CAROLINA CHRISTMAS 11,2020
She especially loved the land when winter came on it. The deep tree cover opened to reveal the hills and valleys. She used to wonder what force of nature had carved the land, but she wasn't to know that Snow Creek was the architect. Snow Creek was now a very small river indeed, running over rocks of all sizes as it formed the boundary of her home. In the heat of the summer, she and her brothers and sisters loved to sit in the deep spots. No child anywhere had a better place to pass the hot North Carolina summers.
But, summer was now a far off memory. Mr. Rash had the cattle he fed on the land butchered, so the pens were empty of animals. Amy never gave the cattle names; she tried not even to look at them. They were so trusting and gentle, but she knew their fate. It made her cry when she thought of it, so she tried very hard not to think of it.
The sharecropper house held her mother, father, 3 brothers and 3 sisters. Nine people in a house not big enough for four. Nonetheless, it was a happy household. Her parents worked very hard. Her mother sang to her family and Amy thought even the birds would enjoy her mother's voice. She sang while she washed the family clothes in the wash pan. Scrubbing each piece on the old washboard. She made her own soap, which smelled of lie and burned Amy's hands when she helped. Mother always said singing made a job go faster. Amy joined in, but her voice was weak. Or so she thought. She much preferred listening to her mother.
Now that it was winter, chores like laundry were very difficult. Boiling so much water required many trips from the well. Not to mention cutting the wood for the stove. But, these were chores the brothers did. It was Amy's job to rinse the clothing after her mother had scrubbed it clean. It was at times like this that her mother had time to talk to her. She knew other people didn't work as hard as her parents did. She loved them all the more for the work they did gladly for their family.
Amy knew it was December. They had talked about it in school. How in far off days the ancient Romans had celebrated a feast on December 25. The teacher had told them that the Christians thought that a good day to celebrate the birth of Jesus. The thought of a celebration was more than Amy understood. Her parents had struggled just to meet the daily needs of their large family. On birthdays, they would get a pair of new socks. Mother knitted all the time just keeping up with birthdays. Christmas had never been mentioned accept for one thing.
The family owned two books. One was the Bible. The other was called A Christmas Carol. About this time every year Amy's father would take this book down from the shelf over the fireplace. He would light a candle and sit the entire family down. They knew the story by heart, but each child sat quietly and at their fullest attention. Father couldn't sing like mother, but he had a beautiful deep voice for speaking. He read slowly, but perfectly. Night after night he would read the tale of Ebenezer and the Ghosts. Each child had a favorite part. But, Amy's favorite was the end part. She waited patiently each year for the words of Ebenezer's salvation. And each time she heard it she wondered at the words "he kept Christmas."
She was thinking of those words again. Father had not yet begun to read the story, but she could feel the story in the air. It would be here soon, along with the first of the Carolina snow. This year she would "keep Christmas."
The depression had been hard on everybody, well most people anyway. Mr. Rash seemed to have plenty of money. But, Amy didn't have a single penny. It might be easy for Mr. Rash to "keep Christmas", but it wouldn't be easy for Amy.
She only had a few weeks to hatch her scheme. If Christmas was a celebration of the birth of baby Jesus, then perhaps she might find gifts on the farm. Gifts that nature and perhaps God had placed there for her. Everyday things that were passed over by most people. She would have to try to see with a different eye.
The next day after she finished her chores she began her search. She believed she knew places on the farm no one else had ever seen. She started there. She took a basket and began to pick up a bird feather here, a pretty stone there. She found a broken bottle made of blue glass. Fresh grapes still clinging to the wild grape vine near the old slave cabin were just slightly out of her reach. She wasn't sure what she would do with them, but she wanted them for her basket.
She knocked on the door and Ol'Ben answered the knock. Ol'Ben was the oldest man in these parts; people said his mother had been born a slave on this very farm before "The War of Northern Aggression." The others had all moved on, but Ben's mother had stayed in her cabin. Ben stayed on after she died. Now, he was as much a part of the farm on Snow Creek as the trees were.
He was the blackest man Amy had ever seen. But, she wasn't afraid of Ben. She wasn't afraid of anything.
"Well, little missy, how can I help?" Ben always treated Amy with the greatest of courtesy. He made her feel like she was a great lady. He was Amy's friend.
