Being raised as the adopted child of a middle-aged man and woman labeled to be of America’s Greatest Generation hinted at the trajectory of my character. Looking back, I had no idea that my future expectations were being constructed from my earliest days. And little did I know how much society would evolve, consuming those expectations and casting an entirely new set of realities in its wake.
From toddler days to the teenage stage, life was straightforward. Days started before the sun roused and ended as the sun disappeared. What happened in-between was a life of convention, dictated by seasons and responsibilities, as well as the convictions of a stalwart Southern Baptist woman. During the week, daddy would walk out the door, lunch box and thermos in hand, to work a day’s shift in town where he dyed thread at the textile mill. Mama remained at home, the proverbial housewife; however, to me, she worked harder than any man I knew. On Sunday, daddy donned his suit, mama, her best dress, and we’d pile into the Chevy Chevelle and join others at Bethlehem Baptist, the church closest to home.
In decision making, I was a non-entity as most children were to parents of this generation and geography; plans, even dinner choices, weren’t altered because of my wants. Mountain living was certainly challenging to those whose preferred spontaneity, but for my family and those closest to us, we knew no other way. Traditions of simplicity and legacy governed our daily walk, how families raised their children, the values they embraced, their attitudes, their morals and actions.
Every decision and action was purposeful.
The only exception to any routine arrived with the holidays, especially Christmas. It wasn’t that things were different; they were more intense. It was Sunday on steroids. The unannounced visits. The never-ending food. The daily church services. The family time. For us, the season had nothing to do with material gifts, but everything to do with flashes of homemade time. Ordinary life, inconveniences too, took back seat to spiritual and familial priorities. Year-after-year, I longed for the holiday season when schedules were broken and days, even meals, transformed from simple mashed potatoes to decadent sweet potato casserole coated with sugar and pecans.
The excitement was unmistakable: lingering longer with family without regard to distance or the time it took to get home; anticipating and indulging in Aunt Sophia’s homemade coconut cake, which she reserved only for Christmas; buying a dress from Golds Department Store, the only store-bought dress of the year, and wearing it proudly as I sang in the Christmas cantata; laying for hours in front of a roaring fire with daddy, enjoying its crackling and soon the popping of corn over the open flame; taking the scheduled and shrewd drive on Christmas eve to spot all the multi-colored lights throughout the city providing Santa enough time to drop my solitary gift under the tree.
The season was a magnet, grabbing hold of the best of life and plopping it right in my lap.
As the years passed and I grew older with a family of my own, as each year drew to its end, I awaited with childlike excitement the vitality of the season. Instead of that Christmas state of mind, exhaustion arrived. There were schedules to keep, presents to buy, meetings and parties to frequent, emails to send, babysitters to arrange, and houses to prepare. Where had my Christmas gone? Perhaps I had become complacent in the life my parents had created and I had lived, one that was centered on their traditions, values and circumstances. I expected the same familial experience, but I had not taken into account how deep I would have to dig to retain those patterns of life. Plus, I had discounted how society would change, how I would change.
For the better part of twenty years, my parents had prepared me for life the only way they knew how, imparting in me values and traditions established by their parents nearly a century earlier. The circle of life, we call it now. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I fully understood the scope of what they had given me, the battle they waged with society to keep me sheltered within the confines of the age-old ways. They, like their parents, had no control over the evolution of the world, and they could have never imagined that, among other things, a small gadget held in the palm of your hand could hold and dominate your entire world.
I somewhat blame my parents for instilling this grand expectation within me but ironically, eternally grateful they did. As each season unfolds, I return and embrace my parent’s memory, and intentionally recreate at least one moment. Whether it be taking that Christmas Eve drive, making Aunt Sophia’s coconut cake or finding the time to drop by a neighbor’s house and simply visit, I will not let those traditions slip away.
In the end, we build the life we choose, and certainly, unforeseen circumstances cloud our greatest of expectations. Nevertheless, whether I have succeeded or failed to translate that life into the modern world in which I find myself, I consider those years as the touchstone of my character.