For him to summon us to his room for assistance, we devised a simple signal. We took a stainless-steel bowl from my mother's kitchen that when struck with a wooden spoon loudly pierced through whatever chatter might be going on in the house. It was our substitute for a bell. Some days it seemed that Uncle Garvin banged that bowl just to see how quickly we would come and to make sure we were still there in case he really needed us. I came to hate the sound of it because it meant not only that I had to abruptly stop whatever I was doing but also that I might have to face some unpleasant and unthinkable task like emptying a bedpan or cleaning up vomit or feces. Sometimes he would summon me just to turn the channel on the little black-and-white television set that he had had shipped with his belongings from Houston. (These were the days before remote controls.) As much as I feel guilty for all the anger and selfishness I felt at the time, to this day, there are some bells I hear at Christmas that sound like that bowl being struck, and instead of feeling “joy to the world,” I cringe with haunting memories of Uncle Garvin's last Christmas.
It would be years before I came to realize that he didn't strike that bowl and have us running to his side simply because he wanted us to refresh his water, fiddle around with the covers on his bed, or rearrange the newspapers in the room. That bowl was a cry for something far more important; it was a call for the presence of another human being in that room so that he wouldn't spend those awful and painful waking moments with a condition worse than a cancerâloneliness.
Here was a man who lived alone his entire adult life and did what he wanted to do when he wanted to do it and the way he wanted to do it. He was with people when he wanted to be, like at the holidays, but when he left he had no responsibility for what happened after that. That level of autonomy was wonderful so long as he had his strength and control over his life. His transition from total independence to total dependence was sudden, stark, and most likely terrifying to him.
All the previous Christmases he had spent with us had been on his terms. He came when he decided to. He left when he decided to. He ordered the schedule and even the menu as he decided to. His last Christmas with us was unlike any other. But as I reflect upon it, despite the many challenges that we faced as a family, it was the best Christmas we had with him. We got up early as usual, and he made his way into the family room, where the tree was. Ordinarily, he would have already been showered, shaved, and dressed in his stately blue suit and tie, but on this day, he came in a robe and would shave later when my mother or dad could do it for him. We should all have received Oscars for acting as if everything were normal, but in fact, there was nothing normal about it.
In Uncle Garvin's final days, we were able to show him that he was more than the rich (at least by our standards) and particular uncle who came to visit a few times a year. He was very much a part of the family, a man for whom we set aside our lives to make sure his last days were not spent alone. We did the most menial and at times unpleasant and degrading tasks to make sure he was comfortable.
In so many ways, I became a man that year. I was forced to face the realities of death and the uncertainties of life. I saw life in its ugliest form, when a disease robs a person of his strength, his pride, his privacy, and his ability to choose even the simplest things. More than being robbed of my youth, I was endowed with an extra dose of maturity and adulthood the very year I would become a teenager, 1968.
Uncle Garvin lived through Christmas and died on April 6, 1968, when in the early morning hours of that day, two days exactly after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the voice of my dad woke me up as he climbed to the top of the attic stairs to tell me that Uncle Garvin had just died. He wouldn't be alone ever again. But there was some satisfaction as the years went by that in those last four months of his life, he knew the love of a family that gave him a Christmas gift that was unlike any other we had ever given him. As best we knew how, we gave him the comfort of simple companionship even if it was sometimes difficult. Those last four months, he held to his faith and never once blamed God for his pain or acted or spoke with bitterness. But I'm certain that if we hadn't taken him into our home, he would have died even sooner and experienced more pain than he did.
God gives us many things, but the message of Christmas is that He loves us in person. His comfort wasn't just in the pages of a book or the “vibes” of a spiritual experience. It was with hands that touched, arms that hugged, a voice that spoke, and eyes that exuded compassion that He showed us how much He loved us.
My sister and I didn't get much that year for Christmas. We had been prepared to not expect much because all our resources needed to be used to care for Uncle Garvin and there really wasn't time for much else. But in many ways, it was one of our most meaningful Christmas experiences ever, not because it was a happy one, but because it wasn't. It was meaningful because through it we learned that the real meaning of Christmas is not giving toys but giving God's grace in person to someone who is no longer in a position to give back. It was a very simple Christmas, and maybe the best one of all.
“Son, don't look too far up that family treeâthere's stuff up there you don't need to see.”
With that, my dad pretty well summed up much of the family history. Don't get me wrong. There were certainly some admirable branches and twigs in that tree, but the family on both sides had plenty of scoundrels. It's a miracle I ever got elected to anything. I think the local papers were too busy trying to conjure up controversy over idiotic nonsense like what we were eating at the Governor's Mansion to bother doing real investigations into my bloodline.
In my family, like most others, Christmas was the one time of year when we saw relatives we usually only saw at family reunions. Neither side of my family was particularly religious, so it was somewhat ironic that we made such a big deal out of a holiday that celebrates the birth of Jesus, seeing as no one ever really talked about Him at any other time of the year. It wasn't that the clans were atheist or hostile to faith, they just weren't really gung ho about the idea of getting dressed up on Sundays for church. That made sense, seeing as no one really had dress clothes, and in those days, people wore their “Sunday best” to church. Among the adult men in our family, “Sunday best” wasn't really any different from “Monday best.” Kids usually had at least one white shirt and a clip-on black tie just for special events at school or a Christmas program at church.
