The Reluctant Traveler

by Jim Wilson

Somewhere along the line, my Christmas spirit seems to have hopped off the Santa Express without me realizing it. I still put up the tree and its familiar ornaments and lights, a crab pot Christmas tree twinkles outdoors, greenery adorns the house inside and out, and I tie red ribbons around the necks of my canvas Canada goose decoys, but as the holiday itself inches closer, I can barely detect a live coal in the holiday fire that once burned bright.

It wasn’t always like this. When my brother and I were young we were so exited on Christmas Eve that we took turns singing Christmas carols to each other in the room we shared until we fell asleep. Surely my parents were busy, otherwise how could they sleep through that racket? When my own daughter was young, I was a Christmas maniac, buying too much but enjoying her reactions all the same.

Oddly, I have no memories of any Christmas morning when I was a child. Not a one. And I find that disconcerting. I still have a few of the gifts I received—books (Chip Hilton and the Hardy Boys) and metal cars from train sets (plastic had not taken over the world 60-odd years ago). The actual hoopla of the mornings is gone though. I do have one photo that is framed by my bed of my brother and me on one of those mornings, each of us dressed in new cowboy outfits and packing cap pistols (surely you remember those), posing amid the debris of other opened gifts. Santa was generous that year when he was 5 and I was 7.

The only thing that dampened the day back then was that my brother Sam and I, in short order, would be hustled off to one set of grandparents or another. Not that we didn’t love our grandparents, but we wanted to remain with the treasures that Santa Claus had bestowed upon us. All of our wheedling and begging was to no avail. We never stopped trying, but all of our words and hopes landed on cold, barren ground.

The best part of the holiday for me was that, unless Christmas had fallen on a Saturday, my dad and I would be quail hunting the next day. When I was younger, I’d just tag along, but as I grew older, I joined the hunt and those days became memorable. Prior to the holiday, my dad and I had wandered the woods, either squirrel hunting or later looking for mistletoe to shoot from the tops of the trees for my mother to use as decoration.

By the time quail season opened, we had a good idea of where the birds were. In those days, the early to mid-1960s, it was a rare day when we couldn’t find bobwhites. The little brown and white birds were everywhere, often in places you would never think they would be. I still feel sorry for people who have never been startled by the wing beats of a covey rise while they are walking a field, in the edge of the woods or someplace completely unexpected.

Often some of our neighbors joined us on our quail hunts, men named Malvin and Allan and Sweet, among others. (I can’t remember Sweet’s real name, but he blew in occasionally from Raleigh, stayed in a cabin and entertained people on a piano. He was a sophisticate by Granville County standards.)

Our lives, like those of other country people, were quiet, simple and routine, watching for the changing seasons, taking joy in them and what the outdoor life might bring. Christmas was the great change in the year, a time of excitement and anticipation, and yet I don’t remember the climax of the whole thing, the great unwrapping. I can picture it—a quick peek to check for snow, then Sam and I rushing into the living room with its awful 1950s burgundy walls (it must have been from an artistic phase of my mother). We stand for a few seconds, struck silent at the bounty, and then begin tearing open gifts.

Later we’d make the grandparents journey, as inevitable as no snow. Some people, I believe, are destined to travel on major holidays. I’ve always been one of those reluctant travelers. Perhaps it’s some preordained thing. I’m still holding on to the hope that one Christmas, just one, I can spend the entire day at home gazing at the tree. Maybe that’s what it will take to bring a Christmas snowfall.

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