The flu vs. the Bible

An Allen family portrait at Christmas 1968: from left, brothers Scott and Steve, father Jim (with beer in hand), mother Darlene, and Darla.
An Allen family portrait at Christmas 1968: from left, brothers Scott and Steve, father Jim (with beer in hand), mother Darlene, and Darla.

There have been many wonderful or remarkable holiday memories in my life. But the Christmas that will always hold a special place in my memory is the Christmas of 1968.

We were living in southern Georgia then. No snow. No ice. And no longer did a live Christmas tree stand in our living room. It was this green bottle brush thing that we put together, one bottle brush at a time.

I was having what would commonly be referred to today as a 'meltdown,' fuming that it wouldn't be Christmas, it couldn't be Christmas with a fake tree.

But to my dismay, there was a beautiful bottle brush tree fully decorated at a local store. And because my father didn't want to take the chance that a similar tree still boxed up wouldn't be as lovely, he requested the shop owner to undecorate the tree, disassemble it and box it up so we could take it home. And he did.

So that Christmas we had our first fake tree. It truly was gorgeous with the multi-colored lights, decorations from my parents' childhoods and newer ones as well, garland rather than tinsel and this twirling kaleidoscopic tree topper.

This was to be a grand holiday. My grandparents and uncle were making the treacherous drive from central Wisconsin through the Smoky Mountains. And my mom's sister and her husband were flying in from upstate New York. They had been married only a short time, and we had not yet met our new uncle. It was going to be glorious!

But that was the winter of the Hong Kong flu.

My mother was hospitalized with pneumonia several days before everyone's arrival. My youngest brother also developed pneumonia. The newest member of the family, Uncle Neil, deplaned with a 104-degree fever, which kept him in bed for the first 24 hours of his visit.

And since my mom was in the hospital, my dad had to grocery shop. And what a fabulous thing that was. He bought all the yummy stuff my mom never would. I still remember the most delicious peppermint sticks he brought home for us to try.

My grandparents and other uncle arrived unscathed, but Uncle Jim soon came down with the dreaded flu. Although my grandmother and aunt certainly could and did prepare various meals, I felt it was my place as the hosts' daughter to prepare the first dinner after everyone's arrival.

This was my first attempt at making anything beyond my dad's beloved bologna sandwiches. I was a bit nervous, but I put together a baked chicken and rice dish that Mom had on her list of various menu items intended for the holiday visitors. And wonders never cease; it was quite yummy.

Luckily, Mom was able to come home on Christmas Eve. Uncle Jim was a studio photographer and had brought along his camera. I still have these wonderful photos:

• Aunt Sharon in her pj's with Uncle Neil standing beside her beaming. They were expecting their first child.

• Grandma, sitting next to Grandpa, wearing the wig Mom had gotten her for Christmas. It really was too much hair for Grandma's tiny head.

• My dad with a beer in his hand.

• Brother Scott with the dummy he had gotten. He was going to be a ventriloquist.

• Mom and baby brother Steve seated together with their pasty white faces.

• Me in the coolest new coat and suede cap.

But it was the gift that Daddy gave Mom that year that brought tears to everyone's eyes. It was a Bible.

I guess the reason this was so moving is because Mom and my brothers and I attended our tiny Catholic church weekly without Daddy.

We lived in the Bible Belt but didn't have a Bible in our home like everyone else. And this gift to my mom was his way of putting right the differences: the difference in her beliefs and those that were being nurtured in us with his beliefs and the differences in our way of believing from those around us.

The rest of the holiday was spent as it always was when we got together: eating, laughing, drinking, playing cards and touch football. Ultimately, everyone in the family came down with the flu except my dad.

Maybe it was all the beer.

Or maybe ... it was the gift of the Bible.


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