The story I would like to tell happened long ago, when I was one of the Smathers kids living at Baytree in the East Pouce Coupe district. The heroes of my story were Jim and Sid Robertson.
Now, first to get the theme of the story. Try to think of the early days — 1922 or 1923 — in a pioneer setting with the family living in log cabins, sod-roofed and moss chinked and made by their own hands. Remember, too, this was new territory; the land being cleared by hand with axe and work-hoe. Settlers were living off the land by hunting and trapping with little to sell, so naturally money was scarce those days and what they did get was to be used for real necessities only. There was no school to stimulate social life and the Christmases would slip by almost unnoticed. Christmas as it’s known nowadays with all its bounty and all the things we never even dreamed of. I remember once our mother got us an orange each for our Christmas treat and another time we sat down to our Christmas morning breakfast and she slowly walked down the table to place a few candies on our plates. We never felt deprived. We had plenty of food, good health and warm cabins and a bachelor or two to share our dinner and card games later by the light of the coal oil lamp.
Now, two of these bachelors were the Robertson brothers, Jim and Sid. They were fine fellows, veterans of the First World War. They had been born in Scotland to a very different life style indeed. Not having families to provide for, their fields were producing earlier and they soon had some grain to haul out for sale at the railhead at Spirit River. This particular December, they decided that they would like to give the settler’s children a real honest-to-goodness Christmas party and spent their grain money to do just that. Not out of charity or patronage mind you, but out of the goodness of their hearts. They passed the word to the parents that there would be a Christmas party in the hall, and asked the mothers to get the children to contribute towards the program with recitations, songs, and so on.
I wasn’t very big them, but I remember getting into a hassle with the neighbour girl over the tune of “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas”, that we were supposed to sing together. Their version of it differed from the one we knew, but Mother soon straightened me out. She said, “We came up here to be Canadians, now you get in there and sing Canadian!” So, when we got to the hall, there in all its glory was the first Christmas tree I can remember seeing, trimmed with tinsel and garlands and all lit up with little candles clipped onto the branches. After the program was over, Santa Claus came and that was another first for us — distributing the goods and treats and to present a pretty bread plate to the mothers.
Now, I don’t remember what I got off the tree, but that night, Jim Robertson gave me a priceless gift, the memory of which I shall always cherish. It was my first compliment. My hair was usually skinned back tight into skimpy, rusty braids, but that night my mother had combed it out and let it fall free on my shoulders. Jim gallantly told me I was pretty, and homely little mugger that I was, I really believed him. The in-born courtesy and integrity of these men always seemed to bring out the best in people. I know my life was enriched by having known them. They are gone now, and I’m glad to have this opportunity to tell one of the stories of their good-hearted generosity and to pay tribute to the fine men and good neighbours that they were.