by Ted Currie
By my calculation, after clearing away the cobwebs in my own attic, I have been writing editorial copy for various Ontario publications for more than forty years. Forgive me for waxing nostalgic, but I’m at a stage in life when it has become important for me to embrace retrospectives, as with age and so much writing under the bridge now, I sometimes question my own material, when Suzanne shows me a column from my archives that I wrote three or four decades earlier. Let’s just say, that for this reason of personal antiquity, such that I can’t remember all the stories I’ve composed, my good wife and writing assistant has been re-introducing me to my past, and this story published below, was, I am told, one of my favorites from years ago. I certainly remember the circumstances of my museum years at Bracebridge’s Woodchester Villa, up here in South Muskoka, just not the occasion that I penned it, or even where it was originally published. I just have the rough copy now, in pen because my typewriter was broken apparently. One of the problems of not having clipped articles when they were first or subsequently published. I am told by my publishers that I am prolific, but I’m not sure they mean this in a good way.
I wonder if Charles Dickens or Washington Irving, two of my favorite authors of Christmas stories, made a point of re-reading what they had already published. I am told that many authors refuse to have a second-glance at work once it has been put in print, bound, and sold to the eager public. I didn’t find the experience today all that challenging or distasteful, although I did force myself to make some changes that seemed altogether necessary, being that I am a few years more experienced now than I was when the piece was originally composed. Here then is a wee bit of my past, retold with enthusiasm, here at Birch Hollow, although it was read aloud to the only occupants still at hearth-side, being two slumbering dogs and four curled-up cats. Suzanne has heard all my stories but was within earshot at her accounting desk at the opposite end of the living room. Here are some thoughts from yesteryear about Christmas and its intimacies to the writer, me!
I have written in some very haunted houses, over the past thirty-five years. Woodchester Villa was most definitely a spirited place. Even visitors picked up on the spiritual qualities and quantities of this 1880's house on the hillside. There was always the sound of footsteps on the main staircase, the sound of barking dogs, where there were none, voices of children when nary a child was in the building, or nearby, and the knocking here and there that always reminded the museum keepers we weren't alone. When a volunteer, one day, decided to record some music off the Victrola, in the parlor, to re-play in the museum, via a tape recorder, the microphone picked up many sounds that were not supposed to be there. Voices that were not on the actual record, as they were instrumentals, and many of the similar knocks inadvertently recorded, were ones staff was used to hearing throughout the house. There is a great deal of noise in fact, that wasn't in the parlor at the time the tapes were being recorded, rogue footsteps from someone walking through the room, and a banging sound, as if someone was using the dumb-waiter, to bring dinner up to the main floor dining room, from the basement kitchen. While we should have been surprised to hear these noises captured on the recording, it was pretty much just a validation, of what we were quite used to hearing on a daily, weekly basis of service at the museum.
One Christmas, before I left employment of the museum, my wife Suzanne and I, had spent a whole day decorating the old homestead, for our annual open house. We had decorated the oak railings of the main staircase with evergreen bows, holly berries, bright red ribbons, and set out a beautiful Christmas tree in the parlor, with handmade decorations. The dining room table had a beautiful Victorian era centerpiece, and the freshly made cinnamon, clove and apple pomanders provided a most amazing, traditional scent to the building. When I arrived that Sunday morning, to bring in the trays of cookies and cakes, the house was as welcoming as if the spirits within, had agreed, the only haunting this day, would be of the most pleasant-kind. This restored house, with its dark and heavy Victorian furnishings, could appear rather gloomy at times, and it definitely possessed a mood, which it prevailed upon all who worked here. This was different. It was the same each Christmas season, as if there was a truce from the normal fare of rapping on doors, and footsteps on the staircases, and haunting voices in the dark corners of the octagonal structure. It's of course, only my perception of this, but others did agree, that Christmas seemed to bring about a great change in aura here at Woodchester, and it wasn't simply a change of decoration, or the smell of fresh baking on a candle-lit table. It was clear, to me, as its steward, that the Bird family had enjoyed many, many wonderful Christmases in this riverside homestead.
Woodchester was a kind and comforting place, despite the encounters we had with the paranormal. It wasn't a threatening place, and I was never scared of anything that may have haunted the former abode. It's true that some patrons got "spooked," you might say, from some sensations they got walking through the house, and a few tour guides did perpetuate stories, scaring themselves in the process, but as for this being a frightful place, well, it was just nonsense. Spirited? Yes! It was a very spirited place. And as I sat in the huge parlor chair, looking out the window that afforded a view of the tall pines, the narrative on the recording, the ambience of the house, the aroma of evergreen and cookies, was the most enchanted I'd ever seen of this place I helped preserve a decade earlier. It was as if the old house appreciated my sentiments, and I had acknowledged and validated its family heritage from the 1880's, sheltering large, prosperous families through difficult times, and joyous celebrations.
