We siblings spent our early lives in and out of logging camps. Even on becoming urban dwellers, our Christmas tree commanded a very wide berth and tall ceiling. It began in 1939 at our parents’ first Christmas, with their first child expected early the coming spring.
Here is our Mum, standing on a railroad car showing Dad the outside limit for the trunk of the tree he could fell for their first Yule.1 Well, maybe she instructed not more than one arm’s width, or so.
Then, she established tradition by preparing their home with goodies of shortbread, butter and mince tart, fruits, nuts and chocolate, plus boughs of the outside, brought in. Meanwhile, Dad selected a specimen from the forest garden, a tree regal in its natural setting, to become a heavenly scented, plush holder of artificial ornament. A tree to please his bride’s eye and reflect their journey together.
Dad was no way a workaholic. He was simply captivated by the art of forestry. Even in his executive ascendancy, he was a man of the woods. Mum too, although critics would say she sacrificed a career, what with an early Bachelor of Science in her pocket; she would turn 20 after her picture was taken. Thereafter, she used her learnings every day of her life but not to command a salary. The two agreed to start life in the rough after college, to begin a wonderful mutually satisfying adventure, one that afforded them every happiness, including a great good look at the world.
Dad was typically gone by dawn, fueled by Mum’s robust breakfast, and burned through twilight’s candle. Still, he was not an absent father; though certainly not the daily disciplinarian. Mum was that Scot with eyes in the back of her red head. Okay, auburn. Dad claimed she descended from Picts. He was a very soft touch, reserved in his Norwegian way. Except no child wanted to be summoned into his den, to close the door and sit for self-accounting. Work? Dad now had all the time in the world to reason with the accused delinquent. He questioned. We learned to contemplate on character issues before answering; then we spoke and he listened. He responded; we listened, being challenged with “are you really listening in your heart?” We were exhausted in analyzing our behavior to devise a moral path forward.
MUMS THE WORD ON CHRISTMAS TREES
Mum had strong opinions that were not much moved by the voices of her minions. Annoyingly, the older they get, the more she is proven right. However, in this instance, audience eyes will inevitably roll. Christmas trees carry fire hazard. Therefore, they should be decorated on Christmas Eve in great family festive, and taken down January 2nd. That notion had some merit when living far from a hydrant, such as deep in the woods. In town, the season was known for occasional tragedy where dried out trees were decorated with faulty electric lights. However, in OUR case, our tree had been lopped of its roots in its temperate rainforest situation just yesterday, before its assembly as our Christmas Tree.
Our tree-getting was an expedition of Dad on kids. Each episode was memorable in its own right, but we wondered if it was also a smoke-screen. Anticipation of Christmas Day built up as in any home, despite that tree decoration was held in abeyance. Presents too. Our mother could do anything but plumb, and we surmised she had built a secret closet, for Santa was always kind. Nothing under the tree Christmas Eve; mother lode next day. Mum moved mountains during our day in the woods. She must have been exhausted as we arrived home with our green glory, but such was masked by her exuberant happy receipt.
OUR DAY IN THE WOODS
Our day in the woods was a gift from the heart, unique and timeless, its understanding to grow over time. Dad had fairly open access within the logging environment and must have looked for elevation, for memories are always of a snow laden scene. The better to connect with stories of Grandfather’s sleigh roads in Wisconsin, as we skidded our take from Canadian timbers.2
We dallied to appreciate the grove we selected. Why was this tree tall and narrow, and that one bent? If we brushed the snow away, what was on the forest floor? How many acorns could we fairly take? Were we disturbing the forest creatures? Coming in with all the noise of childhood fun, we then fell silent, for Dad to interpret the awesome sounds of nature.
Then was the choosing of the tree, and its felling. We were reminded to please our Mum, in its configuration for ornamentation, as we pleased ourselves. Looking within our grove, Dad had us estimate the consequence of taking this tree, or that. How would it fall and what would it damage? He then planned the sacrifice, revealing the steps, for the best and safest land.
We shook any snow and ice off our fallen tree and inspected for nests and insects, intending to leave as much as possible in natural habitat. We cleaned up well, before leaving. While no human was likely to come upon the inevitable broken branches, and disturbed forest floor, the forest knew. Such character was expected to register behind the closed den door.
While parting, we placed an acorn in the sacrificial spot. Years later, those of us who lived the Port Renfrew adventure, received scrapbooks from Dad, entitled “Forest Regeneration”.3 The family had replanted its operation in annual tracks.
Mo and MoPops
Can one not just sense that family dynamic from the picture left, of our aging parents after a Christmas visit with great-grand girl Christine? Mum still retained much warmth in the hue of her hair. She was always boss. Regards her sweater, yes, she was an excellent knitter – and tailor too.
