Buddy Ray Earl Buddy Ray Earl
Author and Humble Observer of the Human Condition
 
Christmas in the Ozarks
A message delivered to the congregation of
Congregational Church of Christ
Punta Gorda, FL
December 27, 2009

From Luke 6: 20 and 21. Blest are ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God. Blest are ye who hunger now: for ye shall be filled. Blest are ye who weep now: for ye shall laugh.

Blest in these verses is often pronounced bless-ed. For the purposes of my talk, I pronounce it as the past tense of bless. Blest are the poor, the hungry, and those who weep, even if they possess no merits to make them more worthy of devotion than others, as bless-ed might suggest.

Scriptures relating to the blessings of misfortune may be the hardest to appreciate. How this works is too complex for me. I don’t even know if it has limits. I do know that misfortune has blessings, even wonderful blessings. I’m certain of that, from my own life’s experience.

I want to talk a little about Christmas in the Ozarks, and it’s blessings.

I’m no public speaker. I’ve never before stood in my Church, and spoke. I’m not an eager volunteer. I admit my negligence. I played Santa once, for the kiddies, and I help move chairs, but that’s about it. I don’t like to rush into things, but maybe it’s about time. At my age, “better late than never”, probably fits.

I’ll need my notes. I’m told I’m a story teller, and maybe I am. If I wander from my notes, and get off on a tangent, we could all be here a lot longer than you’d like.

I’m going to try to speak about some things that are very dear to my heart. When I try to do that, sometimes, I tear up. I’ll try not to, but if I go all misty on you, bear with me. I’ll get over it.

I’m called Bud, but my real name is Buddy. It’s an Ozark name. I grew up in Ann Arbor, in a family that had moved from the hills for a war factory job, and then spent many years longing for “down home”. The Ozarks were the home of our hearts.

But, a buck an hour was a lot of money. My Dad had worked in the Ozarks for 50 cents a day, digging out stumps, when he could get any work at all. In my youth, even though we lived in Ann Arbor, home was “down home”, home in the Ozarks. Maybe my Ann Arbor education changed me some, but a large part of me still feels the Ozarks are my heart’s natural home.

When my mother was young, on a forty acre farm, mostly rocks and hills too steep for easy climbing; Life wasn’t easy. Work was from before dawn till after dusk, and then some, with demanding work even for little kids. But, even in the Depression, at least they had food. They had very little else, but with their combined labor, they could eat. And they had each other.

Hungry people were moving through, needing a meal. My Granddad planted a patch of turnips. They grew amidst rocks and weeds, on ground not handy for much else. When he had little else to share, Grandpa could share turnips. When a family hasn’t eaten anything for a few days, one meal and a bag of turnips is a heavenly blessing. People were grateful for my Granddad’s turnips, and turnips helped evicted homeless people along, on their hard way. My grandparents usually had enough of some kind of food for their own large family to eat, but precious little extra. They couldn’t possibly meet everyone’s needs. In those hard Depression days, when lots of people were starving, even starving to death, turnips alone could be real Christmas blessings.

At Christmas, my Grandma’s table would be loaded with food, and cholesterol hadn’t been invented yet.

There was thick yellow cream, from the pretty little Jersey cow, too thick to pour, ladled out with a big spoon. Huge bowls full of fresh churned butter, and warm yeast bread to slather it on. The meat from the fall butchering would still be good, not rank like it would be late next summer, when the only recourse was to wash it and cook it real done, and pretend you liked it.

There would be pies. Mincemeat pies. Maybe apple and pumpkin, too. Maybe even the best thing of all, a dewberry cobbler, made from canned dewberries, picked in the woods. Pies cooked in the family’s greatest treasure, a big cook-stove, with it’s huge oven’s temperature carefully regulated by Granny adding kindling and adjusting little vents. Granny would open her special spiced apples and pears, saved for Christmas. Wild Persimmon and tomato preserves, for the biscuits. The smells alone were almost filling.

There was no Christmas tree, and no room for one. Their house was very small, and the family was large. They had far too many kids for the home they lived in. But, all day long, there was singing. The crowded house was full of laughter and joyful song. My mother’s family included some who could play any old beat-up thing with strings on it. If a string was missing, they could improvise.

Everyone sang, beautiful voices and wretched ones. They sang old hymns, and old Scotch-Irish ballads and folk songs, all from musical memories. Hundreds of songs, maybe thousands of songs, a bottomless well of music.

A lot of the songs were like the ballad Barbry Allen. They had old words they didn’t know the meaning of, but they remembered and sang them, just the same. Hymns, happy songs, and tragic songs.

Ozark songs.

Annie and I were married on Christmas day. She thought that might make it impossible for her absent minded sweetheart, who rarely knows what day it is, or sometimes even what month, to ever forget her anniversary. She was almost right. I’ve had a couple of mad scrambles, late on Christmas eve.

Later, we toured the Ozarks, and Annie met my guitar picking, singing aunts, Elsie and Helen. She found that the strange Ozark yarns I’d been spinning for her were true. A surprise, because some of them seem so unlikely these days that even I might doubt them. My Aunts filled in details I didn’t know, and Annie found my tales weren’t the result of too much imagination, or too much coffee.

One of my old favorite songs was about two little babes who got lost in the woods. It’s a tragic lullaby that Ozark mothers, including mine, used to sing to their babies, to get them ready for sleep. There is nothing like a nice cry, about someone besides himself, to make a child completely relaxed and contented, and set for a good night’s sleep.

There were quite a few verses. It’s a medium-long song about two little babes who wander off, and get lost in the woods. More and more lost and frightened, those poor little babies, holding hands, hunt for home. They go deeper into the woods, as it grows darker, while the cold rain falls, and wild razorbacks lurk. Finally, hand in hand, with nothing but each other, worn totally out, those poor babies sigh. And then they cry.

