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A Cold Day in Hell
She gave us the directions and we set off. It was fun at first. But then it started to rain. The coal yard wasn't more than a mile or so from our home. Not much of a distance for a mother who had grown up in Ireland and was used to a great deal of walking. But for Terry and I, it seemed endless.
To this day, I don't believe my mother would ever intentionally have caused us harm, but on that day, we were sent on our quest without gloves, scarves or hats. Perhaps she was so distracted by taking care of my father and a newborn that she didn't or couldn't pay attention to basic needs. As children, we were even less attentive. Until the rain turned to sleet.
We made it to the coal yard, looking, in retrospect, just as Dickens might have described waifs in any number of novels. Wet, disheveled, and cold. The man came out and I asked for a hundred weight of coal. I must have blocked how this translates into present day measures. For the life of me, I don't remember. The man looked at us, scratched his head and put a sack into the pram. He then went and got another one and put that in it too. "Think you can manage it?" he said. I think what I did then was just hand him the money our mother had given us. He counted it out and said something like "oh dear"....but, then he sent us on our way. As I look back, it was probably not enough; thanks to that kind, gentle soul, we now had to deal with a surfeit of riches.
Winter in many climates can be snowy and cold; in England, it is cheerless and damp. And there are times over there, when Jack Frost pays a personal visit. Such was the night when Terry and I pushed the pram home.
Today, as I observe our home all decked out for the holidays, I count my blessings. Oak logs in the fireplace throw out radiant warmth. A floor to ceiling tree shimmers with ornaments. Cats loll on the sofa. Carols sing out from the stereo. The aroma of fresh-baked cookies wafts from the kitchen. 'Tis the season and all is merry and bright; yet, in a wave of nostalgia which always happens at this time of year, I'm drawn back to those days when I was a young girl, growing up in England.
For the most part, I can look back on a childhood filled with many merry Christmas memories - the pudding steaming on the stove; the holly wreath on our front door; our little tree covered with a hodgepodge of decorations; the anticipation of waiting for Father Christmas. But there was one year when mum and dad's valiant efforts at giving us a good Christmas fell far short. At least for them. Forty or so years later, it inspired this attempt at poetry:
Bananas in December
My father was sick again;
On Christmas Eve, they
I have never forgotten that Christmas Eve. But God, in his infinite mercy, has erased all other memories of the day that followed.
Holly and Ivy hanging up and
something wet in every cup*
Not so long ago, Irish Christmas decorations were much simpler than they are now. The children gathered holly and ivy for adorning, windows, doorways, mantles and pictures, and the father would carve out a turnip in which would be placed a large red candle. This would go in the window to light the way for the Holy Family on Christmas Eve. Only in relatively recent times did an Irish family have a Nativity scene and a decorated tree in the house. As for Mistletoe, it's quite rare in ireland and is generally associated with ancient Celtic and Druidic fertility celebrations; this is most likely where the custom of kissing under the mistletoe comes from.
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March 4, 2011
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