Sometime in the 1930s, two strong-minded young people met in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He was a tall, strapping young civil engineering student at Dalhousie who played rugby and loved the outdoors. She was a tiny young artist at NSCAD, who loved her art and was fiercely proud of her family traditions and status. He came from a family of central Newfoundland woods camp operators and loggers. She was from a Halifax society family hit hard by the depression. To this day, I have no idea how they ever crossed paths, but they did and they fell in love and they married in 1940 in Arvida, Quebec.
During their first Christmas, in the way of most newly-weds setting up household for the first year, they had precious little in the way of either seasonal decorations or money. Christmas was fast-approaching and they realised that they didn’t have anything to put atop the tree. Now for most families this would amount to a small obstacle of relatively minor importance, but not for Grandma. I have inherited three things from my Grandmother; my misshapen right foot, my ability to draw and visualize, and my inordinate attention to seemingly inconsequential detail in a manner that seems disproportionate to other people*. It was this last feature, one with which I can perfectly sympathize, that revealed to her the extremity of the situation.
Christmas trees were very important to Grandma. They always had been. They were a staple of her family tradition and the tree topper was the item that set the stage, so to speak. Not having one, or not having the right one, was a serious matter requiring imminent attention. In Arvida in 1940, you could not purchase a suitable angel even if you had the funds, which they didn’t.
I remember Grandma telling me this story when I was very little.
In desperation and its twin force, ingenuity, she devised a plan, with Poppy’s help. Using a lathe, he turned a junk of wood into the rough shape of a woman and Grandma painted it. Wings and arms were clipped from a sheet of tin and also painted. A hole was drilled in the base and the angel was tree-ready.
My earliest childhood memories of Grandma and Poppy’s tree included that angel. Apparently when Mom and Dad married and needed a tree angel, Uncle Peter turned a junk into an angel “blank” on Poppy’s lathe and Grandma painted it. The tradition continued. Since then I have made several of these angels as well, for my sister and other relatives, with a little help from a lathe-turning friend.
The original angel from Arvida has come to roost on the top of our tree and each year that I put her up there, I am reminded of the unusual pairing that was my grandparents and the remarkable tradition of hand-turned and painted angels that arose from those two creative and determined young people in the small town of Arvida in 1940.
*My grandfather’s “gifts” to me were physical strength and an analytical mind. Not a bad combination with Grandma’s contributions, to my mind.