Tri-Lake area residents tell of special Christmas memories

By Wayne Bryan Published December 19, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
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Perhaps more than at any other time of year, Christmas is for memories. It is a special time when people come together, lessons are learned, and things happen that are carried all through life. This holiday season, the Tri-Lakes Edition asked several residents of the region to share their most cherished Christmas memories.

A song heard in the night

Jeff Root, dean of the School of Humanities, Ouachita Baptist University, Arkadelphia

Many Christmas stories come either from the joys of one’s childhood or the joys of watching one’s child during this time of year when we celebrate the birth of our savior. As the father of a daughter, I’ve experienced just how hard plastic can be when you’re trying to snap toy kitchen sets together, and then there was the Barbie car that ran only in reverse. I had to explain to Abby that we rescued it from the Island of Misfit Toys.

For me, though, my most unusual Christmas story was not one I experienced but one I heard from my father, Paul Root. It happened six years before I was born, and I was an adult when I first heard the story. While visiting my parents, my father asked me to listen to a recording. Dad is a quartet man, so I knew I’d be listening to four voices in harmony. I was correct in that it was a quartet, but it wasn’t the usual suspects.

This was a quartet I had not heard before, and the recording sounded like some decades had passed. It also was a live performance, and when a song ended and a spoken voice introduced the next, I finally asked, “Who is that?” I was surprised to hear, “It’s me. That’s my quartet from the Army.” I’ve seen photos of my parents and heard recordings from their early adult years, but this was my Dad at 22. It was a revelation. Then came the story.

The “Short Timers” (I guess none of them planned a long career in the Army) left the base late one lonely Christmas Eve. The small town of Nelligan, Germany, didn’t offer many diversions, and they found their way to the town square. It was near midnight when the quartet began to sing Christmas carols.

Only a decade earlier, the Germans had surrendered to advancing Allied troops. The emotions of war losses were still fresh, and not all hostility was in the past. Yet when the American soldiers began to sing “Silent Night,” shutters on apartment windows over the town square businesses opened, townspeople leaned out, and suddenly it was a very large choir. Though for some the words were “Silent Night” and for others they were “Stille Nacht,” the divisions evaporated that night.

A day for living

Verónikha Salazar, associate dean of students, Henderson State University, Arkadelphia

On Dec 24, 1985, my mother was very alive. She had been in bed for months, and she could hardly move due to illness, but this Christmas Eve, she was awake and sitting up. She was talking and eating, though still very weak. To us, it seemed she had been “miraculously” healed overnight.

When midnight arrived, she called each of us, one at a time, into her bedroom and gave us each something she had written and some things she had made for us. She used to be a seamstress, so for the girls, she made beautiful long dresses. For my brother, she made pants and shirts. We don’t know where, when or how she had made all this during her illness. We just knew that she had made them for us. We were happy. We laughed and talked like there was no tomorrow.

Sadly, she passed away on Jan. 9, 1986. We were all too little to remember many things about her, but we vividly remember our last Christmas with her. We remember her laughter, her touch and her words. She taught us that presents were not as important as the time you spend with those whom you love. You should spend each time like that, as if it is going to be your very last … or theirs.

A gift of appreciation

Roy Wilson, teacher, administrator and historian, Sheridan

An early Christmas memory of mine includes me sitting on a relative’s lap practicing writing letters on a green chalkboard. Was that the reason I would spend 40 years in education? Did it support my need to inquire about Christmas traditions experienced by my older relatives? What they cherished would become meaningful for me to also cherish.

Can you truthfully imagine on Christmas morning children receiving only an orange as a present? When I found that to be my parents’ experience, my Christmas wishes for the latest toy didn’t seem to matter so much. Growing up in southern Grant County during the 1920s and ’30s, my relatives would have enjoyed the annual Christmas play at the church where a “community” tree sheltered homemade items touched by a love less known today. Can’t you just see that fake cotton Santa beard, scripts written to instill moral lessons and joyous laughter unbridled by social coolness or judgmental dislike? Children’s hopes and dreams, free from the knowledge of how soon poverty would make them unattainable, were gifts of that simpler time. I honor the greatest Christmas gifts my parents gave me: appreciation of what you have, the practice of frugality and the will to always seek progress.

The next two stories date from when I asked for Christmas memories in 2011, but they are well worth repeating.

Christmas shining through the tree

Nikki Launius, executive director of the Malvern/Hot Spring County Chamber of Commerce

I remember all the kids going with my father to cut down a tree for Christmas. We kept picking out big ones, but Daddy said those were too big to bring into the house. Finally one was selected, and we brought it back home.

While we decorated it, my mother played Christmas music on the record player. They were the old songs that kids knew, like “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.”

This was also special, I remember, because it was the first time the kids were allowed to put on the aluminum-foil icicles. That seemed a big deal.

After the tree was decorated, my oldest sister and I lay on the floor with our heads under the tree, right next to the tree stand, and looked up through the branches at the twinkling lights. I remember feeling so excited I felt I could burst. Santa Claus was coming, and we didn’t want to wait.

Today, as I thought about that, I could still see those lights, smell the tree and get all excited about Christmas again.

A lesson in giving

Melba Shepard, curator of the Bauxite Museum

Growing up in Bauxite, there was nothing quite as exciting as Christmas at our house on top of Sand Hill, where I was born in 1940. There were certain things we always looked forward to at Christmas, and we knew we would not be disappointed. We always had a bag with an apple, an orange, mixed nuts and hard candy, along with a few toys. We were not well off but always had enough to consider the Christmas season special.

The Christmas that stands out to me was long ago, but one I recall with clarity. There was a family at the bottom of Sand Hill that was hurting. Their house had burned, along with the entire contents, and a little girl my age would be getting nothing for Christmas.

I had never received two dolls at one time, but for some reason, I did that year. They were identical, except one was dressed in pink and the other in blue. My mother sat me down and told me about the family’s tragedy and wondered aloud what we could do to help. I will confess that my first reaction was not to give up one of my babies, but with a little coaxing from Mother, that is exactly what happened.

That year, I learned at an early age that it is more blessed to give than to receive — well, almost. The child was so thankful that we chose to share with her. I walked away with just one doll but took with me the sight of the little girl with a heart filled with joy.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan compiled the stories. He can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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