Fruitcakes and Silver Icicles

silver-iciclesSilver icicles.

            The first time I broke away from my grandmother’s Christmas traditions was the year I got rid of the silver icicles on our Christmas tree.
            My grandmother believed that traditions help make holidays special. This was most apparent when it came to her Christmas traditions.
            She had to have a Christmas fruitcake that had to be made before the first of December so it could age properly.
            Even though the same items could be found in local stores, she had to order at least one thing from the Sears Christmas catalog.
            And she had to have a Christmas tree covered in silver icicles.
            As long as these three traditions weren’t broken, we had a merry Christmas.
            When I was old enough to stand in a chair, I watched her make her fruitcake, wrap it and place it in a holiday-themed cake tin, then open the tin every few days and sprinkle the cake with brandy.
            By the time I was ten, she had taught me how to fill out catalog forms and call customer service numbers to place her Christmas orders.
            And as far back as I can remember, I decorated our Christmas tree as she sat in a chair directing.
            When my grandmother moved into a new house in 1988, she started a new tradition. Instead of directing me how to put up the Christmas tree, she told me the task was all mine. I was excited for about fifteen seconds.
            “You can decorate the tree by yourself this year,” she informed me.
            “Really?” I asked, trying not to let my excitement show.
            “It’s all yours,” she replied. “But, you’re going to have to get a new tree, new lights, bulbs, a star, and icicles.”
            I knew what that meant. The task was all mine, but she still wanted her tree done her way.
            I was moseying through a store gathering the items for my grandmother’s Christmas tree when I suddenly felt the urge to rebel, to break with tradition. I asked myself what she would do if I changed things up a little. Throw the tree out on the trash pile? And me with it?
           “She might,” my good sense answered.
            But I didn’t listen.
            That evening, my grandmother sat in her chair and watched as I put up the tree. She nodded pleasingly as I draped the lights around the tree. She said how pretty the bulbs were as they dangled perfectly from the branches. When I took the red bows out of the bag, she asked, “What are you going to do with those?”
            “Hang them on the tree,” I answered.
            “I don’t think those will look good with icicles,” she said.
            “I didn’t think so either,” I responded. “That’s why I didn’t get any icicles.”
            My grandmother tried to hide her frown, but it was hard to hide a frown that covered her entire body.
            When I was done placing the bows over the tree and placing the star on top, my grandmother’s frown turned upside into a smile.
            And we all had a merry Christmas.
            Last year, I broke the Christmas tree tradition again.
            Out went yesteryears glistening ornaments and colorful ribbons and bows. In came fall foliage and white doves.
            As I put up the tree, I couldn’t help glancing over my shoulder to see if my grandmother was sitting in the chair watching.
            If she had been, I’m sure she looked over the rims of her glasses and wondered when they started making pre-lit tree. I thought I heard her say how pretty the bulbs were as they dangled perfectly from the branches. And when I reached in the box and took out the brown, yellow, orange, red, silver, and gold leaves and then the white doves, I know she frowned and asked, “What are you going to do with those?”
           When I was done placing the foliage and doves over the tree and placing the star on top, her  frown couldn’t help turning upside into a smile.
            And it turned out to be a merry Christmas.
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The Handwritten Letter in the Mailbox

mailbox photo How long has it been since you opened the mailbox and saw a handwritten letter from a family member, friend, or someone you used to know?

It seems the art of writing letters has disappeared. And oh how I miss it!

Rushing to the mailbox and finding a letter from an out-of-town relative, one of the 4-H friends I had scattered across the country, or a local friend who had moved away, was the highlight of many of my childhood days.

My grandmother was a letter writer, so there was always stationery, pens, envelopes, and a book of postage stamps at our house. Because my grandmother loved writing letters, she loved nice stationery. Even if the stationery didn’t have a pretty design or pretty color, if it was plain, then it had to be on fancy paper.

The most anticipated letters, the ones we waited for our grandmother to receive and then read to us, were the ones from her mother.

My brothers, cousins, and I were entranced by our great-grandmother for a number of reasons.

She wasn’t a medical doctor, but her title was Dr. Berthenia Horne, which was clearly stated on the pre-printed return address label.

She was part of the National Baptist Convention, so she traveled the world through her Christian ministry and mailed us pictures from nearly everywhere she went. One of my all-time favorite pictures is a picture of her kneeling at the monumental site of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. I still have that picture and I pull it out for display every Christmas season.

