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A Christmas Memoir

Her Voice Rising Above All the Others

                                                (A Christmas story for family and friends who are family)

My grandmother’s voice held Scottish ballads; a voice brought down from Nova Scotia when my grandfather married her. I imagined her voice wrapped in newspaper, tied off in twine. Her voice dominated family tale telling, caroling, and I imagined myself drinking in that voice so that one day it would become part of mine.

            Aunts and uncles and older cousins and grandparents told stories how times were getting better, the Canadian Railways they worked for were again employing men, and with the layoffs further behind them, living conditions in Vermont were looking up. My aunt was able to buy a Christmas turkey for the first time in two years, and Grandmother Ella sighed with relief she could again put homemade presents underneath the tree.

            My grandparents’ modest home in the Northeast Kingdom seemed to hold numerous rooms, and there was always room enough for those who traveled from far away to Island Pond, the small town of my grandparents, for the holidays. Our family stayed over while other relatives lived close enough to safely return home after the festivities. We were always the first to arrive and the last to leave, or perhaps that’s the way memory works in order to cherish what it will later embellish.

            Following our family’s arrival was my aunt and uncle and seven cousins. My aunt carried in boxes of mincemeat, pecan, apple and pumpkin pies. These were stored in the small pantry. My grandmother would wrap newspaper around the pies to keep the winter hungry mice from eating them. 

Sometimes I’d sneak into the pantry, mischief painted on my face, and wiggle a finger underneath the pie-wrap, diving into the soft filling for a taste, small flakes of crust caving in. I’d patch the crust back so there would be few tell-tale signs, but there prevailed a secret expectation that children did such things. So long as the favored pies remained somewhat complete, no harm was done.

            Winter in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom was an endless tarp of white. No worry as to whether there’d be a picturesque Christmas in that part of New England. Dagger-like icicles hung from the eves, icicles that could tear a kid’s tongue raw if not approached carefully. 

Icicles became an endless supply for my cousins and myself and we’d stock several in our igloo, dipping them in salt or sugar snuck from the house. Sometimes we’d roll them in turkey fat drippings left to cool in the shed. With a stack of broken branches, we’d make forbidden fires, our shadows pantomiming on packed snow, our breath anxious that the adults might catch and scold us for making a fire behind their backs.

            Uncles carried in ukuleles they’d later play when we gathered, singers and non-singers alike, around the piano for Christmas carols, a few cousins twanged on their jew’s-harps as though they serenaded heaven itself. Grandmother Ella always led the caroling, her hand on her chest, head thrown back like a great throated robin, and although her voice was objectionable to some, I was fascinated by the gusto that thrust her words into the visible world of sound. If she didn’t know a song, she’d invent.

            Mother played the piano as though she’d become a great swan floating above the keys, and she’d give my grandmother a scowl each time her mother belted out a wrong note. My cousins and I always sought first row around the piano. Elbows became weapons we shoved into each other as we edged closer. Perhaps we wanted a bird’s eye view of my mother’s hands as they flew down the ivory notes, the majesty of movement making sounds.

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            Grandmother Ella held the undisputed reputation of master of the main meal. She sautéed the turkey liver and giblets with chopped onion and garlic on the kerosene fueled stove. The jug holding the kerosene belched with bubbles as it grew low. When turkey innards were tender to a knife’s touch Grandmother chopped and added them to the dressing smothered in home-made butter. With pinched fingers, she’d measure out sage and thyme. The dressing consisted of very old bread brought in from the shed, frozen hard—bread so belligerent that everyone kidded her about needing an axe to hack it into bite sizes.

            She boiled the neck of the turkey until that too grew tender and would easily peel in long strips from the knobby connected bones. She poured broth from the neck over the dressing until it held just the right consistency. Then she scooped the dressing into the bird’s cavity, packing it firm with the backside of her wooden spoon. Whatever dressing was left over was tucked under the long flap of skin that cloaked the neck.

            With the turkey in the oven, she would ask me, “Want to split the neck?” Everyone thought we were out of our minds to eat the neck, but I liked pulling off the long strips of dark meat. “Each part strengthens a part,” she’d say, a bit of mischief taking up the larger part of her eyes.

“Girl, with your asthma you need a good neck to funnel air through.” I never questioned her. It would have been unthinkable. She was the woman who brought down the moon, who propped me night after night in the rocker by the kitchen window, the rocker normally reserved for grandfather, so that I could better breathe. She’d tell me stories until my wheezing abated. “Healing stories,” she called them.

                                                            *   *   *

            I think bone is a voice and that she gave me a voice by sharing the turkey’s neck which she split in half. No one else wanted the neck. It seemed everyone desired only the white meat, and I felt gifted being allowed the very first taste of our holiday dinner, our tongues diving between the bone links. She’d look intently on to make sure I cleaned off every strand. 

She would tell me, as well as the other grandchildren gathered by, stories of West Branch, Nova Scotia, how she had lived in an eight-room house. Her father, a blacksmith, also owned riding stables. The only entertainments aside from horseback riding were barn dances or skating parties, both of which were closely chaperoned. She told us about sleigh rides over the crisp white snow and how the brilliant sheen of the moon cast its hue as far as the eye could see. Returning to their woodstove warmed home, she and her friends ate cookies and drank warm milk, but never a touch of alcohol because spirits were forbidden by her strict Presbyterian family that regularly held bible readings. Her favorite place on earth, always remained her original home of Nova Scotia.

                                                            *   *   *

            Christmas at Grandmother’s meant the men retired to the front parlor where they traded hunting, fishing and railroading stories. Grandfather would slap his knee with a loud By Jove over some fish story that stretched each year with the telling. “That trout,” he’d say in his New England vintage twang, “was four inches bigger than any other fish caught in that damn brook.” 

