Christmas in Her Heart is a true family Christmas story that I share every holiday season. I hope these simple yet remarkable memories made in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies will lift your spirit and warm your heart.
The aromatic promise of an epic Christmas dinner filled our farmhouse. Mom wrestled an enormous homegrown turkey from the oven of the wood cookstove and set it on the sideboard. The year was 1963.
My sister Shirley mashed potatoes while Granny strained green peas we’d picked and frozen the previous summer.
Making the gravy came next.
“Will Gregor come?” I asked. Never looking up, Mom continued stirring.
“I’m not sure, but he knows we eat at 12:30,” she replied.
“Will we wait dinner for him?”
“No, but set his place at the table,” Mom said.
Christmas dinner was a festive feast
To signal this special family event, we had put the leaf in the kitchen table. It was spread with an oversized, starched tablecloth that was stored in the drawer of the high dresser upstairs.
We’d all be together and have plenty of elbow room to savor our Christmas feast.
After finishing my job of laying out the cutlery, I double-checked to ensure that Daddy’s favorite knife was set at his place at the head of the table. Then I turned to face the kitchen window facing south, searching the snow-covered hills for a glimpse of Gregor Ross, our old bachelor friend and neighbor.
If he were coming to Christmas dinner, as he had done all the years I could remember, Gregor wouldn’t drive. He would walk three miles cross-country from his small wooden shack, no matter how deep the snow or how high the drifts.
Gregor came into view
“I see him!” I cried.
Gregor, a tall, lean, solitary figure hunched over in the freezing temperatures, appeared on the brow of the hill above the snow-covered potato patch. With long, purposeful strides, he walked an imaginary straight line down the hill toward our house.
“Let’s start putting the food on the table,” Mom said. “Call your father and the boys. Bobby and Arthur announced they were starved an hour earlier.”
“We can eat as soon as Gregor gets here.”
Mom placed the only package left under the Christmas tree beside Gregor’s plate.
Such a fuss over a pair of socks
I didn’t have to guess. I knew Gregor’s present was a pair of heavy gray wool socks, the kind all the farmers wore. It was the same gift Gregor had received the previous year, the year before that, and the year before that.
Nevertheless, the socks always seemed to give Gregor a great deal of pleasure. He would smile and in his deep voice that was sometimes difficult to understand, he would softly thank us all, looking self-consciously down at his dinner plate.
The socks probably were the only Christmas gift he received.
I took Gregor’s presence at our Christmas table and many times for dinner on Sundays for granted. A quiet man, who smoked cigarettes outdoors that he rolled himself, Gregor didn’t spread gossip. He kept his peace.
A man of few words
Daddy used to say that if we kids never learned anything good from Gregor, we never learned anything bad either. Gregor acted unfailingly like a gentleman going from farm to farm wherever he was needed. He helped with chores here, sawed firewood there, put in a crop here or build a fence there.
On Christmas Day though, it was to our place that he gravitated. He sensed how sincerely welcome he was.
When Gregor didn’t come for dinner one Christmas, we wondered where he had gone. Mom set his present aside hoping Gregor would knock on our back porch door early in the New Year.
Several weeks later, we heard the tragic news; Gregor had died suddenly while visiting friends in British Columbia.
Our family missed Gregor, especially on Christmas Day, and we have never forgotten him.
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Sharing a confidence
Decades later, I stood at the kitchen table, cutting up pan after pan of Mom’s legendary homemade fudge and puff wheat candy. She instructed me to fill a mountain of recycled card, cracker and wafer boxes with her homemade treats for family, friends, the minister and the mailman.
“But make sure there’s a couple of extra boxes in case someone drops by,” she said.
The faithful old mantle clock struck the hour. In the firebox of the old white cookstove, logs of poplar wood crackled as they burned down. On the top of the stove chicken mash bubbled next to a simmering pot of hearty soup.
It was peaceful in the heart of my old home and Mom and I were good companions.
Between sips of hot tea colored with a few drops of cream, Mom broke the silence.
“I’ve never liked Christmas,” she volunteered, gazing off.
Surely I had heard wrong
Never liked Christmas? My mother? How could this be?
Mom always made sure Christmas was a wonderful celebration for our family.
For decades, she had raised a flock of turkeys to sell at Christmas to augment the cream money that she and Daddy earned from milking cows.
We knew the Christmas story by heart and celebrated the holiday season not only with gifts and food but also by reaching out to others, especially the elderly and those experiencing hard times.
I swallowed my disbelief long enough for Mom to tell me her story.
