My Favorite Christmas Memories

My Favorite Christmas – Sue Ora Salter, Publisher, The Mossy Creek Gazette

The artificial tree was trimmed, decorated with mermaid-shaped lights and silver pipe cleaners bent in the shape of stars. I sat back and studied my work. I was poor, young, living far from home, and struggling to support myself and my son, Willie, as a reporter for the San Francisco Village Crier. I was beginning to understand that I might need to rely on my wealthy, estranged husband, John Bigelow, for a while. In other words, the more I looked at the tree the more I realized how much I secretly missed John and how much I missed Christmas in Mossy Creek.

A Mossy Creek tree would give off the crisp odor of pine and freshly turned earth. We Salters had a tradition of digging up a wild mountain tree every December then replanting it after the arrival of a new year. My great aunt, Livvy Salter, said that the earth gave and the earth took away. For her, the earth was Mossy Creek.

Willie looked up at our pitiful plastic tree and began to whimper. Logically, I knew he just needed changing, but to me it was clearly a sign. We needed to go home.

The next morning, I gave my furniture and cooking supplies to my starving- artist neighbors, loaded my car and headed east. It was almost midnight on Christmas Eve when I pulled into the driveway of my old house in Mossy Creek. I'd told Aunt Livvy to rent it out, but she never had. When I saw Christmas lights in the front windows, my heart sank. Aunt Livvy must have finally found some tenants, but hadn't had the heart to tell me.

Carrying Willie, I climbed the steps, tried the door and found it unlocked. That surprised me. Cautiously, I pushed it open and walked inside. "Hello? Anyone home? I'm your landlord, Sue Ora. Hello?”

No one answered. I heard soft music. I'll Be Home for Christmas. I was drawn into the parlor by the glow of lights. Willie immediately struggled to get down. "Yites. Yites,” he said, then slid down my side and headed for the biggest real Christmas tree I'd seen in a long time. I drew in a deep, crisp breath of pine and felt tears well up in my eyes.

"Who's here?” I whispered.

That's when a figure left the shadows and walked toward me. "Welcome home, Suzy.”

It was my husband, John.

"How'd you know I was coming?”

"I didn't. But this is the season for miracles. I just hoped.”

I'd left him, our home and our fledgling marriage to prove that I could be a successful writer. I'd told him I wasn't cut out to be the wife of an elegant young banker whose family lorded it over everyone in the county, including me. Yet, although I'd survived out in California, I couldn't stop loving John. As I looked at Willie, staring in wonder at the rich, living tree his father had gotten for him, I knew that Christmas was for loving, and tonight, I needed to celebrate that love. I stepped forward and leaned against John's chest. It felt right.

"You know this doesn't mean I'm going back to being Mrs. Bigelow.”

"You can go by any name you like,” John whispered. "As long as you're still my wife. I'm willing to wait until you know it, too.”

I can't say John and I reconciled every problem between us that night. Eight years have passed since then, and we're still working on our issues. But every Christmas, we dig up a huge tree and decorate it together. We dote on our son, and we love each other, even though John lives down in Bigelow, while Willie and I remain in Mossy Creek.

We've never forgotten our Christmas homecoming. Because of it, we're still married.

And our happiness is the biggest open secret in Mossy Creek.

My Favorite Christmas – Win Allen, aka "Bubba Rice,” owner/chef of Bubba Rice Lunch and Catering

Most people at our family reunion could throw a rock and hit a sibling. Except me. I'm an only son. My mother didn't like that. She worried about my missing out on all the poking, pinching, smacking, fighting, screaming that were so popular among the sibling set at every reunion. She wasn't worried enough to give me a brother or a sister (babies weren't her cup of tea), but she did make sure I had a pseudo-sibling--my older cousin Lynn.

Lynn came with us on every vacation so I could whine about her touching my toys and breathing my air. She was a girlie-girl and thought her stuffed animals were way better than action figures. She babysat and tortured me. If there was a body of water anywhere close I could count on ending up in it—courtesy of Lynn.

But she also listened. She made sure they brought Bear to the hospital when I broke my leg at six. (Bear was an exceptional stuffed animal and Lynn had a special one of her own. She understood.) She never told anyone when I broke the Yorktown during a vacation. (It wasn't my fault. Really.)

