Two stories of framing, floor joists, rafters, even the floors and ceilings were constructed with rough, aged, white oak, salvaged from a warehouse demolition. The wood was so hard only a skilled carpenter could drive ten penny nail in it without bending it. Two 50 foot oaks straddled the front yard of an acre lot at 306 Madison Street, in the small town of Shelbyville, TN. My parents bought the house for $1000 and spent 20 years paying off the mortgage, improving it as they could afford luxuries like insulation, kerosene heating, and an indoor bathroom. In the cold winters we stapled sheets of plastic over the windows to reduce heat loss.
I grew up in this home until leaving it for university, knowing I was always welcome to return, which I did frequently. There were two special rooms in this house that stayed locked off, unheated, and off-limits to kids. The living room and dining room had rugs on the floor, a stain free couch, antique tables, chairs, clocks, and a piano, and were always free of toys, dirty socks, and scraps. They smelled vastly different from the rest of the house. They were reserved for the occasional but rare visits of special people, like the preacher or mayor, except for one day each year.
That one day was Christmas day when the doors were open to the rest of the house, the fireplace roared, and everyone could come and go as they please. Possibly the number one thing that made Christmas so special was that we could wander in and out of those rooms all day, sitting before a warm fireplace next to a decorated cedar tree. The next best thing was that was the only day of the year where the sweets and fruit supply was unmonitored and unlimited. Christmas presents were exciting but not as exciting as just being in the room surrounded by unlimited goodies to eat.
My family had a lot of routines and traditions that added fun to life. One of them occurred at the ending of almost every meal, except for the Christmas meal. We pretty much lived on pinto beans, cornbread and potatoes with other vegetables from the garden or the jars of home-canned vegetables stored beneath the house. Meat was rare, usually seen only on “fried chicken” Sunday. At the end of each meal, without fail, one of us would ask “What’s for dessert?”, and all of us already knew the answer and would laugh when Mother responded with a knowing smile,“Get you another helping of beans ”
On Christmas Day my grandparents would come from the farm and join us for the meal. I had been waiting all day for the end of that meal. All the possible desserts in the universe were spread out on the table, and I always wanted the same one, warm pecan pie with ice cream melting over it. I would save Grandmother’s famous coconut cake for later. Ice cream was something that was available only when Grand Daddy came. I still remember eating so much on Christmas Day that I was physically in pain for some time after the meal.
I cannot remember a single toy that I got as a child at Christmas, but I can still remember the excitement of sitting before the warm fireplace, eating candy and bananas, smelling that wonderful room, spinning on the piano stool, the antique lamps, the painting over the piano, and that pecan pie covered with ice cream. To this day, ice cream is something I can never turn down.
I return to Shelbyville about once a year now to meet up with family and friends. Shelbyville grew from a town of 12000 to 40000, and the city limits expanded miles on each side. I contributed to two successful campaigns of the present Shelbyville mayor who has improved the town immensely during his two terms. He married my sister sixty years ago; they live in a beautiful, lakeside home on nearby Horse Mountain overlooking the city and have zillions of kids, grandkids, and great grandkids, who all do well in Shelbyville. During return trips, I always drive down Madison Street, now one of the main streets in the town. Where the white oak house stood at 306 Madison Street is now a parking lot; park there and you can dine at a burger joint at 310 Madison Street.”