“Over the river and through the woods, To grandfather’s house we go, The horse knows the way, To carry the sleigh, Through the bright and drifting snow, ho.”
Only there was no snow. Our horsepower? Dad’s 1956 Country Squire station-wagon. It nearly knew the way—from our suburban home to the grandparents’ Christmas luncheon, mandatory. But it was never “Grandfather’s house”. Sure, he was alive; yeah, he’d paid for this boxy Victorian; but in 1903, soon as he carried his bride across the threshold, she was letting him live there. So we named it—with a respect resembling fear—“Big Momma’s House”, “Big’s”, “Grand’s.” Or, in Dad’s case, just “Momma’s”.
Christmas morning we kids knew the way, to behave: once we’d got parked behind Uncles’ Buicks and Packards. We knew to carry our stacked gifts right indoors toward her amazing eight foot Christmas tree, knew to tell Grand how lovely it was this year. Never better. And to speak up. No choice.
Ever wonder how certain ladies corner all the power? (We weaklings often ask that…inwardly.) Strong women have the most durable strength. Especially around here, specially ‘round Christmas.
True, she’d been 1900’s image of ‘powerfully good looking’. Yes, she confessed to being a Pitt from Pitt County, (one of the Pitts). Plus she “had money of her own”. She knew power meant never naming the exact amount.
For my Dad, his five siblings and their kids, Sunday lunches at Big Momma’s were as necessary as church, necessary right after church. But for Christmas? Well but, Christmas was Christmas! Out came all her silver. Fish-forks for twenty, and no fish!
An extra cook got hired. Three black women made Grand’s kitchen sound like the opening of a new restaurant. I had twenty-six first-cousins, all big eaters, today out-front riding new bikes (all red), shooting cap pistols, wearing Roy Rogers or Dale Evans fringe.
Grand’s home stood targeted with holly wreaths; a sphere of real mistletoe swung from each porch lantern. Her house’s roof—octagonal slates set like a puzzle—seemed, as we arrived, to just be solving itself.
Dormer-windowed, two and a half stories, grandmother’s house looked—to a boy small as I—pure palace.
On its second-floor landing, a stained-glass window’s family crest defined us. (Till I, selling band-candy at a similar house down the block, found our coat-of-arms had only been a selling-point in six other 1890 spec-homes).
Hers was really just a righteous stolid house on a mossy side-street plagued by squirrels, prettied up with blue-jays. There are millions of towns with billions of houses finer; but, for us, for then, especially with Grand’s tree inside, it looked secure and springy as her best plum-velvet settee. The freshly painted porch bespoke a deep respectability, if of the mercantile variety.
Her front-yard’s oaks, a hundred years old, sent out wheels of root making lawn-care harder for Mac Dancy. Grand’s long-suffering black helper waited today seated on porch-steps. He’d carry in the children’s larger presents. To greet me Mac’s huge hand settled on my head, heavy as two bricks with his lifetime’s working gristle.
Grand had turned eighty the same day I went eight; our sharing a Gemini birthday convinced her I might be smarter than certain cowpoke-cousins. (And of course, I never liked to argue with her.) She’d inherited, with ‘money of her own’ and four oil portraits, rheumatoid arthritis. Its contortions seized her family once they turned fifty, folding them double.
Grand started fighting hers early. Demoted from needlework she’d sit squeezing red rubber-balls till she couldn’t. She found a Syrian doctor whose regime of honey and wheat germ helped some. But even so, she now lived in a blond wicker wheelchair. Legs stayed swollen shiny—half-hidden under a lap-robe matching today’s dress.
Now, to lift a thing, she must use both inner wrists. As each finger twisted haywire—her turtle head stretched higher, needing to be regal just to see.
Some nights, if we stopped by to visit unannounced—if Grandad was out collecting rents or at Presbyterian Deacons’ Meetings—we’d find their house unlit. Front-door was never locked; our shouts would bring from darkness her country ladies’ “Whoo-oo!”
She’d be present okay, wide-awake in her high-backed rolling chair, become a part of evening, too infirm to rise and switch on any lamp.
At the launching of her Christmas tree, no other household light could shine. Thirty chairs encircled it. Arriving, Mother sometimes snapped, “Why do I always feel I’m coming to view a body?” But then, Mother was from the North.
As we piled into the front parlor, our seated Grand offered each of us her cheek. Time had turned hers softer than a baby’s. And, like believers pressing lips to the Pope’s ring, we each kissed her face Hello.