We'd been through a lot over the years, but the worst thing she ever did to me was just about die on Christmas Eve. Momma called from the hospital and said Lynn had been in an accident. A bad one. Lynn was thrown from a car. And, no, I couldn't come to the hospital yet.

Like that was going to keep me away from my sister? I had a learner's permit and a car sitting in the driveway. It wouldn't be the first time Lynn got me grounded. It took a while to get there. I had a stop to make.

I blew into the intensive care waiting room, terrified that something awful had happened before I got there. Momma turned ‘round. I could see her warming up her anger, and then she saw Lynn's bear.

"I'm sorry, Momma. But all I could think about was that Lynn needed her bear.”

Momma cried. I didn't get grounded. Lynn lived. So, it was the best and worst Christmas so far.

My Favorite Christmas – Jayne Austin Reynolds, owner, The Naked Bean Coffee Shop

It was Matthew's first Christmas. He was only about six months old, and I knew he couldn't understand the concept of Christmas yet, much less the concept of his father's death. Matt, Sr. had died not long after we found out I was pregnant. Matthew had never known him, never felt his father's hands holding him.

So I knew little Matthew would have a perfectly happy First Christmas without his father, but I knew I would not.

I tried everything to overcome my depression. I decorated the coffee shop and my small apartment above the shop with so much Christmas finery that people came by to gawk and take pictures. I even put a jingle bell and a small red bow on Emma's collar. Most cats wouldn't tolerate that, but Emma merrily swished her jingling, calico self next door to Ingrid's bakery and slapped Bob silly. She seemed to be saying, Look at me, you stupid Chihuahua. I'm so jingly and beautiful.

As usual, Bob wet himself in terror.

Ingrid knew I was depressed and went out of her way to fulfill her role as my surrogate mother and Matthew's doting, surrogate grandmother. She hauled Matthew and me to every yuletide party in Mossy Creek. She bought armloads of toys to go under my Christmas tree. She and Ida kidnapped me for an entire day of pampering at Moonheart Spa, which Maggie Hart and her new husband, Tag Garner, opened that fall.

My pals, Josie McClure Rutherford and Argie Rodriguez, got in on the "Cheer Jayne Up” mission, too, organizing a Christmas-week field trip for our Latin dance club (The Mossy Creek Tango Queens.) We tangoed our rumba's off at a club down in Atlanta. Josie and Argie even tried to hook me up with a handsome Brazilian dancer, a great guy, but he turned out to be gay.

Virtually every man, woman and child in Mossy Creek tried to make me forget that my husband wouldn't be there with Matt Jr. and me, on Christmas morning. It didn't work.

"I can't give my son his father,” I told Ingrid, and broke down in tears. "That's the one gift I'll never be able to give him for Christmas.”

"Come to my house,” Ingrid ordered. "You and Matthew aren't spending Christmas day alone in your apartment. No argument.”

I was too depressed to argue. We loaded all the toys and went to Ingrid's big Victorian just outside town.

On Christmas morning I dutifully set Matthew on the floor in front of Ingrid's Christmas tree. Ingrid stayed quietly to one side, letting us have the moment. Matthew gurgled and smiled and squealed as I unwrapped each toy and showed it to him. At six months, color and motion are the best toys a baby can get.

The whole time, I struggled not to cry. I missed my husband more with every toy I opened, alone. After I unwrapped the last one, I sat down on the floor with Matthew in my lap, and wiped tears away. He watched me worriedly as he chewed a rubber rhinoceros from his Happy Baby See And Speak Zoo.

Suddenly, a cavalcade of heavy footsteps thudded on Ingrid's front veranda. Her doorbell rang. A small army of tall, brawny shapes crowded close to the front door's stained glass.

"Why, who could that be?” Ingrid said coyly.

When she opened the door, a herd of grinning men tromped inside. There were at least a dozen, including Amos Royden, Win Allen, Dan McNeil, Hank Blackshear, Mac Campbell, Mutt and Boo Bottoms, Wolfman Washington, Nail Delgado, and Ed Brady. Young, old, black, white, married, single – it was a smorgasbord of Mossy Creek manhood.

"We're here to induct little Matthew into the Mossy Creek Man Club,” Mac announced.

Matthew and I gazed up at the group in silent awe. "What's that?” I finally asked.

I got a chorus of, "Oh, it's to celebrate guy stuff,” and, "We're not sure, yet,” and, "A man's gotta scratch where it itches.”

