In the deep recesses of my mind, tucked away in a well-protected crevasse is Heartland. Memories of my boyhood reside there. It is a place where a boy’s picturesque view of his world makes time stand still. I do not often go there, but when I do a warm memory always welcomes me. Let’s go there now. A memory of my boyhood is waiting for us.
On this Sunday morning in 1960, the parsonage of the Methodist Church of Corydon, Iowa is bustling with Christmas activity. There is a dinner to fix, 9:00 AM service to attend, presents to open, and a feast to consume. Dad, Mom, Pamela, and I are each doing our part.
As Pamela and I do our part, Major, my 175-pound, apricot colored mastiff watches us set the dinner table. Put a hand-carved nativity scene mid-table, atop a white tablecloth. Arrange four place settings, each with two forks, china plate, knife (blade toward the plate), two spoons, water goblet, and wine glass. Then add a rolled, bright red napkin exclamation point to each.
Then, in the kitchen, Major watches Mom prepare dinner. She is trying to have every dish ready, or nearly ready, before church, so after church finishing touches will make dinner ready for serving. On the stove, tomato soup simmers in a pot. Peeled potatoes boil in an 8-quart stockpot. Broth for gravy sits in a 2-quart saucepan. And green bean casserole bakes in the oven. With each stir that Mom gives a pot, the drool hanging from Major’s jowls lengthens.
Major’s eyes widen as Mom looks in the refrigerator at the salad bowl containing an apple, raisin, and whipped cream concoction. Then at the smaller bowls holding homemade pickles—cucumber, pepper, and melon. And a plate of neatly aligned deviled eggs, lightly sprinkled with paprika.
When Mom places three loaves of uncut, freshly baked bread—white, cinnamon swirl, and mixed-grain—on a wood platter on the counter, Major fidgets. When she places a big slab of butter on a dish next to the bread, drool streams from both sides of Major’s jowls.
Nearby on the counter are two jars of jam (one rhubarb-strawberry, the other cherry), a jar of crabapple jelly, and one of peach preserves. Beside them are a cherry pie, apple pie, and a platter of homemade cookies, assorted bars, fudge, and two types of divinity. An 8-pound smoked ham sits in a pan on the other side of the counter. When Major see it, splat! His drool hits the floor.
Table set and meal as ready as can be, we head to church. Dad drives. Mom sits beside him, fiddling with her hair. Pamela and I in the backseat, dreaming of what awaits us after church. Major at home.
At the church, Dad, stands in the narthex, greeting parishioners. Mom, Pamela, and I stand beside him. I hear Dad thank the Milners for the eggs they gave our family. Tell Mrs. Gargin how much we appreciate her cinnamon bread. I see Dad embrace Dr. Gramel for giving us a ham.
My ears perk up when Mom gives Francine a hug of thanks for the gift of dill pickles and strawberry-rhubarb jam and inquires about her niece, and my pal, Julie. Next, a thanks for a bushel of apples, follows a thanks for bread and fresh milk, and a thanks for a cherry pie.
On it goes as Dad walks down the aisle to the altar. A nod here, a wink there, acknowledge the generosity of particular parishioner. While during the sermon, Dad, shares God’s word, I look around. People smile, some laugh, and a few cry—as they receive Dad’s gift.
Riding home, warmness pervades the car that has yet to warm up. We speak no words. Giving and getting occupy my thoughts.
Once home, the warmness of the car carries Pamela and me into the living room. There a Christmas tree (a gift) stands guard over a pile packages. Pamela and I sit on the floor, Dad on the couch. Dutifully waiting for Mom to join us, we listen to her bang and clang, open and close, in the kitchen putting the finishing touches on dinner.
Mom’s ear-piercingly-loud “OH NO!” shatters our reverie. We dash to the kitchen. There, Mom stands over Major. Lying on his bed in the kitchen corner, a ham-bone is by his side. Belly swollen, breathing labored, the source of Major’s misery is the 8-pound ham that is now inside him.
A memory about a Christmas long ago waits my arrival at Heartland. It reminds me that a gift’s true value resides not in the item, but in the spirit in which it is given. That personal labor adds value to a gift. As does giving a gift freely with no expectation. That a gift’s value increases when the getter partakes of it joyfully and the giver expresses thanks genuinely. How value grows exponentially when the warmth that a gift generates in the hearts of the receiver and giver warms the hearts people around both.
As for Major, well, miserable Major teaches me a lesson about taking. That some people take because of lust or greed, others take to fulfill what they lack or need. Sometimes, as is the case with Major, people take because of alienation. Regardless of reason, taking breaks trust. Mom leaving the ham on the countertop is an act of trust. Major eating it, broke the trust. I will think twice before doing so again. As this trip to Heartland reminds me, there is a place at the table, part to play, and gifts to receive for every member of our family except Major. Having none, he takes the ham.
Over the years, I have come to see Christmas not as an event but a way of living. That generous gifts of belonging, supporting, and love are what generate the warmth that knows no time or season. Nurturing faith, hope, charity in myself nurtures the same in others. Doing what I can, where I am, with what I have is always my greatest gift.
That day, as I sit at the dinner table, the events of the morning sit with me. I think of each bite as a gift, every morsel the fruit of someone’s labor. How the abundance before me, is, even with no ham, nonetheless major feast. A moan from the kitchen reminds me that I have what I need, no need to take more.
PS. In the year ahead, I will give freely of my gifts and express gratitude for my abundance.
Note: This is the 26nd post in the Heartland Series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.