Last day of a memorable year

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I suppose we all look back on the year that has been as the final hours of that year wind down. You won’t be surprised that when I look back on 2012, the Manse looms very, very large. It was in late January that Raymond and I became the owners, and since then we have spent a lot of time there, and even more time thinking about and planning our renovation project. All of which has been fun, though not without its setbacks and challenges. But what sticks with me more about this past year is how much pleasure we have had getting to know central Hastings County and the people who live and do interesting things there. It is a quiet and beautiful part of the world.

These past few days in Montreal and area have been grey and cold and very, very snowy. (Why is it always grey and gloomy at New Year’s, anyway?) But it cheered me up immensely when, flipping back through my photos of the year, I found this pretty shot of Queensborough, summer 2012.

A good – and happy – image with which to close a very memorable year.

Christmas Sunday Dec. 23, 2012, Hazzard’s Church

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Funny, once Christmas is over, things that happened before Christmas seem a long time ago, don’t they?

The annual Christmas service at the historic Methodist, later United, church at Hazzard’s Corners, halfway between Queensborough and Madoc, Ont., took place exactly a week ago tonight, yet it feels so long ago.

It was a lovely service. The church was lit by candles and kerosene lamps. The music was wonderful. And the place was packed, with chairs up the aisles to accommodate an overflow crowd. It was a true community event, and hats off to the dedicated group of Hazzard’s volunteers who make it happen.

It made me think about how “community” doesn’t happen by accident: you have to work at it. And if you do work at it, and build community, the rewards are splendid. Hazzard’s Church on Christmas Sunday was a wonderful example of the little rural places that are still there and still going, hidden away in an ever-more-urbanized world.

I suspect that on Christmas Sunday 2012, when all the great cathedrals in all the urban centres of the world were celebrating, little Hazzard’s Corners, and all of us gathered there, may have been closer to the true Christmas story than were all of those grand places. Bethlehem wasn’t very big, after all. And on that first Christmas, the lights would have been candles and oil lamps, just as we had.

I think we are on to something.

A brief word about Christmas

Christmas morning at the Manse, looking out from the front porch: the snow was sparkling white in the brief bit of glorious sunshine that broke up an otherwise cloudy few days.

Christmas morning at the Manse, looking out from the front porch: the snow was sparkling white in the brief bit of glorious sunshine that broke up an otherwise cloudy few days.

My brother John (left), my brother Ken (centre) and my brother-in-law Greg strategizing over a rousing game of Ker-Plunk (I am not making this up) in the Manse living room prior to Christmas dinner.

My brother John (left), my brother Ken (centre) and my brother-in-law Greg strategizing over a rousing game of Ker-Plunk (I am not making this up) in the Manse living room prior to Christmas dinner.

I feel like a churl having said next to nothing about how Christmas at the Manse went, especially after so many of you sent kind wishes that it be a happy day for my family as they gathered there for the first Christmas in more than 30 years. And now it feels a little late in the game to be writing about it, Christmas being well over and all. (And don’t you find, by the way, that by the time Christmas is over you’re rather glad of the fact? What with all the advance work, it does seem to drag on…)

But anyway, the real reason for my tardiness in writing about Christmas is that, as I hinted in yesterday’s post, Raymond and I really were quite sick with cold and flu at Christmas – sicker than we let ourselves believe, sicker than we let on to others, and sicker than we even realized till now, a few days later, when we’re finally starting to feel better.

Under the tree, Christmas gifts – in turquoise!

Under the tree, Christmas gifts – in turquoise!

Nevertheless we hosted the clan, and the clan came (one of them, one of my sister Melanie’s boys, also down with the flu), and a nice time was had by all. The Manse was as spiffed-up as a house very much in need of a reno can be, the tree looked beautiful, there was a modest supply of gifts under it, and there was a turkey dinner cooked largely by Raymond within the constrictions of the Manse’s tiny pantry. And a flaming Christmas pudding and a buche de Noël for dessert. No one went away hungry.

