Memories—in the end they are what we are left with. Perhaps a bit unreliable, at least as far as the finer details are concerned; we may unconsciously slip in an item, or maybe take something away. The brain, you see, has a marvelous ability to make sense of what we have perceived. It could be, as we have been told so often, that the collected memories tell the story of our lives. Perhaps, instead, it is really the case that the memories have been re-shaped to fit the scaffold that we have built to hold the story that is our life. Maybe it could be either, depending on who you are. No matter.
Who knows what’s beyond the next door–danger or opportunity; happiness or strife? Either way, you have a choice: stay or go. To stay means you can take comfort, secure in the knowledge of what’s to come and content in the choice to continue with the status quo. To go requires you to shed the comfortable cowl you have fashioned; to take a chance. What’s beyond the door could, in the end, be the source of future happiness or it could lead to your undoing. Intimidating, yes, but we can draw courage from the fact that we do not have to make the journey alone if we choose not to. There are always the Others: family, friends from school, work or play and, increasingly in this connected world, those whose connection to us travels through that electronic conduit we know as the Internet.
December has just begun. On the Eastern Edge of North America we have just experienced our first snow of the season. Outside everything is coated in white. It won’t last. Here on the Avalon, December snow is a transient thing; something that serves to move us away from the Autumn habits and toward preparing for the Winter that’s just around the corner. It will change just after Christmas.
Christmas! A time so filled with tradition, expectation, wonder, happiness and, yes, loss or sadness too. A time of memories; ones that the view of snow-covered ground on a frosty Saturday morning can resurrect.
But are all the details correct or has time reshaped a few to fit the narrative to the sense that’s been drawn from it over the intervening four decades? Who knows…
The little tinsel tree, ordered from the Simpsons’ catalogue way back when we lived on Red Island, had been set up and decorated. It was flimsy—you had to know exactly where to put each decoration lest the branches collapse—but it served. No lights on the house. In those days they had not, yet, become as popular as they are today. Nonetheless we had done what we needed to and judged the house decorated for Christmas. A little tree—enough.
We were fed. Mary had brought up a pot of soup and doughballs (you may know them as dumplings). The Whiffens, though of modest means too, always saw to it that we got frequent relief from Dad’s slopscoutch. He tried, but the old school teacher would be the first to admit that we all have our strengths and our weaknesses and housework was not his strength. Mom usually did that but she was not at home this Christmas. Churchill’s ‘black dog’ was her companion too and she needed to be somewhere else for treatment. It was not the first time, nor would it be the last. We coped.
We were all cleaned up. The oil stove downstairs provided heat to most of the house, along with hot water, courtesy of the convection coil that Gordon had fashioned by bending copper pipe around the utility pole. The coil was set down in the stove and water flowed from the bottom of a 30 gallon tank, next to the stove, through the coil and up to the top of the tank. It gave about 10 good hot gallons at a go; enough for two baths if you didn’t fill the tub too far. It worked—at least until sometime every February when the water line froze. From then until April or so it would be buckets of water hauled from the well…another story.
Our beds were warmed too. The electric heaters were still a year or two away but Dad, inventive as always, had a solution. The flat iron would be left on the stove top and, just before bedtime, he would bring it upstairs, pull back the bed sheets and iron them. That, along with the hot water bottle and the eiderdown, meant a toasty bed and a good night’s sleep.
Oh, one of us was sick, maybe both; can’t quite recall the details. It was either chicken pox or German measles. One of us had it and the other was just getting over it. That didn’t help.
So how do you get to sleep when it’s Christmas Eve and your Mom’s at hospital so very far away? You listen to the train wind its way along the track up there in the country. You can hear it first as it comes through Goobies and the deep rumble builds—a bit—through the Jacks Pond fault. As it passes through the La Manche overpass and skirts its way around the Placentia Bay turn the rumbles fade to nothingness, and hopefully you fade to dreams. No difference. The train will not be taking you. It’s all just too far.
Yes, there were gifts that Christmas. But they were small—tokens mainly. Dad was, like I said, Inventive. We didn’t generally hang stocking in my house. Dad’s long johns were sometimes hung up. Two legs—two children. Neither Dad’s nor Mom’s own Christmas traditions included Santa. So ubiquitous today in the Western World, it’s easy to forget that the tradition is fairly new. Growing up in Ireland, Mom’s focus was on the religious aspect of the Holiday. Growing up on a remote island in Newfoundland, Dad’s was a unique mix of religious and home-grown traditional. To us it was about church, family and having fun—when we were whole, that is. The gifts, though, were treasured, played with and cared for. That year memory recalls a Doctor’s kit, little model houses and for sis, dolls. And books…the best of all.
