Armchair Peregrinations

December 25, 1998

Christmas morning. I'm sitting in front of the tree at my aunt's house in Sumter. On the cassette player is Patsy Cline's "Sweet Dreams," perhaps her finest song: "Why can't I forget the past, start loving someone new, instead of having sweet dreams of you?"

This is where we've come for so many Christmases since I was a child. We'd get up early in the morning, about 4:30, and pile into the carefuly packed 1956 Chevy Bel Air. We children would stake out our spots in the back seat and on the floorboard. Excitement was just palpable as thoughts of the Christmas morning ahead with all the relatives and cousins, presents and good food, kept popping up in in our heads. Childlike enthusiasm for the season just flowed over, thoughts of school were long gone. On the road we'd pass all the familiar landmarks: The Mississippi Gulf Coast; Mobile Bay Bridge and Tunnel; Spanish Fort; and the Florida panhandle and its small towns -- Milton, Marianna, De Funiak Springs, each with its own inviting Main Street, street lamps decked out with Christmas lights, wreaths and other decorations. Ever since I was a small boy, these idiosyncratic little business districts have fascinated me. I'd watch the life blood of those small towns flow up and down the main streets -- traffic, people on sidewalks shopping, and all kinds of uniquely local businesses passing by in the flicker of an instant as I pressed my face against the car window to see as much as possible on those cold December days long ago. Perhaps my favorite town was Thomasville, Ga. I don't know why, just something about it. Maybe it reminded me of Sumter.

I've just gone outside for a moment, and it's cold, cold cold! A damp, bone-chilling cold that accompanies relative humidity readings of 100 percent, as it likely is now. Temperatures are a few degrees above freezing, quite a contrast to the low 80s of last week. But it feels very much like Christmas. The air is so bitingly brisk and invigorating.

Sitting in a familiar armchair in the living room, I'm listening to some more favorite oldies I recorded a couple of years ago. "The Tennessee Waltz" is playing now. What a sad song, but beautiful.

I'm looking at a Christmas gift bag stuffed with small presents, candy and food. It has on it a snowy scene of an old two-story house, all the rooms lit up with warm light at early evening, a snowman in the front yard, and thick layers of snow covering everything. On the inside of the bag are the words, "Home for Christmas." How true! This small city in the middle of South Carolina is, in so many wyas, home for me. Home to untold memories from vacations and visits as a child, and as the starting-out place in my life after college as I began to make my way in the world. Sumter was a haven, a refuge, and it will always hold that claim on my heart.

Pleasing aromas are coming from the kitchen as the Christmas dinner preparations get underway. I smell the wonderful aroma of pole beans and fatback. There will be turkey with cranberry sauce and dressing, ham, barbecue, maracroni, asparagus, beans, and homemade bread.

I may bundle up good and go for a short walk later. The Bradford pear trees all over town have turned crimson red and are shedding their leaves. What a magnificent treat it is to see this color display so late in the season.

The drive here from Charleston was gray, cold, and drizzly, but the countriside looked primed for winter for the first time. Most of the trees are bare by now, but in the woods and in yards and fields, enough of them have sprinkles of yellow and brown leaves still clinging to them to make them appear still half in one season and half in another. Yet, the transition from green leaves to winter's network of bare branches etched in sky is almost complete. Half leaf-filled trees will soon shed what remains of summer and fall, and the landscape will be transformed, as it is each January -- the season of dormancy, rest and quiet. Deep cold, star-filled nights, and crunchy walks on mats of leaves alongside woods opened up to the season's light. Winter starts the land off with a clean slate, dry and uncluttered, waiting for spring.

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