Listening to Blues singer Charles Brown and his song, Please Come Home For Christmas has become a tradition for our family. He’d sing to us from Thanksgiving Day throughout the Christmas holiday. If you ask any one of my cousins, they can sing the entire song, including the lead guitar interlude. It is forever seared in our brains. There was a time when we’d cover our ears trying to escape the anguish of repetition, now we cannot wait to hear it played to signify the beginning of the season, but this song will ring differently for me this year. Covid-19 has made sure of that. As I pen this, we have had over 300 thousand deaths and 17 million cases of the virus in America alone. As a result we have been asked to make some changes, and forced to create new normals and reminisce about the times before. With all of these new limitations one cannot help but wonder, exactly what it means for Christmas? How are we expected to celebrate the holiday without our families?
Christmas with no family reminds me of spending Christmas overseas while I served in the Navy. Yea, it’s Christmas, buuut...Where is my family? Where are the hundreds of pies scattered about the house? Where is the laughter and the mess? And what about Charles Brown bellowing throughout the house?
“Ring, Ding, Ring
Bells will be ringin’
The sad, sad news”
My earliest memories of Christmas are often jarred by the smell of freshly baked Sweet Potato pies and Charles Brown’s “Please Come Home For Christmas”. In my mind’s eye I see my grandma in her kitchen scraping goodness from the bottom of one of her pots, the Aunties laughing and joking with one another about who was supposed to bring what item and forgotten it, older cousins sitting in the corner conspiring about things that did not include everyone else, boy cousins huddled in the back room playing video games, younger cousins running through the house aimlessly, hyped off sugar, until someone yelled, “Sit down!” and like that command was somehow connected to their limbs, they’d instantly stop mid-stride and plop down wherever they stood. There are friends, and friends of friends entwined with the rest of us. They’d arrive with the look of uncertainty about the scene laid out before them- all of the people, food,excitement, and residue from opened gifts scattered everywhere, that was shortly replaced with one of contentment and satisfaction. My grandmother’s home was a place where friends, and friends of friends became family. All of this joyousness going on in my grandmother’s 2000 sqft home was both comfortable and cramped at the same time. If you got up from your seat, you’d best put something or someone in place to guard it or else it was surely gone at your return.
“Ohhhh, what a Christmas
To have the Blues
My baby’s gone”
It wasn’t just because of the gathering, No, there were other reasons to celebrate the day in my family-one being, the restaurants were closed and that was reason to exhale a sigh of relief, Whew! You see back then, the Pits, as we called them, were only closed two days out of the year-Thanksgiving and Christmas and we did everything we could to make those 24 hours feel like 48. Christmas was one of two times when we didn’t have to worry about what was going on at the restaurant. We didn’t need to think about who would go open the doors, lock up the doors, get supplies, wonder who was working, or didn’t show up to work, who’s making sauce, picking up meat, doing payroll, going to the bank, or making links? For two whole days we didn’t think about ribs, links, beef or chicken and that was refreshing. That day we didn’t have to be co-workers. We could just be family. And you could feel the sense of relief in the air.
“I have no friends
To wish me greeting,
But not everyone could relax that day, there were still a faithful few who were busy working away in the kitchen creating our holiday feast. Dinner most often consisted of Turkey, ham, Cornbread Dressing, Giblet Gravy (made from the chicken giblets that grandma made the restaurants save beginning in October), grandma’s special recipe of Collard greens with Cabbage and smoked turkey, Candied Yams, Auntie Angie’s Macaroni and Cheese, Auntie Helen’s Banana Pudding, Cranberry Sauce-lots of Cranberry Sauce, , and my little cousin, Auzerais’s homemade cookies and cakes. She was little-7 or 8 years old when she started baking cupcakes and cookies for us to share at Christmas. Let’s just say they were desserts that only a mother had to love and be expected to eat. But because she was so young we all encouraged her by saying they were absolutely perfect. Wink.
