As 2012 draws to a close,  I want to take this opportunity to wish all of you a very Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah, a Joyeux Noel and, most of all, to thank you for your support and help this past year.  It has been for me a year of listening to you and learning about Oak Bay, simply one of the most beautiful municipalities in the region in which we live.  I look forward to a new year full of promise and partnership, as we continue to work together for the benefit of our community.

All the best to you and to yours for 2013.

And now to Norfolk, England…

In Christmas 2000, we were invited to spend the Christmas holidays in Norfolk, England with my husband’s cousins.  The following is my story of a very special Christmas, one that I hope you enjoy reading as much as I enjoyed writing.

It was Christmas Eve and the sun was just disappearing from the big Norfolk December sky as we drove through the tiny village of Wendling.  The streets were empty and quiet but signs of the holiday season were everywhere.  The small casement windows of cottages glowed with soft yellow light and the smell of wood smoke filled the late afternoon air.  Some houses had Christmas lights randomly strung over front bushes that cast green, red and blue shadows across sleeping winter gardens.  As we reached the outskirts of Wendling, we approached the narrow stone bridge beneath the church perched on a hill.  As I looked up to the church, I saw more Christmas lights, this time carefully hung to frame the stained glass window overlooking the bridge. 

I could hardly contain my excitement as we crossed the bridge.  This was our first Christmas in England, our first Christmas away from our home in British Columbia.  We were returning to the heart of Norfolk, birthplace of my husband’s father and grandfather, to spend the holidays with cousins at Abbey Farm.  As we drove in the direction of the farm, I knew we were close to the entrance to the long gravel driveway that wound a half mile to the farm, cutting through grain fields like a thin knife, past the grove of huge English oak and birch trees.  “Don’t you love our wood?” I remember Margaret asking me the summer before as we stood beneath the dark green canopy of leaves.  “This wood dates from the 17th Century when the farm was a religious Abbey and inhabited by nuns.  If only these trees could talk.”

I was amused that she called the modest stand of oak and birch trees “a wood.”  I was tempted but couldn’t bring myself to tell her about my wood, the old growth Douglas fir trees on the west coast of British Columbia that had witnessed thousands of years of human history — I couldn’t bring myself to tell her about the majesty and history of “my wood” because I knew I might spoil the magic she felt for her own — “Your wood is wonderful,” I replied as Margaret beamed a smile back at me.

It was almost dark by the time we left the paved road and turned into the crushed flint stone driveway leading to the farm.  A strong cold northeast wind blew unleashed across the open fields.  The tall hedgerow that lined the driveway was bending and breaking in the wind, its leafless branches tickling and scratching the side of our car as its lower bushes shook and quivered with every gust.  The big oak and birch trees also rattled in the wind, their branches entwined like arms around each other, so close that you could hardly tell them apart in the fading light.  They stood huddled together, as if the combined strength of their massive wooden arms could create a barrier against the rush of cold air.  It looked as though they were making a valiant effort to force the unrelenting wind back out across the open fields.  

Sir Ralph and Lady Margaret Howell had made a lasting impression on their Canadian cousins — they were an attractive English couple in their mid-seventies.  She was beautiful, a tall, thin woman with unmistakable style who was every bit a “Lady.”  Beneath the formality, Margaret also had special warmth and a common touch that captivated everyone who met her.

Ralph had deep blue eyes that looked right through you, with a distinct shock of thick white hair combed to the side.  He always dressed in a shirt, tie, sweater and wool jacket, with grey flannel pants.  This was his trademark wardrobe, no matter where he was or what he was doing.  Visiting London, climbing onto the farm tractor, tending the pigs or digging an irrigation ditch on Abbey Farm — Ralph was a typical Norfolk gentleman farmer, a formal man but with a heart and a generosity as big as his 400-acre farm.   Ralph was a farmer cum politician.  He had served as Norfolk’s first Conservative Member of Parliament during the Thatcher years and at the end of his political career, he was knighted.

As we drove up to the house, we could see Margaret waving to us as she stood in the doorway.  She rushed out to the car and as we got out, she threw her arms around each of us and ushered us inside the house to the front sitting room.  Ralph stood to greet us, asking about our flight, the train travel and the drive to Wendling.  “Did you have any trouble finding us?” he asked no one in particular.  “Not at all,” I quickly replied.  “We Canadians are resourceful — between our memory and our map, we came directly here.”  He seemed pleased.  “I lit the fire in your honour.  It’s a bloody cold night and the wind cuts right through you.  So, now that you’re here safe and sound, let’s have drinks.”

