I don't know why, but I've never been comfortable with receiving gifts or having too much attention paid to me, even though most of my business ventures have put me in the spotlight. It was fun while it lasted, then I decided to get out and go smell the roses. I still haven't looked back.
I've had only a few birthday parties — a couple when I was a kid and a couple more since I became old enough to vote. Most of those closest to me know how uncomfortable I am with any situation that focuses on me. Same goes with me receiving presents. It's just awkward. Truth be told, I'm pretty shy.
I love giving gifts to close friends and my family. I put a lot of thought into every present I give. I try to select something cool and that they can use.
Every Christmas, up until my high school graduation, Aunt Sis sent me a Christmas card with a $5 bill inside. She sent me handkerchiefs for my birthdays. I was pretty sure that I was the only kid who sported a handkerchief until I met a little boy in Sunday School who carried one also. It was a Christmas gift from his grandmother.
I don't recall my grandmother, Miz Lena, ever asking me what I wanted for Christmas. It wouldn't have done any good anyway. Once, I took the matter in my own hands and upped and blurted out that I wanted a BB gun for Christmas. Grand Mom looked at me with that face she made when she was just about ready to lower the boom. She said, "If I wuz you, I wouldn't count on much comin' yore way after what you done to my ham this past summer."
She was referring to the ham she had hanging on a hook in her smokehouse, out in the backyard. A smokehouse is generally a small, gable-topped, air-tight brick structure with no windows and a ventilator. There's usually a wooden beam inside that runs across the middle.
In the cold months, people, especially farmers, slaughtered a pig, salted down the meat and hung it from the beam. Many times, they built a small oak or cedar wood fire in the smokehouse directly under the meat to let the smoke cure it. They left it hanging for several months.
After a while, a bacteria mold would cover and protect the meat. Come summer, they cut off that bacteria cover, and the meat would be pink and perfect. Next to T-bone steaks, fresh-cut, cured ham, is my favorite meat.
Every once in a while, Miz Lena opened the smokehouse door and looked in at the hanging slab. She never went inside. She just looked at it. She was sure proud of that curing meat.
Several times, I got in there with one of Grand Mom's butcher knives, stood on a stool and cut off and ate slice after slice of the backside of the slab of ham. The side you couldn't see from the doorway. I ate so much of the ham that my eyes swelled shut.
By the time Miz Lena was ready to cut it up, I had pretty much eaten half the ham. I couldn't help myself. It was so good. When Grand Mom got through with me, my burning backside could have cured a dozen hams!
Miz Lena told me, "When I was a little girl, Santy Clause didn't bring me nothin' but some rocks to play with. Consider yoreself a lucky little boy." When you're a kid, it's hard to feel lucky getting church clothes for Christmas. But I had to admit, church clothes were better than rocks.
When I was in my 30s, I exchanged a Christmas present. It was a tacky sweater a lady named Shirley gave me. Even though it would not have been a sweater I'd have picked out for myself, I thanked her for it. Shirley was overjoyed that I liked it.
I laid the sweater out on the department store counter in the men's section and told the clerk that I wanted to exchange it for something else. She said something like, "I don't blame you." The two of us got to laughing about the sweater. We went on and on.
You know how sometimes you feel like someone's staring at you? I turned around, and there, at the front of the line of shoppers, waiting to check out, stood Shirley.
She heard the whole thing. Man, that was embarrassing. I apologized to her. For the record, that was the one, only and last time I ever exchanged anything, and it was the last time I saw or heard from her. If you're out there, Shirley, once again, I'm sorry.
I'm perfectly fine with receiving just a Christmas card with something special written inside. I have every holiday, birthday and Father's Day card I've received from my son. Same goes for my wife, Jana. I have a huge collection of cards she's given me through the years. Every once in a blue moon, I pull them out and read them. Some of them choke me up.
I've never been particularly fond of giving someone cash for Christmas. Presents of money seem so impersonal, and it's gone in a few days. It's like receiving a bouquet of flowers. They're beautiful for a short while, then they fade away.
The only time that I can remember getting cash from anybody that had any sentiment attached to it was from a black man everyone called Blind Remus. They called him that because he looked like the Disney character Uncle Remus, and he was blind. He was a well-known local bootlegger of the finest moonshine ever sipped by mankind.
I worked off and on for him. In the summer, I assisted him with running mason jars of hooch up the embankment, out in front of his little rusty-roofed house, to a waiting line of cars and trucks of weekend partiers.
And I collected the money. Coins only. That way Mr. Remus could count it. He could tell you the date a coin was minted by simply running his finger across the face of it.
Pretty much throughout the calendar year, I ran errands for Mr. Remus. I was 10. He was an old man, but we were friends. Sometimes, I'd drop in and visit with him. If it was warm, we'd sit out back by the creek. When it was cold, we sat inside his very small house.
One year, when it was getting close to Christmas, Mr. Remus had me run up to the only grocery store in town to get him a pouch of tobacco, rolling papers and a bag of marshmallows.
Back in the '50s, and especially out there in the countryside of Middle Tennessee, kids could pick up cigarettes or prescriptions for an adult, no questions asked. Everybody knew everybody.
To my delight, when I got back to Mr. Remus', he invited me in to have some hot chocolate and marshmallows.
His house was always a little dark inside. Of course, it didn't matter one way or the other to him. He used to ask me if I could guess how much his light bill ran him per month. Before I could respond, he'd say, "Nuttin'"and crack up laughing.
Mr. Remus was at the potbelly stove, heating up the milk. I was sitting by the front window. I looked over in the corner and noticed a very small pine tree, sitting in a bucket, with a few angel ornaments and silver icicles hanging from its limbs. No lights.
I told Mr. Remus that I was surprised to see he had a Christmas tree. He smiled and said, "You gots to have a Merry Christmas tree to puts da presents under." He asked me what I thought of the tree. There wasn't much to it. After all, he was blind.
Mr. Remus said, "Boy, go on over dere and see whut dey is under da tree. Might be sumthin' under it fo yuh." I looked down in front of the tree, and there was an empty tobacco pouch with a ribbon tied around the top. Mr. Remus said, "See whut it is."
I pulled off the ribbon and a shiny silver dollar fell out. Mr. Remus looked over my way, grinned real big and sweetly said, "It ain't much, but it's somethin'. It fo a rainy day. I gots one jus' like it. You keep dat wiff you, and you ain't never be broke. Some a' dem silver dollars brings yuh good luck. Dat may be one a' dem. I guess we jus' haf to wait and see."
I've never forgotten and will always be thankful for the very kind gesture and thoughtfulness of a little blind man who gave me a silver dollar for Christmas.
Thanks, Mr. Remus. I assume you'll be attending Jesus' birthday party. By the way, turns out that silver dollar you gave me was one of the lucky ones.
Bill Stamps' books, "Miz Lena" and "Southern Folks," are available on Amazon. For signed copies, email firstname.lastname@example.org.