A Christmas Toast
Papa’s total magic on a duck call. Sounds like a symphony of Mallards and Pintails. His head lowered, eyes cut upward in fierce concentration.
He’s immaculate with those two McCann calls. Made from Bois D’Arc trees, the yellow-colored mellow one and the darker sharper call, he highballs until the ducks turn, then the feed-call staccato while they circle, and finally a series of hoarse quacks. Then, for a moment, all is silent as Christmas Eve. Suddenly wings spread and cup. Gravy shot. Anyone who’s been in a blind with him realizes his gift.
But DeeDee doesn’t. Something in a woman loathes the duck call. By December’s end she’s had all she can take. The holiday home can get crowded in a farming family. Fieldwork done, the house thickens with male presence. A wife and mother, DeeDee can tolerate only so much tromped mud, shotgun shells, duck calls. Strewn clothes. Masculine trampling of her sanctum sanctorum.
But all his life, Papa would rather be outdoors. Having hunted Tallahatchie County’s mallard hotspots, he made sure to introduce both of his sons to the arts of a life afield. In my youth the weeks preceding Christmas would see the freezer fill up with duck meat, venison, rabbit, dove.
He’s not angry at ducks anymore. Doesn’t hunt much, but he still wears those McCanns-bands wrapped around the lanyard like scalps-every winter; and calls throughout the house like some old war chief of cold, wet weather; Pushmataha in camo and waxed canvas.
It comes naturally to him. A trumpeter, his ear for tone and tempo so finely tuned, the mallard’s monotone is second nature. The sounds of his Bach trumpet and fluegelhorn hearken the coming of Christmas Day. The aroma of old family recipes wafting from the kitchen across the house: quail, gumbo, braised beef, champagne punch, chocolate plantation pie, grand trifle are the culinary harmony to Pavoratti, Three Tenors, The Jesu Bambino of Papa’s horn.
He passed his ear, taste, and style to Sister, who possesses the high sweet voice of Polymnia. The two of them interpreting “Ave Maria” and “O Holy Night” at the Christmas Eve Service… Heaven help me. Angels abide in the choir loft.
And Sister, in the Ole Miss Glee Club and the Chamber Ensemble, once unfurled sopranic perfection in a Delta drawl across Carnegie Hall. She’s a mother of four now: Laura Lee, Jeb, Ashby and Mary Morgan. They all have the talent, but lately it is Mary Morgan, the violinist, who’s making strides.
Christmas centers on Christ and the young here.
Crisp mornings, DeeDee’s always up early with hot tea and coffee– a breakfast befitting Bethlehem’s noble babe. Brother, a man of the woods, hunting his “Christmas Day Deer.” Always a buck. Always handsome. His smile reminds me of his first duck in the tall flooded timbers of York Woods when, while standing next to Papa, he brought down a woodie careening through the limbs.
Papa and DeeDee love Christmas Morn. Racing everyone with shouts of Christmas Gift!, the ancestral game passed down from Papa’s mother, going back through her family generations. A game Faulkner even mentions in his early novel, Sartoris. We answer the phone that way. Peculiar in today’s South, it’s met with long silences on the line. And we greet everyone that way on the 25th. Most, outside the family, look befuddled. But Brother taught it to his West Texan wife and I taught it to my New Mexican bride. Even Sister’s husband gets in on the game.
Christmas was always Papa’s Sabbath from the long season of harvest. It’s DeeDee’s time to gather the expanding family into the immense bosom of her love. And now Sister gets to be the aunt she always wanted as Brother and I have finally added two a piece to the tree. We are spread out now from Pontotoc to Coldwater to Canyon, TX. Far away from the tilthy loam of Tallahatchie’s Trout Valley Farm, we are only able to gather at the table of our forbears every few years now.
Yet still, as fields of snowbanked cotton turn to bare stalks against leaden skies, I hear the quack of a call, the harmony of horn and voice, the clanging pots of DeeDee’s kitchen echo deep within. Thrumming through my memory, it suspends me in childhood memories. The hopeful expectation of a gift undeserved.
For now, I raise a toast, and invite you to raise your Old Fashioned, your Champagne Punch, your Mulled Wine.
Here’s to the new blood. Here’s to the old school. Here’s to the women. After all, from the beginning, they’ve always made Christmas.