Rick Bragg Remembers the Christmas Eve With His Late Uncle Ed
A long-overdue thank-you to the hardest-working man I ever knew.
I waited too late to thank Uncle Ed for that Christmas Eve, but I guess he and I were never the kind of men who wrote many notes, or read them. Even around Christmas, when a little silliness and frivolity is easier to tolerate, men of a certain time, place, and class are unlikely to have anything to do with a thank-you card. We would just as soon go caroling in a light-up sweater or sashay around with a sprig of mistletoe dangling over our heads. Southern men like us tend to keep the holiday our way and let others keep it theirs.
Still, some Christmases are kept better than others. Some flash in and out of our memories, like a short in an old string of lights.
For me, it will always be 1969 that blinks back into my mind this time of year, season after holiday season. That was when I first read Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol and saw it come to life, in a way, in the mist-shrouded mountains of northeastern Alabama. That was the year Uncle Ed and I drove away from Christmas Eve in a GMC pickup, with chain saws and toolboxes in the floorboard, and I was so very afraid (the way a little boy gets) that we would miss the celebration altogether. I feared it would pass us by before we rattled back into the driveway in that old truck. Christmas might be sacred here in these hills. Christmas Eve, though, was just a day the slackers used to lay out, and that was what had me so worried.
Uncle Ed and I never really talked about it, but that holiday was more than just a day to me. It was, like Dickens wrote, a kind of antidote to a sometimes bitter life. Even though I might be a little stiff about it, a little restrained in my merriment, I have loved Christmas all my life, loved to just, well, look on it more than anything else. I did not have to celebrate wildly; I simply wanted to watch it being celebrated, and this was how I belonged to it, in it, somehow. A lot of storytellers, especially old newspapermen, are this way.
As a boy, I loved the smell of a drugstore (the scent of chocolate-covered cherries) and the grocery store, where frozen turkeys and smoked hams piled up like cannonballs. There was, and is, a beautiful kind of sturdiness to it here, mirroring the people. Even our strings of Christmas lights endured for generations, till the paint had flecked half away from the thick bulbs. Trees were real and came from these mountains, usually cedars and hardy pines. Our mistletoe was procured the old-fashioned way, by blasting it out of the trees with a Remington. The ornaments were mostly handmade and almost always crafted from twice-used aluminum foil. The star that crowned a tree in December was probably left over from wrapping a tomato sandwich the summer before.
This was my Christmas. It was simple, never fancy, but there was in it a wonderful warmth. Uncle Ed's wife, my Aunt Juanita, filled the whole house with the smell of her peanut butter cookies. Even the desserts were substantial; no sissy divinity candy would be tolerated here. My mama baked pecan pies that were so dense you asked not for a slice but a slab. Paper plates buckled under the weight. My Aunt Joe made cornbread dressing you could eat with a fork, like cake.
But even this sturdy a Christmas was too delicate for Uncle Ed, the hardest-working man I had ever known. He was raised to be that way. His daddy died on a bulldozer, I believe. He thought there was just something wrong about taking time off in the middle of the week—time you could have spent running a chain saw or on the end of a shovel handle or in the seat of your own big yellow bulldozer. Why, a man with a dozer could do the work of 10,000—in half a day. He could move a mountain, which was a puny thing to a guy who had the levers of a rumbling, clanking International in his rough hands and a Winston in his lips.
I remember that he always started early and kept going late, well after the winter dark. And Christmas Eve was a workday like any other—just another mountain to move. I was 10 years old that year, just idling around the house and yard, humming (but not singing) holiday songs, glad to be alive in the glow and heat of those ancient Christmas bulbs. I seem to remember that I was prowling through the wrapped presents under the tree, trying, with my X-ray eyes, to peer beneath the paper of a gift that looked suspiciously like a G.I. Joe, when he asked me if I wanted to ride to Gadsden with him to look at a used dump truck.
Any other time, I would have knocked the furniture over getting out to his pickup. Country kids never miss a chance to go to town, to go anywhere. But this was the day before Christmas, just hours before all our kin gathered here for a big feast. This year it was a deer roast as big as a buffalo—and a present exchange. Someone might bring a guitar or a French harp and even be brave enough to sing. In the meantime, there were cookies and maybe fudge to steal, aunts to irritate, and black-and-white reruns (our Ghosts of Christmas Past) to rewatch on channels 6, 40, and 13. Then at five o'clock, the weatherman would show us precisely where on his radar Santa Claus was in relation to Calhoun County, Alabama. We believed in every bit of it.
I would miss it all if I went with him, maybe the whole Christmas. Once he got started on a job, even if it was just a search for a truck, he would hang with it till it was done. Surely it could wait.
"You want to go or not?" he asked.
I had no spine. "I reckon," I said.
It was one of those winter days in the Deep South that was almost black by afternoon so thick was the mist. The low-lying clouds were cold gray. It seemed like the heater in the old GMC would never warm up, and we were halfway to Gadsden before my toes began to thaw. Parts of the city, an industrial town on the Coosa River, would be brightly lit, and shoppers would throng the downtown. Even Goodyear, even the steel plants, would knock off early on Christmas Eve and join that celebration. But we steered away from the lights and headed into the graveyards of old machines that have been part of such cities since the start of the Industrial Revolution. We found, I was dismayed to see, a few million used dump trucks.
Then, in a Christmas miracle, he gazed down at his Timex and said we had bigger fish to fry. Looking at that truck was just an excuse, a ruse. We went to celebrate Christmas like men.
First, we headed to the day-old bread outlet and pretty much filled up the truck with fruitcakes, cinnamon buns, and doughnuts. Next, with powdered sugar on our lips, we turned down Broad Street and idled through the decked-out heart of the city on its most festive day. The storefronts were lit up, glowing, crowded with last-minute shoppers—daddies rolling new bicycles and mamas staggering under big boxes. Santa Claus stood ringing a bell on a corner like it was goin' out of style. I saw him again in the music store, strumming a guitar, and again in what I think was the Western Auto or maybe the Otasco, with children on his knee. I asked Uncle Ed which one of them was the real Santy, and he just took a draw on his Winston and told me it was "prob'ly that fust 'un."
WATCH: Rick Bragg's Christmas Memories
Then we turned south toward the Big Chief Drive In, which had one of the finest hamburgers in northeast Alabama. We got two cheeseburgers each and a pile of fries that burned my fingers. It was too early for supper and way past dinnertime, but when you're celebrating, you can ignore such as that. I couldn't recall ever eating anything before it was time. We ate in the truck and savored it all, listening to the radio. I don't remember much being said but just hearing the song about the drummer boy and the one about the 12 days. Then he looked at his watch again and said, "The women will be purty riled if we don't git home." But we took our time going back, too, admiring holiday lights, taking the longest way. And before the Christmas Eve celebration had even begun there on Roy Webb Road, we'd celebrated all up and down Gadsden, Alabama, and the north half of Calhoun County. It was as good a Christmas as I would have for a very long time.
I should have told him this when he was alive, but things get awkward the longer you live. So, even though it's too late now, I want to thank him for it, for letting me come along.
"And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well…"
Some may hear those words of Dickens and think of fine literature. But I see Uncle Ed in the glow of an AM radio, smell french fries and Winstons, and hear the ticking of an old Timex that, in the most beautiful way, didn't mean a thing that day.