In a few short sentences Amy explained her plan to "keep Christmas." Ben hadn't thought of Christmas in years. Not since his mammy had passed over. She had remembered the Christmas celebrations in the big house that used to be part of this land. When he was a small boy, she had told him of the days of cooking and the dancing and the singing and the white folks going off to church. And presents. He never had a present, but he knew what they were.
Ol'Ben smiled at his distant memory of his fat momma. She could make a feast out of weeds and grass he remembered. For a moment, he wished her back, but then he remembered she was in heaven with the baby Jesus. Wouldn't want her back in this old fall'n down cabin."I'll go to her soon," he thought. He read her old Bible every night.
"Would you give me some help, Ben? I don't know why but I need those grapes growing there. Out of my reach, and I'll get in trouble if I fall trying."
"Well now little Miss Amy, I would be glad to be of service to such a fair damsel. Amy had no idea what a damsel was, but she was pretty sure he was going to help.
He went back into his cabin and returned with an old rusted pair of scissors. He clipped the bitter grapes down and placed them in her basket.
"Not sure how these will help "keep Christmas" but I sure am glad to be a part of it. He whispered, as if he was now part of a huge secret.
As Amy walked back toward the house she resolved to put Ol'Ben on her "Keeping Christmas List." She hadn't realized she had a list until then, but she did; a gift for her mother and father and a gift for each of her brothers and sisters. And one for Ol'Ben.
For days she collected old dried grape vine, dried grasses, rocks, berries, broken things and even the occasional treasure like broken birds eggs. They were hard to find, but she dug through the forest debris where she had seen nests in the spring. She found many and varied patterns in the shells. Broken to piece, but she would find someway to use such a lovely thing.
She found very old horseshoe nails near the old tobacco barn by the cattle pond. She waded into the frigid waters of Snow Creek looking for small rounded stones. This time of year the water did feel like melted snow.
When she had finished her collecting, she surveyed her collection. All so poor, what could she make of them? What were Christmas presents supposed to be like? She sat down and cried. "I won't be able to do it." "I can't keep Christmas."
Just as she was ready to give up and go home, defeated; she saw Ol'Ben walking out of the tobacco-drying shed. He saw her too.
"Now, now little missy, what could be making a pretty girl like you so unhappy that she waters?"
"Look at this stuff. Just junk all just junk. Not a present among it." Amy sobbed.
Ol'Ben smiled a knowing sort of smile. He would have gathered her up into his arms and comforted the sweet little girl, but that wasn't possible. Such things couldn't happen in 1934.
Instead, he asked to see the collection basket. He gazed intently into the debris.
"Why missy, you have some wonderful things here. I see a slingshot, a vase, a beautiful flower arrangement, a ring or two, maybe even some surprises. I do believe if we could find us some corn cobs we might even be able to make a doll or two from some of this."
"Where do you see that? I just see junk." Amy responded. She was interested in what he had seen. Could she see with his eyes? "Would she be able to 'Keep Christmas'?
So it was that for two weeks Amy would rush home from school, do her chores and then run to Ol'Ben's as fast as her feet would carry her. Ben had laid all the treasures out on an old table that his mother had been given when the big house had burned. It was large and highly polished. It had been her proudest possession.
When Amy saw them all laid out, she was impressed. Ben had placed them in groups. He would ask her what she could imagine the group to become. She looked and looked and suddenly she saw a wreath. Grape Vine, bird's nest, dried golden rod, and even the now dried grapes. Her mother would hang it on the front door. She could see it.
Then she saw the sling shot, old leather she had found in the cattle barn and the small round stones from the creek. She saw it as if it were already made.
Ben went to a drawer and pulled out three corncobs and an old dress that must have belonged to his mother. He offered them to the little girl. "Kin I add to the collection?" He asked.
Amy could see the dolls she would make from these gifts. "Oh Ben, yes, yes. We will keep Christmas together.
Santa's workshop had nothing on these two as they worked secretly. Ben built a fire so hot that it melted the bird's eggs and the horseshoe nails together. Amy watched with astonishment as he poured them into small molds he had made. When they cooled, he had made rings. One for mother and one for father, turquoise blue just like a robin's egg. She had never seen anything so beautiful. Father had never been able to give mother a wedding band. Now, she would have one more beautiful than any old gold band. And he would have one that matched, just as they matched each other. Amy's joy was boundless. She flung her arms around Ben and hugged him with all her heart. No one had hugged Ben in his life accept his sweet dear mother. His eyes filled with tears.
