Take a walk in the Short Hills and find the perfect tree
This is my story of a wonderful Christmas in the Short Hills of St. Johns West. It is about a week before Christmas and I am downstairs in my grandparents’ section of our home. I am having a plate of hot porridge smothered with sugar, gazing out their back kitchen window. There has been a beautiful snow fall of about ten inches last night. The blue jays and red cardinals are everywhere.
We live upstairs, and my grandparents and uncle live downstairs in our old home built in the early 1800s. The large French windows let in a lot of sunshine during the day. My grandparents have two old fashioned gravity-fed oil stoves classified as Quebec heaters. Upstairs, Mom has a propane heater affixed to our living room wall as well as a Quebec heater in her bedroom, which has to be manually refilled. These three Quebec stoves exhaust into the brick chimneys on both side of the house.
This is the first winter without my father, who passed away in the spring of 1963. Around that same time, my grandfather’s best friend also passed away. During the day and night, the house is always cozy and warm. With these large French windows, we really enjoy the beautiful scenery outdoors. It truly is a beautiful Canadian winter wonderland. Sorry— I am drifting, just remembering the day. Anyway, my grandfather says to me, “Een, are you ready to go?”
I guess because my mother’s name is Jean it just seemed easier to call me Een.
“Yes, Grandpa just give me minute,” and within five minutes I am bundled up and ready. Today my grandfather and I are going hiking and exploring in the woods. We will cut down not just one, but two Christmas trees for the house. Grandpa will haul the one back for the downstairs and I will bring back my first tree for the upstairs in our shared home. We go around to the back of the house and my grandfather fetches his old bow saw that he and his older brother would use to cut wood for their parents in their younger years. He also gives me a nicely sharpened axe to carry on our journey.
We are both now ready to venture into the woods, the two great explorers Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. The snow is deep and as we enter the woods the branches are all laden with the fresh fallen snow. We go along a beaten path down the short side hill out back that has been there forever. As we turn a corner we come upon the peace and tranquility of the sparkling brook making its way through the snow.
We get to one of grandfather’s favorite spots, where he likes to just stop, listen and think. It’s a fresh water spring where many times a week he will come to get water and watercress all year round for the house. Nothing compares to having a watercress and cheese sandwich.
As he takes out his pouch of Daily Mail tobacco to roll himself a cigarette, I wander over to the old rake which has been abandoned for years. This old piece of equipment, as well as an old roller, was used on the farm in the olden days, when horses were the only source of power to pull these old contraptions around. It really is a rustic setting and I believe my grandfather really craves the peace and quiet in a world that is changing so quickly. He finishes his cigarette and we now continue on our journey.
As we start climbing the old horse path, we come to a clearing which was once a field. It’s overgrown with neglect but it’s still interesting to hear my grandfather relate the stories to me of when he and his brother Rob used to work the farm. Uncle Rob passed away in the early ‘50s, before I was born. It sure is a beautiful day out in the woods and I see a few possible pine trees but our adventure is far from being over.
As we go through another valley and up another hill, I am amazed at how much ground we have already travelled over. I say to Grandpa are you sure you know where we are going, and with this we come to another piece of old farm machinery.
“Believe it or not, Een, this is an old binder that we also used on the farm.”
I realize there were no worries now because my grandfather knew every inch of this land. This was his terrain, an area he knew like the back of his hand. An area I would get to know just as well as I would grow into my teen years.
We continue on our journey because there are little sisters, my mother and grandmother waiting patiently for our return. As we go around the next bend, I now realize why we have gone to the farthest border of the old farm. Everywhere I look I see hundreds of pines, beautiful future Christmas trees. But now the problem is to find just the right one.
My grandfather spots a nice little short one, because that is the height of the tree my grandmother likes in her living room, on the fancy side of the house. It took me a little longer but I too found the perfect tree. With the enthusiasm of youth, I cut down my first Christmas tree and Grandpa and I begin our return journey home. With a new exhilaration, we pulled our trees behind us, and even though the snow was deep our trail was already blazed, and we made it home within the hour. Passed the old binder, the old field down into the valley pass the spring, over the stream and up the hill with the old house in site.
