Christmas with the Hinkleys
My introduction to the Hinkley family’s matriarch was this; my mother had seen her pee.
We were all at The Food Lion, Mrs. Hinkley, my mother and I. (This was in the early 1980s, a decade or more before I’d ultimately visit the Hinkley home.) Mom slyly pointed her out to me and, in hushed tone, confided that she’d been witness to the old woman’s public urination, and on more the one occasion.
“See that lady over there?” Mom whispered. She subtly motioned toward a barefoot shopper in a shapeless floral dress.
“Her?” I asked. I watched the old woman amble down the cereal aisle.
Mom nodded. “I saw her tee tee in the middle of a parking lot – twice!”
“Gross!” I said.
“The first time was at the office,” Mom said. “See, she has a policy with us. She’d just come by to pay her auto insurance payment. Walked out the door, stood next to her car in the parking lot, kind of spread her legs a little, and then I saw the stream.”
“And the second time I saw her was in a shopping center. That kind of dress she’s got on is called a muumuu. She wears them all the time. They’re so loose, I guess you don’t have to squat down or be too careful. And I don’t reckon she wears panties. She must not. Yeah, she is something else. And her boys. They’re grown now, but you used to see them in town, and they wouldn’t have on any shoes. Didn’t matter if it was freezing out.”
Years later, the Hinkleys made their way into the newspaper. It seemed that what the family lacked in footwear they made up for in Christmas lights. Their home was lit up to such an extend that it was deemed newsworthy by the Columbus Ledger-Inquirer, and they ran a story about the Hinkleys’ holiday decorations in the “Local” section, photo included.
Odds are good that the Hinkleys had been proud of the press their festive home received, but I had my doubts about the the paper’s reasons for highlighting the very unsophisticated family. It struck me as a prank of sorts, like when a group of cruel teenagers conspire to elect an awkward, friendless girl for prom queen. I don’t know. I could be wrong. Maybe the newspaper really liked the house. Their intentions cannot be known with certainty. Their impact, however, was undeniable.
The Hinkleys, emboldened by their fifteen minutes of fame in the local paper, decided to open up their holiday home to the public. To advertise, they had an eight-foot trailer sign placed in their yard.
“Merry Christmas! All are welcome!,” read the movable letters of the sign. An illuminated arrow spanning the top of the sign pointed would-be tourists toward their residence. It wasn’t as conspicuous as you’d think given the rest of the Christmas paraphernalia littering their yard (i.e. light up Mary and Joseph tethered to orange extension cords, 4 foot tall “candles” driven into the ground with spikes, strings of Christmas lights along gutter pipes, blinking reindeer, a plywood Winnie the Pooh in Santa hat leaned against the mailbox), but bold all the same.
In 1995 I took the Hinkleys up on their hospitality and went inside their home for the Christmas tour. I was a sophomore in college at the time, and college kids are want to use poor judgement, engage in risky behavior and make lots of bad decisions. This was one such bad decision.
It happened like this: I was home for Christmas break. My boyfriend, Todd, was visiting as well. He and I were driving back to my parent’s house after an evening out when we happened to drive past the Hinkley home.
“Take a look at that guy,” Todd said. He pointed out his window. It was one of the Hinkley boys, who was now 30. Or 60. It was hard to tell. Anyway, the Hinkley boy, whatever his age, was out in his yard. He was dressed in full Santa regalia (sans boots) waving at traffic. He had stationed himself next to the trailer sign and was inviting any and every motorist on Manchester Expressway to pull into his family’s driveway. And “inviting” is probably too subtle a word for the gestures he used. Let’s go with “demanding;” he was demanding that every passerby visit. If you have ever seen a traffic cop at a busy intersection direct motorists to a detour, you can sort of imagine the authority and insistence with which this barefoot Santa ushered cars onto his property.
“Todd, lets go! We have to go, it’ll be hilarious,” I said. At my insistence, Todd slowed down, flipped on his turn signal, and pulled into the Hinkley’s yard.
