In the week before Christmas,the morning routine was to wait for mom to get into her green wool tartan housecoat and go downstairs to flip the switch on the furnace shaft to send some warm heat upstairs while I stayed in bed warming up my clothes for the day that were rolled up at the foot of the bed.With breakfast started on the stove and the tea made,mom would come back up stairs and supervise the dressing preparations for the day . It was a noteworthy day if the old quilt cover was covered a bit with some drifted snow from the shaky window sill. Outside the evergreen trees in the lane were draped with snow and the path to the road was filled in until the tractor made it’s way through it.
On such a day, by nightfall, the back shed door would thump and bang while the top part of an evergreen tree from our bush was squeezed through the entrance into the farmhouse kitchen. The tree was freshly cut, covered in snow and ice and still holding abandoned bird nests in it’s top branches. Pushed by the table, it would knock off any dishes or food placed there for supper. With a tighter squeeze it was brought into the ‘parlour’, set into a galvanized pail with water, tied with twine and attached to a nail on the wall.
Decorations were some very old twisted strings of large coloured lights with aluminum star like and pointsetta style reflectors. Some of the lights bubbled with coloured water effect. A few surviving glass baubles and recycled tinsel and silver garland completed the whole thing. Nothing fancy and hardly ever a new ornament purchased, but the remembered tree with the snow, ice and bird nests in it’s branches is a beautiful part of my Christmas heritage.
I think of that tree and I can see my big brother bringing it into the house. It isn’t a memory from a pin and post décor article or a scene from an urban chic lifestyle television program. It is the moment,captured. The back shed door, the cold fresh tree, the snow, ice and bird nests,the cups and plates and food knocked over by the huge branches, my mom standing there dealing with it all and the memory of my big brother, full of fun and bringing some to me.
Little child and I together
for the afternoon
with an age difference of about sixty years and we got along just fine
with the bag of folktales
artfully rendered books about nature, poetry, faith, mystery and fun
With the wind howling and tearing
the fence and vines outside and the sky
dark with power
we sat together
a two year old and another much older and met
in the place of books
A friendly and quiet place
with gentle words and warm comfort
Putting out the call,
writing up the bulletin, drawing the poster and gathering
Sensory games analytical for some
insightful for others
Listening to the inner voice before it dissipates ignored
Snow falling, repeating the warning in the words spoken, bulletin printed and sketched
postponed as expected
and yet the interest stirred enough to warm the inner voice
muffled in layers
Soapsuds past my elbows as I plunged into the freestanding metal wash tub, I felt worthy of the status of a church lady despite the fact I was barely seven years of age. On each side of me at my workstation on the wooden table were more basins of hot water to dip and rinse the dishes as I did my best to keep up with the circle of older ladies drying dishes as fast as possible. Proudly contributing my youthful enthusiasm I worked at the dishwashing as long as my services were needed. Sometimes I was enlisted on other more pressing tasks such as running upstairs to the church sanctuary with messages for the elders pinned to my chest or collecting dirty dishes from my sister and sister-in-law ordering me around as they prepared available seatings for more guests at their assigned table.
The rural church kitchen had no modern features that I recall except an ancient stove of some kind and a deep laundry type sink with a tap. There was a hand pump on one side of the drain board I think but my memory is foggy on that. I don’t recall a refrigerator either. If there was one it was non-descript. Tall wooden cupboards to the ceiling held a large collection of old thin white china with a plain rim of burnished silver and another smaller collection of light green fiesta ware cups and saucers. As the dirty dishes came in through the swinging kitchen doors they were scraped quickly and plunged into the soapy water for a quick turn around use as they were needed for the next seating of people coming down the two sets of stairs leading from the upper sanctuary. I remember coleslaw swimming aound on top of the dishwater until one of the ladies would dump it out in the big sink and refresh it with clean hot water from the giant kettles steaming away at the back of the stove.
The experienced, talented younger ladies were involved in rolling out the white paper to cover the long tables and resetting the dinnerware and silverware ( as we called it). Once presentable, the men organizing the seating of our guests would announce that those seated in certain pews in the sanctuary were to take their turn for the meal while others would have to wait until a table was ready. It was a whirlwind of activity, friendly folks and wonderful turkey dinner smells. It went on for hours because we fed the community at large and I thought it was the most fun, ever to have at church.
The food was prepared at home on the farm and brought in to serve the huge turnout. Some local ladies were entrusted with the roasting of turkeys and their husbands roared home to collect the birds from warm ovens when supplies ran low. Canning kettles of mashed potatoes and turnip were kept hot on the feeble old stove while extra huge kettles were kept handy, close by at someone’s local home. Bins of homemade coleslaw marinated safely in vinegar ready for quick dishing up and served in a variety of bowls along with the potatoes and turnip. Homemade applesauce and pickles rounded out the meal along with stuffing and gravy.
Along a wall in the Sunday school were specially built shelves that held all the pies. Needless to say, they were also all homemade. There were mostly apple ,pumpkin,cherry, elderberry and raisin pies but some ladies would bring in show stopping lemon pies heaped with swirls of meringue. Coffee was made by my mom in a huge copper laundry boiler where the grounds boiled with salt and eggshells. Along with all the other tasks involved with the big supper her special job was to make the coffee for the crowd. I think she was the only one who could get tanks of it just right so it became her special job. Dippers of this strong brew were ladled into white metal coffeepots for the ladies to serve coffee along the rows of tables.
When the last guest had been served and sent again on their way home, the kitchen staff, servers and all the male helpers sat down to share the leftovers and rest weary legs. Every year, for a long time before and a long time after, these fowl suppers were a special event in my young life and represented to me what a church community did. They worked hard, did their best, encouraged each other and had fun whenever they could sharing their traditions and faith in a down to earth way. I am thankful for the memories and yes, we really did call them…Fowl Suppers!
Happy Canadian Thanksgiving!