Like proud pioneers and explorers Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett have returned home. Little sisters are both shrieking with joy. Mom and Grandma beam with pride to see such wonderful trees. Within hours both trees are set up, the lights, garland and bulbs are affixed, and before you know it both floors have the intoxicating smell of fresh pine wafting through the house. Yes, it was a good adventure.
The season is about to really rock and roll in our home. Day after day it seems so many friends, neighbors and relatives are stopping in at the old Highland View. Maybe it’s just for a cup of tea and a scone, like our milkman would enjoy at the end of a long day delivering door-to-door in the neighborhood. An old friend of my grandparents, he would save our place as a last stop for hot tea and warm conversation. Or for others something possibly stronger, like some Christmas cheer that my grandfather has hidden in the basement with his favorite Scottish whisky glasses.
There is no internet, no cell phones, no computers, but within the week this house will be as busy as any modern-day home. Networking just seemed a natural part of my grandparents and parents’ era but with a more old-fashioned way of keeping in touch. In my grandparents’ parlor, above the piano would be hung hundreds of Christmas cards with delightful greetings and warm messages. They would be hung on strings evenly spaced on strings above the old upright Mason and Risch, which was angled in to the corner between the two French windows. A very organized room, it was a reflection of my grandmother’s mind and her refined upbringing in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Upstairs would be the same in my mother’s domain but with a different feeling, because she was born in rural Canada and has three small children. Actually, my grandfather, my uncle and mother were all born in this house in St. Johns West. Now with two large families interconnected and with friends and neighbors stopping in, this house is becoming like Grand Central Station. As Christmas Eve and Christmas Day unfold the sweet smells of my mother’s and grandmother’s cooking fill our home. The tables will be put end-to-end in the kitchen and dining/living room on Christmas day, and with so many folks arriving there never seemed an end to all the settings on the tables.
But no matter— everyone was fed and surprisingly enough everyone got along well with each other. As a youngster these experiences form a solid foundation for my understanding of Christmas. The season continues on, day after day, with just as much enthusiasm as Christmas, but still the best is yet to come.
It’s now New Year’s Eve and everything is getting organized for the big party. In the two living rooms downstairs all the folding chairs are getting set up everywhere. The old piano has been cleaned and nicely polished, for soon Uncle Dave will be playing, with cousin Bill accompanying him on the harmonica. The beer is outside in the snow keeping cold, the whisky and glasses are in the basement for a quick pick-me-up, and my grandmother’s fine china is all ready for the ladies to have a nice cup of tea and a raisin biscuit.
It’s about 7 PM and my sisters and I are perched at the top of the stairs to get a good view of all those who will be attending the party tonight. The doors open with no hesitation and with a friendly ease everyone is greeting and wishing each other a Happy New Year. The conversation is lively and happy, the laughter is loud and bright and at the same time Uncle Dave is playing a song on the piano by ear. He is also joking and throwing out one-liners, pulling everyone back into the fun.
Well, it’s just about time for the clock to strike midnight. There are no televisions on in the house, no one is watching the ball drop in New York City. This is just a neighborhood party with everyone singing Robbie Burns’ song Auld Lange Syne. The end of the evening is near. Soon everyone is putting on their coats to head home. Although it has been a great party there are things to do the next morning. Some folks are farmers, and chores have to be started bright and early. Others have something to do just because it’s the beginning of a brand-new year. No matter how bad things can get for all of us I am still amazed at how resilient we all are and how we can still joke and have a little fun.
All that I have related to you is a memory from yesteryear. The old homestead and farm are long gone, being absorbed into the Short Hills Provincial Park. Most of the people I have talked about are as much ghosts as is the old hamlet of St. Johns West itself. Once in a while the sparkle of that time reappears again, especially when there is snow in the air and families are venturing out to the Short Hills to cut down a Christmas tree of their own at one of the local growers and creating new memories of their own. So, if you get bogged down with the stress of our modern times, try to relax, and remember things will always get brighter again. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. ◆