The fireplace was blazing, stoked with big chunks of English oak.  As I watched the glowing embers, I wondered which one of the trees from Margaret’s cherished wood was cut down for firewood.  After hundreds of years of surviving the catastrophes of storms, human encroachment and pests, in the end, it was just an elderly gentleman farmer with white hair and a chain saw that brought the tree down.  Ralph bragged about his powerful chain saw and how easily it felled and bucked up the old tree.  “Mind,” he added, “these old oaks are tough, strong trees.  This one was so large and heavy that when it fell, the earth around me shuddered and shook.  It took me many weeks to cut it into firewood.”  The poor old tree was valiant to the end, I thought.

As we collapsed into over-stuffed chairs, I noticed a tall and beautifully decorated Christmas tree standing in the far corner of the room.  All around the house, there were touches of Christmas that were clearly Margaret’s.  Yes, this will be a perfect Norfolk Christmas, I concluded as Ralph poured me a generous gin and tonic.  “Cheers,” he said as we raised our glasses to Christmas Eve, the importance of family and the miracle of air travel.  “Margaret and I just can’t believe that you are here for Christmas.  How wonderful!”         

Following the toast and a few minutes of busy conversation, Ralph then explained that Margaret had not been feeling well for a few days.  “It’s nothing serious,” he assured us but told us that Margaret had arranged to see her medical consultant that very night.  “It was the last available appointment of the day,” he explained.  “But it’s Christmas Eve,” I replied.  “All the more reason that we must go tonight, dear.  Everything will be closed until after Boxing Day.”  He quickly added that they would leave almost immediately and return home about seven-thirty.  “My dear, Margaret wants to see you before we go.  It’s about tonight’s dinner.” 

I was hoping that he was speaking to someone else in the room but I soon realized that he was indeed speaking to me.  “Tonight’s dinner?” I asked, trying desperately to sound surprised rather than alarmed.  Oh My God, I thought, feeling a sense of doom washing over me as I guessed that Margaret needed my help with the dinner.  They could not possibly know that I simply could not, would not and did not cook, not at all.  Do poor Ralph and Margaret not know that as far as cooking is concerned, I would rather have all my teeth pulled without anesthetic than face the stress of preparing a meal, especially a meal that Lady Margaret Howell would be eating and, no doubt, assessing!

“Right, then,” I answered with all the confidence of Julia Child.  As Ralph guided me out of the sitting room to see Margaret, I stole a glance at my husband and son.  They could barely make eye contact with me as they sat quietly trying to hide the silly smirks on their faces.  They knew what Ralph and Margaret did not, that I was a dead loss in the kitchen.  I’m sure they wondered how long I could keep this charade going.

Ralph showed me to the upstairs bedroom where Margaret was busy getting herself ready for the journey to see her doctor.  “My dear, I’ve made a few notes, instructions really, about tonight’s dinner, which we’ll all enjoy when Ralph and I get back.  You don’t mind do you, just making sure that everything comes off properly?”  I thought to myself, Margaret, my love, you have no idea, with me in the kitchen, how things are going to come off!

Not only did I not cook, when I entered the kitchen and saw the Aga stove, a huge, complicated looking behemoth staring at me, hissing, steaming and gurgling, as though taunting me to make a move towards it, I was beyond panic — I was now in full-blown meltdown.  I may as well leap right now into one of the Aga’s ovens and get it over with, I thought.

“Margaret,” I squeaked, “um, the Aga — how do I…how does it work?”  “Oh, don’t be intimidated dear, there’s nothing to it,” she answered as she flew around the kitchen lifting lids, talking to Ralph, giving me more instructions, taking things out of ovens, running back and forth to the pantry, arranging containers, all while  trying to apply her lipstick.  Watching her was truly exhausting and I still had no idea about how I would manage the rest of the dinner or the intricacies of the kitchen.  This was as close to hell’s kitchen as I had ever been.

