The year I turned four, my parents and our neighbours the Kerrs joined together with other relatives and friends for a huge New Year’s Eve party.
Neither family had much money but my mother and Mrs. Kerr shared what they had and that day they worked together in our kitchen to prepare for the festivities.
I sat in the kitchen, as little girls do, and listened to the women laughing as they cooked but it soon was obvious that this was to be an adult-only party.
With mouths dripping saliva at the thought of all that cake and shortbread, my brother and I were packed off across the street to be looked after all night by Grandma Kerr.
Looking back, I can put events together in my mind and know that those were hard times for both families.
My grandmother lived with us. Grandma, who was bedridden, stayed in the upstairs corner room, which as it happens, had purple wallpaper and smelled of lavender and talcum powder. Mom had to do all the care-taking and tear-wiping and there are few happy memories of that room. It remains purple and dark in my memory.
Across the street, the Kerrs had two grandmothers in their house. Grandma Kerr helped with everything and gave music lessons to supplement the family income but she didn’t always get along with her daughter-in-law and I’d heard them squabble.
The other grandmother was very forgetful. Every time you saw her, she’d hold your hand in her own old soft hands and ask your name. Five minutes later she’d ask you your name again, and then again, but she never let go of your hand.
But to me it all seemed normal and that Dec. 31 eve, the Kerrs and the Marshalls were having a party. The lights were on and the waltzing and jiving had begun before my brother and I left the house.
Grandma Kerr was a strict woman, and I suppose was about 65 or 70. She pulled her hair back in a severe grey bun and always wore a straight brown skirt and brown tie-up shoes with thick heels.
Maybe her life was hard with all those Kerr children and the other grandmother in the house. Maybe she wanted to party, but that night she had been relegated to the role of babysitter. There were no smiles or grandmotherly hugs as we came in the house. Instead, Grandma Kerr sent us immediately upstairs to play with our friends.
The boys’ presents that Christmas were toy Roy Rogers six-shooters. Immediately after we got upstairs a pretend gun-shooting game began. We ran up and down the hallway shouting, “Pow pow!”
Grandma Kerr told us to stay out of the hallway lest we wake the other grandmother.
Grandma Kerr went downstairs and as the childish shrieking got louder and louder, so did her piano playing. Soon Grandma Kerr was playing fortissimo, until in the end it was like a cowboy movie with bang-up shooting and crazy music in the background.
We turned the bunk beds on their sides to make forts. When we got tired of playing gun-fighting games, Johnny Kerr, who was about eight, ran downstairs and got some wrapping- paper cardboard tubes. These became swords of course, and we all took turns jumping on the edge of the bed and yelling, “En garde!”
Oh my, we had fun. Such fun!
Suddenly the music stopped and stern Grandma Kerr swept into the bedroom. She didn’t say much. She just put the beds right and pulled the blankets straight. Then she marched us all downstairs.
Round and round
“Put your snowsuits on,” she ordered.
The four subdued Kerr children and the two Marshalls sat down quietly and started pulling on boots and mittens. My brother helped me do up my snowsuit.
All the while, Grandma Kerr stood unsmiling with her arms crossed in front of her, and watched us carefully.
“Here it comes,” I thought. But it seemed strange that the Kerrs had to put snowsuits on too. Maybe Grandma Kerr was so mad she was sending them home with us!
“Boys first! Out you go on the doorstep! All of you! Then run as fast as you can around the house! Three times!” she said, pointing us in a counter-clockwise direction.
“Run like the wind to get rid of the bad old stuff from the old year! Run! Run! Run!”
And we did. We ran! We fell down and made snow angels. We lay on our backs and looked up and saw a blue-black inky sky covered with stars. It was crisp and cold and clear. The only noise on all of Edmonton’s 126 Street was the sound of our laughing and the crunching of snow.
After three go-rounds, Grandma Kerr made us halt and then turned us around by the shoulders, and instructed us to run the other way, clockwise around the house. This time we ran to bring the joy of the New Year into the Kerr and Marshall households.
The majesty of our task and of the moment is hard to describe. It was so magical that sometimes I wonder if it really happened, but then I remember how cold my nose was that night.
When Grandma Kerr judged that we had run enough, she opened the door and we all trudged inside.
You might think we would have hot chocolate, but that was not so. Grandma Kerr gave us homemade root beer and she had some too. We each had a piece of shortbread and Grandma Kerr taught us to raise our glasses and to make a toast to the new year.
I don’t remember much more of the evening. I think I fell asleep and Grandma Kerr carried me upstairs and tucked me in with two of the girls.
Nor can I say whether that clever woman’s ruse worked. I don’t know if the next year was better or not because our parents’ concerns were kept from us in those days.
I’ve done some research into New Year’s customs in an effort to understand what happened that night but came up empty. Perhaps Grandma Kerr just came up with the idea to have some fun herself. All I know is that, for us, that night was the only time I ran around a house six times to cheer on the new year and the next day.
Not a word was said by any of our parents. No one ever knew about our raucous party that night.