Melanie put it nicely in a thank-you note she sent me the other day when she was herself starting to come down with the same bug that had struck Raymond and me: “Next time … which will be soon, I hope. Many more parties at the manse in the days ahead!”

Now that’s the spirit!

Amid the winter’s snow

My mother, Lorna, in front of a snowbank that as I recall was in front of the Manse, in February 1971. Back when winter meant serious amounts of snow.

My mother, Lorna (who is 5’1″), in front of a snowbank somewhere in the vicinity of the Manse, in February 1971. Back when winter could be counted on to bring serious amounts of snow. (Photo probably by my grandfather, J.A.S. Keay)

Hello from the far side of Christmas! I feel very badly about not having posted these past few days – recounting how Christmas at the Manse unspooled, among other things – but I’ve been sick with the flu since before the big day and have not until now found the energy to fire up the Mac and try to think of something half-intelligent to say. I expect that many readers may have gone through a similar low-energy situation this Christmas; flu and colds seem to have been everywhere. Before long I will recount Christmas, but I await photo contributions from Raymond (I was feeling too crappy to take more than a handful of photos). In the meantime, let’s talk about something even more topical, especially if you happen to be in Montreal this Friday night: snow.

Our street, last night: believe it or not, there is a car under all that snow. Aren't you glad you aren't the person who has to dig it out?

Our street, last night: believe it or not, there is a car under all that snow. Aren’t you glad you aren’t the person who has to dig it out?

Raymond and I drove home from Queensborough yesterday through the blizzard you’ve probably all heard about, a scary (and long) drive featuring a steady steam of cars and tractor-trailers – and one bus, one ambulance, and even one snowplow – off the road and stuck in the ditch. Was it a relief to get to Montreal? Well, yes – except the city had been blanketed by a record snowfall, approaching 50 centimetres, the streets were a disaster, the sidewalks worse, and finding a place to park impossible. Just what you want when you’ve got a car full of Christmas to unload and only street parking at the best of times.

Anyway, we managed. One always does. And the huge snowfall brought back a couple of good growing-up-at-the-Manse memories.

One is of how our Queensborough-area neighbour Bill Holgate would every now and then, after a big snowfall, come unannounced and blow the snow out of the driveway. Normally it was all about shovelling for us, and we four kids had to do our share to keep the walkway, driveway and mailbox cleared out. But it was a big long driveway, and after a really heavy snowfall it was a huge job. So what a delight when out of the blue on an evening like that (it’s always evening for the snowblowing events in my memory) Bill would show up with his big tractor-driven snowblower and clear it all away. And the best part (for us kids) was not even the fact that we wouldn’t have to shovel; it was cavorting under the blowing snow as Bill did the work. Snowblowers were not that common then – certainly nobody had the kind that you operated just by walking behind it – and the whole operation was just so big and noisy and exciting! And it was so kind of Bill to come and clear out the snow at the minister’s house. Of course he never charged my parents any money for it.

And the other memory, quite possibly coloured by the fact that I was little then and no longer am, is just of how much more snow there was in those days – see the photo at the top of this post. But then again, doesn’t every old fogey say that there used to be more snow back in his or her day? And doesn’t what Raymond and I came home to yesterday kind of undermine that things-aren’t-what-they-used-to-be argument?

And more to the point, am I turning into an old fogey?

Merry Christmas from the Manse

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And so this is Christmas! as John Lennon had it. Or Christmas Eve, actually, which is really the best part, in many ways. Though Raymond and I are really looking forward to tomorrow, when my mum and the other Sedgwicks who grew up in this old Manse of ours, along with some of their own children, will join us to keep Christmas. Doubtless it will be a day that includes much reminiscing about our Queensborough years (Round 1, that is. Round 2 has only begun!).

