2013-12-25 / Front Page

99 Christmases

Near-centenarian recalls old time celebrations
By Elizabeth Billips

Christmas was made of something different back then.

Annie Kent can still feel the hush of the candlelit church and the crunch of frozen ground as she and her siblings tromped back home through the cotton fields.

The congregation had been somber but Annie was bursting to get to their little house on McElmurray Place and the sharp smell of cedar from the tree they’d sawed that morning.

This Christmas will be her 99th but her heartstrings are still wrapped tight around those of her girlhood in Burke County.

“You didn’t get nothing much … maybe just one present,” she says, settling into her favorite armchair at Forever Angels Adult Daycare. “That’s all we ever expected.”

But for Annie and her six sisters and brothers, Christmas was still a time of wonder.

“Our tree was so beautiful,” she says, touching finger to thumb and remembering the paper ornaments she cut out on the kitchen table. Her mama clipped small candles to the ends of the branches and lit up the room while the kids hunted for the biggest socks they could find.

“I was too excited to sleep,” Annie laughs, remembering how she strained to hear Santa’s sleigh bells under the weight of handstitched quilts piled four and five high. “I’d finally drift off and in the morning my mama would wake me up yelling, ‘Santy Claus came last night! Santy Claus came!”

The whole clan would make a break for the fireplace, discerning lumps they hoped would be apples and oranges.

“We were always scared of getting coal,” Annie says. “But no one ever did.”

Instead, they fished out fruit, nuts, raisins, chocolate candies and a stick of peppermint. Once, Annie got a new pair of shoes, and other times she’d find a trinket or small toy.

The gift she remembers best was a baby doll with eyes that opened and closed.

“It frightened me so bad I got to crying,” she laughs, remembering how her ruckus brought the whole family running. “But I came to love it.”

She named the doll Annette and made clothes and dressed her up for years and years. “I still like to dress up,” Annie muses as gold bangles jingle on both of her wrists. “I still do.”

Annette was along for many more Christmases – for handmade ornaments, kids cross-legged on the floor, and for candy that was sometimes devoured in a day and other times rationed for weeks.

She sat in Annie’s lap for Christmas lunches with home-cured ham, sweet potato pie and a special bread made with dark cane syrup.

And Annette was there, too, for the story of Bethlehem, seven little bowed heads and a feeling Annie could not yet name.

“It was love for God,” she said, “and love of the people around me.

It was love.”

LIVING LONG

Annie Kent celebrated her 99th birthday Monday, Dec. 23 and is still going strong. She exercises every morning and doesn’t take a single medication beyond an occasional pain reliever. She credits her good health to years of clean living. “I always took care of myself,” Annie says, scrunching up her face at the thought of a stiff drink. “My granddaddy drank that stuff but I was scared of it. I used to dip snuff a little but I never could chew tobacco. It was terrible.”

HAPPY GO LUCKY

Annie’s mother died when she was a baby, and her aunt took her in and raised her as her own. “When I say Mama that’s really my auntie,” she explains “She loved me just the same.” She was so small when she moved in, Annie was nicknamed “Pea” – a name that stuck through adulthood. Though she was never able to have children of her own, Annie has always been surrounded by heaps of nieces, nephews, friends and the children and grandchildren of all of them.

“Family and friends are the most important thing” she said. “When you are sick, they nurse you. If you are sad, they bring you up. When you are happy, they are happy with you.”

Annie says her life has been a happy one, mostly because of human kindness. “You have to treat people good,” she insists. “God wants you too.” After a near-century of watching people, she has learned how a bad attitude, more than anything, can destroy a person from within. “Yelling and carrying on never helped anybody with anything,” she said. “You have to find the good in you. When you can do that, you will be happy.”

While Annie doesn’t believe her mama had a written recipe for the syrup bread she baked every Christmas, this one comes close:

Ingredients:
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, room temperature
2 cups dark cane syrup
3 eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup buttermilk
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease an 11-inch
cast-iron skillet. Cream butter and syrup. Add eggs one at
a time and blend well after each addition. In a bowl, combine flour and baking soda. Add to butter mixture alternately with buttermilk. Pour into skillet and bake until done,
30 to 45 minutes.

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