As soon as I was old enough to write, my grandmother started including letters I wrote in the letters she wrote to her mother. As I grew older, I began writing and mailing my own letters, which started a letter-writing correspondence that lasted until my great-grandmother’s death in 1998.

I have this same type of long-time correspondence via handwritten letters with a few others.

My brother, Tony, and I have written back and forth since I first left home for college in August 1982. Our correspondence via letters continues to this day.

My brother, Ken, wasn’t too big on writing letters, so I still have the one letter that I can remember him writing me.

I also have a letter my uncle, Archie Thomas, wrote me when he was doing a tour of Iraq during Desert Storm in 1991. I was living in Detroit at the time, and my grandmother had requested that everyone in the family write my uncle. So, I did. I was overjoyed when I received his handwritten response.

The number of handwritten letters I get in the mail has the decreased over the years. This year, I’ve only received two, and both were from my brother, Tony.

Email, social media, and cell phones have all contributed to the decline in writing letters. Now, instead of grabbing a piece of paper, a pen, an envelope, and a stamp, people just log onto their electronic device, press a few keys, and the message is sent and received in a matter of seconds.
I don’t have a problem with technology. I use it every day, nearly all day because it’s faster and more convenient.
But ten years from now, when reminiscing about family members and old friends, nothing compares to being able to hold a letter that they took the time to write, place in an envelope, and mail to you. It may have taken a few days to receive it, but the memory of having received it, will last forever.     

What’s Wrong With My Children Calling Me Alexis?

Differences-Ma-Mum-Mom-Mam

I don’t know who to blame.

I could blame my oldest first cousin, Gloria, since she was the first one to call our grandparents “Momma” and “Daddy” and her parents Ann and Charles.

I could blame my grandparents for not relinquishing the titles “Momma” and “Daddy” when their grown children became parents.

And I could blame my mother and my uncles Charles and Archie for not insisting that we call them by their proper titles.

I could lay the blame on all of these folks, but until the family was all gathered outside under a tent watching boxing one Saturday night, I never knew there was anything to blame them for.

We were watching the Floyd Mayweather boxing match when my cousin Tonja’s daughter turned and asked, “Antmar, do you think there’s something wrong with my children calling me Alexis?”

Before I could answer, Alexis’ sister, Natasia, chimed in. “You couldn’t pay one of my children to call me by my name.”

TaSonia, their cousin, nodded in agreement.

“Well, I don’t see anything wrong with it,” Alexis countered. “Even if they call me Alexis, they know I’m their mother.” Then she turned and tried to get Tonja’s attention by calling out, “Ma.”

Until that moment, I’d never noticed that all of my cousins’ children call them Momma or Daddy. None of them refer to their parents by name.

My cousin Sonja, Tasonia’s mother, eyed me as I pondered Alexis’ question. As usual, she was ready to pounce on my response if it wasn’t what she thought I should say. So I knew I had to choose my words carefully. Before I could figure out how to answer this question in a way that would please everyone, Alexis inquired, “Didn’t all of y’all call Grandma Doris ‘Momma’ and your mommas Ann and Lois?”

She had a point.

My brothers and I called our grandmother “Momma” and our mother “Lois.” My Uncle Charles’ children called our grandmother “Momma” and called their mother “Ann.” My Uncle Archie’s children did the same. They called our grandmother “Momma” and their mother “Boot.” And, to all us, “Daddy” was our grandfather.

So I agreed with Alexis.

I also agreed that even though we called our grandparents “Momma” and “Daddy,” we all knew who our parents were. Our parents gave up the title in My brothers and I lived with my mother and grandparents, but my cousins lived with their parents.

When we were growing up, a lot of my friends used to ask why I called my mother Lois. I knew what they meant, but I usually responded, “That’s her name.” I’m guessing the real reason we called our parents by their names and our grandparents “Momma” and “Daddy” was because we were copying our uncles who were still teens and our parents.

I thought this would answer Alexis’ question, but it didn’t.

“But is something wrong with children calling their parents by their name if the parent doesn’t mind?” she asked again.

I want to agree with Alexis because I’ve called my mother “Lois” and my father “Tyrone” my entire life, and I think I turned out okay. But judging by the response of my cousins, who also did this, I think I may have missed out on something by not being a parent like them.

So I’m turning this one over to you.

What do you think?

Santa, I’ve Been Good

black_santa_ap_mediumI have. I really have.

