Author: mboucher

Pete’s Christmas Present

One Christmas—I don’t remember how old I was—I was consumed with a desire to know what I was getting for Christmas. I didn’t believe in Santa Claus anymore. I had discovered the truth of that one year when I woke in the night to hear voices downstairs in the living room.

We had a floor register in the bedroom. I crept silently out of bed and knelt down on the floor by the register. I still remember the smell of that register. It was a little metallic and a little lubricating oil and a little dust. Well, maybe a lot of dust. As I peered into the living room, I saw my parents placing presents under the Christmas tree. I had suspected for quite some time that there really was no Santa Claus.

We didn’t have two sticks to rub together. I was suspicious that some of my friends received presents from Santa that were quite grand, while our presents tended to be things we needed, like socks, slips, warm hats and mittens. It didn’t seem quite fair that Santa would bring fun stuff to my friends while we got useful stuff.

So, there I was, snooping in all the places where presents might be hidden in the days before Christmas. That’s how I found myself lifting the lid of the old cedar chest in my brother Pete’s bedroom. That cedar chest had seen better days. It came from my dad’s house when he was growing up. It had once had a caned lid, but the caning had long since fallen apart.

I lifted the lid ever so quietly so no one else would hear me. And then I saw it. A brand new copy of Jim Kjelgaard’s book, Big Red. My heart sunk with disappointment. It was a book about a dog. How boring. How dumb. What did I want with a book about an old dog? I liked the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. And then there was the Lives of the Saints book club my mother had enrolled me in. Every six weeks, I got another saint in the mail. Anything, anything but a book about an old dog!

I quietly replaced the lid of the cedar chest and slipped out of Pete’s room. What was I going to do about this? He had already bought the book. And we weren’t a family that returned gifts. I could never do that; it would hurt his feelings.

The only thing to do was pretend I never saw the darned old book about a darned old dog. I knew I had to act happy and excited about that book.

And that’s what I did on Christmas morning. I acted all happy and excited. I thanked my brother for that dumb old book about a dumb old dog. And, honestly? I never read it. It sat on my shelf for years and years. I was grateful that Pete never asked me how I liked it. Maybe he knew, now that I think about it. He might have figured out that I had snooped, because he probably did some snooping of his own over the years.

We don’t always get what we want. Our loved ones can’t always figure out what to give us. Sometimes we all may have been guilty of buying something for a loved one that we want ourselves. But I knew then, even as a little girl, that I had to rise above my disappointment and not hurt my big brother’s feelings. And I think that is one of the messages of Christmas.

Cris Roll

Reginald and Penelope

When I was growing up, my family was close to my Aunt Leota’s family. I remember many holiday dinners shared with them over the years. There were ten LaPrairie siblings. It makes me wonder how they had room for a few more, but they were always ready to share.

One of the oldest was my cousin, Dave. He went to work for Western Union and traveled a lot for his job. He wasn’t able to come home very often, but he sent money home to his widowed mother and boxes of oranges and tangerines for his brothers and sisters at Christmas time. I adored Dave.

I don’t remember how Reginald and Penelope got started. It was a game that Dave and I played together when he was home. He was Reginald. I was Penelope. Reginald and Penelope traveled a lot and talked about all the places they had been to. “Where did I see you last, Reggie? Was it Vienna? Perhaps it was Constantinople…” It was an elaborate geography game. And it was fun. I loved it when Dave came home for a visit.

It was on my 13th birthday when I received a phone call from the local Western Union office. They said they had a telegram for Penelope Roll. I was thrilled that Reggie had remembered my birthday. I walked downtown to collect the telegram, and I still have it somewhere.

Dave married later in life to a lovely woman named Jean. She had been widowed twice. We were so happy for Dave. He deserved some happiness—he had given so much of it to his family. It was a shock to all of us when we heard there had been a hotel fire in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Dave was traveling for his job and was staying at the Astor Hotel. There were seven people who lost their lives in that fire in February 1966. And our dear Dave was one of them. They found his body at the bottom of the elevator shaft. He was trying to escape the building and may have become disoriented.

His wife, Jean, was widowed a third time. She kept in touch with my aunt for many years after.

Cris Roll


My mother was raised in Shelldrake, a small mill town on the south shore of Lake Superior, west of what is now Paradise. Shelldrake doesn’t exist anymore, but in the early part of the 20th century, the mill supported a number of families. The mill burned twice, and after the second time, it was never rebuilt. At that time, my grandfather moved the family to Sault Ste. Marie.

My grandfather, Peter Arbic, was the engineer at the mill. He and my grandmother, Mary Jacques, were from Bracebridge in southern Ontario. Peter brought Mary and the two children, Thelma and my mother, Delena, across the border to live.

My mother told me many stories about their lives in Shelldrake. Gradually, more children came along, and they each had jobs to do. One of my mother’s chores was to scrub the unfinished boards of the kitchen floor. She also had to wring the necks of chickens and pluck them for cooking. She hated that job.
The mill was owned by the Bartlett family who also lived in Shelldrake. They had a generator, or gyro, as my mother called it. Most of the time, the houses didn’t have electricity, but on Mondays, the gyro was fired up, and everyone did their laundry.

