My maternal grandmother forbade the use of that word in her presence. She was known to her children’s children by her given name, Estelle. My siblings and I thought she was the coolest person we’d ever met. Kids are not usually insightful about cool people, but in this case we were spot on.

Estelle Gentry lost her husband when her only daughter was eleven. She raised Jean and her four brothers to be strong and positive but not take the world too seriously. I don’t know nearly enough about her early life but the evidence of her strength and will was permanently etched in her children. The three survivors are over eighty and their eyes still sparkle with a tiny bit of the devil.

She was a gravel voiced, chain smoking dynamo who found humor in every hard lesson life presented. Estelle wore red lipstick, had dark hair, and projected an irreverence that was unusual and threatening in small conservative coal towns like West Blocton, Alabama. I never saw her worried or felt she was afraid of anything.

We visited my grandmother a lot until she moved to Dallas and remarried. The family went out there once but our primary contact with her was Christmas. Estelle would have achieved legendary status for her gift giving alone.

Christmas for the Cox children was a two part thing. Christmas Eve we opened presents and went to bed early so we could wake up even earlier to see what Santa brought. The packages that arrived from Texas a couple of weeks before Christmas signaled the real beginning of the Yuletide season to us. The clock slowed considerably when the items were unboxed, wrapped, and placed under the tree.

We all knew Santa would bring us some of the things we asked for, based on how well we behaved during the year. We also knew our parents would buy something we didn’t want but probably needed; clothes, underwear, socks, and such. Nothing impressive, just stuff we could get any time of the year.

But Estelle! She always knew what each of us wanted more than anything else. Whether it was the Fort Apache collection of Cowboys and Indians, the latest doll capable of behaving like a real baby, or the newest wonder from the Sears catalogue, Estelle knew the one thing we wished for more than anything else.

From the time we were old enough to understand what was going on until cancer took her from this world; our grandmother provided the largest dose of Christmas magic every year.

My parents tried to shine as bright as Estelle did. But she was too savvy, too in tune with what kids wanted and needed, and more than willing to make sure things were perfect.

Even after she passed away, I marveled at her ability and laughed at my parents’ inept attempts at gift giving. An elderly woman who rarely saw us knew much more about our wishes than our own parents and we worshipped her for it.

Christmas was always Estelle’s strongest link to her grandchildren. I wrapped a lot of presents as an adult before I finally determined where the real Christmas magic came from.

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Mike Cox

Mike Cox

Mike Cox currently writes a weekly column in South Carolina for the Columbia Star called "It's Not a Criticism, It's an Observation." He is trying to grow old as gracefully as possible without condemning the current generation in charge to doom. Each day this task gets harder as the overwhelming evidence mounts. He currently has two published books; Finding Daddy Cox, and October Saturdays. His columns have won three South Carolina Press Association awards since 2003. Mike has three sons and two grandchildren and lives in Irmo, Sc, just outside of Columbia.