Family Stories: Christmas Traditions

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The holidays are upon us, when many gather with family and friends, tell old stories, and make new ones. This Christmas, I’d like to bring forward one of my own family stories. Like candles burning in windows, may such tales light the dark winter months and remind us of what is important.

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My great grandfather Creed was born to a Cherokee squaw and a wealthy German man. When his father passed on, the family tossed his mother, with Creed and his brother, into the cold. They lived in a tent on the property through the winter, where his mother died of consumption. Creed was 13 at the time, and the family intended to drop them at an orphanage. Creed ran away and joined a mining town, preferring the terror and dangers of life underground to what awaited.

Three years later, Creed went back and retrieved his brother, whom he raised to adulthood. Living in the mining town was difficult and dangerous for the miners, but for their families as well. Rape was common, as the men worked overnight and the womenfolk remained in the shanties above ground. My grandmother, Durpha, lived in just such a shanty. Her young husband died in the mines, and she remained—in constant danger. Why? Though practicing without a license, my grandmother was a doctor. This was a rare and precious thing in West Virginia mining towns. She used to tell a story about the kind of grit required; one night someone began banging loudly on the door. She demanded they go away, fearing violation and even death. She threatened to shoot, and when the banging continued, she shot a hole through the door. The noise abruptly ceased, and she went to bed. The next morning, well rested, she awoke to find she’d killed a dog!

During this difficult time, Creed met and fell in love with the widowed Durpha. They married, and commenced to have a large family. Creed decided to quit the mining business and set up a still for moonshine instead, which he did under the house-porch, reachable via a tunnel. An “Indian” operating a still was, after all, a rather dangerous thing to do and the revenuers came searching for the law-breaker. Durpha was known all over as the county physician, and was therefore on good terms with all visitors. Naturally, the revenuers came to see her first. She sat, knitting upon the porch, where she quite truthfully told them “she had never seen any still.” Of course not. It was directly underneath her.

Durpha had always been something of a rebel; she rode horses and refused to ride side-saddle. She became a flapper in the 20s, and I have this photo of her in full flapper glory. Creed had his own rebellious streak. As an adult, the family that once disowned him tried to reconcile (because, after all, he was the heir to a great fortune). He refused to reconnect with them, the people responsible for his mother’s death and his own homelessness, and so—preserving his personal ethics—turned down the inheritance and all it stood for. They lived happily; my grandparents always called it a great love affair.

Technically speaking, Durpha’s classification was that of “midwife.” She did indeed deliver babies, but she also performed surgeries, set bones, mixed medicines, and gave house calls. Durpha frequently performed a “death watch,” that is, being called to the bedside of the dying. Even when surrounded by family, death is frightening and difficult. Durpha would help to keep the family members, and the dying, calm. Her talent for deathbed ministrations was well known; one more way that she provided comfort to those in need.

In every respect, she served her community as a doctor. Her methods and brilliance caught the attention of a sympathetic physician, who offered to pay her way through medical college. The university, however, refused to admit her because of her gender. Degree or not, Durpha continued as the “doctor” of the surrounding communities—as rare and unique (and adamant) as ever.

Durpha sadly outlived Creed, but was able to influence her granddaughter, my mother, with her determination to do as she saw fit and not to worry about what others thought. In her 70s, she learned to ride a dirt bike and so to ride the length of her large farm—proving that the limits of age and gender never held her back.

Durpha died before I was born. This, too, seemingly her own way. She let the dogs out early one day, pulled her rocking chair onto the porch to face the rising sun, bowed her head, and died. May we always be influenced by such amazing women—and men—those who face long odds, who face down prejudice and greed, who take risks (even rather unseemly ones!) and live life according to their own ethical code. I hope, wherever they are, they know how much their stories have influenced me. I have heard them from two generations of women, “amazon women,” and I have founds comfort and solace knowing that sometimes, even when it seems most impossible, we can live life on our own terms.

God bless.

Kentucky Christmas

Rolling green acres stitched with white fence rows; mellow casks of aging golden liquor; great slatted barns of curing tobacco… Home to many worthwhile attractions from horse racing to Bluegrass, Kentucky is always a worthy destination.

But let’s face it, whatever you come for, you leave with bourbon–and that almost makes up for the lack of snow.

My brother moved to the Lexington area a number of years ago, and my parents followed in 2010. About once in three years, therefore, I make the trek to Kentucky for Christmas. I’m not sure I will ever get used to the warmth (two days before my arrival, they were sitting around the backyard fire pit in 60-degree weather), and I confess (as a northerner of the not-my-business-variety) the bubbly close-talking friendliness was almost overwhelming at first. However, making the adjustment is very well worth it. Let me give you an example:

Today, Mark and I went with Joe and his wife Kari to a local shop for spiced rum (the main ingredient for my Christmas pudding). The proprietor shadowed us in the aisles, offering friendly suggestions that would likely frighten off, say, the average New Englander. It was, however, very useful advice (recommendation: a spiced concoction half the price and twice as good as the one I had chosen). But there was more. The gentleman asked “would we like to try a bourbon cream?” On the house, a sample. We went into the back room, a tasting area, and the four–make that five of us–shared a toast.”Given the season, o’ course,” said our fine host, “I may as well join you.”

To Christmas! To friendship! To the kindness of strangers–and to the strangeness of kindness in these often unfriendly times!

We bought a bottle…Of course we did. And the bourbon caramel, bourbon bon-bon, bourbon honey, bourbon BBQ–it is amazing what you can make with the stuff.

So take it from Kentucky: slow down, sip and enjoy, and may you experience the warmth of the season even as I have, here among friends.

Merry Winter

There is a time, shortly after the first snowfall, akin to heaven.

The trees sparkle, powdered over like so many evergreen confections; the browned grass is renewed as a lambswool carpet; every stalk and weed becomes a brilliant scepter, splendid and glistening.

I love winter.

But so much depends upon your perspective.

When I lived in the city of Cleveland, I had much less fondness for the dreary season. Cleveland is just north enough to be in the snow-belt, but just south enough to remain at the point of ever-almost-frozen. Freeze and thaw destroys the roads, and snow everywhere becomes crusted over in street-soot, crouching on corners like creosote obelisks. Given the shifting temperature, ice is a constant problem. Parking lots fill with great gray mountains, gutters fill with slush and muck. In Cleveland, winter is wet; it is icy; it is spoiled. Autumn can be glorious there (and elsewhere in Ohio), but when winter’s gray at last descends, it hardly lifts at all until spring.

But it is different here in Minnesota.

When I woke this morning, the dawn was breaking over the eastern bluffs of the Mississippi. A pink light filtered along the horizon, stretching even to the north and west, where clouds were clinging. From my south-facing window, it was a strange sight: as the sun (which I could not see) burst above the treeline, it sent a shaft of light straight across the town below. It lit the sandstone of my window well, painting it yellow-gold, and it did the same to the rooftops opposite me, and to the tips of the barren trees. Behind all of that was the pink stripe of horizon, and behind that, rolling snow clouds, heavy with the promise of sweet white flakes.

The bluff, the trees, the sleeping town–the church, the steeple, the river: I looked on these things with wonder, and it was a merry sight!

Merry Winter to all–and may your Christmas be white!