A Hoptown Chronicle advent story

The best Christmas gift that wasn’t

An evening was spent recalling Christmases past deep in Appalachia, and their mother received a cherished book of memories.

Were she still living, Mother would be 100 this month. Undeniably, her birthday always took a backseat to the hubbub of Christmas — until her 80th. 

Pleading holiday fatigue, I asked Mom if we could celebrate her birthday a few days late. When Sam and I picked her up the next week, she expected dinner for three at Bartholomew’s. But when we turned into Oakland Manor, she became a bit suspicious. 

Dennie Burke

Suddenly surrounding Mom were her three grown children, spouses and five grandchildren — all having flown or driven in from Houston, Atlanta, Knoxville. She was astounded and overjoyed.

Our party had been in the works for a while. In the preceding weeks, we had slipped old photos from Mom’s house and had them enlarged — poster-sized photos of her as a young bride, taken to mail overseas to Dad during WWII. Pictures of a vibrant, beautiful girl smiling seductively, her long hair tossed over bared shoulders. The features of that young bride could be seen in the faces around the table.

We spent the evening talking about Christmases past, especially when the immediate family lived deep in the mountains of Appalachia. There were no garden centers selling high-priced, perfectly shaped Christmas trees near our childhood home. 

We cut down our own tree. And, generally, its shape was … unique. The original Charlie Brown Christmas tree with branchless areas impossible to hide or disguise. Often, our tree tilted a tad. Many Christmases, we discovered it was much too tall for the room — unfortunately after it was firmly braced and nailed to a wooden stand. What to do? Crop the top! A Christmas tree with a crew cut. Yet, to our young eyes, it was beautiful.

If by chance we originally managed to secure a nicely shaped tree, after two rowdy boys and several ragtag dogs toppled it a few times, most of the unbroken ornaments and silver icicles had shifted to one side. It stood proudly — a Christmas tree decorated via some bizarre version of Pin the Tail on the Donkey. 

Since Dad was a medical doctor doing missionary work in the mountains, money was scarce, so our family always had milk or Kool-Aid at meals. Never soft drinks; too expensive. One wonderful Christmas, an unknown angel left a large case of 7-Ups on our porch. It was a miracle! We rationed those drinks as if they were frankincense and myrrh.

At Christmastime, our family’s old stone house on the banks of Troublesome Creek smelled of newly cut evergreens, bowls of oranges and Dad’s favorite Red Delicious apples along with Mom’s freshly baked date-nut bars and old-fashioned jam cakes. 

Compared to the piles of Christmas gifts children receive today, those under our tree were sparse. But our parents knew how to stretch out an exciting event by building anticipation. It was our custom for Dad to open ALL the gifts, one at a time, so we could enjoy each other’s presents as well as our own. Since Dad purposely unwrapped each of our gifts as slowly as possible, it took much longer than when everyone simultaneously ripped open gifts. Before Dad could finish, little hands were reaching to help.  

These were some of the memories our family relived at Oakland Manor that cold, foggy December night. We laughed; we cried; we hugged. We hired a professional photographer to take a family portrait. That portrait and other family pictures were added later to Mother’s Memory Book, which we presented to Mom that evening. 

The large leather album held a plastic-encased letter from each of her children, their spouses and her grandchildren. The written sentiments in Mother’s Memory Book were words often left unsaid until it’s time to pen a eulogy. 

That book was the best birthday gift we ever gave Mother — heartfelt expressions of how much we loved her and her profound impact on each of our lives. 

Years later when Mom’s health declined to the point she had to be moved into a facility for dementia/Alzheimer’s patients, we placed Mother’s Memory Book on her bedside table. Each time I visited, Mom asked me to read it aloud to her. As I read the letters and showed her the pictures, she became calmer, less agitated, more peaceful.

For Christmas 2019, why not take a few moments to tell your family and friends you love them and what each means to you? I can promise it will be the best Christmas gift you’ll ever give.

(Dennie B. Burke earned a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Kentucky, where she was named to Phi Beta Kappa. She served 22 years as executive director of the Austin Peay State University Office of Public Relations and Marketing and subsequently co-authored the true-life thriller, “A Matter of Conscience,” with APSU President Emeritus Dr. Sherry Hoppe. Burke and her husband, Sam, both retired, have two grown daughters and seven grandchildren.)