At Grand’s signal, Mac plugged tree-lights in. We ‘ahhed’ then applauded every year. She made that simple.
Christmas embarrasses some folks. Her husband pretended to ignore it; he never bought anyone a gift, only grew quieter seated to one side, awaiting his few ties and key-rings. But before Thanksgiving, Big Mom appointed Mac to wheel her through all three department stores downtown.
For each grandkid, she handpicked a tribute, every year different: Organdy hair-bows for our one Down Syndrome child; an abacus for the girl-math-wizard. I got a box of watercolors and a book of sayings by Walt Whitman.
But come Christmas noon, aside from gifts, apart from smells of cloved hams and glazed turkeys stoked by argumentative hymn-singing black women thinking of their children left at home, Grand’s main achievement was her tree. She never insisted we admire it; just as she never mentioned the contortionist disease unfastening her daily. But, as her generation practiced it, silence made you notice.
Church-groups petitioned to come see this tree: “We won’t stay. No refreshments expected.” Carolers proved a nuisance. Their singing, Grand hinted—wasn’t always up to its high standards.
What does a Christmas tree really do? Beautiful without Calvinist purpose, it just stands for something. Tough to describe my childhood wonder at it. But, by now, I’m surely old enough to try!
For starters, she acquired the perfect Fraser Fir. Grand bribed dealers to haul their best eight-footers up onto her porch first. She’d sit warm indoors before the bay- window, judging.
For years, she’d sent her own well-meaning husband downtown to pick one. Grand admitted, “Times, he’d bring home something pretty enough. Till I made him turn it around! The other side? Flat as the back of a skull of some baby without a dear nurse to rotate its soft little head. I mean like a wall! And him saying, ‘Who’ll see the ass-back of it, honey? Our mice?’ Christ’s birthday and he says ‘Who’ll see!?’ Please… don’t let me get started. Remind me, it’s Chrustmas, ‘s Chrustmas.”
Tree dealers spun their wares till, tapping her cane’s crook to window-glass, she indicated this year’s winner. Then she’d send Mac out with folding green, a thirty- percent tip. He served as both Grand’s gofer and ambassador abroad. A gardener promoted indoors, he was her age but still nimble and could drive at night. Mac Dancy’s hair meant cotton tufts like plugs in a hairbrush. Even indoors he wore his fedora with the same brown suit and vest. By now it and he had been worked the color of an Irish potato.
Though Mac and Grand addressed each other with stern formality, he acted half-amused at how ornery Perfectionism made her. And she? always silently respectful of his aristocratic wish to please her at all costs.
He’d spent two days helping her hang one picture when she admitted, “Times, I think you’ve got more sense than this whole family put together, Mac.” But that did nothing to advance his salary. Basically that was his salary.
Dad recalled when Grand was young she’d do their whole tree at high speed “going up and down it like a mountain goat.” Her five kids tried helping till Baby broke a bit of precious 19th century glass. Grand swore she’d done it half on-purpose; Grand banished family from the house, force-marched her husband and five kids downtown to eat a soda-shop lunch. “Do your last little shopping. But don’t consider returning till it’s night and you see this darn thing glowing. For one person, it’s an all-day job. With you seven underfoot? it’ll take me a month.”
You came in and stopped dead. It was eight feet of perfect. She hid her best ornaments deep inside its branches not simply along the zigzags of its evergreen. You were always looking both at the thing and into it. Big Momma did not just decorate her tree, she curated it.
Ornaments got stored, not in flimsy egg-crates, but old suitcases. Treasures she’d inherited were handmade by us and therefore priceless (to us, at least). Maiden aunts, during our starved-out Civil War, used hickory-nut heads to create four bleeding Confederate soldier-angels—gold-wire halos, white duck-feather wings.
The only colored lights Grand trusted were big as hand-grenades. Looked patented by Tom Edison. The green cording was fabric-wrapped. Connections were so crude if one bulb went, the entire tree shorted dark.
Her masterpiece did not blink or twinkle, thank you. Its colors blazed torch-steady multiplied by parlor mirrors, lemon-oiled mahogany. Grand stated: those people who use tiny all-white bulbs? are probably Republicans. “Simply shows they have absolutely nothing to say!” Around the room three daughters-in-law stiffened just before their kids did.
On Grand’s tree, foil ice-cycles draped each twig with German precision. Last, hovering over-all, a gauze of spun-sugar snow. Not even my baby cousins dared to touch. Dominating her rose-velvet parlor, its symmetry half-scared us.
