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The Christmas Ham

Not a true story[1]

By Amber Noel

I’m in the middle of telling this really funny long-form joke, and I’ve just served up my famous Christmas ham, and we’re all snacking festively and sipping hot drinks, and I’ve just arrived at the punchline, when someone interrupts, rudely. ­Hey, what’s ­— they say, and I assume, at first, they’re about to ask for the ham recipe because who wouldn’t? — Hey, they say, hey what’s the story with the — with the — (they point, our eyes follow, up and up to the crown of the Douglas fir) the headless angel?

I’m willing to explain, but it takes a moment to recompose myself from the loss of my punchline. Was the joke inexpertly told? Do I talk too much? It was not, and I don’t. That’s why you people come to my Christmas parties, and it’s why I make this ham, and why my parties are quietly famous. I mean, we make popcorn strings and drink gourmet eggnog, with pricey rum.

But I’m a gracious host. So, to the angel. Her hands are in prayer over a mint green dress; a peach ceramic sash floats across her; shiny bronze wings spread into enfolding ceramic feathers; and above that, on top of her creamy white ceramic neck, nada. Not a head to be found. There she watches — or can’t watch, as it were — from the top of my Christmas tree. The dog looks up at the angel, too, then looks guiltily at me. I motion to her to shut it.

Yes, the tale of the headless angel, I say, and just then, a log in the fireplace collapses with a crack and a sizzle, and someone screams. We all laugh. I begin.

It’s a family story.

One hundred and fifty years ago, a great-great grandparent on my father’s side bought the angel from a peddler. The peddler had a squint, a limp, and a pocket watch that played Stravinsky on the hour.

My great-great grandparents’ farm was in North Dakota, and the angel is supposed to have had its origins in Europe — Heidelberg — and Europe is where I secretly hope all of my origins are, too. Being from Europe would explain, don’t you think, some of my inclinations: toward small, intimate parties in the wintertime, and above-average tastes in food, and neck scarves? All my hopes for myself have always been in my European ancestors, who, being unknown as well as dead, will never disappoint me!

So where was I? There stood my great-great grandmother, bow-legged on the back stoop,  corncob pipe in her mouth, puffing it through smoke-yellowed teeth, holding the newly-acquired Heidelberg angel, meditating on what its purpose could be. The pink cheeks, and the eyes the color of the sky… She stroked its hair — a streak of real 10-karat gold paint — and all of a sudden, my great-great grandmother began to cry. The angel’s innocent face and blue eyes looked so much like a baby’s….

She eventually got her miracle, of course. Three children, in fact, including my great-grandfather Meacham. But what matters more is that until the day she died, she took that angel everywhere she went. While she hoed corn, churned butter, and helped cows in their calving, the angel stayed in a bag at her side, wrapped in an old tablecloth, until one day my great-great grandmother died in front of the cast iron stove, fell upon the bag, and…

The angel stayed intact!

I bet you didn’t expect that.

Thus it came down to my great-grandfather, Meacham, who may have been a miracle child, but as anyone will tell you, he was no angel. He bought a farm in Mississippi and hiked his prices and cheated his neighbors and gambled and kept slaves until the Union practically wrestled them away from him. Then he lost his holdings, went into banking, and married some poor woman named Rice who kept the angel after Meacham died young of a heart attack.

They’d had twins, by the way. Isn’t that a beautiful idea — twins? I’ve sometimes imagined I was a twin, with a lost twin somewhere out there, and that she’s on a research grant in Norway — art history program, it was very competitive — and some nights we’re both looking out on the same full moon….

But both of Meacham’s twins — alas — were stolen away in the middle of the night, one night, no one knows where. And Rice remarried a man — I believe his name was, if I’m not mistaken, Gus Frank — who had unromantic business with boats on the Mississippi River. (No sordid details, but let’s just call it tourism.)

And here came World War One. Just a moment, catching my breath.

All right. So Rice and Gus never had children of their own. But Rice got an entrepreneurial streak, and she and Hubby #2 jumped the next boat up the Mississippi to Missouri, where they started a gambling outfit operation just below St. Louis.

Gambling outfit operation? Yes, just what I said. Gambling outfits. Of course they don’t make them these days. And I am ashamed to say that the discreteness of some of the pockets and the reflective quality of some of the large buttons did sometimes lend themselves to cheating. But then the war economy shut it all down, and Rice and Gus opened a grocery instead.

Now this was a time when it still helped to speak French to do any good business in St. Louis, and I have no doubt this did some good in my family tree.

The ceramic angel they kept. They perched it, precariously, on top of the cash register in the front of the store. Every time a wind blew in, every time Great-grandma Rice made change, every time a motorcar rattled down the red cobblestones, the angel sang a ceramic tremolo against the top of the metal box which contained all my great-grandparents’ earthly security.

