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Local author Pat Taylor shares short story: “The Homemade, Arkansas Christmas”

Pat Taylor

Little six-year-old Trisha was trying to understand. She loved her Daddy; oh, how she loved the big, strong man that could pick her up in his hands and toss her high into the air and catch her. She loved his blue eyes and his curly hair. But her Daddy had changed…something was the matter. He never wanted to play anymore! Maybe if she asked him why, she could fix it. So being a bold little person even at the age of six, she found where he was lying on the couch in the living room. 

“Daddy,” she said, in her little girl voice, “Why won’t you play with me any more?” Her Daddy just looked at her calmly and a little sternly and said, “Because I don’t want to.”  

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She didn’t know, she couldn’t have known, that this big sailor man who had enlisted in the Navy at the age of 18  had lived through the disaster at Pearl Harbor, the Battle of the Coral Sea, and all the horrors of war, including seeing most of his buddies killed by a Kamikazi pilot aboard their ship at the Battle of the Coral Sea. He himself couldn’t have said what was wrong. In those days, PTSD was an unknown term and men did not talk about emotions, they just clammed up and took care of their families, even if their emotions were driving them into depression and a desire to isolate. 

Louisa sighed. Bill was in a mood again. She loved that man, but his stern moodiness was beginning to cause her own tendency toward depression, there since childhood, to raise its head again. She didn’t understand what his problem was, they had finally more or less settled down in an apartment complex and things were looking up. She was so glad to have him home, but something was roiling the waters in their life and she couldn’t put her finger on it.

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Navy life had not been easy, what with Bill shipping out for three years at a time until he was finally assigned to shore duty. Moving back to Arkansas to live with her mother, the redoubtable Sarah Porter Smiley, with newborn Trisha had been the only solution, and it had been three years before she saw her Navy man again. Then Mary came along, and she had had her hands full with the two, Trish and little Mary, just 4 years apart. When he finally was home for good and they moved to Long Beach she really began to miss her little hometown and her Mom, and her brothers and sisters so, so badly. Survival through the depression had made it necessary to be such a tight-knit group. Faces and names that she had known since childhood floated achingly around in her memory, cousins and friends, aunts and uncles, playmates and pastors and everyone in the tiny town in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas that she missed so much. She remembered days looking for crawdads in the creek or sitting on the old log just dreaming. She sighed again. No time to dwell on memories. Mary and Trish were just waking up and would be hungry, and Trish was a handful at any time! She had to get to work on dinner. Maybe one of these days they could plan to spend Christmas in the old hometown.

Trisha hated her third grade teacher.  She had assigned Lisa to monitor everyone’s drawings and Lisa had drawn over Trish’s’ beautiful trees, saying that tree shapes weren’t all round like that. Trish thought her trees were beautiful! Trees were Trish’s favorite things, she guessed. And THAT was how she saw them! But she did love when her teacher would let her go into the music closet and listen to ‘The Moonlight Sonata,” or “Horsemen in the Sky,” or “The Grand Canyon Suite.” Somehow the swelling music of those grand pieces echoed in her. Trish sighed. Somehow the trees reminded her of Christmas, and she couldn’t wait for their trip to Arkansas to see Grandma Smiley.

Trish was tired and cranky after the almost 3-day trip to Arkansas, and so ready to finally get out of the car to see her Grandma. The back seat of the old Plymouth was roomy and there were plenty of pillows and puzzles and her books, but she was beginning to hate it! WHEN would they get there? She looked out the window again and squealed with delight! There was the old barn that Mom had said they should look for when they got close! They were almost there! And it looked like snow!

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Louise stepped down off the church steps and started walking back down to the house. It had been nice to see the old church again, where she’d spent so many hot Sundays in her childhood…the stained-glass windows were still just as beautiful, the oak floor and dark-stained pews and silence just as familiar. Now, however, occasional snowflakes drifted slowly down out of a leaden gray sky, making the smell of wood smoke sharper on the chilly evening air. Almost every little house, no matter how ramshackle or nice, had Christmas lights in the windows or around the door or on the roof, and smoke slowly drifting from the chimney. Turning to the left she started the 2-block walk back to her mom’s house….still worried over what she was going to do about Christmas…….

She had made one of the ultimate mistakes a mother of two small girls could make on Christmas—She. Had. Forgotten. The. Presents!! 

Yes…she had forgotten the presents, and not only that; she had forgotten the ornaments too! Everything had been packed in the three suitcases they had for the trip to the tiny mountain town in Arkansas where her mother lived. It had been years since she had last been there, since she had last seen her upright, stern mother with the heart of gold. She’d been so excited that she couldn’t keep her head straight, and what with getting the girls ready to go and shutting up the house, those vital suitcases had been forgotten, and not remembered until they were halfway on the road to walking in the door of the little salt-box house where her mother now lived! Oh, WHAT was she going to do??? Patricia was almost nine years old, and Mary was only five, and they expected a Merry Christmas! She had been telling them for weeks about the trip they were going to take to Grandma’s and the presents they would get…and now…

Now it was Christmas Eve, all the stores were closed, and besides, there was only enough money for the trip back and some groceries to help with Christmas dinner. Navy pay didn’t go very far. She couldn’t ask the cousins if they had any extra decorations, she wasn’t going to tell the whole world what she’d done! Oh, WHY had this happened! And HOW was she going to explain to the girls, they were so little, too little to understand, and their childish little hearts were going to be broken, and she couldn’t stand that! And she would never, never, never, be able to forgive herself.

