'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?' .. a memorable Christmas long ago
by Roger Currie
The year was 1967. I was a student at St. John’s College at the University of Manitoba. I lived a very comfortable life with my family in River Heights, driving my mother's car and paying a ridiculously small tuition compared to what today's students are burdened with. Most homes in our neighbourhood could have been right out of Leave it to Beaver or Father Knows Best. Mom stayed home, and at Christmastime she organized a festive dinner for what we affectionately called “the geriatric club”. In the 1950's, that 'club' included my three surviving grandparents, a step grandmother, a widowed great aunt and a great uncle who was a widower.
While my older brother and I dove into our Christmas treasures, playing with the latest hockey board game in the pre-digital era, while mother spent the entire day in the kitchen it seemed. There were no microwaves or automatic dishwashers. When he wasn't chauffeuring the geriatrics, our dear old Dad was wearing an apron, with a dish towel over his shoulder. But as head of the household, he firmly decreed that absolutely everything stopped in the morning when the Queen's Christmas broadcast came on the radio.
When it was finally served, the Christmas feast was truly grand and very traditional. There was a beautifully stuffed turkey, mashed potatoes with perfect gravy, boiled onions in a cream sauce and tomato aspic with shrimp. Desert included endless shortbread, mince tarts and a steaming plum pudding with two different sugary sauces.
No one dreamed of asking for anything gluten free. It was long before food banks were even contemplated. No doubt there were many people in Winnipeg who didn't have anything like we had, but they tended to be 'out of sight and out of mind'. We just didn't think about them very much. There was not an abundance of alcohol served at the Currie Christmas, partly out of deference to my grandfather the dentist who was a lifelong teetotaler. But once the older folks were out the door, mother would kick off her ridiculous high heels and knock back a couple of rather stiff gins. Dad was probably still in the kitchen drying and polishing dishes, while nibbling leftovers.
By 1967, the Christmas cast had changed somewhat. Gone to the great seniors home in the sky were two of the grandparents and the great uncle. But feisty Aunt Marie was still with us, along with Grandma Currie with her delightful Glasgow accent that she brought with her to Canada in 1910, a year before she gave birth to our father in Brandon.
Aunt Marie was a Swede from Hallock Minnesota. Today, she might easily be described as a 'bigot'. Lord knows if she were here now, she might be supporting someone like Donald Trump ! 48 years ago, Marie was fairly 'representative' of her generation. Did I mention that she loved to talk, and rather loudly ?
The devil seems to have played a role in my entry into the world in 1947. As far back as I can remember, I have always taken something of a 'guilty pleasure' in “stirring the pot” to make day to day life a bit more interesting. In 1967, I conspired to liven up our Yuletide feast by inviting a “person of colour” to share our table.
He was a Johnian colleague whose name was Fitzroy Clarke. He came from the island of St. Vincent in Caribbean, and like many foreign students he was destined to be thousands of miles from home and pretty much alone at Christmas.
We gave no advance warning that Fitzroy would be joining us. Polite greetings were exchanged, a suitable blessing was shared as we bowed our heads, and dinner was served.
None of us could remember Aunt Marie ever having so little to say at a family gathering, but the expression on her face spoke volumes. Our Caribbean guest held forth on a wide range of topics. He was not the least bit shy. My older brother David who was visiting from Toronto, laughed heartily through all of it, shooting me many a knowing glance and a wink.
The passage of so many years has dimmed the memory of what exactly might have been said that evening. The only people still around in 2015 are my brother and me, and I had hoped to once again reunite with Fitzroy Clarke. After our St. John's days ended, we lost track of each other.
My fondest wish was that he perhaps returned to St.Vincent or some other tropical paradise and enjoyed a truly wonderful life. I was saddened to learn that he died far too young in Toronto in January of 2003. He was 57.
He certainly helped create some wonderful Christmas memories at our house in Winnipeg in 1967.
Roger Currie is a writer and broadcaster who was a student at St. John's College from 1965 to 1969. These days, he is heard regularly on CJNU, 93.7 FM in Winnipeg.