Amos held up a hand for silence. "Jayne, we know we're no substitute for Matthew's father. But we want you to know that Matthew can count on us to be there for him when he needs a man's advice. So, in honor of his first Christmas, we've brought him some gifts. The kind of things we think his father would want him to have.”

One by one, each man laid a gift in the floor at Matthew's tiny feet.

Amos: A toy police car.

Mac: A pair of ugly, plaid, boxer shorts.

Win: A chef's apron with the slogan, "Women Cook. Men Grill.”

Dan: A set of wrenches.

Hank: A device the size of a small remote control, emblazoned with a logo of a cartoon skunk holding its nose. Ingrid groaned. "You gave this child a fart machine.” To which Hank replied, "Every boy should have one.”

Mutt and Boo: A set of DVD's. John Wayne Kicks Butt – The Duke's Classic War Movies.

Wolfman: An Atlanta Falcons jersey.

Nail: A rub-on "Born To Ride Harleys” tattoo. "Trust me,” Nail said. "It's a babe magnet.”

Ed: A can of chewing tobacco. "Oh, I know it ain't politically correct,” the old fellow said, "but every boy needs to learn to spit.”

I stared at the strange pile of gifts. Matthew went "Dah!” and lunged into the mountain of manly things, chortling, patting the football jersey, grabbing the toy police car, and gnawing one corner of the Duke's boxed DVD's. He hit Hank's gift with his tiny elbow, and it emitted a grotesque sound that, yes, only needed an odor to be a perfect mimic of the real thing.

The brigade of foster daddies burst into guffaws. "That's our boy!” Dan proclaimed.

Suddenly, I began to smile. Inside my heart, Matt's laugh joined the laughter of these good men who had pledged to be surrogate fathers to our son.

Matt wasn't gone, he lived in that laughter. He had sent a Christmas gift to Matthew, and to me. The gift of friends.

My Favorite Christmas Memory – Josie McClure Rutherford, Interior Decorator

The day dawned clear. As I walked out of my cabin, the cold nipped at my face. There was no snow on the ground, but the air held that peculiar kind of crispness where you thought your breath would snap into pieces. I'd only been on my mountaintop four months. I hadn't visited what I called the real world in all that time. Had only seen one human being, a hunter striding across a clearing two mountains over from the point where I stood. I relished my aloneness. Wallowed in it. There was no one to look at my scarred face in pity or in horror.

I set out that day as I normally did, to check the instruments I'd set up on the surrounding mountains for my research. I didn't even realize it was December 25 until the moment I saw her.

It was mid-afternoon. The sun had warmed the day enough that I'd shed my outer coat as I walked across Sweet Gum Hollow. Or Holler, as the locals would say. I wasn't being particularly quiet, my mind on my instrument readings, so I was glad that I heard her before I saw her.

Faint strands of "Silent Night” yanked me out of my reverie and stopped me in my tracks. Panic stabbed through me at the sudden, unwelcome possibility of human contact. That was quickly followed by anger at having my solitude disturbed, then finally curiosity. Who'd ventured this far up on the mountain? And why?

Assuming the stealthy tracking skills of the mountain lion I'd become, I crept toward the sound. A few moments later, I peered around a tree to see a young woman in a small mountain meadow, tying red bows to the boughs of a six foot high Blue Spruce.

My jaw dropped. What kind of fruitcake would decorate a Christmas tree several miles from the nearest pair of human eyes?

I watched amazed through several traditional carols and a couple of hymns as the twentyish, slim, stylishly dressed woman concentrated on her task. She didn't seem crazy. She seemed as comfortable and happy in her solitude as I was in mine. I knew as surely as I knew that water nourished trees, that decorating that tree was a labor of love. Since she didn't know there was anyone around, her love had to be for the mountains.

An odd sensation seeped into me as I watched. By the time she finished, as dusk just began to wash away the vivid blue sky, I felt a hunger I hadn't felt in a number of years. Hunger to touch the smooth, perfect skin of another person. I didn't even know her name, but I craved the passion I felt flowing into the air around her.

On that Christmas Day, I was given the greatest gift I'd ever received. Love that went soul-deep. I had no reason to think that I would ever see her again, but it didn't matter. She became part of me that day. My mountain goddess. My Josie.