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On Aging with Dr. Roger Branch Sr.: Visiting the past -- Holidays
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Dr. Roger Branch Sr.

When it comes to holidays, seniors are not the only ones who visit the past. If asked about memories most people would mention Christmas - from time spent with favorite people to the smell and taste of rich food and to presents. There is a lot of variation in the content because family tradition and location define what people do, what they treasure. Regardless of differences, many Christians and others delight in Christmas.

With a few exceptions, my visits to Christmases past do not focus on presents but on people and the sounds, smells and tastes of what we did together. Food smells and tastes best when flavored with the talk and laughter of people who are the real feasts of our spirits.

My most memorable Christmas does involve a present. In retrospect, context is everything. In 1940, my father barely survived a ruptured appendix. He would have died if the antibiotics sulfa had not just been introduced. As it was, appendicitis surgery and long recovery disrupted the planting season and cost him the family farm. I did not then understand the reason for the disappearance of his truck or why men came and loaded his best mule and the gentle buckskin horse named Dan onto a truck and took them away. I ran behind them crying, "Bring back my Dan," and for the first time my parents didn't make things right for me. They just stood there and cried.

In the fall, I started to school and by Christmas had worn out my shoes. Daddy brought in a pine for a Christmas tree, which Mother decorated with her red and green paper garlands and paper bells. My only request for a present was new shoes and when I woke on Christmas morning, they were there under the tree -the only thing under the tree. There was nothing for my parents..

That afternoon Daddy's brother, Bill, came with a present from Uncle Ray's new wife, Catherine - a spring-driven train. The uneven floor of our old house often led to track separations and derailments, but that thing was a marvel - not as precious as my new high-top shoes, but a marvel. A few days later, we moved to a little house on a neighboring farm that my father had rented. He was good at starting over.

Usually, our Christmases were complicated. We spent Christmas Eve with Mother's family. The women cooked all sorts of things, including oysters for supper, and the children played. Gifts followed supper. We spent Christmas with the large ranch clan. Some of the men went on a morning quail hunt. Others just waited around for the huge midday meal. Then we ate a lot. With deaths and other disruptions our Christmas celebrations in time shifted to my parents' home, typically on Christmas Eve.

I was always a homeboy. The hunk of land along Reedy Creek where my folks lived was only an anchorage. Home meant the people who lived there, who worked, laughed, sang and played there. Home was grandparents, uncles and aunts, and cousins who lived nearby.

Echoing the song, I was always "home for Christmas" no matter how far away I (later we) roamed. "Home" defined and shaped Christmas for me. Since home is more about people than place, it is they whom I see when I visit Christmases past.

Then came 1953. Annette! She lit up my life and gave Christmas a new glow. She joined my brother, Jimmy, and me in our annual search for the Branch family Christmas tree, except now it had to approach perfection. She plunged me into the warm melee that was Slater Christmas in Cobbtown, a house full of siblings, nieces, nephews, sometimes a grandmother or other kin. Christmas became complicated again - Christmas Eve with theBranches, Christmas day with Slaters. Our brother-in-law, Joe Rogers, had a big farm nearby, so we found time for quail hunts and dove shoots.

Soon after our children were born, Annette declared that she wanted a time for Christmas at our home. And it happened that way, sometimes with complicated maneuvering and miles of travel. Busy but wonderful.

When we lived in North Carolina, home was linked to South Georgia places where our people lived. But in time home became wherever Annette and I lived together. Everything else was secondary. She was home. When we moved to Statesboro in 1970, we could visit our childhood homes and recapture much of their treasure, and we could come back to our home.

Most of the people and places who constituted "home" in my past are gone, available only through visits in my mind." Gone is a cold, dark, empty place. Memories of Christmas lights struggle to illuminate it.

Annette defined home and home lies at the heart of Christmas. So, I will not be home for Christmas, as has been the case for the last three years, although I will spend most of it in the last house we shared. But we have children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, around whom she wound her heart, probably still does. So, I will observe Christmas for them. To do less would be to let her down. I will observe because the Christ whose birth we celebrate has made a new and better home for us, part of his eternal grace of which she also was a special part for me.

Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.



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