Category Archives: Childhood memories

Ethan’s Nest

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For a few minutes today I had a total out-of-body experience. While that was happening I was lying on the floor in the middle of the living room, inhabiting another body altogether. The thing was, my living room no longer looked like my living room at all either. I am usually such a “place for everything and everything in its place” kind of person, whereas this room was the total opposite.
The beautiful tree-embroidered throw pillows that I had taken so long shopping for, until unexpectedly finding them in a high-end consignment shop, the perfectly coordinated quilted ones that my daughter had just given me, and the two costly coverlets that were also treasured gifts, were all jumbled up on the floor in a tussle. Mixed in to the muddle was a scattering of multi-coloured stuffed toys, some worn-out crocheted throws that had seen better days, and the most special component of all— my little nephew Ethan’s treasured “blanky”.
I was no longer “Aunt Vonnie”. By some amazing feat I had somehow become a bird! A bird, not only in Ethan’s imagination, but amazingly, in my own as well. I had by some unaccountable surrender of my will become a rather large miracle of totally unexpected, late-in-life, fowl fertility!
The last thing I remember of my human existence before that fowl transformation was pecking away on my computer keyboard where I had only moments before— or at least I think it was only moments— been showing Ethan pictures, on face book, of all of his aunts and uncles, cousins, and grandparents. Then he got down off his chair and started playing away on the floor, behind me. I decided to answer a few emails, and the next thing I knew, I was being summoned.
“You, lay down here, Aunt Vonnie! You are a bird; dis is your nest. Now, you get in de nest! You are de Mummy bird!.” That’s when I turned around and caught my first glimpse of the newly constructed “nest”. It was a work of art! It was all that a three year-old’s beautiful mind would imagine a nest to be. It was…………..um……. it was um…..well…. After the shock of how much my living room had changed in what felt to me like all of thirty seconds, it was delightful!
I did as I was told. I lowered my rather inflexible creaky-kneed self to the floor ungracefully, and rolled myself into the nest. After that Ethan shoved the walls in around my awkwardly large form, patiently restacking pillows, and repositioning blanket mounds to form a rather free-form nest, shaped a lot like a giant amoeba. Then, suddenly,  he put his finger to his lips and said excitedly, “Shh! I hear peeping!…. It’s pecking!…Peep! Peep! Peep!”…… “It’s pecking! It’s getting out! Your baby is getting out!”
All at once, he handed me his stuffed doggy and said “Here it is! “Here is your baby bird!” I giggled under my breath. Apparently this was a rather near-sighted bird mid-wife who had come to my aid! What a “Switched at Birth” story this would make in Birdsweek magazine!
Just then, Ethan suddenly decided to become a mother bird himself. He squatted down and began to do what he thought would be the appropriate sound effects to accompany the laying of an egg…. a really LARGE egg by the sounds of it. Finally, he turned to me and said (as kindly as could be expected of any future bird-mother during a difficult labour, under rather over-crowded circumstances) “Aunt Vonnie, Get out of my nest! You are not a bird anymore!”
And so I cooperated. I surrendered my warm and cozy abode to someone who needed it more.

Plates Will Fly!

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I love to write and I have taken great joy in putting pen to paper since my early childhood. Perhaps I should say that in those days, in the Fifties, it was, at first, a  big, fat, red carpenter’s pencil, stubby and flat-sided, and the paper was usually old paper grocery bags, the insides of empty cereal boxes, or anything else that was of little value. (I learned by bitter experience that wallpaper doesn’t fall into that category.)  That first pencil, I “borrowed” from my father, who often kept one tucked behind his ear as he worked out measurements or put down marks where he wanted to saw next, whenever he was working on a project. God provided fathers with ears, not just to hear, I’m sure, but also to keep them from cursing at their children. Where else would that pencil be safe from  covetous little fingers? Well, in truth, my dad was not a cursing man anyway, but just to be on the safe side he still kept his pencil there.

Once I arrived on the scene, there were two kids in our family; but by the time I married and moved out of the house, there were eight. In large families, it is always difficult to maintain ownership of any of your things for very long. A favorite doll gets quickly adopted by a little sister (if it doesn’t lose an arm or a leg in the transaction); that first bottle of “grown-up” perfume becomes an everlasting drawer-scent in a dresser —soon destined for an unappreciative  brother’s use. Unfortunately with another little bed, moved into your room, it just takes up too much space. Your most treasured books end up as a pile of scissors’ fodder ( even for blunt-tipped ones, no less!) Dresses are inevitably borrowed, unasked, or even shortened, unasked, when a sister has a “really important occasion”, and the family’s finances are tight. “Lost” “snagged” “ripped” “gouged” “broken” “stained” “spilled” and “run-over”— these words are the true driving force behind a child becoming a writer. When you are young, your writing is just about the only thing that nobody else attempts to lay claim to. It is the only thing that is truly your own.