She was crying too, both filled with the joy of giving.
On December 25th it snowed. The snow fell quietly and when the family rose to do their chores the ground was covered in white. The trees hung heavy with the wet snow. Ice had formed on the branches before the snow had fallen. It was a true fairyland. Father build the fire up and the children each in their own turn showed up to warm themselves by the fire.
Father always saved the last part of A Christmas Carol for Christmas Day. Mother had cooked one of the old hens and the family ate a feast. When father finished the story and closed the book and placed it back over the fireplace, Amy went to her room and came back with her basket of gifts. She began with the youngest, giving her a doll made from corncobs and bits of grass. The face was painted and the doll dressed in bits of "Ol'Ben's mother's dress. Each child received a gift and as they laughed and chattered away, Amy came to the gifts she had made for her parents. The door wreath for her mama and a corncob pipe for her father, just when everyone thought it was all over, she produced the rings Ben had made for her.
Her mother wept, big beautiful tears and her daddy turned away. It wouldn't do for his children to see him cry, he thought.
Amy beamed and said to the parents, "Say the words. The words you said when you married Mama." The children all joined in and as they watched her father took the ring from her mother's hand.
They stood in front of the fire as the children watched.
"I John McGuirt take you Libby Jane Stephens as my wedded wife. To love, honor and cherish till death do us part." When he finished the words he placed the ring on her finger. Her hands were worn and scared from the years of hard work, but they looked lovely with the new ring.
"I Libby Jane Stephens take you John McGuirt as my lawful wedded husband." She looked at her man and said, "you forgot the lawful part."
The children all laughed as she placed the ring on their father's hard course finger. A bit of a squeeze, but it fit.
Now, Amy told them all the story of how Ol'Ben and she had worked together to "keep Christmas" like in the book.
John McGuirt was first a little worried that his young daughter had been meeting the old black man in secret, but he would not spoil this day for her. Instead, he said "Well, since Ol'Ben has been so generous to us, we must give him a gift."
Amy jumped up and hugged her father. "Oh papa, I know the perfect gift. Might we give him one of the young rabbits?" He has no one to care for, no one to love him back. He should have something."
Now, a rabbit was food, meat for a stew and fur for a hat. Amy knew that, but her father also knew Amy had a debt to pay.
"You go pick it out honey, that will be our gift to you and if you want to give your gift to Ben, that is your business."
She knew exactly which one. It had droopy ears and a friendly disposition. A pure pet that rabbit was meant to be.
The family put their gifts down, put their old coats on and together began climbing the hill to the old slave cabin. On the way, mother began to sing Christmas Carols and the children joined in. Father never sang, but the children swore later that they had heard him join in on Silent Night.
When Ol'Ben opened his door that Christmas night, he found the McGuirt Family, all nine of them outside his door, singing. Little Amy came out of the crowd and handed the young rabbit over to him.
"If you are kind, which I know you are, this little rabbit will love you."
No one could see the tears in Ol'Ben's eyes, but they were there.
Ben took the tiny ball of fur and asked, "does it have a name?"
Amy popped up "No, but I think Ebenezer Scrooge would be nice."
Everyone laughed, but forever after that they walked by the home of Ol'Ben and Ebenezer on their way to school.
A year after Ol'Ben had died and been buried in the ground of the farm just outside the old cabin, the children laid Ebenezer to rest beside him. Her papa had carved grave markers for each of them. Ol'Ben's said " Here Lies Ben, A Good Friend." Amy wrote the words for Ebenezer's marker. It said simply, "Ebenezer, Ben's Joy."
Childhood ended, a brother was killed in the War, and finally her parents passed over. Little Amy McGuirt grew into a fine young woman who always kept Christmas and to this day she tells the story of this very Christmas in the bleak year of 1934 to her great grandchildren after she reads her father's worn copy of A Christmas Carol in front of a roaring fire in her large and comfortable home in Ohio. Each generation of Amy's family have learned "to keep Christmas."
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