Remember gifts of the heart

Published 4:30 pm Saturday, December 13, 2008

The voice on the other end of the line was a surprise.

My son doesn’t usually call me after an Alabama loss. He’s that kind of fan. And, this was the SEC Championship game and a chance to play for the national championship.

I quickly lamented the exorbitant price of the ticket coupled with the defeat.

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“But that wasn’t the worse thing, Mama.”

His voice was quiet as he told me that, just prior to kickoff, the man sitting next to him at the stadium had a heart attack and died. My son was holding his head.

The frailty of life. Gone in an instant. We just never know.

Four years ago, at exactly this time of year, Sis, June Bug and I were tucked away in a cabin high on a hillside on the quiet side of the Smokies.

We’d strung colored Christmas lights over the fireboard and placed sprigs of evergreen around the cabin. The soft glow of the oil lamp and the crackling of the fire gave the little log cabin the wonderful glow of Christmas.

Chicken salad, pimento cheese and a variety of breakfast and junk foods crowded the refrigerator. We were set for a spell. Nothing much we wanted to do except enjoy the company we were keeping.

The three of us always had fun on our trips. Talking. Laughing. Remembering.

So, on this Christmas trip, we just walked in the woods, relaxed on the porch and, at night, put on our flannels, sat by the fire and talked, laughed and remembered.

At bedtime, we were the Waltons. Talking from bed to bed, like teenagers at a slumber party. At times there would be a lull in the conversation but before sleep could catch up with us, one of us would say, “Remember the time …” and the talking, laughing and remembering would begin again.

We didn’t venture too far from that quiet Christmas place, except to ride through the mountains and once to get a “bought” meal at a quaint, upscale eatery.

As I always do in the mountains, I ordered country ham and red-eye gravy and was in hog heaven until June Bug kept leaning closer and eying my plate.

“That ham has a strange smell. Does it taste funny?”

No. It smelled like ham and it was better than good.

June Bug would have none of that. She was certain the ham was rank and that I should call the waitress over and send it back to the kitchen. I would not. But finally I pushed it aside to wait for a to-go box.

“If you’re not in the hospital – or dead – you can eat it for supper,” Bug said.

Before we left the restaurant, Sis and I went to “powder our noses.” When we came out, the entire restaurant staff was huddled at the register. I could see the chef’s hat and Bug’s curly red hair towering above the others. Sis and I pushed our way through the commotion where all eyes were on … my ham.

The chef was poking and sniffing. Finally, he gave the verdict. “There’s nothing wrong with the ham. It’s perfectly all right.”

June Bug still wasn’t convinced. “If we have to take you to the hospital, we’ve got all those witnesses.”

I ate the ham for supper.

That was our last night in the mountains. The next day we drove home, laughing all the way. We made plans for our next trip. Alaska. If we could find a way to tranquilize Sis so we could get her on the plane, it would be Alaska for sure. If not, Holmes County, Ohio. How much fun we have being with our Amish friends there. Maybe New Hampshire. Or Utah. We could hardly wait.

When we got to Montgomery, we hurriedly switched Bug’s luggage to her car, which she had left at their place of business on the Atlanta Highway.

And, as Sis and I too often do, we pulled out onto the one-way the wrong way. I looked back and saw June Bug waiting to pull out. She saw us.

In the darkness, we couldn’t see her but we knew what she was doing. Shaking her head and laughing.

Sis and I laughed, knowing that we would talk about that when we saw each other again.

We didn’t know there would not be a next time.

June Bug was killed in a car accident a few weeks later.

Every facet of that Christmas the three of us spent in the mountains is a vivid memory. Sometimes memories are all that we have. And that has to be enough.

So, the real treasures of Christmas can’t be found under the tree. The real treasures are the gifts of love and laughter and wonderful memories to hold.

It doesn’t matter how many hundreds or even thousands of years that Macy’s has been making Christmas bright, no department store can hold a candle to gifts of the heart, the place where memories abide.