Christmas in 1952 Belfast was very different from what I had been used to in the past. The biggest difference was living in a house full of adults. Indeed, having almost reached school-leaving age I too considered myself an adult. After years of living under Lily’s oppressive regulations, my newfound freedom was a phenomenon that took time to get use to. It was a great feeling, even if sometimes hard to believe and cope with.
The photo is of Pop,my sister May and Tommy my brother, in front are May’s twins Tommy and Margaret, taken in the backyard at 86 Ewarts Row, Circa 1952
I was meeting relatives for the first time, aunts and uncles who seemed genuinely pleased to see me. I liked to listen as they explained to friends and neighbours, “This is Tommy Rodgers’ wee fella.” They were often generous, slipping me money for the pictures and sweets, and they wanted to know if I liked being home. When I told them that I was old enough to leave school, but was staying on to the end of term, they gave me pats on the back. “You’re a smart young fella to stay in school,” they would say, “education is very important”. I told them I was in the Boys Brigade, and they said it was a grand Christian organization. “You stay with it, son,” they said.. I secretly thanked my teacher: If I’d left school as I’d wanted to, my relatives probably wouldn’t have been so generous.
That year, Christmas Day fell on a Thursday, which meant everyone had to work right up to six o’clock on Christmas Eve. Jim was particularly busy in the bakery. Specializing as a fancy baker, he made cakes and pastries, all items in high demand for the holidays. Even the main bakeries were busy; people wanted fresh bread and rolls for the celebrations ahead. Jackie, still working in Ewarts mill, was let out at noon, and I suspect he headed to a local pub for an early celebratory drink with his father and brother. Anna and I were at home, putting finishing touches to the tree, adding decorations, and preparing tomorrow’s meal. Our tree was small, set on top the gramophone player in the front window. This was the traditional spot for Christmas trees – almost everyone in the street did the same. At night, windows were bright and cheerful with multicoloured lights flashing and blinking. (Please note our front window wasn’t near as grand as the one in this photo, but it gives you the idea)
May had a bigger tree, brightly decorated and standing in the corner by the fireplace. The twins, still young, were excited and eager to hang their stockings and go to bed early. In my newfound adulthood, I pretended such things were childish, while, in truth, the child inside me was just as excited. Naturally, I went to great lengths not to let it show, strutting about, pretending tomorrow was just another day.
Christmas Day was, indeed, an adult affair in our house, with the men smoking cigars. Relentlessly, I plagued Pop to allow me to smoke a cigarette. I wanted so much to feel I was a part of the family. With everyone else smoking, it was difficult for him to refuse, and finally he passed me a Woodbine. Boy, was I proud puffing away like a pro! Then it hit me, and caused a mad dash for the toilet. Desperately trying to keep my dinner down, I reached the back door to a chorus of laughter.
On Saturday, December 27, May, Cookie and the twins arrived for dinner. It was obvious Cookie had spent a good part of his day in a pub. Pop didn’t approve of alcohol, and was unimpressed. Not that that ever bothered Cookie! Young Tommy was in a real snit about something and clearly didn’t want to be there. He was going out of his way to make sure it was obvious to all concerned. May, in her usual calm, easy-going demeanour, ignored her son’s unhappy state, and she entered the kitchen proudly displaying a homemade apple pie. All things considered, it was a courageous thing to do in house full of self-appointed baking experts. The pie naturally had to be inspected by Jim and Pop before receiving a seal of approval. Pop said it would have made more sense to have just bought one from McWatters. Jim was a somewhat kinder judge saying it looked good enough to eat.
With the arrival of May and family, the tiny kitchen was suddenly crowded. The dinner table was set out in the middle of the room, leaving little space to move around. May looked for a place to set the pie while she removed her overcoat. Finding no room on the table, she put it on a chair in the corner. Young Tommy was doing his best to be a nuisance, getting in everyone’s way and refusing to move. Pop said he had a face on him as long as a Lurgan shovel. The crowded room bubbled with laughter, everyone talking at the same time. Adding to the din was Cookie, attempting to serenade us. Realizing that no one was paying him attention, young Tommy plonked himself down on the middle of the kitchen floor. Now he really was in everyone’s way, and Anna almost tripped over him with a hot gravy jug in her hand. May, her patience finally exhausted, grabbed him by the arm and shoved onto the nearest chair. “Sit there and don’t you dare move until you’re in a better mood,” she said. But before she finished telling him not to move, he was already out of the chair, a strange expression spreading across his now very red face. Sputtering, he tried to say something, but we couldn’t be sure if he was going to laugh or cry. That was when I first noticed what looked like he’d messed his pants. Everyone in the room began roaring with laughter at the same time. Poor Tommy stood with bits of pie crust, apple slices, and syrup dripping down his legs. May had his trousers off in a jiffy, causing his second major embarrassment in so many minutes. Anna came to the rescue, handing him a towel to wrap around his waist. Margaret was dispatched back to Vistula Street to fetch another pair of trousers. Their house was only five minutes away. However it seemed that Margaret was enjoying her brother’s predicament, and she managed to make the five-minute trip last at least fifteen. Once Tommy was dressed in his replacement pants, we finally settled down to eat dinner. In all the commotion I think Tommy forgot why he had been mad in the first place. May’s unfortunate pie was never sampled; however, it would always be fondly remembered.
***God Bless and keep reading