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Blest be the tie that’s ugly

Hardy Jackson’s Alabama

Illustration by Dennis Auth
Illustration by Dennis Auth

Every family should have Christmas traditions.

Special decorations. Special foods. Special guests.

When I was a boy, my family had Uncle Artemus.

Born in 1895, Artemus grew up wanting more than Elmore County, Alabama offered, so in the 1920s he headed west for Hollywood. There he got work designing movie sets and as an extra in silent classics like “Scaramouche” and “The Last of the Mohicans.”

(The family was often skeptical of the tales Uncle Artemus told, but as far as I was concerned, if they weren’t true, they should have been.)

Uncle Artemus ended up in Miami where, to no one’s surprise considering his Hollywood career, he became an interior decorator. We figured he made good money at it, because he had a monkey and monkeys don’t come cheap.

He also had a wife, a sweet lady, and a yappy little dog. He brought them with him when he joined the family for Christmas at my Grandmother’s.

It was an event when Uncle Artemus and his entourage arrived.

His dress was flamboyant, his speech was theatrical, his movements were exaggerated – with the monkey on his shoulder he would have caused no great stir on Biscayne Boulevard, but in Slapout, Alabama, the seat of the Jackson clan, he cut a curious figure. So we were really impressed one Christmas when he announced that he, himself was going to make new, swell drapes for Grandma’s living room.

Grandma lived in what was really just a big farmhouse that had grown room by room as children arrived. What was then the living room had served a number of functions over the years and its décor reflected its evolution. So you would have thought that whatever Uncle Artemus designed would have fit right in. You would have been wrong.

When Christmas came round again Uncle Artemus arrived with wife, monkey, dog, and piles of cloth turned out to be drapes and valances that hung from ceiling to floor and looked, as my Daddy observed, “like something from a New Orleans brothel.”

Mama asked Daddy what he knew about New Orleans brothels.

Daddy changed the subject.

A couple of Christmases after that, when we were again gathered at Grandma’s, Uncle Artemus gave Daddy a present. When Daddy opened it he found a tie. Not just any tie. A hand-made-personally-by-Artemus-tie, creamy white, with an embossed design that looked suspiciously like the draperies that would not have been out of place at a you-know-what-you-know-where.

Later Daddy’s brother-in-law, my Uncle Canoy, got Daddy off to the side and told him that it was the ugliest tie he had ever seen.

Daddy agreed.

So next Christmas Daddy wrapped it up and gave it to Canoy.

The next year Canoy gave it back to Daddy.

So began the swapping of the Christmas tie.

A few years ago Canoy died. So Daddy gave it to Canoy’s son, my cousin Benny, who gave it back the next year, and then Daddy gave it to me.

The tie passed between us until Daddy died.

Then it was just Benny and me.

We swap it back and forth, every year, and remember Uncle Artemus, and Uncle Canoy, and Daddy, and all those that gathered every Christmas.

It is a good tie.

Even if it is ugly.