1936. December 24. 7:30 p.m.
If I wanted Doodles to sleep warm as buttered biscuits, I’d have to do some more quilt tucking.
I pressed it in good and tight all along her side and under her chin. There. Now she wouldn’t shiver in her sleep or roll off to the floor. It wouldn’t hurt her any if she did cause our mattress was only four inches of feathers and cloth and it was laid right on the floor just on top of an old blanket that had a few moth holes.
Doodles was eight years younger than me and my responsibility. Truth is, I was so glad to get another girl in this family, I didn’t mind doing anything for that skinny little baby. I had two older sisters, but they was already married.
I’d been stuck with seven brothers and me the only girl for miles around for so long, shoot, Doodles was like getting a tiny angel to take care of. Ole heaven sure waited a long time to give her to me, though, cause I’m nearly growed now. Ten years old next month, and that’s the truth.
I put my ear on top of the floor planks and tried like crazy to understand what the soft talking was saying in the room down below me. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t make out the words. Something was scooted here and yonder. Something big.
Yep. That’s the right sounds for shore. Same as every year. It meant mom and dad was getting things ready for us kids to have Christmas in the morning. My ole raccoon grin broke out so big on my face, you couldn’t have erased it with a mop!
I yelled straight into my squashy pillow until my eyes watered. I did that sometimes when I was excited and didn’t know what else to do. I got that over with and flipped on my back. I cracked every one of my fingers one at time. I learned how to do that from PeeWee—one of my brothers. Those boys was good for nothing at all, except learning me how to do things like fistfight and how to get in trouble. Only thing I was glad about was how Tadpole teached me how to spit acrost the room and make it land in a can. That was useful.
Shush now, I told myself. None of that mattered tonight. Not with the magic dust swirling all around me so hard my stomach felt like a jar full of cow cream about to turn into curdled butter.
Nothing no how could ever be as fun as Christmas at the Woodsons’ house, even if it wasn’t much more than a shack. It had us in it, didn’t it? That was enough, even if we was as poor as dirt and too dumb to stop laughing about it.
Us kids had to go to bed extra early on the night before Christmas so special things could happen. I didn’t know how Mom and Dad did anything special for us with us having just about no money in the world. I sure loved it when they did, though. Loved it more than running home barefooted the last day of school.
I stared into the dark with my hands folded over each other and whistled for a little while until those sweet banana pies Mom was making after breakfast tomorrow just rastled my mind down to the ground. She never made such a thing as that except on Christmas day. Those pies tasted so dang good, you felt rich as Solomon when you ate them. She made enough for us kids to have two whole slices if we cut them kinda skinny.
After them pies, she’d stir together the best thing anyone ever made—the Christmas cake! She’d take that pretty thing out of the stove with the marain icing sitting up on it like stiff snow. Shiny patches of melted red, green, and white candies sparkled from the top. Whoo-ee man! Us kids about lost our eyeballs right out of their sockets just looking at it. Wouldn’t have been surprising at all to see lots of kids’ eyes just rolling acrost that wood floor after Mom whisked her cake over to the griddle to cool down.
Thinking about it now almost made me throw up since I wanted a piece of it so bad. How could I ever fall asleep? Dang near stupid to try.
Next thing I knowed about is when one of them no-good brothers threw a pair of overalls on my head. I flung it off madder than a bee with three stingers and couldn’t believe it was light outside. Morning? I leaped off of that mattress and grabbed Doodles up tight and barreled down those creaky steps two at a time. I ran quick into the big room, which was anything but big but that’s what we called it anyway.
Had it happened? The magic?
The glow in my mom’s eyes was as loud as a hollered out bunch of words. I couldn’t hardly take my eyes off of hers, they was so bright. I put Doodles down and skipped around the room twice just to get my nerves out of me.
Can we? Can we look now? Huh?
Mom counted our heads to see if we was all there. After the last head, her usual serious face broke out in a smile bigger than the whole of Oklahoma. She stepped away from the iron-post bed where her and Dad, and sometimes a few young’uns, slept. I tell you, us kids scampered under that bed like rabbits running from a pack of slobbery hound dogs! When we came back out, we was holding on to one of Dad’s long grey and white wintertime socks. Those socks looked like they got the mumps, they was so full. Doodles laughed right out loud at us holding our fat socks in both our arms like someone would steal them.
We clawed them open and dumped everything out in our own special spots. Hazelnuts, walnuts, Brazil nuts and pecans poured out first. Then came an apple and an orange. My mouth went dry to bite into that shiny red apple, so I did and ate it all up. That was all the winter fruit we’d ever get, so us kids always gobbled it up quicker than you could say shut up.
The bottom of our socks sagged with every kind of hard candy. Oh, them colors and shapes just made us nutty. Some of the candies was square with dimples all in them. Other kinds was round with flat ends and little drawings like Christmas trees and holly inside. Best of all was the big hunks of folded over ribbon candy. That was our mom’s favorite, too.
I finished eating my orange and was looking for a dishrag to wipe my hands on when my brother Bear threw a orange peeling at the side of my face. My hands turned into fists, but then something kind of strange took me over and dusted the mad feeling right off me. I just felt like smiling at him instead. I tossed him a piece of my own candy. He looked plenty surprised, I’ll tell you that for sure.
After a breakfast of Mom’s special red-hot pork sausage, eggs, biscuits, gravy and sorghum, we started in eating our candy. Only time all year we’d get any. We sounded like hogs rooting and grunting at feeding time, except for the sound of cracking candies with our teeth.
Mom made two of those no-account boys help me with all them stacks of dishes. Most the time, I had to do it all by myself and I hated it. While we worked, we had a contest to see who could put the most ribbon candy in their mouths.
I don’t know who won cause we sucked and slurped on it with our mouths gapped open and our eyes bugging out just like a dog when you pulled his ears way back. After a while, we busted out laughing and about choked to death on candy juice.
Dad said, “Hey,” at us in a low, gruff voice. We knew that meant stop right now or get your rear ends whooped, so we hid and did it one more time.
After making them banana pies, Mom got out a hammer and put a big peppermint stick and some of them ribbon candies inside a dishtowel. We all gathered around her to watch. Every time she swung that hammer in the air and brung it down to crush the candy, we made saucer eyes at each other. I can’t swear if it’s true or not, but I think God Himself must have gave my mom that recipe for the Christmas cake.
I mean, why not?
Don’t you think He’d want a Christmas cake like that for His son’s birthday? I shore do!
*From the novel, Biddy—based on the life and times of Jodi Lea Stewart’s maternal grandparents and her ten aunts and uncles. Look for it in 2013/2014. /Photography: Elizabeth Cerza
Want the recipe for Grandma’s Christmas Cake? Look in Chuckwagons & Campfires.
What holiday stories and recipes have been passed down in your family? Have you made any of them your own traditions?
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