Published in Christian Courier , No. 2378 (December 3, 1993)
I rolled my eyes as I watched my mother lean over the kitchen sink and peer anxiously through the window for the hundredth time that afternoon. Outside a sheath of shimmering ice coated every object and the scene was like a crystalline fairyland. But my mom and I were not in a mood to appreciate the radiance of the landscape. It was 1967. I was thirteen. I allowed an audible sigh to escape from my lips in distaste at my mother’s obvious concern. The unexpected ice storm had caused my dad and brother to be late. They had gone on an overnight trip to our old house to collect the few remaining boxes. “Oh Mom,” I said, in as much of a patronizing tone as I dared, “Dad and Fred will be fine. They’ll be here soon enough. Why do you always worry so much?”
My mother paid me no heed and continued scanning the distance for any sign of movement. Rebuffed, I clattered out of the room and went to sulk upstairs. This was going to be the absolute worst Christmas ever and I had no intention of hiding my feelings. Flinging myself on my bed, I reviewed again all the things that had gone wrong that December.
I wasn’t sure what had been worse, moving or my mom being pregnant. Both events had been a shock. Sure, my dad had talked about buying a farm for years but I hadn’t really considered that he would actually do it. And as for the other – well, having another baby at thirty-six! We already had a nice family with five kids. Who needed any more? With a grimace I envisioned what it would be like when my mom began to show and I would have to go to my new school and face all those knowing eyes. And it was only three months and my mom was already complaining of sore legs!
My restless thoughts harked back to the move. The worst part was that my budgie had died. For some reason, either because of the strangeness of the new surroundings or because we moved the bird on one of the coldest days of the year, my pretty blue budgie had died on our second day on the farm. It had been a real blow. I had spent so many hours teaching the bird to say,” Pretty Tommy, pretty bird” and he had become so tame we could let him free in the house and he would always return to my finger. Mom and Dad had immediately promised me a new bird, but the sadness and blame lingered.
Moving during the Christmas holidays had been a drag, too. I had been looking forward to attending Central Collegiate with all of my old friends but now I had only six months to make new friends before going to a different highschool. Not only that, but I was losing out on a Grade 8 class trip. The students at my new school had already
been to Toronto while my old classmates were still in the planning stages of their outing. Lousy luck.
Moving during the holidays had also meant no Christmas tree, no decorations, no skating with my dad on the fields near my old house and no fun, period. For me it meant nothing but a lot of babysitting my younger brothers and sister. Mom and Dad were busy, busy, busy.
I looked around my bedroom unenthusiastically. What a contrast from the room I had left behind. Back on Telfer Road I had had a room all my own, with a desk facing a window and matching pink bedspread and curtains. I had to share this room with Ann. The wallpaper was a hideous green flowered print, yellowed with age. There was only one closet in the whole upstairs of the house and only three bedrooms. That meant my three brothers had to share a room and no telling where the baby was supposed to sleep.
“Grace. Grace.” My mother’s voice floated up the stairs. “Would you come down, please? I need you to get the clothes off the line. I just remembered there are a few things I had hung out yesterday.” I pouted to myself but got off my bed.
In the kitchen I noticed that my mom was still leaning over the sink checking the road, the two vertical worry lines between her eyebrows a little deeper than usual. “I don’t get why you are so upset, Mom. Don’t you think Dad can look after himself?” My mom answered a little sharply, “Well, they should have been back hours ago. I’m worried about those two big hills they have to cross to get here and I just checked and the phones are still out. Not only that, but I heard a little while ago on the radio that the police have been called off the roads because they are so icy. When you get the clothes, you can hang them up on the lines in the back room.”
I threw on my coat and slid to the clothesline and gathered up the stiff and frozen laundry. I surveyed the backyard with loathing. A lopsided shed, bursting with all kinds of rusty junk and dirty glass bottles, squatted shining and silver on one side of the lawn. Its glistening exterior didn’t fool me. There was no doubt about whose job it was going to be to clean it out. And I dreaded spiders and bugs. So did Fred, for that matter. I just couldn’t fathom how my neat and cleanly mother could have been talked into moving to this rundown old place.
After the clothes had been hung to thaw in the back room and even some on a line in the kitchen, I plopped down with a book at the table. The kitchen was really the only warm place in the house anyway.
Mom made herself an instant coffee and sighed. She looked at the paper dolls Ann was playing with and admired the towers of wooden blocks that the twins were building in the middle of the floor. Then she drifted back to the window. She glanced for a moment at me.
“Grace, do you know what we should do? We should make borstplaat.”
I hardly lifted my eyes from the book, not wanting to appear too interested. “What’s that?”
“We used to make it back in Holland around Christmas time. It’s a kind of hard candy. When we were little, we used to get it every year when Sinter Klaas came. Your oma would make it in all different shapes and colours! Of course, we never got it during the war. Then there was no sugar to be had. And sugar is the main ingredient.”