My mother often told me stories about other families who lived in Shelldrake. One of these neighbors had a claw foot bathtub and several sets of dishes. During the week, the family stored their dirty dishes in the bathtub, and on Saturday, they washed the week’s worth of dishes, probably so they all could take baths.

There was a grade school at Shelldrake, and on nice spring and fall days, school was sometimes held on the beach. As a child, I thought that was a pretty nifty arrangement.

The kids, in my mother’s family at least, never swam in Whitefish Bay. My grandmother would never allow it, not just because the lake was cold but because she was afraid they would drown. My mother, growing up on the shores of the largest fresh water lake in the world, never learned to swim. I found it ironic.

One of the stories my mother told me was of a bitter cold December night when she and a friend were walking home from a community Christmas party. She was pre-pubescent at the time. As they walked quickly in the cold, an older Indian man met them on the path. He handed my mother a box of candy and wished her a Merry Christmas. I remember asking her why he gave her the candy. She said it was because he just liked her.

The incident frightened my mother. She ran the rest of the way home and tossed the box of candy in a snowbank. In the morning, she told me, she woke up and expected to find a baby next to her bed. In those days, no one was told the facts of life. My mother thought the man’s kindness had made her pregnant.

By the time my mother and aunt, as the oldest siblings, were ready for high school, they were shipped off on the train to board at Loretto Academy, a Catholic all-girls school in the Sault. When they went home for Christmas holidays, they took the Soo Line train to Eckerman, which was the end of the line. Someone would pick them up in a horse drawn sleigh, pile blankets on them, and take them the rest of the way to Shelldrake.

Every summer, my mother and her siblings went to the woods to pick wild blueberries to ship on the train to places like Detroit and Chicago. My mother picked so many blueberries that she came to hate them.
I never tired of hearing my mother’s stories of their nearly pioneer lives.

Cris Roll

The Snowstorm of ‘95

It started on Friday evening. It snowed all night, and when I got up the next morning, the snow in my street was up to my thighs. I stood in a west window talking on the phone to a friend. I was watching my neighbor next door pulling snow off his garage with a roof rake. He was elderly and his wife couldn’t see very well, so I thought I should keep an eye on him. I looked away for a minute and when I looked again, I couldn’t see him at all.

I was afraid he had fallen, so I bundled up and waded through the snow to his house. There he was, standing in his driveway. Someone had come and blown snow out of the driveway but the bank was already so high, it was impossible to see him from my house. I was glad he was okay.

I noticed the snow was close to three feet deep on the west side of my garage roof. The garage was old, and I was afraid it wouldn’t take the weight. I pulled the step ladder out and waded through the snow with my shovel and gradually pulled enough snow off that it looked okay to me.

It kept snowing all through that day. By Sunday morning, the wind had shifted and the east side of my garage roof had three or four feet of snow on it. The snow was up to my waist by then. I got the ladder out again, but this time the snow was so windblown and packed down that I couldn’t wade through it. I closed up the ladder and pushed it onto the top of the snow. I climbed on top of the ladder to use it as a big snowshoe. I started to shovel snow off the roof, but I took a step back without thinking. I went head first down into four feet of snow. My other foot was hung up on the ladder.

I had always heard the expression “cold terror” but I didn’t know what it meant until that moment. There was no one living in the house next door, no one living directly across the alley. There was no one who would even hear me screaming for help. I had to get myself out of that situation.

I got my foot disentangled from the ladder and somehow I inched my way toward the ladder which was now buried in the snow. I managed to haul myself up onto the closed up ladder, and then I dragged myself inch by inch until I reached the top of the bank. With one last push, I slid down into the driveway. I told myself that ladder could stay there because I wasn’t going back for it.

By Monday, it had stopped snowing. Everybody was out shoveling. One of my neighbors was jumping off his flat porch roof into the snow banks. I called down to him and asked if he could help me get snow off my house roof. There was a good five feet up there. He came over when he was done with his own and climbed to the roof and starting shoveling the snow off my roof. The snow in the front piled up so high, I couldn’t even see the house across the street.

I had heard announcements on the radio telling people to make sure they cleaned out around where the natural gas went into their homes. So I climbed that monstrous bank in the front and waded around to the west side of my house and shoveled the snow away from the intake. Then I turned around to leave and realized there was no way I could wade through all the snow that was in my front yard.

I called to my neighbor who was still on my roof. He came down the ladder. He was tall and had long legs. He was able to make a path for me to wade out of that deep snow.

A few days later the National Guard came in to help clear the streets. At midnight they were out in their huge trucks with plows, filling the trucks and hauling away the snow. It felt like we were being invaded, but we were all so grateful.

I had to have my yard cleared twice that winter with a front end loader. There was just so much snow that I couldn’t throw it any higher.

Cris Roll

The Measles

I don’t know how old I was when I had the measles. I think I was quite little. There may have been more than one kind of measles that I had, but the time I remember was early in the summer.

