| Dec 21, 2006

Feature Article - December 21

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Christmas content 2006

Christmas without Jean

by Jeff Green


I’ve always had an outsider’s view of Christmas. For the first 20 years of my life I had no view at all, since I lived in a Jewish community in Montreal.

Later, I met Martina, and her mother Jean Townsend introduced me to her family’s Christmas traditions. We have all celebrated Christmas together ever since, developing our own traditions along the way.

One of the things we do is go out on or around Christmas Eve, sometimes as the sun is setting, and chop down a small cedar for a Christmas tree. Cedars aren’t as Christmas tree-like as Scotch pines, but they smell nice and they don’t shed needles. It takes a lot of work to turn our Charlie Brown-like cedar trees into something festive. Somehow, after dusting off 30-year-old handmade ornaments, and a canvas angel Jean made 40 years ago, we end up with a tree.


At the end, Jean has always told Martina it’s the most beautiful tree she’s ever seen. But that won’t happen this year.

Last year Jean was terribly frail by the time Christmas rolled around. When Martina’s brother Colin arrived with his family she was barely able to hold her head up, and as we carried on, making the stuffing using the recipe Jean had handed down from her mother, eating butter tarts with paper-thin crusts as Jean was taught back in the 20’s, we all could feel the weight of her condition.

Eighteen years ago this week, Jean’s brother Gordie died of a heart attack as he was hauling the Christmas tree that he had just chopped down, over to his house.

Martina, Jean and I went to Christmas dinner at Gordie’s house that year. The tree was up, the table was set, drinks were served, and there was laughter.

And there were tears. Gordie’s wife, two sisters, daughters, and grandchildren took turns ducking into spare rooms, closets even, to cry and cry.

Then we sat down, someone said grace, and we ate. We sat around the tree, the last thing Gordie ever saw, and opened presents.

I remember the Passover seders I went to as a boy. Passover takes place in the spring. It is a highly ritualised meal; seder means order, and the evening is devoted to remembering the Biblical story of Moses delivering the Jews from Egypt. The seders I went to as a boy were different from the ones we hold now. The ones I remember most were held at my great uncle Saul and Aunt Bessie’s house in St. Laurent. My uncle Saul was a religious man. He had the deep, flat voice of a Polish Jew. He conducted the seders entirely in Hebrew, pounding through the readings and songs in relentless fashion. When I was young it seemed like his was the voice of God, and my brothers and I wouldn’t dare make a sound as the first, long part of the seder rolled on. It seemed like it took hours before we got to eat. Afterwards, we sang, and cracked nuts.

My uncle Saul was a sweet man. He was the glue that held his family together.

I think about him every year at our family seder.

Jean Townsend died 11 days after Christmas last year, on January 5th. She had suffered from cancer, had congestive heart failure, and was in the so-called moderate to severe stage of Alzheimers when she died. She was 84.

Jean’s Christmas traditions came directly from her mother, Martha Cale, in the village of Mimico, which was swallowed whole by the City of Toronto many years ago. From Jean we got all of her mother’s recipes, all of the stories from her past, her family’s past, about life in the 20’s and 30’s, and about the great wars.

Jean taught me a lot of things over the 20 years I knew her.

One of them was her refusal to pass judgement. As her son-in law this meant that I was accepted into her life, completely, from the start. There were no hoops to jump through, she had no expectations, and she never had to forgive indiscretions against her; she simply let them pass as if they never happened.

She gathered people around her throughout her life because she let them be who they were. Some people took advantage of her because of this, much to the consternation of those of us who loved her, but she never seemed to mind.

Every family at some time goes through the kind of Christmas our family will go through this year. Annual events are a fixed moment in time, a time when we remember the past, and consider the future and our place in it. They are times of joy when a new baby is at the table. They are also times when the pain of divorce or the unbearable tragedy of someone dying too young in the preceding year, strikes home with a vengeance.

We can avoid thinking about the passage of time on a day-to-day basis, but at the holidays we are inevitably faced with it.

Our family will have the opportunity to share our good memories of Jean this Christmas, memories of an abiding love from a mother to her daughter and son, and to the families they have established, and memories of the love those two children showed to their mother when she became old and frail and needed them most.

We are blessed in that we are grieving for someone who lived a long and happy life. We are also blessed because we remember how enriched our lives have been by having had Jean with us for all those years, and by the memory of her, which we can carry with us.

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