Dixie and Hal at home in
The old Carter estate on the corner of downtown
McLemoresville fairly hums with the bustle of cooking and
decorating as Christmas nears, the happy sounds of family
cheer and friendly banter a welcome respite from the
growing pains of the past year or so, as the historic
building's facade has been transformed to add more room
inside as well as spacious porches overlooking the beauty
of the landscape.
The biggest change is the replacement of the double
gazebos that once graced the back and side yards, where
now stands a music room, generously proportioned and full
of light from ample windows and doors that can be opened
on either side during warmer months to allow fresh breezes
to caress friends and family gathered around the baby
The house has a life of its own, or rather, a life
bestowed upon it by generations of the Carter family who
were born and raised within its confines, including
92-year-old Hal Carter, his daughter Dixie, her older
brother Hal Jr., and younger sister Midge. All were born
in the same, large downstairs bedroom suite where Hal Sr.
stays when the Carters are home for a visit from Los
Angeles, where Dixie and husband Hal Holbrook make their
home along with her father.
Hal Sr. recalls the day Dixie was born, when his own
father, "Papa", came to see the new baby. "Here's what he
said about Dixie when she had just come into the world,"
he relates proudly, "He said, 'That baby of yours has the
brightest, most intelligent eyes of any newborn baby that
I ever saw.'"
His observation was prophetic, with Dixie growing up to be
both intelligent and gifted in drama and singing.
The family lived in the old home place until Dixie was 12,
when they moved to Huntingdon, where one of Hal's general
stores was located and where the children could attend
high school from which Dixie graduated as valedictorian.
Dixie is quick to defend the history of the McLemoresville
school system, however. "Let me remind everyone that the
school up here was an excellent school and even though
there were three grades in one room we learned something,"
she says in as strong a voice as her genteel nature
allows. "When my father was in school it used to be called
the McLemoresville Collegiate Institute."
The Institute, which closed in 1932, offered courses in
Greek, Latin, Cicero and Plutarch, plane and solid
geometry, trigonometry and algebra, according to
information Dixie gleaned from an old school catalog.
"When you got out of McLemoresville Collegiate Institute
you had a better education than these kids graduating from
the University of Tennessee right this minute - or any
other schools around," she continues. "I have two girls
(Gina and Mary Dixie) who went to Harvard College and I
feel pretty sure that a graduate of McLemoresville
Collegiate Institute had gone higher in learning than the
children who are graduating from Harvard College. It was a
high school but when they came out of it they had a very
broad liberal arts education and, except for language, the
education was better, I believe, than what is being turned
out on an ordinary regular basis of schools today."
After moving to Huntingdon, the Carters retained ownership
of the old home place though the home Hal's brother, Leon,
owned next door was destroyed by fire. Along with the
home, many issues of the mid-1800's magazine "The Youth's
Companion" went up in smoke, as did trunks of old
clothing, which Dixie says would have contained uniforms
from both the Union and Confederate armies of the Civil
War. "The Carters fought for the north and the Hillsmans,
my mother's family, fought for the south," she explains.
The home in front of the Carter homestead, which once sold
for $100, was eventually added to the Carter estate to
remain a lasting tribute to the old neighborhood. "It was
my dream to have that house as a part of this property,"
Dixie says gently of the home that now serves as a
guesthouse. Later, Dixie also purchased the home at the
rear of the property, which served for a time as the
headquarters of a "sweet, nice little newsletter" -
"Beautiful News" - a project that was overseen by her
brother until his health declined, after which, Dixie
says, she didn't have the heart to continue. Sadly, he
died a year and a half ago. The house now doubles as a
guesthouse and a warehouse for Dixie's yoga videos and
mail order business one can peruse online at
The red barn in back of the main house is the same barn
that sheltered the family's cattle in Dixie's youth. "I
remember being in that barn watching my daddy milk one
day," she relates in her eloquently charming demeanor,
"and I said to him, 'What would she do if I pinched that
bump right here on her hind leg, Daddy?' And he was in his
suit and tie ready to go to Huntingdon to work in his
store - he wasn't paying much attention to his little
toddler daughter - so he said something like, 'Oh I don't
know, Precious, what she'd do.'
"I reached over and pinched the cow on that bump - well,
she let out a kick that sent me and daddy and the milk can
all flying back into the feed bin. I remember Daddy put
his arm out to protect me and he split his beautiful navy
blue jacket right down the middle. He didn't spank me; it
just tickled him. He just picked me up and he laughed and
turned the bucket back up and finished milking. He wasn't
even angry; he has the most remarkable temperament."
