December 23, 2005
My parents were born during the depression. It was 1933 and my father gleefully boasts that he is some eight months younger than my mother. He is also boastful in the fact that his family suffered through difficult times with class, strength and virility. He was raised in a home with his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents… some aunts and uncles as well. They had an outhouse for many years. I think it is my great-great grandfather that was a dentist… and apparently an alcoholic. Another in the family was a hypochondriac, and my father remembers a mantle in the house being filled with prescription drugs, or other remedies with no place for family photos. My father knows how to ring the neck of a chicken, chop the head off the Tom Turkey and slaughter a hog. He also brags that he walked to and from school, many miles, barefoot in the snow and uphill both ways… apparently carrying a load of books that weighed roughly 120 pounds.
My mother grew up in a coal mining camp. Her father was the butcher, baker and candlestick maker! No… really, he was the butcher, the postmaster and the manager of the general store in the camp. They lived in a very small green house just across the railroad tracks and my mother was an only child for the first 14 years of her life, before my aunt arrived on the scene. She walked to school as well, but not nearly the same distance as my father. She went to school with various cousins and learned to live within her means.
This is why I am never surprised when my family gets together for holidays and special events and my parents wax nostalgia. They talk of a day before televisions and microwaves; before remote controls and jet planes. One of my father’s fondest stories involves my mother’s determination to take a cruise ship across the Atlantic Ocean to join him at a military post there. She refused to get on a jet, because she didn’t trust a plane that moved without the safety and security of propellers.
Each Christmas we hear tales of the good old days and are admonished for having such a good and easy life. A good and easy life, I might add, that our parents strived so hard to give us. I am not without gratitude.
Christmas stockings are not a big tradition in my family. I do not believe we’ve ever really used them, except for decorative reasons. It just was not high on our list of Christmas obligations. Perhaps my parents felt that stockings were supposed to be for fruit and nuts. If they were extra good that year, there would be a piece of hard candy, or a peppermint stick. There would be no gameboy hidden in its depth. No doubt, the stocking itself was actually a mended old sock that had seen better days. If they were bad children that year, they could be guaranteed a bag of switches or a lump of coal. This must have been a year-long struggle for my mother, living outside a coal mining camp. Talk about inspiration for being a good girl.
But food has always been part of our family holidays. We are not big-boned people for no reason. Nosireebob… we come from a long line of healthy eaters with years of tradition to back us up. Thanksgiving was, of course, the time for a turkey, dressing, dumplings (thanks Grandmother!), and jellied cranberry sauce. Christmas; however, was the time for a baked Ham (thanks Gran!), potatoes and green beans. We continue those family traditions to this day.
So, you can only imagine the horror that struck the face of my younger brother and I as my mother asked the most sacrilegious of questions: “Would you mind if we have Fried Chicken for Christmas instead of Ham?” I looked at John, and he looked at me and then we slowly looked at our mother. I felt her forehead while he took her pulse and once we realized there was nothing physically wrong, we were able to respond.
John: Why would we have Fried Chicken for Christmas?
Mom: Your father does not want to go into Nashville to buy the Ham.
Cathy: Isn’t there a Honey-Baked Ham in Murfreesboro?
Mom: No… that’s a Heavenly Ham, and they are not as good. There’s really nothing as good as a Honey-Baked Ham.
***Pause for effect***
Mom: (sighing) Would it really bother you if we have Chicken?
Cathy: Are you going to spend the day on Saturday frying up enough chicken to feed all of us?
Mom: No… I was thinking more along the lines of a bucket of KFC.
At this point, any hopes of a traditional family Christmas dinner were flying out the window as I could imagine myself opening a Styrofoam tub of not-so-real mashed potatos and spooning the not-so-real-either brown gravy. It is a good thing that the predominant signature color for KFC is red… it will blend in lovely with the Christmas table that has been set. There’s nothing that screams Christmas like a table set with lovely holiday china and a big ole bucket o’the Colonel’s Extra Crispy right smack dab in the midst. I figured I could put some greenery around the base of the bucket to make a lovely centerpiece.
While I’m at it… I’ll just dump an old washing machine on the front lawn and put a car up on blocks.
Mom: It really wouldn’t bother you too much would it?
John: Well, I guess if we can survive the Thanksgiving Spaghetti feast when we were kids, we can make do with a KFC Christmas.
Cathy: Ho, Ho, Hell…
The next day, a big Christmas elf (John would hate to be called a Fairy) managed to save the Christmas dinner by traveling to the Honey-Baked Ham store and bringing a lovely ham to the Bell house. Our dinner would be set aright, and all would be well in the world. Our parents traveled to the local grocery store to purchase the remainder of the items needed to top off the feast. Their grandchildren were home to help unload the car, and sure enough, one would think that we are feeding an army by the armloads of grocery sacks that made their way into the house.
Which only caused great puzzlement for me when my mother arrived home from work today, the day after the food excursion with many, many more bags of groceries.
Cathy: Didn’t we just unload groceries yesterday?
Mom: Your father had another list of things we needed to get.
Cathy: Things we needed? Or things he wanted?
Mom: It doesn’t matter. Come the first of the year, I’m clamping down again, and we are only buying things we need, and not things we want.
I began to help load in the groceries from the car and then unload them into the already overflowing cabinets. When what to my wandering eyes would appear, but three packages of sliced ham… ready and waiting for consumption. I threw my mother my best “astonished” look.
Cathy: Ham? You bought ham? Don’t you think there’s enough ham here already?
Mom: Excitedly – OH Hurry! Put that somewhere that your father cannot find it.
Mom: He’s coming in right behind me...
Cathy: Do you just want me to put in the back of the fridge?
Mom: NO!! Hide it away! I have to wrap that up. It’s one of his Christmas presents!
Cathy: (astonished look expanding) Excuse me?
Mom: Hurry… he’s almost here. Take it to your room and wrap it up.
Cathy: Doesn’t it need to be refrigerated?
Mom: No! It wasn’t refrigerated at the store. Hurry… Take it and wrap it up and put it under the tree!
Well… alrighty then. As I was passing my the kitchen table I quickly grabbed a gift bag and tissue paper that was… er, perfect… for three sections of ham to be wrapped in. Even as I write, there is ham sitting under the tree, brightly wrapped, wonderfully adorned.
I think we have gotten a little off track with the true meaning of Christmas. I doubt (seriously) that the wise men would ever have shown up with Gold, Frankincense, and a big ole slice of ham!