It’s that time of year when Hallmark Christmas Movie titles are constantly flooding my psyche. Maybe it’s because I begin watching these predictable yet comforting films in October. Maybe it’s another sign I’m getting older, but this year, more than most, I am remembering more vividly than ever those magical first Christmases of my early childhood. It would be impossible to think about those times without remembering my adorable Grandmother whose very name would make an amazing Hallmark Christmas movie title – Lillian Killion. In fact, throw in her maiden name – De Lisle – along with her girlish nickname – “Lil” – and one could conjure an image of a modern rapper (my nail tech once did, recently!). Lil De Lisle grew up to become Lillian Killion. We called her “Mim” (I was the youngest of her 9 grandchildren).
Mim was widowed before I was born so my memories begin with picking her up on Saturdays to bring her to our home for supper, a little “Lawrence Welk Show” then evening Mass. We lived in a small town in Southern Missouri – what is often referred to as the “Bootheel.” As I get older, I am struck by the fact that I truly had a Southern upbringing. This is another story, but after I started High School 200 miles North in St. Louis, Missouri, I did my very best to shed any evidence of my small town heritage. What a pity! I made this decision within days of arriving at a private Catholic school for young women. I had not understood something a teacher in class had just said, so I raised my hand with the question, “Ma’am?” on my tongue and was quickly embarrassed to death with the other students’ reactions. I traded in my Southern softness and naivete for a more popular, hard-edged “big city” persona. Or so I thought.
I remember details about my Grandmother like most children: her voice, her skin, her laugh, the smart clothing she wore, her museum-like house with the back door that played a familiar classical hymn (I could hum it but have no idea it’s origin) whenever she opened it. About 2 paces inside her back door was a refrigerator stocked with Orange Crush cola. Another 50 paces down the hall and into my Dad’s childhood bedroom was a beautiful mahogany dresser stuffed with Wrigley’s spearmint chewing gum – a bit of a stretch to reach the top drawer but I always managed it. Mim’s bathroom was all pink tile and she kept a magnifying glass next to her powder blue velvet reclining chair (though I don’t imagine her to be the reclining type) for reading important weather reports and social news from our local paper, “The Portageville Review.” I remember her giggle most of all. It was girlish. She always seemed mildly amused around me. I remember asking her how old she was one day and this came close to making her decidedly unamused. She thought about it for a second and quickly answered, “I’m seventiesh” – but in a way that left no question in my mind that I was to pry no further. I never met my Grandfather, whom I am told doted on her. A dear friend of the family told me once how endearing it was to see my Grandfather affectionately hand Mim a $5 bill and tell her to go buy herself something she would enjoy. Watching these moments must be how my charming and adorable Dad picked up one of my favorite traits – greeting me on the stairway the minute I walked in for a visit from Kansas City with $100 cash – for “gas money,” he’d say with a twinkle in his eye.
This time of year, what I cherish most are the memories of holidays from my childhood and the absolutely perfectly thought out gifts I received from my dear Grandmother, Mim. Looking back, she must have consulted with my Mom to have been so on target each year. If she didn’t, then I love her even more than I thought. First, some history. I come from a large family and Mim was concerned about treating each one of my 6 older siblings and me exactly the same. Hence, the tradition of the $40.00 checks from her we all found in our stockings hung with care each Christmas morning. The first time my husband and I talked about childhood holiday traditions when we were dating he wanted to know what a “traditional family stocking stuffer” looked like in our family. He eagerly shared that in his it was a single orange. When I offered up my own equally cherished tradition, he just stared at me in silent disbelief bordering on deep sadness and pity. So much so it made me laugh hysterically at the contrast in our experiences. How could a child, he wondered, find joy in a check from their Grandmother for Christmas? Oh, quite easily, I reassured him! 26 years later, he still does not understand and this amuses me even more so now.
Moving on from the checks drafted from Farmers Bank of Portageville and signed by Lillian Killion, here is a list (in what I recall to be chronological order) of the greatest Christmas gifts of all time from her:
Tinker Bell perfume/powder set – if you don’t instantly get a hypnotic olfactory memory from this classic name then you didn’t grow up in the 70’s. I powdered and dabbed perfume just about every visible surface I could find that Christmas, thanks to Mim.
Clearly sensing my appetite for fragrance mixing, the next year Mim gave me a perfume mixing kit. Imagine putting essential oils in the hands of a 6- year old today and saying, “Have fun!” and this approximates my joy that year. I had several tiny apothecary type jars and a beginner’s lab of fragrances to work with. This kept me busy for days, I am sure. Until I decided how fun it would be to pour the perfume into the moving mouth of my “Baby Alive,” a gift from Santa that year. It was disappointing to discover that “BA” did not consume or digest my perfume concoctions the same way she did the milk and formula that came in the box.
Next came the “STEM” years, or as close to science, technology and math as girls in the 1970’s could get. My Grandmother gifted me a series of wonderful items that kept me occupied for hundreds of hours (to my parents’ delight). First, a metal detector. I took treasure hunting seriously back in 1975 and this device of scientific discovery accompanied me everywhere I went. My Mother would drop me off at the park for some real down and dirty search for valuables left behind by careless and inattentive park visitors. I don’t think I ever found anything more valuable than a beer can tab or the occasional penny, but it did not stop me from trying. Then, after a propitious visit to a nearby American Indian burial mound with Sister Arthur, my Grandmother gifted me a rock polishing machine to complement my perpetual searches for arrowhead rocks in the soybean field behind my house. I can still hear the sound of tumbling rocks inside the canister on the rolling platform and feel the anticipation of the fresh jewels I would be holding at the end of the tumbling cycle. From there, I moved on to searching for geodes for a brief stint after Jeff Brands gave a scintillating presentation about them at a 4H meeting. Alas, the enthusiasm did not last long but it was fun while it lasted.
The final Christmas gift of my childhood that Mim bestowed upon me was the best. My very own DJ station, complete with turntable and microphone! I converted Mom’s dining room to my personal radio station, spinning wax and talking about the tunes to my imaginary radio listeners. With 6 older siblings, I had a virtual American Bandstand cache to choose from so the programming possibilities were endless. The Dave Clark 5, The Archies, Herman’s Hermits and Tommy James and the Shondells (“Crimson & Clover” I played over and over!) blasted off that turntable and into my radio universe for many a contented childhood hour.
Whether it was perfume, scientific exploration or music, the gifts Mim gave me for Christmas helped shape me. Somehow, with 8 other grandchildren to think about, she knew me and delighted in my imagination. I can’t wait to see her again and hear her giggle. I will thank her for the special memories and love she gave to me at Christmas and always. Then I will ride in the backseat of our paneled Ford station wagon again as one of my teenaged sisters or Mom picks Mim up for her nail appointment, grocery store or to go to Saturday afternoon confession. The fact that she never drove a car was a unique and glorious opportunity to know her better. And I am thankful for that.