When I was a girl, Christmas was very different once we moved to Canada in 1971. It was such a more magical bush, winter time Christmas, filled with natural wonders and Canadian charm. Our Uncle Bob and Aunt Hettie had a beautiful 160 acre property kind of hidden right in the center of Clearwater that many who weren’t acquainted with our family history wouldn’t have known about but so many more who called them both aunt and uncle regarded as their beautiful year-round sanctuary.
Uncle Bob had a Christmas tree license and grew, shaped and pruned these beautiful trees, but also left many in their natural way of growing, even twisted, which many loved. Cousin Anne often hung a tree upside down from the ceiling of their log house to spin from the natural wood heat, moving and spinning in the corner of the room or out on the deck overlooking their own private lake. She misted it and it was hung a few days before Christmas day with no electric lights but a bit of tinsel, lots of fresh cranberries and popcorn strung as garland, some little pine cones adorning the branches.
Our most special gift was receiving a big hunk of Uncle Bob’s deluxe caramel or as he called it “Trapper Bob’s Deluxe Caramel” made in a special heavy-bottomed pot on the wood cook-stove, and stirred for hours. The candy was made with heavy “real” cream, sometimes with nuts, mostly walnuts or pecans. Many vied for this amazing candy and when we were kids we would hide our stash somewhere because the first to finish theirs inevitably came looking for more. A “secret” family recipe that only select family and friends have tucked away after long lessons with Uncle Bob if he honoured you by sharing it.
We had a skating rink on “the pond,” Uncle Bob’s term for the little lake, as his beloved Murtle Lake was a true lake in his mind and the family lake couldn’t compare. Large bales of straw would be brought out when the ice was thick enough for our breaks in skating and often we’d enjoy mugs of steaming hot chocolate that Aunt Het would bring us with canned milk and some marshmallows on top. Once back inside the big log house, sitting next to the huge river rock fireplace, we’d play board games, cards and sing but our favourite activity was listening intently to Uncle Bob and Aunt Het’s stories of Murtle Lake and their days living there deep in the woods near Blue River, raising our cousins Anne and Pete in a Forestry cabin that Uncle Bob had built there. Aunt Hettie home schooled our cousins there for many years. A plane would often bring in supplies and they had a two-way radio. Wild game, preserved food and nature’s treats were all they needed along with strong tea and Uncle Bob’s talent for baking.
One of the stories Uncle Bob told more than once was ordering one of the first snowmobiles in the region, a huge, heavy motorized machine that was meant to make life in the bush easier. Knowing when it was due to arrive by train to Blue River, Uncle Bob bid Aunt Hettie and the kids good-bye expecting to return with ease within days. Days turned into weeks and Aunt Het feared they might find his remains in the spring, until one day they heard the roar of the snowmobile beast in the distance. Excited she and the kids rushed out to greet him and watched as the giant, noisy contraption thundered across the frozen lake. When he finally arrived at the door of the cabin, he barely mumbled a greeting, headed straight for the teapot and gulped down a giant mug before answering their question about taking it for a ride, saying, “You go ahead. I’ve had enough of that *insert expletive here* thing to last me a lifetime!” Puzzled, Aunt Het pushed him to tell them the story of the trip which he began after another few mugs of tea, weaving a tale of frustration on how the cumbersome machine kept breaking through the snow, how he had to fall trees to create bridges day after laborious day, taking weeks not days to return to the little cozy cabin. Walking back out of the door to the machine he gave it a good kick, headed back inside and promptly collapsed to sleep like a “hibernating bear” as the story goes. His mouth offset on his bearded face, he’d look at us and end with “I’d rather walk the whole way than ever use that thing again!”
Oh how I long for those stories and Aunt Hettie standing nearby shaking her head at him, laughing with the memory of those early trials deep within the woods in Wells Gray Park. Thinking back to those simplier holidays, the warmth of the wood cookstove, mixed smells of turkey cooking inside and nibbling Uncle Bob’s “famous” shortbread made in a round pie tin and poked with a fork, or his apple upside down cake with deluxe caramel sauce drizzled on top and a blob of vanilla ice cream just brought in from the snowbank freezer outside.
Sister Grace and I singing together, our own lyrics accompanied by her incredible piano playing or our guitars, brother Scott making us all laugh until the tears ran down our faces and our sides hurt. Cousin Pete spinning his tall tales, full of untruths but stories so wild and creative we couldn’t turn away. Cousin Anne, such a beauty, arranging boughs and greenery that looked so much more festive thinking back than the artificial store-bought imitations of today. Aunt Het and our mother Mary, two sisters so close in age with the most beautiful ability to whistle like birds together, often sneaking outside for their after-dinner smoke, something Uncle Bob didn’t approve of. Our Dad, Ross, reading his Louis L’Amour or playing the only song he knew on the piano, Isle of Capri.
I know this for sure, the greatest gift of all, now, as I soak up my own family during these holidays, is the gift of those memories, because nothing can ever take away the true spirit of a loving bush Christmas, then or now. I wish we’d have had the ability to document as easily as we do now-a-days. But, you know, those images are in our hearts and here to share in moments like this, with you.
Wishing you joy, peace and many memorable moments in any way you choose to spend these lovely winter times together as you speak of memories made and create new ones with those you love.