My father, the late Dr. Roderick Macdonald, brilliant, compassionate, and kind, was an ophthalmologist and otolaryngologist, but a stern Presbyterian/a devoted Calvinist (his ancestors were from Scotland. Some were desperate after the “late war,” as some Southerners called the War between the States; also, his mother, suffering most of her life from osteomyelitis, lost her leg; and his first wife died of cancer. He knew what suffering was. A few weeks before the Armistice was signed, my father was drafted). Perhaps those experiences caused his serious demeanor. He was a firm believer in the sovereignty of God and reached out to his patients. For example, he drove a patient who didn’t have a car to Charlotte for a medical appointment, and he saved the eyesight of Dori Sanders, the writer from Clover. Sometimes he put on a suit in the middle of the night and met patients at the office, 332 East Main Street, originally home to the Reid family or went to the hospital, either St. Philip’s or York County, or he invited patients to come to our house. I remember we scrambled for a flashlight. Daddy made house calls. A servant to his patients, he took the Hippocratic Oath seriously, and as the late William Boyce White, Jr., beloved teacher and organist, said, “Dr. Macdonald was read up, unlike a lot of doctors in Rock Hill.” His patients adored him. One carved a wooden figure of Pop-Eye the Sailor, having remembered Daddy’s words to his son: some sort of remote analogy about being strong like Pop-Eye and eating your spinach and having your ears cleaned out. Pop-eye seemed to serve as an archetype for any unpleasantry in the office: from having drops in one’s eyes to having one’s throat swabbed or something stitched up.
But to a little child who asked questions and wanted answers to learn, Daddy seemed remote.
Dr. Roderick Macdonald met my mother in Columbia, surprisingly enough, over a table of bridge, and they were married. She was a musician (gorgeous contralto voice). My mother sang at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Columbia while she attended Chicora College which later merged with Queens in Charlotte). She married my father in 1932 at the First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina. Sara Benn Macdonald insisted on the finest music, gave beautiful parties with decorations, and provided her children with engaging activities.
One look from Daddy, however, told you not to ask that second question. After all, children were to be seen and not heard. “Don’t dig under, Martha,” he would say to me if I asked a question, simply trying to understand something. What was I to do? Even as a child, I always thought the way to learn was to ask questions. It was, and it still is! Daddy was simply “old school.” To comfort me, my mother would roll her laughing blue eyes and smile. Amused by Mamma’s humor, my identical twin, Mary, and I were comforted by the fact that we could later ask her what we wanted to know, but I remained troubled over knowing that I couldn’t ask questions.
For most of the year, the house was, indeed, somber and foreboding, haunted by the spirit of John Calvin. But between Thanksgiving and Christmas, something changed, and that time was marvelous. The house was alive with music, decorations, baking, the doorbell ringing, caroling, and much, much more. My mother usually put up a garland above the door featuring a wreath, but one year, she made a very special decoration: a bough sprayed gold with unusual white bells and tiny birds. It was spectacular. I remember being excited as I walked up the steps in December of 1954. It was gorgeous.
This month of preparing was an exciting time. Even my father seemed to relax. As I said, John Calvin disappeared for a few weeks! Daddy attended parties with Mamma, commented on the decorations Mary and I had put on the Christmas tree, enjoyed our little concert in the living room on Christmas morning, and always appreciated my mother’s music at Oakland Avenue Presbyterian Church. Outside of Winthrop, she was the first to direct Handel’s Messiah in church in Rock Hill, S.C., and the very first, ever, to offer Vivaldi’s Gloria. She consulted with the priests at the Oratory on Latin pronunciations. There were the pageants at church. During my college years, I wrote a couple of pageants and directed them, calling on the late Dr. William R. Sims (pharmacist at old St. Phillip’s Drug Store and our dear next door neighbor) to play the role of a prophet, and I made papier Mache animals. We brought a cedar tree home from the church each Christmas. The pageant was exciting for me and (I think for Mary). She either sang or took apart. At home, we continued to have Christmas plays in our cellar.
Mary and I always relaxed during December. Even though Mamma and Daddy never knew it, we sat under the tree and opened our presents, then rewrapped them. Further, the doorbell constantly rang with deliveries. There were complimentary gifts for my father, such as ice cream, candy, and special pens, from the various pharmacies. During this festive time, Mamma always had laryngitis, so she went around the house, a handkerchief covered in Vick’s wrapped around her throat, as she touched up this, picked up that, and directed Zinzie, our nanny, whom I absolutely adored (Zinzie was my best friend who taught me many life lessons, even during the holidays).