The tires made a rumbling sound in the gravel of the steep driveway as we drove toward the house. “Santa” ran up the hill alongside the car, such was his eagerness to greet us.
“Just go in through the front,” said the Hinkley boy. He pointed toward the small porch with his cigarette. “You don’t gotta knock.”
The Hinkley yard smelled faintly of diesel fuel. The lights and decorations which seemed excessive from the road were nightmarish up close, and what had seemed, at the onset, like a hilarious jaunt suddenly felt like a grim, foolish outing.
Todd and I ascended the three steps that lead up to the porch and let ourselves inside. Hand in hand. Prayers on our lips.
The home was small. It was crowded with people, cluttered with Christmas, but if I am to be honest, it was really pretty clean.
We started the tour by circumnavigating the dining room table. The Hinkleys had put the leaf in the table in order to accommodate more decorations, and the decorations were bizarre. Most memorable to me were the cups. They had taken several small, clear plastic cups, the sort used by Baptists for communion, inverted them, and had glued little googly eyes and pom pom noses on them to make faces. I didn’t know what the cups were suppose to be. I still don’t know. Reindeer? Elves? They were faces. That is what they were. Clear Christmas faces. Twenty of them. Maybe more. Clear Christmas faces in a field of cottonball snow.
Someone offered us punch. We said no. We said it in unison and in a tone we’d later use on our children when they got too close to electrical cords or dog droppings. No!!!
We followed the crowd to the living room where snowmen, nutcrackers, elves, Santas, and angels stood, shoulder to shoulder, on the end tables, on plant stands, across windowsills, on top of the television (which was on).
I exchanged knowing glances with several other visitors. Each of us felt simultaneously confused, frightened and embarrassed. Each of us held tightly to our purses. Held our tongues. Held our breath.
Todd and I left as soon as was polity possible. We jogged through the “festive” obstacle course that was the Hinkley yard, reached our car and jumped when, out of nowhere, the Hinkley Santa appeared.
“Y’all can’t leave,” he said. He was leaning on our car. “Y’all ain’t seen the shed.”
“That’s okay,” Todd said. “Thank you. We have somewhere to be.”
“Oh, it wont take long.” He dropped his cigarette to the ground, rubbed out the embers with his bare foot, and motioned toward a small, portable aluminum building.
“The shed” (in addition to being a splendid name for a horror movie) was where the Hinkleys stored their massive collection of Christmas decor. There was really no room in the modest home for storing all of their seasonal decorations.
The shed, January through October, was filled to the brim, but there was a bit more room at Christmas time what with the bulkier items (looking at you, Mary, Joseph and Winnie the Pooh) out of the way. For this reason, “the shed” became site two of the tour.
Folding tables were set up and pushed against the walls of the dark shed, and each of the tables was covered with Christmas decorations. Specifically, each of the tables was full of musical, motorized Christmas decorations: Plastic carousels that spin, flash, and play “Jinglebells.” Plush Mickey and Minnie dolls that rock back and forth in rocking chairs on their own (and at a frantic pace) as “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” plays. Penguins that ice skate in figure eights across a lake of frozen plastic to the tune of “Let it Snow.”
Every Christmas song you have ever heard played in the shed that night. And all at once. In different keys. Everything spun, rocked, descended and ascended. Everything blinked and flashed.
Hinkley Santa proudly motioned to the finer aspects of the Christmas shed. I may or may not have started crying. Todd clutched his pocketknife. And then, as if by Christmas miracle, The Hinkley boy let us leave.
I tell this story not to entertain, but to warn. If you and your family are flagged down by an aggressive, shoeless Santa while driving down Manchester Expressway, keep on driving. Curiosity has a way of getting the best of us, so we must remind ourselves, and each other, that there are some things better left unseen. Like a grown woman’s feet as she grocery shops. And the inside of the house of a family who thought to put Snoopy and a snowman next to a manger where a 60-watt baby Jesus is sleeping.