It began with a Buster Brown Sock Box

Friends 2015There was a box that reappeared under the Christmas tree every year at the house where I grew up, and it happened for as long as I lived there. It took two or three years when I was a tot to notice the annual reappearance of The Buster Brown Sock Box, but eventually it became obvious that Santa Claus was decades ahead of the recycling movement.
It was a yearly curiosity, the question of who’d have a gift in that long-lived box. Because of its size and its original use, it usually held practical items, like the predictable socks for my brother or me, or new gloves to wear to church. The worn ones that were getting a bit snug in the fingers could now be relegated to school wear. New hunting socks for my dad fit the box perfectly, the gray woolen kind with red toes and a wide band of red around the top of the cuff. A book, stuffed in tight with tissue paper, was my preferred present, if the gift tag had my name on it.
Whatever was in the box brought a smile to someone in the family. As long as it wasn’t the dreaded underwear!
Santa shopped locally, like my mother, because I often recognized familiar labels on our gifts. That was one little detail I tried not to think about; it didn’t quite fit the North Pole scenario, but Christmas didn’t seem like a good time for me to get caught up in pesky details.
Santa reused more than The Buster Brown Sock Box; he recycled bows and wrapping paper and he’d probably have reused tape if he’d been able to make it stick. It wouldn’t be unusual for him to deliver gifts wrapped in paper creased with memories from years past and bedecked with ribbons that looked vaguely familiar, as if I’d met them—oh, say—about a year before.
Yes, indeed, feel free to insert a winking emoticon here.
The annual appearance of The Buster Brown Sock Box became an element of my story, a single memory that brushes aside the cobwebs of the past and teases vague recollections into the light. Dusting off my memories of Christmas in Corinth in the late ‘50s through the ‘60s and early ‘70s, I find that my musings are as sturdy as that sock box. Simple and tenacious.
Our annual visit to Toyland, upstairs over the old Mitchell’s department store at the corner of Fillmore and Wick, was the official beginning of the Santa season for me. It always began on a crisp Saturday morning, soon after Thanksgiving, when Daddy would nonchalantly saunter through the house, accompanied by the slight sizzle of the gas heaters. Almost to himself, he’d say, “I was thinking I might go to Toyland. Anybody want to go with me?”
Want to go? Out of my way. I was already pulling on my coat. Younger brother was on his own.
Around the perimeter of the second story wonderland were magical painted images of fairy tale characters. Ole King Cole was of particular fascination to me because I’d seen Nat “King” Cole singing on TV and this robe-and-crown-wearing cartoon character bore no resemblance to the crooner. Still, the similarity of names baffled me and I concluded that they must be relatives.
And there was Humpty Dumpty, in all his ovate glory, depicted teetering on a brick wall. He remained teetering, year after year, observed by walls full of his fairy tale friends. Below the painted characters, cellophane-wrapped dolls lined up on shelves, in bridal dresses and fancy outfits, while beneath them were displays of Tonka trucks, games, baby doll buggies, toy dishes, pedal cars, doll houses, and more— enough delight to leave me speechless at the abundance.
When I peer into that memory, it sparkles with such intensity that the details blur like the reflection of big colored Christmas bulbs dancing on silvery tinsel.
If I’m not mistaken, it was also in the vicinity of the old Mitchell’s store that my dad and I went to the Christmas parade, just the two of us. I can be forgiven if I mistake the exact location, because I was little, really little. Probably three years old, bundled up in my red wool coat, I clearly remember Daddy hoisting me onto his shoulders so I could see the splendor of the majorettes, tassels swinging on their white boots. The band stopped in front of us, as if on request, and I could feel the music vibrate inside my ribcage, the brass instruments gleaming below the street lights and the bass drum throbbing. The breath of the majorettes was suspended in the night air, like the memory now suspended in my mind, and I worried that their legs were cold under their short skirts.
