A Christmas That Possibly Saved Our Souls
My parents were products of their time and geography. They were raised in small towns in Northern Appalachia.
The sideways, stinging rain you feel when the thermometer hangs in the upper 30s and chills you as soon as you step into the bleak grayness.
Jim Crow didn’t exist in cold reaches they called home. They knew people of color from around town and at school, although. The number of black people living in Northwestern Pennsylvania and rural Southwestern New York State were small.
Black families from the south moving north gravitated to cities. In small towns they socialized on the streets with white neighbors but didn’t visit each other at home unless there was work on the farm or need of a handyman. My old man’s maternal grandparents lived in a small town called Friendship, which I don’t recall as being very friendly. The family name was Kuhn. After the war the family sold the large house to a black family.
Legend is the head of the new household went to the lumber mill for some wood. The clerk asked where he wanted it delivered. “10 Factory Street,” was his reply. “Oh, the Kuhn house,” said the clerk. The new homeowner, used to being called names from a part of the country where he was raised misunderstood and stormed out of the mill never to return.
My parents wouldn’t be described as racists or prejudiced but were like many of their contemporaries. They were uncomfortable outside their tribe.
After the Army was integrated there were two black men in my dad’s company. One he disliked. Especially after he said his fellow soldier attempted to steal his wallet. William the elder pulled a shovel hidden beneath his bunk and cracked the guy over the head. Dad would remain suspicious of black people for a very long time. Even while working alongside them in a variety of jobs.
Mom liked to tell ethnic jokes. About all people no matter their ancestry. Today these would be politically incorrect. Though, I can say probably not at the diner she used to frequent. Small towns change slowly.
Christmas was a wonderful time in my house when I was young. A big tree and extended family and while we were working class people I never suffered from want. Eventually my father landed a job with status and a good wage and the summer before I turned 12 he answered a question burning within his 3 children. We dreamed of seeing Disneyworld. He promised if we foreswore Christmas presents we could go to Florida during Christmas break.
We also had to earn money to pay for the trip. My brother was two years younger and my sister was one year older. For the next few months we found odd jobs around the neighborhood and saved.
Then the family piled into a Dodge Charger and headed south. With stops in Nashville and Huntsville and eventually a large motel room in Clearwater, Florida. Which my dad found as we drove slowly looking for vacancy signs (he didn’t make reservations in advance). I remember being at Disneyworld on Christmas Day and the long lines made it a less than thrilling adventure. Pretty much the same the next day at Busch Gardens.
What I really enjoyed was the rest of the week at the motel. Kids from the frozen north splashing in a warm outdoor pool. We made some friends among the Canadian snowbirds. There were a lot of families from even colder climates. And we spent a day swimming in the Gulf of Mexico.
Sadly, it all ended and we headed for home. It’s when the Charger started having serious hiccups. A new car and suddenly it became a brick on a road somewhere along the Virginia/North Carolina line. Rain was falling. The sideways, stinging rain you feel when the thermometer hangs in the upper 30s and chills you as soon as you step into the bleak grayness. The old man was a big fellow. Almost 6 and a half feet tall. He could fix anything. He had repaired tanks and Jeeps and later found work as a millwright.
As he struggled under the hood and against the rain a car pulled up from behind. A black man standing roughly 6’10” emerged and asked if he could help. They diagnosed the problem. Mr. Myers, the stranger, explained he knew where they could get parts. They left and we waited in the car as it grew colder and the rain pelted the paint and windows.
Forty minutes later Mr. Myers car arrived. They spent what seemed like another 40 minutes working in the rain. When they finished, the lanky black man refused money for his effort. He simply said he knew how important it was to get kids home safely.
We know nothing of the man aside from his kindness. Just a stranger intersecting along a cold highway at Christmas. My parents weren’t perfect people. They both struggled with demons. Their entire lives and, yet. There was a change in my father after his meeting with Mr. Myers. Dad seemed to suddenly have an easier rapport with members from other tribes.
There were other memorable Christmases. Four years later more than 3 feet of snow dropped overnight before sunrise. My brother and I spent a good part of the day shoveling a long driveway and then sipped hot chocolate. After high school and college I went home for Christmas every year until 2006. Dad died during the spring of ’96 and mom in the fall of 2005. Three months later I went home and was joined one last time by my siblings and our children. It was the last time we would all be together as a generation. My brother worked and traveled the world and five years later came home one last time terminally ill. He didn’t survive until Christmas Day.
Many of us are no longer surrounded by large or extended families. I prefer to spend the holiday alone if I’m not traveling. Alone with memories of loved ones and lessons learned.