My parents Jabo and Susie Jowers had their last Christmas together in 1965. The night before that Christmas, Jabo couldn’t wait for Susie to see what he’d bought me. So he sat my mother down in her recliner, trotted to the hall closet and came back with a guitar case and an amplifier. On Christmas Eve of ’65, Jabo handed me my first electric guitar—a spanking-new, cherry-red Gibson ES-330TDC. Then he plugged the guitar into my bright and shiny new Ampeg Rocket II amp and said, “Play something for your mother, boy.”
Best I can recall, I played the chords to Van Morrison’s “Gloria.” E, D and A, over and over again, and not too clean, because my fingers were wobbling like the legs of a newborn colt. Susie, who apparently had fished a receipt out of Jabo’s coveralls, looked at the red guitar, then looked hard at me, then looked harder at Jabo. “You paid $300 for that?” she said. Then she stomped off to the bedroom. She didn’t know at the time that she had about a hundred days to live. In April of ’66, Susie woke up in the middle of the night screaming that she was dying, and she was. Her heart quit on the way to the hospital.
The one good thing about Christmas ’65 is that it put an end to holiday bickering at the Jowers house. From then on, there’d be no more arguing over the money spent, the liquor drunk, the fireworks exploded. There’d be no more all-day Christmas-Eve cake-baking in the tiny Jowers kitchen, and no more struggling with the Christmas tree, the lights, the ornaments or the tinsel. And with the Jowers house down to just Jabo and me, there’d be no more worrisome extended-family gatherings at our house on Christmas morning.
Jabo could have Christmas—and every other day—his way. If he wanted to make moonshine in his backyard sheet-metal shop, drink some and give the rest to his buddies, he could. If he wanted to take possession of a stolen car, remove its VIN and solder in some new numbers, nobody was stopping him. If he wanted to drive around the industrialized parts of Augusta and pick up some useful equipment somebody had left at the side of the road, well, that was the nature of his game. Jabo was a high-risk, high-reward kind of man.
Meanwhile, two houses east, the Grimes family—my mother’s sister Thelma, who everybody called Coot, and my uncle Guy T. Grimes, whose T didn’t stand for anything—were living a very different kind of life.
Unlike Jabo, Uncle Guy wasn’t a Friday-night drunk, he didn’t get in knife fights, he didn’t crash his cars, he didn’t steal machinery from the side of the road, and he didn’t have to dodge creditors. Uncle Guy was a straight-and-narrow man. He ran the kaolin mine over in Langley, drove a clean company truck and bought a new top-of-the-line Oldsmobile every other year. In his spare time, he built birdhouses. You didn’t have to worry about Uncle Guy getting in trouble.
Aunt Coot kept the Grimes house so clean, a person could’ve licked any surface—horizontal, vertical or curved—without worry. Things were always orderly at the Grimes house.
At Christmastime, Aunt Coot and Uncle Guy put up an Evergleam aluminum Christmas tree—trade name “the Fountain”—with a four-color rotating light. It sat smack in the middle of their picture window, where anybody walking down the sidewalk or riding down the road could watch the whole room—curtains, furniture and all—turn red, green, blue and yellow.
The Jowers Christmas trees were always fractious. They’d fall up against the wall, or the lights would short out, or Susie’s favorite ornaments would fall off. The Evergleam, though, shed no needles and required no water, no ornaments, no lights and no tinsel. Hell, it was tinsel. The Evergleam all-aluminum Christmas tree and its little buddy the four-color rotating light represented the differences between the Jowerses and the Grimeses. Jowers Christmases were messy and full of conflict and tension; Grimes Christmases were neat, predictable and unbreakable.
In 1971, Jabo Jowers went to the AMVETS Club in Augusta and dropped dead while dancing the boogaloo. Now the Jowers house was down to just me.
Some years later, after Aunt Coot and Uncle Guy married off their dear daughter Sheron, they stopped putting the Evergleam tree in the picture window. So don’t you know, wife Brenda and I went over to the Grimes house for a Christmas visit, and while we were there, I talked Aunt Coot into giving me the Evergleam tree. “You sure you want it, son?” she asked me. “It’s old, and some of the foil is coming off the trunk.”
“It’s fine,” I said. “It’s bright, shiny and beautiful. You still got the four-color light? Because I sure would like to show off the whole set.”
Tomorrow, when daughter Jess gets home from college, we Jowerses are going to set the Evergleam up in our living room, complete with the four-color light. We don’t have a big picture window, but we do have a spot that ought to hold the tree and let the light show reach the sidewalk.
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