The Moth has been hosting storytelling events for 20+ years, and the thousands of storytellers who have graced their stages are proof that every story is unique, and that the best stories come from our personal experiences.
In this story, as told by Leonard Lee Smith, we are treated to a narrative of how his Granny brightened the holiday season despite his mother’s divorce and the subsequent move from Alabama to Southern California.
Even though we’re watching his talk on video, Leonard’s delivery is one that can make us feel as though we’re sitting in his living room. You hear the emotion in his voice, yet the emotional swings are not dramatic. It’s subtle, yet powerful.
He allows us to be there when opening each heavily reinforced cardboard box filled with mounds of homemade Christmas treats. And he brings us full circle when he tells us about hanging Granny’s plastic poinsettia bouquet with the bells on his own door during the holidays.
How did you experience the holidays when growing up? Was there someone in your life who made the experience special? It may have been a family member, as was the case with Leonard, but it could also have been a friend who altered the spirit of the season.
It was Christmastime 1974. I was ten years old, but I wasn’t looking forward to Christmas that year.
The previous spring my mother and the man who was to become my stepfather – when all the divorces had been finalized and he and my mother could marry – had moved us from rural central Alabama to sunny Southern California. My brother and I were leaving behind our father and all our extended family. This would be my first Christmas away from Alabama.
My beautiful and elegant mother took to California like a swan to a royal lake. My soon-to-be stepfather was a California native. My very athletic little brother reveled in a temperate climate that allowed him to be outside eleven months of the year.
I, however, was a fat, awkward child with a high-pitched voice and a heavy southern accent. I was having extreme difficulty with the transition to a West Coast lifestyle. My first day at my new school, I walked to the front of my fourth-grade class to introduce myself. All I said was my name and where I was from, and the class erupted in laughter, with jeers of “He talks funny” and “He has a weird accent.”
It took the teacher nearly two full minutes to restore order, and she was angry at me for having caused a disruption. I was so disillusioned after that first day that instead of walking home after school, I went to a nearby gas station and used a phone booth there to try and place a collect call to Granny Smith, my paternal grandmother.
She was my biggest ally. I was going to ask her if I could return to Alabama and live with her and if she would send me the money for a bus ticket home. But despite several attempts the line was busy and I never get through. My mother was always encouraging, nagging, and badgering me to lose weight and always trying to help with that endeavor with whatever the latest diet craze was.
She had been a fat child herself, but with puberty she had gained height and lost weight and undergone the proverbial ugly-duckling transformation to become a great beauty in high school. She saw weight loss as the panacea of all problems and believed it to be the key to my happiness. She was very relieved to have me away from the annual holiday sugar binges and weight gain that my Granny Smith’s cooking provided.
Granny Smith was, for me, everything good about Christmas. Her language of love was food. She was an excellent baker and candy maker. She would cook for weeks in preparation for Christmas Eve, when all of her children and grandchildren would gather at her house.
Every favorite dish, dessert, and confection had been made to specification. Her table and sideboard groaned under the weight of all of the food. My brother, my cousins and I would burst through her kitchen door, brimming with anticipation, our arrival announced by the sound of five silver bells suspended from red velvet ribbons hung on a plastic poinsettia bouquet on the door.
Her house was tiny and saturated with tacky Christmas decorations and cigarette smoke. But to my childhood aesthetic, it was glorious. She sewed new pajamas for all of her grandchildren. She scoured newspaper ads, catalogs, and stores all over town to get us exactly the toys we had requested. She was interested in me and my happiness. She was my resilience. She was magical, and I missed her desperately.
It was Sunday evening, and I was moping around the house, dreading Monday and the return to school. Fortunately, there was only one week left until the Christmas break. I was longing for my familiar southern Christmas. That Thanksgiving we had spent with my step-father’s extended family. He and my mother had finally gotten married in Vegas over the summer.
His family were polite, kind people, but I did not know them and fit poorly into their established routine, and I feared that Christmas would be more of the same. The phone rang. It was Granny Smith. She often took advantage of the discounted long-distance rates after 7:00 p.m. on Sundays.
She spoke with my brother Todd and I chatted for nearly half an hour, asked us about our life, and school, and how things were going, assured us she had gotten us the toys that we wanted and they would be there by Christmas. But before we hung up, she asked to speak to our mother. This request made my brother and me very anxious.
When our parents separated they didn’t so much dissolve a marriage as declare war on each other. My brother and I knew that the campaigns and battles of this war could be long and brutal. My mother considered Granny Smith to be in the enemy camp. They maintained a civil but strained relationship. My brother and I were always worried that hostilities might erupt whenever they spoke to each other.
Granny Smith informed my Mother that she had sent a Christmas package and that it should arrive in the coming week. My mother said, “Thank you, but you didn’t have to do that. It’s very expensive to ship things across the country. I hope you did not have to spend a lot of money.” Despite their differences my mother understood and respected that Granny Smith was a woman of very modest means. Granny had been a widow for nearly thirty years and worked mostly menial jobs. For her, money was always scarce.
