Early Memories


Christmas Memories:

Rustling! Scrunching! Crackling! Whispering! Christmas Eve and I am supposed to be sleeping but sleep will not come. It is a cold night and my mother has tucked me in with a blanket warmed around the stove pipe leading into the chimney in my room. The brushed flannel sheets took on a strange smell as they warmed around the stove pipe just before I jumped into my bed. My sisters are trying to go to sleep in their rooms in the small story-and-a-half house heated by a small oil stove. Below me I can hear through the stove-pipe opening the scurrying feet of my parents, the rustling of paper, and their hushed whispers as they bring out the presents hidden in my dad's study and closets and drawers. They are taking them to the adjoining room where large bowls wait on the table.

Earlier that evening my parents had dressed me in the finest new clothes and we all went to the small country church for the highlight of the Christmas season - The Christmas Program!! It was a tradition going back years. Since community, school, and the two churches were synonymous in Kleefeld, there was only one big Christmas program by the school children (grades 1 - 12). It was a glorious event - well rehearsed plays, songs, and poems complete with costumes and props and lights. It was an extravaganza for the eyes and ears of kids not used to TV or movies or city lights or theatre or the pomp of cathedral liturgy. The procession of students singing "Silent Night" as hushed parents and older siblings and uncles and aunts watched was stunning and awe inspiring. I had been part of this since my first Christmas and I had begun to imitate the conductors when I was only two. The culmination of the evening was the distribution of the goodie bags to all kids by the school trustees and teachers - with strict instruction not to open them until we got home so as not to make a mess in the church but many 'naughty' children could not resist sneaking a candy cane or orange.

After the program we bundled up and got into our cold car for the drive home. Our 1946 Ford was comfortable when the blankets were wrapped around me but my eyes and ears and imagination were captured by our neighbour Peter Klassen's sleigh pulled by a team of eager horses replete with jingling bells for the season. When we got home my siblings and I scurried for the kitchen to find the largest bowls. Each of us found a bowl and placed it on the kitchen table at our usual places. Since we had no Christmas tree (being considered a worldly tradition) our presents and treats were placed in or beside these bowls. Then off to bed to try to sleep with the images and music of the program still in my mind. And, now with the rustling what I was sure were presents below me.

I get out of my warm bed to try to look through the crack beside the stove pipe but I can see nothing. Maybe if I am very quiet I can hear what they are saying - but no, not a clue! Then the rustling stops. Suddenly I hear scrunching at the back of the house - like a whole army of people walking in the crisp snow. Then the music! I run to the frosty window and scratch a spot so I can see! It is like angels have suddenly appeared and are singing "Stille Nacht!" and the "Joy to the World" and then "O Du Froehliche!" It is the young adults of the community caroling from farm to farm. They shout "Merry Christmas" and run off to the waiting cars on the road - some holding hands, some pushing each other, some laughing and chattering! I spot my brother with a laughing girl. They disappear into the cloud of steam made by the exhausts of the cars and crunch away. Now I am supposed to sleep! Then I hear what sounds like crackling and I know my mother has brought out the peanuts and chocolate drops and Halva for a 'night snack.' And I am supposed to be sleeping! It seems like hours before I fall asleep.

As I lie there staring at the ceiling, holding my breath so I can hear better, the events of the past few weeks run through my head. The trip to Winnipeg! Luckily we stayed until it got dark so we could see the lights on Portage Avenue! But most amazing were the windows of the Hudson Bay and Eaton's Stores - that was dazzling! How was that possible! Such a vision of another world!

I also remember the day a few weeks ago when uncles and aunts came over for "Schween Schlachte." The hog butchering bee was an indispensable annual event on every farm. Uncle Johann was the expert! At least he wanted everyone to think so. He talked fast and loud and argued a lot! Early in the morning they got out the big rifle and my dad who was the finest marksman shot the three hogs (my uncle claimed it was better to simply 'stick' them with his thin long sharp knife). Then came the scalding hot water prepared in the cauldron. After scalding the men scraped the hair and bristles off the hog. After that everyone seemed to have a specialized role as the hog was turned into hams, bacon, sausage, 'reb spae,' cracklings, and 'zill fleisch.' The meat was ready to get us through the winter! It would be what we would have for Christmas dinner!

