The drive back to Texas, from Columbus, was as thought-provoking as the drive there. I suppose that I had experienced some closure, however, as I felt more a peace about Grandma’s passing. Thought-provoking perhaps, but the return trip was not a quiet one. The countryside was decorated and lighted with Yuletide, and I sang Christmas carols until I was hoarse. Mother had put up the tree by the time of my return. She collects ornaments, and the tree is very special to her. To me, it always seemed over burdened with festivity, to the extent that one could hardly see the tree. She loved it, and wanted to see each sugar plum fairy and other curios out of the box and onto the tree!
I thought back to childhood. Grandma told the story about how she would bake and decorate cookies to hang on the tree; many, of various holiday shapes and frosted colors. After she had selectively hung each one, and had retreated to the kitchen for more holiday cooking, I would proceed to take one bite out of every cookie that was within reach. A three-foot strip around the bottom of the tree would have gingerbread boys, wreaths, Santas, reindeer, holly, moons, and stars with a single munch from them, while the cookies along the top section of the tree would be in tack. Of course, I would not admit to having done such a thing. It must have been elves! That was my story and I stuck to it.
I recall when we went to Emerson Burkhart’s grand old house during the holidays. His brother owned a Christmas tree farm in rural Ohio, and Emerson would always get a beautifully shaped, huge tree, which he placed in the great room. It stood flamboyantly tall and wide spread, and was visible in its majesty the very moment one entered the house. However, Burkhart, being more flamboyant than the tree itself, would not decorate the splendid, fragrant specimen. He claimed that it was as beautiful as it was ever going to be. In the eye of this beholder, I see great pleasure in his stark realism. However, Mother’s anthology of holiday spirit is always wrought with the love of the season, and one cannot avoid spellbinding moments of gawking, and aching contortions while stretching to see what is hung on the side next to the wall.
There was a slight chill in the North Texas air as mother selected some Christmas music and proceeded into the kitchen to bake bread and pastries. The tunes were mellow, and the aromas were intoxicating. I settled into a comfortable chair and began to read from the Pappy’s small journal that I had discovered.
I still knew very little about my father. I had the excerpts from Man’s Search for Himself, the small photo, and a small collection of priceless memories. Mother steadfastly would not discuss the subject. Still, as time went on, I would hear a word or two from some source, or I would call a Fought from the telephone directory in some town as I passed through, or I would find some memento of his presence, and place it into the puzzle. Pappy was in my thoughts often, and therefore a significant and living part of my life. I knew that someday I would look into his eyes again. This little journal included some insight that added impetus to my reverie. At this moment, as the smell of fresh baked bread filled the house, and as Adeste Fideles hummed in the background, I would have to say that what I read added a flame to the Yule log that was crackling in the hearth.
I began by reading what appeared to be a diary entry, written in the style of a letter, that Pappy had composed. If it was a letter, I doubt that he ever mailed it, or intended to. I would like to share this interesting passage with you. Again, I will use the specific font to simulate, and accentuate his writings. Furthermore, except for some minor editing, I have tried to duplicate his wording and grammar as closely as possible. There will be places in this narrative where I may choose to quote from some other areas of the written contemplations in this small notebook, and I will use the same font to indicate such.
It was Christmas again. Tinsel snow lay in drifts around bright shinny toys in store windows, and laughing Santa Clauses sang sales with the chorusing of carols rattling against the diaphragms of loud speakers. A false note of gayety touched all the seasons splendor, or at least to me.
I felt dismal. Black ugliness framed the vision of my mind. I was eighteen at the time, and had just returned home to Columbus, Ohio for the holidays. My restless feet had carried me far from bed and hearth, but my wanderings had brought me no closer to the answer of my unreasoning yearnings of ambition. I was driven to achieve, with little knowledge of exactly what it was I want to achieve, and with no design or purpose. So I came home. For the holidays was my excuse, but really, it was because I had no other place to go.
My mother welcomed me, delighted, and as always made up my bed, and put me in my room as if I had never left. (I may add, as she has so many times since, when life and I have reached an impasse and I have returned to sit and lick my wounds.)