It seemed as if the old house knew we were about to part ways, as I had already made a decision to resign as manager the next year. It would be the last time I'd set out these treats on the dining table, or adorn these walls with angels and Victorian decorations, pull in evergreen boughs for the door trim and railings, and never again set out the freshly cut tree, for this warm, nostalgic parlor. I would not be sitting and writing journals in Mr. Bird's office, and it wouldn't be the sound of my footfall, walking the halls of the house, late at night, checking to make sure all was battened down, and safe, while a winter storm burdened the old rafters with heavy snow. We weathered a lot of storms in that decade of time. It was this particular Christmas that we paid our respects, to each other, I suppose, and enjoyed some final moments sharing the Christmas cheer that seemed to calm the spirits in house and ease the mortal regrets, of moving on.
I was late getting home that morning, as I had actually taken the time to listen to the tape recording twice, dawdling in that contenting residence on the hill, enjoying our casual solitude, before the large crowds expected by mid-afternoon. Celebratory folks, with hungry kids, who would devour the cookies to the last crumb, and pull on the decorations, and pound up and down these wooden stairs, and the carol singing we anticipated, filling the hall with Christmas tradition, before all was closed again until spring re-opening. I had got involved with the restoration of this house, way back in 1977, because I knew it needed to be part of my life and work. I can't explain, other than to say, for about thirteen years, it was on my mind daily. It's struggles, and the delays of restoration, the foibles of low funding, and operational nightmares, including staffing shortfalls, and a leaky roof, were part of a normal day on-site or off. As a Mr. Mom, while my wife worked at the local high school, I kept both our sons at the museum on most business days, and Suzanne, on her days off, used to run educational programs and special events, seasonally, (such as at Christmas), while I shoveled snow, snow and more snow from the hillside lanes and paths.
Woodchester Villa and Museum was a family affair. It was at Christmas, generally speaking, that we wound down from the year of tours and museum events, and truly enjoyed the open house, as much, if not more, than the patrons, who trundled up the snowy path, to the bright glow of lights twinkling through the misty frost of the Bracebridge Falls. We could relax a tad, and sing along with others, and feel good about what had been accomplished in the past twelve months. The fact that it may have been haunted never entered our consideration. It was the character of the house, after all, and it wasn't much different, other than its octagonal shape, from many other historic houses I've lived in, or visited in my life. There was an aura in this homestead. A powerful, often intrusive presence, and I felt it sitting in the parlor, that morning, listening to a Christmas Carol coming from the Victrola. But as the resident spirits watched me, slacking off from work for that respite, I was well aware, as I had always been, that I wasn't alone. I was being studied. Watched. I was its guardian. Its protector. I was its spokesperson, and we were the family that would honor its past respectfully, with reverence to all the Christmases past. I wasn't frightened of this sensation of being amidst spirits past. Truthfully, it was, in respect to Dickens, a welcome experience, to be the liaison between the past and present, and to later that day, welcome curious citizens into Bird family history. I was, as I stated earlier, just a voyeur of this enchanting scene; a mere facilitator and conservator of a Christmas celebration, when friends and neighbors come together, to enjoy peace and goodwill on earth.
The event, as usual, was a huge success. Nary a cookie crumb, or butter-tart was left for the resident mice. (I did leave a few, because it was Christmas after all, and we always had at least one resident mouse). We had a large crowd, and a boisterous one when it came to regaling the Victorian celebration with song. I closed-up the house that night, thinking back upon all the years I'd spent validating the spirits of this grand home. It was albeit, a weird relationship at times, as it appeared to staff I was talking to myself a lot. When in fact, I was talking to whatever spirit was giving me a hard time, or cajoling about this or that. Every time we changed an exhibit or shifted furniture, we'd find some resistance to change.
I recalled many of the restorative sojourns, huddled in the wee office, above the waterfalls, penning thoughts about what it would be like to have lived here, back in the 1880's, at a time when there was still a clear view down onto the woolen mill, and the pioneer main street of the cart-trailed village. In my own mindful remembrance, I had lived here in many ways, without the need to occupy a bedstead, just as I continue to dwell in its memory, decades after our tearful parting. I always find a little well-up in the eye, on Christmas Eve, after all the stockings are hung by the chimney with care, slumber settling in here at Birch Hollow, thinking about those final moments, when, without a spoken word, I extended a heartfelt farewell to a very haunted house…..and it returned, in kind, a powerful message, not to grieve, that as we had always shared good times and bad, we would be linked as kindred spirits forever.
The Currie family of Gravenhurst, would like to extend Christmas greetings to all the readers of this fine publication, the advertisers who make it all possible, the staff of “Curious,” and of course the Gervais family who co-ordinate, edit and publish this feature paper for those who love to travel through Ontario. See you in the New Year.