All I want for Christmas is to be put back on Santa’s list.
            Even though I haven’t lived with the threat of being scratched off of Santa’s list in a rather long, long time, I’ve still tried my best to be nice. I’ve brushed my teeth, washed my face, and combed my hair every morning like I was taught to do. I’ve respected my elders and stayed out of the way of our young (to avoid the fate of that grandmother who got ran over by a reindeer). And I’ve dreamed of a white Christmas, wished everyone a Merry Christmas, and waited for the Christmas when Santa would deem me fit to be put back on his list.
            Christmas is and has always been my favorite time of the year. As a child, it was even more special because, although Christmas Day came only once a year, Santa always came twice.
            Santa’s “big” visit was on Christmas Day.
            My brothers and I would wake up before dawn to a living room that looked like the toy sections of TG&Y, Western Auto, and Southern Auto combined. Even though my grandmother and mother had threatened to have our names scratched off of Santa’s list, it seemed the jolly old elf had dumped his entire sleigh at our house. A few years, when my cousins also lived at our grandparents’ house, Santa needed three sleighs to haul the toy list for the twelve of us. We were so excited about the toys Santa had left on display that it was usually noon before we got around to unwrapping the presents under the tree.  Santa’s other visit, a sort of prequel to Christmas, usually occurred the week before Christmas.
            My brothers and I never knew how we got on Santa’s other list – the one he put the local Rotary Club in charge of, but we were glad to be on it. The Rotarians didn’t keep as watchful eye on us as Santa, so we didn’t have to worry about being scratched off of their prequel-to-Christmas-Day list. And, because our grandmother and mother appreciated the club’s acts of kindness, we didn’t have to worry about them threatening to have us taken off the Rotarians’ list.
             The invitation to the Rotary Club Christmas Luncheon arrived a few days before the event, which was held at various locations around town. The days leading up to the luncheon were just like the days leading up to Christmas. We couldn’t sleep. We couldn’t sit still. And we couldn’t stop talking about the gifts we hoped Santa would leave for us at the luncheon.
“Just be thankful for whatever ‘he’ leaves you,” my grandmother would remind us. And we were thankful.
              The luncheon that stands out the most in my mind was held at the Boys and Girls Club facility on Washington Street. It looked like the Rotarians’ Santa had unloaded two sleighs of gift-wrapped toys for all the “good” children on their list. My brothers and I needed a dufflebag to carry all the gifts we received.
              Several years later, I was disappointed to find out my brothers’ names made the Rotary Club’s Santa List but mine didn’t. Apparently, I had reached the age limit for their list.
              A few years ago, when my name stopped appearing on the gifts under the tree, I surmised that I had reached the age limit for Santa’s list too.
             But, I haven’t given up trying to get back on it.
             This year, I’ve tried not to cry. I’ve tried not to pout. And I’ve tried to be good and it wasn’t just for goodness sakes.
             So, if I wake up Christmas morning and find that my name didn’t make it back on Santa’s list, there’s only one thing left for me to do – spend the next twelve months searching for the elusive Fountain of Youth.

Mom Wasn’t An Old Lady Living In A Shoe

My mother was not an old lady living in a shoe.

old lady shoe tiny house kids fort playhouse

Unlike that old lady, who had so many children she didn’t know what to do, my mother only had three. And she knew just what to do with them – put them to work.

For the longest time, I thought my mother had me and my brothers for two reasons: she wanted children and she needed a workforce.

The day I began walking my mother, the taskmaster, told me to, “Put that bottle down and get to work.”

For the next few years, I thought the English language only consisted of the three-word sentences that my mother used. Go do that. Come do this. Hand me that. Pick that up. Put that down.

The tasks were never ending.

By the time my two brothers, Ken and Tony, came along a year and then two years later, I was ready to put in for my Social Security. Unfortunately, in those days, three-year-olds did not qualify for retirement.

I warned my brothers about the potential consequences of learning to walk, but they chose to ignore my warnings and walked their way into my mother’s workforce.

Two labor principles guided my mother’s workforce. The first principle was, if we could do it, she didn’t have to. The second principle was, do it right.

If we could cook, that meant she didn’t have to. So, although my grandmother constantly argued at my mother for not paying attention when she was trying to teach her to cook, my mother made sure my brothers and I knew how to cook.