As Raymond and I were driving here through a snowstorm last Friday night, I turned to him and said, “So many people are rooting for us to have a good Christmas!” And it’s true: so many people, readers of this blog and not, old friends and new friends and people we’ve not even met, have, recognizing that this is a very special Christmas for us and for my family, expressed wishes clearly heartfelt that it be a special and memorable and happy time. I don’t think I can even say how much your kind thoughts have meant to us – thank you! I feel sure it will indeed be a happy Christmas here at the Manse.

Raymond and I send you all our warmest wishes for a peaceful, joyous and meaningful Christmas, wherever you may be.

God bless us, every one!

What is your favorite Christmas record?

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That was a question that Raymond, unbeknownst to me (because I am not a Facebook person) asked on Facebook (as he told me later) not too long ago. It is a fun question. We all grew up listening to our parents’ Christmas records; does one of those count as your favourite, or have you discovered something since childhood that you like better?

The one I grew up with was Joan Baez’s record called simply Noel, released in 1966. My dad was a big fan of Joan Baez, for her anti-war and human-rights stands. Noel is very different from most Christmas records. The musical arrangements, by Peter Schickele, of P.D.Q. Bach fame, are haunting: he writes in the liner notes of a later-reissue CD that the “idea was that, instead of the saccharine and/or pseudo-symphonic treatment usually applied to carols on albums featuring singing stars, the sound on Joan’s album would be reminiscent of the musical periods in which the various carols were written.”

The result is a record with a haunting and very old-sounding sound, like something out of 17th-century England (or France) – the sense you get is that the birth of this child is truly strange, mysterious, and beautiful.

So I bought the CD reissue, and played it for the first time this evening here at the Manse. To hear the first plainsong strains – and Joan’s pure, clear voice – on the opening song, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, after all those years, here at the Manse again – well, it gave me goosebumps.

I daresay that album hadn’t been heard at the Manse since Christmas 1974, the last Christmas my family lived here. As I listened to those beautiful, haunting songs I wondered: do they awake a memory in this old house that has seen, and heard, so much?

Christmas at a historic country church

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Unfortunately this photo doesn’t show the blanket of wintry white that has descended on the Queensborough area on this first day of winter (and shortest day of the year). But you can be sure that Hazzard’s Church at nearby Hazzard’s Corners looks lovely in the snow. And a lot of people – including Raymond and me – will see it this Sunday evening, Dec. 23, when the annual Christmas service for the community is held in its historic surroundings. It is incredible how many people have mentioned this service to us as a must-attend. There will be lessons and carols and I imagine candlelight, and I am sure it will take me back to my childhood when my father was the minister at Hazzard’s and evening services were often held there. I know it will be a lovely service. Here’s a word to the wise, also passed on to us by many people: the service starts at 7 p.m., but it’s a small church, so get there early!

King John’s Christmas

The worn and yellowed pages of my childhood copy of When We Are Six. Many was the time my dad read the poems in it to me, in particular King John's Christmas.

The worn and yellowed pages of my childhood copy of When We Are Six, and in particular my favourite poem, and my dad’s: King John’s Christmas.

Raymond and I were driving home to Montreal from Queensborough the other night, through the dark and the freezing rain, the car radio tuned to CBC 2 as usual. And mention was made of A.A. Milne‘s delightful poem King John’s Christmas, and what a flood of memories that suddenly brought back!

I think I’ve mentioned that my father, The Rev. Wendell Sedgwick, had an enormous capacity for remembering and reciting poetry (not to mention composing his own à l’improviste, in full rhyme and metre, as fast as the words could come out of his mouth).

My well-worn and much-loved copy of Now We Are Six. When I hold it in my hands, I think of Dad holding it isn his hands as he read to us.

My well-worn and much-loved copy of Now We Are Six. When I hold it in my hands, I think of Dad holding it in his hands as he read to us.

The poems for children of A.A. Milne – who is most famous for Winnie-the-Pooh – were published in the volumes When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six in the 1920s, and Dad was born in 1931. Whether he knew these poems, or was read them, when he was a child I do not know. But he most certainly had the books, and read and recited them to us, when we – my siblings Melanie, John and Kenneth – were children growing up in the Manse in Queensborough.