Many of the stories in this book only make sense if you know a little bit about my family. Brace yourself! I'm about to take you on a journey that has a not-so-noble beginning but is still truly remarkable and proves the power of perseverance and the presence of hope.
As best I can tell, the Huckabee side of the family originated in England, around the Liverpool area, and the name means “people of the hill.” I actually looked it up once while visiting Liverpool, and that's the best I can figure. I was hoping I might be related to Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison, or Ringo Starr, but if there's any connection, they have long since paid to cover it up. When I was a kid, I had heard that the Huckabees were of Irish descent, but during a 2009 trip to Ireland, my research revealed that the Irish claimed no responsibility. They did acknowledge that some of those English Huckabees might have slipped across the Irish Sea, but they were pretty sure they were turned away and sent swimming back home.
I do know that the Sons of the American Revolution have never called and said they would love to have me. My folks didn't come over on the Mayflower, and their first American address was not Jamestown but Georgia, as best we know. I assume that means they were dumped out of debtor prisons in the old country, placed on boats like cargo, and dropped off on the Georgia shores to fend for themselves. That's not altogether a bad thing, since the clan did turn out to be a resourceful and resilient lot despite the fact that they were poorer than the dirt they lived on for most later generations. If there was a rich Huckabee in my ancestry, it was a better-kept secret than the whereabouts of Jimmy Hoffa. I'm sure there wasn't one, but if there was he probably would have kept it quiet to avoid having the rest of the family move in and rob him blind.
I can't verify the veracity of some things I've been told, for example, that some of my ancestors were horse thieves or that more than one Huckabee concluded his life at the end of a rope, having been administered a rather outdated form of frontier justice. When asked about these stories, I prefer to say that “they were participating in a public ceremony when the platform on which they were standing suddenly gave way and they were killed almost instantly.” (That level of creative “spin” came in very useful in my life as a political figure!)
Supposedly, once those early Huckabees landed in the young and still-developing United States in the late 1700s, they scattered like fugitives to places like Arkansas, Louisiana, and Alabama, with some staying in Georgia. Because they weren't well educated and couldn't spell much better than they could avoid the long arm of the law, there were (and are) many variations of the spelling of the name “Huckabee.” I want to point that out so you don't think that the variations were simply aliases. I've seen it spelled Huckaby, Huckabay, Huckabe, and Huckaba. There are probably other spellings, but those folks probably don't want to claim kin to me any more than the rest of them.
Because my name is somewhat unusual, I was instructed not to immediately say yes when someone asked if I was “kin to the Huckabees who lived in Albany, Georgia” (or anywhere else, for that matter). I was told that I shouldn't volunteer that information until I knew why I was being asked. “There's a good chance that the other Huckabees owed those folks some money, and they might be expecting you to pay up,” my dad said. So, if your name is Huckabee (or any variation of it), unless you have photos of us together at Christmas, I don't know you and we aren't related. (But we probably are!)
But speaking of Christmas, isn't it funny that at Christmas people we barely know pile in and get chummy for a big meal, or even a few days, when we'd all probably find it easier to hang out with coworkers or neighbors, since we really know them better than we do our relatives. It's awkward for all, and yet in a strange kind of way, it wouldn't be Christmas without the obligatory connection with family membersâeven the ones we barely know. These are the people to whom we are genetically linked. We can look at our older relatives and get a glimpse of how we might look someday (
), and when we look at the younger ones, we might remember how we once looked. But beyond physical appearances and behavioral traits, there is that reassuring reminder that we are in fact a part of an ongoing chain of human lifeâthere is continuity in our existence, and continuity means purpose, and if we have a purpose, then surely that's an affirmation that we were created by something larger than ourselves and aren't mere products of chance and accident. (Although I'm sure that some of my relatives must have looked at me and thought God did have a great sense of humor!)
Enough of my deep thoughts on the nature and role of families. Let's face it, at Christmas, even if we believe in creation, we might become convinced that we're all devolving.
My family has given me lots of material for several books, but since a bunch of them are still living, I can't tell all the stories I have. Instead, I will have to limit the Christmas memories to those that won't get me sued or, worse, beaten to a pulp by more violent members of my bloodline.
On my mother's side of the family, the Elders, Christmas was complicated because my mother was one of seven children. This meant that whatever we did, it was going to be crowded. One of her brothers, Neal Elder, died before I was even born, and it was tragic. He drowned the day before his wedding. He was second in age to my mother, and they were close, so his death was one she never really got over. It also meant that she was terrified of our drowning. But even with Uncle Neal gone, that still left six siblings, and after they all married and had kids, whoever's house we went to for Christmas was going to be filled beyond capacity. None of my mother's family had large homes, but I don't think we ever even thought about that then. I do remember that almost all of the adults smoked. This was in the 1950s and early '60s, when it would've been unthinkable to suggest that blowing toxic carcinogens into the faces of children might be dangerous and maybe they should smoke outdoors. It didn't help that I was allergic to smoke (though we didn't know that then); any complaint that I couldn't breathe was met with a dismissive “Boy, quit your whining and acting up like that.” It's a darn good thing no one had smoke alarms back thenâthey never would have stopped ringing.