A Christmas to Remember

A Christmas to Remember

From Chicken Soup for the Canadian Soul

A Christmas to Remember

Oh child! Never allow your heart to harden. Welcome the unicorn into your garden.

Phyllis Gottlieb

“Ruth! Are you up?”

“Yes, Momma!”

I slipped from bed and closed my window, shivering from the chill November air. Cold weather would mean a hot breakfast! And Momma had this wonderful way of simmering oatmeal in a double boiler at the back of the stove for the whole night. In a mood of happy anticipation, I quickly washed, dressed and ran downstairs.

I opened the kitchen door and was hit by a blast of cold air. The woodshed door was open, and there was no fire in the stove—something was terribly wrong.

Momma rushed in with a handful of kindling. “You’re up,” she said, and plopped a box of Shredded Wheat on the table. “Here, look after yourself.”

“Where’s Daddy?”

“Daddy’s sick.” She grasped a chair, as if for support. “I’ve sent for Dr. McLay. Eat your breakfast now.”

I picked up my spoon and tried to eat while Momma busied herself at the stove.

Typical of a 1930s rural Ontario home, our wood-fired range was a massive cast-iron and nickel-plated contrivance. It had seven lids in its top and a brick-lined oven that could hold a half-dozen loaves of bread. But Momma had never developed Daddy’s skill with just how to place the slivers of pine kindling or which damper to open. Fifteen exasperating minutes went by before flames crackled in the firebox and the water in the big brass kettle began to simmer.

A knock came at the side door and our neighbour Mr. Fenn stepped inside. “Doc’ll be here as soon as he can,” he said.

“Oh, thank you, Mr. Fenn!” Momma answered. “George warned me that having our phone taken out would be a foolish economy.”

“Would you like me to look after the stock?” Mr. Fenn asked quietly.

Momma’s face registered dismay. “Oh, my goodness, those poor animals!” In her concern over Daddy, she’d forgotten about his “livestock,” as he jokingly called them: Daisy, the jersey; the pigs; the barn cat; and the steers we were raising for meat that Momma refused to give names to because it would be like sending one of our pets off to the butcher. Daddy took care of all these creatures before breakfast and after supper each day. “Oh, yes, please!” Momma exclaimed.

The old man nodded and headed for the barn. He often visited with Daddy at chore time and would know just how much feed to put out and which animal should be let into what enclosure. Besides, when Mr. Fenn had been laid up with gout last winter, Daddy had looked after his homing pigeons, so turnabout was fair play.

When I arrived home from school Momma met me at the door.

“What’s up?” My heart was thumping a mile a minute.

“Daddy has bronchial pneumonia.”

I didn’t know what pneumonia was, but Momma’s fear was evident.

“He’s not going to die, is he?” I asked. “We can do something, can’t we?”

“Doctor says we must keep him warm, see that he gets lots of rest and takes his medicine. After that we can only hope and pray for the best.”

“Oh, Momma!” We enfolded each other in comforting arms.

Aylmer, Ontario, was a small, closely knit farming community a hundred and fifty miles west of Toronto, and when word of Daddy’s illness spread, the men began dropping by to split firewood or do barn chores, and the women took over the housework. Mrs. Peters from up the road scooped our laundry into a butcher’s basket and took it home with her. Mrs. Randall finished Momma’s batch of bread and started yeast for another, and Mrs. Chute marshalled the churchwomen to look after our meals. Momma was left free to care for Daddy.

I was barred from the sickroom altogether. People came and went, but whenever I offered to help, some adult would tell me that I was “too young” or “too little.” I felt isolated, useless. These were the pre-penicillin years, and two weeks passed before something called “the crisis” was over and my father was up to seeing me.

By mid-December Momma had learned how to bank the wood stove to keep the kitchen warm, and Daddy finally began to spend his days sitting up.

One night, when Momma had returned from helping Daddy back upstairs, I kissed her cheek. “Goodnight, Momma.”

“Ruth, wait . . .”

“What is it? You look so solemn!”

