Christmas time finally rolled around. We were about to say goodbye to 2020, and no one — absolutely no one — wanted an extension.
We had the usual number of unexpected pregnancies, hot days of drought, bitter cold days of rain, flat tires and broken appliances; added to that, we had COVID-19 problems and an especially acrimonious election. And, of course, we were all flat broke. Our Great Recession dragged on, no end in sight.
The natural result of all this was that people shouldn’t have spoken to each other; but when they did talk, one was almost always wearing a mask, the other citizen was not, and both were shouting. If we had a town blood pressure, it would have been in the stroke territory.
Like a fever, it finally broke. People were plain exhausted. Come December, most people were indifferent between the rulers in Washington being left, right, up, down or Episcopalian.
I don’t know exactly who started it, but word got around that we were going to have an “All Heartbreak” sort of Christmas; that is, everyone would create something homemade to give unto others.
Sally Rae jumped at this like a large-mouth bass on a waterlogged junebug. She announced that her present would be a chicken-fried steak with all the fixin’s (no more than 25% percent indoor capacity, of course) served all Christmas Eve long. There must have been a collective, pent-up demand for chicken-fried steak as we had a LOT of friends that night.
To our surprise, BJ Elkert wrote a cookbook, called “Deep Fried Texas.” It started off, “Take 3 quarts of rendered possum grease, heat in an outdoor container until a wooden match in the grease catches fire, then add your meat.” He shared the proximate frying times for quail, deer, armadillo, squirrel, beef — you name it. Now, people in BJ’s family tended to be the picture of health — until the day they keeled over with a full-blown coronary.
Billy, our “Great American Mechanic,” gave us a combination gas-powered ice cream maker and washing machine. “Just remember, if you make strawberry ice cream before you wash your whites, rinse it out real thoroughly. That is, unless you like pink underwear.”
Miss Scarlett gave us 10 pounds of calf-fries, “picked fresh off the vine, you might say.” Her son Jimmy gave my daughter Janey, home for the holidays, a corn snake. His animal gifts to win Janey’s affections had fallen somewhat short of the mark a few years before, when he gave Janey a pet skunk; but time heals all smells, we like to say.
I don’t believe he was ever going to make hay with Janey, but he kept on catching critters and giving them to her, certain that the right critter just hadn’t been presented yet.
Old Homer, Sally Rae’s father, set up shop on the end table outdoors, furthest from our front door. He was a disappointed doctor; early poverty had prevented him from going to medical school but he still “practiced.” His present was that he would “fix” any male cat or dog that anyone brought him. He would just stick ’em head down in a boot with a bit of chloroform and then he’d go to work. Post-op care was a smear of Preparation H. Personally, I was never entirely comfortable being in his vicinity when he was in a cutting mood.
From Rev. Horace Hollis I got an annotated binder of his best sermons. Say what you will about Baptist scholarship, he did have the nicest 50 or 100 ways I ever read of telling a man to go straight to Hell.
Arsenio Lopez gave me something really remarkable. He had just caught the last of the exotic snakes that were accidentally released a few years back. It was a full-grown albino python, a sort of yellow-and-white pattern. Most of this snake had been turned into high-dollar boots, but for me he made a snake-skin cap; the open mouth facing forward. On the rear he had stitched the longest set of rattles I have ever seen. The overall effect was, well, stunning. Velvet-lined, and warm, too!
Great Aunt Katy was an original, as were her gifts. She gave Janey and Sally Rae one of those hand-knitted “kitty-cat hats” with the pink ears. From their very private laughs together, I gather that it has political implications. To me, she gave a painting.
“Chipper did this,” she said proudly. Chipper was her ancient monkey.
“Looks like someone behind bars painted this,” I said.
“Yep, that was his first one. After that, I let him live out in the big oak tree in the front yard, much as possible.”
Great Aunt Katy fixed me with her unsettling stare. “I know you love Sally Rae, but I also know a rounder when I see one. Keep on loving her, but don’t become the monkey behind the bars, even if you like the cell you’re in.”
The day wore on, and the drizzle turned into sleet. I don’t know by what right the early church fathers decided that Christmas ought to be in the coldest, most depressing time of the year, but they did well with their placement. People needed a lift about now.
Near dusk a few pickups full of Cedar Choppers showed up. Cedar Choppers are, to a man, smelly, raw-boned sorts of guys. They marry beautiful young gals who quickly turned into tired-looking drabs with small children tugging at their skirts. The kids are almost universally dirty and loud — in short, these were exactly the people Jesus preached to, and advised us more fortunate ones to be kind to.
It’s one thing to drop your offering into a pretty brass tray, knowing that your church supported all sorts of charity. It is another altogether to look this sort of poverty in the face, smell the humanity, listen to the murdered English and outlandish stories, and keep your sense of love.
It’s so easy to slip over to judgment — heck, I had a few judgments of my own I could make about this crowd. Well, my judgments would be right, as in true and correct, but dead wrong in the important ways. Why? The absence of love to temper the ugliness in front of me with greater truths; that these were my fellow humans, that the biggest difference between us was an accident of birth; and the swarms of children were not accidents, but gifts to be loved and nourished by the whole community.
Again, I was reminded of the essence of Christianity, a standard that I honestly aspire to, but seldom succeed at accomplishing for more than a few moments at a time:
“… if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
As I stood there, savoring a transcendent moment, one of the children ran over and threw up on my foot. This is why transcendent moments are so fleeting: reality is more often like half-chewed chicken-fried steak and too-sweet pecan pie, all appeal having been lost by being swallowed and rejected by a tiny stomach more accustomed to peanut butter and white bread.
Even the rough and ready Cedar Choppers understood giving and getting. We ended up with several Mason jars of ’shine. I thanked everyone and carefully moved the white lightnin’ over to where I kept some other combustibles.
The day passed, tables were cleared, the deep fryer was finally allowed to go cold.
My little family gathered around in the main dining room at The Waterin’ Hole. Sally Rae gave me my first pair of hand-knitted socks. My, but they were warm!
Janey gave me a book on the proper expressions of men toward women. It seemed that I could never quite be as politically correct as she wished, but she gave it with love, and I accepted it as such.
As usual, Li’l’ Billy stole the show. He had come to us a virtual orphan; that is, the result of a night of passion between two near-strangers, neither of whom welcomed the end product.
Li’l’ Billy was not an easy child. His early traumas left him with a strong sense of Shakespeare. When angry or hurt, he could still lapse back into Elizabethan English. Clearly, he was a savant, but love and washing and regular routines had done much to restore him.
This holy night, he showed us the beauty of his peculiar otherness. In his high, pure voice he declaimed:
When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
— Shakespeare, Sonnet XXIX
“Mommy Sally Rae, Daddy Dave, I know that you gave me a home when I had no one. I spent the first two years wondering if it would last, if you would last. Now, I know I am safe. Thank you for all your love.”
My friends, I will cherish the memory of this Christmas above all others. Life is good. ￼
David Mosley spent 50 years on his family ranch on the Brazos River. In 2014 he sold it after developing several physical problems, including age. In 2012 he married his editor-in-chief, Terri Jo Mosley. They have lived many ranch stories, some related in the Heartbreak series. Like the Bible, some parts are true; some are parables to express the truth. Some parts of Heartbreak, though, are just dang ol’ lies.
His email is email@example.com