Grandma Smiley sat rocking by the old pot-bellied stove, watching the girls eat their ham sandwiches. They would soon be full and ready for a piece of divinity each. For hours she had stood over the old cook stove in the tiny kitchen stirring the boiling sugar and water and then finally pouring a thin stream of it into the confectioner’s sugar while stirring as hard as she could at the same time. She’d had to set the smaller bowl inside a large stone one in order to keep it still, she needed another set of hands, but everyone was already busy at home cooking for Christmas dinner. 

She took her old corncob out of her mouth and considered the curl of smoke coming out of the bowl. Little Trisha and Mary were going to miss Christmas and Louise was beside herself with guilt and panic…looked like someone was going to have to do something about it. Humph. Well, time to get some folks busy.

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Trisha woke up on Christmas Day earlier than everyone else, so early that the cloud-obscured sun had hardly peeked over the horizon. It was still almost dark, and she was the only one awake in the small bedroom she and Mary shared. Little Miss Mary was still a sleepyhead; she never woke up early. Besides, they had so much fun, first getting there, and then the next day attending Christmas Eve service at the big old Methodist church with all the Aunts and Uncles and cousins. Trisha had been a little embarrassed, being a self-conscious child even at 8 and a half, because Mom had had to borrow a slip from one of her bigger cousins and she’d been worried that it would show. But Mom had pinned it up really good and told her a hundred times that it was fine. So, everyone was really tired. But all of a sudden Trisha remembered about the suitcases. Sitting back down on the bed she sighed a very unhappy sigh. Mama had told her about forgetting the suitcases at home, so she was really mad that there would be no presents and no tree. But it she knew Mama didn’t mean to and was very sad about it herself, so she HAD to hold her mad inside and not hurt Mama, because Mama was so very sorry! Almost crying, she had explained all about it on the way to church last night and said she would make it up when they got home. But No presents! And NO tree! Christmas was ruined! She wished they had never come to Arkansas!

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The night was starry but icy as Big Bill John McGrew finished sawing down the large cedar, the biggest, fullest cedar he could fit into Granny Smiley’s little house. He grinned. Trish was going to be the most surprised little girl in the world in the morning! Granny Sarah (though he’d never dare to call her Granny to her face) and Louise were busy finding homespun ways to decorate the tree. Popcorn balls, garlands of strung cranberries and more popcorn, gilded walnuts that he’d drilled holes into for the pipe cleaners to hang them with, candy canes, even net bags of hard candy and oranges and apples wrapped in cellophane were to be hung on every bough. It was going to be quite a tree!

While the syrup was slowly boiling for the popcorn balls, Louise and Sarah were quietly laughing as they strung cranberries for another garland. They were going to have Christmas come hell or high water!

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Putting on her corduroy pants and her shirt, Trisha ran out into the kitchen looking for her Grandmother, and stopped in the door in amazement. There, in the tiny living room warmed by the woodstove, was a decorated tree, the most beautiful Christmas tree she had ever, ever, seen! White garlands of popcorn and bright red cranberries were strung everywhere across the huge cedar tree from top to bottom, and there were LOTS of decorations! WHERE did they come from??? Trisha went closer and laughed with joy and wonder. Momma and Daddy and Grandma had just found things to decorate the tree with! There were gold-painted walnuts, oranges wrapped in crinkled green-foil wrapping paper, gum balls from the gum tree outside, painted red and silver; red-and-white-striped candy canes; apples and pears wrapped in cellophane and a lot of other things hanging on every branch, making the fragrant tree lovely, Christmassy and beautiful!  On its very top a big star made out of cardboard and wrapped with crinkled tinfoil was fastened with silver wire. Trisha stood with open mouth and just stared and stared and couldn’t believe what she was seeing, and she didn’t know how it had ever happened…it was a miracle! Then from under the tree she heard some ‘peep, peep, peeping,’ and there were three baby chicks in a box just waiting to be scooped up and carefully hugged as tight as could be. 

After a while she turned around, and she saw Momma and Daddy and Grandma standing in the kitchen watching her. They were all smiling at her as if she was THEIR Christmas miracle and the most important thing in the world. Soon they started laughing at the sight of her dancing around the room with a chick hugged tight to her chest, until they had to stop laughing because they were yawning so hard and decided to head back into the kitchen for more black coffee and some breakfast. 

A few days later, after finally arriving back home in San Diego the Christmas presents were unwrapped from their pretty red and green paper cocoons and enjoyed. But as she grew up, Trisha’s most cherished holiday memory would always be the Homemade Arkansas Christmas.

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