A Country Christmas Tale
“Rise and shine, Terry”, it was Grandpa’s voice as he gently shook me to wake me from the November night’s sleep. It was early, about 6:30, but he liked to get out early when he made his rounds throughout the county. Grandpa was the Justice of Peace for Cannon County and he had a lot of friends who he liked to visit every so often. Being his oldest Grandson, I enjoyed riding in his truck with him and listening to the men visit and talk politics. This was one morning Grandma wouldn’t have to fix breakfast since Grandpa and I would stop at Burnett’s Cafe. Burnett’s was a cozy little place with a bar with stools and a few tables scattered around with the red-checkered table clothes. It always smelled of ham and bacon in the morning and Mrs. Burnett could definitely fry up some good food.
Grandpa always ordered a cup of coffee to start things off but I didn’t even try to talk him into one for me since Gramma told me coffee was for adults and kids needed milk and juice. This cold morning Grandpa had eggs and hash browns while I ordered my standard pancakes with maple syrup and a large milk. He visited a bit with some of the farmers as we ate and then we went to the Co-op where he bought some corn for the chickens and I looked at the seed and hardware of metal and leather that farmers used. Being from the city, I truly enjoyed the occasional visit to my Grandparents and the country and all things associated with the lifestyle out here. Then we headed out to visit relatives and friends all around the hills and valleys that made this part of the country so beautiful. We would cross old bridges over clear streams and pass by little churches with quaint cemeteries that had not changed in decades. We would stop and Grandpa would catch up on the latest news of how folks were doing. Some of them did not have telephones and most did not have tv since reception was poor this far out. It was good to listen as they talked and I got some special attention being twelve years old and they would rub me on the head and say I looked just like my Daddy. Sometimes we would go see their cattle or horses and sometimes sit in their living room visiting by the wood stove. This was a special day for me as it was my birthday and each visit Grandpa would tell them and they would wish me a happy birthday and some of the women gave me cookies.
Gramma and Grandpa had a good life but money was always used for practical things and so I knew not to expect anything most kids usually wanted as a gift but I did not mind. My Grandfolk’s were so loving and giving in character that I was proud to have them and knew I was lucky. As long as I can remember I always asked to spend the night at their house for my birthday so my mother would drive the two hours the afternoon before and drop me off. And Grandpa would always save his country visit for this day since he know I enjoyed going along. He usually went twice a year, the other time in the spring so I was glad to have birthday in the Fall when I could go along. He drove an old truck that he had to shift and took a while to warm up but he had had it all my life and it was a permanent part of them to me.
On one of our visits, Mr. Barker was in the barn so we drove down the dirt path and opened the gate and got out of the truck to visit him. He was tying up a loose bale of hay and had just unrolled a piece of twine. Grandpa reached in his pocket and pulled out his old pocket knife that he always had with him. He kept it sharp and clean and I eyed it lustfully. He reached over and cut the twine neatly with an easy flick of the wrist and I guess I got carried away. I said “Grampa, maybe next birthday I can get a knife like yours, it sure would come in handy at home a lot for helping out.” He replied “It takes a lot of responsibility carrying a knife, it’s a man’s tool, but you just be patient, time will come soon enough.” I asked him if I could hold it so he closed it up and handed it to me as I looked at the bone handle and the fine craftsmanship. Even I could tell this was a well-made knife. I told him that he sure had a good knife and he said it was an antique and his Daddy had left it to him when he died. He said it was one of the few possessions he had that were really important to him. I thought about my Dad who had a knife in his tool box but he didn’t carry it with him.
We left Mr. Barker’s farm and head home as Grandpa only lived a couple of miles from there. When we got home it was just getting dark so I told Grandpa I would water the pigs and feed the chickens and I headed to the barn to earn what I knew was a good meal coming at dinner.
Grandpa already had a fire going in the wood stove when I came in and I smelled fried chicken which Grandma knew was my favorite. This was one of the reasons I like to spend my birthday here and we had a delicious meal, just the three of us, as I listened to Grandpa tell Gramma about the visits we had made. After dinner, Gramma pulled out a big coconut cream pie that was warming in the oven and before we all had a slice she opened a closet in the hall and pulled a package, which I knew she was going to do, since she did every year. This year it was a nice, heavy plaid jacket that buttoned up like a shirt and I told her I liked it which I did. I got a lot of shirts for presents as there was a shirt factory in town where Gramma’s sister worked and she got a discount. They did make good shirts and this one had pearl snaps instead of buttons. Then Momma arrived to take me home and she came in a visited a few minutes then we headed home and told them we would see them at Christmas if not before and hugged goodbye and I thanked them for everything. Little did I know of the tragedy that would change things.
