Despite impressive hits from Google, I didn’t like the shape and tone of an argument presented here yesterday, ostensibly against PM Harper’s latest cynical Senate appointments but really a tirade against someone not named (yet) so I’ve removed it.

I take my leave of Toronto for the holidays and go to my family’s ancestral home in Perth (Lanark County), Ontario, a place of beauty which, second only to Montreal, is my sentmental home. (The latest banner picture is what I’ve nicknamed Glen Tay holly :))

Merry Christmas!


A doggone Christmas morning

It started off like any other Christmas morning.  My two sisters and I were up first, kneeling in front of the tree, keeping a respectful distance for our first assessments, but sliding in ever closer, checking the weight of a few parcels, seeing if there was anything we could guess.  We pointed out the missing cookies and milk to young Janice.

Mom and Dad soon peered in to the living room from the back hallway and when Mom said we couldn’t open gifts until Craig was up a small kitchen band was quickly assembled and Janice, Lynn and I marched downstairs to the bedroom he and I shared.  We coaxed Sparky, our black cocker spaniel-poodle mix, on to the bed.  Craig’s welcome was less than regal, and we beat a quick retreat, but we didn’t have to wait too long before he was on his way upstairs.

Our grandmother, visiting Valleyfield from Perth, Ontario emerged from her bedroom to sit in on the excitement.  Sparky, doing what dogs do to those not enthralled by them, leapt up and nearly snatched some of Grandma’s knitting which she clutched to her chest – several pairs of socks and mittens which she had knit for us.  We scolded Sparky loudly, with Grandma seemingly unfazed, telling us as she laid them on top of the other gifts that they were all about the same size so we did not need to worry about whose was whose.

“What do you say kids?” Mom asked.

“Thanks Gammy!” we shouted in unison.  (“Gammy” was the name our grandmother gave herself when she first became a grandmother at fifty years of age. For so long as she continued teaching, she thought, she was too young to be called “Grandma” or “Granny”.  The name stuck until her death at age ninety-five.)

After gifts had been unwrapped, Mom set about making a complete pancakes-and-sausages breakfast.

It soon occurred to us that Sparky wasn’t around.

“Oh I let him out the side door,” Dad said.

These seemingly innocent words were big trouble where Sparky was concerned.

“D-a-d!” came the response in some sort of four-part discord.

Mom looked like the hot kitchen and her blood pressure were tag-teaming against her.

“You know that dog doesn’t come home on his own,” she scolded.  “That’s the reason we got him!”  (We had taken possession of him from a third party who had done all the homework possible as far as seeking his owner.)

“Well he should know enough to,” Dad answered.  “I can’t understand why he doesn’t.”

With Mom’s breakfast spread nearly ready, she was understandably none too happy as Dad and his four kids got into our snow gear and went looking for Sparky.

We split up and went in four directions – west and east along Boulevard du Havre, at one end of the street, and west and east along Dufferin Road at the other end.

The streets were quiet, with most families still indoors enjoying the early hours of Christmas morning.

Our search was futile.  An hour or so later we assembled back on our driveway, heartsick.  Mom stuck her head out the side door.

“I wish you’d come in and have your breakfast.  I can’t keep it warm too much longer with the turkey due to go into the oven,” she appealed.

We were a pretty discouraged bunch, hungry yes, but not getting the full enjoyment from Mom’s hard work to be sure, Gammy trying to encourage us as best she could.

Mom was just filling the kitchen sink with hot water for the dishes when she glanced out a front window to see a cab pulled up across the driveway.

“Who’s that,” she began, “oh it’s Nancy and Bruce – and with their darn dog.  Now what are they doing in a taxi?”

Where were they coming from?  Weren’t they on their way to Nancy’s parents in Portland?

It turned out that their car had broken down somewhere between Montreal and Val-Cartier, where Bruce was stationed with the Canadian Forces. They had called Nancy’s Dad and he agreed to meet them at our place so long as they got that far on their own. Bringing along the dog ruled out the possibility of a bus so it was a cab driver’s lucky day!

Bruce insisted on keeping the dog tied up outside (and got no argument from Dad and Mom!).  Mom got some tea and toast ready for our visitors just as Homer pulled his large Buick into the driveway.

He stomped the snow off his boots and came in the side door and, although he did sit down for a bit of a rest, he insisted that he was not hungry and would not have anything to eat or drink, well maybe a tea since it was made.

Our guests weren’t long getting their gear ready and into the car, the dog in the back seat with Nancy.  The Buick was just backing away, with most of us in a line extending in from the door, when someone yelled “Sparky!”

