Travels with Myself

A Journal of Discovery and Transition
Doug Jordan, Author

21-24 Remembrance of Christmases Past

Yet another Christmas has come and gone and this gives pause to reflect on things past[1]. I don’t know about you but this one was not particularly welcome: covid fatigue, grief hang-over, and an overactive sense of Christmases Future have dampened whatever enthusiasm I had for the Christmas spirit this year. But rather than dwell on the discouraging present, and the even more dreaded future I thought I should reflect on Christmases Past, some of which hold lasting impressions.

Unlike Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol[2], for the most part my Christmases Past, especially those of my youth, were largely pleasant, a middle class boomer generation cliché, a Saturday Evening Post magazine cover, privileged in a rather unaware way, though when you’re six or seven years old you’re not much aware of anything; but when you are seventy-something wholly revised perspectives emerge, patterns that weren’t altogether evident at the time.

As a kid growing up I thought myself typical of every other kid I knew, our parents probably didn’t have much money and were stretched to provide for a nice traditional (‘50s) Christmas, but we kids were mostly oblivious. For me though, not completely. Here are some of my reminiscences. (Don’t give up now, I may have had 74 Christmases but I’m not going to recount all of them in this blog post!)

1953, perhaps, or maybe it was 1954. Peterborough Ontario. My first pair of skates, and learning to skate on Grass Creek. After breakfast Christmas morning, I guess, my Dad and Uncle George (my mother’s youngest brother – I suppose he would have been about 20 but seemed younger to me, but what does a six-year old know about age?) took my younger brother Steve and me to this still-water inlet to the Otonabee River where the ice was presumably thick enough to tolerate traffic. I remember my mother being concerned but Dad just shrugged her off. It was a gray and damp day, and the whole experience wasn’t very pleasant. Not that we crashed through the ice (we didn’t) but that falling all over the ice in our clumsy novice way was most unsatisfying and frustrating. I see now that petulance was the beginning of a pattern of my life – I was competitive and needed to be good at things I tried – right away. Steve seemed a lot happier clumping around on his skates guided by Uncle George and supported by a kitchen chair. I don’t remember anything else about the day, nor Christmas Eve, nor Christmas Dinner, not my youngest brother Jim, nor my grandparents. (Well, I never met my Grandfather Jordan as he drowned in a boating accident in 1944 and my Grandmother Jordan died in 1953, I think, but I have no memory of her either.) I think we took Christmas Dinner at my Grandpa and Grandma Holden’s house.

1955, the disappointment of the electric train set. We still lived in the little house on McKellar Street in Peterborough, a two story white asbestos siding house (the horrors) my Dad had designed and built himself in 1944, I think. There were two bedrooms upstairs and one at the front of the house downstairs. My brothers shared one of the bedrooms upstairs and I had the other; the parents had the downstairs bedroom. The house had an adjoining living/dining room, separated by an arch; next to those rooms down the hall was the single bathroom and then the kitchen. The living room had a fireplace but I don’t remember ever seeing a fire in it. The Christmas Tree stood next to the fireplace under the arch and next to the dining room. I tell you all this because when I got up Christmas morning excited for my hoped-for electric train set (even if I already knew I would have to share it with my brother Steve) the train had already been set up (by Santa I supposed) on the dining room table. But I was disappointed. I hope my parents didn’t notice my chagrin though it’s likely they did and I wonder if their feelings were hurt by my own disappointed look. The problem was the train had three tracks, the middle track being the power line, and I knew real trains didn’t have three tracks, only a pair. My chagrin redoubled when we went next door later that afternoon to visit my Aunt Vera and Uncle Mel Holden and my three cousins; Allen had received a Lionel train set, a truly authentic looking model with black double tracks, not the cheap shiny triple tracks of my train set. I’ve had many [minor] disappointments in my later Christmases but nothing quite so disheartening as that train set. I still cringe at the memory of my ingratitude.

1956 & 57, we had moved to Ottawa (my father had been employed with IAC and as a career development policy, promising potential managers were transferred every couple of years).  I have no recollection of Christmas there. Likely in ’56 we commuted to Peterborough only a month after having moved to Ottawa to have Christmas with my mom’s parents. The following year, likely, I have a vague recollection of a Christmas tree in the living room window of our two-story townhouse, a snow storm, and a RCAF transport plane passing awfully close over our house to land at CFB Rockcliffe, but that’s it.