“Choirs will be singing,
I know everyone thinks their family is special, but mine really is. Back then I had seven aunts: Virginia, Dorothy, Shirley, Mary, Helen, Katie and Angie, and one uncle, Allen. Them along with my mother, Annie (Pearl) and father James Jones (the Jones of Everett and Jones) started a chain of restaurants named Everett & Jones Barbeque in 1973-in the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Area-in the middle of an economic recession. Someone forgot to tell my family that it is not wise to start a business in the middle of a recession, or if they did, they didn’t listen. Probably because we believe that, “all things are possible to them that believe” and are willing to work for it. So, for them, the timing was perfect, and they were right. We will be celebrating our 48th anniversary in 2021.
“Please come home for Christmas,
If not for Christmas,
by New Years night”
I am the first female grandchild and second oldest behind my cousin Lamont (Monty) who is only 5 months older, and I remember the good ole times especially around Christmas. When I was younger, one of my fondest memories was going to my grandmother’s house on Christmas Eve night. It was my mother, father, brother James Jones Jr., but everyone calls him Scooter and younger sister LaShaun who we call Shaun, and me piling in the family car headed “up the hill”. The plan was for all of us,and I do mean ALL OF US (grandma’s 9 kids and their families) to spend the night on her living room floor while waiting for Santa. It was a great big Sleepover. We’d arrive in our pajamas with a pillow and sleeping bag in hand, full of the excitement that Christmas, family, and the unknown brings. I could hardly wait until everyone was there because that’s when the real fun began.
Every cousin came wearing the same smile, twinkling eye, and excitement that I had, and no one ever complained about being there. We would make our beds on the floor, pass around the bowls of snacks and goodies, and laugh and play until we were tired. The Aunties would initially hang around leading us in games and dance competitions, making us laugh so hard we’d get yelled at by grandma to keep it down. After we were yelled at a few more times, the Aunties would slowly migrate into the kitchen leaving us grandkids to entertain ourselves. It never failed, before the night ended, someone grown up would threaten to light the fireplace so Santa could not come down the chimney if we didn't go to sleep, causing us to sing in unison Noooooo!
“Friends and relations
On a few occasions they would get one of the restaurant’s employees to dress up like Santa and come through the door yelling, “Merry Christmas!” We weren’t fooled though because they always smelled of smoke-like they’d just gotten off work. “That’s Red” someone would yell, or “That’s Russell”. My mother even dressed as Santa one year. I guess she thought she could do a better fake-out job than the men, but she didn’t, because my baby sister gave it away when she started crying, “Mama”.
As the night dwindled and just as we were about to fall asleep, one of the Aunties would come through the door after working the late shift wearing a dirty apron folded down at the waist, smeared makeup, a shiny forehead, and a charred smelling afro. Nothing says Christmas in the Everett and Jones family like Charles Brown, Sweet Potato pie and a charred smelling afro.
“Sure as the stars shine above.
This is Christmas, Christmas my dear,
The time of year to be with the one you love”
The record player would sometimes shift from his Please Come Home For Christmas to Christmas Comes But Once A Year, or Merry Christmas Baby. It wasn’t Christmas unless the Blues were whining loudly through the classic solid wood stereo console radio-record player with three speeds, built in speakers with vinyl records stored underneath. BB King once said, “I could see the blues was about survival”. Maybe my grandmother was thinking about her grandmother, who was born a slave in the harshness of the southern slave trade, who couldn’t even imagine the life my grandmother was now living. Maybe she was reminiscing about growing up in Choctaw County, Alabama during the Jim Crow era. She never liked to talk about those times. When asked, she would always say, “those were terrible times''. Maybe she was thinking about leaving Alabama with her three small children for a better life in California, or how she managed to raise her nine children, after she divorced my grandfather, with limited education and very little money. She’d say, “I never thought I would make more than $2 a week”. Maybe she was thinking about the tough times in the 60’s after they assassinated many of our Black leaders. Or maybe grandma was thinking about how she managed to open a restaurant with nothing more than a small personal loan, limited line of credit, great friends, a willing heart, hard work and prayer-lots of prayer. Whatever she was thinking of while stirring them pots only added to the sacredness of the day.
