I don’t decorate much for Christmas in recent years, but I always haul out all the old memories.
My friend, Emma Jean, has an important role in my memories of Christmases past.
I first met Emma Jean in 1978. I had just moved to Beaver Island with my family. Emma and I worked together as waitresses for the breakfast shift at the Shamrock Bar and Restaurant.
It was my first job as a server, and I took it seriously. I was a perfect example of the completely over the top and very annoying “Hi, my name is Cindy and I’ll be your waitress…” type. Combined with my clumsiness and ineptitude, I was quite a sight to behold.
Emma Jean, on the other hand, was very skilled at the job and a little bit famous for her “What the HELL do you want from me NOW?” greeting.
I’d see her rolling her eyes at me, or grumbling under her breath, or laughing out loud at my foibles.
As the year wore on, though (no-one was more surprised than I was!), I caught on to the job. Through busy mornings and kitchen disasters and after-shift cocktails, Emma Jean and I became friends.
She is #24 on the list of 60 Most Influential Women in My Life that I compiled for my sixtieth birthday. In my life, though, Emma Jean is invaluable.
And, in my family, she saved Christmas. Twice.
The first time was in perhaps 1981 or ’82. The island ferry had quit running early that year, and we were dependent on the planes for supplies. The weather conditions were such that the planes couldn’t fly…for days on end. At Christmas! The airport in Charlevoix was packed with groceries, gifts and people waiting to come to the island. Several of Emma Jean’s children were among them, as was my husband…with our Christmas turkey and all of Santa’s gifts. In the little apartment we were spending our winter in, we were facing a tree with few presents and a can of cream of mushroom soup.
On Christmas Eve, we gave up hope that the planes would fly. Emma Jean pulled out the food she’d planned for her family meals and started cooking. She called all the “strays”. Anyone that had been trying to go home for the holidays and couldn’t, anyone who’d been expecting family that didn’t get here, anyone that hadn’t ordered groceries early enough…all were on Emma Jean’s list of invited guests.
Emma Jean’s table had been extended to the limits of her small kitchen. Lace cloths covered the surface. Christmas lights twinkled and candles glowed. Bottles of wine and other spirits waited on the sideboard. Real crystal glassware. Her best china. Hors-d’oeuvres, salads, turkey and ham, mashed potatoes and gravy, stuffing, several lovely side dishes and elegant desserts. Offered, as if we were the most important guests in the world, to a motley crew that included a group of course linemen from Mississippi, a young bartender, a group of rabbit hunters and…thankfully…myself and my two young daughters.
It was a wonderful meal filled with laughter and camaraderie.
We walked home, my girls and I, around the harbor, with the water at our side, a sky full of stars overhead and the church bells sounding for the midnight mass. I still think of it as one of the loveliest nights of my life.
The second time was just a couple years later. My husband and I had separated in late October, and started divorce proceedings. As the temperatures turned cold, staying in our house proved impossible. Faced with less than a cord of soft wood for heat and water that froze whenever the temperature dropped, my daughters and I moved into a motel room in town for the winter. I packed up the car with the bare necessities while Jen and Kate were at school. In a moment of hope and with a bit of extra space, I added the tote of holiday decorations.
I was angry and sad and broke. Add confused to that list to get of picture of my girls’ state of mind.
And yet, here was Christmas.
Emma Jean stopped one Saturday in early December, with the Shamrock truck, a large pruning saw and a brown bag of refreshments.
“Get your boots on, girls, and we’ll go get trees!”, she grinned. “We need two for the Shamrock: one for the dining room and one for the dance floor; two for my house: one inside, one outside…one will probably be enough for you here”, she said with a glance around our crowded room.
That was the start of our wonderful day.
We drove down the east side as far as it was plowed, and around McCauley Road to the King’s Highway, Paid Een Ogg Road to the West Side Drive, and on and on. Whenever a trail looked passable, we took it. Whenever a tree looked interesting, we stopped to check it from all angles. When we found a “keeper”, I was the one to shimmy under it and cut it down. Though I’d heard a lot of, “Don’t worry about who’s property it’s on, it’s one small tree…” from Emma Jean, when a car came down the road while I was, belly down, under an evergreen with the saw halfway through the trunk, Emma shouted, “Quick, into the bushes, girls, HIDE!” and they ducked for cover. If the driver of the vehicle had looked into the field, he would have seen a small tree swaying with my uncontrolled laughter.
By evening, we had dropped four trees off at their proper locations and were back in my little motel room setting up a fair-sized tree. I made hot chocolate; Emma Jean cracked a beer. I strung the lights. Then the ornaments came out.
“Show me”, Emma Jean said, and my daughters did, shyly at first, and ready to discount their offerings as worthless at the slightest indication.
“I made this one in Brownies when I was little” Jen shrugged, “It’s a tuna fish can with cloth glued to it.”
“I made this in Sister Marie’s class” Kate offered, “It’s a ring from a jar with yarn wrapped around it.”
Before they could finish their description, the sparkle of interest in Emma Jean’s eyes told them the items they held were of tremendous value.
“Bring that over here so I can get a better look…”
“Now tell me again, what? A canning jar lid? Amazing!”
One after the other the ornaments came out, and were described and discussed and marveled over. One memory at a time, we were integrating Christmas back into our lives.
“This one…”, a big sigh, “…I made it in kindergarten…it’s a lid from a margarine tub, and we cut out pictures from old Christmas cards and glued them on…”, another self deprecating shrug, “…then we put glitter all over it…”, another sigh. “I hate this one, really. I always want to hang it on the back of the tree where no one can see it. My Dad always says, “NO! I love that one! That has to hang in the front!”…”
Without a moment’s hesitation, Emma Jean asked, “So, where are you going to hang it this year, Honey?”
My daughter’s eyes went to the side, and there was a slight pause before her face brightened and she laughed out loud. We all joined her.
There, in that tiny motel room, with hot cocoa and beer and evergreen, and with tremendous thanks to Emma Jean, we started to learn how to move forward.
And that is how Emma Jean saved Christmas…twice.