1958 was memorable for the trauma of it all, and mostly forgotten. We now lived in Sudbury and my dad’s brother, Uncle Johnny and his wife and two girls (my cousins, Patsy and Jennifer) had come to live with us, having quickly left their home in British Columbia under mysterious circumstances, for six weeks. Uncle Johnny and Aunt Beryl took over my brothers’ bedroom, 13-year-old Patsy got mine, and the rest of the kids slept on the floor in the living room. That included Christmas Eve and it’s a mystery to me still how Santa managed to bring all those gifts while we slept. I never much thought about who paid for Patsy and Jennifer’s gifts, until now.

1960, after an unforgettable Christmas in Montreal in 1959 (our next move after Sudbury) – unforgettable because I have absolutely no memory of that – we moved to Welland Ontario. Dad had rented a nice big two-story new vintage house, four bedrooms upstairs, a sunken living room with fireplace, a lovely dining room – mind your step – and behind that a sunroom overlooking an apple tree and a deep backyard. We didn’t get Tony, a year-old beagle adopted from the pound, for Christmas but I do remember a few bouts of territorial scrambles with Freckles, my Grandparents’ Holden cocker spaniel.

1964, Peterborough (Dad’s last transfer with IAC) and another unforgettable Christmas, this time because I had pneumonia and was mostly delirious all Christmas Day; my mom must have been very worried because I spent the whole day in my parent’s bed (why not my own bed???). I recovered enough to go to a neighbourhood house party for New Year’s Eve but had to be home right after midnight. That’s where I met Marlene. She ended up being a part of my next 52 Christmases.

1965, no doubt the most magical Christmas Eve of my life. I had spent the evening with Marlene and the Dunham clan. I was by then a first-year student at Queens University, Kingston, and Marlene was a student nurse at Wellesley Hospital in Toronto, but both of us home in Peterborough for Christmas. We were desperate to be alone with each other and the perceptive parents sent the siblings and themselves off to ‘roost’ at a reasonable hour for Marlene and I to have a wee private visit. Some time after 11:00 with great huge snowflakes gently falling I walked home (a mile and a quarter, uphill, both ways) an ache of love in my stomach but my feet barely touching the ground.

1969, Kingston, Marlene and I and our first Christmas together as a married couple.  Marlene had to work nights (a paediatrics nurse at KGH) over Christmas and so for the first time in both our lives we were separated from our families. We bought a Christmas tree at the corner store across the street from our basement apartment; we bought a set of lights and a box of decoration ornamental bulbs from Zellers; we exchanged gifts and cooked our own turkey, though Marlene slept through most of the day. Those Christmas tree lights are long gone but the box of bulbs I still have and hang them on an artificial tree today with nostalgic tears in my eyes.

A christmas tree with lights

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1975, Marlene and I lived by then in Ottawa, and we managed to get home to Peterborough every year to that point, despite a long drive down wintry lonely Highway 7, except the previous year as baby Ryan was only one week old.  But in 1975 we bundled the babes in the back seat of my sporty Ford Capri, and squeezed gifts and baby paraphernalia into the small trunk. Later that Christmas Eve as we piled gifts under the tree we discovered we had left all the stocking stuffers behind in Ottawa. I was very cross with myself and the situation but my wise mother gently advised that the three-year-old Shannon and little Ryan would not notice or remember. I knew she was right but it didn’t assuage my annoyance much. Things got worse however Christmas Day when unsupervised Ryan tumbled down [Marlene’s Mother] Helen’s stairs from the upstairs bedroom. That was the last time Marlene and I went ‘home’ for Christmas; from then on Christmas was at our house and if grandparents wanted to be involved they had to come to us.

1985 Oakville, and a Christmas that makes me cringe as I recall it from time to time even now, or especially now. My then divorced Mom would have been 60 and I thought nothing of her taking the bus from Peterborough to Oshawa, then the Go Train to Toronto then Via train to Oakville, carting with her her luggage and gifts, including a floor standing living room lamp. She suffered from arthritis and anxiety which were not then debilitating, much, but I’m sure the journey was very stressful for her.

The 1990s and we have returned to live in Nepean (Ottawa), and the years are mostly a blur, the kids are teenagers, my Mom, and occasionally Marlene’s mom, would come to stay with us, traveling by bus from Peterborough to Ottawa. 

1997, Shannon is married and living in Toronto – my how the years have flown by since Marlene and I spent our first married Christmas in Kingston – and she has to make the decision as to where she will spend Christmas. It was a quick decision: with us in Ottawa. But I knew the generational swings were upon us.

2002 my annus horribilis: My dad died, my dog died, and I turned 55. Shannon’s first-born, Madelyn had arrived and I knew soon Christmases for Marlene and me were likely to be at the Christner’s place in North York rather than at ‘home’ with Marlene and me. There were many events in 2002 marking stage of life milestones, of which the prospect of our Christmas traditions about to be shifting was only one.

