Grandma's house was always cold. And the glow from her ever-present Lark cigarette coupled with the soft row of blue flames dancing across the Warm Morning heater did little to soften the wintry chill.
It was Christmas Eve night. I was young and Christmases seemed much farther apart then. (I guess that's why old people have resigned themselves to leave their outside lights up the year through.)
The Christmas tree that year was the usual tacky affair, resplendent with ornaments that had long lost their sheen. The little cedar tree, leaning a little to one side, glistened with a crescendo of silver icicles, the ones you could buy three packages for a dollar. There was a strand of bushy blue and green tinsel cascading down the "good side" of the tree like a lazy, winding creek.
This was long before Christmas went highbrow with themed "designer" trees of coordinating mauve and gold tones. I has talked grandma into buying a string of flash bulbs, multi-colored ones. And a red plug-in device made the whole tree flash on and off like a caution light. I thought it was magnificent. Anyway, it seemed an appropriate accessory to grandma's white vinyl sofa and blonde coffee table set and her dozens of dusty "pretties" laying about.
Not everyone in my family was poor. Aunt Nita had this space-age looking aluminum contraption of a tree which changed colors as the accompanying color wheel slowly revolved. And there was Aunt Jane and Uncle L.C., the rich Pryor relatives. (I thought they were rich, anyway. Their house had a basement and Aunt Jane always drove a Cadillac, usually in a finish that complemented her pink hair.)
As the long hours torturously languished on before it was decreed we could officially open our presents, I and my cousins would take inventory of gift tags as each newly arrived family unit came through grandma's front door. I was hoping for a Major Matt Mason Space Crawler (figures sold separately) or a set of Motorific battery-operated race cars with crashing brick wall feature.
One year my Uncle Richard delayed his holiday drunk long enough to don a Santa suit. grandma didn't have a fireplace so he just knocked on the front door. I guess he fooled the younger kids. And that's all that really mattered.
it was the year I beat out Larry Gwartney for the lead role in the Freewill Baptist Church's annual Christmas play. Larry's dad owned the local International Harvester dealership and his mother, Nelda, was very active in church, so I rightfully reveled in this theatrical achievement, never considering I had been given the role through the most Christian of pity.
I played a temporarily earthbound angel disguised as a poor orphan whose "soul" purpose was to deliver the true meaning of Christmas.
Afterward, everyone in the congregation was treated to a goodie bag filled with an orange, apple, some hard Christmas candy and an assortment of unshelled nuts.
Just when the assembled cousins and I had all but given up hope that Uncle Bill and his one-armed wife, Faye, with their station wagon load of unkempt, unloved kids would arrive, a pair of headlights could finally be seen approaching from the north. As least we could now unwrap the presents now suffocating under the little tree.
And what a free-for-all would ensue, kind of like hungry goldfish to flakes.
And while whatever pleasure I derived from Mattel or Hasbro that year has long since faded with the freckles across my nose and the uncontrollable rooster tails, the memories live on. I was a kid in the '60s. I didn't care what brand of jeans I wore. I was just an unassuming kid who always worried a lot. I miss being young. I miss Christmases at Grandma's.
This column was originally published Dec. 25, 1997 in the Miami News-Record.