So it  was, that my love of writing evolved. I moved on to thinner, longer, yellow pencils, of course, to ancient nib pens for learning perfect handwriting “the old fashioned way”, in a one-room schoolhouse with a crotchety teacher; to refillable fountain pens with blue, black, or turquoise ink; to ballpoints; to fine-tip markers and then eventually the computer keyboard.  Perhaps you noticed that I  left “typewriter” off my list… a deliberate shunning, actually.

My first attempt at learning to type was in Grade Ten; I was anxious and uncoordinated from the outset. It didn’t help that I was two weeks late starting classes— an accepted practice among farm families in the tobacco belt. Generally parents required their older kids’ help until the harvest was complete and the school boards accepted it. Although in all other subjects I quickly caught up, unfortunately,  in typing I never got up to speed. Literally! On my final exam I got a humiliating 26%! When I told my parents “My fingers got jammed in the keys!” in all likelihood it was a false memory of that event; it is more likely that it was actually a panic attack. But that 26% isn’t a false memory! It still appears on an aging yellow report card, in a rusty old tin box in the back of my crawl space.

 Even more traumatic than the mark was the fact that it was used to factor my academic “Final Average” for that year. This was the cause of deep mortification, and teenage angst. To this day I sometimes use it as an excuse for the throwing of plates and silverware at my siblings.(Back then, of course, not now— I’ve finally mellowed out some.)

Like me, several of my siblings love to write and, in fact, they write very well. Sometimes they write poems, and sometimes stories of shared family history. At other times it’s simply a story to make everybody laugh, or to lift someone in particular up. And some of them write in an attempt to make things better in the world at large. Each of my siblings mean so much to me that words cannot really express it. But just let one of them try to borrow one of my stories, and say that it was they who got bitten on the leg by Aunt Grace’s  chihuahua,  or yelled at for loudly singing a hymn in the schoolhouse bathroom, or that it was their eye that the baby robin pooped in— then plates will fly! Mark my words: Plates will fly!

The Other F Word

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After little brother Jim learned one of the worst words from the primers he was banned from riding the horse in the field.

Little brother Jimmy picked up a very bad word from the primers and was banned from riding the horse in the field.

Growing up on a tobacco farm in the midst of the kind and gentle people of Caradoc Township, near Melbourne, Ontario, we still sometimes heard particular words that were so fraught with emotion when they were uttered that their impact was never forgotten. One of the worst of them started with the letter F. Any kid in the 50’s and 60’s caught saying that one usually ended up with tears in his eyes. The tears were partly in reaction to his personal humiliation at the hands of his mother, and partly from gagging on the luxurious lather on the Lifebuoy bar being jammed into in his mouth. I say “his mouth” because the soap tasters tended to be boys. In tobacco farming areas there was another F word that had even more power. This one could even bring tears to the eyes of grown men—that word was frost.

Imagine waking early one morning to discover that every hour of your work, every hour of your wife’s work, every hour of your kids’ work— labour that brought everyone to the brink of exhaustion for weeks on end— was all for nothing.

Imagine that every dollar you spent for the seed, for the greenhouse soil, and for sterilizing the seed beds was wasted. The cost of labourers to work alongside your family pulling the seedlings up from their beds, planting them in the fields, and hoeing them carefully is all lost the moment the sun comes up.

The temperature unexpectedly dropped to zero overnight, and there is no way to get irrigation lines set up fast enough to spray away the ice crystals on even an acre of your crop. The second the sun heats up the ice crystals the cells in the leaves will rupture. In moments the green of a hopeful beginning turns as black as despair. Frost is a dirty word too—one of the really bad ones.

One year when frost hit our farm early enough in the growing season to allow for replanting a second time all the other farmers in the area had been frozen out too. Whatever seedlings they still had left in their greenhouses they were in need of themselves. Our greenhouse was totally depleted from planting a larger number of acres that year and Dad had to search far and wide before he was finally able to locate plants. He would have to go all the way to Port Burwell near Lake Erie to get them.