Cake, too with its double cap of icing: marzipan covered with normal white, and Christmas pudding, both courtesy of Grannie Mac and Grando. The Christmas parcel would have arrived from Ireland sometime in mid-December. The copies of ‘The Beano’ and ‘The Dandy’ would, of course, have been read right away…over and over…but the rest would have been put away until Christmas morning. Treats! The Fry Cadbury factory was not too far from my grandparent’s house and Grannie Mac constantly reminded us of the value of using real jersey milk in the chocolate that came from there. She was right.
But Christmas dinner?
Santa may have not played a big part in our Christmas but dinner certainly did. In Dad’s youth it would likely have been built around Salt Beef and game: partridge or maybe goose, along with the garden vegetables. In Mom’s tradition, “who knows?” we never spent Christmas in Ireland. Since the Americans had built the bases at Goose Bay, Stephenville, St. John’s and Argentia, they’d successfully replaced the centerpiece with Turkey. Mmmm—the USA does have some great ideas!
Suffice it to say Dad would not be cooking turkey. Not that we really expected it. Our little family understood one another; we’d cope. There would be something else. Not something to look forward to, maybe, but, as always we would be ok.
A gentle knock. Dad answered the door and came back in a few minutes later with a large plate, which he placed in the oven. He proceeded to set the table. A look out the window. A tiny figure was treading back slowly towards her house next door.
Mrs. Wyse. [real name :>) ]
Like us, the Wyse’s, too, were transplants; resettled from Indian Harbour. An elderly couple, they operated a little shop. Not quite childless, they’d had a hand in raising the Little Silver One that had accompanied Mr. W. home from Portugal so many years ago, but he never visited. Like the Whiffens, like all of us, they, too, were not that well off but they had thought of the little family next door and had spared time and food for us. The gentle little soul that was Mrs. Wyse had just made her way down the path to our house. Quietly and without ceremony, she had dropped off a precious little gift that would make our Christmas as good as any other. Duck with all the trimmings. First and only time, but on that day, the best possible gift.
And it was a good Christmas—everything is relative if you so-choose to view it.
This is not meant to be a sad story. It is not meant to stir up any wistful longing for simpler times. It is certainly not meant to lament any perceived loss during childhood. It just was.
All things—good and bad—are transient. Today’s joy slips away; fades. Tomorrow’s sorrow: it, too passes; all that’s needed is the strength and the will to continue.
And continue it did. Our dear, sweet, gentle mom, in due course, came home and we were, again for a time, whole. More memories—fonder ones; times of outward expressions of love, of laughter …another time. They are both gone now, Mom and Dad. Not forgotten. Their spirit still exists through their two children and six grandchildren.
And the Whiffens? Mr. and Mrs, sadly, are gone but they live on through their four children and twelve grandchildren. There are great grandchildren and in time there will be more; all are doing well.
The Wyses? Mr. W. departed just a couple of years later on—colon cancer; he fought it bravely, stubborn old goat that he always was. Mrs. W. Passed away decades ago. The Little Silver One’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren live on—doing well.
Until Mrs. W. moved away to Placentia to be with family each and every Christmas after the passing of Mr. W., though, our little family of four was increased by one on Christmas Day. After Christmas Mass, around noon she would make her way down the lane and join us for turkey, the trimmings and of course the cake and pudding from Ireland.
Payback? No. It does not need to be seen that way and it wasn’t in this case. While reciprocity may function half-decently as the backbone for economic theory it falls pretty flat when applied to the encounters we all experience as part of our life journeys. There are so many Others and we may either choose to recognize them as fellow travelers or simply obstacles and/or instruments. Making the latter choice may well result in individual gain—look at the Many you know whose outward appearance of success has been built through taking advantage of others. To them, perhaps, reciprocity matters. But do they have Others in their lives? But then there are the Rest. To the Rest, Others matter. Period. That’s the way it was in the story just related. Our little family was temporarily broken. We would have made it through by ourselves—let there be no doubt in that. The fact is, though, we did not have to. Others, not needing any prodding, simply saw a situation in which they could make a difference and they chose to act on it, not expecting any reward or payback of any kind. Our little family had a difficult time and we made it through, stronger than expected, thanks to the grace and generosity of others. Others who stood to gain nothing.
It was mentioned earlier that gifts were given but that they were small, tokens. Perhaps, upon reflection, it would be wise to add to that. Gifts can be of many kinds. As a people we seem to spend more time reflecting on the physical gifts; the ones we buy or make—and often with great care and love, no doubt. Through it all, though, perhaps the most valuable ones of all, the ones that endure, are the ones from the spirit; the gifts of self.