Our evergreen Christmas tree looked more like the gatherings of a bird’s nest with its glass balls of gold, green, blue, and red dangling from every branch. The masses of silver metallic strands draped across every available sprig became clumps of silver wads placed by several little hands attempting to take part in decorating the tree.
We begged our parents to buy a real tree this year instead of the silver metallic one with the same blue balls we dragged out year-after-year. This year’s tree was truly evergreen because it was another artificial version. Each branch had a color-coded tip that stuck into a pole serving as the trunk. The wooden pole was then camouflaged by wrapping wired faux sprigs of evergreen around it and in spite of its manufactured origin and not one purchased from a corner lot: this tree was absolutely stunning.
Our Christmas tree is in the formal living room where the doors are often kept shut so Mother will have at least one clean room in the house a near impossible feat with a half-dozen kids and husband. Though the living room is usually off-limits, Mother is more lenient during the Christmas season.
As kids, it didn’t take long to learn that dragging our feet across the nylon living room carpet resulted in a rather shocking experience when we touched an ornament. I hated getting shocked from the static electricity and the more I whined about it the more excitement my brothers got out of stroking their feet like a bull ready to charge and terrorizing me. Christmas songs warning, “you better watch out” doesn’t deter them.
Lurking around the Christmas tree provides unlimited imaginative games for anxious children counting down the days until Santa appears. It’s intriguing to peer at our distorted reflection in the glass balls as our nose and cheeks take on the rounded look of Pinocchio’s Jiminy Cricket. Anxiously eyeing the gifts beneath the tree and counting the gifts bearing our name is an entertaining pastime as the days of December crawl at a snail’s pace.
Sitting in a darkened room exclusively illuminated by tree lights is captivating. We’re mesmerized by the rhythmic pattern of multi-colored twinkling lights. Fixated on the progression, all of the lights go out for a millisecond and the room is pitch black. Hypnotized by the rhythm of blinking lights it’s become a competitive game of who can call out “now” at the exact time of total darkness anticipating each succession of light patterns. It is another game of who is correct most often as we keep score.
Later, my older brother Ricky and I are hanging out in the living room, surveying the number of gifts under the tree with our name on it. I pull a single strand of tinsel from the tree. During the course of our conversation, I repeatedly stroke the full length of the metallic strand between my two fingers as talk. I realize I’ve rubbed all of the silver off the strand. It’s now a clear narrow ribbon of plastic much like Easter grass.
It’s amazing how one thing tends to lead to another without any particular planning. Ricky and I discover that the static electricity in that single strand makes it stick to walls. It sticks to lampshades. It sticks to the side of our heads. It hangs out our nose like a long snotty drip. It’s incredible! We test this new phenomenon in the hallway bathroom where there is a huge mirror covering the wall above the long ceramic tiled counter top. Holy moly, it sticks to the mirror too! Much to our amazement, the reflection of the clear strand looks just like a long, jagged crack in the glass.
Now, I don’t recall just whose idea it was, but my guess would be my prankster brother Ricky. Daddy is watching television in the den. I holler from the bathroom, in my best tattletale voice, “Daddy, Ricky broke the mirror!”
We hear the sound of him lunging from the recliner and jump to his feet, “What!” he yells as he quickly emerges in the bathroom to inspect the damage. He sees the long crack and immediately begins removing his long, narrow leather belt from around his substantial waist.
No questions asked the evidence is in plain sight. Reckless Ricky broke the mirror and now he deserves a spanking for his foolishness. But before Daddy can follow through with the spanking, we quickly jerk the icicle from the mirror and began to laugh at our prank.
You may be wondering what happened next. He didn’t do anything. After all we hadn’t done anything wrong, had we?
Thanksgiving afternoon, the noise of the television and those washing dishes was still underway when my younger brother, Kenny and I began to beg Mother, “Can we put up the Christmas tree? Can we? Can we?” Mother with her Southern mannerisms reacted with the speed of molasses. “Can we? Can we?” we wailed as if our life depended on it.
“No, It’s not even December!” our older sister protested from the kitchen. Since Mother hadn’t said, “No” Kenny and I made our way towards the coat closet near the front door dragging out the two or three boxes that held all of our Christmas décor including the tree. (In the mid-1960’s Christmas decorations were minimal: the tree and enough strands of multi-colored lights to line the roofline of the front side of the house and the lamp post on the four- foot high brick wall in the courtyard.)
Sliding the tree parts from the box we pulled out two silver painted wooden poles that looked like it had been shot multiple times with B B’s. We inserted one end into the other then placed the single trunk into the tripod stand. Using the color-coded tips we sorted and grouped the metallic limbs. Starting at the bottom of the trunk, at record speed the competition was on to be the one to jab the most twisted metal ends into the BB like holes into the wood. Working our way up the tree trunk the branches got shorter and shorter: at last there was one branch left that stuck straight up from the top. Awesome!
“Should we use all blue balls like we did last year?” I asked Kenny. “Yes!” our sister hollered indignantly from another room. But what about all of those other ornaments from Christmases past? We easily compromised just thinking of the plastic gum drop tree we would soon pull from the debris of leftover tubes of wrapping paper and bows from the previous year.
Older brother Ricky enters to survey the progress and soon found delight in rubbing his feet across the carpeted floor to create static electricity, then touching the metallic tree for a slight shock. It wasn’t enough entertainment for him. It was more fun to repeat the foot-shuffling process and touch me for my reaction.
