Friday, December 16, 2016

An Acre Memory - Christmas

My sister, Donna, and me. 1950 something
The weeks before Christmas the record player droned out the tunes of the season.  We had a pile of 45’s that we played over and over.  You could stack about 5 records on top of each other and each would drop down onto the player.  The needle arm would move over and play the tune.  I mostly recall the Harry Simone Chorale’s rendition of the new hit, “The Little Drummer Boy.”  My mother loved that tune and when it came on the radio she would reach over and turn up the volume.  There was always Bing Crosby’s I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas, Perry Comeau’s Do You See what I See?, and other songs and hymn whose singers mostly dating from the 1940s.

My parents explained that Christmas was much different when they were young growing up in the Lowell of the 1920s.  My father said he remembered very little except the deep snows of the seasons and actually seeing horse drawn sleighs still in use on Broadway Street.  Ice skating on the Merrimack River was something every Acre kid looked forward to.  When he was young there was an annual package delivered from Scotland.  It was something his parents always looked forward to.  Inside were tins of shortbread and oatcakes.  He also remembered letters from cousins in Glasgow who asked for money to be sent home and requests for sponsorship so they could come to America.  He also recalled the throngs at Midnight Mass and how people would keep warm for the long walk to church by having a few drinks on their way.  My mother’s memories were more clear.  Gifts were usually very limited.  A scarf or hat.  A small bisque doll.  They used their own stocking to hang for Santa to fill.  In it were wrapped candies, nuts, along with oranges and coins.  A thing like an orange was very precious in this time.  She kept that tradition up with my sister and me.  It wasn’t until a few years ago that I found out reading in a history book that since the earliest days Canadian children were given fruits and coins to wish them health and wealth in the New Year.  Their tree was never decorated until Christmas Eve and often was set up by her parents after all 13 children had gone to bed.  Midnight Mass for my mother was at St. Jean Baptiste Church on Merrimack Street.  A behemoth of an edifice it had a triple choir loft that reached to the very rafters of the church.   She recalled the thrill of being so high up in the church and singing the hymn Minuit Chretiens (O Holy Night).  Minuit Chrétiens c'est l'heure solennelle; Où l'homme Dieu descendit jusqu'à nous. Pour effacer la tache originelle; Et de son père arrêter le courroux.  Right into her final years at some point in the season she would break into song, you could see her eyes fill as she returned to the joys of her youth. 

One year we awoke to a scene directly out of a Hallmark card.  Overnight we were blanketed in more than a foot of snow.  Nothing was moving on the streets.  At dinner time I had to make my way down Walker Street to my grandparent’s house to deliver their meal.  In the freezing cold my mother warned me to hurry not so I wouldn’t get frostbite, but so that the meal could remain hot by the time I got there.  The mince pie!  Don’t drop the pie.  My grandmother met me at the door and sure enough the pie was the first thing she checked on.  Memere always had a sweet tooth.  My mother would often catch her sneaking a brown paper bag home from the store which must have contained black and whites or maybe even a napoleon or a bismark.  My mother would get on the phone and let my grandmother know she was caught red handed.

What was a perfect day was ruined when my mother announced that in the subfreezing Arctic cold snow laden blizzard we had to go to Mass.  She knew there was a 5:30 Mass and it was a holyday of obligation which meant the fires of hell were promised to us who committed a mortal sin.  The church was over a mile away.  We bundled up for the long track.  The four of us hit the streets.  They were still covered in white.  The lights of the candles in people’s windows reflected in the snow piles in front of people’s houses.  I swear that not even one car passed us on the road during our journey.  Looking in windows you could see families celebrating and sharing the joy of the day.  We walked down the middle of the street in the dark since most people hadn’t gotten a chance to shovel yet.  Even Cukoo O’Connell’s bar on the corner of School and Broadway was closed up.  Probably the only day of the year it was.  I imagined the street light turning from green to red were that way to celebrate the season.  Don’t stop.  Keep going.  It’s Christmas.  Just as the last of my energy and heat escaped my body we reached the church.  My Dad grabbed the metal handle of the massive green wooden door.  Locked!  Locked?  Locked!!!  The four figures turned around.  No one said a word.  Maybe it was the sacredness of the moment or the fear of catching my mother’s wrath.  We walked home.  I felt the cold night through my black rubber boots with the dozen impossible buckles.  My thoughts now are of the drum set waiting for me in the good room and the candy cane that hangs on the tree that’s ready to be eaten.  I look up.  There is my father looking up Broadway Street.  He’s on my left.  Next to me is my sister with her white rabbit fur muff to keep her hands warmed, probably thinking of attacking those same candy canes.  On the far right was my mother with her fur lined black boots.  Hat on her head as every good church going lady had at that time.  She was probably saying her prayers for missing Mass knowing that dragging her family out on this special night was the right thing to do.  The crunch of the new fallen snow the only sound to be heard.

It is like a photo in my mind.  The four of us making our way home.  We’re on Broadway Street right at the gate house over the canal.  In the distance I see the candles in the windows of our apartment.  Frost is making its mark on the glass panes, and if I squint the orange glow almost makes the electric candles look like stars.  The street lights cast our shadows before us.  I can see it now.  I am right there.  Our little family was together and we were going home.  In my head I hear,
Silent Night, Holy Night,  All is calm, All is bright.

A little Christmas challenge- where is your Christmas photo from your childhood?

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