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Gatherin' 'Round the Birthday Tree
December 25, 2005

            Cold and starry, the early Christmas morning sky of the Texas Panhandle glittered above.  Way before dawn, when the sound of hoof beats on the roof had scarcely faded, the two little Nordyke girls, like children everywhere, were out of bed and pulling on our parents’ sheets begging to be up, begging to see what Santa left.

            We knew to pull the sheets on Daddy’s side.  Mother would only send us back to wait “just a little while,” but Daddy was as anxious as we were to begin his favorite day of the year.

            I suspect that some years he was lying there waiting for us and that if we’d only held off for a few minutes he would have come and fetched us.  We never had the patience to try that theory out.

            We could not go straight to the stockings.  We had to pass those tempting, bulging beauties, barely casting a glance to see if the hoped-for doll was showing her curls out of the top, or maybe—oh joy!—was so big that she had to be seated under the tree.

            The first stop was out the front door, down the porch steps and onto the frost-crunchy Bermuda grass to look up at that starry sky.  First we looked to the east, then the north, west, south, and, finally, straight up.  While we turned Daddy told us how when he was a little boy, “just a lad,” he always said, on the lonely farm in west Texas, he’d come outside every Christmas morning with his own Daddy.  But after they looked at the stars, Grandfather Nordyke lifted his shotgun and at shot off a single round in each direction.  He did it every year, but he never, never explained why, no matter how many times his seven children asked.  After the echoes of the shots faded from the rugged hills, the family trooped back into the house for their farmer-sparse but joyous holiday.

            More often than not, Daddy would  go on to tell his shivering daughters about the one very special Christmas morning when after shooting off the four shots, Grandfather again lifted his gun and gave another round.  He had something special to celebrate that year—inside the unpainted house, born that very Christmas morning, was his own tiny son—the baby boy who grew up to be my dad.

            By now we were shaking in our bathrobes and houseshoes and all too eager to get back into the house where Mother had hot cocoa with a marshmallow (a big one, none of those little ones at our house) waiting by the bright Christmas tree and the new doll.

            We’d done our “big Christmas” the night before at my grandmother’s.  Christmas morning was for the stockings, the dolls and the books.  Always the books.  I can track my Christmases today by looking at the flyleaf of my childhood books.  “Merry Christmas, 1946,” that’s the Bobbsey Twins, the Little House books came later, Kipling’s Jungle Book, Little Women, and don’t forget Nancy Drew.

            By the time it was fully light, the present were done, the wrapping put away—Mother saved the pretty bows, but we could never find them the next year—Daddy, Nan and I were lost in our new books.  Mother was starting on dinner.

            About noon, things changed.  It quit being Christmas.  It became Daddy’s birthday.  He was clear on that point—Mother thought obnoxious.  Sometimes, strolling from the living room to the dining room to check on dinner’s progress, he’d rub his hands together and mummer, “Me an’ Jesus.”

            “Lewie,” Mother remonstrated.  “Not in front of the girls.” But she laughed after she said it.

            When friends dropped by in the afternoon with gifts for the family and a birthday gift for Daddy—woe to the poor soul who offered him a combination gift—he’d greet them jovially, “Come on in! We’re glad you could drop by on our birthday!”  He’d gesture to the shimmering tree, “’Bout the best birthday tree we’ve ever had.” 

            Dinner might be the traditional Christmas turkey and dressing with Mother’s special fresh cranberry sauce, but dessert was always the same—a big and glowing birthday cake.  (Daddy said he’d never had even one when he was growing up.  He never missed one after he was grown!)

            This year, early Christmas morning when I go out to look at the stars before we open gifts, I’ll remember my grandfather and I’ll remember my daddy.  I’ll look in each direction, and then when I’m through, I’m going to turn around and look each way one more time.  For the Christmas morning when my grandfather shot the special, joyous extra round was Christmas, 1905—exactly 100 years ago.

            Happy Birthday, Daddy!


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