Mamma played carols on our old record player, wrote extra Christmas cards whose envelopes Mary and I stamped, and created marvelous decorations. I will never forget the cedar garland which looped from our chandelier in the dining room to the centerpiece on the table. Mamma and Daddy sent pecans from our three trees, as well as cheese straws and fruit cakes in the mail to friends. Then, there were those deliveries which Mary and I made.
Mary and I loved it all, for there was merriment and joy. It was, to repeat, as though a magical spell was cast about the historic home which for most of the year was foreboding and sinister, Calvinistic, or so it seemed to us. It was as though the spirit of Ermine Wilfong, organist for forty years at the Episcopal Church and instructor of piano at Winthrop, who had lived here with her mother before World War II, and loomed over certain rooms, disappeared for a season (I know her ghost yet haunts the house, for I hear her in the late afternoon on the second floor, especially in the winter). Perhaps you knew her or heard about her. “Miss Ermine” was talented, but, oh, her countenance was stern, as seriously Calvinistic as my father’s, even though I could never imagine their comparing notes about Rock Hill. She was an Episcopalian, and he was a Presbyterian. I remember seeing her walking toward 325 years after she’d moved from this house. Haunting!
But Ermine’s stern spirit, like my father’s, seemed to vanish during the enchanting season between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. Calvinism disappeared for a season, and that was refreshing. Even with music at the church on Christmas Eve, Mamma offered one of Daddy’s favorites: stewed oysters. There was a little sherry or champagne, and following church, we all enjoyed eggnog at Frances Millings’ lovely home down on East Main Street. Eggnog abounded. If we weren’t too weary, Mary and I joined friends for the midnight service at the Episcopal Church. Home from New York where she was a professional musician, our sister, Rose (Margaret Rose, as she was called then), often did as well. She joked about rocking around the altar rail after too many rounds of eggnog. “And the ‘nog’ was very potent and delicious.”
On Christmas morning, after we enjoyed gifts from Santa by the fire in the den, we had breakfast (something special Mamma created), then unwrapped presents from under the tree around the dining room table. After that ritual, Mary and I gave our concert, and we helped Mamma serve dinner around one or two. Sometimes in the late afternoon, Mamma and Daddy invited friends over for eggnog. Mary and I liked that time. Why? Nobody paid much attention to us, and we could disappear—-either to walk or talk. So many years, the season was balmy, misty, and gray. Because it was warm, I loved being outside.
During the days following December 25th, most people on College Avenue were obsessed with getting down those dry cedar trees. You’d see the trees on the street, a little tinsel clinging to the boughs. Mary and I, along with others, including young Henry Mobley, who never wore shoes, even on the coldest days, gathered these discarded trees and made a fort in our backyard near one of the pecan trees. Even though I no longer build forts, the image lingers in my mind, and a Christmas does not go by that the old urge to drag a tree home does not recur (incidentally, I returned to Rock Hill years ago to take care of Mamma). So I pull a tree to my yard and adorn it with pinecones covered with peanut butter and seeds or cracker crumbs for the birds. Much as I dislike cold weather, the red birds beckon me on a cold morning in January as they’re feasting on the treats. Months later, the branches of the tree become mulch.
Christmas vanished all too quickly, and New Year’s Day came in, for me, seemingly colder than December with all of the merriment, love, festivity, and joy of the Christmas season gone: “Cold December flies away….”
And hog jowl, which Mamma insisted on, traditionalist that she was, for New Year’s Day dinner, along with collards, hoppin’ John, and artichoke pickles, and leftover fruit cake, seemed dull and dreary compared to Christmas with turkey, ham, oysters, corn pudding, homemade dressing, creamed peas, cranberry jelly, Zinzie’s home-made rolls, and a wide variety of desserts, including cakes and pies, ambrosia, and much, much more. Even though the spirit of the Nativity lingered in my heart, the presence of Calvin returned to our abode on January the First. Despite the beautiful snow, rich blue sky, and cardinals on a fallen pine bough, I was “bone cold.” Daddy poured boiling water on the windshield which, miraculously, never broke, so that he could drive us to school on days he wasn’t in the operating at one of the hospitals.
Except at Christmas, my parents rarely opened a bottle of wine, but they never ceased to tip the bottle of mineral oil each evening. Those were the days. Christmas at 325 College Avenue was a beautiful time, and I will always treasure those memories. Memories make stories to share we those we love and those who seriously want to know about Historic Rock Hill.
By Dr. Martha Benn Macdonald
This article first appeared in issue 8 f Rock Hill Reader the Magazine