November and December in Vermont are arguably at the bottom of the barrel as far as months go. The combined lack of sunlight and conflicting emotions around the holidays are powerful ingredients for rough and stormy seas.
Personally, I have always had a love/hate relationship with this season: loving those special family moments, lights, decorations, children’s excitement and giving gifts and hating the severity of personal struggles for so many others--struggles from missing loved ones, financial hardships and the pressure of meeting expectations from the commercialism that has invaded our lives.
I don’t remember Christmas being this way when I was a child. Most of my young years we didn’t have a tv. And even when we did, there were only three channels, that was on a good day and if one of us kids stood and held the rabbit ears just right. Our Christmas wishes came from looking through the Sears Wish Book toy pages.
My Mom really did her best to create a magical, warm, loving experience every year through traditions and humor. Wonderfully, she still plays the role to this day.
She has always spent countless hours in the kitchen making our favorite foods. Foods that we only had at this time of year. Tourtière (meat pie) for Christmas Eve, cookies from neopolitan to pecan sandies, Chex mix, stollen for Christmas morning …and so much more.
When we were kids, we decorated the tree one week before Christmas. Decorations were a combination of hand-made dough ornaments (with the child creator’s name and year written on the back) and ornaments that have been passed down through the years. I actually now have most of those childhood ornaments. From the puffy red balls that I used to rub against my top lip while sucking my thumb to the garland that looked like magical, delicious candy. And yes, every year I did actually try to taste that candy.
Our lights were great big bulbs that were each placed against a tin reflector as they were screwed into the thick gauged green wire. These old lights were so heavy that they had to be clipped onto the branches. And hot, boy did those lights get hot! One of my favorite memories is this one very special light. It was red and Dad always placed it in the middle of the tree. Magically, this light would blink on and off. We all called it the heart of the tree.
Christmas Eve tradition included the exchanging of gifts between siblings and our folks. With six kids and two adults, this process was pretty lengthy but always such fantastic fun. My favorite memory of giving to my family was the year I was able to purchase gifts for the first time. I must have been about five years old or so, and we lived in Jericho. It was dark when we all piled into our station wagon and headed to the big city and Woolworths. To this day I vividly remember the awe I experienced when we came into Winooski and I saw all the lights. Lights, lights, lights, from decorated houses to street lights, traffic lights, business lights… the city lights just blew my mind.
At Woolworth my brother Bob and I went downstairs to where the fishing equipment, toys and fish tanks resided. I was ecstatic when I realized that I could buy everyone in the family their very own superball and I even had enough money for one for myself! When home, I wrapped them all, even the one for myself, and put them under the tree with 100% pure joy.
Stockings were a family favorite. Big old hunting socks were used and Santa would leave them on the foot of our bed when he visited our house. I remember one year being awake when he came, feeling the weight of the stocking as he slowly lowered it near my foot. I was beyond excited but I had to pee so badly. Afraid that if I got up too soon to go to the bathroom, he might still be there and I would scare him away! Oh, I endured so much agony that night, laying, waiting, as my bladder felt like it would burst.
We kids would wake up around 5 a.m. We’d go sit on each other’s beds and show each other the treasures we received. One of my favorite stocking stuffers was the Fuzzy Wuzzy Bear. It was a soap that – if you took it out of its box and put it on a shelf – would grow fuzzy hair. Then when his hair was fully in, he was ready to go take a bath.
Christmas morning, we had to wait until everyone was around the Christmas tree and then take turns opening a gift. Santa was pretty practical back in those days. Clothes and necessities were common. But Santa also had a sense of humor!
Somehow Santa learned about my aversion to feet, and one year brought me a huge pillow shaped as a foot, individual toes and all.
Another year, Santa must have heard that I was sprayed by a skunk. To explain, another kid (ironically named Steve Martin) told me that if I picked it up by its tail then it wouldn’t spray me. He was wrong. That Christmas I received a cute little skunk stuffed animal.
One of the greatest gifts I received was in 1971, my Drowsy Doll. The only doll that I ever played with in my life, Drowsy Doll was such a dear friend. I don’t remember when she went away. But she meant so much to me that just a few years ago, my mom found one on Ebay. Now Drowsy is back in my bedroom.
My brother Bob had a similar experience, with receiving a present that meant a lot to him. Only his story is more touching than that of my doll.
Bob, a phenomenal guitar player who even travels from Vermont to gigs in New Orleans, explained it best: “One Christmas can change a life. One present from one Christmas even. I speak of 1971. First guitar. Nobody knew it was going to shape my universe. The takeaway: dare to take chances with gift-giving. You might change somebody’s life.”
Whoaaa... I am just now seeing something! It is only in finishing this article and proofreading it that I am realizing; both my doll and Bob’s guitar were from Christmas 1971.
Like I have said before, “You can’t make this stuff up!”
By Julie Gagnon Prior
“When things get overwhelming, I find listening to music energizes, relaxes and helps me put things back in perspective.” Lynne Carver, South Hero, October, 2019.
Before we get started, take a look at the photo below. It was taken June 2019, within the walls of the South Hero Bicentennial Museum. In it, my Dad is presenting a fiddle to Teresa Robinson.
