The Christmas tree

I believed in the magic of the Christmas tree and would gaze into its depths for hours.

I believed in the magic of the Christmas tree and would gaze into its depths for hours.

When I was a child, Christmas always held a special magic for me. I would get a warm feeling of anticipation near the beginning of December, dreaming of the good things to come – the Christmas tree, the presents, the fruit-filled cakes and puddings. The very air seemed to twinkle with possibility, the house ready and waiting with an expectant feeling. Everything would be waxed and polished — I loved that smell of floor polish; it spoke of order in a chaotic world.

When I was 11, chaos visited.

We lived then in a small mining town in the East Kootenay Mountains of British Columbia. It was a good life – people were making a lot of money and it was easy come, easy go – that was B.C. in the latter half of the 1950s.

My parents were young and full of hope for a wonderful life. We were a tight knit family of eight, with six kids.

Then, in early November, my father was in a car accident and broke his ribs. He contracted an infection, followed by a severe allergic reaction to the antibiotics that put him in the hospital for several weeks. In those days, there was little to back up a family of six when the dad was off work, so things were not easy. To make matters much worse, just when he was ready to go back to work in early December, there was a massive layoff at the mine. By the time Christmas drew near; we were very, very short of money. No Christmas tree, this year, said my mom. And my heart sank. I didn’t care too much about the presents or the cakes and puddings, but I did care about that magic tree. And I believed in its magic.

Mom did her best: the house was clean and polished; it smelled of floor wax and expectation, but as the last few days of school passed and nothing changed, I sank into a pit of gloom. My pessimism may have been abetted by the fact that there was not a lot to eat – a deer my dad had shot in the fall was nearly all gone – we had been living on deer meat and porridge, a dreary diet, but it would be even drearier when the meat ran out.

Still suffering the pain of slowly healing ribs, Dad was out every day looking for odd jobs, but the whole town was depressed with so many out of work and there was really very little to be had.

The last day of school before the Christmas break, I was given the task of taking down the class Christmas tree. As I lifted off the ornaments, I got an idea and, even though I suffered terribly from shyness, I mustered the courage to ask the teacher, “What are you going to do with that tree?” I waited for her answer with my heart throbbing in my throat.

“Throw it out,” she replied. “It’ll be all dried out before we get back to school.”

“Can I have it?” I asked. I thought I would faint before she answered.

She looked at me dubiously, but shrugged and said, “Sure. If you want.”

I dragged that skinny little thing home in the darkening day, tugging it up the hilly streets to our house in Upper Blarchmont, the new subdivision where we were the proud owners of a brand new, but Spartanly furnished, house. At last I was at our front door, shouting for my mom to show her my prize. It didn’t occur to me that we were surrounded by evergreens – the mountainsides were full of them for the taking with a saw and a bit of energy.

She came to the door and hid her look of dismay. I remember her hesitation before she smiled and helped me bring it in. “But,” she said gently, “we don’t have any decorations.”

She must have seen my face fall, because she got that look of concentration she assumed when she was problem solving and then she said, “But let’s see what we can do.”

My mother was a creative and resourceful person. She made some paste out of a bit of flour and water and then we tore old magazine pages into strips which we fastened into round circles to make chains. The chains were a blend of interesting bits of story mixed with the jewel-like colours from the photo spreads. The more we worked – all the kids got into the act — the more enthused we became and soon we were laughing and having fun, coming up with other magazine paper designs for our tree. Mom even pasted together a star for the top.

It was a beautiful tree. For the next several nights, I sat in front of it, gazing into its depths, discovering possibilities and miracles that only I could see. At last it was Christmas Eve. Dad had explored every avenue to make a little money, but there was simply nothing to be found. Every door was closed. We went to bed that night, a gnawing in our stomachs that came from more than just the tiny dinner we had eaten.

Christmas morning dawned, very white and cold. The furnace was coal-fired but it would burn wood, a good thing since there was a whole world of wood outside, but the fire had died down in the night. I remember shivering under the covers when my sister and I woke, listening to Dad downstairs stoking up the coals. “Stay in bed till it warms up,” he shouted, and when he had it roaring, he bounded upstairs and back into bed himself. We were only too glad to obey.

Suddenly, there was a mighty banging on the front door. Terror froze my heart. Who could it be? All sort of evil possibilities presented themselves. I cowered under the covers beside my sister, listening to Dad go to the door.

Then we heard it. “Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas!” The voices were ringing, a smile hidden in the sound. There were happy, stomping feet. There was the noise of things being carried in.

