Christmas is one of the happiest events of the year. I have some wonderful memories of passed Christmases, especial with my two young daughters. To see the thrill in their eyes as they look upon magical presents Santa has left for them. Wonderful times indeed and now we enjoy our grandchildren on that very special morning. Yet no matter how much time has passed I cannot erase the memory of that awful Christmas in 1951. Each year at this time it returns to me in vivid clarity and I still feel that twinge of anger. So sad and so unnecessarily cruel on that fateful Christmas morning. I apologize for re-running this story, it may be boring to those who have read it before. Nevertheless, it helps me to feel the Christmas cheer once I get it out of the way.
Christmas Morning 1951(excerpt from my book “Lily & Me”)
Our presents were laid out on the two easy chairs at each side of the fireplace – Roy’s on the left, mine on the right. It was chilly in the living room – the fire was out – and Ben set about relighting it. Lily gave the okay to start opening presents and went to put a kettle on for tea.
Neither Roy nor I felt the chill, excited as we were by the array of gifts before us. While I wanted the moment to last, I tended to rush, tearing the packages open; somehow, rush always won over slow, and in no time my presents were open and spread across the floor. Roy almost as fast, finished close behind me. In our haste, we wasted no time reading labels, and when asked what we had received from an uncle or aunt, neither one of us had a clue. By the time breakfast was ready, having already consumed a fair quantity of chocolate and toffee, we weren’t hungry. I claimed to be saving my appetite for the big dinner planned for later in the day. It was partly true; I loved roast chicken and potatoes with all the trimmings, and after that a dessert of Christmas pudding and custard. It was a feast fit for a king.
For the rest of the morning we were left to play with our new toys, books and annuals. Lily and Ben sat in the kitchen talking and keeping an eye on the roast. Just before noon, Lily told me to set the dinner table. I willingly obeyed, knowing we’d soon be pulling Christmas crackers and eating a scrumptious meal. As the clock chimed noon we sat down to eat, first bowing our heads as Ben said grace. We pulled crackers and donned the paper hats. We read aloud our fortunes, then grabbed for the enclosed toys. On my plate was a whole leg, usually only given to adults, and it made me feel grown up.
The dinner was as good as expected, with pudding still to come. It was traditional to put silver in the pudding and Lily always put a sixpence in ours. When the portions were served I hoped I’d be lucky and get the piece with the money in it. I knew I’d lost when Roy yelled in delight, spotting the coin in his dish. As I polished off the remains of my pudding, my thoughts turned to Shirley and our meeting later that afternoon.
I was in a happy mood even knowing I had to wash so many dinner dishes before I’d be allowed out. It turned out that everyone helped clear the table and wash the dishes. With the chores complete, I returned to the living room to continue playing with my gifts. I knew tea and cake would be served next, and I couldn’t leave until that was finished. Moments later, Lily came in with a pot of tea, Ben followed carrying the cake, and cups and saucers were on the tray I had made at school. We each received a good size slice and a cup of tea. My mind was miles away as I sat in front of the fire nibbling cake, It was covered with icing over a marzipan base and decorated in a Christmas theme. Marzipan was something I didn’t like. Hardly even conscious I was doing it I picked the marzipan off and laid it aside on my plate. I was unaware of Lily watching me. The warm and pleasant environment was about to explode around me.
Suddenly, she flew into a rage solely directed at me. “Eat your marzipan and stop wasting good food”, she yelled. I was taken by complete surprise, at first not even sure what I was doing wrong. Gathering my thoughts I said, “Mum, you know I don’t like marzipan, it makes me sick”. “You’ll eat it,” she said, “or you’ll spend the rest of the day in your room. It’s your choice”.
The warm, cozy feelings of moments earlier were instantly gone. In their place, a rising anger and rebellion dried my throat. I instinctively stood my ground, flatly refusing to eat the marzipan. No matter her reasoning, what she was doing was wrong. This wasn’t some terrible crime I had deliberately committed. I wasn’t refusing to eat vegetables, or take a nasty medicine. Besides, it was Christmas; I would hardly be punished today, of all days, and surely not for such a minor offense. In the rising tension, Ben and Roy remained quiet and motionless, their eyes on the floor. Both probably anticipated what was coming next. The atmosphere in the room had turned icy cold. I hoped Ben would intervene to calm the situation, but he did nothing. No one had the courage to stand up to Lily – no one, that is, but me. Even though my anger was at boiling point, I knew I wouldn’t win. Yet, I remained determined to take anything she dished out. I’d suffer her punishment, but at least do it with dignity. In this way I believed I was actually winning.
I was ordered to go my room immediately, and told not to show my face again until tomorrow. Picking up a book to take with me, I was promptly told to leave it. I wasn’t allowed to take any of my new books upstairs. The cruel malice my sister displayed that Christmas Day left me cold. It was hard to believe this was my own flesh and blood. Whatever her purpose in her role as mother or sister, her behaviour that day was cruel and unnecessary. In the years spent with Lily I’d suffered numerous punishments, some deserved, many not. Yet nothing before had ever left me feeling as I did that sad afternoon. This totally unnecessary incident only served to feed my resentment and hatred, a hatred that would take years to overcome.