Hearing of our troubles, my cousin Barbara Smith volunteered to come up from Pittsburgh to help out with replanting. She hauled one truckload after another of heavy wooden boxes packed full of plants. They had healthy hefty root balls loaded with rich black soil so much fewer fit into each box. The marathon of round trips continued for several days in order to give a fresh supply to the planters until the crop was in the ground again. It was amazing that, despite the much earlier planting season near the lake, this farmer still had enough seedlings in good condition for us to replant. It was definitely an answer to prayer. The plants may have come at a high price that year, but they were definitely worth it. Otherwise we would not have had a crop at all.

If the harvest started in the last week of July, by the end of the first or second week in September we would usually be finished if we had not had many days too stormy for working. Every day off work was a day later that a tobacco farmer’s older kids would be delayed in joining their classmates at school. This was always a trial for us, but worse still was if we were late enough to be getting into the frost danger zone again. The break even point in tobacco growing often happened only at the tail end of the harvest because it was such a costly enterprise. This was when we would earn the money to cover living expenses for our family of ten. That money would still be tied up until the finished baled product was sold at auction in the winter months and the bank was repaid, but at least we would know that it was coming.

Those farmers in our neighbourhood who grew other less frost sensitive crops, and those who raised animals that they would sell throughout the year may not have understood entirely what was at stake for our family should we lose a number of kilns’ worth of  tobacco. But this they did know—my father was always there for them in any crisis. Whether it was equipment break down, a barn fire, a grass fire, an illness, an injury or an unexpected death that called for the men to man up for one another, my dad, like the good and decent men of his generation, was always there. These men took over one another’s work loads when necessary, and they lent out their children as free labourers when the need arose. Every farm kid over ten had calluses in those years.

“Many hands make light work”— my grandfather Jim Stephenson’s favourite saying— was our family’s credo, and it seemed to matter very little how small the hands were. It was this shared social convention in our community that made it alright for the oldest four Stephenson kids, aged 14, 13, 12 and 11 to pick up corn for their neighbour Evan Howe for $2.oo a day in 1963 (with a nice sandwich lunch included.) Because Evan’s old and faltering combine had missed harvesting too much of his crop we were sent over to help. We weren’t there for the token payment—that was at best a fraction of what it was worth. It was done so that we could be a part of what was right and good in the time and place that we lived. It was this thinking that also made it alright for the Howe kids, and the Derbyshire kids to be out trudging up and down tobacco rows until 10:30 PM on a school night in early September.

Working by tractor light in the fields, and expecting no payment in return for shivering in the cold as the temperature dropped towards zero, all the volunteers had one goal in mind. Get it picked! Sloppy, sliding bundles of leaves were carried clumsily row to row by kids, by neighbours of both sexes, and even by old men like our Uncle Fred, my grandfather Jim’s brother, in the hope of reaching the boat before it got too far ahead of us.

Our hands and forearms were soon blackened by sticky tobacco tar as we added our armloads to those of the gang of “primers”— the half-dozen pickers who boarded with us during harvest time. Their own enormous bundles, almost a foot across at the stem end, put ours to shame but every little bit helped. They were all placed carefully in the boat, a box sled on runners pulled between two rows behind Jack the horse. At the end of the field the boats were quickly hooked on behind the tractor and raced to the kiln yard by my brother Keith, the boat driver. Here they were unloaded and the bundles stacked side by side on the ground, giving the appearance of cord wood from the stem side in the dim yellow circle of  light that the pole light gave off.

Somewhere in the field there was a brief but noisy interaction between Mom and Dad. Voices carried far on the cool night air. She was struggling to drive a tractor that she had never been on before and whenever she tried to slow down the jerking of accidental stops and starts made it hard for Dad. He was on the wagon behind her trying to stay upright. He was lighting bales of straw on fire and throwing them to the ground as close as he could get them to the rows that weren’t yet picked clean. These smouldering smudge fires would provide a smoky haze, a blanket of warmer air that just might be able to keep the air temperature underneath it above zero. As soon as Mom finished driving the tractor she raced into the house to prepare and bring out big thermos jugs of very hot, very sweet, milky coffee for one and all, even the kids. It was a night when all the rules seemed to have been thrown out the window.

