Ghosts of Christmas Past: Memories for a Lifetime

I have written before of the importance Christmas has always had in our family over the years and how my parents, very deliberately, sought to create memories that would last a lifetime. Good years and bad, the images of those seasons past come racing out in my mind every day. The smell of a tree, the lyrics of a carol sung long ago, standing in a store line and seeing a young boy carrying roles of wrapping paper as tall as him; they all bring an unexplained smile to my face and a warm feeling inside me that is often thought lost with childhood. Any time, any day those feelings return and no matter the realities of the moment I am a child again and my parents are next to me.

So it was one evening this year as Dianne and I were watching one of those campy, overly cute feel good Christmas movies on Netflix that have become a ritual of the season. The scene was as forgettable as the plot but in that moment I found myself back in Christmas 1970. Back at Agincourt Public School’s Christmas Concert for the parents. That year our class was performing a play of Jesus and the Three Wise Men. As we prepared for the night I was devastated that I has lost out in the casting of those memorable leading roles and relegated to being one of the Heralds that introduced each scene. Yet my mother was able to convince me that those were the best parts as the Heralds began each and every scene. As I stood on the stage looking out over the several hundred parents assembled in the gym I could see my parents sitting right on the isle several rows back and everything felt grand.

Over the years mother told the story of that night too many times and each time it evolved slightly to the point the Heralds truly were the stars of the night. When I was younger my parents pride made me smile, as I became older I would wish it were forgotten that year. Now it is all gone, a night almost forgotten to all but a few of us for whom it is a fleeting memory of days long gone. I suspect many of those parents are long gone as are mine and indeed too many of my classmates as we pass through middle age. But for that passing moment this year that night came as alive as it could be and for that brief moment my parents were at the side of their 6 year old son and all was well.

On the passing chance anyone will read these words let me say to parents, you are creating the images that will form the timeline of your child’s life, craft them well. To children close your eyes, think hard and remember for some day in the far off future you will value them more than you can now imagine. Christmas will always be a season of magic and dreams, a special time of lights and song. Yet the real magic is that we carry in our hearts and minds that hold us close to those we love so much.

Merry Christmas to all and to all a very Happy 2014!

T’was the Night Before Christmas…

Christmas was an amazing time around our home. Thinking back, my mother was all about creating memories for family, particularly her only son. Decoration day was a huge deal, typically starting seven days before Christmas (not 6 or 8 days) and it truly was an all day affair. Special decorations were discussed, particularly those which came from my grandparents or great grandparents trees, as well as those from close friends. My mother loved those handmade, ones created by children of friends, by family and a couple I had made that were so pathetic they embarrassed me each year. But to my mother they were special, part of the Christmas experience. There were the details, the scent packs she bought at work to make the artificial tree smell so real. Lights strung on the inside of windows so they could be enjoyed from both the street and the living room. She loved it so, I can remember as a young child seeing her late at night before she went to bed sitting and looking at the tree with a smile that said it all.

Christmans 1967 with My Grandparents

Christmans 1967 with My Grandparents © W. G. Olivant 2012, All Rights Reserved

While growing up we were not overtly religious, the meaning was never lost. The nativity was set out and each character discussed. Most years we went to a church service or Christmas event, when I was your so I would see the meaning and as I was older and mother more devout to her church for the concert. Christmas dinner was the annual event to bring out the silver and china and dress up, even when just the three of us. It was not the season until “White Christmas” was watched on television. Candles were lit, grace was said, “crackers” were popped and goofy paper hats worn with pride. The dinner was most always ham, scalloped potatoes, cranberry sauce and a desert of layers jello moose (red & green of course). To this day I can close my eyes and taste it.

My mother, Dianne anda Young Galahad, Christmas 1998  - © 2012 W. G. Olivant, All Rights Reserved

My mother, Dianne anda Young Galahad, Christmas 1998 – © W. G. Olivant 2012, All Rights Reserved

Growing up I never realized how much my parent sacrificed and did without themselves so that Christmas, and indeed other events, would be special. Below the tree there were always gifts to make a young boy smile. The Major Matt Mason moon base, the prize of any child growing up in the space age. The Tonka earth movers which transformed the back yard sandbox for years. Post gift opening was my father’s time to shine. Truth be told I think he enjoyed putting the train sets together, showing my how to make mechano engineering marvels and taking that first ride on a new bike on a driveway full of snow. To be sure some tested their understanding, no more than the chemistry set which resulted in recovering a rocket from the attic as well as patching the ceiling. I could go on for days; in creating lasting memories they succeeded beyond belief.