When I was sent upstairs, I intentionally pounded on each step and forcefully slammed the bedroom door behind me. I half expected my display of temper to bring another torrent of threats. When nothing happened, I took satisfaction sensing she knew she’d gone too far. It was small consolation, but gave me a huge lift that was badly needed at that moment. I’d refused to cry or plead, instead showing defiance and anger. In my room, trembling with anger, I paced the tiny space between the beds. I wanted to throw things, to rampage and smash everything in the room. Instead, I flopped down on my bed, my anger enveloping every part of my being. I was consumed with thoughts of hatred and revenge. Very slowly I calmed down and began thinking more rationally. I no longer held any illusion that Lily would continue in the role as my mother. The time had arrived for me to act; I would not continue to submit to her authority. These were brave thoughts, but actually putting them into action would not be so easy. It was then it occurred to me I might run away. I got off the bed and opened the window to see if I could escape that way. It looked possible, by climbing down a drain spout. Not today however – it was freezing outside. I closed the window and returned to my bed. The idea was good, but required sensible and well thought out plans.
The first considerations were transportation, clothing and money. My bicycle would serve as transportation. Sneaking it out of the shed and through the front gate without being discovered would be difficult. My overcoat, scarf, gloves and boots, were downstairs in the back hall. Even if it were possible to retrieve them and pass through the front gate undetected, I’d still needed money. It was obvious I couldn’t attempt my escape today. I had to plan carefully, or face certain failure. The bedroom was cold so I climbed under the eiderdown.
More comfortable, I began thinking of a plan, and the seed of an idea gradually took shape. First of all I must wait for warmer weather, perhaps March or April. I’d need money, and it would take time to save. More and more ideas flooded my mind as I slowly conceived a viable escape route. The more feasible it seemed, the more excited I became. Selecting a destination was easy and obvious – Belfast. Living on the island was a problem. It would be difficult getting off unnoticed. I couldn’t think of an immediate solution, so I decided to leave that problem until later. Crossing on the ferry would have to be carefully thought out.
I was focused and excited as each part of my plan fell into place. So absorbed in my thoughts I didn’t notice my anger fading. The tension I’d felt earlier was gone, replaced with the happy prospects of getting away. Thousands of ideas flashed through my mind – making sandwiches, saving money, getting a map, packing clothes, milk and apples..
I decided to execute my escape plan late on a Sunday night. During the day I’d pretend to be ill and go to bed in the afternoon. At midnight, well rested and with everyone asleep, I’d be ready to leave. I’d strike out for Ryde, leaving a note on the kitchen table saying I’d left early for school on my bike. I’d ride through the night without lights making it less likely to be spotted. Passing through towns or villages might be a little tricky, but I’d be careful. I felt confident of making the 6 a.m. ferry on Monday morning. I wasn’t sure what the cost of the ferry was, but guessed it wouldn’t be more than a shilling. I set myself a target of saving five shillings, hoping that would be enough. It was impossible to be sure – there was always the unforeseen.
Leaving the note was a brilliant strategy. Lily would be furious I’d gone to school on my bike without permission. But I could think of no reason for her not to believe me. She’d have ample time to think up a suitable punishment for my return in the afternoon. By that time I’d be off the island and well on my way to London. It would be suppertime before they’d become suspicious and start asking questions. There wouldn’t be much she could do by then since the school would be closed. She’d probably send Roy out to look for me. Eventually she’d ask Shirley if she’d seen me, and she’d learn I hadn’t been in school all day. Then she’d be worried, and she’d probably inform the local constable.. I assumed that if the police searched for me they’d concentrate on the village and local area. I was growing more and more impressed with my own cleverness. I could hardly wait to put the plan into action.
Pulling the bedspread closer against the chilly room I continued my planning. Much depended on the accuracy of my calculations. Would I be able to reach London inside two days? I judged the trip to be about twice the distance to Gasper. Ben and I had easily reached Gasper in a little over half a day. Even if London was a bit further than my estimate, it seemed logical to think I could do it within two days. At night I’d look for shelter in a barn or a shed along the way. Once I reached London, I’d look for a bike or pawnshop to sell my bike. It still looked brand new, without a scratch on it. I was guessing it had cost about twelve pounds, and was sure I could sell it for at least half that amount. I was also guessing that would be enough to purchase a train and boat ticket to Belfast. My plan depended on a huge amount of guessing, but it was far too risky to ask questions. Once I reached Belfast, I’d ask directions to the place where Pop worked. I didn’t know his home address, but I remembered McWatters Bakery. I was confident Pop wouldn’t send me back; Anna would never allow that to happen.
I saw my plan as brilliant, and while I waited for warmer weather, I would have plenty of time to improve and modify it. All that remained was to set the actual date of execution; I felt like an allied commander planning D-Day. Then I feel asleep.
Suddenly, Roy was at the door saying I could come downstairs. “Mum’s forgiven you because it’s Christmas, and has saved you some supper” he said.
Entering the living room, I was instantly aware of why I had been reprieved. Ben’s Uncle Bernard and Cousin Eddie were just arriving for a visit. They had driven over from Cowes and brought gifts for Roy and me. Obviously, Lily didn’t want them knowing she’d sent me to bed on Christmas Day. I hadn’t been forgiven; her concern was what her relatives might think.
I continued to work on my escape plan through out the spring of 1952. However, as events turned out I never needed to put it into action. I finally returned home to Belfast in July 1952, My name was Rodgers once again and more importantly, was free of Lily at last.
God Bless and keep reading