The Best Present
It seemed to be the worst Christmas present ever as I unwrapped it.
I now value it as the best I’ve received.
It was Christmas 1973. I was a seventeen-year-old high school senior.
The present was from my Uncle Bill.
Always my favorite uncle.
He still is.
I held the cheap brown booklet in my hand, wondering what it was.
I flipped it open. It was a blank journal.
There was a handwritten note to me.
Encouraging me to write about my life.
Here’s a portion of what he wrote.
Write about the things that turn you on– the things you like, and the things you love. And also write about the pain you see and feel– the things that upset you or disturb you. In writing these things down in this, your little book, you will be discovering parts of yourself that lie deep within, next to the soul of your being . . .
I still have the original note.
It’s still tucked in the journal.
It’s still the best Christmas present I’ve ever received.
That first journal sits on the shelf next to the seventy-eight I’ve filled since then,
Thanks Uncle Bill.
Most of all, thanks for always believing in me.
Even when I didn’t believe in myself.
That’s what favorite uncles do.
A copy of Uncle Bill’s Christmas note.
Not only is Bill Iles a wonderful uncle and renowned artist, he is also a gifted writer. This Christmas narrative is an example of his descriptive style of writing.
A Handmade Christmas
By Bill Iles
The headache kicked in as I was standing in line at the K-Mart checkout counter. The line was being held up while the cashier checked on the price of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle for the lady in front of me. Behind me two nagging children were pleading with their mother for a Disco Barbie and Super Mario Brothers.
Over the intercom Muzak was playing a generic, unending version of “The Little Drummer Boy”, occasionally interrupting it for a Blue Light Special, then continuing the bland song to no one’s discernible notice. I finally made it through the checkout and left the drone of the music, the strident voices of the shoppers, the whining children, and the harsh glare of the fluorescent lights behind. I walked out into the cool, dark December evening.
As I walked to my truck another Christmas came to mind. The memory was in marked contrast to my K-Mart visit. The year was 1948 and the place was a house near Dry Creek. I was only five years old at the time, but that Christmas remains fixed in my heart and mind, not for gifts given or received, but for something more singular and sustaining.
At that time the nine other members of my family peopled my immediate world. Frank and Dosia Iles were my grandparents. We called them Pa and Doten. Our parents were Lloyd and Pearl Iles. Clayton, the oldest of the five Children, was a freshman in high school. Lloydell and Marjorie Nell were in junior high and JoAnn, the baby of the family, was less than a year old that December. Rounding out our family was my grandmother’s sister, Louise Wagnon. We called her Aunt Lou. She was single and like my grandfather, a schoolteacher.
We all lived in a sprawling house built by my great grandfather long before I was born. The house was located at the end of a mile long red clay road that connected us to the main gravel road that led on two miles to Dry Creek and some twenty-five miles or so further to DeRidder. Those were the narrow limits of my world in 1948.
It was the year Clayton, Lloydell, and Marjorie firmly resolved to make all of our own decorations from things found in nature. The idea most probably stemmed from Aunt Lou. On chilly December afternoons she would take us on long outing in the woods behind the house to come home laden with boughs of holly, pine, mistletoe, and cedar. Our pockets would be overflowing with acorns, hickory nuts, sweet gum balls and chinquapins.
We fashioned wreaths and autumnal bouquets with the green boughs tied with bits of shiny red ribbon and hung them with gay abandon all around the living room. The room was filled with the odors of pine and cedar. We strung the acorns, hickory nuts, sweet gum balls, chinquapins, clusters of holly and red berries on twine string Daddy saved from Purina feed sacks.
In Big Chief tablets we colored line after line of red and green strips until all the paper wrapping was peeled away from our crayolas and the crayon was down to a mere nub. We carefully cut out the strips and they formed colorful links to a paper chain when the end of each strip was joined with paste made from flour and water. The chain circled the entire room, draped from window to window and door-to-door. Aunt Lou drew Christmas scenes on each pane of glass with shavings from soap. Each scene was connected to some story from her own childhood under this same roof.
Daddy hitched “Old Bill”, a wonderfully tame and gentle white horse, to a slide and we went down to a field overgrown with young pine saplings, which he called the “new ground”, and picked out a tall perfectly shaped tree. With a few quick strokes from his crosscut saw the tree was down and on the wood slide. The clinking of the trace chains, as Old Bill struck an easy gait with the light load, seemed to my young ears, what jingle bells might sound like. Laughter echoed through the pines as we brought our trophy home.
The tree was positioned in the southwest corner of the living room with the aid of some guy wires made of baling wire. Perching precariously on the top of the tree was a large star Clayton or Lloydell had fashioned out of cardboard and covered with silver foil. The few store bought decorations we used from year to year consisted of a dozen glass balls or random colors, a blue glass bird with a broken beak, and a scratchy silver rope that never seemed to reach around the tree enough times, regardless of the number of different ways we tried it.
We also used the same icicles from year to year. (They were thicker and more durable than today’s version.) The method of putting the icicles on the tree always touched off a clash of the wills between Aunt Lou and Lloyd. I guess you could call Aunt Lou something of an “icicle purist.” She insisted that we take our time and hang them one strand at a time.
Daddy, who hated anything tedious unless it was something he was directly interested in, adopted the rather casual approach of taking generous handfuls and hurling them toward the topmost branches and letting the silver strands fall where they may. Because Aunt Lou was extremely strong willed and at the same time very patient, we usually followed her lead in the “icicle war” but our Daddy never left the field of battle without letting us know that our “nitpicking with those damn icicles” sure gave him the “willies”
On the Saturday before Christmas, Pa took the kids to DeRidder in his olive-drab green Ford for one splendid day of Christmas shopping. He gave each child $5 to buy nine gifts. The two stores that we spent most of the day in were Morgan & Lindsey’s Variety Store and McGrede’s Five and Dime. The challenge was to buy just the right gift without bumping into the person you were buying the gift for. This was no small task in light of the fact there were four excited, wide eyed Iles kids meandering in and out both stores at the same time.
Secrecy was the order of the day. All packages were hidden in the turtle hull, under the seats, in the globe compartment, in coat pockets and in Pa’s brown leather brief case for the trip home. Somehow we managed to get them all home where they were stashed in closets and under beds until they could be wrapped in seclusion. A deceptively wrapped gift could keep a brother or sister guessing on the wrong track for days.
Our anticipation reached fever pitch on Christmas Eve. After weeks of planning, gathering, coloring, cutting, gluing, soaping, hanging, draping, and wrapping, the night before Christmas had finally arrived. Music was always an integral part of any family gathering and Christmas Eve was no exception.
Most of the family gathered around the upright piano while Marje played song after song. Doten played the violin and Daddy sang in a strong bass voice and played the guitar. Clayton and Lloy sang, too. The songs ran the gamut from Christmas Carols (my least favorite, even then) to anything from “Turkey in the Straw” to forlorn tunes by Hank Williams and Jimmy Rogers.
I sat on the faded linoleum rug, wrapped in a quilt, in a room our weeks of effort had transformed.
The room was lit by firelight from a kerosene lamp and the flickering light cast from the fireplace. Shadows danced across the log beams that supported the ceiling.
The tree was surrounded by an island of brightly wrapped packages that would be there for us in the morning. My stocking hung from the mantle.
With the singular sound of Doten playing the “Tennessee Waltz” on her violin I drifted off to sleep in the arms of my mother, secure and warm, knowing that Christmas was only a dream away.