As an only child living as far from family as we did most Christmas were the three of us and whatever friends dropped by or were visited. Yet no Christmases are more memorable that those we spent with family in Toronto. Christmases with my grandparents, various aunts and uncles were the highlight of the year. Some are but fading pictures and the memories of my parents explaining them to me as I grew up. Others of those years when the true meaning of the event is lost in youth. Today as I sift through the boxes of pictures from my parents collections I am so fortunate for their foresight. It is said that youth is wasted on the young; perhaps but the value of memories does indeed increase with years.

My Mother with Frends for the Last Christmas, 2009 - © W. G. Olivant 2012, All Rights Reserved

My Mother with Frends for the Last Christmas, 2009 – © W. G. Olivant 2012, All Rights Reserved

My father’s final Christmases were in those years when I was in university and starting my career and are tarnished by my focus on things of temporary or passing importance. For the decade that followed my mother would come each year and spend Christmas with us as we moved around. I thought at the time those Christmas memories were for her, our gift back. While that may be true, they were also her last gift to me. She and I never developed the adult understanding I had wished for and our relationship was complicated. Over the years the trips were more difficult on her, yet she always came and for a week or so the magic of Christmas returned. In her last year the phone call came saying she would not come down, we would have to wait until she was better next year. That was a difficult year and we essentially let Christmas pass. My mother celebrated it with her friends at her home, a Christmas of smiles I only saw in pictures a year later. Maybe denial caused me to miss the signs that there would not be another. Today those pictures, the memories they ignite give me comfort and happiness beyond words. Somewhere I suspect my mother is putting the final touches on the tree and my father the last tape on wrapped presents. At least that’s my hope. To be sure, I am rediscovering and reliving the memories of Christmas past with enduring gratitude, appreciation and love for two wonderful parents. Merry Christmas, wherever you may be. God speed.

Happy Fathers Day

Dear Dad,

On this Fathers Day, you have been on my mind a great deal as you often are of late. Today is not only the day we honor our fathers, it is also the 15th anniversary of the day we lost you. It is hard to believe all these years have passed, it seems like only yesterday we last spoke. Over the years that have passed I mostly remember the days we spent together rather than the time we have been apart. Every time I use your hammer to fix things around the house, every time I remember the advice you gave which seems even more sage with the passage of time. I am now and always will be proud and grateful to be your son.

Happy Fathers Day,

Love, Gord


From Where I Came

When looking back into one’s past, it is amazing the importance wedding albums come to play as they have collections of professional quality pictures where all present were showing off their finest. My parents album is no different and I have found myself thumbing through it more frequently of late, looking at those images for the god know how many time for that one detail I misses. To see all those people, not only my parents and grandparents but the aunts and uncles I would come to know so well in the years to come when they were so young. Looking at faces to see who really had their parent’s eyes, which side of the family so and so inherited their chin from and so on. However more than that I see those young faces, younger than I am now, and wonder what great dreams filled their minds. No picture has made me think of this more than the only single picture I have seen of the six people to whom I directly owe my life itself, my parents and grandparents. My Parents did not have me until their late 30’s which while not at all unusual today it was uncommon in the day. As a result the singular image I have in my mind that one composite memory constructed image we build in our early teens is of parents then in their 50’s. Three of my grandparents died before I reached my 9th birthday and memories of those are flickering images and influenced greatly by pictures. Only my Grandmother on my mother’s side did I have the chance to come to know as I reached adulthood and I will forever be grateful to say she became more than a Grandmother, she became a friend in the truest sense of the word.

