Dad was always late getting home on Christmas Eve. It had nothing to do with the weather, which was often unpredictable that time of year, with snowstorms or freezing rain. It was because he delivered milk for a living, and December 24th was the last time he’d see his customers on his milk route before Christmas Day. Chaplin’s Dairy was closed December 25th.
For a man who wasn’t particularly outgoing, more of the strong silent type, he still managed to make a lot of friends, and was well-liked by his customers, and that was a big part of the reason he was late on Christmas Eve. In fact, he wasn’t just late toward the end of his route, he was late all day; losing a few minutes here, and a few minutes there, spending extra time with each customer, until, by the end of his route, he was running very late indeed.
It wasn’t something to complain about. Dad’s customers made a point of greeting him at the door on December 24th; the same people who would often leave a hastily scribbled note explaining how much milk they wanted, and sometimes the money they owed was left with the note, on their front steps, or between the doors, or stuck in an empty milk bottle. Christmas Eve was different. Dad’s customers not only came to the door when he knocked, but they presented him with boxes of peppermint patties, and chocolate covered maraschino cherries, packs of cigarettes, Christmas cards with one or two dollar bills inside. They made a point of shaking his hand, wished him a Merry Christmas, and thanked him for bringing their milk all year.
Long after nightfall, when he finally finished delivering to his last customer in Perth, he drove the big rattling pink and white Chaplin’s Dairy truck back to Glen Tay, then unloaded all of the empty milk bottles, brought them into the dairy, got in his car, and drove home.
He was always late for supper, and some years we waited….and waited…., but more often, Mother would just give up after an hour or so, and put his dinner in the oven to keep it warm. We were all busy, running around getting ready to go to Calvin Church for candlelight services, so Dad would often have to fend for himself when he finally arrived.
If I close my eyes, I can still see him, heading across the snowy yard, laden down with bags and boxes filled with chocolates, gifts, and cards from his customers. He’d stop just before he reached the house, set everything down, and plug in the Christmas lights that were wound around the snowy spruce tree beside the house.
He never forgot the kindness and generosity of the customers on his route, and when he’d open a box of chocolates he’d remark, “these are from the Murphy family”, or “the peppermint patties are from my customer, Mrs. Ferguson, on Sherbrooke Street. He displayed all of their Christmas cards proudly – some on top of the old black and white television, and some on the shelves of the china cabinet, and he placed the one and two dollar bills in an envelope and handed them to Mother, who saved them to use toward something practical.
As the days grow shorter and colder, and the long shadows stretch across the sky earlier each afternoon, I remember those Christmas Eves, waiting for Dad to come home. At the time it seemed like a bother, squirming in our chairs, growing impatient for our supper, and wanting the evening to be over quickly so the morning would come, and we could open our gifts, and see what Santa had left in our stockings.
It’s only now, many years later, that I realize what a special day December 24th must have been for Dad, to be greeted so kindly, to be showered with gifts, to listen to the expressions of heartfelt gratitude, the sincere appreciation, along with the warm handshakes and genuine best wishes for a happy Christmas. The fact that his customers took the time and expense to gift him with boxes of chocolates, cards and the one or two dollar bills meant the world to him. Dad told us that some of his customers were of modest means, and could scarcely afford the milk he delivered each day, let alone a gift for their milkman.
Looking back it was things like this that made Christmas special – meals made with love for all to share, the homemade ornaments gracing the tree, carols sung by candlelight at Calvin Church, the scent of the fresh spruce in the living room, and seeing our Dad beaming with pride as he passed around box after box of delicious chocolates, a gift of gratitude, for a job well done, and with warmest good wishes for a Merry Christmas.
For more about Chaplin’s Dairy
Chaplin’s Dairy in Glen Tay:
A story about Chaplin’s Dairy, in “Lanark County Kid”: