A child’s Christmas … on Bell’s Turn

Susan
Susan Flanagan
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Christmas on Bell’s Turn in the 1960s and ’70s was full of magic, mayhem, surprises and maybe the odd disappointment.

With 38 children in five houses, the pre-Christmas excitement was palpable. By the time I came along in early 1967, 26 Bell’s Turn housed 11 people; eight children, two parents and a maternal grandmother.

We co-existed in a rectangular 1,200-square-foot wooden house with one bathroom, a large kitchen and living room and four bedrooms. One bedroom slept three boys while the larger one next door, which I think was supposed to be the master bedroom, slept five girls. My parents and grandmother (my grandfather who lived with us died before I was born) tucked themselves away on the other end of the living room in two small rooms.

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, we scrubbed our house from top to bottom, wiping down all walls and cupboards and waxing floors. People today would be shocked to know that Christmas Eve at 26 Bell’s Turn saw eight children going to bed with nar a Christmas tree in sight.

Part of the magic waking up Christmas morning was seeing the fully-decorated tree that had not been there hours before. It was my father’s job to get and decorate the tree. As my mother put it: “I was the cook. Dee (my father) was Santa.”

 

Bedtime

So, after the children were all tucked in their beds in their new Ayres and Giant Mart flannel pyjamas, my mother made raisin buns and dressing for the 30-plus-pound turkey, while my father set up and decorated the tree with lights and reflectors, carefully adding the silver tinsel which our Siamese cat would predictably attempt to eat and throw up later.

Just before midnight, my mother would manoeuvre the delivery van (my father sold dishes) through the archway into the Basilica parking lot (that was the only way to drive into the church back then) and she and our neighbour Mary Whitten would quietly take in midnight mass.

In the meantime, my father/Santa was busy filling socks with apples and grapes, and some years, the odd pomegranate.

“We even got our own bottle of soft drink,” says my sister, Gerry. “And there were two bottles of syrup, one for Christmas Day and the other for New Year's Day.

My father would then place one gift for each of us under the tree topped by a plug-in silver star Dad called the Sputnik, most likely given to him by one of his clients, Gus Lilly, of A. Lilly and Co., supplier of paper cups and gravy browning, among other things.

After mass, in the wee hours of the morning in our big kitchen with frost-covered windows (my mother, rather than dwelling on the fact we were losing precious heat through those windows, told me stories about what she saw in that frost), my mother would stuff the turkey and put it in the oven (we still have our Christmas dinner midday) to bake while she collapsed into bed after a raisin bun and hot toddy.

It may sound like my mother got off easy compared to my father, but when their sixth child was only two months old, my mother’s bedridden father and still-active mother moved in with us.

“There were concerts to make hats and capes for,” she says. “I didn’t have much energy left for imagination. That was your father’s job.”

Christmas does not wait for an opportune time, however. It comes but once a year and it comes whether a family is ready or not.

When the eight of us tumbled awake on Christmas morning, we found that Santa had left each of us a sock stuffed not only with fruit, but a toy. One year I remember I got a watch; it was the most exciting thing I had ever possessed.

“Christmas morning there was a sock full of treats laid at the bottom of our bed with some grapes, a beautiful, juicy tangerine and a five-point red Christmas apple,” says my sister Marie from Calgary, adding it was a long time before she learned Christmas apples were really called Red Delicious. “And a couple of candy and a little toy.

“Running in the boys’ room was very exciting to see what everyone got,” she says. “The magic was in the feeling, not the stuff. The feeling is still here with me. Elaine (Shano from next door) maybe running over in her pyjamas. Aggie and Ron (Dad’s parents) coming to visit. Getting a little gift from Mary and Bernie (my godfather). One year it was a little carrying case with a doll in it — dressed like a nun.”

 

Morning vision

Marie says her best memory is of getting up Christmas morning and seeing the tree all lit up and decorated for the first time.

“It is still a vision of magic in my mind. It wasn't until I was quite old that I found out that Gerry and Anne helped Dad with the decorating after hours. One Christmas, there was an inflated reindeer and Santa, and for some reason they were so beautiful and may just as well have been the real thing.”

My sister Gerry, one of the latter-day decorators, says her favourite memory is also the living room after the tree went up.

“We waxed the floor right before Christmas and the tree lights would reflect in the tiles, making the room look elegant (if you closed one eye and ignored the concrete showing along the paneled wall). I loved that and would plug in the tree just to see the reflection.”

We may not have been rich, but the Christmas traditions and the presents we received, or didn’t, were definitely memorable.

My brother Jim remembers the Christmas he was seven or eight.

“I was in trouble a couple of days before Christmas. I can’t remember what I did, but it was bad. So Christmas morning I got my stocking, but when everyone got their present under the tree there was nothing for me. I thought I didn’t get anything because I had been bad. I was scared and disappointed and too afraid to ask. Then Boxing Day. mom was all apologetic. My gift had been there all along pushed into a corner because it was too big to wrap. It was a box about three feet by two feet by six inches (Note: Jim is a carpenter, so he has dimensions down pat) filled with Hot Wheels.”

“One Christmas, Brian and John got cars with vinyl, blowup tires on them,” says Gerry, adding these were not something you’d see in a store around town. “We were captivated by the idea that these tires had real air in them.”

“The cars came from Ron Marshall (Dad’s father who worked at George GR Parsons on King’s Road),” says Brian.

They were about a foot long and came with a pump and moved with friction. You’d push them back and forth on the floor until they went on their own.”

“One year, I got a pottery wheel that I really wanted,” says my sister, Pat. “I also remember Dad bringing gifts home from clients and one time there was a wind-up Santa. I loved seeing that every Christmas.”

That musical Santa emerging from a chimney still adorns the shelf at my mother’s house every Christmas.

“One year I was still wearing the kind of winter boots you put on over your shoes,” says Anne, the eldest child. “They were big and clunky and most of the other girls had ‘knee boots’ and I really wanted them. I was maybe 11 or 12 at the time. I don’t recall even asking for the boots as I did not think it was possible. To my surprise, on Christmas morning there was a box containing new vinyl knee boots in a black and red design with a warm fleece lining sitting under the tree. I remember flying across the living room to hug Mom and Dad.”

 

New York box

One extra special Christmas at 26 Bell’s Turn happened before I was born. My mother’s sister had, earlier that year, moved to New York where her husband was an ironworker. Her eldest son was in high school at the time, so rather than disrupt his academic year, he moved in to our house on Bell’s Turn until the summer so he could finish up the 1964 school year. He slept in the boys’ room with my three brothers on homemade bunk beds built out of planks and an old door. Lots of people got barrels from New York, but that Christmas the Marshalls received a big box from New York sent by our cousin, Kevin Keough.

“My true Christmas surprise was the year after Kevin Keough left Newfoundland,” says my brother John from Nova Scotia. “The following Christmas, a big box arrived from New York with a Tonka cement truck for me and a Tonka grader for Brian. We were so proud of the Tonkas and we played with them in the endless gravel on Bell's Turn or in the woods across the street. It seems to me that Brian’s grader was left in a driveway and an oil truck (or other delivery vehicle) crushed it. When I see a Tonka, I can still feel the magic of that Christmas and remember Kevin who died from a head-on car collision six months after he was married at the age of 22.”

My sister Anne also mentions this box as her biggest Christmas memory.

“The Christmas after Kevin Keough lived with us, he sent a big box from New York with an electric knife for Mom and Dad and gifts for all of us. My gift was a book called ‘The Indian Mummy Mystery’ by Troy Nesbitt. I can still remember the whole story.”

“Christmas dinner was always exciting,” says Marie. “Transforming the living room into a huge dining room with the GIANT turkey — over 30 lbs — being carved, although we never used the word carved. But we did get those little tiny Waterford Crystal liquor glasses with a sip of wine or brandy. It was special.”

“We set up the old folding table that used to belong to Keoughs,” adds Gerry. “And people would perch wherever they could, in an old armchair, or on the bench, an assorted lot of chairs, all levels. Dad would clamp the vice on the kitchen table so he wouldn't have to crack the nuts for us. We thought it was normal.”

Christmas crackers followed the dinner. We all put on the silly paper hats and admired the case the crackers had come in.

“The cracker package must have been a piñata,” says my brother, Brian, but Dad would carefully lift the crackers out so as to not damage the cardboard snow house or snowman that we then used as decorations in following years.

To this day, seeing a Christmas cracker reminds me of Christmases on Bell’s Turn. As we all know, there’s more to Christmas than expensive gifts. We children on Bell’s Turn had a lot to be thankful for. We were like the Whos in Whoville who liked Christmas a lot. We didn’t need all the baubles and toys. We had each other.

 

Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before! What if Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store. What if Christmas … perhaps … means a little bit more!

— “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” by Dr. Seuss, 1957

 

Susan Flanagan can be reached at susan@48degrees.ca. This Christmas at her mother’s, Susan’s brother Brian will most

likely carve the turkey with the

white-handled electric knife that Kevin Keough sent her parents in the 1960s.

Organizations: Lilly and Co., Ayres and Giant Mart, Marshalls

Geographic location: New York, Calgary, Newfoundland Nova Scotia Whoville

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Recent comments

  • Mary Walsh Butler
    December 19, 2013 - 09:42

    Oh Susan you could have been describing Christmas at the Walsh house on Brady's Path, or LeMarchant Road. Like your family, our tree was not put up and decorated until Christmas Eve after we had all gone to bed. Wonderful article.

  • Marilou(Stamp) Brummund
    December 18, 2013 - 21:37

    Oh my goodness....so many memories of Bell's Turn. I remember them all so well. Thanks for bringing a smile to my face and reminding us all of the love and magic of Christmas!

  • Elaine Shano (Short)
    December 17, 2013 - 12:47

    Thanks for the memories Susan!