Dad’s favourite by far, I would say, was King John’s Christmas, from Now We Are Six. He would recite it at the drop of a hat, and he did it so well – all the pathos of poor (though bad, one mustn’t forget) King John never getting any Christmas cards or presents, and how much he wished he would at least get one thing one time, and how the thing he most longed for was a big red India rubber ball, and how – well, you’re going to have to read to the end of the poem to discover how things turn out.

The CBC announcer reminded us that another CBC announcer, Bob Oxley*, was famous for his annual reading of the poem on the air, but try as I might I have failed to find a link to that. Meanwhile, this particular CBC announcer thought he would try it himself, which he did. And it was fine, but it wasn’t like Dad. And in looking online I’ve found lots of other people who think they do King John’s Christmas splendidly, and doubtless they do.

But they don’t do it like Dad.

Many were the times Dad would recite it at Sunday School concerts and the like at the churches and church halls of the Queensborough Pastoral Charge of the United Church of Canada. In my mind’s eye I can still see him doing it in the hall/basement of Eldorado United Church (now, sadly, closed and sold), probably in about 1972 or ’73. I remember enjoying it mightily even though I’d heard him do it so many times before (often in the kitchen of the Manse), and I remember how it was greeted with wild applause from the Eldorado adults and children. Those were simple and happy times, and that is a memory to treasure.

Anyway, in honour of Christmas, and A.A. Milne, and the return to Queensborough of Raymond and me, and most especially of my dad, here is King John’s Christmas:

King John’s Christmas

King John was not a good man –
He had his little ways.
And sometimes no one spoke to him
For days and days and days.
And men who came across him,
When walking in the town
Gave him a supercilious stare,
Or passed with noses in the air –
And bad King John stood dumbly there,
Blushing beneath his crown.

King John was not a good man,
And no good friends had he.
He stayed in every afternoon …
But no one came to tea.
And, round about December,
The cards upon his shelf
Which wished him lots of Christmas cheer,
And happiness in the coming year,
Were never from his near and dear,
But only from himself.

King John was not a good man,
Yet had his hopes and fears
They’d given him no presents now
For years and years and years.
But every year at Christmas,
While minstrels stood about,
Collecting tribute from the young
For all the songs they might have sung,
He stole away upstairs and hung
A hopeful stocking out.

King John chimneyKing John was not a good man,
He lived his life aloof;
Alone he thought a message out
While climbing up the roof.
He wrote it down and propped it
Against the chimney stack;
“TO ALL AND SUNDRY – NEAR AND FAR –
F. CHRISTMAS IN PARTICULAR.”
And signed it not “Johannes R.”
But very humbly, “JACK.”

“I want some crackers,
And I want some candy;
I think a box of chocolates
Would come in handy;
I don’t mind oranges,
I do like nuts!
And I SHOULD like a pocket-knife
That really cuts.
And, oh! Father Christmas, if you love me at all,
Bring me a big, red india-rubber ball!”

King John was not a good man –
He wrote this message out,
And gat him to his room again,
Descending by the spout.
And all that night he lay there,
A prey to hopes and fears.
“I think that’s him a-coming now,”
(Anxiety bedewed his brow.)
“He’ll bring one present, anyhow –
The first I’ve had for years.”

“Forget about the crackers,
And forget about the candy;
I’m sure a box of chocolates
Would never come in handy:
I don’t like oranges,
I don’t want nuts,
And I HAVE got a pocket-knife
That almost cuts.
But oh! Father Christmas, if you love me at all,
Bring me a big, red india-rubber ball!”

King John was not a good man –
Next morning when the sun
Rose up to tell a waiting world
That Christmas had begun,
And people seized their stockings,
And opened them with glee,
And crackers, toys and games appeared,
And lips with sticky sweets were smeared,
King John said grimly: “As I feared,
Nothing again for me!”