Fast forward to school impressions. A couple of weeks ago, as I drove west on Linden Street, I turned onto Wenasoga Road and stopped to pay my respects to what remains of the auditorium of West Corinth Elementary School, the façade now crumbling as deconstruction continues on what is, to me, hallowed ground. As I write this, enough of the auditorium still stands for me to see the stage where yearly Christmas programs played out. Today the roof sags open. Overcast shadows spill across the space but it isn’t today that I see. I see the space circa 1960-66.
The stage once jutted out to either side, creating a narrow ledge in front of the flanking brick walls, where I stood and recited my memorized paragraph about Christmas in England in the sixth grade program. I wore a long dress my mother made, red with a lacy stand-up Elizabethan collar that she based on illustrations in our treasured World Book Encyclopedia. From a neighbor, she borrowed a couple of skirt hoops and situated one high and one low in a petticoat, so the silhouette of my costume was true to the era. That skirt took up the entire depth of the ledge. Yikes! I clearly recall holding my breath as I navigated my way back onto more spacious footing.
Through the gaping front wall, the crumbling hallway gives way to a tangible picture in my mind. One more time, I feel the excitement of party day and early dismissal, a child finally set free for Christmas vacation. My first grade classroom is now rubble, but I still have the dainty china boot that Mrs. Jewel Goforth, principal and teacher, gave each of her girl students for Christmas. For six years, Christmas parties played out for me down that hallway, with the anxiety about whether my teacher would like her gift, or— in the case of sixth grade— whether Mr. Victor Miller would like his handkerchiefs, because I noticed that, like my daddy, he always had one in his back pocket.
My mother was a full-time homemaker so she was usually one of the moms who brought treats for the parties and stayed to tidy up stray wrapping paper and crumbs, while the teacher helped students clear out for the holidays. I liked how it felt to help with the tasks and the slightly surreal experience of being in a school building as it emptied itself of the bustle of children and settled into the quiet of its own Christmas vacation.
The thing about growing up and growing older in the same town is that the past and present overlap at every street corner and along every sidewalk. At the corner of Wick and Fillmore, at Linden Street and Wenasoga Road. Along Waldron, Cruise, Taylor, Foote.
The store fronts in this familiar downtown, changed from my youth and continuing to change, have the stories of my distant and recent memories etched into them. The streets that I’ve driven for decades take me past images that I still see clearly, though many are only in my mind’s eye now.
Consistently, the traditions of stepping into the magical lure of Toyland, of childhood Christmas programs and parties and parades, of The Buster Brown Sock Box, anchored my Christmas experience. And, of course, there are more stories for another day, recollections that resurfaced simply because I unwrapped these few.
We all have them. Personal, potent, poignant.
One reminiscence leads to another. We can’t help it; that’s how we are wired. Stories long to be given voice and they long to be given ear. They make us human.
Somewhere a little girl would like to ask about what it was like back “in the olden days” and she very much wants us to stop what we’re doing and listen to her telling her story, too. A little boy wants the company of an adult who will slow down and hear him share his Christmas wishes, an adult who will admit that he, too, still has dreams.
Whether we are four years old or ninety-four, our narratives are the most substantial gifts we give each other. Once given, they can’t be lost, stolen, or misplaced.
They become not “my” story but “our” stories.
May we value our collective stories as the precious gifts they are, sharing thoughtfully and receiving gracefully.

