~Polly’s Christmas Trees~ written in honor of my mother’s birthday November 17, 1931

on November 15, 2016 in Just Life
Polly Voyles

Little Polly Voyles

As a small child, I was bedridden with heart disease. This aggravation took three years out of my life. Those years were eased greatly by a mother who loved to read and she read to me often, so often in fact, she regularly lost her voice.  Looking back on my childhood, I realize that was how my mother, Helen Voyles-Story, demonstrated her love for me. But it was when she put the book down and got that gleam in her big brown eyes that I most longed for. And it happened just like that one winter day as I watched the snow fall outside my bedroom window.

Yes, Mama put the book down as she turned her focus to the window. Together we watched snowflakes fall from the sky, snow that stuck to the trees in our woodsy backyard.

It had been a busy morning. She fed me my breakfast because I could not hold a fork. She carried me piggyback to the restroom because I could not walk. She sponged bathed me and dressed me in clean pajamas. She wrapped me warmly with one of her grandmother’s homemade “healing” quilts. She read to me in hopes I would drift back to sleep, because she had a lot to do. Breakfast dishes needed to be washed and the laundry folded while my two sisters were at school, but not today. Today Mama would sit with me and talk most of the day away – just the two of us. Putting the “beans on” for supper time would have to wait. Mama chuckled as she rolled me over to rub my back. “Diane, let me tell you about a rascal of a little cat I had when I was a little girl about your age. That silly cat followed me around from pillar to post. That was back when I was called Polly.”

She couldn’t help but chuckle to herself. I was all ears.

“Yes, Tom Kitten reminds me of that cat. Of course, I was not allowed to own a cat. Ya PawPaw would not allow a cat in the house. And believe you me, that cat knew to stay outta his way.” She laughed. “I don’t know why, but that cat took up with me and followed me around everywhere I went.”

“Is it the same cat that followed you to the cotton field?”

“Yes, the very one, he’d follow me down the cotton rows and crawl in my cotton bag for a ride; that made my bag look heavy like I’d picked a lot of cotton. When I held the bag up for my parents to see, they’d say, ‘Polly, that’s enough, you can read now.’ Then I’d empty my cotton-slash-cat bag into the wagon, sit down and read a book. Yes, ol’ Cat and I were a team.”

“What was his name?”

“I called him ol’ Cat. I couldn’t name him, because that would be claiming it. Ol’ Cat slipped into the house one night. It was Christmas Eve and I let him hide in my bedroom. Daddy was out late – working. My sister, Mary Frances and I had the Christmas tree decorated. Back then we used real candles to light the tree. We worked for days making decoration and couldn’t wait for Daddy to come home so we could light those candles.”

“PawPaw worked on Christmas Eve?”

“Yes, that’s when we lived on Old Norcross in Tucker. He worked any time someone’s well ran dry. Wade Voyles could study the lay of the land and dig, always found water. Not everybody could do that. You know he studied at Georgia Tech; in the forties he studied War Training, got a foreman degree. Anyway, he came home late that Christmas Eve – tired and dirty. We got the matches out and he told us to go ahead and light the candles. Mama put his supper plate on a little table in the living room; that way he could watch us. Frances lit the candles high up and I lit the ones near the bottom.”

“What’s so funny?” I asked as Mama laughed out loud.

“Well, I’m gonna tell you what’s funny, Diane. That ol’ Cat slipped into the living room and for some reason, ran and jumped into the middle of that Christmas tree!”

“Did he catch on fire?”

“No, by some miracle he did not catch fire, but he let out a loud squall that was terrifying! He clung on for dear life and that tree wobbled to and fro! Frances ran and opened the front door. When she did, ol’ Cat darted out! The wind blew in and poof! Instantly, that tree was engulfed in flames – from top to bottom. Daddy stood up, walked over to the blazing Christmas tree and put his big foot into it – and – out the door it went – a ball of fire sailing through the night air!”

“Did you get another tree?”

“No, it was late Christmas Eve; there was no time to go to Aunt Mae’s for another tree. And there I stood, within seconds, no cat and no Christmas tree. I wondered: Will Santa come tonight? What if I never see ol’ Cat again – no tellin’ how many hours I’d have to spend in the cotton field, I’d probably never have time to read another book.”

“What did PawPaw say? Were you in trouble for having the cat in the house?”

“Wade Voyles never said a word. He walked back to the little table, sat down and finished eating his supper. Mama didn’t say anything either except, ‘Wade, do you want some more oyster stew?’”