Finally, when Dad felt that the tobacco that was picked and stacked would be all that we could pack into the kilns in the next day or so the priming was called to a halt. This stacking of tobacco on the ground for a subsequent marathon of filling kilns was a last ditch effort to salvage what we could. The grade of tobacco produced after curing it would be much lower than usual, but hopefully still saleable. Any stacked tobacco not in the kiln curing within two days time would rot. The spoilage would begin even earlier if the weather turned hot again.

That night was a moment in time that I will never forget— forged into something solid in my brain by the emotions of fear, excitement and gratitude (and in all likelihood a walloping jolt of caffeine as well.) Strangely I don’t remember the final outcome. Did all of the remaining crop freeze? Did some of it survive because of the smudge fires? Did we have money for new school clothes that year? Was there money to be able to get an allowance?

In the end I cannot remember anything that would reveal the answer. What I do remember is a house full of hushed people gathered around the kitchen and dining room tables helping themselves to the heaping trays of hastily made sandwiches, and plates full of cookies and donuts. Were they hushed because they knew there were little ones sleeping upstairs? Were they hushed because they already knew what tomorrow’s sun would bring?

People embraced each of my parents in turn as they left the house. Were they embracing them to instil a sense of hope, or was this being done to console them in their sorrow. This part of my memory is like water rippling under a bridge.

But of this much I am certain—those kind and gentle people of Caradoc Township were going home to their own houses that night with our concerns on their hearts. In the same way, their concerns would be on our hearts if ever the day came when their words could not be spoken without tears.

The Girls In Yellow Dresses

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Janice and Kathy (on right)

Janice and Kathy (on right)

There is nothing better than having baby sisters. I was blessed with three of them, Jeannie,  Kathy, and Janice. I also have another treasured sister, Marsha, who is almost a year older than me as well as three younger brothers, Keith, Jim, and Don.

I wanted to write a little here about a sweet memory of my two  youngest sisters,Kathy and Janice, after I found this picture of them in their matching yellow flower girl dresses. These were the little girls who were born after I’d finally grown up enough to be able to help with baby care, which happens very young in large families.

Disposable diapers weren’t commonly used in the  50’s or early 60’s,  so changing diapers involved using those very large diaper pins which could really inflict a painful injury if not handled deftly. Our Mom was of the two-pin school of thought— one on either side, rather than just one in the front. This involved twice the risk of injury, but by placing a couple of fingers inside the diaper, between the pin and the baby, the sharp pin would always hit your fingers first, rather than the baby’s torso if you were clumsy. It ensured a very speedy learning process. Of course, Mom didn’t just hand us a baby and say “Go to it!” She knew that Marsha and I had already learned to be extra cautious, by pinning diapers on our own baby dolls first.

Baby bottles, in those years, were limited to those simple glass bottles with the measurements stamped into them and rubber nipples attached with plastic rings. There were no high-tech bottles containing plastic bag inserts or special tube and valve systems then, to avoid the baby sucking in a lot of air if fed improperly. So even under the best circumstances, much more frequent burping was necessary.

While it might be much easier for a five year-old today, to properly bottle feed a baby sibling for his or her busy mother, back then we quickly learned the more complicated method in a big hurry. Our reasons were selfish. If we didn’t hold the bottle up high enough the baby would suck in and swallow air. If she swallowed air she would need to be burped a lot more often. If she wasn’t burped often enough she would scream a lot. If she screamed a lot, nobody would be having any fun! So each of us girls, in turn, learned to be little mothers to somebody younger, as the new babies came along.

The two pretty  little flower girls, in their flouncy yellow dresses, were like tiny princesses that day at our cousin Donna Lynne’s wedding. As a concession to agreeing to do the “very grown up job” of serving coffee and tea to the wedding guests, Marsha and I were each finally allowed to wear our first pair of nylon stockings. On the same day, Kathy and Janice were wearing their very last pair of fancy ruffled baby bloomers, under their bouncy crinolines.

Kathy and Janice at Donna Lynne and Reg Smith's wedding

Kathy and Janice at Donna Lynne and Reg Smith’s wedding

Marsha and I were probably as proud of them as Mom was that day. We too, felt a maternal pride in their angelic appearance and sweet conduct—and of our role in teaching them to hold their bouquets just so, and to step ever so lightly down the aisle in time to the music —neither too fast nor too slow— and to not pull off their fancy head bands because they were “Too scratchy!” or yank off their little white gloves because they were “Too tight!”

