by Cam Vallee, our “Northern Neighbour”
I was raised in the very small French Canadian community of St. Lina, Alberta, Canada. It is located as far north in that Province and near to the tundra line that you can get. The eldest child of a family of eight we were the definition of dirt poor but never knew it. While farmers grew grand fields of wheat all around our tiny farm, the only thing the ground seemed to want to grow where we were located was rocks. I can remember my father hitching one of the horses up to a dirt sled and we would walk behind it picking up rocks and chucking them onto the back of the sled. We would then take them to the edge of the property and dump them down a small hill. I swear those rocks used to walk right back up that hill again bringing their families with them because when we did the same thing the next day they were back!
My mother could make a great soup out of nothing! She could take a scrawny chicken and use what meat there was on it to feed us for a week. If I had shoes, they never fit me properly. We all needed dress shoes for Church. I was an altar boy but all we ever got were hand me downs. To this day, my toes are clawed from the constant wearing of shoes way too small for my feet when I was a kid. But you never thought of complaining! You wore them with pride!
We were probably the poorest French family in that community but you would never have guessed it by our memories! We were always well fed and clean. Lived each day having adventures in that part of Canada Tom Sawyer could only dream about! Christmas was always more about the Church and the one orange we always looked forward to getting than it ever was about gifts. Mom was as handy with her knitting needles as she was with the soups so she always made sure there was some little thing under the tree for each of us.
One Christmas however, was very special to me and I have never forgotten it to this day. Under the tree was a beautifully wrapped square box! I had never gotten anything before that was not a scarf or a hat or mittens so having something hard to open was shocking to me! I held that thing in my lap for well over an hour just touching the paper on it. Candy cane wrapping paper. I can see it clear as a bell even though it was almost sixty years ago. I can still smell the wood fire burning and feel the heat that generated through our small farm house. I can still clearly hear my brothers and sisters laughing and happy and see my parents sitting together just watching us all.
The thought of having to tear that paper off that box made me sick to my stomach. It was just too special. Too beautiful to destroy. I carefully removed the string that held it closed and rolled it up stuffing it in my pocked. A fellow never knew when he would have a sudden need for some good string! Carefully I peeled the wrapping paper off the gift. Not just because it was pretty. There were all kinds of uses for tissue like wrapping paper in the very early 1950’s if you get my drift! Tucking that into my pocket for my own personal benefit I then turned the box every way I could making sure there was nothing I was missing. Nope, nothing but heavy brown cardboard!
Using my jacknife I carefully slit the top of the box open and almost reluctantly opened the lid. Inside I found the most amazing present that I was ever to get in my whole dang life! A real, bonafide, paint by number set! Amazing did not describe my absolute glee at having been given such a wonderful thing!
The thing about that gift was that I never knew such a thing even existed! I immediately knew I could take that gift and turn it into something beautiful! I knew right away I could do that and give it to the most beautiful woman in the world as a gift and that she would love it as much as I did. So I took my time in early winter and spring carefully following the directions on the set and bringing that painting to life.
I got my father to help me make a frame for that picture and proudly presented it to my mother on Mother’s day. She loved the candy cane wrapping paper I wrapped it in. Stared at it for a long time before she started to open the box. Even gave me back the string I had so carefully saved.
60 years later, it still hangs in my mom’s craft room. It will be mine someday but I am always grateful to go over to her place to share a coffee with my parents and talk about the good old days. Seeing that old picture still hanging on her wall is worth more to me that anything.
Still having them with me after all these years will be my greatest gift this year. How lucky does that make me?
Merry Christmas everyone!