Mama looked a tad dreamy eyed as she continued her story. “The next morning I woke up and there was that little table Daddy ate his supper on – in the middle of the living room floor. On that table was a cedar tree limb stuck in Mama’s lemonade pitcher. It was decorated with a little this and that – looked like Frances’ handiwork,” Mama said with an all knowing eye. “And there were a few gifts for me under that limb.”

“What? What did you get, Mama?”

“I got a new dress, and a book, Little Women, and a funny looking little brush.” Mama smiled big at the thought. “I looked at the little brush with puzzlement. Frances whispered to me, ‘Polly, it’s a cat brush.’ I quickly slipped that little brush in my pocket and opened the front door to check on the weather; and when I opened the door, ol’ Cat slipped into the house, just as pretty as you please.”

Mama took my temperature again and made a note on her medical chart. I had to think fast to keep her in my room. As soon as the thermometer was out of my mouth I asked, “Did you buy all of your Christmas trees from Aunt Mae?”

“Buy nothing! Aunt Mae wouldn’t take a penny from us. And it wasn’t Christmas until I’d gone to her tree farm, and that was well after I married ya Daddy.”

It worked, she sat back down.

“As soon as Tucker School broke for Christmas, I packed my suitcase and waited on Uncle Tom Moon. I never knew when he was coming, didn’t have a phone back then you know. I just knew he was coming to Tucker sooner or later for supplies and would swing by Old Norcross and pick me up. No matter how cold it was, I sat on the front porch steps listening for the wagon wheels and the clip clop sound of the horses.”

“Horses! They didn’t have a car?”

“No, they did not have a car. It was in the thirties and folks were trying to survive the Depression. Most roads back then were dirt roads, old logging trails widen to accommodate cars and horses. Yes, some had cars, but there was still plenty room for the horse and buggy. Anyway, every year I went to Aunt Mae and Uncle Tom Moon’s to select my Christmas tree.”

I was surprised to know my mother knew anything about horses. “Mama, tell me about the horses.”

“I loved those old horses. I petted them and hugged on ’em, but wasted no time climbing onto the wagon. We left Old Norcross and eased out of Tucker down a dirt road through the woods; trees thick on both sides, every tree imaginable. I passed time by identifying trees. Recognizing trees was easy during summer when the leaves gave their identity away, but not so easy in winter. If I got one wrong, Uncle Tom Moon grunted.”

“What kind of trees did you see?”

“Georgia trees: poplar, sycamore, sugar maple, silver maple, hickory, holly, black walnut, sweet gum and dogwood – all stripped down bare except for the pines, cedars and magnolias. The oaks were easy to spot, ‘cause the dead leaves clung on until spring. And of course, acorns marked the spot of the great oaks. The horse trots made a sound like two coconut shells keeping time to a tune. We passed by dried up cotton fields with a hint of white – cotton overlooked by the pickers, looked a little like snow. And there were homes here and there. I was excited and could hardly wait to see Aunt Mae and the mountain.”

“The mountain?”

“Yes, Diane, the mountain – Stone Mountain – that’s where we were headed, and I knew we were almost there when I could see the granite dome. I have to admit it was a little spooky while deep in the woods. The clip clop of the horse hooves was mesmerizing; each sound took me deeper into an enchanted forest, not to mention, Santa was on the way. And when Santa arrived, I, Polly Voyles, would have the most beautiful Christmas tree in all of Tucker.”

“Why was it spooky?”

“Spooky because back then, there weren’t that many houses around – a feeling of loneliness crept in. And the woods made unexplainable noises. It didn’t bother Uncle Tom Moon a bit nor was he much of a talker; he was a curious sort. Once we saw smoke rising through the trees in the distance. He said, ‘Look there, Polly, smoke rise. The Indians made smoke rising a common sight back in the day, but not now.’ Of course, I had to ask why and he said, ‘White man.’”

Mama talked on.

“What did the white man have to do with the Indians, Uncle Tom? When did they leave? Where’d they go to school?”

“Diane, I asked a million questions as any small child would. He clicked to the horses and turned left near what was the Rosser farm and went down a ways from the mountain. In a while, he clicked again and turned right back toward the mountain. We passed the place where they made sorghum syrup before he finally spoke.”

“The Cherokee Indians used to hunt these woods – smoke rise was the only way you’d know they were here. They used the mountain top as a look-out. They’d see you, but you’d never see them. Alls left now’s … their spirit.”

