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Christmas Past, Christmas Present

I wish I could knock on each front door in the neighborhood, all 44, and tell the people inside stories of the place they call home. Not tales of their house, per se, but of the rolling hills that once were pastures and wooded ridges and of the flat space that was a backyard leading to an unpainted, groaning barn filled with fragrant hay and impatient cows. I'd love to tell them about a farm pond teeming with hand-sized bream and about an old white farmhouse with oak and hickory smoke curling out its chimney .

Those pastures are where I learned to drive an old Army Jeep and, in the summers, where I sweated and scratched while tossing golden hay bales onto a trailer. Once, on a cold winter night, the pasture became a Labor & Delivery unit as I helped Daddy with a calf coming breech. He tied a nylon rope to the calf's foot and attached the other end to the bumper of my Mother's Chevrolet Suburban, and then he trusted me to "ease out nice and slow, Son, and stop when I yell." The calf was up and nursing the next morning, but I'm pretty sure that Mama Cow never let her guard down when she saw that Suburban passing by.

Many a Fall morning and evening I spent on those ridges with Daddy and my older brother, all of us craning our necks to peer into the treetops to spy a bushy tailed squirrel. That's where I learned to shoot and to hunt, and fifty years later I still carry the lessons of safety and responsibility Daddy ingrained into me. I still cherish the gift of simply sitting quietly beside my Father and of hearing him tell me, "That's the way to shoot, Boy!"

That backyard was my stadium. My little sister and I played football there, our faithful dog Polly joining us, and there I hit about as many home runs as Hank Aaron did up in Atlanta. I'd toss the ball into the air, whack it good, and round the bases. In the Fall, we collected pecans from the trees in the backyard and Mama chopped them up and baked them in her famous brownies. One more batch, just one more batch . . .

The barn was a place of fascination and morbid dread. Mice, and a few wharf rats, called it home, and I was desperately terrified of both. But duty demanded I face my fears and venture inside to feed the hungry livestock. One of my greatest lessons of life came when I forgot to feed one afternoon. What could it hurt missing just one time? I figured.

"Those cows sound hungry," Daddy said after he climbed the stairs to my room, well after I'd turned in for the night. "But I know they can't be since you fed them this afternoon. Wonder what's got them so worked up?"

Confession didn't lead to a whipping or to grounding, even to a tongue lashing. Crawling out of bed, getting dressed, and skulking to the barn was a sermon in itself, one I've not forgotten to this day.

A farm pond filled with fish is worthless if a boy doesn't spend a little time on the bank or in the boat with his Father, even if the man was a terrible fisherman. Daddy, you see, couldn't catch a fish, but fortunately I reeled 'em in like clockwork. He'd ask me to hold his pole while he tended to some business or another and, within seconds of me taking it, I'd have a fish hooked and headed for the frying pan. I always felt sorry for Daddy but, looking back, I recall that he sure seemed to smile a lot when I was filling up the basket.

What I wouldn't give to walk back inside that farmhouse, to catch a whiff of Mama's roast beef or chicken pie, or of cheese straws fresh out of the oven. How I'd love to fall asleep one more time in my upstairs room, the window open and the attic fan sucking a breeze past my bed while crickets and frogs and katydids and who knows what serenaded me. Just give me one more Thanksgiving dinner, one more country breakfast, one more supper of pig in the blankets or fried chicken or my Mama's cube steak .

I'd love to tell the new residents about shooting mistletoe out of the trees for Mama and about how she clipped branches from the big holly in the backyard and then decorated the house with them. Or about the delicious agony of Christmas Eve waiting and of the thrill of a frosty Christmas morning in the living room, a fire crackling and popping as I delighted in piles of wrapping paper and in the wonder of a shiny new bike, a football, a .410 shotgun.

Things have changed. The new folks in the neighborhood probably have no idea where the old house or the barn sat and I doubt a soul even thought about going squirrel hunting on Thanksgiving morning. There's no cows to feed and I'll guarantee you nobody performs a mechanized bovine obstetrical procedure this winter.

Yes, things are different, but their houses twinkle this Christmas and their trees sparkle as bright as ours ever did. Kids will still find it hard to fall asleep on Christmas Eve and the next morning, filled with wishes and dreams, they'll tiptoe down the steps and their parents will smile and laugh and revel in all the furor. New bikes will zip down the streets and I'll bet a few kids will gather to toss a new football. Maybe somebody will even find a new shotgun under the tree.

So, it's not completely different, and one thing surely hasn't changed, and never will. It's still all about a starry night, about a lowly manger, about God showing up in a dank and dingy stable.

A note about the picture above: The old farmhouse sat just beyond that stump in the foreground and the barn was a bit in front of the house on the right.

The pastures, and now the bulk of the neighborhood's homes,

lay to the far right, out of this picture.

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