The weekend before Christmas
In the late 1950s and into the '60s, the LeGarde and Drouillard cousins looked forward all year to our families' get-together the weekend before Christmas. This occurred at the Drouillard place in Twig, an old-fashioned red farmhouse with some outbuildings, all surrounded by woods.
We always had a great time with Drouillard kids: both families had a lot of kids, and we all had somebody close in age to hang around with. In the summer we had so much fun playing in the largest building, which had a loft, and on the tall wooden swing built by Uncle Ray. The yard was large, with a lot of space for running around. We weren't allowed to play in the woods: we could get lost, our mothers told us; it was swampy, there might be an old well half-grown over, or long-forgotten traps or any number of dangers. We peered into the woods sometimes from the furthest edge of the back yard, but never went into that dark density by ourselves.
By the weekend before Christmas, snowfall and wind had changed the woodscape to an expanse of pines and bare trees growing out of white drifts as far we could see. On that weekend the dads, Uncle Ray and my dad, Jerry, took all the kids who were big enough on a hike into the woods to find our Christmas trees. Afterward we would eat a big dinner prepared by our mothers while we were out of the house, all of us squeezed around a couple of tables, some of the smaller children sitting two to a chair and having a terrific time.
The preparation for the trip to Twig took some planning: there had to be enough mittens, hats, socks and scarves to go around, with extras for in case somebody got wet or too cold. My mother packed the food she had fixed for the feast in a cardboard box. My dad carried the box out and wedged it into the trunk, next to the diaper bag, a stack of extra diapers (cloth, in those days), spare boots and a couple of blankets and pillows for the younger children, who would be taking a nap while we were out in the woods.
Our mothers, Marion and Pat, oversaw our dressing properly for our trek into the woods, and I am sure that they were happy to see us out the door. As kids, we didn't really think about all that they had to do while we were out tree-hunting, only that when we returned the tables would be set and a huge amount of hot food set out. I suppose that while we were gone they put the babies down for a nap first, then really hustled to set everything up. More than a half-century later I marvel at how cheery they were through what had to be a day of very intense work. I hope that they were able to sit and have a cup of coffee at some point.
Out in the woods the dads broke tracks and we followed. Our boots crunched and squeaked in the snow. (Remembering, I imagine the swishing sound of bread bag-encased shoes sliding around inside our rubber boots.) Uncle Ray and our dad would point out animal tracks, a bird overhead and pine trees that might be a good size and shape for Christmas. We wondered at the tracks — had a fox chased a rabbit? — considered each tree and walked in our dads' tracks.
Suddenly, each year it seemed, Dad and Ray pointed out two trees, not far from each other, of just the right size, shape and beauty. What did we think? they asked. We shouted that they were perfect and watched the dads chop them down with an ax and tie them with ropes. We took turns helping pull them back to the house.
It was decades later that my cousins, Janet and Melissa, asked me if I had ever thought that our dads had actually scoped out the trees and timed things so that we would be back at just the time our moms had planned for our big dinner to be ready. I hadn't, actually, which made them both laugh.