite often of how cheated I would have been if my circle of kinfolks had been limited to my blood relatives. Not that they weren't plentiful and cherished in their own unique way. It's just that all those others played such a special part in giving me a happy childhood and in shaping my character. Obviously, many of the "old people" of my youth now are gone. But their influence is still real, and as I walk by the porches and shady spots where they once taught me the lessons of life, they live again in my memory. I try and repay their gifts to me by narrating to my children some of the stories I once heard and learned.

I tell them about Cliff & Cottie, Polly & Hinkley, Gracie, Big "Ollie," Calvin, Cecil, Weldon, Hilda, Dallas and Terrell. I try to make them understand how my Aunts Lurena, Aggie, and Ezzer, and my Uncle "Big Buddy," instilled in me a feeling for what it was like to have lived at the Banks. I feel fortunate that rest homes and suburbs were not around to keep children away from the older people who seemed so prevalent when I was growing up. On the contrary, seniors occupied a position of honor wherever they went, and we children were obliged to listen and learn as they reminisced about what life really was all about. I am better today for having had a chance to know them.

These" old people" of my neighborhood, and some not so old, gave me a sense of kinship that was just as real as the genetic ties that bind me to my siblings.

That same path after a winter storm
I don't recall that I ever got a Christmas present from the kinfolk of my neighborhood, at least not one wrapped with bows and colored paper. Rather, they gave me gifts that have lasted all my life and that mean even more today than when I first received them. I have heard it said that "you make a living by what you get, but you make a life by what you give." If that is true, the old folks of my youth amassed a good portion of the latter.

And at this special time of year, when hearts are full and emotions close to the surface, I can enjoy again the very same gifts I received as a child. Unlike the more material presents so popular today, these gifts grow in luster over the years and escape the tarnish of time.

So when folks come home for Christmas from far away places all over the globe, so do I. But for me its just up the road a couple of miles to the place where my childhood memories are rekindled just by walking down the path to where my kinfolk once lived, and many still do.

I have spent only one Christmas away from home. That was in 1975 while I was teaching at Greenville Rose High School. Susan was expecting our first child (Emily was born on December 31) and the doctor advised against being more than a few miles from the hospital. Since then I haven't even come close to being anywhere other than here with my family and kin during the Holiday Season.

Once while driving across the Island bridge on Christmas Eve, "coming home" for Christmas, I commented to a friend, only partly in jest. "Life isn't fair, you know!" I lamented. When someone in the car pool asked what I meant I explained as follows, "There are well over 3 billion people in the world, and it just doesn't seem fair that only eighteen hundred or so of them get to spend Christmas on Harkers Island."

 Lucky me, I'm one of that eighteen hundred!