Yes, Janice Mary and Katherine Marie, I for one was very proud of both of  you on that day— just as much as I was when each of you joined me in the role of real motherhood a few decades later.

And now that you are both grandmothers… I find it almost impossible to believe, because in some ways you will always be my babies too!

My Christmas Collage (Part Three)

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Today I hope to complete the collage of Christmas memories that I have been working on for the last two posts. The stories that I have linked together and layered somewhat, one on top of the other, have so far had a common theme—disappointment. For that reason I imagine my collage in shades of blue. However, because I am a person who in no way lives my life in sombre tones. Trust me— there will be a splash of brightness there for all to see before I finish my creation.

Marsha,me,Keith, Jeannie, and cousins Dennis and Cindy.

Marsha,me,Keith, Jeannie, and cousins Dennis and Cindy

Buttons and Bows   Christmas is that time of year when people like to dress up in their gifts of Christmas finery— new ties, new sweaters, or fancy outfits bought for concerts or parties. It’s a time when people seem to want to give everyone the impression that all is right with the world— their particular piece of the world anyway. At our house when I was growing up there was one Christmas that is most memorable in that respect.

My father had recently bought the family farm from his father and we had traded houses with my grandparents. A brand new wood⁄ oil combination furnace had been installed to replace the ancient monstrosity in the basement, with its octopus arms of dangerous decrepit ductwork. Mom and Dad had been furiously painting and wallpapering for weeks so that the house could put on its best face too. It would finally be free of the sooty handprints and the coating of dust and ashes on every surface that the removal of the old furnace had caused.

We older girls had slept in pin curls all night in order to look our very best that day and we had put on our fancy dresses modelled after Snow White’s. Just before his side of the family arrived, Dad stoked the furnace up as high as he could with wood from our elm tree that had died a few years before. The house was warm and toasty as the heat from the giant turkey still roasting in the oven escaped from the kitchen and combined with that pumping out of the registers. But almost immediately we moved on from being warm to being hot.

Mom asked Dad to please hurry and open up some windows.That was how Dad discovered that every one of the windows was hopelessly jammed! Not a single one could be opened— they all had been painted shut! Even keeping the front, back, and side doors open to let in cold air was not enough for relief! Dad’s first big fire might as easily have been an enormous burning yule log!  We all began to perspire like Swedes in a sauna and soon our hair was as damp and limp as dirty dish rags. Within an hour of the relatives’ arrival, all the kids— cousins included, were stripped down to undershirts and shorts or slips. That year in particular there was no joy at all to be found in our buttons and bows.

Mistletoe, Ah Mistletoe   It was late December and I had a sweetheart. His Name was Rolly Rollason. He was a carefree adventurous fellow—never to be held back by the weather. He would arrive for Friday or Saturday night dates or visits, regardless of ice, snow, or freezing rain. One particular Saturday night, much later than my snoring parents would have approved of, we said our goodbyes and he went out to his car. I sneaked up the stairs past my parents’ room and went straight to bed.

Little did I know that down in the driveway the sub zero temperatures had done their work. Rolly could not get his car door lock to open. It had completely frozen up. Disturbing the sleeping household for something to thaw it out with was out of the question, so he got down on his knees and tried to warm up the lock by blowing into it. Perhaps fatigued by the lateness of the hour or in shifting positions to relieve the stony coldness in his knees, he faltered forward. Instantly his moist lips bonded with the sub-zero metal! With much courage he eventually freed himself! The next day he returned for Sunday dinner. From that day on, (perhaps due to my lack of discretion in releasing that information) the family jokingly has referred to Rolly as “Hot Lips Rollason”. Alas, that year, I was to find no  joy under the mistletoe.

fall and santa's farm market 041

The Christmas Tree    A few Christmases later, Rolly and I were a married couple with a mischievous crawling toddler underfoot. He was obsessed with plugs and cords and all things shiny and bright. We expressed our fears that he might electrocute himself or break an ornament and cut himself if we were to put a tree up. It was our brother-in-law Bob, who suggested an innovative solution. Why not put the tree inside the playpen? It was a practical manly solution, not aesthetically beautiful, but in fear for our baby Steven’s well being I agreed to it—as long as the tree was tall and skinny enough. When the task was completed we thought the tall skinny tree looked just fine— kind of like an exhibit in a Christmas tree museum, but it would do. We sat and enjoyed the lights and shiny ornaments for an hour or two after we completed the decorating and then headed off to bed.

