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Rheta Johnson: Ghosts of Christmas past

 

Rheta Grimsley Johnson

 

THOMASVILLE, Ga. -- While the rest of the country is shoveling and shivering, South Georgia is at its loveliest. The camellias are blooming, live oaks keep their leaves and trees loaded with bright-orange kumquats and satsumas are exotically common. 

 

I'm not sure if it was provoked by the season, the place or the company, but I dreamed about my grandmother's house last night. I've been told by someone wise never to try to recount your dreams, which are boring to everyone but you. I often ignore wise advice. 

 

Already I was missing my grandmother. That happens a lot during the holidays, especially when I find myself driving through a landscape so familiar that even the dirt smells right. It doesn't have to be Georgia; anything along the same latitude will do. 

 

I was here to visit a friend. She lives in a secluded, unpainted and marvelous old family mansion on the road flanked by quail plantations between Tallahassee, Fla., and Thomasville, perhaps the loveliest of all Georgia towns. 

 

My grandmother lived in a small town farther west. The paint on her farmhouse was only a distant memory by the time I came along. The rooms were big and the ceilings high, but that's about all the place had in common with my friend's grand house. 

 

But I was, after all, sleeping on a South Georgia screen porch in December while a dew so heavy it sounded like rain pelted the pines. I was transported. 

 

To me as a child, everything about my grandmother's house was magical. I loved every nook and cranny. I especially loved December visits, when I could sleep on homemade flannel sheets beneath so many quilts it was tough to turn in bed. 

 

There was central heat, of sorts. Each morning my grandmother wrapped me in a blanket and rushed me through unheated rooms to the kitchen, where a pot belly stove was central to all activities.  

 

We ate breakfast on a small kitchen table the color of egg yolks. My grandfather broke the fast in a spectacular meal of several courses. He began with a bowl of cereal, and progressed to a big plate of grits, sausage and eggs and, on some days, fish roe. He slathered his biscuits with a jelly made from mayhaws, a swamp berry. This was, of course, before the invention of cholesterol. 

 

I have the yellow table now, and I wonder how all of that food fit on that saltine-size surface. 

 

A cedar branch kept fresh in a saucer of water served as the Christmas tree. It had a string of colored lights and was placed on my grandfather's desk in the entry hall.  

 

I've seen some remarkable Christmas trees in my six decades, including those in the windows of Paris' finest department stores and in America's fancy Biltmore House. I saw one placed in the middle of a downtown Natchez, Miss., street, creating an instant roundabout. 

 

None made as much of an impression as a branch in a saucer in South Georgia. 

 

When I awoke from my dream, I tried to tell my friend about her starring role in it. She was remodeling my grandmother's house, yet not changing its character. The pie safe was full in the pantry, and the mantel clock was still keeping time. 

 

But I could not find adequate words to explain why this was such high honor.

 

 

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