A Very Strange Christmas Indeed
by Jeeems Akers
“I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all year.”
To say this has been an unusual Christmas season is a gross understatement.
As I write this missive, I’m back at home in Springboro, Ohio. Today, we visited dad in rehab. He will spend Christmas Day there.
Ima and I are staying in mom and dad’s house while we are in town. These days, I have to get up two or three times a night to go to the bathroom. Each trip passes me by mom’s old chair; the place where she would sit often at night, always with a Bible in her lap.
In the darkness I can almost see her silhouette.
The house feels so empty without her—without her laugh.
Tomorrow, Christmas Day, we will gather for a holiday dinner (to keep the tradition alive). We will take some food to dad.
But he doesn’t eat much these days.
In other ways, this has been an extraordinary Christmas: recently celebrating with Danita’s kids at the College of the Ozarks (the subject of my last “vision” missive); the incredibly surprising performance by grandson baby Jeemes, (now seven years old) in his school musical (“A Peanut Butter Christmas”); a nice early Christmas meal at Kimberly’s house; and, a family outing to Bullwinkle’s Restaurant in Miamisburg, Ohio, capped off by a showing of “It’s A Wonderful Life” at the renovated movie theater downtown.
In Ohio, it will be an unseasonably warm Christmas Day with temperatures expected to reach almost seventy degrees.
Very un-Christmas like outside!
It is a strange holiday season in other ways: yet another pandemic variant—Omicron—is sweeping across the nation and globe as a serious case of COVID-fatigue seems to be spreading almost as fast; Russian troops are massing on the Ukrainian border; a shadowy cyberwar is rippling through the Middle East; tensions are growing with China; the stock market is on a rollercoaster ride; help wanted signs are everywhere; teachers and nurses are leaving their professions in droves; the elites appear to be escaping into the metaverse or space; our country seems to be more divided than at any time since the Civil War; and, the price of gas and goods are escalating daily.
Even the most optimistic individuals around me appear nervous about the prospects of the coming year.
So, I’d like to retreat to my favorite Christmas memory, back to pre-pandemic days and much, much simpler times. Those of you who are long-time readers will recognize the story. I tell it as often as I can. The story goes back several decades now, to a time when I served as the Director of the June Buchanan School—a small, private school located on the Alice Lloyd College campus—in remote Pippa Passes, Kentucky. Our students were from the rural Appalachian Mountains, a mixture of kids from local families, campus families and a scattering of kids from professional families in nearby communities.
As I’ve said many times, running the school, and working with those incredible kids and families, were the best years of my life.
What made the vision work (it was Dr. Jerry Davis’s idea originally) was a special group of highly motivated teachers who believed in our mission of providing a high quality, college preparatory education for our students. In those years, our usual Christmas tradition was a school-sponsored dinner party at a restaurant in nearby Hazard or Pikeville, where our faculty and staff exchanged mostly gag gifts and enjoyed each other’s company. (A pair of pink-laced handcuffs made the rounds year-after-year as the most memorable gag gift for the couples).
Gary Gibson reminded me last year of a prank we pulled on John Jukes (one of the JBS teachers) during one of our holiday dinners at the La Citadel, a restaurant perched high atop a mountain on the outskirts of Hazard, Kentucky. The road getting to the restaurant went straight up the mountain, with several sharp cutbacks. The climb was a worthy challenge for the best vehicle transmissions. At any rate, with all of us assembled, we slipped the waitress a ten-spot and had her announce—with a decided sense of urgency—that a red Jeep was rolling down the mountain road, careening out of control. John leaped to his feet with a shout (nearly pulling off the tablecloth in the process) and sprinted to the exit. Only to find his new red Jeep was exactly where he parked it.
John didn’t think it was nearly as funny as we did …
Ah, the joy of a well-timed prank!
But one year, we departed from this restaurant party tradition.
I’m not sure whose idea it was.
We decided to select a needy family in our school population and instead of spending money on the usual white elephant or secret Santa gifts that none of us ever used, we pooled our money and encouraged the entire school population to donate food stuffs, toys and money. As I recall, the students eagerly participated in the effort.
Our choice was the Slone family. They had two kids in school. To help defray tuition costs, the mother went above the call of duty in cleaning the school after hours and helping provide other tasks as needed. She was a blessing to us all.
Her husband was out of work. He had gone through a number of surgeries (he lifted up his shirt one day to show me his stomach, chest and back which were crisscrossed by a number of railroad-looking post-surgery scar tracks).
He was one of those individuals who was a magnet for bad luck. No fault of his own. Nothing ever seemed to work out. Most of you know people like that.
Like many men who lived in the mountains in those days, if you weren’t fit enough to work in the underground coal mines, there was no work available. (Today, years of well-meaning but ultimately destructive social welfare programs have spawned generations of young men in the mountains who deplore the idea of a hard day’s work and use all their creativity to get “on the draw.” An ongoing opioid epidemic only exacerbates the problem).
At the time, the Slone’s didn’t have two nickels to rub together.
They were as poor as a pair of church mice.
They were the neediest of the needy.
One cold-gray, snowy evening, the entire complement of JBS faculty and staff met at the school. We loaded up in a convoy of cars to make the slippery trek up a narrow “holler” to the trailer where the Slone’s lived. The unmistakable smell of burning coal lingered in the air.
We all huddled together, crammed inside the trailer’s small but cozy living room.
We sang Christmas carols.
We distributed foodstuffs, toys and money to the family.
There were tears of joy from both recipients and givers of the gifts.
I will never forget the warm glow I felt inside that evening.
The frigid weather outside could not dampen that feeling.
That was my best Christmas … ever.
I remember it like it was yesterday.
That memory sustains me. It keeps me thinking about the good that humans can do at this special time of year. The memory is also a helpful, healing balm in these troubled times.
As a final note, Ima and I wish each of you a Merry Christmas and a joyous, healthy and prosperous 2022!