While the men gabbed, the women bustled about in the kitchen and they never thought about roles, gender or the division of labor. It was as if they alone knew they participated in some type of alchemy held only in kitchens, in the mix and batter of ingredients. 

            Aunt Marjory was in charge of the gravy, stirring it until it thickened and turned a warm brown. I ground pepper for her and tipped the water tumbler whenever she asked me to thin out the gravy. My sister and cousins set the dining room table with the blue willow plates stored in the china cabinet for holidays, plates grandmother brought down in a trunk on the train from Nova Scotia. By the time everyone was seated in the dining room where the piano took prominence, there was not an inch to spare. That meant all food, sweet potatoes, salt and pepper must be on the table, and everyone better have used the bathroom before sitting down to eat. If not, one whole side of seated relatives would have to move for whatever one errant person forgot. 

            Later, my aunt served pie with milk. After desert, uncles, father and grandfather would retire to the parlor to resume stories they’d earlier left, but we knew the spaces between their words would grow until sleep shepherded them into silence. Soon they would doze. To us children, they were the great walrus people, and their concert of snores grew so deep we were certain they came from the root cellar where grandmother kept her squash, turnips and preserves.  

                                                            *  *  *

            Kitchen alchemy and singing around the piano are what I remember best. My Cousin Claudia’s ringlets rose and fell with her voice, her eyes earnest as prayer. She was lead singer in the church choir and I envied the rich quality of her voice that reached notes I could never achieve. Cousins would tug on my long hair to get a rise from me as we sang “Silent Night,” or “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” Uncle Claude would belt out an occasional yodel, his voice, a round of canons. 

            The smells of the holidays were the smells of turkey and simmering apple juice that stewed in a cast iron pot, cinnamon sticks floating like rafts on its surface. Christmas was also the smell of liniments grandmother rubbed into her skin to soothe her arthritis. The louder she sang the stronger the liniment scent, sweat dripping from her face, her red hair cocked into damp curls along her neck. 

I’d look at my grandmother as she sang, and there was no doubt that Christmas was grandmother, the two of us sucking juice from the turkey’s neck, her voice rising above all the others.

Review – Camaraderie of the Marvelous

From the preface of Camaraderie of the Marvelous: “I give praise for words that hold me captive and sometimes even dance into song”; to the last line of the last poem: “Percussion is a matter of attunement,” Dianna MacKinnon Henning’s new collection of poems gives us music and dancing; also, drought, hunger, shepherds, bodies of water, houses. The poems give us food: beans, tomatoes, honey garlic, tea, potatoes, bay laurel. And throughout these images, she portrays family and relationships with the keen eye of lived experience: marriage, children, broken relationships, old age. These poems are as attentive and forceful as they are private.

Poems in the first section of Camaraderie describe the consequences of animals and humans interacting in nature. Speaking of a doe: “Their hunger howled like coyotes in moonlight.” There are philosophical lines all the way through the book. “You’ll never / get used to the way memory / makes you live many lives.” Wisdom and emotion exist alongside rhubarb and stone children. The last poem in this chapter begins: “If you stare at something long enough it assumes a life of its own” as the speaker sees a leaf as a cat. Like staring at a specific word so long it seems to be spelled wrong.

Chapter 2 involves the domestic—the very soul of our lives: food, relationships, household, soup simmering, even a recipe for cooking Great Northern beans. I am drawn to this chapter because of its emphasis on the domestic. Such topics have been disparaged in the past (by men perhaps) and these poems have the sure-footedness of any of the others in Camaraderie. “ … luck is perseverance: keep at something / long enough and the gold of art / becomes revelation.” There is so much revelation in this collection of poems.

A description of the house of her marriage begins Chapter Three: “But houses are sometimes / astute scholars who study their people … when the people broke, the house, too.” The chapter ends with a poem with the wonderful title “The Old Woman Gathers her Memories and Makes a House Plan from Them.” This part of Camaraderie has elegies for aging and a marriage and a favored house. “Timber framing depends on the wood’s strength, / the memory of touch, how bones grew to accommodate flesh.” These lovely lines describe both the house and the marriage. 

Chapter Four brings more of the world into the poems: “I can’t reconcile what is happening in the world,” always with awareness of the inner spaces of family and memory: “There were two races in our family: women and men … You’re to be seen, not heard.” We visit the family lake camp and the cellar of the family house. Cousins appear, death is a topic of discussion. “She wonders … if the dead, out of longing, draw close, waiting / for someone to tug them back.” There are elegies here, too. In the last poem of the section: “But what’s beautiful is the soul, its cocoon, as it flutters above / bedposts, a delicate hologram on the text of grief.”

Henning moves back to water and nature in Chapter Five. Rivers, stars, stones, a sparrow, chickadees. Then angel wings, a riverbed, the moon, the sea. “So much along the way was wonder.” Each image builds on the next, until the reader is awash in the galaxy, the universe. In the marvelous.

Camaraderie of the Marvelous is a woman’s gaze on the outside world and the inner spaces of her life and memory. It is full of wonder and marvels and the poet’s clear observations of her personal life and nature. “In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand,” says a Bob Dylan song. Henning sees these things and more. She conjures their underlying spirits for us. 

William Carlos Williams said, “it is difficult / to get the news from poems … men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” But in this time of pandemic when no news seems to be good news, Camaraderie of the Marvelous is a welcome addition to the canon and to the lives of readers. I urge you to welcome Henning’s words into your life.

                                                 Liza Porter, author of Red Stain and Keep the Singing.