Christmas Flip

My site is partly inspired by my grandmother's shrimp gumbo. The recipe we have is nothing gourmet, nothing fancy.  For years, my sister and I have tested, tinkered and toyed with our Nanny's recipe. The recipe we have is simple:

Brewer's Shrimp Gumbo
Brown okra and onion.
Add one can of tomato paste, water, salt, pepper, thyme and allspice to taste.
Cook a while.

I'm pretty sure she threw in some love and forgot to write that down. I also think she mixed in hints of her Charleston heritage and a pinch of my grandfather's Louisiana upbringing in the roux - and forgot to list that, too! Of course, we haven't quite perfected it.  But we sure love to keep trying!

In the spirit of gumbo, this blogger is likely to throw in a little bit of this and a pinch of that. Today, I'm throwing in a story of Christmas past. I wrote this piece a few years ago as part of a memoir class. Check it: 

In many ways, the Christmas Eve service that night was no different than it had been for the past ten years we’d been. We had lasagna for dinner beforehand. We tried unsuccessfully to convince, cajole and bribe mama and daddy to let us open one gift. 

Of course, with mom’s diagnosis and her six-month stint of chemo, there was a bittersweetness to the night. Somehow, even Grandaddy and Wally felt the gravity of attending the service, despite the fact that they usually stayed home – Grandaddy smoked cigars out on the porch and Wally usually played Nintendo. They reluctantly joined us for the big event. 
We arrived early so mama could help with any final trimmings to the church. She had signed up this year – as in years past -- to decorate the Chrismon trees in the vestibule and on the altar. She had spent hours helping create ornaments out of everyday items to illustrate the story of Jesus’ birth. She hustled about before the main crush arrived making sure none had fallen off the tree or the wreaths on the front door. I visited with Brent and Kristen outside before we headed in. His mom was in the choir and her mom was the pianist.

The black slate in the vestibule echoed with the clickety-clack of Sunday-best heels on the floor. An usher at the bottom of the stairs handed us tiny white candles. Another on the first landing handed us a bulletin and the usher at the top of the stairs showed us our seat.

Of course, we already knew our way. Our family always sat on the third row on the left-hand side, center of the aisle with dad on the end of the pew. Tonight we all squeezed in -- Anna, Nanny, Wally, Grandaddy and I watched as the crowd grew around us. When the Bridgers and the Sellers came in – there were hugs and hellos before they took their normal places in the first and second rows.

The room buzzed as Kristen’s mom took her seat behind the piano and began the prelude. I counted the people I knew and watched closely to see where the Norton’s might sit. I had a crush on their youngest son – despite his love for Whitesnake and his blonde mullet. 

Like the years before, the star choir soloist started the service with O Little Town of Bethlehem. Her husband, and also the choir director, led Away in a Manger. The minister got up for the message and the first prayer. Far below the balcony dwellers, he began the sermon with a teaching on Advent and the candle we were about to light. Mr. Hilton was small in stature. He was only in his 50’s, but his hair had been completely white since I’d met him fifteen years ago. For a long time growing up, I thought he might be the actor in the Wizard of Oz. Mr. Hilton carried himself like most reverends: with a compassionate tone and a wise demeanor. On the other hand he believed what they say: a child should be seen and not heard. Especially in Big Church. 

Pastor Hilton launched into his story of Jesus’ arrival and a child on the front row of the balcony launched into an interpretive dance of the nativity scene. During the hymns she had pointed up at the stars in the bright sky and looked down where He lay. And, she’d done a great job of showing us ‘asleep on the hay.’ She was now dancing to the beat of her own tune and trying to figure out how to show her family the angels announcement to the shepherds. 

She was clearly a visitor – the guest of a family member of a church member that we didn’t recognize. I watched as our entire pew squirmed in our seats. Daddy sat a little taller and crossed his right leg over his left. The prickly feeling of “shhhhh” crept up the back of our neck and into our minds. The father, looking too large for his pressed Christmas jacket and too hot for his tie, gently reprimanded her. She pouted quietly.

A moment later, though, she started to sing. This time, the father – probably resentful of being there in the first place and embarrassed by the show his daughter was presenting – shhhhed her too loudly. She began to cry as toddlers do: softly at first, followed by soap opera-sized drops of tears and volume to match. Her face pleated like the skirt of her little red dress. Her volume increased when she realized that the row behind her was watching. 

We all cringed when Pastor Hilton paused in the pulpit. He took a long sip of water, but his gaze was fixed on the balcony. He went on. And so did the little girl. As Mr. Hilton placed his glass back on the lectern, the father scooped up the tiny dancer, weaved through the standing-room -only crowd at the top of the stairs and disappeared down the steps. For a moment, the Christmas spirit fell on us like snow. My grandmother nudged my mom with her elbow – as if to say, NOW we can get on with this.

And then we realized that the father and daughter duo had only disappeared from sight. They had stopped on the first landing. The sound of the now-wailing child and the father’s unwhispered pleas amplified like a trumpet pointing skyward. We all shifted in our pews. Everyone re-crossed their legs. 

Dad stood up after several minutes. He took a deep breath – walked down and around the first pew and followed the man’s path down the steps. In less than a breath, he was back up and in his place next to me. Later, he told us he had calmly and quietly helped the dad, saying, I don’t know if you know this, but we can still hear you. 

Moments later, the father reappeared at the balcony. The child in his arms suddenly stopped crying -- perhaps sensing the impending scene. In one motion, the man dropped the child into the lap of a woman in the front pew, he snatched his coat and grabbed that woman by the elbow. WE are leaving!! he announced in an exaggerated stage whisper. The speechless wife and now tearless child moved towards the stairs. Gallantly, defaulting to his church manners momentarily, the man straightened his posture and ushered his family through the parting crowd and down the stairs. Their footfalls sounded like a giant herd of church mice.

Just as his head disappeared, it reappeared again. Red-faced and resembling the Heat Miser from the classic children’s Christmas show, he searched wildly for something I thought he’d left behind. Instead, his gaze found my dad.

The man shook his fist, and then his finger and in an enunciation that could be heard clear to heaven – and at least carried to the pulpit – the man pronounced: FUCK! YOU!

The door at the bottom of the stairs slammed shut -- an aural cue to shut our gaping mouths. Of course, my grandmother gasped. Both sides of the balcony witnessed the scene and had momentarily lost track of the Christmas story. From below we heard Pastor Hilton say: they returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen. Let us bow our heads.

My grandfather was the first to start laughing.