Jaylene Whitehurst is an artist and Licensed Professional Counselor in Alcorn County. She contributes to the Daily Corinthian and Crossroads Magazine. She may be reached at jaylene@heartworkccl.com or (662)286-5433.

This post appeared as a column in the Daily Corinthian newspaper, December 15, 2015.

Merry Mandala!!!!

May we live the cycle of embracing the darkness and being pulled toward the light.

May we live the cycle of embracing the darkness and being pulled toward the light.

The celebration of Christmas isn’t over for me. There’ve been years I feel a let down on the 26th, but not the past few years. Rather than the end, this feels like a beginning. Every Christmas, every Winter Solstice, every turning of the dark season toward the light, is more an opening to continue expressing the light than an ending of anything. I no longer rush to take down my little tree. It is no longer a chore but an unfolding, a changing of the environment gradually.
It is a relief to let it be beautiful a while longer. To know it will be tucked away when the time is right for me. To know it is all a process of Love.
Whatever, however, you celebrate this season, may you linger in the warmth.
May we carry it forth. May we be changed.

I know Santa Claus. Personally.

Dear Reader, you might not realize this, but I know Santa Claus. Personally.

Over the years, I’ve had countless opportunities to get acquainted with the legendary bringer of gifts.

I submit for your consideration three of these events.

The first account is second hand, but I’m positive that my source is reliable. It was the Christmas Eve when my husband, Gerry, was about seven years old and his entire family celebrated at his Uncle Richard’s house with a long night of festive eating, Rook and dominoes, and noisy visiting. Everyone was there: his mom and dad, his brother, grandparents, great aunts and uncles, and cousins once-twice- three times removed, seeing as his dad had no siblings to provide first cousins.

The adults were still lingering at eleven p.m. when Gerry’s family headed to their house, knowing it was straight to bed for two little boys to wait for The Main Event: the Santa Claus visit.

Sitting in the back seat of the ’56 teal and white Chevy, they bounced along, nervous about forcing sleep to come and antsy with anticipation of the morning’s booty.

But something was amiss when Martin Whitehurst wheeled into the driveway. Through the living room window, the family saw their tinsel-wrapped cedar tree, radiant in the darkened house. The strings of bulbs, turned off upon leaving, were inexplicably glowing like a…like a…well, like a Christmas tree!

Gerry and his brother charged the front door as soon as his mom turned the key and there it was: beneath those electrically lit boughs, was evidence that the Whitehurst house had been one of Santa’s first stops in Alcorn County.

He had come! He had come! He had come! Wrapping paper and bows flew through the air and the boys stayed up the rest of the night, playing with gifts that are long forgotten.

What Gerry does remember to this day is his wonder at the unexpected lights of that tree and the thrill of Santa’s surprise visit.

Next there was the Christmas of 1963 when I was nine years old. In school, I’d been hearing chatter for a couple of years about the source of those presents under the tree. Doubt had set in strongly about reindeer and flying sleighs and jolly old elves and I was trying desperately to hold onto what seemed to be an impossible story.

And, then, miracle of miracles, it snowed for Christmas! A sparkling layer spread across the front yard, masking the dull grass, as I took a final look out the window before pulling a couple of quilts up over my shoulders and settling in for childhood’s age old Christmas Eve dilemma: try to sleep or try to stay awake?

Sleep won out.

All through the silent night, the inky sky shed its downy flakes across the yard, now looking like nothing so much as a frosty feather bed. Deep. Comforting. Quiet.

It was a silent night, that is, until I was awakened at three a.m. by the sound of sleigh bells coming from a source I couldn’t see. Oh, but I could hear them. Surely they must be outside. I peeped out the window and the snow was undisturbed, but the nearby sound of bells kept up. On the roof maybe? It was deeper than a jingle, a soft clatter, and I was certain that it was borne by eight reindeer shaking their heads, which meant…uh, oh, Santa Claus must be in the midst of delivering our gifts. Right that minute.

Back into bed, back under the quilts I dived, determined to stay put until daylight. My doubt might have been real but so was my practicality: I was taking no chances on disturbing Santa Claus before his job was finished.

The last sound I heard as sleep took me away was the brassy clanging of bells as the wind picked up and I could feel the shudder of the roof as the sleigh lifted off.

Finally, consider the evidence that continued into the next generation. When our son was young we had a parakeet named Pete. He was a messy but social creature, perking up especially when we walked in the door from wherever we’d been. It was the season of our lives when we were each absent from our house more hours than we were present, and we concluded that Pete was lonely. How we decided that we could assess avian moods, I have no clue, but we got concerned that Pete’s disposition was becoming as blue as his feathers.

On Christmas Eve we were at Gerry’s parents’ house for the traditional feast. If you knew Gerry’s mother, Mildred, you know that to call it a feast was an understatement. Seth opened gifts with his cousins and, while they played, we grown-ups opened ours and visited, going back for one more bite and one more bite. There was coffee and lingering over pecan pie and coconut cake.

It grew late. We had a boy to tuck into bed, so the gifts were loaded and home we went.

Home we went to a tree that was mysteriously aglow in the front window, when we were absolutely positive that we’d turned off its lights. Home we went to evidence under the tree that Santa Claus had once again made an early Christmas Eve visit to a Whitehurst home.