It was two days before Christmas that the phone rang and Momma answered it. Daddy and I were watching tv when we heard Momma bawling and we both jumped up to see what had happened. She got off the phone and daddy hugged her and she calmed down and told us Grandpa was in the hospital and was not expected to live. There had been a big snow come in that afternoon and he had a phone call that one of his workers, Smiley Black, had not come home from work. Grandpa had sent the construction crew home early due to weather but Smiley had a drinking problem and had gone to the local watering hole on the way home. He was dropped off by another worker and said he would walk home from there. Apparently he had too much to drink and he took a fifth of Jack Daniels with him when he left. Now he was lost and several men were out looking in the heavy snowfall hoping to find him. Grandpa had got in his old truck and left as soon as he heard and he was alone when he found Smiley covered with snow behind Tilford’s store. Grandpa had taken his coat off and put it on Smiley but while he tried to lift him into his truck he had a heart attack and fell to ground unconscious. Sometime later, some of the other searchers spotted his truck with the door open and found the two men lying in the snow. Old Smiley was froze to death but Grandpa was still barely alive. They had him in the hospital but he was in a coma and his heartbeat was faint and the Doctors expected it so stop anytime. Well, Dad called his boss and told him he would be gone till after Christmas and we packed real quick and got in the car and took a long, sad drive to the hospital.
Gramma was holding up well but Momma cried hard when she hugged her and Grandpa looked like a dead man. I could hardly believe this as it was the first heart break in my young life but I didn’t cry. After visiting at the bedside, Daddy said a prayer and we went to Gramma’s house and unpacked and everyone had a long miserable night trying to sleep. The next day was Christmas Eve and the tree was pretty with lights and candy canes and presents under it but no one seemed to have any spirit. All the old folks went to visit Grandpa’s bedside again but I did not have the heart to go and wanted to remember Grandpa like I always knew him. I wondered what Gramma would do without him around and how it was sure going to be a sad Christmas. About six that evening they all came home and I asked how he was and they said the Doctor’s said it was just a matter of time but being Christmas Eve we should all be together at home and they would call if anything changed. There were not many nurses at the hospital and they could not handle a lot of visitors so Gramma agreed to come home. We tried to get in the holiday mood and Dad played guitar for some Christmas songs but it all fizzled out pretty quick and even the egg-nog wasn’t enjoyed. They tried to tell me Santa Claus was coming and I better be good but I was too old for that and said all I wanted for Christmas was for Grandpa to be back and they all agreed and hugged me and I went to bed.
The next morning I was up early but everybody else was too and there was a big snow that night and the roads were closed and the phones were out which made everybody pretty miserable and worried to death as there was no way to check on Grandpa. Gramma said we would still have Christmas and insisted so we all gathered around the tree and opened our presents and did our best to be in good spirits and while we were opening the presents I did forget about our troubles for a few minutes as we watched what each of us unwrapped. Then when things were going along pretty well and we was in the best mood we had been since Granpda had gotten hurt, the phone rang. The whole house got quiet and we all knew what that meant. Everything was still and the women was crying but Gramma was strong and she said you all just stay here by the tree and I will answer it. Nobody else really wanted too anyway. So we all sat silent as Gramma went into the kitchen and heard her say “Oh no, it can’t be,” then she broke down and cried, then she got back on the phone and said “Okay, just a minute,” and we heard her walk back toward us. She came into the room and looked at me with tears pouring from her eyes and told me to go to the phone. Everybody got up and hugged her as I left for the kitchen.
I could not imagine why they would want me on the phone but I picked it up and said ‘Hello.” Grandpa’s weak voice came over the speaker and he said, “Terry, I am gonna be alright, but I got something to tell you. You go into my bedroom and looked in the top drawer and you will see a gift there with your name on it. I love you grandson and you come see me this afternoon, I have to go now, the Doctor’s told me not to make this phone call but I insisted.” Then I started crying embarrassed though and told Grandpa I loved him too and me and Grandma would come see him if we had to walk through the snow. But he said if that is the case leave Gramma cause he did not want any more hospital bills. I laughed and said goodbye and I heard everybody around the Christmas tree laughing and crying and having the best Christmas ever. Gramma said she was hungry and was going to make some breakfast and I told her what Grandpa said so we went into the bedroom and opened the drawer and found a little package wrapped in brown sack paper with a little red ribbon tied around it. It said ‘To Terry From Grandpa”. With Gramma watching, I opened it up to find the pocketknife that Grandpa’s Dad had given him. There was a note that said, “For a fine young man” signed Grandpa. Gramma just looked at me as my eyes welled up and we walked into the kitchen. She poured two big cups of coffee and she said “I guess if Grandpa thinks you’re a young man now, well I do too. And I knew I had experienced the greatest Christmas I ever would as I took a sip of coffee and said a prayer of thanksgiving.