Birney Imes: Christmas memories

December 4, 2010 10:15:00 PM

Birney Imes - [email protected]


Friday night after an hour or so of Wassail Fest, my mate and I and another couple slid into a booth of a popular downtown restaurant. The place was packed; we had waited 40 minutes for a table. 


Not that it was a problem; we had put our name on the list and continued our amble down Market Street to the Princess and over to Party and Paper where chef Johnny Wooten was passing out samples of a delicious shrimp bisque he markets. 


If you were there, I don''t have to tell you how lovely the evening was. The weather was perfect; people were gaily attired and in high spirits. Parents, children and local icons like George Irby, Joe St. John and Kelly Tippett were out ... you look at it all and think, "This is quite a place, this odd little village on the banks of a muddy river. This is all right." 


One could drink wassail in a yoga studio, skateboard shop, women''s clothing store and a prissy gift shop. The yoga studio was once The Ritz Cafe and Tamale House run by J.C. Shelton, the father of a classmate, Joe, aka Big Joe Shelton; the women''s shop was once Gardner and Myers Drug Store -- my father was such friends with the Gardner half of the partnership, he named one of his sons for him -- and, as I recall, the gift store was once a loan office. 


A writer could peel back the layers of history attached to any one of these downtown buildings and find compelling stories -- the strivings that took place within those walls, the people who labored, loved and lived within them. What secrets those old bricks and hardwood floors must harbor. 


"OK what was the best Christmas present you ever got?" By now we''re seated and waiting on onion rings and crawfish enchiladas. Our interlocutor was an old friend who I believe was a tent revivalist in an earlier life -- fact is in this life he''s preached in one of Glenn Miller''s country churches in Noxubee, an experience he and preacher Glenn reminisced about as we waited on our order. 


Beth remembered a doll house her mother made for her when she was a little girl and still lived in Memphis. 


"I was so dumbfounded. She had made it using an appliance box that was cut down. You played with it from above. She had divided it into rooms and used pretty wrapping paper for wallpaper. She meticulously constructed the furniture for each room. 


"I was astonished that she had made this in secret at night while I slept." 


Then the preacher, a child of the Delta, told his childhood story. So excited he was about prospects of Santa bringing a Daisy BB gun, he was unable to sleep. Finally, around 1 o''clock, he tiptoed into the living room where he found his hoped-for treasure on the couch. Shortly thereafter, the whole family was awake and up. 


"You remember the old Sears and Roebuck catalogs? My dad and I put the Sears catalog in a box and used it for a target. 


"We shot the BB gun in the living room. After we used up all our BBs, we picked them out of the catalog and shot them again. We stayed up shooting until 6 in the morning. 


"Mama still loves to tell that story," he said. 


As we talked I wracked my brain; I could remember plenty of things Santa brought our children, but the only gifts I could remember were the coats my grandma would give us each year. It was not the coat -- I was probably like a lot of children who looked at the gift of clothing as a waste of good wrapping paper. 


Late in the afternoon on Christmas eve we would eat and exchange gifts with my mother''s side of the family. There were cousins and uncles and aunts and a grandmother -- we were a raucous crew. 


At my grandma''s afterward, it was different. Everything in her house on College Street was old and quiet. There was always Russian tea and roasted pecans. The pecans had come from trees in her backyard. She had gathered, cracked, picked and roasted them. 


I don''t remember exactly what we did at my grandma''s. She and my father would sit and talk. He was an only child, and on that one night in the company of his mother, he became a different man; he relaxed and became himself. I guess we kids ate pecans and were quiet. There was something peaceful, warm and secure about that part of the evening. 


We would wear our presents home on those cold nights. For me the sky on Christmas eve always seems more brilliant than on any other night. As a child, I would look up knowing that all over Earth magical things were happening, and as soon as I got to sleep, they would be happening here. 


Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.