I’ve lived in Merida, the capital city of the state of Yucatán for such a long time that the festivities and customs here seem more familiar than those in Canada, the country of my birth. Except when it comes to Christmas. And today, a memory from almost 50 years ago won’t leave me alone.
At the time, I lived in Vancouver, but that is not where this story took place. It unfolded about 200 miles north-east, in a small town called Princeton. When I was in my early 20s, my parents moved there. My brother, Steve also lived on the coast, and like me, he wanted to spend Christmas with the rest of our family. Princeton is cold in December, and we both knew we wouldn’t need to drive far before we encountered the kind of winter weather that Canada is famous for.
The Frazer Valley, the first leg of our journey, did not present much of a challenge. But after an hour and a half on the road, we began climbing steadily. Soon we reached the formidable Manning Park stretch of the Hope-Princeton highway. Steve drove an old Ford Econoline (basically a metal can on wheels) and he’d filled the back with sandbags, hoping to get the traction we’d need in the ice and snow. But, despite the weight, winter tires and chains, the wheels slipped and slid more than they chugged and churned. God, it was treacherous. I kept up a steady litany of Hail Mary’s, while Steve struggled to keep us from plummeting down one of the many deathly deep drops. There was no lighting… not even the reflective “cat eyes” that mark lanes nowadays. We followed a Safeway grocery semi-truck and if not for that gracious driver who made signals for us, I doubt we’d have made it. White-knuckled, we somehow did so, and gratefully sat down in front of our parents’ blazing fireplace.
Mom could see how shaken-up we were. “It’s too cold for midnight Mass,” she said, “We’ll go at 5pm tomorrow, on Christmas Day.” Those words sounded as soothing as Nat King Cole’s voice playing on the hi-fi. All Steve and I wanted was to stay inside where we felt safe and toasty warm.
At least two feet of fresh powder fell overnight. “Winter Wonderland” doesn’t begin to describe the view outside the triple-paned living room picture window that looked out onto the front yard.
At the time, we were still 8 siblings, (2 have passed away since then) and all of us were in Mom & Dad’s home that Christmas morning. The gift giving continued for more than two hours. I worked for an airline and I’d bought presents for everyone during a layover in Amsterdam. I felt glad that they seemed so delighted with them. But really, van der Gracht is our last name… how could I have worried that blue-and-white wrapped parcels would be a bust?
Mom got out of bed early to put the turkey in the oven, and even though my sisters and I insisted she go back to bed, she stayed with us as we chopped, mixed and rolled-out dough in her avocado green kitchen. She told us sweet stories of her childhood and her mother, who none of us ever knew.
Dinner was all ready by 4pm, but we’d have to wait for it until after we came home from Church. Not one of the four brothers or four sisters dared protest. I bundled-up in the winter gear I detested, kept the frown off my face, and filed into the tiny, drafty wooden church. Father Conalan, the parish priest was Irish and ancient. He wore two heavy cable-knit sweaters under his cassock, and he urged us to settle close to each other. I could see his breath and wondered if it was the cold that made his voice shake. The temperature was no higher than 10 below zero, and the only inside heat came from a pot-bellied wood stove. I noticed Father was hurrying through the familiar prayers and readings, until it came time for the sermon.
When he told the fifty-or-so parishioners that he would be reading a poem instead of giving a sermon, I felt uneasy, and I could see I wasn’t alone. Father Conalan was known to lose track and my teeth clenched when he unwrapped a tattered piece of paper and began to read. His lilting Irish accent made each word sound like a musical note. I sat up straighter and listened. The magical, sonorous pitch of his voice and the chill soon urged the small congregation to get closer together. Like we were magnetic. The electricity went off, and we lit all the votive candles. We moved nearer still to one another. We fit snuggly, like the interlocking pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Near the end of the poem, we heard a line that caused us to reach for one another’s hands.
“You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.”
After the final paragraph, Father motioned for us to remain sitting. He said the poem was called “The Desiderata,” and it was written by Max Ehrmann in 1927.
There was no internet yet, no Xerox photocopiers. But Father had a mimeograph machine in the rectory, and he had made a copy for each of us. I kept mine for a long time, but eventually the blue ink faded and the paper fell apart. I bought the book later on, and I lost that during my move to Merida. But now we do have the means to read almost everything ever written, including, “The Desiderata”. And this is my Christmas gift to you… share it with those you love.
Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment, it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.
12 thoughts on “A Christmas Memory”
Thank you, Joanna!
Wonderful and so timely for me. Just what what I needed. What an ecumenical priest!
Beautiful poem. God Bless!
We have a copy of that poem framed and on our wall Lovely story thanks for sharing
Best wishes for a good Christmas season with your family and friends. Thanks for sharing the poem and the memory. Our grandchildren saw the mighty Fraser River this summer in their trip to Quesnel.
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Thanks for staying in touch Frances. I also remember the first time I saw the mighty Fraser… I hung onto the guard rail so tight. NO way did I want to plummet down to “Hell’s Gate”.
As a fiction writer, I am struck by the vivid imagery and rich detail in this Christmas memory from almost 50 years ago. The treacherous journey through the Manning Park stretch of the Hope-Princeton highway, the warmth and love shared among the family, and the unexpected and heartwarming twist at the end all make for a compelling and memorable narrative. It’s a story that captures the magic and meaning of Christmas in a way that is both personal and universal.
Thank you for your reply and comments. I am pleased that you enjoyed my story. Please keep in touch… Happy New Year.
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Alex just sent this on to me. Such a wonderful story and sentiment…so need for this time. Also much applause for your beautiful art work. Thank you, thank you, and Thank You!
Cyber hugs, John
Thank you John. I am glad you liked my Christmas story. Let’s get together soon!
Dear Joanna – What a wonderful story! Thanks so much for the heart you bring to your blog. John also wrote a comment but it seems it didn’t show up. The mysteries of cyberspace. Anyway… he really enjoyed your art and story! – We both wish you and Jorge, your family and those close to you a very joyous holiday celebration! xoxo Alex and John
Alex it has been such a long time… let’s see each other … somehow… as soon as possible