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(1999) A Christmas Day Long, Long Ago
by Elwy Yost


(1999) A Christmas Day Long, Long Ago

by Elwy Yost

 

As we approach the last Christmas of the 20th century, indeed the last Christmas of our second Millennium, my thoughts seem to return to the very early 30s when the Great Depression was upon us and I was a little boy of five living with my mother and my father in a red brick house with a big veranda on a strip of property just south of the northern boundary of Weston, proclaimed by the sign, COME AGAIN AND STAY.

 

Our house was located near the end of a long lane that ran west of Main Street, as Western Road was called in those days, along the CNR tracks to the cliffs that plunged into the Humber River Valley where a giant cement-pillared railway bridge, to this very day, spans the second fairway of the Weston Golf and Country Club.

 

It was on this property that my father had a garage where he kept his Model T Ford Coupe, two sheds for storing wooden boxes and kegs, and the building that he called The Factory in which he processed pickles in glass jars, worcestershire sauce and ketchup in bottles, and mincemeat in wooden buckets. To this most august list must be added fresh apple cider in season and, following a more complicated process, hard apple cider.

 

Every Tuesday and Thursday morning, we would load the rumble seat section of our car with various assortments of these items and deliver them to Greek and Chinese restaurants in downtown Toronto.

 

Until I started school at six I always went with him on these trips, including the big trips when Mom would make sandwiches for us and see us off at five in the morning on our way to Simcoe County to buy cucumbers for the pickles he manufactured, and even afternoon fishing trips to trout streams near Palgrave and Caledon East.


Mom would often be with us on his delivery trips on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and Dad would drop her off at 933 Bathurst Street, where she would help out her sister, my wonderful Aunt Georgy, in looking after their mother, my grandma McMurran, who we all called Mama, and their elderly father, Grandpa McMurran, who we called Poppa.

 

My Uncle Bill lived there as well and had a job, if my memory serves me, with a seed company. And Georgy worked as a secretary for the Mundet Cork Company and relied heavily on my mother to handle the laundry and other tasks during those years. Mom didn’t get paid a regular salary for her chores, but if we were short of money at home, which we frequently were, Georgy slipped dollars into Mom’s purse, and every month or so, she would send Poppa out to Weston by streetcar carrying a club bag of provisions including a roast or two, a chicken, and pork chops.

 

I had no brothers or sisters—mom and dad had lost two babies before I came along—and I was the only child on Dad’s and Mother’s side of the family and consequently, over the Christmas Season and my birthdays was spoiled to death by aunts, uncles and grandparents and am still unashamed to say that I loved it dearly.

 

Ah, Christmas, Christmas in Canada, Christmas in Ontario, Christmas in York County, Christmas in Tororno! I can still see all the snow and Dad’s shovelling out our long lane, and I can still hear bells tinkling on horses when their wagons brought our milk.

 

Dear, Dear Christmas! And the tree! Buying, transporting to our house, setting up and decorating our annual Christmas Tree were tasked Dad always reserved for himself, with Mom’s house of course, but never as far back as I can remember allowed me to see him at work on any of these tasks. Dad wanted the tree and all its trimmings to appear as if by magic to me when I toddle downstairs on Christmas morn. Santa Claus brought the tree all the way from the North Pole and decorated it in our house. As proof of the bearded man’s presence, Dad would refer to a half empty glass of milk and part of a piece of Christmas cake on our dining room table Santa had simply too busy to finish.

 

The clandestine activity of dad responsible for the magic of the tree only became apparent to me as I was a few years older. And this is how it was accomplished.

 

Late on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, Dad suggested we drive around Weston and look at the lights and decorations on various homes on King Street, Queen’s Drive, and Church Street, and then on up to Weston Road towards Woodbridge.

 

At some point past Thistletown, Dad stopped the car, and Mom took me for a little walk and kept me amused across the road on the driver’s side of the coupe, thus obscuring any activity that would be taking place on the passenger side.

 

That was when Dad secretly slipped into a tree lot, carefully selected and bought a tree, carried it to the passenger side of our care car, nestled it among the running board and fenders, and tied it with stout cord to the handle outside the door.

 

On the ride home, I was seated as usual between Mom and Dad, and Mom kept me distracted from looking out the right-hand window and seeing the tips of the tree branches by blocking my view with her body and constantly pointing to houses and people on Dad’s side and making all sorts of comments about them. She was quite an ad-libber, that lovely lady.

