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Each year as Christmas rolls around, as I buckle under the pressure and stress of shopping for gifts for people that already have everything, I find myself remembering that Christmas of 1954.
Dad had joined the army that year and we moved from the East Coast of Canada to Ontario, leaving behind our extended family and the only home I had ever known in a small fishing village along the Bay of Fundy.
Now we stood gazing in horror at the rows of ugly buildings sitting on barren land in the middle of nowhere. This was the housing provided by the army being part of the soldier's wage.
My mother was inconsolable until dad rented us a small apartment over a Chinese restaurant in downtown Barrie. There was no remuneration by the army for forfeiting the housing, so it left dad with a very small pay-check.
Pay day was once a month and we usually ran out of money in the last week, so off we would go to the pawn shop with dad’s prized possession; his short-wave radio, won for superior marksmanship.
Being kids, we finally adjusted to our new world as we watched the Santa Claus Parade march below our living room window amid the honking horns, blaring bands and throngs of people lined along the streets as far as the eye could see as we laughed with glee.
We had seen them on our way to school in the window of the bicycle shop; gleaming with chrome spokes and handlebars and hand grips adorned with multi-coloured streamers. There I would stand until my feet grew numb from the cold, daydreaming of riding back to the East Coast. I could actually see the sun glistening on the waves as I raced along the ocean on the way to grandma’s house. More than once I had to stay after school for being late.
My brother thought maybe if we were really good, Santa would bring those bicycles to us. I being the older and therefore the wiser, knew the state of the real Santa’s affairs and promptly convinced my brother I had heard from a reliable source Santa had a shortage of bicycles this year and we would just have to earn the money and buy them ourselves.
We worked it out on paper and realized if we saved our ten cents a week allowance, it would take years to pay for them, so we decided we needed to get a job. So began our first enterprise ‘Hal and Elaine’s snow Removal’.
Each day after school we would go door to door offering to shovel the snow from sidewalks and driveways for a fee of twenty- five cents. Each day we would return home with our frozen hands clutching a quarter and our minds clutching the visions of those bicycles as we prayed for snow once again.
Mom had taken a job working from home to add to the family income. Each night she would soak piles of leather pieces to soften and stretch over balls of twine to stitch together the next day, the end product – a baseball. Mom stitched hour after hour, day after day until her fingers bled.
Dad would come home from Camp Borden after many hours of hard labour and army maneuvers to have supper and make us giggle and laugh with his outrageous stories of the day’s events. For several days, he left after supper, returning hours later with red and blue paint stains on his hands and a tired smile on his face. No matter how many times I asked him where he had been and why he had paint on his hands, he would never tell, he simply made a game out of it by saying GUESS.
The days flew by in a blur as we shoveled up and down the streets dreaming of those bicycles that grew more solid with every quarter we put in our piggy banks. I would go to sleep each night and ride through towns and cities and over hills and through valleys until I heard the sound of buoy bells ringing in the harbour.
I would pedal faster and faster, knowing I was almost there. I could see my old home just down the road. As the bells got louder, I would slowly awake to the truth as the alarm clock wound down on the night stand. Once again I would head off for school and stand daydreaming, peering at that gleaming bicycle in the window of the bicycle shop.
Suddenly – Christmas was almost upon us and we needed to buy mom and dad a present, so we pulled the plug on the piggy bank and took our loot, a total of four dollars each to Woolworth’s.
Oh – the glorious things we saw – shelves full of toys and household goods, glass counters with hundreds of bottles of perfume and cologne, shaving gear, tropical birds and fish and mountains and mountains of candy. What to do – what to buy?
We scurried from one counter to the next, overwhelmed with the endless things to choose from as we stammered and stuttered like a couple of idiots. Finally, we decided on a bottle of ‘Lily of the Valley’ perfume and a pair of gloves for mom and ‘Old spice’ cologne and gloves for dad.
We then separated to buy presents for each other agreeing to meet at the soda fountain afterwards where we decided it was only fitting we should have a banana split and a Coke to celebrate the occasion.
As we sat there with our lips covered in butterscotch and ice cream, the gravity of the situation began to sink in. We had spent our entire savings and with that realization, we licked our lips and decided the bicycles would have to wait another year.
For the conclusion...go to PART TWO
Author: Elaine Cecelia George
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