The next morning when we entered the living room we were floored! In the heat of our little house the branches had dropped and the tall skinny tree had grown in girth by at least 50%! The tree was now jammed up against the outside perimeters and overflowing at the top like a  matronly primadonna with only enough money to buy confining undergarments for her lower half. Above that point it was wild abandon—a disproportionate abundance of the blinged-up top-most regions! The only advantage was that as the week wore on and the needles fell, most of those on the bottom half stayed inside the playpen. The tree was so tightly wedged in that it had to be removed with a saw and pruning shears. Another manly solution! We had sat around the spectacle we kept on display for a full ten days with a cup of cocoa or two from time to time but in truth that year there was no lasting  joy to be found in having a Christmas tree.

The Nativity Scene   A very vivid memory for me is of the nativity scene that was always placed under our Christmas tree every year when I was growing up. There was a roughly constructed wooden stable with a handful or two of straw strewn about. The figures were all made of painted plaster of Paris and some were a bit chipped from being played with by so many small hands. The baby Jesus wasn’t though— probably because we had always handled that figure with special reverence. Or perhaps it was because we felt no need to move the baby from the manger to anywhere else at all. He was at the centre of the scene—the most important one there, and that was where he ought to be. Another thing I can remember about the baby Jesus figure is that it was out of proportion to everything else. He was much larger than a baby would be in relation to the adult figures around him.

Perhaps the plaster of Paris mold was too tricky to use if the figure had been manufactured smaller, or perhaps the original sculptor who formed the first cast understood and wanted to demonstrate an essential truth. This is the truth that would eventually become real in my own life too. The real Jesus is greater than all and truly can and should dominate the entire scene in our lives.

And when he is there where he ought to be, we will have the ability to experience true joy no matter how difficult the circumstances of our lives or the unexpected things that happen.

Christmas joy really can be found and that is the brightness at the centre of my Christmas collage. That one true light who came and dwelt among us. And to think it all began in a straw strewn stable!

My Collage Of Christmas (Part 2)

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08710_all_dec-03-starYesterday I promised to continue on with my Christmas collage, an assortment of colourful Christmas remembrances that have somewhat bluer shades than all the rest. While growing up in the 50’s and 60’s on a South Western Ontario farm, our family eventually expanded to five girls, and three boys in all. I also had the most loving and caring parents any child could ever have been blessed with, so I really have far more memories of every bright and happy colour imaginable, than I do blue ones. But those which I have chosen for this written collage of sorts, are those which have embedded themselves more deeply— perhaps because of the darker shades of disappoint in those fleeting moments collected together here.

Stars

From the moment that my mother first guided my tiny pencil-clenching fist over a piece of scrap paper, causing me to leave a squiggly drawing of a five-pointed star behind, I have loved stars. Whether it is myself I first remember or one of the later toddlers in the family sitting on Mummy’s lap and going through those zigzagging motions until they had learned it, I am unsure. It was certainly me once, and as my mother took great enjoyment in teaching us to draw and write and play little games with pencil and paper, it was an oft-repeated scene. Soon each little one learned to draw perfect stars—sometimes with great abandon on freshly papered walls and newly painted woodwork (which of course was far less appreciated!)

My first fancy doll arrived one Christmas from my Godmother, my Aunt Catherine who lived far away in Pittsburgh. This doll was a dark-haired princess who wore a royal blue gown encrusted with tiny silver sequin stars all over it— not just the satin top, but all over the wide flowing skirt made of matching blue see-through fabric, as light as a wedding veil and draped over the satin underskirt. My little brother Keith who was called Butchy at the time, still slept in a crib in the same room as my sister Marsha and I, but he had learned to climb out of it and would soon need a big boy bed. The day after Christmas I found my princess doll in my baby brother’s crib. He had escaped during nap time and kidnapped my doll. Then he had climbed back into his crib again. When I went to wake him up from his nap, I found him laying there in his soft little footed sleeper with his pudgy face all covered in slobber and stars. He had chewed every single one of them off my princess’s dress with his tiny baby teeth. Her gown was now a chewed on sopping wet rag! I was so angry I balled my eyes out. I eventually forgave my baby brother of course. He was so wonderful and cute and only a baby after all, but that particular Christmas I felt no joy at all in tinselly Christmas stars.

