It’s just around the corner! Christmas! Here in Southern California we know it’s on its way because suddenly the leaves of the liquid amber have turned mustard yellow, golden orange, bruised red, speckled green and a gentle brown. Snow is already on the ground up in the Angeles National Forest. Weekend visitors pack it on the top of their SUVs, but it's mostly melted by the time it reaches the downhill suburbs.
The faces of jack o’ lanterns, set out on the curb after Halloween are caving in and collapsing and the images of the Thanksgiving turkey in the windows at schools have been replaced with Christmas Trees and Chanukah candles. It seems that Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer has been playing on the radio since the Fourth of July but now it gives way to more serious Christmas music and in our cars we sing along to “Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem,” and “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”
Because its daylight savings time we leave our jobs early. Even so darkness is falling by the time we reach home. We live on a country road and the coyote that usually doesn’t show up until after dinner is loping along in search of food. Peaches somehow knows he is there and announces his presence with hysterical barking.
My friends know me and forgive me for becoming sloppily sentimental during the Christmas season. Jane, who suffers the most from my compulsion to write stuff down, looks after me patiently when sometimes late at night , I put on a ratty old bathrobe, grab a Heineken from the refrigerator, and disappear into my office . The bathrobe is a long, brown, ugly garment of some strange but oddly warm comforting material. It is very old and has lengthened as time has passed so that it now almost reaches the floor and the belt has now stretched to such absurd length that it frequently trips me. Jane has threatened to burn it but I hide it when I leave the house and uncover it each night when I feel the need to write coming on.
Tonight I want to write about a very special man in my life. In my fifty years in the entertainment business I have met and worked with many actors. Some of them have faces and names that are known around the world. Others even thought they might have had talent, just never got that break that could lead to fame and fortune. Still I treasure having worked with each and every one and I am proud that most of them I still count as friends.
Actors are a special breed of folks. I once wrote an obituary for a well known actor. I tried to make it a tribute to all actors and so I wrote that actors are born while their parents are appearing on the road in some off Broadway production, that their first cradle is a dresser drawer, that without applause they will wither away and die and that they only come truly alive when the camera is rolling or at 8:30 on Broadway when the curtain rises.
There is one actor who holds a special place in my heart. Will Geer was born a Hoosier and went on to perform on every stage from provincial theaters to Broadway and eventually to a major career in films and television. At one period in his life, paying the price for of his political beliefs, he was blacklisted, unable to find work, and became a gardener, but reason prevailed and he was able to resume his acting career.
Will brought special gifts to the role of Grandma Walton. He was not so much portraying Zebulon Walton – he was just being himself and in that guise he brought humor, depth, empathy, dignity and a credibility to the role that enriched the entire production.
Will and I became good friends and I remember an occasion when I was back in my home county in Virginia to be honored at Earl Hamner Day. I should mention that there had recently been a negative review of The Waltons in which the critic called the show “corny.” Will was to remember the review.
The celebration was held on the football field of the Nelson County High School. My whole family was there. This was back when my mother and all my brothers and sisters were still alive and we were all there. There had been speeches, parades, and awards (I was gifted with a key to the Nelson County jail!) someone dropped from the sky in a parachute and it was all wonderful.
And then a dusty old bus drove into the area and came to a stop in front of the podium. Out stepped Will along with a troop of actors. He had driven all night from Alabama where he was appearing in a play. He was carrying a bushel basket of corn which he had stolen from some farmer’s field down the road. He came up on the podium and presented me with the basket and announced that he just wanted me to know that there was still more corn than concrete in our country.
Wherever he happened to be Will made a garden and it did not take long, once he became a member of the cast, for him to plant a garden on the Walton set. And there in the unlikely setting, a major movie set which had pioneered the industry and produced more than its share of film classics, Will set about raising a crop of onions, peas, squash and tomatoes. And being Will he took care to see that each of the young Walton actors was included in the care of the seedlings once they developed into young plants.
Sometimes he was so full of himself, so exuberant that he would break into spontaneous song without realizing that most music on the show had to be cleared with the publisher and paid for before using it, so we often were charged for Will’s unscripted serenades.
There were other times when at a dinner scene he would be saying grace; With the camera rolling, with the actors waiting for cues that never came, with the director pulling his hair, Will would depart from the script, improvise, extemporize and lengthen the grace until he had properly thanked Franklin D. Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, Frances Perkins, friends, neighbors and God Himself for the food and fellowship we were about to enjoy.
It was with those memories in mind and with my great love for my friend that I wrote the words that I believe Will would have said on such an occasion.
Grandpa Walton’s’ Christmas Prayer
What is Christmas? It is a time when some of your dreams come true. Every year it rolls around and takes you by surprise some of the time, especially when you’re as close to 100 years old as I am. You think, “It can’t be time for another one,” but here it is with all its hope and joy and the promise of the wishes that might come true.
You’re probably wondering what I wish for. What would an old man wish for? Maybe you think I would wish to be young again. But I don’t yearn for youth any longer. Being young is a painful thing. Being young and in love to boot, which most young people are, is even more agony. I’ll tell you what I wish. I’d wish for the power to return some of the love that’s been given me. I wish the time and place for all that giving could be commemorated like the heart I carved on the tree around your Grandmother’s and my initials. I wish too for more days to my life.
I wish for time - time to help children know some of the beauty of this Earth that has been revealed to me. A drop of water is a wondrous thing. A spade full of earth is a kingdom in itself. A cloud is worth watching as it passes from one horizon to another. A bird building its nest is as wondrous as men building the Pyramid, and any green thing that grows is proof that God exists. It all comes into focus at Christmas.
It is a tender time. We grow cautious because we open ourselves to love. We exchange gifts, but what those presents really say is "I love you." It makes some folks uncomfortable to say or hear these words. Maybe it’s because they’ve never learned the secret of the giving heart. There are more takers than givers in the world. Sadly there are people, communities, even countries spending their time grubbing and rooting for the goods of this earth like pigs after acorns in the fall of the year.
But ours is a country with a giving heart, and I pray it will always be so. It’s a good country and it’s part of our strength, something that we brought with us as pioneers that we can share with the fellow who is down on his luck, with those who suffered calamities: with the loss of their homes or jobs or their hope.
This is a family with a giving heart. You children may squabble and bicker among yourselves, but you’ve been taught to love and to give, and that’s the greatest present your Mamma and Daddy could have given you. So take pleasure in the trappings of Christmas. Be merry like the songs say. Revel in the tinsel and the glitter and the sparkle and sing the old songs for all the joy that’s in them and the memories they bring back. But to touch the real Christmas, to feel the true spirit of the season, look to your own heart and find all the secret treasures that they’re there to give.
There is one wish that I make every year. I never said it aloud before, but I’ll tell it to you now. I wish for all the seasons I have known, endlessly to come and go; the dogwood spring, the watermelon summer, the russet and gold of autumn. I wish for Christmas to come again and for each of us to be here again next year at this time...together, safe, warm, and loved as we are at this moment.
Merry Christmas to one and all!!