2011, Christmas with Mom at Peterborough Manor Retirement Home. Perhaps the second most pleasant and memorable Christmas of them all. Mom was increasingly demented and had long since stopped traveling to be with us at Christmas; we would travel to her, usually the week before Christmas, yet another long drive along the wilderness Highway 7 between Ottawa and Peterborough. In those retirement home years brother Steve arranged to bring Mom to his house in Lakefield for Christmas but in 2011 he and his wife were going to visit their son in Thailand for Christmas. I couldn’t possibly have my Mom have Christmas with no family in Peterborough Manor and so Marlene agreed we would spend Christmas with Mom and then carry on to spend the rest of the Day with Shannon’s family in North York. It was a gray and bleak drive Christmas Eve afternoon, hardly any cars on the road, but somehow it felt poignantly appropriate. We stayed at the Otonabee Inn (they had plenty of rooms, unlike that time in Bethlehem), a lovely Best Western Hotel on the banks of Grass Creek, yes that same Grass Creek where I had my first skating lesson. We visited Mom at the Peterborough Manor that Christmas Eve; we had wine and cheese and I read Christmas stories (Luke 2, 1-14 and The Night Before Christmas) to her and Marlene as I had for 20 or more years before that. The next morning Marlene and I exchanged gifts in our hotel then drove over to the Manor to proffer our gifts to Mom. I don’t recall what I gave her but I do know that in her confusion she didn’t think I had given her anything. Very poignant to see and recall such awkward feelings. Maybe she wanted a Lionel train set.

2016, which we spent at Shannon’s in Markham. I had discovered a Hallmark version of The Night Before Christmas which allowed you to record the reading of it. Marlene and I did that for each of our kids and their kids as a memory book. Shannon had wanted to do a video-recording of Marlene relating some of her Christmas memories but Marlene wasn’t up to it. It was Marlene’s last Christmas.

2017 Shannon and Family wanted to create a completely different Christmas experience, to somehow distract ourselves from our first Christmas without Marlene who truly loved this Holiday with family. We decided to drive to Charleston, North Carolina and spend Christmas and New Year in a time-share cottage on stilts, a block or so from the ocean. Very different indeed.

2019, very different indeed. By 2019 I am half-way through my three year journey of transition and find myself in The Philippines staying with my asawa and her Filipino family, 12000 miles from home. I had met Carmen through on-line dating,, in December of 2018. By Christmas of 2019 I was living with her in a condo in Tagaytay Philippines. The Philippines is a mostly Roman Catholic country and the dominant tradition is to celebrate Christmas at midnight, even if you didn’t go to midnight mass; this was largely foreign to my English Protestant traditions wherein we hallowed Christ Christmas Eve but celebrated Saint Nicholas Christmas Day. We decided to rent a suite at the Bay Leaf Hotel in General Trias City, large enough to accommodate Carmen’s extended family (three (of her five) adult children and their spouses, five grandchildren and some in-laws, about 20 people in all. The kids went swimming in the afternoon in the hotel’s spacious pool complex; everyone had brought food, and drink (plenty of San Miguel beer, and Alphonso brandy). By ten o’clock I was ready for bed, wishing they would all go home. Carmen said I could lie down on the king size bed till Midnight when the real festivities would begin. I was joined by five kids and Carmen too. After two hours of not sleeping midnight finally arrived: Greetings, eating, and drinking, games and gift unwrapping (mostly clothes for the kids) ensued and by 1:00 I was well and truly done. Some of the guests went home, but when I awoke around 7:00, I discovered most had stayed, sleeping on couches and pillows all over the suite. When I woke up the next time around 8:30 everybody was gone and the suite was pretty tidy. Carmen and I had breakfast in the hotel but by the time we left around noon it had started to rain and for the rest of Christmas Day and the next we faced torrential downpours off what turned out to be the last typhoon of the season.

2021 I traveled to Markham to visit with Shannon and her family. I took the train to Oshawa to be met there by my now 19-year-old granddaughter Madelyn and be driven to the Christner home in Markham. The spirit of my mother is with me as I think of her journey to visit us in Oakville 35 years earlier. My my.

Doug Jordan, reporting to you from Kanata Ontario

© Douglas Jordan & AFS Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of these blogs and newsletters may be reproduced without the express permission of the author and/or the publisher, except upon payment of a small royalty, 5¢. 

[1] I suppose this post could become an entire memoir, though hopefully shorter than Proust’s seven volume slog.

[2] This famous story at least has the benefit of brevity, unlike many of Dickens’ major novels, and certainly the aforementioned Proust. (This lengthy blog post is obviously brief by comparison.)

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