Auntie Elva and Auntie Myrtle lived in a big old house on a tree-lined street in Shaughnessy Heights, a neighbourhood of stately old mansions. Theirs was a smaller manse but to me it was huge. But then, I was small. Every Christmas Eve, my family and I piled into the station wagon and travelled from the burbs to the sisters’ storybook house. Somewhere in West Vancouver a carload of cousins was also wending its way to the celebration.
The aunties wore floral-patterned dresses circa 1946 and sensible shoes from the same era, though we were entering the 1960s. Their Christmas corsages brushed my cheek as they embraced me at the door and the scent of their dusting powder filled my nose. The house smelled of pine – a big tree stood shimmering in its yuletide finery in the living room.
Auntie Elva was legendary for her bad cooking. Every Christmas Eve her crowning glory was placed in the middle of the dining room table: a lime Jell-O dome with entrapped carrots and green olives, the latter staring out from the wobbly emerald world with bloodshot pimento eyes.
Auntie Myrtle liked to settle into the couch by the fireplace after dinner. With a crackling fire at her side, she rested her ample girth next to a few souvenir cushions, satiny tasseled things with Hawaii or Reno written on them. I don’t know if Myrtle had ever been to those places but I do remember she had been a missionary in China when foot binding was banned in ‘49. She helped care for misshapen feet that had been bound since childhood, as any woman who didn’t take the bindings off would be fined by the government.
Elva had been a librarian when she married my grandfather, a sea captain divorced from his first wife, my grandmother. Which meant Elva was actually my step grandmother. But neither “grandmother” nor “step” suited her very well. Her personality was flamboyant, although her demeanor suggested a refined lady of letters. Unlike Auntie Myrtle, she talked a lot, and I treasured the sound of her words: the timbre of her voice fell somewhere between whiskey and black tea.
My grandfather, her husband, had died years ago and was buried at sea. I never knew him but I saw his presence around the sisters’ house in the many objects he’d brought back from his voyages: cloisonné vases and carved ebony from China, brass tables and wicker baskets from India.
Every Christmas Eve the aunties gave me a beautifully wrapped present and every year it was a doll. My sister and our cousin also got dolls and we played with them on the landing of the big staircase that led up to the aunties’ neat and hallowed bedrooms. It was a landing big enough to set up house on, and it had a stained glass window that glimmered amethyst and amber in the golden glow of a modest chandelier. Sucking on humbugs, we got down to the business of caring for our new babies.
Then came the year that our cousin, the eldest of us three, got a sweater from the aunties instead of a doll. The next year my sister, the second eldest, also got a sweater. I only wanted dolls. I loved the smell of new dolls at Christmas. I loved their clothes and the way their eyes shut when you lay them down. I loved everything about dolls. When I unwrapped my sweater the following year, it was the end of an era.
photos of vintage (& vintage-inspired) wrapping paper by MW
- Christmas by Candlelight
- This Is A True Story