As she was putting on her coat, Margaret turned to me and said, “There we are, you’ve got all that now, haven’t you?  Dinner will be lovely, I’m sure.  Remember, we’re counting on you and thank you, my dear.”  Margaret was suddenly gone and as I watched their car pull out of the driveway, I felt like getting on the next plane back to Canada.  Margaret’s words were still hanging above me like the noose of a rope, “Remember, we’re counting on you….” and only added to my desire to flee the kitchen, the Aga and Abbey Farm.  After all, one does not trifle with Lady Margaret (that reminded me, where was the trifle?)

Plan B; Misery enjoys company so I called my husband into the kitchen to give me a hand.  He is my cook extraordinaire, the chef of my life!  But even he was reluctant to take on this daunting task, given Margaret’s expectations to deliver according to her very detailed instructions.  With our seventeen-year-old son peering over his father’s shoulder from behind, these two slowly backed out of the kitchen, beating a hasty retreat to the sitting room and the warmth of the fire.  I was left standing alone in the kitchen, feeling just like that big oak tree as Ralph started up his chain saw —– this dinner was truly going to bring me down too with a shuddering thud.  I could only hope that they would bury me in Margaret’s wood.     

I pulled the crumpled piece of paper on which Margaret had scribbled her instructions out of her apron pocket.  Well, at least I can read and follow instructions, I thought as I surveyed the battlefield before me — somewhat consoled, I began the culinary operation of the century.  With Margaret’s notes in hand, I picked my way through the refrigerator looking for carefully marked containers of food.  I then stumbled into the pantry where there were more containers covered in cling wrap and, to my amazement, there seemed to be a dish for every course!  Even tea and coffee cups were neatly arranged on the counter.  “Be prepared,” I thought, convinced that Margaret must have been a Girl Guide in her youth.

And so, like a stranded shipwrecked sailor in a life and death struggle to survive the ordeal, I continued to dig through carefully marked food containers, through cupboards and drawers, lifted lids and carried pots to the Aga, in my quest to beat the odds and actually produce the meal that Margaret had planned so well.  I put on Margaret’s old apron in the hope that it would bring me luck and started to prepare what, for me, were foreign and exotic foods.  I constantly checked and re-checked Margaret’s meticulous notes and said a little prayer with every new instruction. 

At one point, forgetting which of the Aga stove elements was the hottest, I put the pot with the gravy in it on the stove.  Of course, I was busy doing other things, believing that a watched pot never boils, the only thing I remembered about cooking.  But I was wrong.  The kitchen and entire house were suddenly filled with clouds of gravy smoke.  I’d mistakenly put the gravy on the hottest part of the stove top and forgotten about it (I was, after all, a little preoccupied). Panic overtook as my husband, son and I grabbed some tea towels and madly dashed around the house, frantically waving the towels to rid the rooms of smoke, and evidence.  As we threw open windows and doors on this chilly Christmas Eve, we prayed that Margaret and Ralph wouldn’t suddenly arrive home to see smoke billowing out of their beloved Abbey farmhouse.

As Margaret had promised, I heard their car arrive at seven thirty precisely.  By then, I’d managed to just finish setting the dining room table, complete with sparkling crystal wine glasses and Christmas candles.  A formal table I could set, I thought to myself smugly — it was just food preparation that was not my forte.

I heard Margaret call from the back door as she made her way into the kitchen.  “How did you get on my Dear?” she asked.  “Just fine, absolutely fine.”  I wondered if I sounded very convincing, since I could still smell burned gravy.  Margaret continued, “I thought it might be too much for you and rather unfair after your long flight.”  “Not at all Margaret,” I lied.  “But I am glad you’re back.”

She cast a wary eye around the kitchen, lifting the lid on the simmering pot of gravy.  She entered the dining room.  “Oh, the table, how lovely.  But you wouldn’t mind if I just added a couple of things?”  By the time we sat down for dinner, Margaret had completely re-done the table setting.  At that point, I had to admit that that I was much relieved that Margaret had returned to take charge.

The dining room had a special charm that Christmas Eve.  Fred and Margaret reminisced about the Bone and Green families and their idiosyncrasies.  As Ralph, Matthew and I listened, I suddenly remembered Ivan, my husband’s father, who shared with us so many wonderful Norfolk tales.  How he would have loved to join us at the table this night as Margaret seemed able to bring the stories to life.  There we were on a Norfolk Christmas Eve, with cousins we loved, celebrating family and friendship, two of the greatest gifts of all at Christmas time.