Now, Mum was Mary, but known as Mae. Two decades of Christmas dinners had passed since Christine’s Mum, the first grandbaby, heard those variations, and decided her grandmother was Mo. That so, and the dynamic well understood, even by babes, then her granddad must be MoPops.
We lost dear Mo, consequent to an auto accident, not long after this Christmas time photo was taken. Severely injured, never expected to survive, she battled fiercely, practically without complaint until February 10, next. Very frail, but with an arm of a tennis player, and ardent digger of gardens, I asked her to show me her muscle. In twilight, eyes closed, up came a bicep with the most peaceful but determined grin radiating her face.
Fitting to our story, the last residence for Mo and MoPops together was at Christmas Hill in Victoria. Their Christmas trees had dwindled in size and were no longer found in the woods. Their now well mature children were scattered far and wide, such that these grandparents travelled to celebrate. MoPops maintained this home for a decade after Mo passed, being comfortable among her artistic decor and surrounded by her beautiful gardens. Typical of Mo, her gardens contained prized specimens from earlier homes, all dug lovingly in, repeatedly over the years, by herself.
Both had surviving siblings in the area, which was another great draw to Victoria. However, of his generation, only two dear sisters-in-law would outlive him, Barbara Hemmingsen (Paitson) and Evelyn Dickson (Jackson). MoPops was up to cross continent travel for Christmas, until his 90s, when he said “no more”. He wished for assisted living, in Victoria, the town of their youth.
MoPops was still walking his mile and taking its fire escape stairs, albeit unauthorized, when he entered his facility. It was a beautiful spot with the most pleasing of views, as Victoria offers, almost matching that of Christmas Hill. Plus, one still has a Christmas Tree in assisted living; a communal one, and often large. It is decorated by others, which or course, is part of the deal.
Determined people cannot be dissuaded from living their life to the fullest, nor should they, and MoPops lost his balance on those stairs, which resulted in some mobility loss. For those of us caring for elders, we know that, at an instant a need for a different care facility may be needed to match health issues. He was moved up-island, ultimately to Qualicum Beach. Following another fall, he passed there, on February 18 of 2008.
MOPOPS’ LAST CHRISTMAS TREE
As Christmas 2007 approached, this daughter was in the midst of yet another Big Pharma downsizing that was meant to release tens of thousands of employees. It was watch your back, weigh your options and look for your package time, otherwise known as Big Stress. It was simply not wise to leave the New York City area.
A quick trip was made to Maryland family, which included a stop at historic Savage Mill. It was one enticing scene of gifts strewn about in winter wonderland after another, and a forest of the tiniest trees. Christmas bells chimed “go to Qualicum” as instantly, a tree was in hand. That it never had roots and no fir-feel, seemed to matter not one bit. Equally miniature ornaments presented themselves for the picking.
The results of this “trip to the woods” was stuffed into a carry-on bag, for haste at airports, on Monday December 24, 2007. An available trip to Vancouver was through Montreal, where it was detained. Late into Vancouver, left the decision to sleep there, or cross to the island now. The last flight was chosen, and car rental on the other side mercifully – or not – available. It was quite forgotten how long the ride to Qualicum, how dark the Island Highway, how narrow it was, compared to those of New York. The car stopped for lodging at three in the night.
MoPops quickly forgot that the promised Christmas Eve breakfast was missed, when the tree was taken from the bag. We plumped it back to its original shape and decorated it with the sweetest joy. He could not stop chuckling and a lifetime of memories flowed.
He called after January 2nd to allow that the tree was still up – but as there was no fire hazard, Mo would approve. It was still up, when we came for his things, with the staff reporting how important it had been to him, in his last days.
As it stood in his sight, it was boxed for another trip cross country, some ornaments falling in transit. It has moved four times since, and now resides in Chicago. This year’s appearance shows much movement of decoration, yet some remain as he placed them. Beauty is, as one feels it. Merry Christmas to all.
Notes and Sources
1 The Hemmingsen Family Collection including “John O Hemmingsen/Mary Margaret Hemmingsen (Dickson)” authored 1999 by John Oliver Hemmingsen. All materials posthumously published here are copyright © Marilee Wein 2018-2019. All rights reserved. The collection also holds related material such as the newspaper articles, pictures, etc.
2 The “Memoirs of Mathias Hemmingsen – Victoria B.C.” is a 25-page volume dictated to his daughter Margaret Henrietta circa 1956. It is unedited and unpublished, and graciously provided by Mathias’ grandson, Matt via the Matt Hemmingsen Family Collection. The work is protected here and published at copyright © marleewein.com 2018-2019. All rights reserved.
3 John Oliver Hemmingsen (1913-2008) authored the scrapbook entitled “Forest Regeneration” All postings and pictures are © 2020 The Hemmingsen Family Collection. Posthumously published at this blog and protected under its copyright. All rights reserved.