It’s Christmastime in 1960 and thirteen year old Pat and the rest of the Fournier family are preparing for the holidays. In the twentieth installment of Pat’s memoir, Memories of a Boy Growing Up in Blackville, the young boy recalls the cutting and trimming of the tree, the snowy midnight trek to mass and the family gift exchange.
MOST MEMORABLE CHRISTMAS
Written by Pat Fournier
Christmas 1960 – thirteen years old
Christmases were always special in our home. Even though Dad only earned meager wages as a labourer and Mom was a frugal homemaker, they seemed to go out of their way to ensure that we had a wonderful Christmas, with lots of presents under the tree, and good things to eat.
And in our minds, we always had the best Christmas tree of all of the homes on the hill. After going into the woods and cutting down a fir tree a couple of weeks before Christmas, Dad would set it up in front of the big picture window in the living room. If there were gaps in the branches, he would drill a hole in the space in the trunk of the tree, and wire a spare branch into the empty space. The tree was spiked to a base of crisscrossed two-by-fours, with wires strung from the tree to nails in the wall to help support it and keep it standing straight.
It didn’t matter that Dad drove nails into the wall to help wire the tree up, because the house that he built to replace the one that burned down almost three years ago was still unfinished. While Dad had started to put some paper-backed insulation between some of the studs, most of the walls were still bare, and there was no gyprock paneling on any of the walls. And there were no doors separating the rooms, only long curtains that Mom had sewn and strung on cords in each doorway.
But we were happy and comfortable in our little bungalow – which I’m sure was built to the exact dimensions of Hubert and Yvonne Underhill’s home, just a few houses down the road. And Dad had done a good job in building the house practically by himself, and tried to get it looking nice for us. He had stained the bare board living room wall opposite the picture window with a dark varnish, and it looked just like fancy knotty pine!
There were three bedrooms along one side of the house, with nice big closets. The bathroom at the back corner of the house, by the kitchen door, was still unfinished and had no plumbing. But we used it as a bathroom, and took stand-up baths with face cloths and a big tub that we filled with kettles of hot water. I remember that all of us had our own face cloths, which were identified by clothes pins that Mom had labeled and hung on a string tacked between the studs behind the bathroom door. At night we used the chamber pot in the bathroom if it was too cold to go out to the outhouse.
And while we still didn’t have running water in the house, we didn’t have to go around to the side of the house to the pump that we used to share with Jim MacKenzie, because we now had our own pump. When Dad built the house, he had a well drilled and our own hand pump installed by our back door. So now so we just had to go out the kitchen door, and the pump was right there at the back step.
I remember watching when Exite Myers, who drove his rig all the way from Rogersville, drilled for water with his big generator-operated machine. I think Mr. Myers was a bit older than Dad. He had a bald head, and wore little glasses, and gray coveralls. He got his drill set up in our back yard, and it had a gas powered generator motor that drove a big pipe repetitively up and down in the drill tower. Once the drill bit at the end of the pipe punched down into the earth as far as it could go, he stopped the drill and added another piece of pipe on. And he continued on in this manner, lengthening the pipe sections and drilling again, until the drill hit water.
And I remember too how I was so amazed and impressed – – not only with the drilling machine, but more so with Mr. Myers! Because as the drill pipe pounded up and down, up and down, he held onto it to keep it steady – – but he had only one arm! The right sleeve of his coveralls was pinned up to where the elbow would have been, and he used that arm to hold the pipe steady! So the pipe slid up and down under his armpit, between his side and the stump of his arm, making his coveralls shiny with mud. And he operated that big machine and handled all the heavy pipe and equipment all by himself!
After the well was dug and the pump was installed, Dad hung a nice long clothes line from the corner of the house by the pump, all the way back to a big tree behind the back fence. And I remember how Mom would hang our clothes out to dry on the clothes line after they were washed. Even in the winter time! And when she brought the clothes in from the line in the winter, her hands would be red and chapped from the cold, and sometimes our clothes would be frozen stiff. While I recall thinking at the time that it was funny to see my long johns frozen stiff and standing up by themselves, in hindsight it wasn’t funny how poor Mom got so cold bringing the wash in.
Anyway, the Christmas tree was left standing untrimmed overnight, with newspapers spread around on the floor underneath it, to catch the drips of water from any snow or ice still stuck on the branches. And the wonderful smell of the fir tree permeated the house and left no doubt that it was Christmastime!
After the frost thawed out of the tree overnight and the branches settled, the tree was ready for trimming!
First, Dad would put the angel ornament on the top of the tree and string the electric lights around on the branches. And every year without fail it seemed there was always one darned set of lights that wouldn’t come on! So each bulb had to be replaced with a new bulb, one by one, until the burned out bulb was found and replaced. Once the electric lights were all lit and placed properly – we always tried not to have two same coloured bulbs placed too close to each other – we would hang the strings of garland first, and then the ornaments.
