A Christmas Story

by: Kerry Riley

First published in the Haliburton County Echo, 1998

Photo by: Kerry Riley, 2010

When the subject of memorable Christmases arises, the story which comes immediately to my mind, is, strangely enough, not my own. My birth being decades in the future at the time it took place, I cannot even claim a peripheral role in its unfolding. I am, however, a legitimate heir.

Attempts to conjure first memories of my grandfather from the misty past reveal a short, portly gentleman in his sixties–neat, perhaps even fastidious, with a carefully tended salt and pepper mustache, shining bald pate ringed by a friar-like fringe of white hair, solid-looking glasses, and a conservatism in dress that borders on the monastic. Lest he seem, in this verbal portrait, too stern, let me add a cherubic smile and twinkly blue eyes that threatened to transform him into a very inappropriately dressed, but appropriately rotund elf.

By the time I knew him, he lived in a little white frame house on an acre of land in the hamlet of Rosebank, just east of Scarborough, amid large, formal flower gardens, nut, cherry and apple trees, and a huge, gloriously productive vegetable garden. Later, during the 1970’s real estate boom, he sold that acre  profitably and retired to Haliburton, where he eventually resided across our patio in a “grandfather flat” constructed precisely for that purpose. Here he gardened avidly, ate well, entertained his friends and family, until finally, at 88 years, still active, independent and alert, he died in his sleep.

Ascent to the threshold of middle-classdom was, however, a late development in my grandfather’s life. Born in 1897, near Toronto, details of his childhood were obscured by his own silence on the matter. This led us all to surmise that it was an unhappy one. It is generally understood that his father deserted the family when my grandfather was quite young. Serving as a pilot in WWI, he was shot down in Belgium, and taken prisoner-of-war. His middle years were spent teetering on the brink of serious poverty, toiling to pay off crippling medical expenses incurred, in the midst of the depression, as a result of the closely-spaced deaths of his young first wife (my grandmother) of tuberculosis, and a daughter, of scoliosis.

His character had its darker aspects, of course. It was reputed that as a young man he could be hard and absolute, and had, perhaps, a bit of a temper. A long-standing but mysterious rift between he and my father was never discussed but kept their relationship cordially distant.

His greatest strength was his ability to enjoy the simple pleasures in life–in particular, food. He believed, for instance, that a Sweet Marie candy bar was one of the crowning glories of modern civilization, and took childlike delight in his ability, later in life, to buy Laura Secord chocolates for Christmas. An indulgent grandfather, he was one of the few adults I have ever met who seemed to genuinely enjoy an hour- long game of “I Spy.” Sunday dinners at my grandparent’s house were great events. The particular qualities of each of many dishes, most from the garden, were appraised with careful devotion, this year’s squash compared with that of last, various homemade pickle and juice vintages analyzed for taste, texture and bouquet, the (always perfect) fresh baked buns or biscuits, deconstructed in detail. Food was, for my grandfather, certainly a comfort–enjoyed in these, the happiest, most secure years of his life, in spite of, and in defiance of, past grief, hardship and insecurity.

Stubbornly non-intellectual, he cheerfully admitted to a utter lack of artistic discrimination or musical appreciation. “I’ve never understood what it’s about,” he confessed to me once, trying to unravel the puzzle of my own aptitudes. He did listen to the radio, however, for the news, and, as fate would have it, was listening one day in 1983, when Peter Gzowski called on his CBC listeners to recount stories of their most memorable meals. He knew exactly what that was about, and immediately constructed a reply. It eventually found its way into the venerable Mr. Gzowski’s collection, published as a 1985 edition of The Morningside Papers.

In this reply, my grandfather gave details of a special Christmas dinner enjoyed in unlikely circumstances, in the dying days of WWI. The demise of his aircraft, and his subsequent capture by the enemy are disposed of in two short lines–“shot down on the Menin-Ypres Road in Belgium, and transported to a German prisoner-of-war camp in Munich.” Hints of a poetic nature emerge, however, in my grandfather’s lovingly detailed description of the dinner presented to all the prisoners, Christmas day, 1917, complements of a sad and worried Commandant, missing his own son, who, as it turned out, was a prisoner of war in Gravenhurst, Ontario. Contrary to all expectations of Christmas prisoner-of-war stories, highlights of the feast included a roast goose, with trimmings, abundant vegetables, beer and wine, and, finally, unbelievably, Christmas pudding–with sauce! My grandfather speculates, appreciatively, that the colonel must have owned his own farm to be able to produce such a lavish meal, in a country itself so desperately short of food.

The dietary deprivations of war must have been particularly hard on my food-loving grandfather, linked so completely, as it seemed to be for him, with security and well-being. I wonder if, in addition to the regular hardships of prison camp life, unwelcome echoes of Christmases past, and vague premonitions for Christmases future dragged at his spirit as a result. In any case, it’s hard to imagine another gesture on the part of his captors that could have brought greater comfort, and become, then and later, a more powerful symbol of hope, and evidence that unexpected grace is possible, and that things might, after all, work out well. As, indeed, they did.

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