Back then, a diagnosis of measles meant the child was kept inside with the shades pulled. I don’t know if it was true, but the belief then was that you could lose your eyesight with measles by exposure to sunlight. For a small child to be cooped up day after day, especially when the weather was nice, it was pure torture. I probably drive my mother crazy, too. My two siblings were older, and I’m sure they had already had measles and chicken pox and all of the other standard childhood illnesses.

As the days dragged on—it seemed like forever to my small self—I grew more impatient to be outside. One sunny Saturday morning, someone came to the door. I had had enough of staying inside. I made my escape just like a puppy scooting out an open door. I ran past the grownups at the door. I ran and ran and ran. They finally caught up with me at the end of the next block. I couldn’t stop laughing. It felt so good to be outside in the fresh air and sunshine again.

My big brother slung me up on his shoulders and took me back to prison until my spots were gone.

Cris Roll

Clams in the Muck

During a recent book discussion that focused on regional cuisine, I couldn’t help but drift back to my memories of spending summers on Onset Island off the coast of Cape Cod.

My grandfather had built this little cottage by hand. When it was destroyed by a hurricane, he rebuilt it with the help of his son Jim. It was probably the closest those two ever got.

My family would drive out from Wisconsin to Onset Island every summer for our family vacations when I was young. Although it was a very long drive, my brothers and I were always so excited to get there that the long drive didn’t seem to be a problem.

One of my fondest memories of this island was waking up at the break of dawn to go clamming with my grandmother. We would take two plastic pails and a pitchfork and a shovel. We could only do this when it was low tide, as that is what exposed the sand bars.

We walked out onto the sand bars that were made of an extremely black and rich material. We would walk until we would see some bubbles coming up out of the muck. Then we took out the pitchforks and turned up the sandbar to dig out these huge clams. We called them cohogs. Not sure if that is a real name for them or not. Although I am not fond of eating animals these days, when I was a child my favorite food was stuffed clams. We would cook them that day and have them at night. We would also catch crabs right off the dock and catch flounder when we would go fishing. Whenever anyone talks about eating seafood now, I always think back to how fresh and wonderful the food we caught at the cottage was.

For years after we no longer went to the cottage, my mother would still make me stuffed clams for my birthday – served in the same clam shells that we had saved from the early 1970’s when we caught them.

I’m not sure I could kill a flounder, crab or clam today, but my memories of going out with my grandmother are so rich in my memory that I think I could probably feel her with me as I would walk out onto one of those sandbars. I probably could make myself some stuffed clams….

Marc Boucher

Golf Balls at Good Hope

My brothers used to gather dozens upon dozens of golf balls in the Milwaukee River. The river ran right behind our house and we were about half a mile down river from the Milwaukee Country Club golf course. What were we going to do with all these golf balls? None of us golfed, so it seemed we had two choices. 1) take the best ones and clean them up and sell them 2) hit them with baseball bats.
My brothers did indeed take many of the balls and clean them up to sell. They sat by the entrance to the private country club and sold them by the dozen. Since they had no investment in it except time, any proceeds they gained were all profit. Not being a natural business person, I chose to exclude myself from the commercial part of the golf ball adventures.

That brings us to the second option. If you have never hit a golf ball with an aluminum baseball bat, you are missing out on a great feeling. Every once in a while we would stand in the middle of the street and hit one all the way down, hoping it would stay straight enough that it wouldn’t veer off and break a window, or that a car would turn onto the street and suddenly get assaulted by a flying ball. Luckily we never broke anything as far as I knew.

More often we would take a bucket of balls up to the grade school that we all had attended, Good Hope School. Behind the school there was a playground and then three softball fields. Golf balls go a LONG way when hit by a bat, so my brothers would try to hit balls from the edge of the pavement all the way over the softball fields and eventually over the fence that enclosed the entire playground. On the other side of the fence there was a steep cliff that dropped probably 25 feet down to a parking lot for a dentist’s office, and then right beyond that was Green Bay Ave which was a high traffic street. If a ball did make it over the fence it could have hit a car, or person and bounced right into traffic. However, we wouldn’t have known since you could not see anything beyond the fence. We seemed to be in our own beautiful pastoral world of nothing but green grass.

I was never powerful enough to reach the threshold of the ‘home run fence’ but every once in a while my brothers could. I think we liked to imagine that the balls just landed in the hill, which is probably what happened, but then again, who knows. My brothers were not the kind to want to intentionally cause harm to anyone, yet this is the closest they probably ever came to it. The feel of the ball flying off that bat was just that exciting – it seemed to be worth it.

After hitting all the balls, we’d walk out in the field and try to collect as many as we could, but we usually lost over half the balls – we didn’t care – there were so many more where they came from. When I find golf balls today I always save them with the intention of taking them out to Pirate’s Cove with my wife and son and hitting them as far into the Upper Saint Mary’s as we can. They key is you need to get out of the way of the person swinging the bat!

Marc Boucher

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