As the wrapping paper flew, ripped to shreds by a delighted little boy, Pete’s happy chirp played in the background. And then…a different chirp…two chirps at once? How could that be?
In the dash to the stash beneath the tree, Seth had hardly given Pete a glance. Now there was more than a passing look.

Alongside Pete, in a birdcage decked out with Christmas bows, sat a sunny yellow parakeet twittering contentedly. It seemed that Seth wasn’t the only recipient of gifts from Santa Claus.

Suddenly it was all perfectly clear: Santa had had to come early because transporting a tiny bird throughout the cold night, in a sleigh, wouldn’t be easy on the bird or old St. Nick, either. Of course, it made total sense.

Are these tales simply accounts of Santa Claus going about his annual business or are they the ramblings of wishful thinking? Maybe a hyperactive imagination? I’ll leave that to you to decide, Dear Reader, because, frankly, I’m still pondering it myself.

I only know that, over and over, in times of doubt and confusion, I have experienced an astonishment that touches my heart: a tender compassion that beckons as gently as the jingle of a sleigh bell, that cares if a little blue parakeet is lonely and that rejoices in the wonder of the unexpected.

And I have met the spirit of love that can wrap a scraggly cedar tree in electric lights and dare to call it beautiful, reminding me that the Light of Love, unforeseen and inexplicable, shines brightest in the darkest night.

If Old Saint Nick has come to be tied up in all of that, then — Ho! Ho! Ho! — I do indeed know him very well.

Maybe you do, too.

—————————————————————————————————-

Jaylene Whitehurst is an artist and counselor located in Alcorn County, Mississippi. She contributes columns to the Daily Corinthian and Crossroads Magazine. She may be reached at 662-286-5433 or jaylene@heartworkccl.com.

This column was printed in a slightly edited version in the Daily Corinthian newspaper, December 16,2014, because—no matter how many times she proofs it— when Jaylene sees a column in print, she sees what needs tweaking. Enjoy!

The Gift of Right NOW

She has no idea that her legs are too long. She's having fun :-)

She has no idea that her legs are too long. She’s having fun 🙂

Here is my column that appeared in the Crossroads Magazine today. I’m happy to share it here.

