Saturday, November 28, 2009

What I See in His Blue Eyes

No lectures, please, about going overboard during the holidays. I won't listen. I'm not going on a spending binge. But there are times to live large. And this is one of them.

Growing up, the moods brightened at my house perceptibly around Thanksgiving. My father, initials JC, took off work at least a month at the end of the year to spend time with family and to go quail hunting. Except for Sundays, he would be gone by the time we got up.

I remember hovering near the back door, watching for a glimpse of his green-clad figure as the shadows grew from gray to black in the woods behind the house. Then profound relief, as warm as the sun, would claim me when I heard his pointers rustling and barking. JC had whistled and waved them home. And in a few minutes he was there too, game bags full of Christmas quail.

JC was happiest out in the wilds. He was born on a large farm in a remote section of Tennessee, part of a big extended family living along a river bend that still bears our last name.

The parents lived in the "big house," the grown children and their families in smaller homes scattered nearby. They were prosperous farmers who celebrated holidays together, gathered for a main meal around a large table. On these days, the matriarch, Miss Becky they called her, brought out a bottle of whiskey and poured shots for her sons to enjoy, a reward for their hard work. This horrified my grandmother, a hard-line Methodist not used to these ways.

Then, tragedy struck. A horse threw my grandfather, a handsome man with thick, coal black hair and big, luminous blue eyes. He started being plagued by seizures. One day, at home alone with his little blue-eyed middle child, my father, he began to seize. It was over quickly. My grandfather, W., was dead. He left three little boys and a wife, who quickly packed up and whisked her boys away from the river to live with her own family.

These were kind people, stalwarts, profoundly religious. They were also poor and fiercely proud. The large, festive holiday celebrations were over. Holidays, in fact, were very simple. The boys were loved and taken care of, JC had nothing but good things to say about this side of his family. But I know now his days faded from bright to gray after his father died.

Yet, life goes on. He grew up and went to war in Europe, where he survived terrible things. He married and became a father. His wife was a teetotaller, too, so the holiday toasts he had revived for a short time as a grownup ended again. But still, with JC, holidays were times of celebrations.

On the Saturday before Easter, for example, he would disappear for hours. Then he would return, proud of himself, producing a box from the car with a flourish. Inside were exquisite corsages. I remember perfectly formed, quivering orchids for Mother. For my sister and me, tiny red roses clustered in dainty, artistic nests of greenery, secured by long pearled hat pins.

We tried to imagine the florist who made such inspired treasures in the middle of the Alabama sticks where we lived. These were not ordinary corsages. JC was mysterious. "Oh, a friend of mine makes these," he would say, mentioning a community by the river near my hometown. Mother's Day yielded similar surprises.

JC cared little for furnishings, accessories, trappings, embellishments. He wanted to be gardening if he couldn't be out hunting, trudging through woods and fields with those sleek bird dogs he raised and trained with chickens bartered from farmers with promises of quail.

But as Christmas approached, he rummaged through boxes in storage and pulled out lights, stringing them over bushes in front of our house back when they were costly and easily broken, before decorating in this way was popular.

Then, on Christmas Eve, he would vanish again. Through dinner and the opening of presents, JC was the happiest person at the table, especially when the grandchildren started arriving. Then, with the evening over, JC would finish the boiled custard he asked Mother to make every year, his mother's recipe. And this normally tight-fisted man would fish out a bank envelope and distribute $100 bills. To everyone, little children included. Even Mother got one.

One Christmas Eve something even more amazing happened. I was quite small. I heard sleigh bells ringing outside my bedroom window. I got up and looked, but couldn't see anything. I wasn't asleep, I had just gone to bed. No one heard the bells but me, or claimed them, which was unusual. Mother didn't believe in "telling lies" to children, Santa and the tooth fairy included. So anything along the lines had to originate with JC.

I can see him now. Hidden behind the bushes, dressed in hunting camouflage after a long day in the wilds with the dogs, crouched low, knees brushing the browning grass, shaking a rack of sleigh bells borrowed from a farmer over by the river.

Ringing sleigh bells, steaming dishes of Christmas quail, colored lights gleaming on a dark night. Trembling orchids and roses that left us speechless. Golden custard from an old recipe and $100 bills, all of it, held in hands that bequeathed not just material goods but layers of wonder, mystery, peals of laughter.

