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Christmas 1974 - A WInter Journey

Christmas 1974 - A Winter Journey

Each year I write something for the Parry Sound North Star Christmas special - usually about books, but this year I found myself remembering a Christmas drive.

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The Farm, 1974                                            The Parisienne, Summer 1975, Victoria, B.C.

As Christmas approaches once again we think of our coming celebrations – and Christmas celebrations in years past.

This year, perhaps because I am a grandparent now myself, I found myself remembering a Christmas visit to my own grandparents in 1974. I was living in Ontario and my parents were living in British Columbia. We couldn’t afford to fly to the west coast but we could afford to drive to the east coast to spend Christmas with my mother’s parents on their farm in New Brunswick – especially if we shared the driving and the gas costs with my cousin, Barbie and her husband, Yogi, who lived in Ottawa.

I say we drove – the “royal we” – I did not have a Canadian driver’s licence, although I’d been driving since I was 16, first in Quebec and later in Europe, both licences had expired. My cousin did not drive but her husband did, so the plan was that Alan and Yogi would share the driving. By doing so we could drive through the night without having to stop and pay for a motel – the drivers would just take turns sleeping in the car. You have to remember we were all young, in our very early 20’s, and very poor.

Our car was a wonderful early 1960-something Pontiac Parisienne Convertible – as wide as a couch and felt like one on the road. We’d bought the car the summer before, $75 for the car and for an additional $75 we bought a new (used) engine that my husband and his father put into the car. I think it probably had good tires as my father-in-law was in the auto business – but I’m not sure.

So, Grimsby to Ottawa and on to a farm near Sussex, New Brunswick – in December. It started to snow before we got to Ottawa - it was already getting dark. We picked up Barbie and Yogi. They’d gotten married in India that summer and we were meeting Yogi for the first time. Barbie was the cousin closest in age to me of my dozens of New Brunswick cousins. We hadn’t seen each other for several years and we were excited to travel to New Brunswick together, home for her – her parents lived in Sussex, as all my many aunts and uncles did.

Alan carried on driving through to Montreal, and then it was time for Yogi to take the wheel. It did not take long for us all to realize that whatever and wherever Yogi was used to driving, it wasn’t a huge American car on a snowy highway in Canada – in a blizzard. There was no choice but for Alan to resume driving until he was so desperate for rest that we pulled into a dismal roadside motel, rented a room, and slept in our clothes until dawn.

The following day we completed the trip, driving uneventfully through the pristine wilderness of Northern New Brunswick.

My grandparent’s farm was as I had remembered it. I hadn’t been there since the summer I was sixteen, but before that I had spent part of every summer there. The house was wood frame, painted turquoise with yellow trim, sitting high on a small hill, fronted by a circular drive – in the middle of nowhere, a long 10 miles from Sussex. A barn across the gravel road, a meadow below the barn, and acres of fields all around, then deep woods. Although some of my relatives lived within walking distance no other house could be seen. My grandparents had lived in this house since 1930 – half of their eleven children had been born there.

The wood stove was on – as always, winter and summer. An oil cloth covered the kitchen table, ready with tea – well steeped King Cole tea that lived on the back of wood stove all day, and Grammy Mason’s dark fruit cake, the recipe I still use each Christmas. Grammy and Grampy just the same as ever. Grammy smiling, a glow of kindness, fat and bent over but still tall. Grampy, gruff and smelling of barn. Both just as I remembered, as they welcomed me and my husband and child. For me it was as close as possible to home, for my husband, a new family.

Barbie and Yogi had been dropped off in town with her parent’s, my Aunt Melba and Uncle Fletcher. They all came out to the farm the next day. The women went into the front room to watch the soap opera – soon joined by Yogi. Alan bravely stayed in the kitchen with Grampy and the uncles – getting into the season over several glasses of rum. I realize now that Yogi was probably Hindu or Muslim and may not have been comfortable with alcohol – at the time we all thought he was a wimp.

The next day, Christmas, we prepared a traditional dinner – turkey and vegetables and lots of baked goods. Around the huge round oak dining table sat my little family, my grandparents and my grandfather’s sister. This was a table where we’d served two shifts of men each day in summers past - men who were harvesting hay on the farm during my childhood. Here I had eaten many dinners with my large extended family, all finished with bread, farm fresh butter and molasses to fill up. But now, with their children in homes of their own with children and grandchildren, my grandparents were almost alone. My grandfather was especially bitter – that he’d raised eleven children, and none of them were with him for Christmas.

It is easy to make excuses – I’ve been a young parent myself – and an older parent now. It is nice to celebrate in your own home – but we need to think about those who might be alone. I had no idea at the time, that if I had not gone to New Brunswick that year, that there might have been only three lonely old people at that table. My grandfather died only a few years later. My grandmother lived another few years and I made one more – summer – visit to the farm.

Of all the Christmases of my adult life, it is that winter drive, untaken with the blind courage of youth, that I remember most, and the grandparents who welcomed me and my young family into their hearts and home so long ago.

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