Christmas Pudding

My first Christmas pudding experience happened at the end of a long ago Christmas dinner that my mother had put on for the extended family on my father’s Scottish⁄ English side. We had now traded our small white house for our grandparents’ much larger brick farmhouse. Anyway, there was the usual feast with all the long-awaited festive dishes that Mom had prepared. Just as an aside—there is a reason they call stuffing “stuffing”, particularly after third helpings!

Just when we were all sitting around on our last gasps, as overstuffed as Grandma’s parlour settee, out from the kitchen my Aunt Irene paraded the steaming pudding.I had never seen one of these things before and was not the least bit impressed. What was it anyway? It looked like someone had taken a big mixing bowl full of our dog Judy’s food and tipped it upside down on a cake plate. “It’s a Christmas pudding and Mom says we have to eat it!” the whispered message quickly passed mouth- to- ear around the part of the table my siblings and I had laid claim to. In an effort to keep the peace with her difficult Scottish mother-in-law my mom was determined that we children must do our family duty. “Why do we have to eat it?” “Because Mom said so!”… “Or else!” Marsha whispered back. Aunt Irene, my Dad’s sister then took a big silver spoon and began scooping gargantuan mounds of bloated cooked raisins, mushy carrot bits, and dark currants all mixed up together in a cakey goop that smelled like our dad’s Old Spice shaving lotion, into cereal bowls. Because we didn’t own any fruit nappies. On top of each serving she poured a ladle full of what looked like gravy although we knew it couldn’t be. Could it? That would be even more ridiculous. “It’s Scottish tradition. It’s bad luck not to eat it all.”  Aunt Betty, Dad’s other sister said.  Our mother couldn’t bear to see the terrified look in our eyes, I think, so she began clearing the table ( In reality it was probably just a ruse to escape eating any of it herself— especially after Aunt Irene said she liked to use “lots of suet in the recipe to keep it moist.”)

Thinking that Mom apparently had abandoned us to our own devices we were hopeful that Keith would come up with a plan. He had always been very good at sneaking unwanted bread crusts outside to the dog in his pockets…Maybe if we could just find enough paper napkins…

My mother had not factored in one very crucial thing. Some of her kids might actually like this stuff enough to eat it all up (especially the rum sauce), and on top of all the huge portions of their favourite things that her kids had already gorged themselves on… well the consequences just might not be too pretty…

Ever since that day when my siblings and I have sung the carol We Wish You a Merry Christmas, when we get to the second verse we usually sing “Oh bring us a pity pudding!” instead of “a figgy pudding.” The last time that we sang it that way my son–in-law Phil turned to me and said “You know it’s actually a “figgy pudding”, not a “pity pudding” don’t you?” All I could say was “You had to be there!” On that day and for all Christmases that followed thereafter, I have certainly gained no luck from, and definitely felt no joy whatsoever in the consumption of Christmas pudding.

Well, another tale or two is told and I have not yet finished my Christmas collage, so I’ll be back with more tomorrow.

Until then, enjoy your rum sauce if you must, but in my opinion anyway “Hold the pudding!”

My Collage of Christmas

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Mom's sister Aunt Wilma, Janice, Kathy,Donny and Jimmy the youngest four of us eight kids

Mom’s sister Aunt Wilma, Janice, Kathy,Donny and Jimmy the youngest four of us eight kids

Some people may have memories as neatly organized or carefully catalogued as the treasures of the Smithsonian Institute but those individuals are few and far between. That would be something akin to the real Rain man, Kim Peek, who by the time of his death in 2009 had memorized word for word twelve thousand books— including the Bible, and the Book of Mormon. His memory was truly astounding especially to those like me who struggle to remember where we put the car keys.

My memories are like that huge messy stack of art work that every kindergarten kid brings home at the end of the year— my best stuff, colourful and full of emotion, but leaning a bit towards abstract most of the time. Today I’ve decided to put together a few of the bluer pieces that I’ve pulled out from the stack to make a kind of story collage.

Christmas Turkey

I was four years old and our family was still living in our first little white house. Dad had not yet taken over the family farm from his father and he was for the moment out of work. The turkey was a little smaller than Mummy was used to preparing. She had put it into the oven the night before Christmas, but far too early. When it finished roasting —in the middle of the night— she asked Daddy to put it out on the porch to cool. He snitched a piece of the delicious golden brown skin first and pronounced it absolutely “Delicious!” He then placed it just outside the kitchen door on the porch to cool in the snow, and immediately crawled back into bed and was soon fast asleep.
When out on the porch there arose such a clatter,

He sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.