“So, want you tell me,
You’ll never more roam
Christmas and New Year’s
will find you home”
My grandmother was the head Chef in Charge. She ran her kitchen crew with the same efficiency and expectations as she did her restaurants. She had 3 better-be’s:It better be clean, and it better be hot, and it better be good. She was a hard-working woman who never stopped trying to give her family a better life than the one she lived. She could always be found in the kitchen Christmas morning. One by one she would recruit helpers as they walked through the door. This wasn’t Santa’s workshop. This was Dorothy’s Den, but she operated like his workshop: somebody was chopping bell peppers, onions and celery (down south called the holy trinity), another was peeling mounds of sweet potatoes for yams and pies, while another was trying to stay on top of all the dirty dishes that were rapidly piling up.This was usually my Aunt Katie’s job. She’d fuss the whole time about being the only one washing dishes, but year after year find herself in the same position. We quickly learned that if you’re smart you would stay clear of the kitchen or they would quickly find something for you to do. The men folk were only responsible for going back and forth to the grocery store, which averaged about 6 times a day.
Grandma and her helpers managed to cook about 30 Sweet Potato pies by Christmas Eve which were strategically placed throughout the house so she could watch them. We were only allowed to eat the “ugly ones” on Christmas Eve. They were the ones that burned around the edges, or were damaged during the cooking process.
“There’ll be no more sorrow
No grief and pain
And I’ll be happy, happy once again”
As some things changed, others never did. On Christmas Eve, someone is always coming through the door with dirty aprons, smeared make-up, shiny foreheads and charred smelling afros, jerry curls, braids, dreads,wigs and weaves in this family. There are always Sweet Potato pies scattered throughout somebody’s kitchen and dining room.The last time at grandma’s house, Auntie Katie was still fussing about washing dishes, Auntie Helen was still carrying away leftovers in Tupperware dishes, The Aunties were still laughing and joking around, and kids were still running. But eventually the family grew too big to sleep on grandma’s floor and she kicked us out to sleep at our own homes and instead we came over the next day. We got too big to eat around the dining room table, so they moved everyone outside underneath the carport to a 30 ft. long table. Honestly, we didn’t care where we ate as long as we ate dinner together. We outgrew the carport and moved to the restaurant in Jack London Square. Although it was closed for business, it was the only place big enough to hold us all.
As grandma got older she spent most of her time in her bedroom away from the family. She was tired a lot, she’d say. She would give instructions from her room trusting the others to carry them out and make the day great. At dinner time she would come and sit with the rest of the family for a while until it became too much. With her eyes failing her hearing never did. She would still say, “You guys are too loud!”
“Oohh, there’ll be no more sorrow
No grief and pain”
Now we’re all grown up with families of our own, and grandma is no longer with us. We don’t have my Auntie Virginia who was the oldest and Captain of the Fun Train. We don’t have Auntie Angie or her infamous macaroni and cheese, and we no longer have Auntie Katie to fuss about washing the dishes all the while still doing it . All we have left are precious memories of the past and videos my Auntie Shirley captured during those precious times. My little cousin Auzerais went to Culinary school, studied her craft and became a very successful pastry chef. She is the owner of an online pastry business called blondery.com. Her love for dessert making has taken her all over the world and brought well renowned accomplishments. My grandmother would be so proud.
This is how we spent Christmases growing up. Those were the memories I thought of while serving overseas in the Navy, and what I think of now living in North Carolina, quarantined with my husband, but away from the rest of the family. Covid-19 has closed most restaurants around us, and loved ones are no longer near but far, let me encourage you this season to remember the celebrations of Christmases past and draw on the joy they brought you. Embrace the newness that 2020 has forced upon us, “looking toward the hills from where comes your help”. Remember the loved ones who are no longer with us and what they brought into our lives . Remember Jesus and how His birth also ushered in a newness. He is truly the reason for the season. And cling to the words Charles Brown’s song,
“And, I’ll be happy, happy once again” .
from my family to yours,
Charles Brown. Please Come Home for Christmas. King Records.1960
The Bible. KJV.Mk 9:23
B.B King and David Ritz.Blues All Around Me. Harper Collins Publishing.1996
The Bible. KJV. Ps 121:1
The Rooms Where it Happened: My Grandmother’s House,
Uncle Allen, Aunties, Cousins and Grandma
(C) 2016 Everett and Jones
All Rights Reserved