Each year as Christmas rolls around, as I buckle under the pressure and stress of shopping for gifts for people that already have everything, I find myself remembering that Christmas so many years ago.
My dad had joined the army and we had moved from the East Coast of Canada to Ontario, leaving behind our extended family and the only home we had ever known in a fishing village along the Bay of Fundy.
Now we stood gazing in horror at the rows of ugly buildings sitting on barren land in the middle of nowhere. This was the housing provided by the army and equated to the major portion of their pay agreement.
My mother was inconsolable until dad rented us a small apartment over a Chinese restaurant on the main street in town. There was no remuneration by the army for forfeiting the housing, so it left dad with a very small pay check.
Pay day was once a month and we usually ran out of money in the last week. So, off we would go to the pawn shop with dad's prized possession; his short-wave radio, won for his superior marksmanship. That radio is still alive and living permanently with me today.
Being kids, we finally adjusted to our new world as we watched the Santa Claus Parade march below our living room window amid the honking horns, blaring bands and throngs of people that lined the streets as far as the eye could see as we laughed with glee.
We had seen them on our way to school in the window of the bicycle shop; gleaming with chrome spokes and handlebars and hand grips adorned with multi-coloured streamers. There I would stand until my feet grew numb from the cold, daydreaming of riding back to the East Coast. I could actually see the sun glistening on the waves as I raced along the ocean on the way to grandma's house. More than once I had to stay after school for being late.
My brother thought maybe if we were really good, Santa would bring those bicycles to us. I, being the older and therefore the wiser, knew the state of the real Santa's affairs and promptly convinced my brother that I had heard from a reliable source that Santa had a shortage of bicycles this year and we would just have to earn the money and buy them ourselves.
We worked it out on paper and realized if we saved our ten cents a week allowance, it would take years to pay for them, so we decided we needed to get a job. So began our first enterprise ‘Hal and Elaine's Snow Removal'.
Every day after school we would go door to door offering to shovel the snow from sidewalks and driveways for a fee of twenty five cents. Each day we would return home with our frozen hands clutching a quarter and our minds clutching the visions of those bicycles as we prayed for snow once again.
Mom had taken a job working from home. Each night she would soak piles of leather pieces overnight to soften them to stretch over balls of twine to be stitched together making a baseball. This was a tedious demanding job that required patience and great skill. They paid five cents for each one that met their standards and nothing for the ones that didn't. Mom stitched hour after hour, day after day until her fingers bled.
Dad would come home from Camp Borden each day after many hours of hard labour, and army manoeuvres to have supper and make us giggle and laugh with his outrageous stories of the day's events. After supper he would leave again retuning much later with red and blue paint stains on his hands and a tired smile on his face.
The days flew by in a blur as we shovelled up and down the streets dreaming of those bicycles that grew more solid with every quarter we put in our piggy banks.
I would go to sleep each night and ride through towns and cities and over hills and through valleys until I heard the sound of buoy bells ringing in the harbour. I would pedal faster and faster, knowing I was almost there. I could see my old home just down the road. As the bells got louder I would slowly awake to the truth as the alarm clock wound down on the night stand. Once again I would head off for school and stand daydreaming, peering at that gleaming bicycle in the window of the bicycle shop.
Suddenly, Christmas was almost upon us and we needed to buy mom and dad a present, so we pulled the plug on the piggy bank and took our loot, a total of four dollars each, to Woolworths.
Oh...the glorious things we saw...shelves full of toys and household goods, glass counters with hundreds of bottles of perfume and cologne, shaving gear, fishing gear, tropical birds and fish and mountains and mountains of candy. What to do...what to buy?
We scurried from one counter to the next, overwhelmed with the endless choices of things to choose from as we stammered and stuttered like a couple of idiots. Finally, we decided on a bottle of Lily of the Valley perfume and a pair of gloves for mom and Old Spice cologne and gloves for dad.
We then separated to buy presents for each other and agreed to meet at the soda fountain afterwards. There, we decided it was only fitting that we should have a banana split and a Coke to celebrate the occasion. As we sat there with our lips covered in butterscotch and ice cream the gravity of the situation began to sink in. We had spent our entire savings and with that realization we licked our lips and decided the bicycles would have to wait another year.
Finally...it was Christmas Eve and we put the presents under the tree, and hung our stockings at the foot of the bed. In a few hours those stockings would be filled with barley toys, ribbon candy and chocolate; I could hardly wait! Asmom tucked us into bed, I looked out the window and saw it was snowing again. It snowed all through the night as I lay in my cozy bed dreaming of that glorious bicycle again.
Christmas morning, we awoke to the sound of the radio; home for Christmas after a long stay at the pawnshop, as ‘Joy to the World' rang over her airwaves.
We dashed to the living room, to find mom and dad standing there grinning from ear to ear. There in the centre of the room they stood...not the ones from the store window, but the most beautiful bicycles I had ever seen, gleaming with chrome and multi-collared streamers; a red one for me and ablue one for my brother.
There I stood, my heart overflowing with joy and love as I remembered my mother's bleeding hands after hundreds of hours of pushing that needle through that leather and my father's hands covered in red and blue paint as he worked night after night refurbishing and rebuilding and painting two second hand bicycles that taught me the true meaning of Christmas.