My mind turns next to the day my parents left me with my grandparents in Steinbach while I suppose they went Christmas shopping. Grandpa Rempel had had a stroke but he could still get around very well and so he bundled me up and took me with him to "Onkle Milla." Mr. Miller and he loved to sit at the kitchen table, eat peanuts and candies, and play checkers or chinese checkers, and talk. I sat very quietly since my grandpa was very strict and liked children to be seen and not heard and he had scolded me for touching the china cabinet before we left the house. I watched them play and soon they asked me to try. I was so good my grandpa was exceptionally pleased - I was truly one of his "off stoam!" - one of his progeny! I got extra candies and a Mr. Miller scurried down the steep stairs into the basement to get me a "Pepsi Cola" - I had felt so celebrated!! When my parents picked me up they had to hear all about it from grandpa Rempel while I waited in my ski pants and parka. I always got sweaty so very fast and again my mother had to undress me and let me cool off before they could take me out into the blistering cold.

I thought about my attempt to skate a couple of days ago. My mother had bought a pair of strap-on bobskates at an auction in Winnipeg and so I had to try them. My brother cleared some of the ice in the "basement hole" behind the house. A bulldozer had been in the area that summer and, since my parents were dreaming about building a new house, they had excavated the spot for the basement. The dug out area filled with water and now it was a convenient skating rink! The skates were strapped on and my sister Elsie took me out to skate. Well, I had looked like a newborn calf on ice - my legs slipped and buckled in every direction until Elsie gave up. I was declared uncoordinated and destined never to learn how to skate in my life! I was so disappointed! Maybe if I had good skates. Maybe I would get good skates for Christmas!!

Maybe it was the door closing as my father went out to the barn to milk the cows and feed the cattle. Something woke me. Morning finally!! I jump out of bed and run downstairs. The floor is cold - especially in the kitchen in the addition to the house. That part was originally a sunroom for a big house in the town 10 miles away. Now it is our kitchen and dining room. It is only heated with a Booker Coal Stove and my father has stoked it and it is heating enthusiastically when I enter the room. But my eyes are only looking for my bowl! There it is!! I first spot the new shirt. That is nice but what is there that I can play with? My eyes land on the box on the chair. I tear it open and there it is!! A shiny new drag line!! I quickly take it out, figure out how the levers work, and start digging into the bowl full of peanuts and almonds and walnuts and chocolate drops and rock candy. Soon I am joined by sisters and brother who ooh and awh over my toy. All want a chance to try it. I am a little afraid they will break it but all is well - obviously a sturdy toy!

Soon my father comes in from the barn and my mother sets the table with breakfast - cracklings and fresh baked buns with chocolate milk! Before we eat my father opens the big German Bible and reads the Christmas story and prays in German. It is Christmas!!


We were crammed into the little white retirement farm house like chickens in a coup. Grandma had prepared the luscious meal - she was a great cook! Today it was chicken - raised in their barn with a perfect loft to play in and with wonderful treasures to discover. Grandpa's favourite was baked rabbit, but Grandma also prepared a wonderful dish of wild grouse, herbs, and cream if grandpa took his gun out to hunt which he did often. Their place was only a short dash through the oak woods from my house. The path was crooked and had stones at unexpected places.

Uncles and aunts and cousins were all around. Uncles visited in the living room. The aunts were helping grandma get the food ready. The girl cousins were giggling in the small upstairs rooms and the boys were raising dust around the old coal furnace in the basement. I played most with Stanley and Rodney because they were close to my age and because I knew them the best since they lived close. Actually I preferred playing with Iris but today she had so many girl cousins to gossip with she had no interest in playing with boys.

The uncles and aunts gathered around the table, sang a German carol and ate heartily. They teased uncle George about his latest car fixing incident - he was trying to run a small service garage but was unsuccessful. He was my most 'colourful' uncle - psychotic actually. He had to wash constantly, wipe everything first before he touched it. But he made a perfect match for my aunt who, at one point about when I was born, had constantly seen blood on her hands. She could not wash it off. Uncle Jake got worked up about the threat of Neo-Orthodox theology in the church. I figured it was a way to let people know he had been to Bible College in the big city. The noise of argument, discussion, news, and gossip filled the little dining room. And we kids had to wait our turn. It seemed to take for ever and we were sure there would be no food left.

Finally came our turn. Oh was it super food, though grandma's mashed potatoes were always lumpy. But the chicken was the best and the gravy fantastic. And we even got clean plates! At my aunt's place, with all the children on the hog farm that smelled in the house which was much too small and that smelled, we sometimes reused the adult's plates. I was sure to find my mom's.