Though the interior of the house has been changed over the
years to create larger, more open spaces, the layout of
the original home is easily envisioned by means of large,
attractive beams that traverse the ceiling and that were
once part of the walls separating the living room, dining
room and hallway. Dixie's compelling descriptions complete
the vision as she describes with graceful, expansive
sweeps of her arms the double fireplace that once warmed
the dining and living rooms, and the hallway that once hid
the graceful staircase from ready view. The hallway, Dixie
confesses, is where she and the other children learned to
ride their bicycles.
The living room, however, was the heart of the home, save
the kitchen where Dixie's mother, Gina, spent most of her
time, following up one meal with preparations for the
The living room, Dixie shares in quiet awe, "was the room
where, if we had our chores done and were caught up with
our homework, we were allowed to read, which was our
favorite pastime, reading." She whispers the final word,
"reading", as if it held magical powers.
"And the way it was put by my mother, so cleverly, was
that reading was the reward," she continues, quickly
slipping into the past as she envisions the room of
"Father would be sitting in his big, velvety armchair by
the fire," she says, her eyes glazed by the years between
her vision and reality. "We all had places where we could
curl up and read - sofa chairs, the dining room table...
There was a big stove called the Warm Morning stove in the
kitchen. Mother was in there most of the time cooking
Preparation for the Christmas fare began right after
Thanksgiving, when Gina would chop huge amounts of fruit
which she then placed into a big vat that was turned every
24 hours. The fermented fruit was destined to become
fruitcakes, many of which were given as gifts.
The week before Christmas, the women and children of the
family pitched in to make the Christmas cakes. "My
grandmother, during her lifetime, contributed the orange
cake, "says Dixie in a way that makes "orange" seem
synonymous with "delectable."
"It was the best orange cake I ever tasted, very moist,"
she continues in mouth-watering detail. "My grandmother
would - every day - she would go and pour this fresh
orange juice that had some sugar in it, I guess -
confectioners sugar - and she would pat it down and pour
more of that... that thing was so good, I can't even
describe to you what a confection that orange cake was."
Her mother's masterpiece was the coconut cake. The
children helped grate the fresh coconut after drinking the
"coconut milk" from within the shell, with Gina completing
the job when the pieces got too small, in order to ensure
no knuckles were included in the recipe.
The coconut cake was topped with seven-minute frosting
that Dixie declares takes at least 15 to 20 minutes to
make. "You go around in a double boiler with an electric
beater forever - and ever - and ever," she says
laboriously, "until that stuff peaks up, and if you do it
just right, it isn't hard, it isn't thick, it's just as
light as air and peaks all over the place when you're
putting it on." The snow-white peaks frosted a four-layer
Lady Baltimore cake which was then covered with the
fresh-grated coconut for a dessert that was as
impressively beautiful as it was delicious.
A black walnut cake and date-nut cake (with pecans,
English walnuts and dates) plus leftover ice box pudding
(made with pecans, pineapples and English walnuts) from
Hal Sr.'s December 3rd birthday, completed the traditional
The children pooled their savings to order Christmas
presents from ads on cereal boxes, the most important of
which was for their mother. Dixie recalls one year when
her brother gathered his sisters together, whispering
excitedly, "Look at this! Look at this! Look at this!"
The girls shared his wonder at the ad for a pin that was a
sword, the hilt of which was adorned with a red stone the
children knew must be a ruby.
"So we each got our savings and put in to get it, and do
you know, my mother treated it like it was," she said, her
voice rich with wonder.
More serious shopping took place at her father's general
stores, where Dixie still isn't sure if they paid full
price, but simply knows that money saved from chores was
used to buy each other's presents.
The children called their Aunt Helen (her mother's baby
sister) in Memphis and asked her to shop for something
special for their parents, in addition to the cereal box
gifts. "We always said we'd pay her back and never did,"
Dixie says with off-handed humor.
On Christmas Eve, one of the most special treats of all
would occur when "Aunt Helen would come roaring in here.
She would come roaring in here in her big Cadillac with
fins on it on Christmas Eve," Dixie describes eloquently,
careening into a make-believe driveway. " 'Ohhh! Aunt
Helen is here!' And she would have on a fur coat! And she
would smell so good! And she would come in the house with
gifts that were wrapped in a way that we never saw except
when she came in from Memphis... It was like glamour come
floating through the door! And she would hug us and kiss
us and we would have some supper, and Daddy would be at
the store because Christmas Eve was the big business time,
and then we would get put to bed after we'd written our
letters to Santa Claus and put them in our stockings.