“I know Christmas is next week, but . . . between the doctor’s bills and no money coming in, our savings are almost gone. And Daddy won’t be able to work until spring.”

I felt a chill of fear. “Are we gonna lose our house, like Mr. Meeks?”

“Good heavens, no! This place is paid for and we have lots of food in the cellar. It’s just that cash will be short for awhile.” She flushed. “Which means there won’t be any money to buy Christmas presents.”

I hugged her as tightly as I could. “Momma, I don’t care about any old Christmas presents!”

But once alone, I snuggled into my feather tick and tears filled my eyes. I’d lied to Momma. I did care. I cared a whole lot! For months I’d been praying for white figure skates like Sonja Henie’s. Being told I was not going to get them was a terrible disappointment.

Then I felt a rush of shame. Wasn’t I better off than lots of kids my age? One girl in my third-grade class had to wear dresses made from bleached-out flour sacks, and I knew of two boys so fearful of scuffing their only shoes that they walked barefoot to within sight of school.

But I sure had wanted those white skates!

I awoke Christmas morning to see my breath in the air. Momma had started hanging quilts over doorways to direct heat up the back stairs into the room she shared with Daddy, and my room had been getting progressively colder.

I wriggled into my goose feathers and felt sorry for myself. A room with no heat, Christmas with no presents— gee whiz!

Then I thought of Momma. Red-faced with guilt, I dressed and hurried downstairs. A fire crackled in the stove, the big brass kettle was boiling and Daddy was seated in his rocking chair.

“Merry Christmas, punkin’!”

“Merry Christmas, Daddy!” I shifted the kettle to a back lid. “Where’s Momma?”

“Out doing chores.”

Then I turned and saw the tree . . . a lopsided, sparse-limbed little spruce—even the scrawny trunk nailed to crossed boards was slightly askew. But in the eyes of an eight-year-old who had taken a parent’s warning literally and not expected a Christmas tree at all, this tree was extravagantly, unbelievably beautiful! It was decorated with tinsel salvaged from Christmas trees past, along with strings of popcorn, cranberries, crocheted snowflakes of sugar-stiffened lace and gingerbread cookies shaped like tiny stars and elves.

And—although Momma had said there was no money— there were presents, in profusion!

There was a doll, purchased with months of hoarded soap coupons, with a wardrobe that almost took my breath away—an evening gown, a skating outfit, a cape, a kimono, dresses both long and short—each piece hand-sewn, knitted or crocheted with materials from the scrap basket. I recognized the fine silk of Momma’s old blouse and a cotton print that had been a dress of my own. Later I would learn that the shirred velvet of the skating costume came from a muff belonging to my father’s mother, who had died years before I was born.

Speechless with wonder, I turned to my father.

“Your mother did all that by herself.” His voice was soft, reverential. “Sawed that tree herself, hauled it out of the woods, wading hip deep through snowdrifts. And she made those doll clothes after you were in bed asleep.” He brushed a hand across moist eyes. “Child, your mother was bent, bound and determined you would have a proper Christmas, and that’s all there was to it!”

The woodshed door slammed and Momma stood in the doorway.

I rushed to hug her. “Oh, Momma, thank you!” I felt the coldness of her cheek and smelled the delicious odour of soap and wood smoke in her hair.

“You’re welcome, sweetheart.” She hugged me back, but only for a moment, and as she backed away her cheeks were flushed. Like many women of her generation, Momma was not comfortable with praise or with overt displays of emotion.

“I just wanted you to have a little something for Christmas,” she continued. “But it’s mostly homemade. Nothing really.”

Then my father made a comment I’ve never forgotten.

“Mable, I think maybe you’ve taught Ruth something— there are times in life when one person’s nothing can be somebody else’s everything!”

He was right.

Ruth Robins-Jeffery
Hampton, Prince Edward Island

You are currently enjoying a preview of this book.

Sign up here to get a Chicken Soup for the Soul story emailed to you every day for free!

Please note: Our premium story access has been discontinued (see more info).

view counter

More stories from our partners