 

Once home, I was greeted like a hero by my dog, Cassie, and played with her for a while, then hunched down in front of our radio for the latest 15-minute chapter of JACK ARMSTRONG, THE ALL-AMERICAN BOY, followed by LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE. Dad joined me for these two shows and seemed to get the same kick out of them as I did. When they were over, he settled back in the big easy chair in what we called our “back room”, which was our living room, and read the Toronto Star. Mom had already started to prepare supper in the kitchen.

 

I have often said that we were poor in those days but always had good food on our table. Our Christmas Eve supper was typical of our meals: patties of round steak minced, mashed potatoes, peas and carrots from the large gardens Dad cultivated on our property and which were his pride and joy. These vegetables were kept in our fruit and vegetable cellar in the winter.

 

For dessert, Mom served the three of us pieces of apple pie she baked that morning. Her piece was on a conventional plate but Dad’s piece and mine were served in bowls so that we can add a helping of milk to the pie and break up the pieces with our spoons. Mom always chuckled at the way we liked our apple pie served and could never be persuaded by Dad to try it herself.

 

Later, as my bedtime approached, Dad hauled me up on his lap and read me a novelette from DETECTIVE FICTION WEEKLY, a pulp magazine she bought every Friday for 10 cents from the store called squibs in downtown Weston. My favourite tales in those years would be either a story by Judson P. Philips about four men who took the law into their own hands and were known as the Park Avenue Hunt Club or a grim Carol John Daly yarn featuring a demon detective named Satan Hall.

 

The titles still continue to haunt me: TARZAN OF THE APES, FLASH GORDON, LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE, and CHESTER GUMP AT SILVER CREEK RANCH. If memory serves me, one or two of those titles may not have come into existence for another year or two, but Aunt Georgy gave them to me eventually. Also under the tree was a set of darts and a board, a Meccano set, a wind-up train and tracks from Mom and Dad, and socks and gloves and shirts and corduroy trousers from my aunts on both sides of the family.

 

Around noon we got dressed in our best clothes, and Mom would pack gifts for our relatives in the car, and we would drive over to Grandma Yost's place on Belsize Drive, a bit east of Mount Pleasant Boulevarde, for a big goose or turkey dinner.

 

Aunt Laura who was a buyer for the Missies Coats Department of the T. Eaton Company was there as were Aunt Sarah and her husband, Frank Heyworth, who ran a barber shop at one time and later a hardware store on St. Clair Avenue. Aunt Sarah's happiest times were when Uncle Frank would announce they were leaving for Los Angeles in his Buick the very next day.

 

Frank had business interests there and they’d be gone for several months. Half the talk those years, mainly on mother’s side of the family, centred around speculations about how rich Frank was.

 

My Uncle Jack, Aunt Ethel, and cousin Jackie, six years older than I was and a lot of fun, would always be there as well, having taken the train over from Hamilton. Uncle Jack worked for the CNR as a telegrapher. Ten years later during World War Two, Jackie's plane would crash during a snow storm and he would be buried in a Church graveyard in Coningsby, Lincolnshire.

 

Around 5:30 p.m. we would leave Grandma Yost’s house and drive down to 933 Bathurst Street, a few blocks above Bloor, for a big turkey supper with Aunt Georgy, Uncle Bill, and Momma and Poppa McMurran.

 

I can still see Poppa, a pipe clutched in his mouth, chatting to Dad who had his own pipe going, the two of them enjoying drinks in the parlour.

 

Aunt Georgy, of course, was one of the best pals, next to Mom and Dad, that I ever had.

 

Over the thirties, she would frequently drive her Durant car out to the King Street Public School in Weston, pick me up after school, and take me to one of the big downtown theatres like Loews or Sheas or the Imperial or the Uptown or the Tivoli to see the latest Mae West film or a thriller like NIGHT MUST FALL with Robert Montgomery who suffocated old ladies with a pillow.

 

Finally, at 9:30 pm, we headed up Bathurst Street Hill where two men were standing in the big, open-air back of a truck shovelling sand out upon icy patches on the hill, snow blowing wildly around them. After Bathurst, we took St. Clair Avenue out to Keele Street, and from there to Trethewy Drive, and by the time we got to Weston I was sound asleep on the little cloth-and-metal folding stool on the seat between Mom and Dad. But I was awake to hear Dad utter the magic word "Home..." when he brought the car to a stop in our backyard.

 

The End.

00:00 / 09:32
Elwy Yost
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