Some of my happiest days at Christmas were spent on in a small farm house down the road from Needs Creek Missionary Baptist Church (and cemetery) just north of Conway, Arkansas.
That was the home of my Uncle Alton and Aunt Mildred.
After my Mom passed away (in 1959) and my grandparents died (1962 and 1963), my Dad was left alone to raise five boys – all about two years apart.
We grew up in survival mode.
We ate a lot of hamburgers and rarely got a full-fledged home-cooked meal. Our house was devoid of “a woman’s touch.”
Uncle Alton was my Dad’s oldest brother. He had been a Major League baseball player (and later a manager) but in his later years, he was a pipefitter by trade. He and Aunt Mildred had a small homestead with a few acres and a pond down the road from the church, where they were faithful attended.
For medical reasons, they were never able to have children. We were nephews but we were just like their children when we visited.
Each Christmas, we packed six of us in my Dad’s 1963 Ford Galaxie and drove for eight hours to Needs Creek. The interstates were not completely finished back then. The 240-mile trip now takes about three and a half hours.
It was dark when we got to the dirt road to their house. You hoped that no one was driving in front of you because it would kick up a pretty good cloud of dust. That road has been paved, by the way.
They were so excited to see us. Uncle Alton would get a carton of vanilla ice cream from the freezer on the back porch and serve us Coca Cola floats. There was always a wooden case or two of Coca Cola in 10-ounce bottles just inside the back door.
Uncle Alton’s house was very plain outside but it was fully decorated for Christmas inside. And best of all, there were a lot of presents under that tree.
It was small home and some of us slept on a pull-out sofa and sometimes we slept on pallets on the floor.
On Christmas morning, we would wake up to the smells of a country breakfast, with scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage and homemade biscuits and gravy. Man, Aunt Mildred was a great cook. And we never got a breakfast like that in Tulsa when I was a kid.
We ate like kings. Aunt Mildred made pumpkin pies from scratch and when she found out I like coconut cakes, she made one every time we visited.
We could count on a Christmas ham or turkey with buttery dinner rolls, mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce and all the fixins. One of my favorites was the black-eyed peas that Aunt Mildred canned each fall. Her homemade Muscadine jelly was great with the biscuits and rolls.
Uncle Alton and Aunt Mildred loved us in a very special way that my brothers and I needed because of the loss of my Mother. They wanted to know every detail of our lives. And they gave my Dad a much-needed and much-deserved break from serving as mom and dad to a rambunctious bunch of boys.
They made Christmas seem like it should be. Everyone should experience Christmas in the country at least once. On Christmas Day, we would get cleaned up and put on our Sunday clothes and head down to Needs Creek Baptist Church. There, we got a white paper lunch sack filled with ribbon candy and fruits and nuts.
Uncle Alton and Aunt Mildred, who were almost retired by then, loved the Lord Jesus and their faith meant so much to them. They helped pass that along to my brothers and me. I saw a spiritual side to my Dad in Arkansas that I rarely saw in Tulsa. He really admired his older brother and had plans to retire in Arkansas but chose not to after Uncle Alton passed away.
When Aunt Mildred became a widow, things changed. My brothers and I were grown and it was impossible to spend Christmas in Arkansas. She moved into an apartment in Conway.
When we traveled with our kids to North Carolina to visit Susan’s parents, we always tried to stop and visit Aunt Mildred. Even when she was in her 80s, she would apologize for not having a big meal for us because she was so hospitable. She is in Heaven now, too.
We still have occasion to pass through Conway from time to time and I can’t help thinking about Christmas in the 1960s at Uncle Alton’s house.
Christmas in the country with people who truly love you is hard to beat.