“What a beautiful tree,” said a female voice. “Bring that in here, John.” We didn’t need Dad to invite us to come and see. My sister and I crept downstairs and what we saw was quite wonderful: gaily wrapped presents under the tree. Boxes full of something on the kitchen table. Two warmly dressed people just leaving, saying again, “Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas!”

We felt Mom’s presence behind us. She wrapped her arms around our shoulders and together we went into the kitchen where dad was standing, looking stunned. We’d all forgotten to be cold. On the table were two huge boxes stuffed with food – and the prize was a giant turkey. But there were practical things, too: sugar and flour and potatoes and cabbage and carrots and lovely, thoughtful things: syrup and a big tin of Malkin’s strawberry jam. The list went on.

At the very bottom of the box was an envelope that said, “Merry Christmas from the Ladies of the Purple Heart”.

“They should call themselves Ladies of the Golden Heart,” said Dad in a wobbling voice. Mom simply wept, silent tears that she wiped away with the sleeve of her bathrobe.

I don’t remember the presents. My sister and I were just glad that the little kids: my six-year-old brother, five-year-old sister and the three-year-old twins, found those gifts under the tree when they came downstairs.

I was filled with a boundless joy that day. It seemed to me to be a miracle – we had not asked for help – had not told anyone of our need, but somehow, they had known and responded.

I gave the credit to the tree.

We learned later that the ladies were part of an auxiliary to the local Elks lodge. They gave up their own Christmas morning to go from one house to another, filling the Christmas wishes of all the families that had been hit by the layoff.

Knowing this didn’t spoil the magic for me, though. What mattered was their kindness and the cheerful, matter-of fact way they dealt out their charity. They will live forever in my mind as the Ladies of the Golden Heart.

And I still believe it was the tree that told them.

I still believe in the magic of trees.

I still believe in the magic of trees.

Christmas carol

Last weekend, I went to the Symphony to hear the Christmas concert I had been encouraging as par t of the program for several years while I was president and chair. At the end of the concert, there was a singsong – about 2,500 voices joined together. I caught part of it on my Blackberry to share with you. The lovely voice you hear beside me is Trudy, our executive director. Merry Christmas all.

Warm weather and wasps

Dec 26, 2011

As we drove towards Lori’s house Christmas morning, the sun burnished the wet streets to a blinding gold. It was wickedly warm, not at all like the Christmas day weather we are accustomed to, and this lent the day an aura of unreality.

Today, the sun is still blazing down shrinking the snow and exposing the plant crowns to the inevitable frost to come. I never cut my plants back until spring so that the stalks will capture snow cover, but even so, the sun has done its work around them very efficiently. The plants sit in naked rings, the snow shrunk away where the darkness of the stalks has attracted heat.

 

WASPS

Wasp (image borrowed from Wikipedia)

Yesterday, our high efficiency furnace sent us a disturbing message, “System Malfunctioning, on our sophisticated thermostat. The last time this happened, we called in the people who sold us the furnace five years ago. The repairman diagnosed wasps in the air exhaust pipes. He said he would hear them and wanted to cut the pipe open. His boss said, “No! We’re not covered if you get stung.”  We called in the exterminators. They said all they could do was to put some wasp bait near the exhaust opening outside and hope the wasps would take it inside to kill their fellows.

Frustrated, Glenn cut the pipe open himself (although we could hear no wasps) and he found nothing, yet the furnace continued to malfunction and apparently there were high levels of gasses being exuded by the furnace. “Buy a new furnace advised the company. “Not bloody likely,” said Glenn, after spending $5,000 such a short time past, and he called in the gas company. They detected the same noxious mess coming from the exhaust and ordered the furnace shut down.

It was late fall by this time and getting colder. Glenn called in another company. This one said, “There is definitely something wrong with the heat exchanger. “We will have to take the entire furnace apart.” Glenn nodded. What else could he do?

Several hours and a thousand dollars later, the truth was revealed. It was indeed wasps, but not in the pipes. Instead there was a tremendous build up of wasp bodies in the heat exchanger, which was completely destroyed.

We had it replaced and the furnace was repaired, but now, in light of the warning message, I can’t help but wonder if there were wasps hiding somewhere else in the pipes, perhaps awakened by the warm weather.

Ironically, the gas company has a rule against putting a screen on the outdoor openings of these systems. We may have to ignore the rule.

Now, if you are reading this from somewhere outside of Manitoba, you may well ask, “So what if the company has a rule?” but this is a province where the gas utility is a crown corporation owned by the province and they have a lot of clout. Their “rules” are basically “laws”.

