When I was a child, Christmas was a magical time. My sisters and I would sit at the big table in the drafty dining room and look through the “wish books” that came in the mail each December. Indulging our imaginations was good, and the feeling of anticipation was wonderful.
Yes, “Santie Claus” was a big deal, but I can never think of Santa without thinking of one of my aunts who lived just out the lane from us in the isolated Dillingham community where I grew up. My aunt lived in a four-room house with two long, parallel rooms—the living room and the kitchen. Off the living room was a storage room that doubled as a bedroom where my uncle slept. My aunt slept in the double bed at the back of the living room. Because her clock’s ticking kept her awake, her nightly ritual included placing it under the neatly folded clothes in her second dresser drawer, or under the spare pillow on the couch. There was also a springhouse-type unheated room off the kitchen; mostly closed off in winter, it was where my aunt stored her washtub as well as her canner and jars.
My sisters and I often went around the lane to visit her, particularly during summer vacations. My aunt was an immaculate housekeeper and an excellent cook. She could go into the kitchen and “get a meal with a dishrag,” as the saying goes. We often helped her fix her noon meal—she always cooked a hot meal for our uncle on the wood stove, even in the summer when the kitchen was stifling.
After eating, we’d often sit with her on a discarded bus seat out on her high front porch to cool off. I can still see my aunt in her apron, her gray hair pulled back tightly from her tiny, creased face into what she affectionately called her “tony tail,” secured with a broad red rubber band. She might take her “nerve” pill, a Stanback powder or an aspirin. And without fail, she would rummage in her apron pocket for her little tin of snuff. Tapping it all around, she would open it carefully, remove the small spoon, measure out a portion of snuff, and deposit it into her lower lip.
We would watch the cars and trucks going slowly up and down the roads—we knew everyone in them. We’d also see our neighbors hoeing their fields or plowing them with their horses. Sometimes we would just sit and watch a rainstorm coming or enjoy the view of trees, mountains and sky around us.
Other times we would “rest” with her in the living room, watching the black-and-white television my aunt had bought with money she’d somehow managed to save, over many months, from her “old-age pension.” I vividly remember watching the soap opera The Doctors, probably because it came on after lunch.
Married at 15, my aunt often admonished us during our “setting spells” not to do as she had done: “jump out of the frying pan into the fire.” When we would walk around the house to pick up the Early Harvest apples from under the small tree in the back yard or pick the sweet, pink grapes from the staked-up vines amid the humming bees that incessantly swarmed over them, she more than once pointed out the small stones marking the graves of the seven children she’d lost, either stillborn or in infancy.
Once my aunt disappeared for a few weeks. When she returned, she told us she’d signed herself into this place where the doctors had said her problem was that she was always trying to be Santa Claus to everyone, which she just couldn’t be.
Looking back, I realize that though I was perhaps more introspective than most children, I was also shiningly naive. I felt sorry for my aunt, who was intelligent, inquisitive and talented but who, from my perspective, had lived an unrealized life.
But as I grew up, I gradually came to realize that my aunt truly had been a Santa Claus to us. She had given us a timeless gift—a vision of life’s possibilities. A splendid spirit beaten out of doubt, despair and pain, she had, like Faulkner’s Dilsey, endured. And her legacy was one of courage. Looking beyond the confines of her meager existence in the little valley of Dillingham, she had wished for, and sought, more—for herself, for her children, her grandchildren and for us—her nieces. Specifically, she had wished my sisters and me a better life than she’d had and had given us the tools with which to forge one.
When my aunt became ill one day in July of ‘68, my older sister, who had a car and had just arrived home from work, took her to the hospital. She complained of her “heart hurting.” As my sister sped through Weaverville, my aunt urged her to “go faster, faster.” At the hospital, my aunt gave my sister her watch. She must have sensed that her time was running out—but she wanted my sister to carry on. She died later that night.
I was in the second year of my teaching career when my aunt died. For my graduation, she’d given me a pale pink comb with a crest on it and a washcloth edged with blue-and-white crocheted trim. I carried the comb in my clutch bag for years until once, in a panic, I thought I’d misplaced it. That comb now holds its rightful place, along with the washcloth that I never used, in my box of cherished mementos.
[Poet Nancy Dillingham is a sixth-generation Dillingham from Big Ivy.]