By the time Christmas arrived in Point Clear, the Bay was too cold and rough and shallow to enjoy. The wharf house existed like a summer cottage we’d left boarded up for the winter, except we could still see it through the front window, way out there through the north wind and the wet and the spray. Occasionally, I’d have to run out to fasten a slamming door or secure something, and it was always weird and lonely.
On Christmas Eve, Dad built a fire in the fireplace and we sat around him as he read “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” The men in our family have always been good storytellers, but I don’t ever recall this tale being much of a thriller. I think it was just a visual for Mom’s benefit.
After the story, we wrote wish lists on tissue paper and tossed them into the fire. The objective was for the draft to take the letters up the chimney to Santa, but we saw some of them burn up. Which was fine. According to Mom, Santa could read smoke too. We weren’t really concerned until Dad forgot to get up early one morning and pick the unburned ones off the lawn.
After a long night of much wide-eyed boredom, Mom came to release us at daybreak. We scampered into the living room and plunged into our separate piles of gifts. Santa was always good to us, and until about 8:30 a.m., we were blissfully forgetful of the impending doom.
“Time to get ready for church, ” Mom eventually announced.
Those words hit me in the gut. It was time to get cinched into Sunday clothes and make our annual trip to Mobile. As a child, the journey across the Bay brought to mind uncomfortable clothes, boring church, old people and carsickness.
We piled into the green station wagon, itching in our Sunday outfits and irritable at having to leave our new gifts idle on the living room floor for the rest of the day. We made the long trip up the Eastern Shore, across the Causeway, and through the tunnel into the city.
First stop was the Cathedral. We were always late and caused considerable commotion as our family of nine entered the cavernous, echoing building. We sat at the rear of the church with most of the siblings on the back row and Mom, Dad and the babies on the row in front of us. A Cathedral mass was more serious and boring than our usual church. The only practical way to pass time was to see how often you could get away with going to the bathroom. But the back bathroom under the staircase was creepy, like maybe a hunchback was lurking in the shadows. I didn’t ever want to stay long. Dad really had it the best. Typically, he wasn’t one to cuddle babies, but he loved babies in church. And as soon as one would so much as peep, he was out the back door with it.
One year, a brother positioned himself on the outside near the aisle. As the priest delivered mass, the rest of us children shifted and twitched and stood and knelt and giggled and elbowed and shushed. All the while we suspected the brother on the end was actually being good. He was still and quiet and keeping his hands to himself. Actually, he was using his fingers to slowly work off the nut on a bolt beneath his left leg. Suddenly there was a giant crack, the upright slammed out into the marble floor; the bench collapsed and we all slid into the aisle.
If you dropped a dime at the back of the Cathedral, it would probably turn heads halfway to the altar. Dropping a church pew halts mass. The priest stopped talking while we scrambled to our feet and started trying to put it all together again. I still think it was strange that nobody offered to help. They just turned and stared like it was something they were watching on television. Then I felt Dad tap my arm.
“I think it’s time to go, son, ” he said.
After church, we went to my great-grandmother’s house on West Street for lunch with more cousins. We called her Nannie, and she was 90-something years old for most of my life. She was the most ancient living person I knew, a mummy unwrapped, a skeleton with lipstick. But old as she was, her mind was sharp. She remembered all of our names, something that most of my Mobile cousins couldn’t achieve. And she was ultimately responsible for me getting to know my extended family in the big city.
But to us kids, Nannie’s lunch was just one more thing keeping us from our gifts at home. And her old house was stuffy and packed with more old people. We eventually found our way onto the porch and into the yard to get air and relief with the rest of our young cousins. By 1 p.m., we were lying on the lawn – our Sunday best already dirty and starting to come off – waiting for our parents to stop talking and come on. But there was more misery ahead: a long day of being carted around Mobile, seeing my mother’s friends, watching their children play with their new toys, thinking about our new toys way over across the Bay. We just wanted to go home.
We got back to Point Clear late in the afternoon, puddled in the back of the green station wagon, tired and carsick in unbuttoned, dirty dress clothes. I remember just wanting some air. It was the one day of winter I wanted to walk out on the windblown wharf and sit there.
text by Watt Key