Authors: Jean Little
During the euphoria towards the end of World War I, a different enemy stalked the land, killing by the hundreds and thousands. First Fee’s twin Fanny, then her older sister Jemma, caught the dreaded Spanish Flu. Fee’s family struggled to pick up the pieces, to put the War behind them, to face an even deadlier enemy. But there is now one bright spot on the Macgregor family’s horizon.
Sunday, December 5, 1920
About an hour ago, Aunt handed me this little book and told me she wants me to write the story of your first Christmas because you will be too young to remember it.
I asked her why she did not write it herself. She said that I was the only one in the family who was a true writer, and that she was too busy preparing all the Christmas foods and presents and decorations we would need to help us have a happy holiday in spite of everything.
I will begin by introducing us. You are my half BROTHER, because we have the same father, and you are my COUSIN because your mother is also my aunt. Mother and Aunt were twins, like Fanny and me and Jo and Jemma. Mother died when Theo, your big brother, was born, and Aunt stayed with us to
bring us up. Then, years later, Father and Aunt got married and finally, Benjamin, you were born. It sounds complicated, and I even had a hand in making it happen. But all that matters right now is that I am your sister Fee, you are my brother Ben, and you will have your first birthday on Boxing Day.
I have always loved Christmas. I think I have loved it even better than Fan’s and my birthday. There is so much more to it and everybody is included. But this year it seems tangled. Christmas is not supposed to be all snarled up, filled with unhappiness and difficulty, but that is how this coming one feels to me.
It is as though I got out our box of decorations, filled to the brim with spools of bright ribbon and blown-glass bulbs and shining tinsel, but when I lifted off the lid, I found everything had grown faded and frayed. Maybe explaining it that way sounds foolish. But it is just how it seems. I feel as though I am about to burst out crying. But I must do no such thing. This book is not supposed to be filled with mournful moans. It is meant to tell you about your first birthday.
Ben, Aunt must truly like my writing. Otherwise she would not ask me to do this. This thought just lit a fat spark of joy inside me and almost banished my bad mood. I do love writing. Perhaps writing this Birthday Book for you will be fun, after all. I will begin tomorrow. Ignore this first bit. It doesn’t count.
Monday, December 6, 1920
I am going to begin even though I am feeling down in the dumps again. It is very hard for me to write when I am in this state. I just want to go to bed and pull the covers over my head and block out the world and everyone in it. I wonder if Aunt guesses I feel grumpy, gloomy and glum. Probably. She has always been able to see inside me.
Usually when December comes I bounce about, full of joy and excitement. I love choosing presents and giving them, and getting them too, of course. I love the carols and the special foods and reading Christmas stories. Theo helps by counting down the days. The Christmas before our sister Jemma died, he actually counted the hours at the end.
Jemma died of the Spanish Flu two years ago. It was just before Christmas and we had a hard time celebrating. We did our best for Theo, though. He was too little to understand our grief. Last year we all went to Grandy and Grandma’s farm the day before Christmas Eve and did not leave until Boxing Day morning. Being away made everything different and easier somehow.
Then the minute we walked in our door, Aunt said she thought maybe Father should call the doctor. You
were not due until February, Ben, so nobody had given you a thought. But you were in a hurry and you were born at eight o’clock that very evening. I remember staring at you in amazement. I had never seen a human being so small and yet so special. Nobody could feel sad after you came. We were all too busy. Father said you must have known we needed you sooner than we planned.
But this year we will be home. And not only will we be missing Jemma terribly, but Jo is going to be away too. She and her friend Carrie agreed to help put on a Christmas shindig for poor families. Personally, I believe we ourselves will be a poor family without my big sisters. When Jemma was alive, she and Jo always made the holiday so jolly.
I know. We have
now to help cheer us up. But one baby, however dear, cannot take the place of two big girls. Theo has his dog to help keep his mind occupied, at least.
I wonder if Jo still misses Mother the way I miss Jemma. I remember Mother, of course, but not clearly. Seven years is a long time. I know her favourite carol was “O, come all ye faithful.”
