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  • Writer's pictureGail Bowen

A Good Christmas

Updated: Nov 4, 2019

After Ted and I had been married two years, my mother-in-law gave me a Christmas book—a kind of diary in which I could record the weather, the menu, the guests, the best presents and the big events of the next 25 years of holidays. When that book was filled, Babba gave me another, and it, too, is jam-packed with news of the Bowens celebrating.

Our son Nat and his girlfriend, Ellen, were in northern Saskatchewan with her family this Christmas. But they came over last night and I showed Ellen I had put the particularly beautiful card she’d given us in the Christmas book as a memento of Christmas 2010. Nat started going through the book and telling Ellen about memorable Christmases our family had had: the time we were stranded in Chicago because of weather. My memory of that snowy Christmas was of going to the Episcopal Cathedral which was very high church. There were bells and incense and the priest chose a text from T.S. Eliot as the starting point for his sermon. Nat remembers that we walked along the lakeshore and looked at the glittering stores of the million dollar mile and ate, perhaps the worst Christmas meal of our lives, at a hotel that should have known better.

When the kids were little we were seldom home for Christmas. Most of the time we visited Ted’s family – first in Florida (60 miles from Disney World—brilliant grand-parenting strategy there). Twice we actually spent significant time in Disney World at Christmas. One year, we saw Rock Hudson read the story of the birth of Christ while the Disney characters sat reverently at his feet. Later we had many Christmases in Texas a place and an experience we all loved. In Texas our Saskatchewan boys could play football on the lawn in December. We had endless family reunions with the endless Texas families. There is a saying that every Texas woman takes twice as long to tell a story as is absolutely necessary. I know for a fact that this is true, but it was lovely to hear their soft, musical voices weaving narratives as we peeled potatoes together in the kitchen. In Texas, our sons Max and Nat went to Cowboy games with their dad and his uncle. Our daughter, Hildy, shopped the malls with her Babba. I think I mostly cooked, read and went for walks with Ted. My mother-in-law was a tee-totaller and Ted and I used to sneak a drink of bourbon back in our bedroom and listen to radio station KLUV (all love music/all the time) before we went to sleep.

Occasionally we went to Ontario to have Christmas in the country with my parents. Most often we visited them in summer, but those Port Hope Christmases had a magic of their own.

There have been blue Christmases. In 1976, my father-in-law died in the middle of November. We were living in Saskatoon and that Christmas my mother-in-law flew up to join us. Christmas was her holiday. She loved everything about it—especially having her family near. There wasn’t a square inch of her house in Florida or her house in Texas that wasn’t decorated for the holiday. She had an extraordinary Santa Claus collection, half of which we now own and proudly display. But that Christmas was heartbreaking for Babba. To add to the mix, our oldest child broke out in chicken pox on Christmas eve, and our car died (also on Christmas eve). Not one of the Bowens’ top ten.

The items I’ve collected in my Christmas book over the years have significance only for us. Last night Nat and I laughed at a lot of them, but the one that made us both cry was an old list of hamburger orders. My mother-in-law was a wonderful woman with many talents and endless love and patience, but she was a terrible cook. When we came to Texas first, she would make stew the day we arrived. It had never been cooked long enough and try as we might we could never choke it down. One year, when we arrived she said that a new hamburger place called Braun’s had opened up and she thought maybe Ted and pick up burgers and fries for us all. She didn’t have to ask twice. Braun’s burgers were among the best I’ve ever tasted, and their fries were greasy and salty—perfect Texas food. That became a tradition, too.

Of course what I notice most about the Christmas books is the shifting cast of characters. Babba and Daddy and my parents are all dead now. Most of the long ago aunts and uncles who came to the family reunions in Texas are gone. My much loved Aunt and Uncle in Ontario are dead. There have been divorces, but there have also been marriages. New people joining our family. And we love them. Our son-in-law Brett is witty and patient and loving. Our daughter-in-law, Carrie, is thoughtful and kind. The grandchildren are, of course, all perfect in every way.

On Christmas Eve, all of us were in the front pew of St. Paul’s Cathedral for the children’s candlelight service at 5:00 o’clock. Madeleine and Lena were serving. All the young grandchildren carried the animals and the figures for the crèche up to the altar and arranged them so that the Dean could tell the old story about the birth of the baby. After church, we blew out our candles and came back to our house for Texas brisket, present opening and the beginning of what turned out to be another truly great Christmas. 

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