Then they lay down and die.

The last verse goes like this:

And when they were dead
The robins so red
Brought strawberry leaves
And over them spread

And sang them a song
The whole day long
Those two little babes
Are now dead and gone.

My mother or my aunt would sing this. My little cousin’s lower lip would stick out farther and farther, until it looked almost anatomically impossible, and then start to quiver. Then, his tears would flow, in astonishing quantity. When the song was finished, he always grinned through his tears and wanted it again. He was a tough nut to crack. It took two or three goes, to make him ready for sleep. For me, once did the trick.

Tragic lullabies are a thing of the past now, I fear. That’s a loss, I think. I think they opened a path to the heart, and taught sympathy, and concern for others. It was a tragic song, but still greatly loved and requested by us children, crying and all. Maybe because, in it’s way, that sad song was brimming over with love. Love for the little ones. Ozark children, with tragic lullabies, went to sleep wrapped in the warmth of that love.

Life in the Ozarks was like that. My mother’s family knew hard things and tragedy aplenty. They were tough people, and they weren’t given to displays of affection. They faced an often harsh and demanding life with both eyes wide open. The words “I love you” were not heard, not out loud. Hugs were saved for comforting those in great distress. In their lives, there was nothing trivial about love. But there was love aplenty, and it came out where one couldn’t help but see it, at Christmas time.

By today’s standards, the gifts were almost nonexistent. Something secretly whittled from a pine knot. A little hanky, carefully made from a bit of feed sack, with edges crocheted in secret, in the woods, so no one would see. Even a little poem, carefully drawn on a scrap of paper, saved from a used envelope. Tiny gifts, but gifts given from the heart, and received the same way. Gifts without words, that said “I Love you“.

Then, the Church service, at the tiny Church at the head of the mile long up-and-down rocky lane that led to my Grandpa’s. At Christmas, not a Pentecostal service, with people rejoicing and talking in tongues, or performing dangerous demonstrations of faith. Something more sober.

Maybe a customary sermon, an old standard, like the one that explains that man has a way, and he does the best that he can with it. Until, someday, his way runs dry, and he no longer has any way at all. When his hope is gone, he turns and finds God’s way, and the new hope that God has ready for him, even when he had no hope left of his own.

Then, the introduction of the Baby Jesus; God’s way, and God’s hope for the world. Jesus, the greatest Christmas gift ever given.

Finally, the alter call, even in the tiny congregation with everyone there a known Christian. Maybe some poor brother might need some fresh forgiveness, or hadn’t yet received the absolute utmost full measure of Jesus’ blessings.

Then maybe, there would be the assurance that Jesus was right, in his Sermon on the Mount, and that the poor and meek are blest, and that the greatest of life’s blessings spring from misfortune.

The preacher might even mention his wife’s joy in a little embroidered thing, secretly made, to be kept forever in her treasure trunk, and in her heart. A gift shyly and lovingly given, by their wide eyed little daughter, hopeful that her gift of love would be valued. Gifts of the heart, a blessing of poverty. And that Jesus has healing for all of our pain and our tragedies, even in this life, and certainly in the next.

After thirty-seven years of seeking, my own conversion was somewhat cataclysmic. Of course, His greatest gift to me was forgiveness. Not just His forgiveness of me, but also His gift of the ability to forgive. That’s something I had suffered from a shortage of, especially when I was wronged. I even wrote a little poem about it:

If one should sin against you
Hurry to Forgive

If he should Repent
Rejoice in His Repentance

If he should not repent
Forgive his unrepentance
And Rejoice in your Forgiveness

He taught me to forgive their sins
As He forgave my own

Forgiveness is a Holy Power
Given from above,
purchased at great price.

I must never hide it under a Stony Heart.

I never found loving God difficult. It was people I had trouble loving. It’s no great trick for me to love the goodness of Jesus. Loving people’s goodness, much hidden behind their faults, seems to me to be more than that.

My mother learned to recite an old poem in her tiny one room grade school, before she understood what it was about. She never forgot it, and she passed it on to me. I little remember her poem about the mighty blacksmith and his chestnut tree, but I remember Abu Ben Adhem. Abu was a Moslem, and a man of profound peace.

Abou Ben Adhem, may his tribe increase!
Awoke one night from a dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight of his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,

An angel, writing in a book of gold!

Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the presence in the room he said,
'What writest thou?'

The vision raised its head,
And with a look made all of sweet accord,
Answered:

'The names of those who love the Lord.'

'And, is mine one?' asked Abou. 'Nay, not so,' replied the angel.

Abou spoke more low, but cheerily still, and said;
'I pray thee then. Write me as one who loves his fellow-men.'

The angel wrote, and vanished.
The next night, It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names, the names who’s love God blessed.

And lo!

Ben Adhem's name led all the rest!

Perhaps I must always be a skeptic from the Show-Me state, who can be certain only of what he has finally, with great labor, proven to himself. Even if the proving takes thirty-seven years.

But never a cynic. How could a man be a cynic, or even a skeptic, in this season, when love loses some of it’s shy caution, and when our eyes open a little wider? How be a skeptic, when we see love, out from the hidden private places of hearts, in people everywhere we look, even in unlikely places?

Even in a dung strewn stable, in a once unwed Jewish mother-to-be, a young girl in the winter chill, giving birth to God's own Light! God’s Light, born on common straw. Straw as common as the least of us!

Thank you, Joseph. Thank you Mary, and thank your Son, your baby.

Our Jesus.

Since that first Christmas, there have been many Christmases, and many New Years. Years made better, by God’s love in our hearts. I have great hopes for the ones to come. May God bless us all in the coming years, and thank you for hearing me.  

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