Christmas in our family was a long drawn-out, messy, exuberant, exhausting, and generally wonderful affair. My high-octane, beautiful, high-achieving mother, who suffered severely from guilt at not being a stay-at-home-mum like her sisters-in-laws and church acquaintances and friends, began her Christmas preparations on Remembrance Day. My brother and I, primed for work the night before, began immediately after breakfast to wash currents and to flour the dried mixed fruit our mother had prepared, sometime during the night, for the Christmas cake. While the kitchen filled with steam, and my mother blanched and peeled almonds, and then set to beating butter and sugar by hand, we got out the chopping boards and knives to cross-hatch our way through pounds of walnuts. Once that was done, it was my job to sift the flour-a job I loved because I could create flour hills and mountains and arrange them artistically on large waxed paper rectangles all over the kitchen table, taking pleasure in the ‘shushing’ sound the sifter made, in the lightness of the flour as it floated downwards, in all that whiteness.
If this was the high point, then the low point was preparing the baking pans, also my job. I could butter, I could flour, but I could not cut waxed paper to neatly fit the bottom and sides. My clumsiness brought me to tears. Sometimes, my brother, given to fits of unexpected kindness, would help, but generally, he’d wander off to read comic books after calmly running his finger round the edges of the butter and sugar mixing bowl when my mother’s back was turned.
Once the cakes were baking and my mother had moved on to cookies and squares, my brother and I had to clean the silver. We’d cover the dining room table with newspaper, moan that we couldn’t find the rags or the silvo and we didn’t know what to do, but there we’d be, shortly, confronted with heaps of boring cutlery, but also with handsome serving dishes, engraved trays and candy dishes, silver swans, the treasured goose salt and peppers, the tea tray and tea pot that had belonged to my grandmother-items that we divided up carefully as we each had our favourites to polish.
I quite liked this time with my brother, spent in more or less friendly competition and with my mother nearby to answer questions about the silvers’ origins. Some had come from her mother’s family, United Empire Loyalists, and said to be descended from Laura Secord; and some had been wedding presents, given to my parents in a time when they were unimaginably young, the world was at war, and my mother went bare-legged in 30 below weather to show off her legs. She’d been a swimmer, a gymnast, a speed skater, and was often thought to be French Canadian, because of her exotic looks. My father had been a very good hockey player and the best fighter in school. He’d owned a Stuz-Bearcat – a car – named Stella. My mother had had a lost love – an RCAF pilot – and there’d been a family rift shortly before my parents met and there were relatives no one had heard from in ages – desert dwellers, Americans, Californians: a lost family of vegetarians and vaudevillians, a thousand times more compelling than the thirty or so aunts, uncles and first cousins on my fathers side, whom I knew and would see every Christmas..
It was this part-glimpsed history of my mother that fascinated. A secret world that shimmered in the poetry she recited, in the books she occasionally referred to, in long years of a disappeared history.
The following weekends meant, for me, painful hours staggering through town in the firmly punctuating wake of my mother’s high heels as she purchased presents for all these relatives. Evenings were spent wrapping and addressing parcels, some to go off to other – unknown to me – family members in England. Weeknights and weekends, after we went to bed, my mother sewed Christmas dresses of red, green or blue velvet or taffeta for the two of us to be worn the first time the night of the Sunday School Christmas concert; and new pyjamas, shirts and dressing gowns for my father and brother.
Christmas also meant my father singing Good King Wenceslas as he lifted us into the back of his blue pick-up truck when we went to bring home the tree, and, as we bounced along, rain or snow or cold biting into my cheeks beneath the strings of my angora winter hat, I watched the rain or snow in the streetlights or through the then notorious Victoria fog, or screamed in joy and for nothing, at the stars.
Well, there was lots more, but you get the idea. Christmas Day itself was spent in present opening, story telling, theatre and musical performances, carol singing and tremendous eating – all the elements associated with my father’s large, affectionate, Newfoundland family. And at the end, there’d be my parents carrying me to bed while I pretended to be asleep, and I’d lie awake as long as possible to contemplate how long it would be until next time.
And yet, and yet, niggling away, all through this, through the passion with which, as a young child, I saw her, was my mother’s essential difference. Who was she really? Why didn’t she tell me? Well, she did, in ways, and from time to time – like the time when – understanding my unhappiness at school, when I was seven – she took me to my grandmother’s house for the day, and when it snowed, turned up during her lunch-hour, with a little red sleigh for me – and this is what I want to tell you.
My mother loved books – that was a given, in our family – but my mother loved books differently. There were the books you knew she had – the Reader’s Digest Condensed, and Book of the Month, and the heap of library books that she kept on the floor by her bed, but there were also books that appeared from some secret store of hers – only a very few over the years – that were real books and they come from the fugitive world I sensed within her. You have to understand that in my parents world – a world of religious fundamentalism – many books were censored; and that this never occurred in our house. One of my most treasured memories is of my daughter, then about ten, reporting to me how she’d told the librarian who’d questioned a book choice she’d made saying that she should clear it with her mother first, that “my mother lets me read everything!” As if it was the most natural thing in the world. That is a gift my mother gave me.
One day, when I was in grade seven, and had stayed home with a cold from school, suffering really from the deep rift my religious upbringing was making between me and my peers – I wasn’t allowed, for instance, to go to movies or dances – and I wanted to be popular and I wanted to be liked – my mother, home from work at lunch to see how I was – listened to my complaints and then went away somewhere in the house and returned with a book – Driftwood Valley. I’d never seen it before. I don’t know how or when she acquired it, but its publication date is 1946, and it’s by a woman writer, Theodora C. Stanwell-Fletcher. I didn’t think I would like it, but I was bored and desperate and began reading, and was soon utterly taken over by Theodora’s account of her life in north central BC during the period 1937-1941. Resonating in my mind, as well, was my mother’s comment, that this was what had brought her to British Columbia.