Granny said, “It wasn’t very expensive at all, and I was happy to do it.” They exchanged polite but tense pleasantries, wished each other Merry Christmas, and then said good-bye, and my brother and I breathed a sigh of relief. Sure enough, on Thursday afternoon after school the phone rang, but it wasn’t the US Postal Service – it was the Greyhound Bus Lines calling to say we had a package waiting at the bus terminal in Claremont, California.
My mother said to the clerk on the phone, “I didn’t even know that Greyhound shipped packages.” The clerk said, “Oh, yes ma’am, and we’re much cheaper than the US Postal Service because we don’t deliver door-to-door.” We have some of the cheapest rates around. My mother was a little annoyed by this since the bus station was nearly ten miles away. But the clerk assured her that the bus station was open twenty-four hours a day and that there was someone on duty at the shipping desk around the clock. We could pick the package up at any time.
So after supper we drove to the bus station. We went in to see the clerk. He confirmed that we had a package. And then he said to my mother, “You can pull your car around into the loading bay.” My mother said, “What for?” He said, “The package is too large to hand over the counter.” My mother said, “Are you sure you’ve got the right package?”
This irritated the clerk and he learned over the counter and addressed my brother and me and said, “Are you guys Lee and Todd Smith?” We nodded and said, “Yes, sir.” He said, “Then this package is for you. I’ll meet you around back.” We drove us around to the loading bay, and the shipping clerk came to our car with a hand truck carrying a heavily reinforced cardboard box, large enough to hold a dishwasher or small refrigerator.
He said, “This barely makes it inside the maximum freight dimensions and weight restrictions,” as he hoisted the box into our trunk and went to get some twine to tie the trunk lid closed. My brother and I were giddy with anticipation on the drive home, wondering what the box contained. Our mother was not in such a good humor. She knew her ex-mother-in-law well and was suspicious of the box.
When we got home, we had to go inside and get our stepfather – the box was too heavy for us to get out of the trunk. He grunted and complained as he set the box down in the living room, and said, “What the hell did she send, a jeweler’s safe?” My brother and I tore into the box, and the smell of our granny’s house wafted into the air: a combination of fried meat, grease, furniture polish, and cigarette smoke.
There beneath wadded newspaper and excelsior was our southern Christmas. There were presents wrapped in colorful paper and bows to go under the Christmas tree. Neatly folded in brown paper was a new set of pajamas for both of us. There were also two five-count packs of Fruit of the Loom underwear in the appropriate sizes for us both. There was a countless number of decorative tins and repurposed Cool Whip containers.
We opened them to find mounds of homemade Christmas treats: Divinity. Fudge. Boiled chocolate cookies. Parched peanuts. A massive container of “nuts and bolts,” which is what southerners call homemade Chex Party Mix, but to which no prepackaged Chex Party Mix will ever compare.
A whole fruitcake. A chocolate pound cake. She even included our traditional stocking stuffers of candy bars, chewing gum, citrus fruits, and pecans and walnuts in the shell. The box was as bottomless as Mary Poppins’s satchel. As every sugary confection came out of the box, my brother and I shrieked with delight and our mother moaned in defeat.
Mother tried a last-ditch effort to hide all the confections and dole them out a few at a time, but each evening when our stepfather would come home, he would begin to search for them and our mother’s scheme would be thwarted. Eventually she just gave up and just left it all out on the kitchen counter.
Each Christmas that we spent in California, Greyhound would call and say that our package had arrived. Over the years many treasures arrived in the box: hand-crocheted afghans, an heirloom family quilt, homemade Christmas decorations. A check to help with the purchase of my first car. For me it was always the best part of Christmas. Even after I moved out of the house, the box continued to arrive. My friends and roommates at college were always astounded and delighted by the contents of the box.
My grandmother was able to package and ship magic and love. Granny is long gone and missed more each year. Since her death I have discovered in conversations with my cousins that Granny came to the rescue of all of her grandchildren at one time or another, softening what would have been hard and harmful emotional landings. She did it in such a way that we each thought we were her favorite. Granny had endured a sad and difficult childhood with a mother who suffered from mental illness. She understood the importance of a child having an ally when a parent fails them.
Each year, a few days after Thanksgiving, I hang Granny’s plastic poinsettia bouquet with the bells on my front door to announce the arrival of holiday guests. I have mastered many of her recipes, and last year finally managed a very respectable batch of divinity. When the Christmas season arrives, I lovingly remember Granny and cherish that the magic and resilience she gave me.
And during the holiday season, when I see a Greyhound bus on the highway, I think to myself, in the belly of that machine may travel some child’s Christmas.
[Note: all comments are my opinions, not those of the speaker, or The Moth or anyone else on the planet. In my view, every story is unique, as is every interpretation of that story. The sole purpose of these posts is to inspire storytellers to become better storylisteners and to think about how their stories can become more impactful.]
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