Because in the giving JC opened an airway for life's breath, which flowed into cold, dark shadows that had been still and silent around a large table for nearly half a century.

So don't pity me the tangled lights, the cinnamon roll baking, the wrapping and mailings, the long drive I insist we make through Virginia and Tennessee into Alabama, which is still home to me after 30 years of living elsewhere. The endless details that exhaust me to the point that sometimes I have to take a nap halfway through the Christmas Eve celebration.

And when I rouse myself long enough to hand over a $100 bill to my son, after all the gifts have been opened and put away, I see more than just his luminous blue eyes.

Because the holidays give us permission to celebrate life with all the surprise and wonder it deserves. We should throw everything we have at it, energy-wise anyway. Because I am not just doing this for myself, for presents, or for my immediate family. I am recovering what was lost, long ago. Filling those blue eyes with light again. I am living for the many, around that big table, JC right in the middle of them.

This one's for you, especially, all month long. Merry Christmas, Daddy.


  1. Oh Glimmer. This one cut my heart. My husband's daddy was also a JC. I mean, those were his initials. And I fell in love with him before I fell in love with his son. I looked into those blue eyes and I knew I could put my heart in this man's son's hands.
    He loved to celebrate and I could (and should) write long posts about that but what I remember is his last Christmas with us and he was dying and it was the saddest, most horrible Christmas- a day I already hated.
    And every Christmas now, I go into it with such fear and such resentment. My childhood had no JC's at all. And then to have found one and to have lost him....
    But it is such a good thing to remember that others have had magic happen to them at Christmas. That they were loved and given precious gifts.
    Thank-you. You have astonished me this morning.

  2. I am sorry this hurt, but I hope it helps you too down the road in some way. I also am astonished that you had a JC. Another one of our synchronicities! Because Christmas dulled for me for a while. But I have taken it back. Because, as you said, I had magic happen and that is not a gift a person should be allowed to hoard.

    I think it can happen for someone at any age. It can happen to you too, through Owen.

  3. I think I understand wanting to repeat precious moments - we are putting together a wooden shop for our children for this year's Saint Nicholas exactly like the one I got when I was little, also from Saint Nicholas. I hope Christmas is everything you hope for.

  4. You DO understand, Mwa. And thank you. I don't need a lot of precision, really, I just need as many as possible around a big table. Kin, friends, newcomers, come one come all. That was the ticket for JC. And he was absolutely right about that.

  5. Thank you for your kind words - i have been reading your blog and think it is lovely - it takes me awhile to respond, but i get there! Really great post - will be reading more!

  6. glimmer..what a beautiful totally carried me away a little movie in my head..ususally only the best books can do that to me..i m delighted and impressed!

  7. I am honored, Danielle. Thank you for that.

  8. Glimmer, this is a wonderful post. I think that you captured the spirit of the season with the spirit of your father. What a wonderful man to do all that he did and to love those around him so much. That is indeed special.

  9. Thank you Syd. He was a complicated man. But as Ms. Moon said he put magic into our holidays, which is why I love them so much. And that was a real gift.

  10. Glimmer,
    Your father made art from life. What a special and dear man.

    Now I feel guilty that I don't enjoy the holidays more. My grandmother Peg was like your father about the holidays. She just loved Christmas. I find I miss her so much, that I don't enjoy them anymore. I only feel her lack. Your attitude is the correct and kinder one.

    You honor your father greatly through your words and actions.

    You are special to me. I send my love.


  11. Well, I was a laggard for a while too, SB, so do NOT feel guilty. You have plenty of time for a mid-course holiday correction. Get on that absurd holiday sweater, dress up the cats and you're there already. Now, wasn't that fun?

    Much love back, honey.

  12. I wrote you a long comment to this post days ago and lost it in the interether, but wanted you to know I've thought of this post and you and your father many times since then, and I smile everytime I think of the hundred dollar bills.
    My Dad was a blue eyed wonder who always made magic happen too, and I'm honoring him by telling my bah humbugs to take a hike. Thanks!

  13. Good for you Mel! I have kept on my tree lights all day, votive candles in Christmas holders lighting up the rest of the room. I'll be breaking out my Elvis and Aaron Neville Christmas music tomorrow.

    It is the best remedy I know for anything that ails. High five, fellow elf!