“Grandma and grandpa will be anxious to see you.” she said.
“Yuk, I know.” I growled, as I ate the sandwich she had fixed.
I loved my grandparents, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to see them. They ran a second-hand store on the other side of town, and to get there I would have to take a bus. I knew that it was only an excuse, because the inconvenience was not the reason for my reluctance. It was my failure to find a place in life, to produce, to begin to find purpose and to work at it and as I knew they would expect from me. I was less a knight in shining amour than a hobo on life’s highway, not bent on conquest, but a nap in the shade. However, I went.
It was Christmas Eve, and though I knew they would be at mother’s Christmas day, I knew, also it would hurt them if I didn’t see them as soon as I returned home.
The bell over the door tinkled as I entered the dimly lit store. My grandmother came out from the rear, and stood, looking at me, almost unbelieving.
“Donn,” she cried, “Is that you?”
In a moment I had my arms around her, as my grandfather stepped behind her and grasped my hand. It was a joyous, tearful homecoming.
We talked for a long time, around the table in their kitchen, and I unwound like a taught spring released from a broken clock. All my frustrations and dismay, self-doubts and incriminations tumbled out like Humpty Dumpty and broke around me in a savage anger that surprised even myself.
My grandparents listened quietly and after a while my grandmother began to try to sooth me, talking to me in a low voice, and assuring me that the way I felt was only a passing fancy. My grandfather just sat there, saying nothing, rolling and smoking innumerable cigarettes.
He had been a minstrel showman around the turn of the century, and had been in vaudeville. He had worked at any and everything throughout the years, master baker, carpenter, carnival pitchman and hill farmer. He had never made a great deal of money. He wasn’t much of a success, in the sense of our materialistic society. To me, however, he had always been a great man. I loved him, dearly.
Now my grandfather got up and went into the front to the store while my grandmother sat, still talking with me, trying to raise my fallen spirits, and place the wreathe of Christmas around my heart. I heard my grandfather come in behind me, and I knew he was standing there. I turned and looked up at him, and I saw he was holding something in his hand. He leaned across the table between my grandmother and I and sat it down in front of us.
“Take this along with you boy, for Christmas.” he said, “I don’t have much else to give you.”
A pot metal statue of a Roman soldier, his right arm upraised, covered with a shield, his left hand holding tight to a tiny sword stood there, ready for battle. It was about fourteen inches high, and had been painted antique gold, which was chipping and peeling off, the black metal of the casting peeking through the armor on his chest, and down his legs. He challenged me as he stood there under the naked light.
“The golden knight,” I exclaimed, looking quickly at the old man.
My grandfather smiled, as he always did, a wide grin that made him appear as a little boy, ready for a game.
“Of course,” he agreed.
The golden knight had been a secret thing, shared only by my grandparents and myself, and it was something that I had forgotten for years. It went back to another Christmas, too, when I was very young, not yet six, in the years of the great depression, when there was no money for anything, certainly not for toys and games, or electric tree lights or even a Christmas Turkey. It was the dark time, when the hungry roamed the streets and there were no jobs, and little hope of any at all.
My father and mother had broken up, later to divorce, and my grandfather had come up to Columbus in his old Dodge coupe, gotten me, and taken me back through the winter snow to the little farm he and my grandmother lived on and worked on shares. In the city my mother did find a job, going to work as a waitress in a diner, working the counter for about six dollars a week, and sending two of that for my care, as my grandparents had no money at all.
It was a hard time, but I knew little of it, because my grandparents kept things going as smooth as glass. Once a week the huckster came by, his old truck loaded with goods and wares, and my grandfather would trade him chickens and eggs for sugar and flour and coffee, and always a bag of penny candy for me. It seemed to always be festive on the huckster’s day, for my grandfather was good at trading, and somehow was always able to get something a little extra, a magazine, a little game, or a whittling knife, and that made it exciting.