Before running upstairs to bed, the girls would stand
before the fireplace to get warm while their mother and
grandmother held blankets by the fire. Then, they would
all rush up the stairs to the cold, unheated bedroom where
Dixie and Midge rolled up in the heated blankets "like
spoons" while the women piled about six quilts on top.
When it was very cold, a hot water bottle or heated brick
added warmth beneath the covers.
"We would lie in bed on Christmas Eve and hear Santa Claus
come down the chimney, and we would say, 'He's coming he's
coming!'" Dixie recalls in an excited stage whisper. "I
don't know what we were hearing but we thought we were
hearing Santa Claus. We would finally drift off to sleep
and in the morning we would get up and tip-toe into Mom
and Dad's bedroom and say, 'Did Santa Claus come? Can we
go downstairs?' and they would beg for us to wait for just
another half an hour," shares Dixie, back in time once
more. "We were finally released to run down those stairs
right there and... Ahhh!" she exclaims, frozen in time,
conjuring scenes of Christmases past with presents piled
under the tree that stood in the front window of the
"We didn't ask for much but it always very particular, and
we never knew how Santy knew what we were going to want...
It was magic," she says in a voice drenched in its own
Christmas dinner was turkey, country ham, sweet potato
casserole made with oranges and marshmallows on top,
asparagus casserole, Waldorf salad, a pineapple and nut
salad made with sour cream, and cranberry jelly and
relish, both homemade. Then there was the dressing, that
Dixie insists had "no onions - no celery - no chestnuts -
no mushrooms - no nothing" but was made of homemade
cornbread and homemade biscuits together with the juice
from the cooked turkey that was placed into two or three
heavy iron skillets and baked in the oven. "It developed a
terrific, thick, divine crust - that's all I ever wanted
was that dressing," she declares.
Very finely minced giblets went into gravy that was served
with the small biscuits Gina made that, Dixie says
(consequent to their size) were mostly mouth-watering
crust. "My mother was the greatest cook I've ever run into
in any restaurant I've ever been to - London, Paris, New
York or wherever," she says convincingly.
Christmas afternoons were spent curled up by the fire with
boxes of chocolate covered cherries and lots of books to
read. "We would receive a box of chocolate covered
cherries - each!" Dixie explains, "Christmas day was the
only day in our life our mother let us eat all candy we
The rest of Christmas vacation was spent in relative
leisure in days Dixie says were "very low on the chore
department and very high on the candy, because we also got
Christmas candy in the stocking - candy, fruit, nuts, and
books, books, books!"
Returning to the present day, Christmas this year will be
extra special as both Ginna and Mary Dixie will be coming
home, along with Mary Dixie's fiancé Steve Kempf, who was
her classmate at Harvard, from Chicago. Dixie's husband,
Hal, will share in her good fortune as his own daughter,
Eve will also be coming with her fiancé Steve Guevera. It
will be a full house with nephews John Carter, his wife
UnChu and daughter Margaret (from Huntingdon), James
Carter and wife Emelia, with daughter Adaline and baby Hal
(named after Dixie's father and brother), Horace Carter
and wife Missy with children Joe and Gus, Margo and sister
Ruth and Wesley Summers from Memphis and Margo's niece and
nephew Margaret and Randy Jefferson, her nephew Luke
Heiskell and his family and cousin Ann Gaines from Bowling
Green, Kentucky and friends Seawell and Marci Brandaugh
from Nashville as well as architect Hoyte Johnson from
Dixie career continues with her latest Broadway role
upcoming in the play "Paper Doll" in which she will assume
the role of author Jacqueline Susann (Every Night,
Josephine!, Valley of the Dolls, The Love Machine, Once is
Not Enough.) "It's pretty close to a two-person play about
Jackie Susann and her husband Irving Mansfield," Dixie
summarizes. The play opens on Broadway in April after a
March preview at the Long Wharf Theatre in Newhaven,
Similar to Dixie's mother's recipe, Old-fashioned Ice Box
pudding will add charm to any Christmas feast.
Ice Box Pudding
* 1/4 lb. butter
* 3 eggs
* 1 lb. pecans
* 1 lb. English walnuts
* 1 cup sugar
* 1 large can crushed pineapple
* 1 lb. vanilla wafers
Cream butter and sugar, then add the eggs and beat until
creamy and light. Add the pineapple and finely chopped
nuts. Line dish with vanilla wafers, then spread a layer
of filling, another layer of vanilla wafers, then more
filling until all is used. Let stand in ice box or cold
place for 24-48 hours. May be served with whipped cream.