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Skip Tucker: Christmas Memories

By SKIP TUCKER, Alabama Daily News Featured Columnist

Of temporal things, a cedar tree means Christmas to me.

Cedars are not rare to the woods of my boyhood. They are uncommon though and finding one fit to become a Christmas tree was a matter of exertion, sometimes more than just some.

Ten days out, my dad would put my brothers and my sister and an axe into the bed of the pickup truck and thence to search the woods. The deep woods.

Uphill and down, for miles and hours we’d trek, bypassing a few cedars which as time passed seemed worth another look. (A bonus is that huckleberry shrubs were fruiting. No kidding.)

The tree nearly had to touch our tall ceilings and the limbs full to hide presents, and sturdy to support ornaments and lights untekky and heavy.  At last, it was found. Usually on our property, though stateland might share. Beauty.

It was felled and dragged to the nearest road, and often twilight found us before we got home to hot cocoa and treats while we trimmed it. Its aroma was immediate to our home, which now smelled like Christmas.

Next morning, without fail in my long memory, the Glory of Glories magically appeared atop the piano, looking at the Christmas tree. Miz Ina Kelley’s  homemade jam cake. Five square layers of it, when one layer would’ve made a regular cake. It took a day in the baking and making.

Every toothsome bit was covered in golden caramel. It stood like a fortress, its walls and top covered with cannon ports of walnuts, pecans and raisins. A single cherry shone at the top.

It was spicy and sweet. It was fruity. It lasted to New Year’s and stayed moist the whole time. We never finished one, try as I might.

If God knew of a better Christmas treat, He had every right to keep it in heaven.

Miz Ina Kelley’s Jam Cake recipe

My hometown of Eldridge had four general stores to supply 250 souls with an RFD of maybe 600 more. Kelley’s was the biggest and best of them.

When I was 8, the brothers Kelley emptied their feed warehouse next door and opened Toyland. Toyland. Little girl and boy land. It was momentous. Pictures from catalogs come to life. It was joy. And needed for such as we.

One of its sections was for girls and women. Right in front, just to the right as we entered the room, was a display featuring Evening in Paris perfume and toiletries, boxes of blue and gold with the Eiffel Tower goldenly resplendent on front. Each for five bucks. For years uncounted my friends and I looked no further. Each mother got one.

Now, after decades, I occasionally wonder what that stuff smelled like. So far as I know, it never touched human skin.

Through the years, I received many special gifts, like most boys. I got bats, gloves, balls of every bounce, bikes and BB guns and implements for fishing and hunting.

Of all things received, the one thing I think of most often was from a classmate. We shared the same class at school and church.

Our town was small and for a large part poor. A ditty from the day said, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

Of the poor, this classmate’s family was the poorest. In a town with more than its share of drunks, the father won the prize. It was his only prize. They had no clothes not secondhand. Food, too, was given. Shelter…the family lived in an abandoned shack where a small dog would fit through the wall rails.

At church each year at Christmas, we drew names. When I was 10, this classmate drew mine and My small Grinch heart was bitter about it.

Sure enough, the night of the drawing, I was given a nickel comb, prettily wrapped. I acted pleased (though everyone sportrd butch cuts). She was gracious. I was awful.

Now sometimes I think on it and wonder what that comb might’ve really cost. Her father was, as they say, kind when sober but never sober. Every nickel went down his throat. Every nickel but that one.

It would have cost her a smacking at least. He was a beast. I shudder to think on it.

In retrospect, through a distant mirror, and perhaps a touch of wisdom, I realize the handsomeness of that gift. It was not just handsome. It was brave. Supremely brave.

She’s wealthy now. Real estate, I think.

And now I have my own family, the joys of my life and now the reason for it. They are my life’s blessing. And everyday can feel like Christmas. Even without the glorious jam cake.

So Merry Christmas. And may God Bless Us, Every One.

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