When what to his wondering eyes should appear,

But our bird heading south, on that night cold and clear.

Bobbing up and down and weaving back and forth, it was on its way to someone else’s family dinner! Another mother was obviously struggling hard to keep her family fed too, and as Daddy threw on the porch light he saw her. A wily red Mama fox was trotting off across the new fallen snow with our beautiful golden brown turkey clenched tightly in her happy grinning mouth— leaving behind for us only a pan full of drippings! The next day we ate a meat loaf festively garnished with green and red olive slices. That year Christmas joy was not to be found around a golden brown turkey—at least not at our house.

Christmas Gifts

I remember the Christmas that every kid wanted Silly Putty, the latest fad promoted in TV ads— a little plastic egg full of “the most incredibly flexible fun-filled substance known to man!” At this particular Christmas, Mom had warned each of us older kids quietly beforehand that Santa could bring us only one gift, so we should try to be sure of what we wanted. I remember anticipating the fun that I would have when I was the owner of such an amazing thing as Silly Putty. You could even use it to make copies of the colour comics!

Imagine that! I would be able to copy Little Lulu and then stretch her out to be tall and skinny, or I could make Veronica fat if I stretched her side to side. Betty would like that, I thought, and Veronica surely deserved it. I could hardly wait! A day or two after the initial bulletin that Santa was bringing one gift and one gift only, an even more shocking dispatch was issued. Santa might be all out of Silly Putty after packing the orders for kids who got their Christmas letters to him first! What? How was it my fault that we were fresh out of letter writing paper when Mom had told us to get our letters written? It sure would have been an insult to Santa to write it out on a piece of scratchy toilet paper, wouldn’t it? Mom suggested that maybe I should try to think of something else I wanted, but I persisted in my request. I was a little sceptical about the whole Santa business by that point anyway and I felt that Mom and Dad were likely the more direct route to me acquiring my desperately coveted treasure, so I persisted in my obstinacy at each new suggestion by my mother that I pick something else.

Imagine the thrill I felt on that long ago Christmas morning as I tore open my bow bedecked Christmas package and found my heart’s desire. It was as if the goose had truly laid a golden egg! I twisted the two halves of the egg open and pried out the glop of peachy beige goop inside. Actually goop is entirely the wrong word. When I opened up the egg container what was inside was somehow hopelessly hard and solid! It could not be softened! It could not be rolled! It could not even be flattened into any kind of image-copying tool for Veronica or Betty. How could I ever hope to give that vain Veronica the anatomical alteration I felt she deserved for constantly stealing the limelight from Betty? It was not actually a “Come uppance” I had planned for her but more aptly a “Come downance”. But what a bust! The Silly Putty was more like Pity Putty!  Instead of there being soft moldable stretchable comic-copying fun inside, it all broke up into a handful of dry chunky bits when it was stretched apart! They wouldn’t stick back together into any kind of shape no matter how hard I tried.

My present was a dud! But knowing that Mom and Dad had probably been searching far and wide to find it— which might have been Mom’s reason for trying to get me to suggest another gift idea in my Santa letter— I was too humiliated to even complain. I pictured them both exhausted, finally finding it in the last place they went to, after a long hard day of searching. Maybe it was in some dusty old country store where the silly putty had sat in some basement storeroom, crushed at the bottom of a pile, stacked up against the old coal furnace or something. That’s about as logical an explanation as I could come up with on my own to explain the Silly Putty’s failure to deliver as promised. So it was just a socks and underwear Christmas for me that year— the mundane stuff  from Mom and Dad that Santa was obviously too proud to carry around in his sleigh— and I was just going to have to be content with that.

Amid all the hubbub and excitement of Christmas day in the midst of a very large family there was so much going on that my parents thankfully never even noticed that I wasn’t playing with my gift that morning. And when things quieted down there were siblings’ gifts to share in the enjoyment of, so it wasn’t in any way a terrible Christmas. It was just that Christmas joy was not to be found in a gift meant especially for me that year.

Of course it takes more than just two colourful memories to make a Christmas collage and I do have plenty more of them to assemble shortly— twinkling stars, Christmas pudding, fancy buttons and bows, mistletoe kisses, Christmas trees and more. Tomorrow is another day and I will be adding more for you then. Meanwhile,why not try assembling a Christmas memory collage of your own? I’d love to hear about it too.

Sweet sugarplum dreams tonight,

Love Yvonne