At the turn of the 20th century, and on into the mid-1950s, life in the Appalachians was a tale of black and white gothic existence.
Hollywood pretends it knows the truth when it shows little girls in tattered coats, handed down many times and mended repeatedly, while men wear overalls and women are covered in dresses, thick stockings and sweaters that sometimes lasted 25 or 30 years.
At Christmas, a scrawny tree was dragged in from the piney woods and decorated with rustic, homemade ornaments and, if possible, strands of popcorn. As Mama told it, each child had an old sock for a stocking. On Christmas morning, nothing thrilled the children more than to find fresh fruit – a real luxury to those who barely had enough to eat.
This story I will always recall her telling: My uncle Doyle, three years old, could not talk plain. He had pulled out an orange and a few pieces of hard candy when he realized the sock was still heavy. He dug back in and found another orange, stuck in the toe of the sock. He was overcome with pure joy.
“Wook!” he exclaimed, dancing around the bare floor and cold room. “Me got another ‘wrange.’”
For the rest of her days, Mama would remember the joy those two oranges gave her baby brother. In the mountains, especially in the Depression, folks would often say, “It’s gonna be a hard candy Christmas” meaning there would be no toys. Only fruit and hard pieces of candy.
Christmas never comes that I don’t think of Mama and her love for peppermint sticks. In fact, in the kitchen of her house, I still have the jar with the last seven or eight peppermint sticks that were left over from the Christmas before she died in February.
Dolly Parton made a Christmas standard of a song called, “Hard Candy Christmas.” Once, Tink and I were discussing songs of hers that would make good movies. I commented, “Hard Candy Christmas would make a terrific movie.”
Dolly replied, “I didn’t write that song. Carol Hall did.”
I was stunned. “It sounds just like you.”
She shrugged. “I didn’t write it but I lived it.”
Later, I read that Carol Hall, a Broadway composer, had been inspired to write the song after reading Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory,” one of my favorite short stories.
Appalachian folks from that era — the one in which Mama was raised — had a mournful woe woven into the timbre of their voices when they recited poems or stories. It was a sad melody born into their voices that never escaped them. It could be chillingly haunting like Mama’s voice when she recited a lengthy ode that she had learned as a child.
A gloomy tome, it is 90 lines long. Mama knew each by heart. Sometimes I, or later my niece, Nicole, would climb into bed with Mama and ask her to tell the story. In her best Appalachian, melancholic tone, she began:
The room was so cold and cheerless and bare,
With its rickety table and one broken chair
A cradle stood empty, pushed up to the wall
And somehow that seemed the saddest of all.
It was a Christmas tale for us, about a man who left his dying wife and baby, without food or heat, to go to The Drinking House Over The Way — the title of the poem. Occasionally, Mama would stop and gather her thoughts but she always remembered all 90 lines.
Over 100 years old, it ends with the lines:
And, please, when I’m gone, ask someone to pray
For him at the drinkin’ house over the way.
Nicole asked Mama to write down the words. Recently, while going through my desk, I found a notebook of Mama’s where, in her distinctive script, she had written the poem. It was almost as powerful in her writing as it was in her voice.
A gothic Christmas tale of Appalachian woe.
[Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of “What Southern Women Know About Faith.” Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her free weekly newsletter.]