Volume 22, Number 130, December 2019/January 2020 A Merry But Not Too Bright Christmas by Mary Ruth Reed
We were never a laugh-out-loud family. Oh but the yard was full of laughter when we played running games outdoors and bedtime was full of whispers and snorts and giggles but you would have to wait a long wait to hear big guffaws from any of us. To an outsider our often silent mealtimes would have looked morose and a bit sullen when in reality the active slogging of school, chores and work left us weary enough to seek the peace brought by few words and lots of good food. It was also necessary to eat fast so as to be done first and thus first at the daily comics to see what happened to Brick Bradford, the Lone Ranger and Terry and those pesky Pirates.
At times one of us, reading something the other family members hadn’t, would snicker. To make the listener frantic with curiosity seemed to give the reader a perverse enjoyment.
With some shame I recall my mother suffering our thoughtless giggles. She made us girls our summer dresses and she sewed us slacks from dyed flour bags though she did not approve of girls in mannish wear. In an effort to keep them a little feminine, I suppose, she gave them wide waistbands which made them obviously homemade but we were grateful for them as they hid the ridges from our long underwear. Never would she wear slacks herself. She ordered her clothes from Eaton’s catalogue, both her good dresses and her house dresses and this was quite an event. We girls got new clothes as we grew but Mother, managing Dad’s pay cheque, had to wait for her dresses to wear out.
On this particular occasion when a new house dress was needed Mother ordered her usual choice of blue. The war had been under way a year or two and items were often substituted so she indicated her second and third choices of colour to be green and brown.
The catalogue order arrived with a slip indicating substitution of an item had taken place. “I bet it is my dress and they sent red,” Mother said. Being a carrot top she never wore red or related colours. Out of the brown paper she pulled a bright pink dress. My sister and I hooted with laughter and could not stop our giggles when Mother related the story at the supper table. There was something about Jean’s and my giggles that always set Dad off into chuckles, or giggles of his own. Though disappointed and annoyed Mother had to laugh too. The irony of the incident passed over our brothers’ male-oriented heads and did not elicit a smile. That evening they were first at the comics.
Christmas came soon after this incident. At the time Jean was nine or ten and I was two years older. The day had progressed to the potatoes having been mashed, the turnips mashed, and Jean standing by the bowls awaiting the order to dish up. I was at the exacting and very hot job of sifting flour slowly into a bubbling pan of turkey juice on the woodstove - sift and stir - stir - stir - sift and stir - stir ....
“Horrors!” Mother exclaimed.
That old woodstove had a huge oven with a door strong enough to hold a seated small adult wanting a warm back. Mother had pulled the roast pan onto the oven door and bailed the juice for the gravy, with a soup ladle. She was now testing the meat with a fork.
“What?” I asked quickly, afraid she had burnt herself, and afraid also that she was displeased with my gravy making since that fine smelling soup was already sporting a few lumps of flour and I was laden with guilt. Mother was neither nursing a burn nor looking at the gravy maker but rather staring at the turkey in complete dismay.
“It’s the foil,” she said.
The foil she had put over the turkey to help it cook evenly in the intense heat was gone, just disappeared into the roasted turkey in some mysterious way though it had been there a half hour before when Mother had folded it back to baste the bird. Mother had never used the foil before but had read of its good qualities. Three pairs of astounded eyes looked down at the bird as the most heavenly odour of herb laced stuffing assailed our hunger senses. “People use tin foil,” Mother said in a voice of woe as she looked at me for I was responsible for this disaster.
My face grew bright red and not just from the heat of the stove. I swallowed and felt my lips quiver. The turkey was ruined and the fault lay squarely on my shoulders. Those days were even before plastic and the great many wrapping products on rolls. We bought rolled wax paper to wrap lunches, not because we were affluent but rather because Mother baked bread and bread wrappers were scarce in our house. If rolls of tin foil existed for household use we had never seen them. The packaging for loose tea was tin foil and we kids saved this tin foil to make shiny Christmas decorations and to roll into round bullets to use in our homemade guns from which the projectile was impelled by a band cut from a tire inner tube. Only recently had we been hearing of its other uses. I had saved a crinkly, shiny piece of covering from a gift basket and produced it when Mother expressed interest in going the foil way. How sophisticated and clever I had felt!
“It was grey,” I protested, “and shiny and crinkly.” Yet my “tin foil” proved to not be tin foil at all but some other type of paper that melted at a certain temperature, just as did some of the compounds my brothers studied in Chemistry class. There was no use to stir the gravy for it was now as lethal as the turkey so enticing and browned in the pan on the oven door. What to do?
The talk in the living area was growing less vibrant as the men folks and our guests listened for he call to the table. The table itself waited, its white cloth yet unsoiled by cranberries and gravy; he cranberries waited in the cut glass dishes used only at Christmas; the tall jars of olives were pened; the glasses of grape juice were by each place as were the paper napkins. Now what ere they waiting for? Jean and I looked to Mother for an answer.
“Botheration cease it,” Mother muttered, using the strongest expletive she had.
“Perhaps the dressing is okay,” I suggested hopefully.
This was answered by a shake of the head and a defeated, “We will just have to serve the rest of the food.” Slowly Mother lifted the roaster lid to replace it and out dropped the foil which had jammed there when it was folded back from the bird.
Later when the family and guests were seated they passed their plates in turn to Dad who was at the head of the table carving the turkey. Each called out their preferred piece of the bird as Dad sliced that poor creature, cooked to perfection and resting on Grandmother Reed’s platter that must have served up many a meal to her huge family.
I caught Mother’s eye and the look of relief and suppressed merriment there made me give a snort of laughter that sprayed purple grape juice onto the table napkin I had intended to save, since it was rather novel, for another day.
Usually Mother would shake her head at my frequent social faux pas but this time she was fighting to suppress a giggle, her hand to her mouth, a look of guilt over her own unseemly levity in her eyes. Jean began to laugh aloud. Since she was younger I was afraid she would blurt out the whole embarrassing story but she did not and simply continued to titter with the strange tithing sound that meant she was really enjoying herself. Try as she did Mother could no longer contain her laughter exclaiming, “Oh dear! Oh dear!” I thought this was licence for my own unbridled mirth.
“They have the giggles,” said one of the cousins and began to laugh too and Dad, seeing our giggles, couldn’t help his own chuckles. In a moment we were all laughing and wiping at our eyes. Even the usually stony-faced brother snorted along with the other brothers. Anyone listening would have exclaimed at what a merry family we were.
Only three at that table knew what we were all laughing about. Until today.