I rummaged in the stove drawer and found the heart-shaped baking tins that my mom wanted. She hunted up the vanilla extract and food colouring, banging hard on the cupboard door first to scare away any mice. I knew that my mother feared mice more than just about anything. Again I wondered how she could have ever agreed to move here.
Borstplaat was surprisingly simple to make. I boiled water and sugar together until it thickened and would form a string as it dripped from the spoon. The sticky stuff could then be flavoured with vanilla and tinted with food colouring. In spite of myself, I began to enjoy making the candy. It was fun to colour the mixture in a variety of shades. The tiny dark green and light green hearts looked attractive together. We made a big pink heart, too, and Mom even made a brown one with some instant coffee. We set the filled forms out in the veranda to cool.
What was even more fun than making the candy was listening to the stories Mom told in those few free moments between supervising my baking efforts, mediating the squabbles of the twins, occasionally patting the easy-going Ann on the head and once in a while looking through the window.
I was amazed to discover that my meticulous mom had had lice during the war. “Everybody had lice. There was nothing you could do about it. We didn’t have any soap, either. Oma used to make some homemade soap out of lye. We didn’t starve like the people in the big cities, but we had some pretty lean years. I remember that I once got an orange at school. The teachers were worried that we children never ate any fruit. That orange had to be the best thing I’ve ever tasted.”
I heard how my mom had to stand in line for hours to get a piece of meat if a pig happened to be butchered in the village. “Your oma used to make all seven of us stand in line with the ration cards of our old neighbours because the wait was too long for their old legs. I didn’t want to, but I had to. You’re named for her, you know. Grace was the closest English version of Grietje that we could think of .”
Mom told me about the different jobs she had had in Holland before she was married. “You know, Grace, I had to quit school at fourteen. There were a lot of years for working before I met your dad and got married. I delivered papers all over the countryside near my village on my bike and turned my pay over to Oma. I worked in a store for a couple of years and washed cold cement floors on my knees.” I chuckled, “I guess that’s why you are always complaining about your legs, eh.”
Mom grinned and replied, “In those days you didn’t plan what you wanted to be when you grew up; you just took whatever job you could get. I worked as a maid for a farmer and for a minister, too. That minister’s kids were so spoiled!”
The afternoon passed swiftly for me and soon it was time to make the Saturday night soup and start bathing the younger children. As I was running the water for the twins’ bath, I heard my mom give a little shriek. Sure that it was a mouse, I rushed into the kitchen. But it was my dad and Fred. As my brother pushed open the back door and my dad entered behind him, my mother’s reaction floored me. She flung her arms around my dad and wept with great heaving sobs. She cried for quite a few minutes, not letting go of him. Was this the same person who had told me stories all afternoon?
Over supper Dad told us what had happened. He and Fred had been trapped by the icy big hill about three miles down the road. Try as they might, they just couldn’t get the car up.
“We must have worked at it for at least an hour and a half. Fred’s hands were getting red with cold so we finally walked to the nearest farm to see if we could get some help. That’s when we found out that the phones were down and that even the police had been pulled off the roads. I knew how you would be worrying, Margaret, so I knew I had to make it home somehow. The farmer and his wife, their name’s Johnson, they made us feel really welcome. They gave us some lunch and then Ray took out his tractor and tried to pull us up the hill with chains. But it was no go. So it was back to the farm for some more coffee and then I decided to walk home because I knew you would be half out of your mind, especially if you had been listening to the radio. So Eileen, that’s her name, gave us some mitts and scarves and bundled us up as well as she could and then we started walking home. Poor Fred here, I think he’s just about done in, aren’t you, buddy?”
Dad paused his tale in order to refill his bowl and then remarked, “Good people here, that’s for sure. Those Johnsons – they couldn’t do enough to help us. They set aside their own concerns and did their best to be good neighbours. I think we’re going to be all right, out here in the country, if that’s the way these farmers operate.”
After dessert, Dad pulled out the Bible for the nightly reading. Usually this was where I tuned out, but tonight a phrase jumped out at me because I heard my name mentioned:”…in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus….” I studied my mother as my dad read on. The Johnsons had been kind to Dad today but they weren’t the only ones who had set aside their own concerns to think of someone else. The strain of the day was evident in my mom’s tired face. It dawned me that maybe it wasn’t this day only, but everything – the move, the baby on the way, a moody teenager. After Dad had offered the closing prayer, I began to clear the table. “You sit down, Mom. I can do the dishes alone for once.” Later, when the dishes were done, I gave my mother an awkward hug.
“Thanks for naming me after Oma, Mom. You know, I thought this was going to be the worst Christmas ever. But now I think that this might be a Christmas I’ll remember for more than just the move. After all, I learned how to make borstplaat and….” I paused, not quite certain how to word my discovery. ” I think maybe I just figured out what my name is really all about.” Mom smiled and squeezed me back.