It was quiet in the kitchen. Warm from the friendly glow of the kitchen stove as it nursed a kettle to boiling for the first brew-up of Christmas Day, 1938.
The wall clock’s pendulum flashed with reflected light from the miracle of electricity, installed only months earlier to replace gas in the row houses of an English industrial town.
The “tick-tock” keeping time with the pendulum could always be heard above normal conversation, but this Christmas Day, it sounded crisper. Not louder. Just more precise, like a call to attention in addition to recording the passage of time.
Four people were listening. A husband and wife and their two children – a daughter,17, and son two days shy of his 15th birthday, sitting around the scrubbed-white kitchen table waiting for the kettle to boil, the brewed tea signalling that it was time to open presents.
There was a vacant chair at the table.
The family was observing, with slight modification, a decades-old routine governed by mother’s rule that her husband and the children remain upstairs on Christmas morning until the ceremonial tea was brewed. The change in 1938 allowed us to be downstairs for the final few minutes waiting for the tea – and time to think about the vacant chair.
On the table, Christmas gifts nestled in four small piles; two very small piles for mother and father; and two, not much larger, for son and daughter. In the latter would be one or two luxuries like a small box of chocolates or small bottle of perfume to please a teenage daughter.
The bulk of the children’s gifts consisted of clothes. Warm underwear, socks and decent footwear were more important for survival than coveted baubles.
The metronomic beat of the wall clock relentlessly measured time as it moved from past to present. A year earlier on Christmas Day, there had been five mini-mounds of presents and a mother and father waiting for the kettle to boil with a daughter and two sons.
I was one of the sons. The other was my older brother Tom, 18; my mentor, protector and hero. In April of 1938, he collapsed at work, was rushed to hospital, diagnosed with peritonitis following a ruptured appendix. Tom died on May 17th.
Some years ago, I wrote how every Christmas Day morning we threw open our back-bedroom window and sang the first two verses of “Christian’s awake, salute the happy morn …” Tom never told me what sparked the idea, but seven- or eight-year-olds never question the leadership of their 11 or 12-year-old brother.
So, we sang every Christmas morning for six or seven years until 1938 when just before dawn, I opened the bedroom window and tried to sing but could only weep.
There will be more tears before this Christmas Day is over as unbelievable thousands will see an empty chair – and remember what was – and dream of what might have been.