And it was fun to make some of the ornaments ourselves. We made garlands of coloured paper chains to string on the tree, and popcorn strung together with a needle and thread. And I remember how me and Johnny had fun making little ornaments out of walnut shells and turkey wish-bones that we painted with Mom’s red nail polish. Then last of all, after all the ornaments were hung, Mom would carefully hang the spun-glass angel hair over the branches. When the lights were turned on, it looked like the lights all had multi-coloured halos.
On Christmas morning, Dad would get up early and get the fire in the wood stove going, so it was nice and toasty warm in the kitchen and living room when we got up. There were always lots of toys from Santa under the tree, and we would find that the stockings that we had laid out on the living room couch and chair the night before had been filled with an apple, an orange, and some barley toy, ribbon, and hard candy, and walnuts and peanuts and maybe a little toy. And, oh, the wonderful smell wafting from the turkey that was cooking in the oven!
And going to midnight mass at St. Raphael’s Church was a very special part of our Christmas celebrations. We’d get dressed up in our good church clothes, and all leave the house and walk down to mass together.
It’s funny how sometimes the brain instinctively seems to say: “This is special! Hold on to this memory! Remember this!” And I remember having that thought at the time, and knew that I would remember this particular Christmas Eve night very clearly, and would not forget it. Not the sights, not the sounds, not the smells, not the emotions that I felt as we walked down to Midnight Mass.
A light snow was falling as we walked down the hill. Big white flakes that slowly drifted down and created a soft white carpet on the road. Our boots made a squeaking-crunching sound with each step we took in the snow covered road. And all along the way we’d meet friends and neighbours who were going to mass too, and there were friendly greetings and “Merry Christmas” hellos called out to one another.
As we got nearer to the church, the bell started ringing, and I could picture Mr. Donohue – probably dressed up in his suit and tie, too – up in the belfry behind the choir, pulling the rope to ring the bell. And the bell seemed to toll the message: “Come! Come hear the story about the birth of the baby Jesus!”
And I remember thinking to myself at the time that this – this is what Christmas is all about! The gentle calm of a country winter’s night; trudging through a light falling snow to midnight mass; the love of family and friends and neighbours; and the peace that seems to envelop the world in this one silent, holy, magic night!
And while all of our Christmases were special, this is one Christmas Day memory that holds a very special place in my mind:
We had drawn names for exchanging Christmas presents, and Johnny got my name. In the days before Christmas, the number of presents carefully arranged around the base of the tree would gradually increase as gifts were secretly wrapped and placed beneath the bottom boughs. So we had the opportunity to check out the “To” and “From” tags, and try to guess what was wrapped up in one of our presents. Or in someone else’s!
Well, when I found Johnny’s gift for me under the tree, it was very curious! It was completely round, about three inches across, and maybe an inch thick. And it felt heavy, and didn’t make any noise at all when I shook it! So I figured there was no way it was one of those little ball-bearing puzzles. But what else could it be?!
Johnny had confirmed Katharine and Marjorie’s whispered guess as to what my present was, so they laughed along with Johnny when I exclaimed that I couldn’t figure it out. They couldn’t imagine that I wasn’t able to guess what it was, and taunted me with “Oh, come on, Patty! Don’t be stupid! It’s so obvious!”
But I just – could – NOT – figure out what it was!
That Christmas Eve, when we got back from midnight mass, after taking off our winter coats and boots, we put on our slippers and relaxed on the couch and chairs in the living room. We talked and enjoyed the moment, admired the Christmas tree, and nibbled on a little snack before going to bed. Mom had cooked a small chicken just for that purpose. The big stuffed turkey that was still cooking in the oven in the kitchen would be the highlight of our big Christmas Day feast!
But we were all too excited to go to bed, and begged Mom to let us open up one present.
“Aw come on, Mom! Just one? Please please please?!”
Mom finally gave in to our begging, and let each of us open up a present.
“Well, all right. But just one!” she said.
So of course the present that I grabbed from under the tree was the one from Johnny.
Everyone watched as I pulled the colourful wrapping paper off the present and found – a hockey puck! Just a simple black hockey puck!
How could I not have guessed that! It couldn’t possibly have been anything else!
And everyone laughed – especially Johnny! I can still picture him laughing hysterically! That was just like him to buy a simple gift like that, just to get a laugh!
And we all laughed and laughed!
The memory of that special, loving, fun-filled Christmas is forever embedded in my memory.
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EDIT: An offensive term has been removed from this story. It was included by the original author of this installment and upon review by Memories of Blackville, deemed inappropriate. Apologies to anyone that was offended by the language.