Years ago, the fiddle belonged to my great, great grampa, Joe LaRose. Joe owned a blacksmith shop just a couple doors up from the museum. After he died, the fiddle was passed down to his daughter Laura’s son, my Grampa Joseph A. Gagnon. The wish that went with the fiddle was that it would continue to be passed through the upcoming generations to the family musician who showed the most interest in playing the instrument. Before my Grampa passed, he handed the fiddle down to my pa, Joseph B. Gagnon. Unfortunately, none of the children or grandchildren in my family play the instrument. Dad thought it right to return the fiddle to the town where it first came from so many years ago.
As a side note, on the same day of the instrument gift, a cousin also donated a fully intact, gorgeous quilt that was made by Joe Larose’s wife, Linda Mae (Savage) LaRose.
On another side note, in case some of you are wondering, “What is the difference between a fiddle and a violin?” Well, the real answer is that you don’t spill beer on a violin, as stated by my Dad).
Music, to me, is the truest form of magic that exists. It has the ability to take one into flight, escaping high above a collapsing darkness shrouding us where we stand. It can also heal us through validation, support and hope, whether it be the journey of the instrumentals or the path of the lyrics.
It may sound like I am very knowledgeable about music. Ironically, out of about four generations, on my Father’s side, I am one of the least talented in any musical skill or intelligence. I am, however, an expert of feeling and enjoying the power and beauty that it conveys.
Since I was born, music has been one of the glues within our family, and I have been and continue to be surrounded by exceptionally talented artists.
My pa started picking and grinning when he was eleven years old. His father heard him plunking on a plastic ukulele and decided to buy him a guitar. Dad took off from there, from swapping skills learned with Bobby Lavigne to playing with Bonnie Raitt at her sound man’s house, which happened to be two houses away from where we lived in Jericho.
Jam sessions were almost every week at our house. One of my favorite memories is going to bed and lying there listening to the magic flowing from the many musicians loving life in the living room.
Coming from a family of eight, the musical talent within our house was amazing! Dad played any stringed instrument; Mom, Kathy and the twins sang, and the twins played piano; Bob followed in Pa’s footprints with the insane guitar picking; Joe learned to play the drums; and I…well, let’s just say that I had much more success with a soccer ball then anything musical.
Holidays and family get-togethers always ended in a jam session. My grampa always played the harmonica. Damn do I miss him and his harmonica.
The talent continues to run through the blood of the next generation of Gagnons! My kids, niece and nephews are all extremely talented – almost weird-like talented. But, let it be known that I am still better than any of them with a soccer ball.
Personally, I believe that there are two major contributors to the quality of musicians within my family. One of course is natural ability, and hard work. The second, I believe is a result of acceptance.
My parents were quite strict and they didn’t have much money. However, music was never restricted due to genre, sound or lyrics. Because of this, our home was filled with sounds from Johnny Cash, Neil Diamond, The Commodores, Pink Floyd, Frank Zappa, Joe Wise, CCR, The Beatles, Abba and more. And because of this, all of us kids were exposed to the genres and artists enjoyed by our siblings or parents, ultimately teaching us so much more then we would have learned in a restricted household.
Despite the financial aspect, my folks had three stereos, all with headphones, spread throughout the house. This way, all six kids could take turns listening to our preferred music while working on homework.
Around the same time that I asked Lynn Carver for a quote about music, I also asked another friend, Sue Straight. Her response was a hand-written card and some pages that she pulled out of a Reader’s Digest from June of 2018. Among her personal message about the meaning of music, Sue wrote, “It’s been my therapy for 13 years.”
How powerful is just that one statement?
Now it’s with a heavy, loving sigh that I share my most recent “music” experience with you, which happened just this morning. Staying at my folks’ house for a few days, I’m quite ill and they are my proxies, I was able to sit up on the couch this morning and write. As my Pa sat in the chair next to me and we were drinking coffee, I asked him to verify some of the info that I wanted to include in the piece. While we were talking, the phone rang. It was Dolly. Dolly is my Dad’s friend Forest’s wife. Turns out she was calling him to discuss Pa visiting her husband at a nursing home today. When Dad got off the phone, I asked him if he thought Forest who has Alzheimer’s, would recognize him. Dad replied that Dolly thought he would and with that he got out of his chair to get ready to leave.
I opened my laptop and started to write this piece. Having not read the Reader’s Digest pages yet, I took them in my hand. The title is “13 Incredible Ways Music Benefits You.”
Something in my head made me want to read the 13th way first. Flipping to the last page, I read it and then yelled out to see if my Pa was still here. He was!
I read to him the 13th way…
“Maybe you’ve heard about Alzheimer’s patients coming alive when they hear a song from their past. Studies show that music helps them retrieve memories, communicate more effectively, and remember who they are.”
See, the reason that my Pa and Forest are such good friends is that they have been making music together for well over 50 years…Forest played Fiddle.
Already planning to bring his guitar with him to the nursing home, I am sure that hearing those words touched Dad’s heart.
Music is magic. A magic that started my Dad’s friendship with Forest and a magic that is going to help them both on their journey today.
Julie Gagnon Prior
Julie Gagnon Prior resides in Grand Isle with her partner Carl and their 5 dogs. Prior has been battling Lyme Disease for several years, which she