So one day, in St. Louis, in 1917, this kid — 18 years old — burst into the grocery, dead drunk. He took off his winter beanie and stumbled around, pawing a few smoked sausages, disturbing some vegetables, lurching toward the register. Onto the counter he smacked down a pack of chewing gum, a summer sausage, and a fifth of Black Gold Kentucky Straight.

My great-grandmother said, Can I help you?

He just looked at her, eyes red, face twisted.

She tried again, In quoi poo-je vooze aiday, Son? her hazel eyes mild and her hand feeling under the counter for the Smith and Wesson.

The boy began sobbing — shaking and sobbing — and collapsed, right into the cash register. The angel leapt up like an Olympian off a diving board…

And landed square in the boy’s arms, safe as a lamb.

Normally, Rice would have pulled the pistol more quickly, working in the store alone, but the boy looked younger than his age, and the expression on his face when he caught the angel made her laugh. He had pretty blue eyes I’m told, and eyebrows that always looked surprised. He had just been drafted, he said. He ran away from home so they wouldn’t find him, he said, and they found him anyway (I imagine Rice was giving him coffee at this point, with chickory, in a big enamel cup).

Now this is probably the only really interesting part of this story — that my grandfather was a draft dodger!

You don’t believe that could have been my grandfather? It’s too far back? Well, he was 68 when my dad was born, with his third wife, so the math adds up.

Or you’re wondering how he was my grandfather in the first place? Well, in a word, adoption. In another word, mercy. Rice took the boy in, 16 and an orphan. At 30, she became his mother. With a little mental calculation she realized she would have had him (if she’d had him) at the age of 14, but with a little more calculation, she was fine with that. She had been around enough St. Louis Catholics at that point to know it was no bad thing to resemble the Mother of our Lord.

But the draft dodging. Now that’s interesting! I could have had a political radical in my family, or even a socialist!

But no. Because his name was now John Frank I guess my grandfather felt he had to live up to that name, in gratitude or something, and become as normal as he could.

The angel moved from the cash register to the Frank front room and was the sole occupant of a window seat there. Grandpa John Frank grew up and moved to Indiana, and — you’re not going to believe this, but it’s true — he met a woman named Vicky who turned out to be one of the twins Rice and Meacham had lost. (The other lived on Price Edward Island.) No blood relation, so they fell in love and got married, probably in that order.

You were worried about patrimony for a second and all the facts of my story tying together? Never fear. The lesson here is to be patient, and to remember that family is stranger than fiction.

When Gus and Vicky were visiting St. Louis one Christmas, Vicky remarked to her besotted mother on “that sweet little Christmas angel” and how much she liked it. So Rice zipped it up in Vicky’s luggage right before they left. It was the last time Rice ever saw them (due to the twister of ’27).

Well, Rice stuffed that angel into Vicky’s suitcase, headfirst, before they took the train back east and…

You guessed it. She arrived in Indiana, head and all. The Heidelberg angel. And Vicky, too. And the angel became a staple in Frank Nativities for a few years, even though she obviously didn’t match the set.

Then one of the Frank toddlers (an aunt I’ve never met) found it and knocked it across the edge of the fire grate. And that was the end of the head.

But because times were tough, and no one liked to throw anything away (and Vicky turned out to be what they called then a woman who “keeps things”), the headless angel stayed in my grandfather’s attic through two more wives, until my dad and I went to clean out his house after he and my grandmother died, and we opened a dusty hatbox filled with 50 year-old newspaper shreds in the very back of the attic, et voilà! There she was. My father didn’t know what it was. So I took it. The family heirloom. Priceless.

I look wistfully up at the top of the Douglas fir.

Then who told you the story? one of you asks.

You’ve all eaten through the Christmas ham (I knew you would), and you’re looking at me in a sleepy, satiated, friendly way, as if you know me better than I know myself and you like me anyway. I find the speaker, who is patting the dog and wearing a faint eggnog mustache.

What do you mean? I say, gathering punch glasses.

Because — the voluble one continues — because the angel was in the attic, and your grandfather, you said he died before you found it?


So he must have — here he almost, infuriatingly, winks — told your dad all this at some point?

I smile. You know, he must have.

Did you make that up? someone asks.

That would be a hoot, I say, then sip the dregs of my fair-trade holiday roast coffee from its delicate Wedgwood cup and matching saucer. Oh, you like them? I found them at an estate sale!

Have you ever shopped an estate sale? On a whim, I also bought fish forks. Real silver! It wasn’t technically in my budget, but you know estate sales. But when are you ever going to use fish forks? Maybe I’ll host a New Year’s Eve dinner next week. This time I’ll serve oysters. What do you think of that? Would you come?

[1] Or is it?


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