The year was 1971. It was Christmas. Patricia was 19 years old, fresh out of high school and going to college in her hometown. The last year and a half had been painful for her, but she was traveling to her grandparent’s farm with her parents for the Christmas holiday. Because of the loss she had suffered and the way she had suffered it, she didn’t have much Christmas spirit that year. The trip wasn’t long, but she hadn’t wanted to go.
Even though it was winter, the farm that her grandparent’s owned and still worked was beautiful. Stark, though in the summer it was lush and productive. Stark fit Patricia’s mood. She’d felt stripped bare ever since “the incident” as her mother called it. Not only had Patricia felt stripped bare for the world to see, she’d felt lonely, afraid, and stupid, even amidst her friends at college. Since “the incident,” her mother had been more solicitous than usual, but her father, who she loved so much, had been distant and angry. It was decades later when Patricia finally understood that he wasn’t angry at her.
Patricia’s grandparents were getting old. They were still vital, particularly her grandmother. Her grandfather had been ill and was visibly slowing down. They were starting to sell some of the farm and its assets, knowing they couldn’t keep it up there for much longer. The parts Patricia loved were still intact. Once they arrived, Patricia realized she was glad to be there. She felt wrapped in a warm cocoon when she was with her grandfather.
Her dad was going to spend his time there fixing things around the farm that needed repair. Her mother was going to help her grandmother prepare Christmas dinner for the other family members who were coming on Christmas Day. Patricia had orders to read, study for her classes, and try to rest. They were all looking forward to the arrival of the babies on Christmas Day. Two of her mother’s sisters had little girls born in the same year. They were now six years old. Patricia couldn’t wait to see them. She couldn’t have loved them more if they had been her own.
Patricia awakened early on her first morning at the farm. She went to the kitchen to make a cup of tea and found her grandfather dressed and sitting at the kitchen table. He was ready to go milk the two remaining dairy cows. When she sat down at the table, he asked her if she’d like to go with him, as she had when she was a little girl. She quickly said yes and he told her to go put on warm clothes because they might be a while.
Her grandfather grabbed his walking stick and they started toward the barn. He didn’t move as quickly or easily as she remembered, but she walked along beside him. He talked about farm-related issues and asked her if she wanted to try to milk one of the cows like she had in the past. He teased her about it and she said she would. She had never been good at milking. They pulled up side by side stools by the cows and Patricia tried to milk, but her hands just weren’t strong enough. Her grandfather laughed and quickly milked both cows.
As they left the barn, he stopped, turned, and looked up the steep hill behind the barn. He looked at Patricia, now almost grown, and asked if she would like to take a walk. He told her there might still be some hickory nuts on the ground for them to gather. Since she was a child, her grandfather had always sent her a letter when the hickory nuts were falling. She jumped at this chance to go with him, but she knew that climbing that hill would be hard for him now. She let him take the lead.
As they walked, Patricia’s grandfather talked to her. About life’s disappointments and hardships. About how she should hold her head high and never let them get her down. He told her to be proud of her roots. To get her education. To make him as proud of her in the future as he’d been in the past. All the while, he was breathing hard, struggling to climb that hill. When they reached the top, he rested against a tree and gave her a pail in which to put the hickory nuts. They would feed them to his two remaining pigs.
Patricia worked hard gathering those nuts while listening to her grandfather. He talked about his view of the world. How he wanted her to do well not only personally, but also for the world. He wanted her to never compromise her values. She heard every word he said and took those words to heart. Somehow she knew they were having a very important conversation.
As they started down the hill toward the house, she felt the burden of the last two years lifting off her shoulders. She felt better than she had in a long time. When they got back to the house, he went into his bedroom and said he was going to rest. He took a long nap. His morning with her had taken all of his energy.
The next morning, the babies arrived and Patricia kept the two beautiful, blonde little girls entertained while dinner was being prepared. They were her little cousins and she adored them. Other family members arrived and the big family had a wonderful Christmas dinner at the long dining room table. The children all sat at tables prepared for them in the living room. The wonderful southern cooking and the love in that family was something she would remember all of her life.
Patricia and her parents left for home the next day. She hated leaving the farm, her grandparents, and the babies. Her grandfather had given her the most important gift of all that Christmas. His wisdom and words of love. She went home stronger and she could hold her head up high.