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By Emily-Jane Hills Orford
We had been busy baking Christmas goodies all week. Mom was busy at school during the day, so my sister and I would get busy after we got home and Mom would pitch in later. My brothers merely enjoyed the job of taste testers and Dad relished all the broken ones that ended up on the table for supper.
This big batch of baking wasn’t for the family. Mom was hosting a Christmas dinner for her Grade 4 students. She had everything planned: a caterer, a venue and our prized Christmas goodies. There were even gifts carefully wrapped for each child and Santa was going to make a visit.
“Why are we doing this, Mom?” I had to ask. “These children come from poor homes and they don’t have much to celebrate,” Mom carefully explained. She had been teaching what was known as Opportunity Classes for a few years now and this batch of students were the poorest of the poorest in our community. If I didn’t wear an outfit for a few days, it disappeared to clothe one of the needier children in her class. If I was baking muffins for breakfast, Mom asked me to bake an extra-large batch so she could take them to school for her students. She fed them; she clothed them and she was arranging a special Christmas meal and celebration.
We were all expected to attend. But there were instructions to follow. We heard them countless times and most emphatically on the way to the event. Mine included: “Make sure you eat everything on your plate. Especially the peas. I know you don’t like peas, but I don’t want you influencing these children with your dislikes. They’ve probably never seen peas before.” “Lucky them,” I muttered under my breath. “And don’t wrinkle your nose at the smell. They can’t help it if they aren’t clean.” I wrinkled my nose at the thought of trying to eat, especially something I didn’t like, while surrounded by body odors. “And don’t tell Ellen you recognize her dress. I know you loved that red dress, but it was getting a little small for you. And it fits Ellen so well. All my students are coming dressed for a party and I expect you to be dressed in your finest as well.”
My sister was going to perform. She was the talented musician in the family. Dad was going to say grace and read them the Christmas story. I was expected to make ‘small talk’ and be nice to the children who, Mom said, were just about my age. Dad drove us to the school. It looked as old and run-down as the neighborhood. Very sad. The students were congregated on the front steps. No parents in sight. They shivered in their good outfits, hand-me-downs from me and, for the boys, from my brothers. No coats. No sweaters. Just dressy clothes.
“Oh dear!” Mom moaned. “I should have found some coats for them. It’s a good thing the sun is shining. We’ll make it a brisk walk to the hall. It’s only a few blocks away.” I wasn’t too keen on walking in the cold, in my good clothes, with my good shoes pinching my feet. But at least I had a coat.
We were introduced to the children and Mom lined up the students. She would take the lead, holding onto two of the girls. My Dad and brothers took up the rear with the boys. My sister and I were told to take the hands of two of the quieter girls and follow her. I cringed, but did as I was told. One hand in each of mine, at least with my mittened hands, they would each have one warm hand by the time we arrived at our destination.
Never at ease with small talk, I was relieved when one of the girls said, “You’re pretty.” I blushed. “Thanks.” I didn’t know what else to say. “You’re Mom’s the best. I wish she was my Mom.” The girl was a talker. “Do you think she could adopt me? We could be sisters.” I still didn’t know what to say. I didn’t have to. The girl continued on with a steady stream of comments. “Your Mom makes the best muffins and cookies. They’re so yummy.” “Actually, my sister and I make most of them.” I finally thought of something to say. “Mom doesn’t have a lot of time to bake.” “Really? Wow! Is it hard? To bake, I mean.” “No. I like baking.” “What do you like making most?” “Chocolate chip cookies. Only my brothers manage to eat most of them before they cool off.” “Lucky them. I could come over and help some day. Then you could teach me to bake.”
I wasn’t so sure about the idea. I was saved by the fact that we had arrived at our destination. The caterers were waiting for us and we were hustled inside and seated at a long table, set with fine silver and china. I looked closely at the setting and realized there was a reason Mom had asked me to polish the silver the previous week. The silver and china were ours. There were numerous exclamations. “Wow!” “So pretty!” Some of the girls picked up the knife and studied their reflection in the gleam.
“What is all this stuff?” My chatty friend asked. “And how do we use it?” “Just watch what we do and copy,” I whispered. “It’s the best way to learn.” Supper was served and I swear I had the most peas dumped on my plate. I cringed.
“What are those green balls?” One of the boys asked in a rather loud voice. “Peas,” Mom answered, loud enough for everyone to hear. “They’re very good for you and delicious, too. Aren’t they Emily?” I merely smiled, swirled my peas into the gravy (thank goodness there was gravy to wash it down) and forked a few into my mouth. “Mmm!” I played out the part of an obedient child eating the most dreadful plateful of peas. Like I said, at least there was gravy. Every plate emptied quickly. It really didn’t matter what they children ate, they were so hungry that everything tasted good. More exclamations were expressed when the main course was cleared away and dessert was brought to the table. Mom had arranged for some ice cream to go with the Christmas cookie collection. We had been warned, especially my brothers, not to have too many. The goodies were for the children. We’d have lots of our own goodies at home later.
“Oh my!” a round of satisfied comments circulated the room. “I’m stuffed.”
Santa arrived and added to the excitement. Everyone received a gift. My sister and I had helped with that, too. Gran’s bazaar ladies had knitted up a storm, producing enough bright colored mittens, hats and scarves for each child. And, a book of their very own. Oh my! Indeed.
In spite of the peas, I enjoyed myself. I didn’t even notice the girls wearing my old dresses, or the boys wearing my brothers’ old dress pants, shirts and ties. It was a happy occasion, one the children would never forget. One I would never forget either. Peas and all.
Emily-Jane Hills Orford has published several books, creative nonfiction stories mostly about her family. Growing up in Toronto, then Hamilton and finally London, Emily-Jane has lots of family stories to warm the heart. In her most recent novel, “Mrs. Murray’s Ghost: A Piccadilly Street Story”, the author returns to her roots and the fond memories and dreams, growing up in a haunted old Victorian mansion in London. For more information about the author, check out her webpage at: http://emilyjanebooks.ca