Brenda and I sipped our Saturday morning coffee recently, sitting back in comfortable armchairs in the sunshine that streamed through the windows of our spacious back room. She was thinking back to her childhood and the impact it had on her, her ten years of growing up at Maplewood Lodge.
She said, "I was always surrounded by adults who listened to me and made me feel as if what I had to say was actually interesting."
"And we celebrated everything!"
Yes, we did celebrate. We celebrated St. Patrick's day by giving prizes to the person who wore the greatest number of green items of clothing or we had Irish stew and mashed potatoes tinted green; we made the same special heart shaped cookies each year at Valentines; we had parties with old fashioned games like Pass the Parcel, and Blind Man's Bluff and Musical Chairs--all played by our children and the men we cared for. Every occasion was duly feted, including 16 birthdays a year, for which I baked and decorated all of the cakes. Our surroundings were humble in terms of furnishings, but those things are so unimportant really when it comes to the enjoyment of life.
The fun, as a parcel is tossed from hand to hand, with layers of paper torn off in the interval when the music stops was intense! Many times the " paper ripper" would have to be urged to stop ripping when the music started again and pass on the parcel that grew ever more tantalizingly small and close to the inner surprise with every layer. Hands held onto that parcel tightly before letting go, willing the music to stop before it passed on. It makes me laugh even now to think of it.
Christmas was the crowning Celebration of Celebrations and preparations began in late October with the baking of the Christmas cakes--a rich concoction from an English recipe, into which after baking for hours in brown paper lined tins, I would poke holes with skewers and pour in brandy, wrapping afterwards in brandy soaked tea towels and putting them somewhere cool to ripen. Sometime in early December the cake would be unwrapped and brushed with sieved apricot jam with which to adhere a layer of almond icing. This would be left to harden for a day or so and then came the layer of royal icing.
One year I made three oblong cakes with the message Peace, Love and Joy, respectively. I left them on the dining room table so that the icing could harden. Imagine my dismay to find that our little mutt, Honey, had found the scent of brandy laced fruit irresistable. I came into the room and found her on her hind legs, a good third of her way into one of the cakes! I momentarily forgot peace, love and joy! The cake was too precious to waste and I salvaged what I could.
I once bumped into Mr. McKenzie, the administrator of Pine Ridge when I was there for a meeting one November and he asked me how things were. I said that I was very busy baking for Christmas. He asked why I was baking and not just buying. I tried to explain that Christmas was home made. It made it more special somehow and each year the same special treats issued from the kitchen and were carefully stored out in the cold breezeway: rocky road fudge; shortbread; sugar cookies decorated by the children; mince pies, and many other delicacies.
We began a tradition of having a big Christmas open house in December, to which a stream of 80 or so people would come: family members, staff from Pine Ridge and friends of the men who lived at Maplewood. We would have large bowls of cold salads, plates of turkey, English trifle and all of the baking would be out for the occasion. We would always spend time after eating, singing some carols.
Christmas shopping and wrapping was a huge undertaking for our large household. It was unthinkable that there would be inequity in the quantity of presents. We recognized that we owed our living to the people we had moved in to support and on Christmas Eve, after they went to bed, I crept into their side of the house and laid piles of presents to add to those from their families, beneath the lights that twinkled magically on the tree. Everyone cooperated by going to bed early that night of the year as if by some unspoken agreement, and there was a hushed anticipation over the whole house. There was at least one true believer in Santa Claus amongst the men, which added to the magic.
In the silence of Christmas Eve, I was often the last person up, padding around the kitchen making last minute preparations for Christmas Day. The wind would blow and snow swirl across the lonely fields ourside, and the sense of waiting was tangible in the air, just as it must have been on the night of Jesus' birth.
I went to bed late on Christmas nights, having stuffed a large turkey and put it in the oven to cook overnight.
We would put one present on the children's beds for them to open when they woke up but then the day of waiting began for them! They enjoy telling now what torture they went through, but it is with laughter.
After a quick breakfast we would all go and join the men around their tree. Some would have gone home for Christmas, but there were usually about 7 who hadn't. The names on the presents would be read out by Paul with a Santa hat on; on his hands and knees by the tree. One person in particular, would never open any of his presents, but would sit while his pile accumulated beside him, until there were no more presents under the tree. Then, and only then, would he begin to open them.
Around our tree the presents beckoned, but we had church yet! Paul would take the children to church while I prepared the Christmas dinner. On his way home he would stop and pick up our very dear, elderly friend, Miss MacDonald, my beloved "Aunt Agnes." Aunt Agnes never married because her first beau died in the First World War and she left the second love of her life behind on the mission field in Africa, when malaria forced her to return to Canada. One year after Christmas I asked her what she had done for Christmas and was crushed to hear that she had spent it alone. I had imagined that she would be in demand at many Christmas tables. I vowed that as long as she lived she would never spend another alone, and she didn't.
Eventually the children, Paul and Aunt Agnes would arrive back from church and sometimes Paul's family would join us too. By this time the children would be getting phone calls from their friends, asking what they got for Christmas. "We don't know yet!" they would say, to the disbelief of their friends.
We didn't intentionally spread the day out like this but there was just so much to be done! Eventually all the presents were opened and dinner was served. The best of all times came then, when the afternoon twilight would deepen and the Christmas lights would twinkle in each room. Boxes of chocolates were opened and snacks laid out; turkey sandwiches made for the evening meal, and a happy quietness settled over all of us in the house. Sated and tired we snoozed intermittently and had another chocolate or two, grateful for the blessings of Christmas.