My grandmother Crawford would put up her Christmas tree mid-December; a fragrant, local evergreen.
Christmas 1967 was different. She caught the Christmas Spirit early, and had her tree up the week of Thanksgiving.
She had never done that before.
By December 1st that year, packages wrapped in bright paper were nestled beneath the boughs of her tree. One package for each grandchild. Everyone commented, but didn’t complain, on her premature decorating. They wondered “whatever could she be thinking, putting a tree up so early?”.
Back then, most people decorated a week… two at the most… before the Holidays. Setting up a live tree one month before Christmas was unheard of. But there sat the Crawford tree, in the front window, for all of Hickory Flat to see.
One afternoon, around Thanksgiving, I went shopping with her. On that day, she got behind the wheel of her big, blue Chevrolet Impala and I snuggled up next to her. On the bench seat. No seatbelts required.
Lois Emma Benefield Crawford aimed her Chevy Tank in a southward direction on Highway 5, and before long we had left Cherokee County. We were rolling down Highway 41… destination: Marietta.
More accurately, our compass pointed to Kmart and Dunkin’ Donuts.
Browsing around Kmart, we lingered for a while in the shoe aisles. And it was there, that I came across the most beautiful pair of house slippers I had ever seen. Red velvet mules, trimmed in red fur. And they were just my size.
I couldn’t stop looking at them. Couldn’t resist running my hand over the furry red trim, even as it tickled my palm.
She stood very still, and I felt her watching me.
“Neetie, you like them shoes?”
I looked up at her… her blue eyes were intense, like sapphires against her dark complexion. Beautiful eyes. But there always seemed to be a hint of sadness behind them. The kind of sad you see in the eyes of poor people. People who keep going, even though life doesn’t cut them many breaks.
I answered her: “Umhuh …. I think I’ll ask Santa for these”.
We finished up at Kmart and made our way to Dunkin’.
We both had a single donut. She had coffee. I had hot chocolate. We nibbled our treats, sipped our hot drinks, and I talked about those red shoes the whole time.
“If Santa brings me those shoes, I won’t just wear them in the house. They are so pretty, I’ll wear them to school, too. The bottoms are hard, like real shoes. Not soft, like house shoes”.
She laughed a little.
On Christmas morning, I found a package addressed to me:
Love, Maw and Papa”.
The wrapping paper was covered with chubby little Santas, all playing in a falling snow. I was hesitant to open the package. Because I knew there would never be another.
Life had changed since our Kmart shopping excursion.
On December 4, 1967, the phone rang. It was late for a phone call. But I wasn’t yet old enough to be fearful of late night calls. So I answered, and heard my grandmother’s voice on the line.
“Neetie, I need to talk to your mama. I love you.”
My dad found her on her kitchen floor, the phone was nearby.
She was gone.
Without warning. Without saying goodbye. Her heart had simply betrayed her, it had given up and quit.
Christmas morning, I sat on my knees by her Christmas tree, and told my mom I didn’t think I should open my gift. She told me the decision was mine, but encouraged me to remember that the gift was something my grandmother had given me, her oldest grandchild. And it was something she wanted me to have.
Carefully, I pulled back the tape. I couldn’t bear the thought of ripping her paper, paper she had selected. In my mind, I could see her at her kitchen table, drinking coffee… wrapping gifts. Humming along with the radio. Her Coca Cola clock illuminating the wall behind her.
I felt so lost.
My chest was heavy with grief when I opened the gift from her. And when the paper was pulled away, I wanted to cry. Cushioned in a blanket of white tissues, lay the shoes. The most beautiful shoes in the world.
But I didn’t feel joy at receiving them. It’s not that I was disappointed in the gift. I loved the slippers and I was thankful to have them. But I missed my grandmother. I wanted to go back to the day at Kmart. And stay there.
My mom still has the red shoes. They are in my old room. They’ve been around for 52 Christmases now. And I still get a lump in my throat when I think of the sacrifice Lois made, to buy them for her seven year-old granddaughter.
And I wonder if she had a feeling that she would soon be leaving us.
I don’t know. But this I do know… some of us have complained about our people decorating too early.
It’s ok. Let them have some Christmas joy. Don’t shame the family and friends who want to stir up some Christmas memories a little early in the season.
They may know something you don’t.
Merry Christmas 🎄
Two of Lois Emma Crawford’s great-great grandchildren.
My friend Lorie Hamby’s tree.
She decorated in October that year. She said the lights and decorations made her happy. I said she should leave her tree up all year… “no shame in your Christmas game”.
It was her last Christmas. ♥️✨