The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Painted Birds and Peppermint Dreams

By William Stoneberger © 1989

Issue: December, 1989

bells 2In my grandparents' house, Christmas was a feast for the senses. Smells of freshly-cut cedar and Christmas cookies drifted through the house like childhood dreams. A young boy's eyes filled with the sights of icicles hanging thick and dripping from the water spouting, tiny lights blinking on the tree, and glorious snow covering the mountains and the farm like a security blanket; the joyful sound of tin ornaments clinking gently against one another; wonderful tastes of warm cocoa in mugs, homemade soup, and chocolate drops. Boxes wrapped in crinkly foil, waiting to be caressed and shaken by chubby little fingers.

When I was a child, we'd go up to their house most every year. The station wagon would be brimming with packages, shiny and secret. We'd curl up with our blankets and pillows in the backseat. We'd sleep, dreaming peppermint dreams, while Daddy drove us to the mountains. The cold outside and the anticipation would make us shiver. Two weeks off school, a trip to Grandma's and Christmas all at one time were almost too much for a little boy to stand.

We'd get there, and there would always be snow. It would cover the farms, the houses, and all the trees, transforming the world into an icy land of wonder and enchantment. Coal stoves blazing in the house welcomed us with their warmth. Grandma's hugs encircled us with love.

In the morning, we'd trod to the field across the road with my grandfather; an axe swinging in his massive hands.

We'd journey across the creek, until we came to the hillside covered with cedar trees. We'd examine every tree, searching for the perfect one. When we'd found it, my grandfather would chop it down. Sweet-scented chips of bark flying. Then we'd drag it across the road and take it into the house. A box of ornaments would be brought down from the attic. Fancy glass and painted tin and tiny strings of color. I remember the little glass birds with the long white wire tails. They were always my favorites. The way the lights made the wings and tails glimmer was magical. I would take the ornaments out of the box and hold each one delicately in my little hands, each like a shiny new world of its own. Each would be hung like a hope, like a promise on a sticky green branch. When the trimming was done, we'd stand back in awe and admire.

On Christmas Eve, we would be tucked into bed early. Patchwork quilts stacked over us; excitement and anticipation keeping us awake whispering between the beds. I could look out the window and see the moon tripping the light fantastic across the frozen ballroom that lay suspended outside. Icy branches would break under the weight and fall with a dull thud onto the tin roof. I could've sworn Santa was arriving overhead. I'd close my eyes as tight as I could, trying to force myself to sleep. I'd listen, until sleep overcame me.

Then came morning, with its cheerful surprises. Stocking overflowing; wishes wrapped in paper and tied ribbon and bows. The feeling of love and warmth enwreathing us. Friends and relatives arriving at the door, wearing holiday smiles. The best of memories.

Time passes, as it always does. Grandma and Granddaddy are gone now. We are grown. New children dream candy-cane dreams under our tree. When Granddaddy died, all of their things were put up for auction. Memories were sold. As we got the things together, I looked for the box of fancy ornaments. Only a few had survived the years. The painted birds were extinct. I found a pink ball with angels orbiting it. I brought it home with me. Now every year when Christmas rolls around, we go to the attic for our box of memories. Newly shining fancier ornaments, collected on our journey of life, are all gathered together. The pink ball remains shiny and special. When I take it from its resting place, I hold it delicately in grown-up hands. The memories swirl around me like dancing flakes of snow, like pink angel wings. I see painted birds with shiny white tails gathering in a field of snow, flocking a hillside of cedars. The air smells of cocoa, smells sticky green. My grandmother's voice comes sailing in - "Silent night, holy night..."