Meredith Baker: The Gift (memoir)

Southern Legitimacy Statement: I am from Orangeburg, SC and once fell off the open tailgate of a pickup truck because I was standing up when my uncle took off. We were looking for my cousin Mary Ann’s pet cow, Lady Byrd, that had run off.

The Gift

“But I don’t want Christmas to be different this year! Why isn’t everyone going to be there?  It isn’t fair!”
in my world, Christmas at my grandparents’ farm was the very reason for “merry” in the phrase Merry Christmas. I looked forward to that family chaos of cousins, food, and stories for 364 days. Our lack of gathering this year contrasted starkly with our usual festive tradition. I had to face it; my favorite holiday had been hijacked. Granddaddy was sick. He’d suffered a stroke a couple of months earlier, and only a husk of the larger-than-life man I loved remained. Even if everyone still came to the farm, this Christmas was going to be different.

The destruction in Granddaddy’s brain had left him completely dependant. He couldn’t break cracked plates in two with his bare hands at the dinner table, plow long straight rows on his favorite John Deere tractor, or even pet his beloved Beagle, Bill anymore.  Just as bad, or maybe worse, he couldn’t direct life around him with his usual stream of orders. Now he just made garbled nonsense sounds. From my adult perspective, I feel certain he wished the stroke had killed him instead of making him like a baby again. Even as a young child, I sensed the old man’s frustration. Another casualty was my used-to-be-jolly grandmother who had been forced to take on the role of caregiver. Her fatigue was palpable.

This Christmas, all my relatives: aunts, uncles, and a dozen cousins had made a conscious decision to spend their holiday with “the other side” of their perspective families. How could they do this! My only-child heart broke selfishly over the knowledge that no one else was coming to the farm. Looking back on it, I doubt if Granddaddy knew it was Christmas.  He probably thought my parents and I were just making a routine visit.  It comforts me to know that he could not comprehend the slight.

While my mom and dad unloaded the scaled-down version of Christmas dinner my mother had prepared, I rushed into the white clapboard farmhouse looking for a big Grandmamma hug to provide some remnant of the pleasure of Christmas past.  She met me with open arms, as glad to embrace me as I was to be held.  After the less than traditional holiday feast – I missed the Japanese fruitcake, but not the oyster pie – I was given the opportunity to make all the Creepy Crawlers I wanted!

This was the 1960s, before toy safety overshadowed toy fun, and I delighted at the prospect of being left alone to create – unsupervised.  My oven, tins, and various shades of Gobbledy Goop covered the card table set up just for me in the corner of my grandparents’ bedroom.  Grandmamma elevated Granddaddy’s bed, so he could see me better.  A few months ago, an afternoon spent watching a small child fill molds and bake plastic bugs would have bored the old man, but today it seemed to entertain him.

The room my grandparents shared no longer held the springy antique bed of my memory.  In its place sat a silver replacement that looked cold, uninviting, and more than a bit ominous.  At one end of the room I “worked” while Granddaddy watched my “show”.  All afternoon I poured and cooked colorful creatures.  When a batch cooled, I carefully selected the most interesting specimens and spread them out on a paper plate. Balancing my makeshift tray carefully on my upturned palm, I padded over the squeaky wooden floor on youthful feet to show my designs to the broken man.

I manufactured industriously while my parents and grandmother whispered in the adjoining room. As they discussed grownup concerns, I contemplated. I wonder what Granddaddy is thinking about?  With wisdom of fifty years, I imagine he was realizing that he would not see me grow up.  That his life was ending just as mine was beginning.  Back then my young mind wondered if Granddaddy was afraid to die and if he liked my creations. My flimsy plastic bugs turned out to be the last tangible gift I gave my grandfather. Three days later, he passed away in that familiar room in a rented bed.

As I reflect on sharing that afternoon with Granddaddy, I understand that I received the real gift that day – the opportunity to slow down and spend time with a loved one and to recognize that that is more than enough. This encounter taught me to treasure gift-moments like this one and to seize each one with gusto.  Thanks, Granddaddy!