After the dinner, everyone settled as close to the dinner table as possible, though some were in the living room and others up the stairs and some peeking in from the kitchen. Now the 'program' began. All the grandchildren performed a specially learned poem or something they had learned for a school program. But I was asked to play my mouth organ. I had to stand on the 3rd stair, face my short, plump, smiling grandma with her thick wire-rimmed glasses and play a carol. I played with tongue pumping out a rhythm and the melody over the top. Everyone seemed very impressed. I was a musician and everyone was appreciative. I don't remember what happened after the program because the highlight was over. This was a happy place. My grandma's house was my very most favourite place in the world.


One vexing challenge in my life has been the pump organ - or harmonium as it is known in polite company. The first one was more of a symbol than an actual part of reality. The reason for that is that it sat in my grandparents' living room. Maybe I was three or so when I first encountered it. My parents would leave me in the care of my grandpa Rempel when they went shopping or visiting where little boys were not wanted. Though I was never completely sure I was wanted at grandpa Rempel's place. I say grandpa Rempel's place because grandma Rempel seemed to be even less open to my chatter and curiosity. One thing I was curious about was that lovely pump organ with its golden brown lustre and ornamental carving and scroll work. It seemed if I even got close to it I would be quickly and often sharply reminded to sit down. So I sat down a lot. Oh, there were very fine moments but those were with grandpa Rempel who took me on walks to Johnny's Grill for ice cream - maybe to get me out of the fragile house for awhile. When I was 5 grandpa began taking some delight in pitting me against Mr. Miller in chinese checkers since I had a fairly skilled hand at that game. Those games were always accompanied with peanuts from the basement or after the game a walk to the ice cream place. But I never got to try the organ. It must have been held in some reverence. Maybe that was because it was my real grandma's - the one who died when my mother was twelve and over whom my grandpa grieved bitterly. He had sat with her and played the organ - it had spoken melodies of love and enchantment. I am not sure I had ever even heard it played - maybe a few times by Aunt Hilda whose room I sometimes managed to explore. Up the stairs, turn south, into the room, and there on the dresser was her bottle of Evening in Paris perfume. That room smelled like my aunt and I loved the little stolen visits. The organ just sat there in the corner, tempting my musical fingers, fascinating my eyes, promising delight, but never delivering anything but disappointment. And then my grandparents moved to a smaller house with no upstairs and no room for the organ. I have no idea where it went. If only it had moved to my house.

About ten years later when I was about 16 I had learned to play guitar, harmonica, autoharp, mandolin, but had only had fleeting chances to figure out the keyboard. Then the miraculous happened. Jacob Ungers in Kleefeld had an old pump organ they wanted to sell. Twenty five dollars!! Sure it was not as nice and golden brown as my grandpa's, it had very little ornamentation, but it played! Well, I was a beekeeper with my own bank account so I made the big purchase only to find out it did not fit into my room properly. The only place for it was in front of the window - blocking most of it. My solution - cut the top off - afterall, all I was interested in was the keys and the musical sound - I was buying an education. Little did I realize that the keyboard is not as easily conquered as the harmonica. But I pumped and poked and played and pretended. It wheezed out gospel songs, folk songs, invented songs, noise, imaginations. And then, serious music began - violin lessons and piano was more appropriate than an old pump organ so it went up for sale. I don't remember who bought it - I didn't care since it was only a utilitarian bit of oak and leather and wind.

Another ten years later I saw the vision of my dreams - a pipe organ with gilt pipes, ornate carvings, rich golden brown wood - all the memories of grandpa's organ merged with all my musical dreams. I knew I had to have it - but it had been sold on an auction sale in Steinbach and all I saw was the picture in the Carillon News. To my surprise, when I began teaching in Steinbach, there was the organ! It had not been sold. It was now being neglected and mistreated and ignored. No time to waste - convince them to sell it! And it worked! I NOW OWNED MY DREAM! But with no time to play it, fix it, or care for it. But I owned it! It became the centre piece of my house - a specially built in place of honour. Maybe a bit like grandpa's organ - only to be looked at and never touched. Only to be admired for what it stood for in dream - never to be realized in my reality. And so today it still stands - rarely touched, admired by many, enjoyed as an art object rather than musical instrument. Maybe representing a love relationship that had less opportunity to flourish than it should and quenched by changes and circumstances - in my case my relationship with playing music. But what a magnificent memorial!