“I did want crackers,
And I did want candy;
I know a box of chocolates
Would come in handy;
I do love oranges,
I did want nuts.
I haven’t got a pocket-knife –
Not one that cuts.
And, oh! if Father Christmas had loved me at all,
He would have brought a big, red india-rubber ball!”

King John stood by the window,
And frowned to see below
The happy bands of boys and girls
All playing in the snow.
A while he stood there watching,
And envying them all …
When through the window big and red
There hurtled by his royal head,
And bounced and fell upon the bed,
An india-rubber ball!

King John ballAND, OH, FATHER CHRISTMAS,
MY BLESSINGS ON YOU FALL
FOR BRINGING HIM
A BIG, RED,
INDIA-RUBBER
BALL!

 

 

 

 

*Correction: My original version of this post described longtime and much-respected CBC-Radio announcer and newsman Bob Oxley as “the late Bob Oxley.” Bob’s son-in-law was kind enough to post a comment on the About page here at Meanwhile, at the Manse on March 18, 2015, pointing out that his father-in-law is very much alive and well. Bob and family – I am so sorry for my error! Now, Bob’s son-in-law, Bill, also said he thought that the CBC personality who read King John’s Christmas each year must have been the late Alan Maitland, wearing his Fireside Al hat. That sounds very probable. I am as sure as I can reasonably be that the CBC person I heard making reference to the reading said it was a Bob Oxley tradition, but it is very possible that he was mistaken and I unhelpfully repeated the mistake. Fireside Al was known for his readings at Christmas, but I can find no online link or reference to him doing King John’s Christmas. It’s a bit of a Christmas muddle! But I hope you’ve enjoyed the poem nonetheless.

The Manse is ready for Christmas. Are we?

The Manse at night, all done up for Christmas: modest decorations on the front porch (including a fresh balsam-fir wreath all the way from Maine). And if you look closely, you might be able to see the (battery-operated) candle in each window.

The Manse at night, all done up for Christmas: modest decorations on the front porch (including a fresh balsam-fir wreath all the way from Maine); and, if you look closely, you might be able to see the (battery-operated) candle in each window, another New England-inspired touch.

Our Christmas Tree, all decorated up with ornaments we've collected from our travels over the years.

Our tree, decorated with ornaments we’ve collected on our travels.

Christmas draws closer, but I know I don’t need to tell you that. Who among us is not scrambling to get the last gifts bought, the Christmas dinner menu sorted out, perhaps the last cards written, all the while carrying on with our day jobs? It is a busy time of year, and if you’re anything like me, you find it stressful. Each year I say I won’t let it get to me, and each year I do let it get to me.

But anyway, this Christmas will be distinctly different for Raymond and me in one way: we will be celebrating it at the Manse, a totally new experience. In other ways, though, it will be familiar: we have transported all our Christmas ornaments and gewgaws and whatnots from Montreal to the Manse.

(One item of whatnot was the Christmas-tree stand, which I bought several years ago because it was identical to the one my family used in Queensborough all those years ago when I was growing up at the Manse. It is obnoxiously difficult to work with, and Raymond hates it. But being the very nice person that he is, he [somewhat grudgingly] agreed to use it for one more [and only one more] Christmas, in honour of its Manse-relatedness. I think that my mum and siblings will give a smile of recognition when they see it on Christmas Day.)

This lovely little crèche scene comes from Guatemala originally. We bought it at a funky collectibles store in Stonington, Maine, where the collectibles are mostly things the owner has picked up in her own travels. It's atop a bookshelf in the Manse's living room.

This lovely little crèche scene comes from Guatemala originally. We bought it at a funky collectibles store in Stonington, Maine, where the collectibles are mostly things the owner has picked up in her own travels. It’s atop a bookshelf in the Manse’s living room.

Cats bearing Christmas puddings. We found this in a cat-themed shop on a little street on the Left Bank in Paris a few years ago, and bought it partly because the cats look like our fat calico, Bayona. Now it's strung up on the French doors in the Manse's living room, and yes, those doors desperately need a scrubdown and a new coat of paint. Don' t think we don't know it!