The bitterest of Decembers
Mom was 13 years old when my grandfather died from throat cancer on December 14, 1924. In those days, medical expenses were entirely the family’s responsibility. Virtually everything that the small family had was sold to pay the doctor who could offer little help beyond supplying doses of morphine.
Because the weather was so cold, the funeral had to be delayed several days until the grave could be dug in the cemetery at Okotoks, Alberta. Finally, on December 18, my grandfather was laid to rest in temperatures that measured minus 48 degrees F (minus 44 degrees C) with the wind chill.
The Anglican minister officiating at the service received special permission from the bishop in Calgary to wear a skullcap. Otherwise, his bare head surely would have been frostbitten that day at the windswept cemetery.
Mom recalled that her father’s friends pushed their hats back in respect but couldn’t remove them because of the savage cold.
A sad, sad memory
Mom never forgot that dreadful day.
Not only had Granny and my Mom lost a beloved husband and father, but they were destitute. Their only living family members were half a world away in England, my grandparents’ homeland.
Granny took the first job she was offered as a live-in housekeeper/cook for a well-to-do Okotoks family. They weren’t happy that Mom came as part of the bargain.
On December 25, Granny dutifully cooked a fine traditional Christmas dinner. However, she and Mom were not asked to share it with the family.
No Christmas spirit
After Granny served the meal, she went back to the kitchen and took off her apron. She and Mom put on their coats and walked out the back door to the nearby home of another widow who had a special-needs son.
“Come in Mrs. Fendall, come in Cecilia. I’m so glad you are here. I know you don’t have much time. I will get dinner on the table right away,” the Good Samaritan said. She offered food, as well as understanding, and temporary refuge.
Too soon, Granny had to return and clear the dirty dishes from her employer’s Christmas dinner table.
Could things get worse?
Granny’s working situation didn’t improve in the new year. When a family friend saw Mom on North Railway Street a few days later, he bent over and hugged her.
“Cecilia, how are you? How is your mother?”
Mom couldn’t speak because of the huge lump in her throat. Staring down at her boots, she shook her head. James Bullivant, a father himself, grasped the situation from the pain written across the little girl’s face.
“Come with me,” he said, turning toward his wagon. He lifted Mom up onto the seat, climbed up and flicked the reins to get his team of horses moving.
“Let’s go and see your mother.”
A decision reached
The man and child went quietly to the back door of Granny’s place of employment, where they found her hard at work in the kitchen. After a few words were exchanged, the child and the caring man returned to his wagon. He carried a scuffed portmanteau filled with Mom’s clothes and several books.
“You’ll stay with us for a while, Cecilia. Things will get better. You’ll see,” he said.
The New Year proved as bleak as the day of the funeral. Granny mourned both the loss of Grandpa and her inability to provide a satisfactory home for her only child. The horror of having been orphaned herself at Cecilia’s age haunted Granny day and night.
A ray of hope
It came as a great relief when a Scotsman from the foothills near DeWinton, sent word that he wanted to hire a housekeeper/cook. Was Granny interested in working for the bachelor?
Of course, Mom would be welcome at Dave Wylie’s farm, too. Granny was indeed interested, but conventions had to be considered.
She wrote a letter asking the World War I veteran’s elderly mother for permission to accept the job. By return mail, the dear lady responded that it would be the best thing for both of them.
Thus, Granny quit her job in Okotoks. She and Mom packed up and went to live with Dave, whom Granny married years later.
While it was a good, safe home, it could never replace the one Mom had known with her mother and dad.
Life goes on
Years later, Mom married my father and in due course, we four children were born. Our family lived on the farm that my maternal grandparents had bought in the foothills west of Okotoks in 1918.
Although it was a good life, it required hard physical labor that let up and money was scarce. Over the years, we also endured disappointments, losses and several debilitating physical injuries.
Yet, Mom set the example for weathering life’s various storms. She always found peace and savored small pleasures.
Her burdens were softened by her faith and a loving family.
Extending love to one and all
Mom drew comfort from the kindness of some while shrugging off the callousness of others just as she had during that terrible Christmastime after her father died.
Rather than crusted with bitterness, Mom’s heart was etched with generosity and love.
Isn’t it ironic that Mom should die on Christmas Eve? The date was December 24, 2002.
That old farm in the foothills is still in our family. The Alberta Century Farm and Ranch Award it received in 2018 is a testament to the courage and determination of our parents and maternal grandparents. They all would share our pride in this recognition, but none more so than Mom.
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Merry Christmas to all my wonderful readers. Thank you for the privilege of sharing my stories with you.