“Momma, Ricky won’t leave me alone!”
“What did you do to agitate him?” Mother inquired from another room.
Christmas at the Howard’s: … to be continued.
A longtime family friend, Amelia “Millie” Bishop left us and I cried. I cried out of my own selfishness. This world lost a pioneer in Christian world missions and I lost the last thread in the tightly woven cloth of the Bishop and Howard legacy.
Those who have lost both parents are familiar with the feeling. It’s hard to describe it. Initially you grapple with the death of a parent and then another parent is gone. You’re left with the reality for the first time in your life you have no parents…and your generation is next.
Earlier this year my mother died just shy of her 95th birthday. I didn’t cry. I haven’t cried. In her words just a couple of years earlier, after I broke the news of the death of her older sister, she pondered for a moment and replied, “We all have to die sometime.”
We all have to die sometime.
I spoke with Millie on the phone just a few weeks ago. We ended our conversation with Millie saying, “Give me a call next week and let’s set up a time to get together.”
Visits with Millie were encouraging events. It was always Millie, saying, “So, tell me, what you have been up to lately?” And with undivided attention she listened wrapping me in a security blanket of love. She’s known me since before I have memory recollection – like a mother.
I never got around to making that call.
Before my recollection of memory there was Bishop and Howard: Dr. Ivyloy “Jack” Bishop and Dr. Fred D. Howard were professors, colleagues and friends for 40 plus years. Wayland Baptist Students during the years of 1958 – 1991 couldn’t escape having one of the two for religious studies. Students also could not escape the genuine interest of these two men in their students nor the friendly competition in ping pong, and later, golf.
Their wives, Millie and Sarah, were equally the Proverbs 31 kind of women, supporting their husband as a helpmate while independently serving God in miraculously gifted ways. Among many talents, Millie was a pioneer in the work of the WMU (Woman’s Missionary Union) and as Fred Howard described it, Ivyloy was the very first RA (Royal Ambassador).
When Dr. Bishop died in 1999 after a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s Millie asked Fred to speak at his service. Then Fred joined him the following year. It was now Millie and Sarah left behind to carry on the Bishop-Howard legacy.
When my mother was in town for a visit, Millie stopped by to spend time with us. Later when neither could drive, I took Mother to see Millie at her assisted living apartment. Mother’s dementia was significant, but she never forgot the Bishops. She enjoyed seeing Millie even if she couldn’t remember what to talk about.
The last time I took Mother to see Millie was a couple of years ago. Both women inching toward their mid-nineties, dependent on help, and except for the sparkle in their eyes someone who had not seen them in years might not recognize them.
We were sitting in Millie’s apartment talking when Millie abruptly got up, said, “I’ll be right back” and tootled off with her walker to the restroom. (I assumed a Lasik moment.) She returned to the conversation but it wasn’t long before Mille repeated the same abrupt, urgent departure. It was then that Mother leaned toward me and asked, “Do I look as old as she does?”
Oh, that well-worn cloth with Bishop and Howard threads so tightly knitted together. Sometimes it’s difficult to discern which threads are Bishop and which ones are Howard. They all have the distinguishing mark of Jesus Christ on them.
My parents are gone. The Bishops are gone. It’s that unfamiliar feeling again. The torch has passed.
Helpful links for giving in Millie Bishop’s memory:
The postman placed the typical assortment of bills and letters in the mail box hung next to the front door and leaned a package against the glass outer door. The parcel about the size of a shoebox was wrapped in craft paper, likely a used grocery bag, and addressed by hand to Dr. Fred D. Howard. No return address.
The 1980’s hadn’t experienced the terror and neither destruction of bomb rigged nor anthrax laced packages that would become history decades later. Receiving a package typically meant a gift or a mail ordered item. It was not a holiday, birthday nor had Fred ordered products by mail. And who would want to hurt Fred D. anyway? He was a religion professor of a small private college.
His students were accustomed to Dr. Howard’s oft time’s corny penned limericks and jokes. Though don’t misunderstand, when it came to exams on the Bible, a question was not left to interpretation, one had to provide Dr. Howard’s answer. He had been teaching religion, Greek and occasionally Hebrew for more than twenty years at Wayland. His thinning gray hair and stylish wire-rimmed glasses showed his age. I suppose with his loud style of attire: a large print plaid dress jacket, solid slacks, matching socks, and leather laced shoes one could have easily mistaken him for a used car salesman. Possibly it was his color-blindness that attracted him to such bold attire. But then maybe it was his outgoing personality and desire to be the center of attention.
Dr. Howard taught a small class of eleven in the religion course that summer. When it came time for students to write a final paper he told them they could work together on their projects. The students each submitted identical papers as their project. Dr. Howard let them know it was not acceptable and each would need to re-write and submit a paper to receive a favorable grade for the course.
Fred retrieved the letters, picked up the package and went into the house. Not one to wait out a surprise he ripped the craft paper away and lifted the lid of the shoebox. Staring back at him was a likeness of himself. A handmade doll with the face sculpted from women’s stockings wearing wire rimmed glasses, a necktie and shorts. Ironically it had eleven hat pins stuck into the body – the same number of students in his summer class. If he was to die of anything that day it would have been of laughing.