If we could sweep and mop, then she didn’t have to. So she made sure we knew how to do both. Every Saturday morning, after cartoons went off, she sat and watched as we swept and mopped the living room, hallway, bathroom, kitchen, our bedroom, hers, and the front porch.

If we could wash our own clothes and then hang them outside on the clothesline, she didn’t have to. So, after we were done sweeping and mopping, we began sorting, washing, and then hanging up clothes. When the clothes were dry, we took them in, folded them, and then put them away.

My mother didn’t like ironing, so she taught us how to stand in a chair and iron.

She didn’t like doing the dishes, so we pulled that same chair up to the kitchen sink and washed dishes.

And she didn’t like looking at messy children’s bedrooms, so we made sure she didn’t see any messy children’s bedrooms.

Our mother wasn’t a perfect taskmaster. Her Achilles heel as a taskmaster was she didn’t like having to go behind us to straighten out a task we didn’t do right. So, because I was the oldest child and therefore labor supervisor, I always went behind my brothers to make sure our mother didn’t have to go behind us.

I was 11 when I discovered that there was no room for advancement in my mother’s workforce and that my mother had an Achilles heel. That’s when I stopped checking behind my brothers and I stopped trying to be her best unpaid employee. “We’re not doing all this work for free,” I informed my mother when she learned of the mutiny I was orchestrating.

“You don’t work for free,” she said. “You work because you live here. And you work because I buy you food and clothes.”

That ended the mutiny.

Like I said, my mother was not the old lady who lived in a shoe.

Where’s Peggy?

King of the hill - Peggy Anyone seen Peggy?

Salutations!

Some people you meet will greet you with “Hello.”

Some will greet you with “Hi. How are you?”

While others express their pleasure in seeing you with a nod and a smile.

However, I never expected “Where’s Peggy?” to become a standard salutation until the day a family friend, Willie Alfred, began greeting me with me, “Where’s Peggy?”

Every time I crossed paths with Willie Alfred – before he said ‘hello’ or asked how I was doing – he asked me, “Where’s Peggy?”

I usually responded, “I don’t know,” but that didn’t stop him from asking.

“How come you don’t know?” he would then ask.

“I don’t know where she is because I haven’t seen or heard from her in years,” I’d reply.

At that point he would shake his head to show his disgust with my inability to keep up with friends who had moved away without leaving a forwarding address. Remember, this was before the age of Facebook and social media.

“Well, you need to get busy and find her,” he’d respond.

I never understood Willie Alfred’s fascination with Peggy since he only met her once.

Peggy was hanging out with me at a friend’s party when Willie Alfred walked up and asked me who she was.

“Her name’s Peggy,” I answered. “She’s a friend of mine.”

“Well Peggy, you sure are pretty,” he said.

“Thank you,” she replied.

From that day on, every time I saw Willie Alfred he greeted me with “Where’s Peggy?”

During the first month or two, I humored him by responding, “She’s working.” Or, “She’s home.”

However, after a few months, these question and answer sessions about Peggy’s whereabouts began to annoy me.

“Where’s Peggy?” Willie Alfred would ask.

And I’d respond, “I don’t know.” Or, “I haven’t seen her.”

Even though I stopped having answers to his question, he didn’t stop asking.

This annoyed some of my friends even more than it annoyed me.

One day, Willie Alfred walked up to me and a friend of mine and asked, “Where’s Peggy?”

Before I could respond, my friend answered, “She moved to Tennessee.”

Willie Alfred shook his head in disagreement and said, “Peggy ain’t moved.” Then he walked away.

The very next time Willie Alfred saw us, he asked, “Where’s Peggy?”

“She’s dead,” my friend snapped. “Peggy is dead.”

Willie Alfred stepped back, stared sorrowfully into my eyes and asked, “Ant, is Peggy dead?”

Before I could respond, my friend reiterated, “I told you she’s dead.”

Willie Alfred shook his head and walked away with saying another word.

It didn’t take long for my friend to regret what he had said.

The next time we saw Willie Alfred, we smiled and waited for him to ask, “Where’s Peggy?” But he didn’t. He smiled and nodded cordially.

He didn’t ask about Peggy the next time I saw him. Or the next time. My friend had dealt a deadly Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf blow to Peggy and Willie Alfred’s salutation.

Willie Alfred died several years ago, but from the day Tony told him Peggy was dead until his death, he never asked about Peggy again.

I haven’t seen or heard from Peggy since the mid-1980s, but I think it’s time I found my old friend.

Anyone seen Peggy?