Peggy Keener: A very, very white Christmas

Published 5:22 pm Tuesday, December 21, 2021

We have all known numerous past Christmases, but surprisingly few of them remain indelibly in our minds. There’s one, however, that I won’t soon forget.

In December of 1978, we were living near Fort Meade, Maryland. There I joined the Officer’s Wives Club. One day the club president approached me with an unusual request. It seemed she had noticed that my handwriting was not only distinctive, but was also legible.

Thereupon she made this request. Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter were looking for a few good penmen to address their Christmas cards. Would I be interested?

Hmmm, I pondered. What was that she said? Writing Christmas cards for the President (leader of the free world) and Mrs. Carter (leader of the leader of the free world)? Would my schedule even allow such an interruption? Let’s see, there was laundry, grocery shopping and a half finished book, but, yes, I suppose I could fit it in.

Within a week, I left my beige house for their White House. (My house was also not capitalized.) An hour later I was whisked into that White House! Me! The first thing I noticed was the whiteness. (Hmmm, so that’s how it got its name!) Contrasting beautifully against this opalescent background was a house ablaze in a colorful cacophony of holiday glory.

Breathless, I strolled down a hall with rooms on both sides. Each room contained a very large, stunningly beautiful evergreen heavily adorned with distinctively different themed decorations. I stood before them with my mouth agape as my guide explained that the trees had been decorated by volunteer groups from all over the U.S.

Between the rooms we re sparkling white hallways with tall deeply recessed windows that reached all the way to the floor. At the bottom of each window was a three-foot-high stack of potted poinsettias. Each stack was angled sideways so that passersby looked not at the pots, but rather directly into a solid embankment of crimson blossoms. Brilliant in their scarlet intensity, they looked like velvet necklaces encircling the throat of each window.

We turned into a room. I looked up. There, without warning, sat Mrs. Carter. Nothing in my plebeian past had prepared me for being so up-close to royalty. Cautiously I approached her table not knowing if I should curtsy, genuflect or simply kiss her ring.

I didn’t have to do any of those things, for in a graceful gesture, the First Lady extended her First Hand. I put out my second hand. Rosalynn took it and gently we shook. Then to my utter surprise, her First Lips began to speak. I was so taken aback by what came out that I almost needed a translator.

I swear Rosalynn’s First Words sounded almost delicious—like treacle rippling over hot butterscotch. It immediately made me hungry for a Dairy Queen. Was she speaking English? Certainly not mine. And therefore, what did I speak? Second English?

There were five of us addressers, each with her own table. Upon them were piles of envelopes. I began immediately doing a quick scan of the names on my long list, I was a bit disappointed that no one (at least to me) appeared to be notable. Like no Deng Xiaoping or Anwar Sadat. Neither was there Česko-Slovensko the ruler of Czechoslovakia. But, then, I figured that rather than sending him a Christmas card, it would make far more sense for improving international relations if President Carter would send that country some vowels!

Several hours later, I finished. Stretching my cramped fingers, I realized the job was not yet finished. Each envelope still had to be affixed with a 13-cent stamp. Looking around I did not see any lickers. None. It crossed my mind that perhaps no one had passed the stringent presidential tongue check.

Having nothing more to do, I decided to take a stroll. I turned into a hallway and was immediately taken aback by how somber and austere it felt. There was no holiday cheer here. Unbeknownst to me, I had stumbled into the Hall of the Presidents. Hanging on both sides were huge portraits all painted in a style so formal it looked as if the subjects had been dipped in starch and left to dry. Had they dared to smile, their cheeks would have cracked.

Obviously they had all also, down through the years, used the same family of tailors, for every suit was identically dark and formal. I wondered if having to sit for hours for their portraits had caused them to plunge into a blue funk for they were surely dragging down my holiday spirits. Those stern faces told me that being the First Citizen was indeed a trial. Too bad Etch-A-Sketch had not been available to them.

And that’s when I saw it.

At the far end of the hall was an over-sized painting all done—not in gloomy dreariness—but rather in creamy cheerful hues. The contrast to the other portraits was shocking.

There I stood riveted on the portrait of J.F.K.!

No stiff dispirited three-piece outfit here. President Kennedy was wearing a rumpled ivory linen suit. A sea breeze was ruffling his hair and across his smiling face was that famous impish J.F.K. grin. Its simplicity was pure unadulterated class. Clearly Jackie had orchestrated the painting.

I tried to imagine what the White House Christmases had been like when two youngsters in search of Santa rode their scooters down these same halls. What a treat that must have been for the stoic, sacred walls to hear children’s laughter and unbridled happiness. Little did the world know then how tragically this would all end. Santa, too, must have cried. Never had a Christmas ever made me feel so patriotic or been so unforgettable.

Although I could not in good conscience tell you that Glen and I are ferociously bushy tailed, we remain in fine fettle … my fettle a bit fitter than Glen’s. Still together after 63 years, anymore we tend to lean on each other. We fit just right.

Our whole gang (12 adults with not even a hint of a grand baby) will soon be sardine-packed all over our sun room floor as we watch deer and eagles make their way through our snow covered world. We’ll be movie bingeing while swaddled in electric blankets in a cozy crowded Keener clump. It seems that, besides eating, we like it best when we’re in a loving human stack.

In closing let me remind you that you are only as happy as you decide to be. So smile! You might be on Santa’s Candid Camera!

Happy Holidays, dear friends.