“Mama, did you ever see any Indians in the woods?”

“Not a one, Diane, you know I’m not that old. But believe you me, when we went through the woods in that open wagon, my eyes were peeled and my ears were listening hard. Once in a while I’d hear rustling in the woods; sometimes I got a glimpse of a rabbit or deer, sometimes a fox. And then again, I’d hear the call of a crow or a bird singing. I saw shadows in the woods, probably just the sun light filtering through. As a small child listening to Uncle Tom’s folklore, I felt edgy about maybe seeing an Indian, but not really afraid, because Uncle Tom Moon liked them, I could tell he did. And he seemed a little miffed that they were gone. And then in no time at all, I saw Christmas trees – white pines – bluish green trees, all in perfectly straight rows. Uncle Tom Moon then handed the reins to me.”

“You drove the horses?”

“Well, at that point, the horses knew where we were and they took themselves home. And there waiting for me was Mae Moon. She was a tall thin woman who most always balled her hair up. She never had children, for some reason she sorta claimed me.”

“I remember her. She was very old.”

“As long as I can remember, Aunt Mae seemed on up in years, even when her hair was black.” Mama shook her head, and got back to her story. “I could not wait to get my Christmas tree, but she insisted on order – first things first. I was to go into the farmhouse to warm and have something to eat. And then there were Christmas cookies to make; Gingerbread-men and Gingerbread-women, not to mention the Snowball family made of popcorn balls, and everyone of them had to be decorated just so. On about the third day, Aunt Mae wrapped her head in a woolen scarf and I knew it was the moment I’d been waiting for, walking the Christmas tree farm. She had already looked over the trees and tied a long white ribbon on about five likely candidates. I always wanted a bigger tree, but she would laugh and say – ‘that tree will not fit inside your house! Wade and Lois will have to cut a hole in the roof!’ Oh how I loved spending my few days with Aunt Mae. I examined each tree closely. I do recall one special day when I made my decision.”

Mama looked out the window at the snow coming down, deep in thought. “While examining one marked tree, I happened to look beyond the tree and saw the mountain. Now mind you, I had seen that mountain countless times, but that day, it was like seeing it for the first time. It felt like I was dreaming. Then something cold hit my face; to my surprise, it was snowing.”

“Like it is today, Mama?”

“Yes, Diane, just like today.”

Mama reached for my hand and held it, then turned her attention back to the window.

“Aunt Mae held my hand as we watched the snowflakes fall from the sky, without a word, I gave her the nod of approval. Neither of us spoke as we stood there admiring my tree; neither caring about the cold. I knew then that I would always remember that moment. After a while, Aunt Mae let go of my hand and stepped forward. She took a long white ribbon – a remnant of an old sheet – and tied it into a big bow – that way Uncle Tom Moon would know which tree to cut. Though Aunt Mae was standing near, she seemed far away when she spoke.

“Polly, would you look at that? An abandoned nest with a robin egg blue, no prettier color in the entire world.”

Mama wiped away a tear.

“Our eyes focused on the robin egg that would never hatch. A bit of sadness crept upon me, thinking of what would never be. And then strangely enough, I felt someone watching from afar. I gazed up at the mountain top, but saw no movement. The feeling did not leave and I hoped it was a Cherokee admiring my Christmas tree, my tree, finely decorated with a genuine bird’s nest, robin egg blue and a fancy white bow, all topped off with new fallen snow.”

Mama paused for a moment. Her eyes were far from my sick bed, yes, she was a million miles away. A slow smile gave her heart and mind away as she spoke.

“Yes, that day I sensed the great spirit of the Cherokee. I wished the spirit of the Cherokee children could see me, me and my Aunt Mae.”

~On November 17, 1931, my mother was born in Nicholson, Georgia, but lived her whole life in Tucker, Georgia, in the shadow of Stone Mountain. Her name was Annie Helen Voyles-Story, but was “Polly” to near and dear ones who knew her as a cotton-topped child. Later she was affectionately called Nanny, by her grandchildren. She loved a good book and we all enjoyed story time with her. In time, I would learn that the dirt road from Tucker to Stone Mountain was named after an Atlanta attorney, Hugh Howell. The Christmas tree farm was located on Old Tucker Road. The Moon’s farm became a part of a development called Smoke Rise, and of course, the mountain is Stone Mountain.

Each and every time I drive down Hugh Howell Road or hike the Cherokee Trail or find myself atop the granite mountain, I too feel the presence of a great spirit: little Polly Voyles.
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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