When I was a lad, on Christmas mornings some of the remnants of my mother’s side of the family — Grandma Jessie and Uncle Buck and Little Mary, the spinster cousin who kept 20 or so cats in a "Kitty Motel" — would come over for "Santa Claus" and breakfast. Then, when I would have rather taken my toys and gone out to play with friends, my father would load us up for the three-hour drive to Slapout, where his mother, my Grandma Minnie, would be waiting along with assorted aunts, uncles and cousins.
Gifts would be exchanged, and on over in the afternoon we would have Christmas dinner.
Between the gifts and the feasting there was eggnog.
Christmas smells bring back memories.
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, fresh-cut greenery, kitchen delights and such.
For me, the smell of milk-eggs-bourbon with a little nutmeg on top recalls the holiday with my father’s folks.
When we arrived, the assorted aunts and uncles would have already been sampling (there would be a bourbon-less concoction for the kids and my teetotaler mother). My daddy quickly joined in.
Grandma Minnie presided over it all.
Grandma Minnie was the family matriarch and she ruled with an iron hand. Widowed and left with five children — some grown, some still at home — she navigated them through Depression, war and into adulthood. Her word was law, and her way of doing things, and having things done, was not to be questioned.
I was the oldest grandchild, so she seemed to focus particular energy on my training, perhaps hoping that if I got it right the others would fall into line.
On the other hand, if I proved to be a poor example to follow, the others could learn from that as well.
I first realized this when I was about 10, and Grandma Minnie gave me a cigarette lighter. A real nice Zippo.
My mother, who felt smoking was as bad as drinking, was aghast, and told my father so.
It was a delicate moment. How could he question his mother’s gift without questioning her motives, and questioning his mother’s motives was simply not done.
But he did it anyway, for he had more to fear from my mother than from his.
So Daddy diplomatically asked Grandma Minnie if she thought a cigarette lighter was an appropriate gift for a 10-year-old. "Of course it is," was the reply. "A young gentleman should be prepared to light a lady’s cigarette when the occasion calls for it."
I added that to my list of things a "young gentleman" should do — like rise when a lady enters the room and not sit at the table until the women are seated.
Since about half of my aunts smoked, I had a jolly time whipping out my Zippo.
Two years later, the Christmas after I turned 12, Grandma Minnie announced that I was to take another step on the road to adulthood.
Shortly after we arrived on that appointed day, she announced: "Hardy will carve the turkey."
Not "Hardy, would you like to carve the turkey?"
Just "Hardy will …"
I think this came as a relief to my father and the other men assembled, for the year before the turkey-carving had not gone well.
A great deal of eggnog had been consumed and the choice of a carver was apparently predicated on which of the men seemed capable of safely handling sharp objects.
In the end, the bird was returned to the kitchen, where one of the women cut it up.
Selecting me to carve the turkey was as much an act of parental preservation as it was a recognition of my maturity — much less so my carving skill, for I had never carved anything for human consumption.
Nevertheless, the adults thought it was a fine idea (eggnog, remember), and when the object of attention was brought to the table, I was handed a carving knife and fork and told to go at it.
There was considerable comment and advice from those gathered ’round.
There was also considerable eggnog-fueled disagreement. Though my father’s siblings could and would argue stone sober, alcohol always added fuel to the fire. My cousins looked on apprehensively, probably hoping I would botch the carving so that none of them would be handed the knife the next year.
Resolutely, I went about my task.
My mother, her mind unclouded by distilled spirits, suggested I begin with the breast, which I did, with some success. But after a few slices I was down to the breast bone, and neat pieces became chunks.
Then I went for the drumsticks and thighs, which came off fairly easy. Same for the wings.
At that point, I faced a legless, wingless, breastless carcass with no clue what to do next.
So I abandoned "carving" and began "cutting" — and "hacking." Finally, I stuck my hand in and began grabbing and pulling and wrenching. The white meat went on one plate, the dark meat on another, and that which could not be clearly color-coded was piled on a third.
While I was at work, someone made a fresh batch of eggnog, so when I finished everyone was pleased with the results.
Then we ate.
Later that day, after the table was cleared, the dishes washed and the last of the eggnog was being sipped away, one of the adults remarked within Grandma Minnie’s hearing that "the only person who did more damage to the turkey than Hardy was whoever killed it."
No one came to my defense.
Grandma Minnie sat silent.
And next Christmas, the turkey was carved in the kitchen.
Harvey H. ("Hardy") Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist and occasional Op-Ed/Features writer for The Star. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.