I can remember my grandparents as well, sitting around the kitchen table after dinner reading the day-old paper, and discussing the news and political climate. They would read me the comics, Ally Oop, Captain Easy and Popeye, while I looked at the ink lined panels. These suppers, too, homemade bread and corn pone and sour milk biscuits with honey and sorghum and maple syrup, barley soup and succotash, dumplings, cooked squash, and cucumber pickles, and oh, yes, chicken! For months chicken was the only meat we had. I can’t say I care for chicken even yet, but I remember the steaming platters of golden meat, browned in flour, and cooked in lard, my grandmother set upon the table. My grandfather treated every meal as a feast, and could even make chicken seem palatable. “That’s the best meal I ever ate Estella,” he would always say, as he pushed back his plate.
My grandmother would always fluster, but it always pleased her, too. Grandfather always ended the dinner with a big cup full of coffee and chickering poured from a huge pot on the wood cook stove, and he would pour a little of it into his saucer, to “cool it off,” and drink it from the small plate rather that the cup.
Grandfather was six feet tall and thin, but my grandmother was hardly over five feet. I stood a head above her when I was only eleven. She was a little plump, too, in a nice comfortable way. I always thought the two of them looked wonderful together.
As evening drew the shroud of night around us, my grandfather would light the kerosene lamps, and sometimes we would gather around the old foot pump parlor organ and while my grandmother played, sing old minstrel songs, the old ballads, and some hymns. Occasionally my grandfather would get out his guitar and harmonica, and hooking the harp into a wire contraption around his neck play the two instruments together in vigorous vaudeville tunes. Other times he would get out his rattle bones and play rhythm accompaniment to the organ. These were our musical evenings.
Most often, though, we read, and I would climb up into my grandmothers lap while she read aloud Dickens, and Fennimore Cooper, Pee and Milton, George Eliot and Thackery, and oh, so wonderful Longfellow, and Whittier and stories from the Bible. Often I would fall asleep while my grandmother read, and not wake until early in the morning, almost lost in the center of the big straw tick upon my bed.
In early spring my grandfather and I would wrap burlap around our shoes and tramp through the heavy snow over the fields to the maple grove where we tapped the trees, and hung buckets to catch the drip of sap, and carried the full buckets of sap pouring them into huge pot on the “sugar house.” My grandfather would work for days cutting down trees and sawing and chopping them into firewood to feed the fires under the pot boiling the sap drippings into sugar and molasses. Some of it would boil over and spill on the snow, and I used to gather it up and eat it, snow and all.
With late spring and summer came berry picking and planting the garden, hunting and fishing, and with fall, harvesting and canning, making pickles and kraut in big crockery jars, gathering apples and nuts to store in the “cold room” for winter.
Those winter nights, though, were cold and long. When it came time to go to bed my grandfather would bank the coals in the old potbellied stove, and we would go upstairs to the bitter chilly rooms where my grandmother would tuck a heated square rock, wrapped in old rags into the bed to warm my feet, and pull up a mountain of heavy blankets to cover me. I would lay there, then, and my mind would wander over the day, and what I had done, and then I would recall those last moments when I sat, drowsy in my grandmothers lap while she read, and try to recall the picture of the golden knight with the sword and shield which was in the book I loved the most, “Idylls of the King.”
I was that knight, Lancelot, and I rode from Camelot to defend the kingdom of Arthur.
“Take that, Medred, and that, and that!”
Night after night I would drift asleep, with the picture of the golden knight and tales of chivalry crowding my dreams. In the day, too, I was the golden knight, as I jousted with the family dog, or fought duels with the barnyard cat, and rode into the fields to do battle with every kind of imaginary foe.
My identity to the imaginary Lancelot was no secret to my grandparents. I carried an old can lid with a handle as a shield, and had shaped a long stick, with my whittling knife into a crude sword, with a cross bar tacked upon it about seven inches from the end. I challenged the trees, and fought them from my broomstick and shoebox headed horse. Each night I would ponder over the illustrations, wondering what knights thought while my grandmother would unfold the wonderful legend of Arthur as told by Tennyson.