My Grandparents and Parents at their Wedding, 1952 - © 2011 W. G. Olivant , All Rights Reserved

My Grandparents and Parents at their Wedding, 1952 – © 2011 W. G. Olivant, All Rights Reserved

Of those 6 people I wonder what they were thinking that wedding day. How amazing it would be to go back in time and be a fly on the wall. As I find myself in mid-life and questioning my own decisions while trying to map out the years to come, I wonder what they would have truly thought of their son and grandson. Not the “oh they would have been so proud” platitudes but really thought as people. It is hard as a child to evolve from seeing your parents as those god like figures of childhood to real people with complex personalities, the good and the bad. I can only imagine that it is harder for parents in many ways as they are always able to see their child. I regret I really did not get to that point with either of my parents, age, personality and ultimately distance kept that from happening. People talk of those who have passed on looking down from above and while I like the thought, I wish I had true faith. For four of the six I am their sole descendant, and it would appear their last and I only hope the unwritten chapters of my life can construct and ending that they would find pleasing.

Gone Fishing

Harold Olivant with Gordon Olivant after his First Fishing Trip & Boat Ride August 1, 1971 © 2011 W. G. Olivant , All Rights Reserved

Memories of that August day in 1971 had faded from my mind until I found this picture recently as I have been sorting through our family pictures. I would have been 6 years old when we spent a couple days at the Clark family cottage. Dad took me out on my first fishing trip. I recalled how proud I was of the string of fish we caught and how big they seemed. The picture reveals the reality of size, but none the less my father cleaned them and mother cooked them for dinner (I truest adding more to the diet for the night). My father truly enjoyed going fishing, a pastime I have never come to share. For years he tried to teach me on our annual trips to Manitoulin Island. Soon I found other things to do and dad ventured out on his own. He never caught much, and I have realized what he sought was less fish than the peace the time spent on the water afforded him. When I went out in the boat I enjoyed the trip, playing with the boat on the water and going place we had not before gone. Dad would go out and let the boat drift, often for more than an hour before repositioning it and going adrift once again. He would come in after hours, more often than not empty handed, but always more relaxed. I didn’t much understand but I knew he enjoyed the time. Today Part of me wishes we had shared the time together, who knows what would have been said. The other part now understands what those times truly meant for him. Wherever he now is I suspect he finds some time adrift, rod in hand; at least that is my hope.

The Other Side of the Street

My Mother Beatrice, Her Father George and Mother Hazel at their Wedding - © 2011 W. G. Olivant , All Rights Reserved

My Mother Beatrice, Her Father George and Mother Hazel at their Wedding – © 2011 W. G. Olivant , All Rights Reserved

While my father was an only child and thus I had limited contact with relatives as I was growing up, my mother was one of five children and she believed it was important for me to develop a connection to family. Mother loved her family and that only grew with age. Whenever a card or note with pictures arrived in the male you could tell by the smile that came over her face. As we lived over 200 miles from most of her family, visits were limited to 3 or 4 times yearly trips to Toronto. As I child these were amazing times and much of the childhood memories I have today are of those trips. Be it by train, bus or when my dad drove down with us, these were great times for me. At the time it was the excitement of traveling from a small mining town to a big city with all the fun it had to offer. Today it’s the time I spend with my mother and especially my Grandfather George and Grandmother Hazel as well as the many aunts, uncles and cousins. While my grandfather died when I was 8, the memories I have are so vivid and special. Getting off the elevator of the apartment building they lived in their later years I can see him coming out of the door and yelling to me down the hall as I ran. I still read through the letters he sent me which have survived the years. My Grandmother was the archetype of what a grandmother should be. She always had a smile on her face and words of encouragement. I was always able to talk to her about things I would tell none else. As her health declined she never let on to me the obvious discomfort she was in. I will always remember the afternoon of my wedding day when Dianne and I dropped in to see her after a four hour drive from our home town. Grandma was past the point of travel but she loved the wedding cake we brought and the smile and words she shared that day will be with me always. To mother I will always be grateful for the sacrifices you made to ensure those memories were created.