This is not the first time their rules have affected us. Several years ago, they shut down our pool heater because it was within nine feet of a neighbour’s window. The pool heater had been in place for 25 years, but the rules had changed and we had no recourse. We have never replaced it because moving the heater the requisite number of feet from the window would put it in the middle of our back yard, smack amongst the roots of a Philadelphus that scents the garden every spring

I cut down the shrub this past fall because it was overgrown and woody. Who knows? Maybe it attracted the wasps.

 

January 5, 2012

P.S.  A week later and the heater is back up and running and, so far, no wasps have emerged, even though the Winnipeg temperature today is an amazing 7 degrees C (45 F)! The weather has, however, awakened a lazy ladybug that was hiding somewhere in one of the tropicals that spent the summer outside. We are all in a state of stupor here in our town with this balmy weather. The usual average temperature in January here is -17 C . . .

 

 

 

Garden Beginnings

Hoarfrost on our window...

It’s a warm day today, only minus 7, so there is hoarfrost making lovely patterns on the windows where the seal has broken. Everyone says I should get this fixed and make sure the house is airtight, but I don’t think that is all that healthy. A house needs to breathe a little for the health of us all.

I vowed to stay indoors today and do the things I need to be doing, but I long to be outside.

When I was a child, my whole world was the outdoors. We lived on a farm near Dauphin, Manitoba, not far from the lake. Nearly all my earliest memories are of the outdoors, exploring the small wood next to our house, talking with the horses, watching bees, tasting the salt lick that the cows used.

One day, I climbed a tree at the end of the road near the front gate and then couldn’t get down. I thought I would be left there forever. Then there was a year, before I started school, when it turned unnaturally warm in February and we were able to play outside on the brown grass without coats and no snow.

 

Bachelor buttons

Cosmos

I hadn’t started to appreciate the garden yet. That happened at my grandmother’s house, where I remember wandering at eye level among the cosmos and bachelor buttons. I recall the smell of the garden and the sound of the insects, busy in the heat of a prairie summer’s day. It pleased me to be there with her. The flowers pleased me as they lolled about in the sun. Those memories, though, are marred by the sound of my little sister crying at the front door of the house, where granny had placed a feather on the doorstep to keep her inside. Carol was afraid of feathers. She called them “bite-bites”. Perhaps she had had a run-in with a chicken once.

I loved my sister. She was the first person to ever consciously evoke this emotion in me. Oh, I suppose I must have felt love for my parents, who doted on me, but I never identified the feeling as I did one day when Carol and I were playing. We both had small, wheeled vehicles — hers was a little trike with a wooden seat, mine was a bit more sophisticated and grown up, me being 15 months the elder. We were racing each other around the house and eventually, we crashed. As we struggled to untangle from one another, Carol put her small hand on my forehead to help herself up. I felt a rush of love, a physical warmth that made me want to hug her. I was three or four.

When I had just turned six in January, my mother sent me to the local one-room schoolhouse at the invitation of the young teacher, even though it was midterm. It was an exciting time. Mom ordered a new outfit for me from the Eaton’s catalogue and when the package arrived it contained a white blouse with puff sleeves and a pretty collar trimmed in a thin margin of eyelet lace. There was also a red, white and black, plaid, pleated skirt with straps. I felt so important dressed in those lovely things.

The first morning of school, Mom decided I needed a hair wash. There was no running water at the farmhouse, so after giving me a good lathering at the sink, she carried me outside and dipped my head in the icy rain barrel. She always felt guilty about that, but I didn’t mind a bit. It certainly woke me up.

I was pretty good at schoolwork, but pretty bad at the people side of things.  Mom had once dragged me kicking and screaming to a birthday party for a boy on a nearby farm. His name was George Abess and I was afraid of boys. I think I enjoyed myself once I got there as he had an older sister, but I wasn’t about to repeat the visit unless under duress. Now here I was at school, surrounded by boys, one of whom told me years later that they thought I was cute and tried to make friends. My reaction was to hang on tight to the schoolyard swing and throw stones at my would-be suitors.

Even here, I gravitated to the outdoors, wandering alone through the bushes surrounding the schoolyard, avoiding the other kids. I was preoccupied with sorting out the letter Q (written the old-fashioned way) with the number 2, both hard for me to get my fingers around. But by the end of being six, I could read all ten books in the Colliers Classics set of short stories and poems Mom had. A magic gateway had opened.

The little Manitoba town where I started life . . .

 

December 10, 2011