Looking like he knew a bit of the trouble he had caused, Sparky hung his head low and walked up the back stairs.

“Sparky, on your bed!” Dad intoned, as someone wiped his feet with an old towel.

I don’t think it was noon yet.

Christmas church candles and Coca-Cola chuckles

As I look forward to hearing and singing the music of the Christmas season I think back to the break-neck pace we kept in the family at this time of year when I was a kid.

This probably would have been the Sunday for our church’s candlelight service, or perhaps the 20th, and it was always a very full day. It  began with the regular morning service and then Mom, the church organist for thirty-one years, would round up both the junior and senior choirs (ad any available chauffeurs) for an after-lunch drive.

We took something of a triangular route to two English-language nursing homes – one near Ormstown, the other just outside of Huntingdon – where we sang carols, both in the main living-rooms and at the bed-sides of anyone who couldn’t make it to the larger gathering. They were, my mother recalls with more vivid detail than can I, unlicensed homes so using the term “nursing” belies a level of care that would not meet the standards of professionals, neither now nor then. I do vivdly remember a fair amount of good-natured shouting, which I would now recognize as simple attempts to communicate with one another, an almost suffocating heat, even with drafty windows, and a few pungent aromas.

Some of this usually frightened me as a youngster (most residents were older and in much rougher shape than my grandparents) but it was a valuable life lesson and, in fact, I grew to have quite a particular affinity with the more elderly subscribers along my paper route during my teens. I remember Mom would spend an evening a day or two before our outing packing little plastic bags with Christmas-coloured hard candies, tied with a festive ribbon, for us to hand out to the seniors.

Dusk was upon us when we got home for a light supper and then we set off for the candlelight service. It was a very pretty little church and on this night it was always amazing with, I swear, more candles per square metre than any other church would have considered safe, not to mention the fire marshal. The only electric lighting used was over my mother on the organ (and maybe the choir, too, but most couldn’t read music so lighting wasn’t a priority.)

The church would be very warm, thanks to a boiler furnace and associated radiators which pinged, hissed and banged at times of their choosing which rarely matched the beat of the music. There was more than the usual amount of body heat, too, with regular attendees out-numbered by Christmas and Easter seasonal devotees.

The music was pretty good, all things considered, as Mom always had at least one and sometimes two excellent soprano soloists in the choir – and Mom had a very good two-manual Casavant Frères pipe organ to work with. (I’ve been a big fan of pipe organs ever since.) Mom had taken over as organist – she a piano teacher, mind you, not an organist – from Bob Anderson. There was a character! I suppose he would have been in his seventies when I first was old enough to remember him but he and his wife Effie lasted well into their eighties. Bob had a booming baritone voice which could be heard all over the church during the singing of an old hymn. When I was young enough to be getting the “Say thank you” advice he would reach into his suit pocket and haul out a selection of wrapped candies. He and Effie were immigrants from Scotland and their brogue was very thick. As I grew up I mastered pretty good imitations of both of them.

Valleyfield United was a small English-language Protestant church in a mostly French-speaking, Roman Catholic city so I can only remember two great preachers since it tended to attract clergy either just starting out, relatively speaking, or those close to, or perhaps overdue to, retire. Richard and Harold were my favourites. Richard was there when I was in the first few grades of school while Harold managed to keep me interested in the church through my high school years. Otherwise, we cycled through quite an assortment of clergy who probably sped up the rapid decline in church attendance in those days.

The church is being transformed into a local museum. Newspaper reports I’ve read about it, and pictures on its Facebook page, show that all the beautiful stained glass memorial windows have been maintained. They really are spectacular having been installed gradually, and well cared for, over the long life of the congregation.

After the candlelight service we would usually take a short detour on the way home so that we could pass the Coca-Cola bottling plant where a more secular version of Christmas was on display. In a large picture window, where the assembly line would normally be in view, sat a twice-life-sized mechanical Santa Claus in a setting that probably came from the company’s earliest magazine ads. One of his low-tech arms would go up as a voice, through loud-speakers, boomed, “Ho ho ho!” This was a traffic stopper, particularly at night with lots of twinkling lights adding to the atmosphere.

Coke plant

(Photo Peter Rozon)

My grandmother, who would be part of this drive home a few nights later on Christmas Eve, got a big kick out of Santa which to kids like us, accustomed to a rather staid grandmother, made us laugh all the harder.

Happy Christmas memories of Valleyfield United Church and the Coca-Cola Santa Claus are inseparable!

Artwork from