The Young Man I Never Knew, William Harold Olivant

William Harold Olivant as a Young Man (circa 1940) – © 2011 W. G. Olivant , All Rights Reserved

Much of what I know about my father’s youth I have learned by accident over the years. When I was going to summer day camp my dad did not want my lunch bag getting confused with others (not that many had WW2 surplus shoulder bags). When I woke up the first morning I ground he had drawn an Owl on the bag in ink. This was not an abstract cartoon but rather a detailed pen and ink owl with the most amazing eyes. Later I found a mountain scene he had painted on the inside of a carton top. My father had dreamed of being an illustrator but like so many in life he had become sidetracked with the reality of taking care of his family. Dad was in the sea cadets during WW2 and calling up had ended by the time he turned 17 days after Normandy. In his younger years he loved to play tennis, until he broke his wrist and enjoyed hunting with friends. At 16 he left school to work in a shipyard building Corvettes for the navy. Yet my father valued education and never let it be doubted I would go on to university for the education he had been denied. Dad finished high school at night and I hope he knew how proud his son was of him when at 49 he began taking university courses.

William Harold Olivant at 14 months of age (1928) – © 2011 W. G. Olivant , All Rights Reserved

My Mother, Beatrice Olivant

A Young Beatrice E. Olivant - © 2011 W. G. Olivant , All Rights Reserved

A Young Beatrice E. Olivant (circa 1940’s) – © 2011 W. G. Olivant , All Rights Reserved

It has been almost a year since my mother’s death and it was sorting through the pieces of her life that motivated me to begin this effort. Beatrice Olivant was 39 when I was born, which was later in life than most in the 1960’s. By the time I have conscious memories her hair was graying and the generations separating us very apparent. Yet from the stories I have been told over the years, she was far from boring in her day. Indeed I think it is safe to say she has a rebellious streak, typical for the oldest of five children. Often she told me of the day she and her cousin Ernie painted the car body my grandfather had been working on while he was at work. That when her father came home and saw it the first words from his mouth was her name is telling. My mother was a people person and always was chatty with those around her. Life threw my mother many unfair curves over the years but she always made the best of whatever situation she found herself. When faced with an unfamiliar situation, my mother rose to the challenge. As a child it’s hard to imagine your parents as children, indeed difficult to see them for the people they truly are I will always regret we ever did get to this point. However there was never a mother who cared more for their son or was more willing to sacrifice than my mother.

Beatrice Olivant at 16 (1941) – © 2011 W. G. Olivant , All Rights Reserved

One Family Across the Generations

The Olivant Family (circa 1968): Eleanor Olivant, Harold Olivant, Beatrice Olivant, Gordon Olivant and William Olivant – © 2011 W. G. Olivant , All Rights Reserved

In the late 1960’s it had been more than a decade since my parents had left the city of their birth to move to the city where I would be born and they would live the most of the rest of their lives. Movement has been part of our family tradition. In addition to my parents moving, my Grandmother Eleanor Olivant was born in Romeo Michigan moving to Toronto in her childhood years. As my grandparents advancing age became impactful on their ability to take care of themselves they joined my parents in Sudbury. My grandmother was not well and passed away not much later. Her passing had a devastating effect on my Grandfather and he began to rapidly decline. The impact of all this was lost on this 4-5 year old and I have very few memories of that time. Only in later years did I realize the toll taken on my parents. My father, like me, was an only child and he did what was necessary to take care of his family. This photograph was taken circa 1968a year or so before my grandparents joined us during one of their visits. While I do not recall when these pictures were taken I am so glad to have them today.

Growing Up Olivant

The Olivant Family (circa 1977)

The Olivant Family in 1977: Gordon Olivant, Smokey, Beatrice Olivant & Harold Olivant – © 2011 W. G. Olivant , All Rights Reserved

I remember the evening that this picture was taken in 1977 as clearly as if it were yesterday. My Uncle Ken and his family were visiting our home during one of their vacations. Mother was so happy that day since she did not see Uncle Ken that often and spent the better part of it in the kitchen preparing dinner (ham, scallop potatos & cheesecke if I recall) It was taken just after dinner as they were getting ready to leave. The fourth member of the family is my dog Smokey who was with us from when I was 7 years of age until i was 21. I think for any boy growing up his dog holds a special place in his heart, especially when part of so much of his life. This may be more so for only children as Smokey was the one to listen to me late at night on matters not suitable for parents ears. President Truman once said “if you want a friend, get a dog” and no better friend and companion was had. As for the goofy expressions on our faces, it was the 1970’s. Enough Said.