“I remember when the biggest joy of Christmas for me was getting to ride the mail boat over to Beaufort and just look at the five and dime and the drugstore. We’d go down on the shore, bundled up, head and ears, and the mail boat came from down at the center of the island. We’d get in the broom grass and watch for it, and they’d come pick us up.”
Those are the words of a Harkers Island woman named Madge Guthrie almost 20 years ago. At that time, I wrote a monthly oral history column for the Sunday edition of the Raleigh News & Observer and Madge was one of the people I featured in those stories.
I visited Madge to ask about her memories of Christmas on Harkers Island when she was a child in the 1930s. To this day, I think about what she told me that evening, as we sat in her kitchen late into a winter night.
Merry Christmas to all! You can find the full story I wrote about Christmas on Harkers Island here—it’s called “Madge Guthrie: One Clear Beautiful Night.”
When I visited Madge on Harkers Island, she started by telling me about those mail boat trips to Beaufort at Christmas. She recalled her happiness even if she only had a single little gift.
She remembered, too, the joys of eating Christmas dinner on a fish box—the “children’s table,” Harkers Island-style.
Later she told me about a child wrapped in swaddling clothes, right there on Harkers Island. This was during the Great Depression, and a new mother had not had the means to buy clothes for her new baby, or sheets for its bed.
Madge’s mother and other neighborhood women had come to the rescue. They helped look after that child for years.
Late in the evening, just before I left, Madge told me about a walk that she and her mother had taken on a starry night just before Christmas, when she was a little girl.
That night, as they walked across the island, Madge’s mom told her the story of Christmas in a way that made it feel real to her down to her bones maybe for the first time.
Madge said that she would never forget what her mother told her that night about Jesus’s mother.
“I remember her telling me, `Mary was put down bad,’” Madge told me.
“The Bible doesn’t talk about that,” she continued. “But at that time in history, and her an unwed mother, imagine.”
She paused, and then she looked out into the dark toward the Cape Lookout Light, which we could see from her house.
“When Mary went to see Elizabeth,” Madge said, “could it have been that it was so hard the way people were avoiding her, sneering at her, probably laying down that she needed to be stoned?”
Madge stopped and went quiet. For a long time, we just sat quietly and looked out across the sound into the dark. Suddenly that night did not seem so long ago, or Bethlehem so far away.