“Hearts glowed in friendship, forged over decades,
and the Spirit of Christmas entered the house, and walked among us.”
For some people it’s the music of the season, the smell of the turkey, or the glittering gifts sitting under the tree; but for me it was a special visit to the house where I grew up, a homecoming, after a long absence of twenty-two years.
It doesn’t really seem that long ago since our father passed away in 1992, and our mother moved to town. I almost half expected to see him coming from the garage, carrying a tangled mess of Christmas lights, asking me if I’d hold the ladder steady, while he fastened the wire clamps onto the big spruce tree at the front of the house.
When I first heard from Wendy Parker, the current owner of our former home, that it was to be part of a Christmas House Tour, my thoughts turned back to days gone by, of the heavenly smells of Mother’s baking, bright cards in the mailbox at the end of the lane, and special concerts and plays at Calvin Church. There would be eight houses in total on the Christmas House Tour, and the event was sponsored by the Canadian Federation of University Women, and the money raised would help support education in the community.
Kevin and I arrived early that afternoon, with ample time to visit some of my old, familiar haunts. We drove first to Christie Lake, a place I knew well, the bridge at Jordan’s, where I’d jumped many times into the cool, clear waters. Hot days spent riding bikes with friends on the Third Line, and when that bridge was finally in sight it was like seeing an oasis in the middle of the desert. What a welcome sight it was! And even on this cold, December day, the lake appeared as serene and as lovely as it always did, calm and blue, waiting patiently for cottage season, and the laughter of little ones, the parties and music of the older ones, and a place of peace and serenity for the eldest ones. We drove along the shore, and then headed back up the Third Line.
A visit home would not be complete without making a stop at the church where our Mother brought us every Sunday. This was where we celebrated baptisms, witnessed weddings, and met for comfort after funerals. This was the setting for the Strawberry Socials, Easter Sunday white gloves and hats, the lighting of the advent candles and Christmas Eve. The church stands proudly on Cameron Side Road, looking solid as ever, a place for meeting neighbours, friends, a place for worship, a place for solitude, and a shelter from the storms and turmoil of the outside world.
We headed back to the Fourth Line and rounded the curve, up to the railroad tracks. There were many strolls along these tracks to the duck pond, watching the beavers at play, seeing the ducks return year after year, raise their babies, and leave at the end of the season. Memories of sitting under the big tree along the tracks with my brother Roger as we patiently placed a penny each on the rails, sat back, waited for the train to go by, then retrieved our flattened pennies. Many hours in my youth were spent waiting for trains, listening to the sounds of the lonely whistles, and hearing the rumbling and chugging down the tracks as they headed for Perth.
We continued up the side road to the little creek and as soon as I spotted it, I remembered scooping up the tadpoles in my sand pail, and then pouring them into a big glass pickle jar to set on the window ledge in my bedroom. Every spring it was a ritual to catch some of these quick, black tadpoles, or pollywogs, as we called them, and watch them for hours, swimming contentedly in the jar, until we dumped them back into the creek.
The lowlands, across from the creek were still flooded, and ice was already beginning to form. It was back on these lowlands that we all learned how to skate; not on a flat, pristine ice surface in an arena, but through the weeds, and over the bumps, and up and down the imperfections of a farmer’s field. The fact that our skates were old hand-me-downs was the least of our worries!
We drove up the side road to the laneway and parked the car. As we walked up the lane, the slopes and curves of the land were as familiar to me as if I’d never left, and we made our way to the door and knocked.
When the door opened and we stepped inside, the home was beautifully decorated for the season. Wendy’s elaborate table was laid out with her mother’s china and cutlery with festive accents fit for a holiday gathering. The whole house in fact, was lovely and bright, adorned with reds and greens and touches of gold and shimmer. As we walked through the rooms, one by one, they were warm and inviting, and almost made me forget that something was missing – the smell of fresh baked bread, a permanent aroma in our house as Mother baked daily for a family of seven.
There was a lovely display arranged on a table in the den, an album of our Stafford family photos and copies of ‘Lanark County Kid’ and ‘Lanark County Chronicles’. I thought that they looked very much at home in this well cared-for house, so lovingly maintained and obviously cherished.
Perhaps what made the house seem so much like home, after so many years away, were the familiar faces, friends and neighbours, who came to share the memories, of the things that once were; and to celebrate a new Christmas season, content and happy in each other’s company. Though Wendy’s is the newest face among us, it’s as if she’d been with us all along. Wendy is a gracious hostess, and we all had a wonderful time chatting about the house, and catching up on the news in the neighbourhood.
I walked through the house, room by room, and the memories of the past lurked playfully around every corner. The house seemed to remember me, and the walls and ceilings surrounded me with love, and kept me warm and safe once again. It was a special day, and a rare treat to be back home.
Heartfelt thanks to Wendy and to the members of the Canadian Federation of University Women, for making our visit possible, and many thanks also to old friends and neighbours Margery Conboy, Beverly Ferlatte, Betty Miller, Eleanor Paul and her lovely daughter Heather for joining us on our trip down memory lane!
As I continue to bask in the glow of our visit to the old house, I will leave you with this quote from Thomas Wolfe:
“But why had he always felt so strongly the magnetic pull of home, why had he thought so much about it and remembered it with such blazing accuracy, if it did not matter, and if this little town, and the immortal hills around it, was not the only home he had on earth? He did not know. All that he knew was that the years flow by like water, and that one day we come home again.”
This story – in memory of Betty Miller (1934-2015) – “gone, but not forgotten”