My only memory of my grandfather was in the fall of 1962 at the age of four when he and my father were tossing split cordwood through a narrow window to a dirt-floored room in the cellar.
Tine, short for Valentine, let me ride in the wheelbarrow being used for the task though not as many times as I might have wished. I had the impression that hauling both wood and a boy in his 81st year was wearing on him.
Anita, my mother, had a soft spot for Tine, I think. She spoke of his habit of sipping tea from the saucer, an antiquated practice even then, his determined nature, and penchant for knowing the correct answer to most any question poised to him.
The old man didn’t live to see Christmas that year, necessitating a fundamental change in the household. It marked the beginning of a reign that would last for the following half century. Anita would lead the Christmas preparations, her mother-in-law being in mourning and Anita’s skills in the kitchen having improved remarkably after 12 years on the farm.
We all lived in the same old, rambling farmhouse with its exterior of red stucco. Grandma Carter inhabited roughly half the living space and our growing family of five the remainder. We shared a single bathroom to which grandma’s access would invariably be locked from time to time, initiating a great deal of consternation on her behalf to which I would often respond by running upstairs to provide relief, having been as often as not responsible for the old lady’s discomfort.
Unlike my father, Anita had words of advice for her children though I’m unsure if the same was offered to all.
She would often say to me, “Hold your head up and your shoulders back” and “Do not have delusions of grandeur” and suggest a career as a welder or some similar trade that might lead to steady work. Perhaps she was thinking of her own parents when offering the advice.
Her father, reputedly Oxford County’s biggest liar in his time, was only five feet in height. He worked as an electrician and at the local quarries. He fell and suffering a serious but not lasting injury not long after the loss of the first of his progeny – a sweet blue-eyed girl with blonde curls, old enough to ride a tricycle – to a childhood disease.
Anita maintained her own arrival came as a disappointment. No curls of yellow but a shock of dark, unruly hair and deep brown eyes.
She was nine in 1937, the eldest of five living children, when the Children’s Aid Society arrived to the door of their village home. Her father was away working in Northern Ontario and her mother was in hospital for an extended stay following what was then a serious surgery.
No help was offered beyond sending the children hither and thither. Anita was sent to a barracks for young girls where she would remain until the building was taken over three years later for the war effort and its inhabitants dispersed among foster homes. At the time, the direction taken was considered the best and most proper recourse, as it was believed that children were resilient to such abrupt and dramatic change.
Anita would maintain her experience was a positive one in which she learned the benefits of discipline and how to “clean” one’s plate. Thick porridge is something she would often serve to her own family as the morning meal, oatmeal or Red River cereal with milk and brown sugar, and the words, “It will stick to your belly.”
For one disenfranchised, Christmas with family was evidently of the highest priority given the effort Anita expended.
Stores would be laid in and pudding, fruit cake and cookies prepared far in advance and then father would be recruited to fetch the tree, a swamp cedar; a large specimen being selected, the top alone being taken. My two older sisters and I were allowed to help with its decoration under close supervision, mother and sisters insisting each strand of tinsel be individually placed, the result of which was a magical, shimmering effect when a door was closed or someone simply passed through the space. Beyond the tree, the only decoration was a plastic holly wreath with a single, hopeful red bulb that could be seen from the graveled sideroad a couple hundred feet away.
Mother insisted Christ had a part in the holiday but the greater emphasis was on family. Grandma Isbister who lived well into her 90s was a fixture and one or even two of mother’s siblings with their own families in tow would attend, making for a grand celebratory meal with party crackers and candles lit, silver and Limoges China laid on white linen covering two fully-leaved tables so that as many as 16, even more, could all be seated at once.
The tradition continued after the farm was sold in the late 1970s. It simply moved to Anita’s new home in town though some aspects gave way, like fragrant cedars being replaced by pines or spruce and then plastic.
I remember reviving the cedar component one year, father having passed at 60 years of age; mother burst to tears when she saw it as did my my sisters as well.
Even after Anita suffered her heart attack – the head nurse in attendance later told me it was a miracle she pulled through – her Christmas reign continued with my sisters stepping up. Though all talented in the culinary arts, it was never quite the same. The Limoges and silver gave way to a less elegant setting and the carrot-and-fruit pudding with rum sauce to coffee cake that was served, not when all were filled to bursting, but the following morning.
Anita died three years ago, lingering thankfully, for only a relatively short time.
This year, Christmas for the Carters will change even more and if a finger can be pointed for that change, it might best be pointed my way. Knowing how my sisters insist on taking charge of such events, it was to my wife that I suggested that ‘Christmas’, rather than being held on the 25th might better celebrated on Boxing Day and that the venue be a small, rural club more suited for family members with mobility issues than a home with too many stairs.
My wife mentioned this to one particular sister who immediately took credit for the idea and after some wrangling among the others the course was settled upon. It’s only after a lifetime of dealing with powerful women does a man learn to exert influence among their number.
So, when the turkey – and alternative protein sources – are served on paper plates, not a regretful word will pass my lips. The family will be together, a tradition that truly matters. And mom will be there, too.◊