I’ve been a scribbler as soon as I learned how to write. Little two-page endeavors in elementary school and up to fifty or so pages of purple prose when in high school. As far as I know Hillene never did any of that until we were grown. However, she made it into print before I did with an essay in a Christmas anthology—Christmas is a Season! 2009, edited by Linda Busby Parker.
The essay is too long to include it in its entirety, so I’ll quote some of it verbatim and summarize the rest. Hillene’s introduction is as follows:
” ‘His Hands’ is an essay about a remarkable man, my father, Preacher Hebert, who stood six feet three inches tall and was a renaissance man in every sense of the word. This story is a child’s view of a man, bigger than life, whose children were always fascinated watching his hands as he went about such things as making a wreath, stringing his lures, mending his nets, or making functional Indian moccasins for their playtimes.” (158)
The essay starts on page 159:
“As the holidays approach, I think back with fondness of my father and childhood Christmases so long ago. It was rumored that my father once held nine baseballs in his hand at one time, yet he could beat his sisters at playing jacks.
His hands could skin alligators, yet they could pick out the smallest splinter from a tiny finger.
His hands could tie the thinnest strings through his fishing lures and hand-sew leather moccasins to fit tiny feet.” (159)
“The day my grandmother went to the attic and began moving the boxes that held the Christmas ornaments signaled to us that Christmas was not far away. It was time for our annual trip across the river.” (159)
We gathered baskets, cutting shears, handsaw, shotgun, and a long piece of rope for our trip to find a Christmas tree. On top of our usual winter outerwear we had to wear life jackets because we would be in his boat on the river behind our house.
Daddy used his shotgun to shoot mistletoe out of the treetops, and it was the boys’ job to gather it up and fill one of the baskets. We always had enough to put throughout the house, so no one was safe from a rogue kisser.
When we found the holly tree, Daddy cut some of the smaller branches and we carefully put them in a basket, making sure we didn’t dislodge the berries. When we finally agreed on which tree to take, he commandeered the handsaw and went to work on it. He tied the branches together, loaded it into the boat, and we crossed the river to go back home.
“Grandmother had hot chocolate and cookies ready for the intrepid crew. The house smelled of baking, pine, and chocolate. We took our cookies and hot chocolate outside. We wanted to watch Daddy’s strong hands as he carefully wove the holly branches around a clothes hanger that he had shaped into a circle. When he finished, we had a beautiful, real holly wreath to hang on our door for everyone to see.” (160)
We always left the tree up until New Year’s, and by then the tree was looking pretty bedraggled. The ornaments went back into the boxes and into the attic.
Then one year when December rolled around we loaded up our stuff in the boat and made our trek across the river. This time what greeted us was a NO TRESSPASSING sign. SAM HOUSTON STATE PARK! DO NOT CUT ANY TREES! PROPERTY STATE OF LOUISIANA!
“No more beautiful wreaths. No more mistletoe raining down on us. No more friendly haggling over the best tree. We crossed the river back to our side in silence.” (161)
We found a tree in the woods across the road from our house, but somehow it wasn’t filled with the magic of years past. The fun and excitement of our river search was gone.
“Many Christmases have come and gone, but the ones I remember now are the Decembers when my brothers and sister and I got into Daddy’s fishing boat with him and went on adventures across the river in search of our perfect Christmas tree. The excitement and fun of those trips were bigger than life.
I still have some of Grandmother’s handmade ornaments that I put on my artificial tree each year. I have the ugly Santa with his reindeer and sleigh that used to scare us as children because when she would plug it in, the light made him look really weird. Some of the legs and antlers have broken off. Santa’s light doesn’t work anymore, but I put him out each year because it brings back the memories of Christmases long ago. And of hands we thought could do anything.” (161)
Thanks to Hillene Hebert Deaton for permission to use her remembrances of Christmases past. And thanks to Preacher and Nannie Hebert, Hill and Bessie Bostick, and Lizzie Stratton for giving us Hebert kids such wonderful childhoods.