CHET ATKINS CHRISTMAS WITH CHET ATKINS, 1961, RCA Victor
Christmas Eve, we would go to my Dad’s parents’ house on the other side of town, to celebrate with all his family. We’d spend the day wrapping presents in the floor with my Dad, watching George C. Scott’s turn at Ebenezer Scrooge on a scratchy VHS tape, then we’d dress in some variation of red and green and head off over the river, my Dad playing tapes of old, obscure Christmas songs like “Christmas in Kilarney” and “I’d Like to Hitch a Ride with Santa Claus,” with the day’s last light. By the time we crossed the ridge cut into East Chattanooga, darkness had magically fallen, and we entered a strange, different world. The world of that side of my family.
I got my love of records from my Dad, who would wake my sister and me on Saturday mornings by belting out Elvis: Aloha from Hawaii or Rubber Soul or American Graffitti through his Sansui. But I got my love of music in general from my grandmother, Virginia. She was of hearty, hard-living Scottish stock, by way of Alabama, and she lived to have fun. When I was a kid, she sold travel insurance at a little round booth in the airport. My mom would take me there on a Friday afternoon to spend the weekend with her. These weekends were full of quiet, lasting discoveries. On Saturday mornings my grandfather, Jay, made buttermilk biscuits from scratch, which we ate with eggs and jelly. Afterwards I watched cartoons while Virginia cleaned the kitchen, and I listened to her sing pop songs of the 40s in a soft, dusky voice that hypnotized me. Later we’d play scatter or gin rummy or any of the other card games she taught me, or we’d listen to records on the hi-fi in her living room. She’d always take me to the ice cream parlor down the street (the Double-Dip Depot) then to a movie (which she’d sleep through), and always, always bought me a toy. She had tattoos she hid under elbow-length sleeves. She drank margaritas for the salt and Long Island ice teas for the kick. She pretended not to smoke for thirty years, even though her car smelled like cigarettes. She loved Elvis and Liberace; Ray Coniff and Paul Muriat. She always had a piano in her house, even though she didn’t play, just in case someone came over who did. She had an eager, infectious laugh and a twinkle in her blue eye. I loved her a lot.
On Christmas Eve, Virginia played the role of matriarch, which didn’t come naturally (she was too much of a good-time glamour girl for that), each year resplendent in slacks and a glitzy Christmas sweater, giddy, social, looking for a laugh. There was a freewheeling, chaotic energy at work there that stood in sharp contrast to the warm, familiar, and uneventful Christmas Day that followed with my mother’s family. The differences in the two successive celebrations could be defined by a cursory examination of the dinner tables: Virginia’s macaroni was velvety and runny, dripping with cheese. My Mom’s mother, Elizabeth, baked a macaroni casserole in which the cheese and noodles were always separate but equal. Virginia put oysters and egg whites in her stuffing, making it smoky, congealed, wet. Elizabeth’s was dry and full of homemade cornbread, so dense each bite was like swallowing a neutron star.
Virginia’s coup de grace each year was a game she devised herself and which had originated long before I arrived to the party: Find the Handkerchiefs. Somewhere on or around the Christmas tree she hid tiny strips of paper inked with the names of all the men in the family. As soon as people arrived, the game commenced. By careful study of the tree and its environs—without breaking limbs or damaging ornaments—the hiding place was sought. It devolved into a great contest between my highly competitive father and his two older brothers to see who could find them first. As time wore on, my older cousins were initiated into the great mystery. Guesses were whispered and debated throughout dinner. Most fun of all was watching my grandfather, a taciturn, cold-eyed man whose skin was so weathered from growing up on an Alabama farm my sister thought he was black until she was six, search desperately, my father and uncles smirking to each other with supreme satisfaction, watching the old man at a loss. Finally, the hiding place would be revealed after we opened all the presents. Much arguing would ensue as to who found it first, and then my grandmother would distribute packages of handkerchiefs to all the men in my family. I charted my growth around that Tree of Knowledge, from the first moments my Dad let me help him search, to the days my uncles would whisper the secret in my ear, to the year Virginia decided the time had come that I take part in the pageant, to the moment I was finding them, not first, but at least before my cousins Brett and Scotty.
There was always and remains something reckless and romantic about Virginia and Jay, something coarse and fun and loveable, that complemented well the responsible, concerned, education-minded FDR Democrats, Henry and Elizabeth, who reared my mother. Virginia and Jay lived in the Mad Men era, but their lives were very different. Theirs was a world of stock car races, dances at the VFW hall, fancy cocktails with cheap booze, bennies, chocolate laxatives, weekend car trips to party in Texas or New Orleans, or up to Baltimore to visit her brother who worked in the shipyards, Victor Mature, Gene Raymond, Tyrone Power and Montgomery Clift; Roy Acuff, Patsy Cline, Dove soap, Coty powder, Oil of Olay, windsor knots, Florsheim boots, black combs, Velamints, butterscotch candies, plastic leis, surf and turf, family reunions. Handkerchiefs. She was a beauty, my grandmother, Virginia. A dime-store Aphrodite. Her hair, her make-up, her clothes, her kitchen—always, all of it, immaculate.
Christmas With Chet Atkins was one of her albums, and it was one we listened to a lot on Christmas Eve. Side A is lively, festive, technically dazzling and warm. Mostly the contemporary tracks: "Silver Bells," "Jingle Bells," "White Christmas," etc… But Side B has a strangely deep quality that evokes the cover—deep mountain woods covered in snow—but in the dark of night, with the moon gleaming cold off the white. There’s still something haunting about this version of “The Little Drummer Boy” when I listen to it now; it’s the only version of the song I've ever liked. The album is one I treasure, not just because it’s one of the best holiday albums ever, but for sentimental reasons. It came into my possession after Virginia died three and a half years ago, and with her went the remnants of my Dad’s side of the family. Like most Southern matriarchs, even the unconscious ones, she was the glue that held the family together. Without her, its entropy led to dispersion and collapse. Now they’re all gone, the whole crazy lot of them—Jay, Gene, Jerry, my father, my cousins, everyone. Some dead in heaven, some who knows where, some to hell, some just away.
I’ll listen to this album one last time, though, staring at my mother’s Christmas tree, Chet’s “Silent Night” playing in my ears. It was recorded in Nashville, and it has some of the Tennessee magic in it. Some kind of feeling inexpressibly touching and deep. It’s a feeling I didn’t learn to recognize until I left it, or perhaps, until it left me.