A Christmas Story: Lessons of Life & Love From My Mother – By JERRY LANKFORD

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“Momma as a little girl. We found it under the clock on the mantel after she died,” author Jerry Lankford wrote.

Years ago, Momma told me a story about an old, dried up Christmas tree.

It had been in the living room of our house in Millers Creek for months, turning from its festive green to duller hues until it was completely brown and brittle.

This tree was put up and carefully decorated by Momma before my brother, Gary, passed away.

But, Gary didn’t make it to Christmas. He died on December 15, 1960, at the age of 13.

I never met Gary. I was born three years after his death. But Momma kept his memory alive. She’d talk about what a good boy he was and how he liked to play ball and fish and ride his bike to the store to buy Cheerwine in the little greenish glass bottles. He had red hair and a birthmark on his face.

She told how a woman at a store in town once said, “Look, that little boy has lipstick on his face.”

My daddy turned around, handed the woman his handkerchief and told her he’d give her all the money in his billfold if she could wipe it off. The woman walked away.

Gary was the first born child of my mother, Willa Mae, and father, Sammie Lankford. His birth came on Aug. 31, 1947, about a year after Daddy was honorably discharged from the U.S. Marine Corps following the end of WWII.

My late brother, Mike, was 8 at the time of Gary’s death. Mike said Gary was always sickly. It was a kidney disease that took him from us.

All my life, when I’ve thought of Gary, I recall the story of that brown and faded tree.

After Gary passed away, Momma and Daddy where understandably anguished and emotions were tender. Daddy associated that tree with the son he had so recently lost. Several times, Momma gently inquired to him about taking it down. Daddy, however, kept convincing her to leave it up.

Months after Christmas had passed —Momma later told me — she just couldn’t bear looking at that poor raggedy tree anymore. She removed the decorations, packed them away, and dragged the tree to a field across the road.

When Daddy came home from work that evening, his heart was broken to see that the tree was gone. This upset Momma so badly that she promised to retrieve it and bring it back in first thing the next morning.

But something happened as they slept.

Unusually strong winds blew all that night. The gusts were so stout that they picked up that dried and shriveled tree and sat it down deep inside a briar patch. There was no way that either Momma or Daddy could get to it.

“That was a sign to let it go,” Momma said.

I think it was then that my grieving parents began to heal. Their love for each other was a strong medicine in aiding that process.

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That story taught me some valuable lessons that I try to always remember.

One lesson is to watch for signs and try to pay attention to what they are telling you. Another is that love can overcome anything if you let it — even the harshest of losses.

My Momma had to overcome another such loss when Daddy died from cancer on June 21, 1977. He was 51. I was 13, my sister, Ellen, was 14, and Mike was 25.

I still miss Daddy and remember him well — the smell of fuel oil on his clothes when he came home from running his route for Nelson Oil Company, the way he drank his coffee with cream sitting in his wooden rocking chair after supper, and how he’d bring home treats of candy, toys and even stray animals from time to time.

It was the love of my Momma that got us through his death. She was so very strong and helped Ellen and me finish out our childhoods never wanting for a thing.

It was also the love of my Momma that got me through some very shaky high school years, and the many and varied heartbreaks and disappointments that touch most of us during the course of a lifetime.

My Momma’s love helped me raise my oldest daughters, Jennifer and Anna, and nurture Gabriella, my youngest child. She also played a major part in the lives of my brother, Mike’s, daughters, Eva and Renee. In exchange, those girls loved their Grandma fiercely and dearly. They still do.

And it was my Momma’s love that warmed her smile. That smile was there when I walked through the door at the house at the end of the day, when I visited her at City Florist, where she worked for years, when she visited me at work here at The Record, or attended ChickenFest or any other time I saw her.

That same smile was there toward the end when I sat at her beside at Wilkes Senior Village and Wilkes Regional Medical Center.

Her last words to me were, “I love you.”

Momma died on Feb. 12, 2009. She was 82.

I’m lucky to say that I have few regrets connected with my mother. I wish I had caused her less worry, particularly during my teenage years. Mostly, however, I wish she could have met my grandsons, Sammie and Charlie. She would have dearly loved them. I can just see her reading books to those boys seated in her little pink chair in the living room.

Her spirit remains strong, however, and she is very much with us. Her love continues to be a big presence in our family.

I count myself fortunate in many regards. Namely I’m blessed to have my family — not just blood relatives but our great extended family which includes proven and trusted friends.

One such friend, Ken Welborn, urged me to write about Momma after I told him the story about the Christmas tree and the wind.

It was also Ken who helped me be with Momma as much as I could during her final months.

“You’ll never say that you regret spending too much time with your Momma,” Ken said.

He was right.

I miss my Momma.

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I do every day. I believe, however, it’s worse during the holidays.

But it’s OK.

The memories of her kindness and love are strong enough to never fade, or turn brown or brittle. Those memories will always be good — as lush and green as a freshly cut Christmas tree.

Jerry Lankford, editor of The Record of Wilkes in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina is an honorary Kentuckian and non-biological brother of Community Journalist Tim Preston.


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