Cats bearing Christmas puddings. We found this in a shop on a tiny street on the Left Bank in Paris, and bought it partly because the cats look like our fat calico, Bayona. Now it’s strung up on the French doors in the Manse’s living room, and yes, those doors desperately need a scrubdown and a new coat of paint. Don’ t think we don’t know it!

Something we both treasure about our Christmas ornaments and gewgaws and whatnots is that each one has a story. We’ve never gone to Zellers or Canadian Tire and bought a box of ornaments; all of ours are individual, and almost all have been picked up on our travels. There are ornaments that are mementos of France, of Maine, of Vermont, of Port Hope, of Massachusetts, of New Hampshire, of Texas (!), and of course of Montreal. And there are Boston Red Sox-themed ornaments, because one of us is Raymond, who is a diehard fan. As, actually, am I.

And there’s the one that’s probably my very favourite, a piece of baler twine from the Sedgwick family farm in Haliburton County, twisted into a circle and adorned with red and green ribbon. A great reminder of my father, long ago the minister at St. Andrew’s United Church in Queensborough (which is why he and his family – us – lived at the church Manse) and also throughout his life the person who worked the Sedgwick farm.

Finally, there is the tree of books! A few days ago I posted a photo that Raymond had seen on Facebook, a Christmas tree made out of books and strung with lights. It was a great idea for us, owners of many thousands of books, and Raymond was true to his word and built one at the Manse last weekend. And here it is:

The Tree of Books in the Manse's study.

The Tree of Books in the Manse’s study, a Raymond Brassard production. He wasn’t entirely happy with the end result (it could be taller and less stocky), but for a first effort, not bad!

So yes, the Manse is pretty much decked out and ready for Christmas. But are we? Poor Raymond in the past 36 hours has acquired a horrific cold, complete with brutal cough. And on top of that, there is just so much to do before we welcome my family to the Manse for Christmas! Good lord, will we ever get it all done?

Books: they really tie the room together.

When this room was my father's study, the built-in bookshelves were full of books. And now they are again.

When this room was my father’s study – and very probably also when/if it served as the study of later ministers who lived at the Manse – the built-in bookshelves (not fancy, but eminently serviceable) were packed full of books. And now they are again.

The study early in our tenure at the Manse, with grey and empty bookshelves. It looks sad, doesn't it?

The study early in our tenure at the Manse, with empty bookshelves. It looks sad, doesn’t it?

Last weekend Raymond and I were at the Manse for a grand total of about 39 hours from late Friday night to early Sunday afternoon – and then it was time to turn around and head back to Montreal. And a nasty return trip it was: we drove (slowly) through six hours of nonstop freezing rain. But anyway, in those 39 hours, in addition to attending an excellent service at St. Andrew’s United Church and a great dinner with some friends, we managed to get a lot done to get the Manse ready for Christmas and to make it look nicer generally. And one of the very best things we did was to move the many boxes of books that had been temporarily parked in the living room. We hauled them upstairs to my dad‘s old study, where Raymond found a home for about eight-tenths of them on the built-in shelves that grace that room. And you know, they look beautiful. As I sat back and admired them (which I was fully entitled to do, having been the person who carried most of the boxes upstairs), I felt inspired by a classic line from one of my very favourite movies, the Coen BrothersThe Big Lebowski: “It really tied the room together.” (Warning: salty language ahead:)

In the movie, it was a rug that tied the living room of uber-slacker Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski together – and when he gets mistaken for the Big Lebowski (a rich guy), and some bad guys who want to send the Big Lebowski a message break in and, well, urinate (that’s generally not the word used in the movie) on The Dude’s rug, much mayhem ensues. It is a totally great and hilarious movie, a cult classic and the film for which Jeff Bridges (who is The Dude) will be remembered for all time. If you have a reasonably high tolerance level for rude language and like to laugh at absurdity – and if you have any appreciation whatsoever for White Russians – I urge you to watch it. Perhaps just what one needs to lighten the mood of the sometimes-fraught holiday season.