Madison County Opinion...

DECEMBER 25, 2002

By Frank Gillespie
The Madison County Journal
December 25, 2002

Frankly Speaking
My most memorable Christmas
I knew when I left camp that I would experience a memorable Christmas. But it turned out to be much more than I had imagined.
The year was 1962. I was serving in the U.S. Army stationed near the tiny town of Dahn, in the Westphalia area of Germany. I had learned of a tour bus coming out of Frankfurt going to Italy with a vacant seat. I asked for leave, booked the seat and prepared to see the sights in Italy.
Now you have to picture an inexperienced 21-year-old Georgia redneck riding across Southern Europe with a bus load of total strangers, (they were Canadians.) The rest of the people on the bus knew each other. I knew none of them.
We passed through Austria, toured Venice, saw the leaning tower at night and made our way to Rome in time for Christmas. We toured the catacombs and the Vatican on Christmas Eve. I was with the group, but not part of the group during this part of the trip.
We returned to the square in front of St. Peter’s to hear the Pope’s midnight blessing. And that is where I had my epiphany. I stood there, all alone, in the center of a tightly packed crowd of several hundred thousand people, watching a dying pope give his final Christmas blessing. Pope John XXIII died a few months later.
This sharp awareness of being alone in a crowd in the center of a major Christian site immediately changed the tour from a site-seeing trip to a pilgrimage of self discovery. A pilgrimage that continues today.
I became acutely aware of my surroundings and the way I reacted to them. Christmas Day we were left to explore Rome on our own. I spent the day walking alone around the strange, enchanting city. I found the Coliseum, the Forum, the Spanish Steps and the famous fountains. On a small street, I found an American-style hamburger joint where I ate lunch. I found the Olympic stadium where the Rome games were held, and many other well-known locations.
During this fateful day, I never lost my direction. In my wandering, I crossed many busy streets, mostly filled with people I couldn’t understand.
When I became tired in the afternoon, I simply turned and walked back to the hotel.
This intense awareness of myself continued as we completed the tour, seeing Pompeii, the Isle of Capri and parts of the Italian Rivera on the trip back north. When the bus dropped me off in Heidelberg to catch a local train back to camp, I knew I had changed. I didn’t know the extent or nature of the changes for some time to come.
The adventure was not over. Later that year, the Berlin Wall was built. We were on a war footing for over a month, with all the physical and mental pressures that brought along. But I never had a sense of fear or uncertainty.
When I returned to the U.S., I had developed a love of philosophy, and a deep interest in the world’s religions. A survey of my private library will show just how much time, energy and money I have devoted to my studies.
And it all started on that dramatic Christmas Eve in Rome.
Frank Gillispie is founder of The Madison County Journal. His web page can be accessed at His e-mail address is

By Zach Mitcham
The Madison County Journal
December 25, 2002

In the Meantime
The Christmas meal
It is standard Christmas chit chat, the amazement we share about our gorging abilities, the five to 10 extra pounds we’ll discover when we step on a scale after the holidays.
Such talk fits in the category of weather discussions, both being tried-and-true, safe ways to break silence.
There was a time when I’d privately roll my eyes at the light banter of holiday time. But how do you bridge a year of absence from an extended family member over a two or three hour visit in a group setting? I guess you can to some extent. But pushing too hard for a meaningful personal discussion can simply seem like prying.
So, generally, our family talks around the edges come holiday time.
I’m fine with this. Because I think the gathering itself is the sincere expression of the day.
And at the center of this is the food, which, of course, I enjoy smelling, anticipating and talking about with family.
The standards — the turkey, the dressing, the cranberry sauce — have earned that status for good reason. And I heartily participate in the tradition, going back for seconds, perhaps thirds.
But I find myself missing the tastes I’ve known before, such as the chocolate fudge cake my grandmother, who has been in a nursing home nearly 10 years, used to make. I think of my mom’s mom, who passed away last year, and about her jams and how I wolfed down food in her kitchen or sitting near her furnace.
Sometimes I even find myself missing the good things I can still get. I guess that’s strange. But I know I won’t always have chicken pie the way my mother makes it.
I don’t mean to sound overly sentimental. (Anyone who ventures into praising their mother’s cooking risks doing so.)
But there is a distinction in food prepared for you by one you love. And that particular taste, say the special way that a biscuit is done, is one representation of that person’s presence in your life.
I think when a loved one is gone that the taste is still real, to some extent, perhaps painful, perhaps helpful.
And I think the gathering of family at Christmas time and the graciousness displayed on the table speak to the deeper things we choose to leave unsaid.
And I take that as a gift.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.

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