When I was a child I had a story book life. I lived in the same single family home with both of my parents and my older brother from the age of nine months to the morning before my wedding at age twenty. We had a dog, a cement driveway with a basketball court, roller skates, Big Wheels, then bikes, and, when I turned five, an in ground swimming pool. Our neighborhood was filled with kids between my brother’s age (five years older than me) and my own. There was always someone to play with, and we played –– outside –– every second that we could. Our neighborhood streets were safe and we burned them up on our bicycles, ranging miles from home, without a care in the world.

Most Sunday mornings, we were present and accounted for at Hopewell Presbyterian Church and I loved my Sunday School class and youth group meetings on Sunday nights. Each summer our church went to Camp Eva Good near Brevard in the North Carolina mountains and I was thrilled to get to finally go when I was eleven.

I attended a neighborhood elementary school that was one mile from my house with teachers I loved and a friendly, caring principal, who also happened to be the dad of one of my close friends. I loved school and looked forward to the first day every year. Getting new crayons, pencils, composition books, and clothes was a part of that excitement, but I also loved learning. I was a voracious reader from the Dick and Jane books on and my new textbooks felt like an awesome gift each year. (From fourth grade through my senior year of high school I was a library assistant. Anything to be near all those books!)

The only day I anticipated as much as the first day of school was the last day of school. Summers were awesome because our house was the gathering place for our friends. My friends and I would skate on the long cement driveway while my brother and his friends played half court basketball at its end. Afterwards, we would all gather in the pool to splash and dunk each other and show off our diving skills. Both of us had friends sleep over a couple of nights a week and, at times, I’m sure my parents felt like they had four kids, instead of two. We would spend at least one week of the summer at The Shorecrest Motel in Windy Hill at North Myrtle Beach. Those blissful weeks of surf, sand and seafood are what made the beach my happy place to this day.

Sprinkled throughout the school year and summer, holidays were special because we spent them with my extended Cartner family at my paternal grandparents’ house in Harmony, North Carolina. My dad was one of ten children and he and his siblings produced twenty first cousins! New Year’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, Father’s Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas, it was a given that there would be a whole lot of Cartner’s filling the house and spilling out into the yard, eating, talking, laughing and loving the opportunity to stay connected to each other. I lost my grandfather when I was five and I have only a few memories of him. I see vague images of me crawling into his lap to dig into the chest pocket of his overalls for the ever present pack of Juicy Fruit gum he carried. I also remember him giving me a silver dollar on my fourth and fifth birthdays. I cherish those memories, but because I lost him so young and because she was the only grandparent I had left that was in my life, I bonded with my grandmother Cartner. She was the picture perfect grandmother and I cherished spending time with her. I think she especially loved Christmas because all of her kids and most of her grandkids made an extra special effort to be at her house on that day.

I remember lying in bed on Christmas Eve, too excited to sleep, but trying my best to drop off because I knew that the next morning I would find more than I had asked for or expected under our tree. I was always the first one awake and I would creep into the living room to make sure that Santa had actually come. Then I would head down the hallway to wake up my brother, who was really not happy when that happened at five in the morning! Getting him up was a necessary evil. I knew as soon as we started making noise in the living room my parents would have to get up, too. Special Christmas gifts stand out in my memory: Baby Tender Love, a bicycle, Lite•Brite, Barbies. Usually in less than half an hour the room would be strewn with wrapping paper and way more gifts than we probably deserved. You would think it would have been a struggle to get little kids to leave all of that behind and get ready for the forty-five minute trip to Grandma’s, but I never remember us fussing. We both thought that Grandma had hung the moon and couldn’t wait to be surrounded by the love we felt in her house, surrounded by our family, who we looked at as the equivalent of The Walton Family from Sunday night television.

My mother did not have the blessed childhood that she gave us. I think that’s why it was so important to her that we knew we were loved and cared for. Of all the holidays, Christmas was her favorite. She would decorate the tree, letting me “help”, and all the while singing Christmas songs, full of the spirit. She cooked and baked and invited family and friends to join us in the spoils of her labor. By example, she taught me to love giving. While she often went overboard with the giving of physical gifts, seeing her give her time, her skills, and her heart made the biggest impression on me. I never remember my mother having anything she was not willing to share with others. While she gave my brother and I many material things, her caring heart and her sharing spirit were the best gifts she ever gave us.

When I count my blessings this Christmas, I will be thanking God for the wonderful childhood He gave me, for the blessing of good preachers and teachers, for my big Cartner family, for the best Grandma in the world, for parents who modeled caring, sharing spirits for me and my brother, and for the opportunity to feel that joy I get from giving … not only gifts, but time, love and fellowship with my friends and family. Above all else, I know I am blessed.

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