It’s a Saturday morning in October as I sit down to the key board with a vague optimism that inspiration for this column will mysteriously appear. Editor Mark Boehler has requested uplifting thoughts about the coming holiday season, so I wait for a flash of inspiration about what to lift up. And I wait a while longer— for a lightning bolt that doesn’t strike.
Now, please, don’t get me wrong; it’s not that I feel at all down. I don’t. In fact, I feel pretty dandy. It’s just that, as I sit here to write, Halloween is still more than a week away and I don’t want to think about the coming crunch packed into the thirty-six days between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.
Sheesh, that’s hardly more than a month for all the doings of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day to speed by in a blur. Makes me dizzy to contemplate it.
The fact is that I want nothing— absolutely nothing— but to fully live this one splendid, ordinary moment. Right now.
The granddaughter is in the adjoining room, the sitting room of my office. Her usual chatter is replaced by a singsong, contented hum…hum…hum. From the corner of my eye I see the reason for her satisfaction. This child is never as happy as when she is arranging and rearranging “stuff” and her MiMi has stuff galore. She’s in heaven.
She’s not thinking about school or what she’s going to wear for Halloween or what her dogs are doing; she is simply the mistress of a universe housed in one room and her mind is nowhere else.
Throw pillows are systematically displayed according to criteria that only she knows. Candles are aligned. Books are stacked on tables just so, and then restacked. She steps back with her head tilted to one side, and, assessing her design, she adds a glass bird before she nods approvingly and moves on to deal with a quartet of ceramic rabbits. Her hands are firmly planted on her hips: Bunnies, beware!
I am touched by how thoroughly present she is in this moment. Right now.
I sink as deeply into the reality of this clear October morning as an old cat with aching bones sinks into a basket of towels, hot from the dryer. This is a moment worth holding but it can’t be held; it can only be experienced and the experience folded into these words. I breathe it in and am grateful for the quiet gift that it is.
Rewind with me to a scene earlier the same week when I am having lunch with my friend Rita at Borroum’s Drug Store. We stroll in early to claim a booth so the lunch crowd doesn’t force us into the tiny table in the front window. The taco salad is satisfying and the companionship is even more so. It’s an easy friendship that goes back to before I was a mother and when her children were small, that has endured stretches when work schedules and family demands made meeting for lunch harder than it is today. I know when we sit down that I’m going to be leaving a generous tip because we’ll be there awhile, and we are.
We mull over our recent visit to a friend from decades ago who is now under hospice care, and tears smudge my mascara; the paper napkins substitute for tissues. Our stories overlap and we talk about the young women that we three were then, puzzling over the different paths our lives have taken, paths that none of us foresaw. Knowing our stories have found a safe landing spot, we voice thoughts we wouldn’t share with just anybody.
And then we laugh! Hysterical, table-slapping laughter bubbles up and trickles out of my eyes. Rita’s ability to get lost under any circumstance is legendary and she has more than one tale to tell about finding herself in places that she didn’t know existed. More napkins please, but, this time, for tears of laughter.
As we make our way to the counter to pay, we pass a table of four women, each fully absorbed in her cell phone, either talking, texting, or holding her phone in rapt anticipation. Rita and I look each other in the eye and realize we’ve spent two hours absent from our phones and totally present with each other.
This has been true communion, the kind that only happens in undistracted moments. Right Now.
A flicker comes: I see that this holiday column is going to be more about what we can drop during the coming weeks than about what we might lift up.
Beginning with our phones, let’s put them down for a while. Let’s look each other in the eye instead of looking at a screen. Let’s listen to a child’s tone and a friend’s story, instead of listening for a ringtone. They are wonderful devices and they certainly have their place, but that place isn’t to contribute to digital dementia. They are in our hands. It’s up to us to drop them into our purses.
Let’s set aside our fretting over getting things perfect. There will be years the dressing is just right; the sage is spot on, and it’s moist to perfection and then (if your cooking is like mine) there’ll be those other years. The tree might be a dazzling vision and others times, well…we barely replace one string of lights before another burns out. To a child, though, every Christmas tree is magical. The coconut cake may be a tad tilted, but this is the South, where there is no such thing as a bad coconut cake.
Maybe the cards are unsent and the gift wrapping wrinkled. So be it. Perfectionism sucks the joy out of life and we have only this moment, right now, so let’s live it.
And then there’s Facebook. If we don’t drop it entirely, could we at least work on letting go of any illusions that what people post on there is the whole story? Because it’s not.
If we get caught up in what other people share, it may look like everybody’s family except ours is sitting down to a Norman Rockwell spread, has a new car topped with a huge Christmas red bow sitting in the driveway, and is heading off for a beach vacation as soon as the table’s cleared. The rest of the story may well be that they can’t afford the car, the credit cards are maxed out, there was a huge fight on the way to the beach, and the kids threw up in the backseat. So how about it? Could we drop the illusions that anybody actually has it all together? Could we let our families and our plans that go awry simply be crooked and human and funny?
Finally, how about we drop our attempts to please everybody? We probably can’t please them, but even if we can, the price of over-commitment is an exhausted kind of major crankiness. There’s no crankiness like the crankiness of having said “yes” to everyone except oneself.
Prioritizing and being realistic about we want to do during the holidays doesn’t come easily to some of us, but in order to slow down and enjoy the celebrations that we personally find most meaningful, we may need to smile and firmly say, “No, thank you, my plate is full.” With some folks, pesky persistent types, we may have to say “no” more than once.

Start practicing now!
The hum of a child puttering about, the tears of tenderness and amusement shared with a friend, these are the pure and humble gifts of ordinary days, gifts that aren’t tied up with bows but with cords of connection.
The gifts of sharing stories, listening from the heart, keeping old traditions and creating new ones are timeless. They were never meant to be contained in a treasure box and, yet, at this time of year, as we gather with friends and family, we’re reminded of how precious they are.
As we pull out the roasting pan and wrap gifts and hang ornaments, let’s listen closely to each other. Let’s look each other in the eye, enjoying the blessings of the simplest gifts.
The only time we have to unwrap them is now.

Right now.

Jaylene Whitehurst is an artist and Licensed Professional Counselor located in Corinth, Mississippi. She may be contacted at 662-286-5433 or at jaylene@heartworkccl.com.