The trees we left burning at our ranch-houses? either sticks or blobs. Kids tire quick of placing ice cycles back-to-front. “Allan, are you throwing ice-cycles at that tree again? Because, if you lack the patience to try making ours half as good as Big Mamma’s, I’d suggest you go right out and re-clip that holly hedge, young man. —Jesus Christ!”
My Mom and other daughters-in-law were better-educated if never so powerful as she. Oh, they admitted Grand’s tree was the prettiest in Nash OR Edgecombe counties. But young wives added: if that was all THEY had to do, they could probably match hers or beat it.
Mom again quizzed Dad: why did everybody do exactly what the ole battle-axe wanted?
“Because she’s usually right? Or will be. `Cause she never asks for anything. ‘Cause she doesn’t hold it against you if you argue with her. (Of course, she never forgets it, either.)”
For years, the proper compliment about her tree had run, “I don’t know how you do it!” But, given the way arthritis turned both hands to stepped-on forks, how did she? (My even asking this aloud would’ve been considered Mutiny!)
And yet, I needed to know. My tenth Christmas Eve Day, we heard she’d had all ornaments brought from her attic. Big Momma’d earlier banished her husband and the kitchen help, clearing premises for a full day’s decorative peace.
Kin said, “Lately it’s like Momma just wishes things onto that tree. After sixty years, ornaments sort of know where they go, I guess. —It’s kind of ma-gic.”
My grammar school stood just across the street from Big Momma’s house. That morning, I found myself climbing its jungle gym. Big Daddy had been sent off to a sad diner breakfast alone and I now sat watching. See, I’d started doubting Grand’s eighty years’ continuous power. Being ten myself, I was exactly smart and stupid enough to sneak over and investigate.
At precisely eight forty AM, Mac toted his ladder onto her front-porch. First he replaced an overhead lantern-bulb. Then, after propping her storm-door open, scanning left to right, Mac swooped his ladder inside.
What happens next is what might (or maybe should have). It’s what I lacked the nerve to risk discovering, though I wanted to. Those days, see, Grand’s high opinion of me mattered far too much. Just as our faith in her handiwork still meant the world to her. But, if I’d had courage enough to blunder in, I would’ve found this:
I dodge across the street, dart from oak to oak, tiptoe onto porch. Her front-door’s sidelights are clear beveled glass. And since I’m wearing my too-red toboggan, I yank that off then peer into her front parlor. It’s filled with painters’ drop-cloths, open suitcases. And there, at its center, her rolling blond throne. She sits pointing her cane, tilted forward, barking supervision. “I want a red one there. Said ‘red’. You’re slipping, Mac. You’re not helping me.”
Already up his ladder, wrestling with a green cord clacking bulbs, Mac squints, trying to gauge the colors of lights not yet plugged in. The horse knows the way and now I’m scared I finally know theirs.
How long has he done all this for her? Since she turned fifty? That means, let’s count, thirty years of our praising his artistry as hers. —And could Mac’s shovel-sized hands perform such annual brain-surgery? The veins on the backs of his look like those tar-squiggles mending asphalt. Palms inside are yellowed the split-ivory of old piano keys. —How could such mitts ever place (to her liking) two thousand separate white-person’s ice-cycles?
From where I peek, Mac disappears behind his tree. As I tip in for a better view, her front-door swooshes open. They both leap so. His ladder shakes. Wheelchair spins clear around with all Grand’s force. “Come in, you.”
I step forward, head hanging, braced for punishment, red cap clutched between knees.
Her voice is stern as if addressing an adult. “I should have known that, if one of mine would ever find us out, reckon it’d be you. (You and I are so alike, I pity you, son. ‘Pride goeth before a fall.’) But, now that you do know, what, ah…?”
Perched behind and above her, Mac is still protecting the person who has stolen all his credit all his years. Why? The ladder squeaks as his old head keeps shaking ‘No’, ‘No’.
She rolls three feet closer. Without lap-robe’s covering, I see two ruined hands. I see actual pin-curls in her hair. I see no face-powder today suedeing her worst wrinkles. I never knew the world took preparation. I’ve caught her totally undecorated.
At last, bending toward me, Grand asks for something.
“Don’t tell, child. —-Please, don’t tell them.”
“ Over the river and through the woods To Grandmother’s house I go, The horse knows the way To carry her sleigh, Through the bright and drifting Snow, ho!”