There is something else wrong, Ben. Fanny seems almost like a stranger these days. I used to know her every thought, but then the Gibsons moved here and Connie and Fan have grown thick as thieves. I try to
be polite but I can’t think why Fan likes her. She never passes a mirror without stopping to gaze at herself.
Oh, I cannot write any more today.
Tuesday, December 7, 1920
It is almost bedtime and dark out, but Fanny has gone for a walk with her Bosom Friend Constance. They giggle all the time and lean close to whisper secrets, mostly about boys. And they try so hard to be stylish.
Am I jealous, Ben? I never was before. We shared everything, even our friends.
I am tired and I would like to go to bed, but I can’t sleep while Fan is out. Aunt says that is foolish. I told her it is because Fan and I are twins, but she reminded me that she and my mother were twins too. I hardly ever think of them that way.
Fan called back over her shoulder to say I should come too. She knows I feel left out but she also knows I think Con is silly. I did not tell her but she knows. When I said I was busy, Connie snickered.
Anyway, Ben, two is company. Three is a crowd.
Aunt made Christmas pudding today. The whole house smelled lovely. So rich and fruity. I kept licking my lips.
There, I am supposed to put Christmassy things in this book for you, and now I have.
Theo wants me to check the spelling on his Christmas list. I told him Santa Claus did not mind spelling mistakes, but your brother does not want to take a chance. This book will get better soon, Ben. I promise. At least I got the smell of the pudding in.
Wednesday, December 8, 1920
Aunt decided I looked peaked at breakfast and kept me home from school. Fanny was outraged, which pleased me. I am sitting on the couch to write this and you are sitting in your playpen right in front of me. You keep finding toys to throw at me but I am pretending to be so busy writing in your book and reading the paper that I don’t notice.
The paper tells about all the men out of work right now, thousands of them in Toronto alone. There is going to be a big march tomorrow. It is terrible that men came home from the War to find no jobs waiting.
Aunt just took you away for your nap. Maybe I’ll have one too.
Same day, afternoon
I wonder, Ben, if you like Fanny better than me.
I did not mean to write that, but it is true. I don’t
mean you hate me, but babies don’t hide their feelings, and you grin and wave your hands whenever she looks your way. I just know “Fan” will be your first word. If she were here, she would take you out of your cage and play with you, but she is not home yet, so you must put up with me. I wonder if writing to you this way will help us get to know each other better.
We just took a break for milk and cookies. It is lucky that I like rusks. Not slobbered on, though. I am sorry I would not take the bite you offered me, but it was disgusting.
All right. I will stop writing and show you the pictures of toys in the Eaton’s catalogue — after I wipe that mush off your face.
Thursday, December 9, 1920
The newspaper said that those men did march yesterday, Ben. Hundreds of them.
Fanny called me to come and make fudge. It was so nice doing it together. You loved the “soft balls” we gave you. My arm aches from beating that bowl of fudge, but it was worth it. We made lots. Yum!
Now Aunt is putting you to bed. Sleep well, little one.
Friday, December 10, 1920
I’m feeling better today so I took you out for a ride in your baby sled after school. You looked cuter than any of the children in the Eaton’s catalogue. Your cheeks got so red and your eyes so bright. And you kept waving your arms and shouting baby words.
I do love you, little Ben. You cheer me up.
Saturday, December 11, 1920
Today is more exciting for you because Theo has gone skating and left Hamlet to keep us company. Hamlet, being a Great Dane, is about fifty times as big as you. He lies with his enormous face pushed up to the bars of the playpen so he can watch your every move. He seems to know that when you smack his head, you mean it lovingly. He’s snoring now and you think it is hilarious. You are both clowns.
I am supposed to write about
Ben, but you want me to stop and show you the catalogue again. You sure can get your message across. All right. We can look at the children’s clothes right now.
Aunt has just taken you away to change your diaper. While you are gone, I will write a bit more. It is tricky trying to write about a baby and play with him at the same time. Maybe you will take your first step when you are with me. I wish you would. That would show Miss Fanny. She’s spent the entire day with Connie and never given Aunt a lick of help.
Not that I have been such a saint.