The style was crisp and unadorned, plain in the best sense, and full of acute observation and intelligence – and it reminded me of my mother – the one I suspected lurked behind the façade of work, church, cooking, sewing, shopping; and it was I suppose also to do with Theodora’s name, an unusual name, and how it chimed with my mothers’ unusual name, Elnora.
* Christmas Eve December 24th
Today we are greeted by a cold snap – just in time for Christmas. It is brilliantly clear and the mountains stand out once more – so distinct that they seem almost on top of the cabin. This afternoon the sun went down behind the Driftwoods at two-fifteen and the mercury began to drop and drop. It went from 36 above to 39 below, a drop of 75 degrees in a few hours. I keep wondering how on earth our bodies can possibly adapt themselves to such extreme changes, but we appear to be in perfect health…
After supper, when stars were flashing above the snow piled to within a foot of the top windowpanes, I went outside to view the world.
“You won’t feel the cold,” remarked J., “at first, but watch your lungs.”
As I opened the door I wondered what he was talking about. With the first breath, I knew. I choked and gasped and sputtered. In this temperature one’s breath freezes as one inhales and less oxygen than usual is taken into the lungs. Except for this, I simple was unconscious of the cold. By taking little short breaths I found that I could breathe sufficiently well. The snow underfoot was so hard that it didn’t seem like snow at all. As I stepped on it, it tinkled musically like pieces of metal striking together.
In these very low temperatures, the air is crystal clear. Over the absolute stillness of the icy night, the starts looked as though they had come alive. These were not the serene, peaceful, far-off stars of summer skies; these were flashing and sparkling and burning, fanned by invisible fires to dazzling life. These were more brilliant than I had ever seen them anywhere, in the tropics or on high mountain tops; the light they shed across the earth was as revealing as clear moonlight. The white lake, the white mountains, the white forests, were glittering in their radiance. At the back of the cabin I saw the Great and Little Bears, the Big and Little Dippers, etched brilliantly and enormously on the sky. The Milky Way was not a narrow band of white light, but a broad twinkling path of individual shining stars stretched across the whole zenith. And to the south, most marvellous of all, was the giant Orion, followed by the Dog Star, Sirius, marching above the Driftwood Valley. The blue-white, moving, living fire of Sirius seemed to light the whole of Lake Tetana. Other stars, flashing darts of red and blue and yellow, danced on the highest peaks and white knife-like edges of the mountains. I could hear the stars as they pulsed and moved above me.
When I realized suddenly that I was almost too stiff to move, I went in, and J., who has seen before the sky of an arctic night, smiled in understanding at the expression on my face…
Last night when we went to bed the windows on the inside were covered with frost an inch thick; the logs in the walls, and the shakes in the roof, cracked like gunshots, as they were split by the cold; and out on the lake the ice kept up an almost steady booming, interspersed with the horrid ripping and tearing that always makes my spine tingle. During the night I was waked repeatedly by such terrific cracks in the logs that I thought the cabin was coming down on our heads. When the temperature is falling, we expect a drop of 15 or 25 degrees during the night, beginning at sunset, but last night it broke all records…
By the time dawn was coming we had scraped two peepholes in the frost on the panes; and we stood quiet to watch the winter sunrise. The radiant peaks of the Driftwoods, cut like white icing into pinnacles and rims against the apple-green sky, were brushed with pink, that, even as we watched, spread down and down and turned to gold. Rays of the rising sun, coming between the pointed first of the east shore, stretched straight across the white lake, and a they touched it huge crystals, formed by the intense cold, burst into sparkling scintillating light. The snow-bowed trees of the south and west shores were hung with diamonds; and finally the willows, around our cabin, were decked with jewels as large as robins’ eggs that flashed red and green and blue. No Christmas trees decorated by human hands were ever so exquisite as the frosted trees of this northern forest. The sky turned to deep, deep blue, and the white world burst into dazzling, dancing colors as the sun topped the forest. The dippers, undismayed by a cold that froze dumb al other living things, broke into their joyous tinkling melody by the open water patch below the bank. And our first Christmas Day in the wilderness was upon us…
As daylight faded, the rays of the sinking sun tinted the snow with red and lavender. The mountains grew purple and then came that period which, if I could make a choice of the wonders of all that twenty-four hours of a winter’s day, seems the most wonderful of all. It is that moment of white twilight which comes on a particularly clear afternoon, after the last colors of sunset fade and just before the first stars shine out. I don’t suppose its like can be seen anywhere except in the snowbound, ice-cold arctic places. Everything in the universe becomes a luminous white. Even the dark trees of the forest, and the sky overhead, are completely colorless. It is the ultimate perfection of purity and peace. But even as one looks and wonders, the white sky takes on a faint pale green, there are the stars, and then the great winter’s night is upon one.
We had our Christmas dinner at five: dehydrated potatoes and onions and a bit of moose stake, especially saved and tendered, baked in a pan with stuffing. For dessert there were the jam tars and chocolate cake. With these vanished the last vestiges of Christmas, the things which made it a little different from our other days.
Have we greatly missed the things that make Christmas Day in civilisation? Other loved human beings, Christmas carols, wonderful food? I suppose so, but I think that this lack is more than made up for by the deep contentment of our healthy minds and bodies, by our closeness to and awareness of the earth, and of each other.
* Driftwood Valley, by Theodora C. Stanwell-Fletcher, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1946