It was the day before Christmas. We had no money. Without saying it, I knew they were worried. I think I knew it was about my Christmas. My grandfather had killed and cleaned two chickens, and my grandmother was baking pies. Of late my grandfather had spent a lot time in the barn, sometimes late into the evening, but I thought little about it. Late in the evening my mother came, having found someone to drive her, and for Christmas she had brought me a large toy truck with wooden barrels and tiny bottles of capped soft drink. She had saved for weeks, tips, a meal forgotten here or there to buy it. It was all she had.
Christmas morning I awoke, and the house was very cold and still. Mother slept in the room with me and I looked and saw she was still asleep. I lay in bed and wondered if there would be anything at all for Christmas. I was aware enough to know it was possible. I wanted to cry, but I knew that wouldn’t do any good. So I lay there and pretended I was very rich and could have anything I wanted at all.
I heard my grandfather downstairs building up the fires, and in a little while my grandmother called to my mother and me.
“Breakfast.” she said.
We got up and dressed quickly in the freezing room. I could hardly pull my high top boots on, and they were as cold as steel. Then my mother took my hand and we started down the stairs to the front room.
The room had been transformed as if some compassionate prestidigitator had waved a magic wand. Before me stood a huge pine tree which my grandfather had cut and brought in from the woods, loaded with pop corn balls, holly berries strung by thread, cotton snow, garlands of leaves and painted pinecones. The room was ablaze with the festival of joy, a wreath here, a sprig of holly there, and standing there, too, my grandparents. My grandmother, tears shining in her eyes as she smiled, and my grandfather with his wide grin, like a pixie, as if he were just about to pop a jack in the box in your face.
“Merry Christmas!” they cried.
Then I saw them, under the tree, hand made from scraps of wood, lovingly glued and fitted and worked together, and painted shinning gold, a shield, a very big shield, and a huge sword.
“For Lancelot.” my grandfather said, “ To the Golden Knight!”
My darling, I tell you, this has always been my most wonderful Christmas. Every Christmas is wonderful and special in their own way, but this was the Christmas I shall always cherish, when my grandmother had spent night after night stringing berries, and leaves, popping corn and making balls, to decorate a pine tree, cut and brought from the wood, and my grandfather had worked many hours in a cold, unheated barn to make and shape a shield and sword. I was knighted as truly as any knight of the Round Table.
I sat now, years later, in the kitchen behind my grandparent’s store, and wanted to cry. I wanted to curse myself, and I wanted to take them both into my arms and tell them how much I cared. All I could do was sit there, and look at the statue of the Golden Knight.
Afterward, I stepped into the Christmas night. Everything had seemed to change. A light mist of snow was falling, covering the streets. Somewhere a loud speaker sang “O Come All You Faithful.” I clutched the little statue to me and walked into the night. My very young self ran with me, playing in the snow, ready to slay dragons, with his golden sword and shield. Somehow, I had tried to leave him back there with my hopes and dreams and my innocence, but my grandfather hadn’t let me. I had come to myself again, and life meant a great deal once more.
All my love and affection,
♪♫ “Have Yourself a merry little Christmas, let your heart be light. ♪ From now on our troubles will be out of sight…”♫♪ the music drew me back into the warm reality of Mother’s home.
“Hot, fresh bread.” she declared, as she handed me a buttered slice.
“Thanks Mama.” I wanted to share what I had just read with her, but I knew that it was not a good idea. I did not know for sure that that letter had not been written to her, but I did know that it was written by Sir Uck Uck – the Golden Knight.
Trevor was in Seattle. Mitchell was living in Colorado. Mother was in Texas with the three siblings by Everett, who was spending the holiday in Kentucky. Christmas was a bit quieter than usual around the house. I returned to work at the Kings Street Pub, and put up a small tree in my apartment, which Ankh thoroughly enjoyed. Out went the old and in came the new as the year changed dates. For good luck I ate black-eyed peas with Mother and my brothers and sisters, and a new year began.
Mark T.K. Fought