It's a shame I only remember one Christmas with my grandfather Robert Luther Simmons, called Luke by his friends and Pop by his children and grandchildren. By all accounts of my cousins who lived in Atlanta and got to spend all year with him, Christmas was the top, the pinnacle, the one time our dour grandfather kicked up his heels a little when it came to money.
A boy who was raised tough during even tougher times, his life was mostly defined by hardship. A newspaper pressman for The Atlanta Journal, he had to get five children—his four plus a nephew—through the Great Depression with at least something in their bellies. He was, by all accounts, a gruff man.
But once he was a grandfather and some prosperity returned in the 1950s and 1960s, he made Christmas his festival. He strung electrical cords through the yard of the house on Chamblee Tucker Road where he lived with my grandmother, lighting up a whole set of those hollow-plastic Christmas symbols—giant candles, snowmen, a sleigh.
Inside the house, his Christmas tree included bubble lights and a train that wound its way around mounds of the fake cotton snow that people used to call angel hair, far more of the white stuff than the state of Georgia actually saw in a winter.
For the finishing touch, he would grab the Sears, Roebuck, and Co. catalog, the dark ages equivalent of clicking on Amazon. That fat book had everything—shoes, clothes, toys, and a candy section. Pop would call and order all the candy. Enough to cover the whole end of my grandmother's dining table.
For a small child who saw that table at eye level, it was a wonderland: striped ripples of ribbon candy; bonbons with coconut centers; sweet, waxy chocolates; circus peanuts; candied orange slices. Today, my older cousins insist that it wasn't particularly good candy, but I don't think that was the point. I think all that candy was a statement, piles of possibility that proved he could—finally—provide.
I saw that table at eye level only once. We usually never left our home in North Carolina at Christmas, but the year I was 5, Pop's health was failing. Just before the holiday, we made the trip to Atlanta for a short visit. I saw it all, the things my cousins and older siblings have described ever since: the illuminated yard, the train-circled tree, and the candy-covered table.
On Sunday night, the last night of our visit, Pop announced he was going out to pick up cigars, and I was sent with him. It was the only time I remember being alone with my grandfather. I was, to put it mildly, terrified. I stayed silent as we drove through the dark streets to a drugstore where light-up reindeer were dancing over the roof.
Inside the store, he picked out his cigars, and then he looked down at me. "You look like a little girl who could use some candy," he said gruffly. And then he did something that my brief experience in life hadn't taught me how to handle.
He took me to the candy section. Not the gum and candy bar rack by the checkout counter. No, we went to the grown-up candy, the shelves filled with boxes of Whitman's Sampler treats, bridge mix, and chocolate-covered cherries. The serious stuff.
He told me to pick out something. I froze. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before. I tried to think of what my mother would want me to do. I was a kid raised by parents who were raised in the Depression. The first polysyllabic word I was taught was "expensive," always preceded by "too." Any request for something out of the ordinary was always answered by those words: "Too expensive."
So I did what I thought my mother would want me to do. I whispered, regretfully, "No, thank you."
Pop glared at me. He picked out a box of peanut brittle, peanut brittle I would have given my right thumb, the good sucking thumb, to have. He held it out and told me to take it. Again, I said what I thought my mother would want me to say: "No, thank you, sir."
I was proud of myself. I thought I had passed the test. But he seemed angry. He shoved the peanut brittle back on the shelf, marched me to the checkout counter and paid for his cigars. We left, candyless.
Back at his house, he stopped by the dim room where my mother and grandmother were watching TV. "You need to put this child to bed, Bev," he growled at my mother. "She's sick. She doesn't even want candy." And he stomped off.
It was years before I understood why my grandfather was so angry that night. He was the one who was sick, with a bad heart. Cancer, probably caused by lead-based printers' ink, was eating away at him. He would live only a year or two longer. He probably already knew he wouldn't have many chances to make an impression on this particular grandchild, a small girl he saw only once or twice a year.
Why didn't he buy it anyway? I think he needed me to ask for it, to show that I wanted it. That's how Santa operates, isn't it? He brings what you ask. But you have to face down the fear of climbing up on the big lap of a man you see only once a year and admit that you want something from him.
For the 50 years since my grandfather died, I have thought about that peanut brittle. And I have wished that I could go back and change my answer.
"You bet, Pop! I'd love some peanut brittle. And throw in a box of those chocolate-covered cherries too. Merry Christmas."