ALBURGH — There are some holidays you just never forget and some traditions you never give up.
For Rachel May-Whitebear, an Alburgh resident, the Christmas of 1962 is particularly memorable.
“I believe it was the day before Christmas Eve,” May-Whitebear said in an interview Tuesday. She remembers walking the mile home from her Catholic school in St. Johnsbury to find an ambulance in her dooryard and her mother being placed inside.
Her mother – Lorraine Warner – as it turned out, was pregnant, unbeknownst to then 8-year-old May-Whitebear. “They didn’t talk much about pregnancies back then,” she said.
Warner was experiencing complications, though she was still three months from her due date.
On Christmas Eve, May-Whitebear and her three siblings went to their grandmother’s home across the street while their father, Larry Warner, visited Lorraine in the hospital.
They ate Tourtierre – “tour of the world,” or pork pie – and each opened one gift. “She would give us a hand-made gift,” said May-Whitebear.
Her father then came home. “Dad asked us when we got home whether we wanted to have our Christmas tree in the morning or [if] we wanted to wait for mom,” said May-Whitebear. “We all chimed in, we’d wait for mom.”
She added of her father, who believed their mother would come home the next day, “Dad was always hopeful.”
Days, weeks and months passed. “We all took turns watering that poor tree,” said May-Whitebear. “It was the saddest looking thing. But we were proud of it.”
“Everything was under the tree, waiting for her,” she added. “It was a sad time because we were worried about her and the baby, but at the same time there was excitement because we were keeping this big secret. We couldn’t wait for her to see.”
“It turned out we waited until March. It must have been the ninth,” said May-Whitebear, remembering her brother Dickey being born on March 7, 1963.
When Lorraine finally came home, May-Whitebear said her mother got the greatest surprise. “It was amazing to see her face when she walked through the door. She cried of course.”
Lorraine was also bearing a tiny bundle, May-Whitebear’s brother.
“We were all so proud and happy,” she said, smiling.
When May-Whitebear and her siblings finally welcomed their mother home, they also finally opened their long-awaited present. “Back then we all just got one thing,” she said. “We had one thing we really wanted. For me, it was ice skates, because I grew out of them.”
Sure enough, her wish was fulfilled. “I’d sit down and make pom-poms for the toes. That was a big deal,” she remembered.
Looking back, May-Whitebear is grateful for waiting all those months for the simple joy of seeing her mother walk through the door, surprised and happy to see the tree and have a late family Christmas.
“It was the best lesson I think a kid could have,” she said. “Knowing that we were sacrificing something for our mother.”
Tourtierre & traditions
With her lit Christmas tree sitting nearby in her Alburgh home, May-Whitebear said there are some traditions that always come with the holidays.
“The simple life – the traditions – were always the same every year,” she said.
Something that makes Christmas complete for May-Whitebear and her family is tourtierre – the dish her grandmother and many prior French-Canadian ancestors made.
“I still make tourtierre every year,” said May-Whitebear (see recipe). Her son, Nathan told her this year he didn’t care what was for Christmas dinner as long as there was tourtierre.
“He told his children how important it is to have tourtierre,” she said. “That’s a thread that has been kept in our family blanket.”
Another, sadder tradition for May-Whitebear is the poignancy of the holiday season – on Dec. 1, 1984, when her mother died in a car accident.
“We lost mom when she was 50 years old,” said May-Whitebear. “The first snow.”
She explained that her mother was driving to Danville to deliver clothing to a family that had lost its home in a fire, something Lorraine was doing through their Catholic church.
“She did everything for the church,” said May-Whitebear.
When Lorraine went into a sharp corner, she waved to a neighbor, and lost control of the new car she wasn’t used to driving. She died instantly in the crash.
When May-Whitebear received the news, she immediately thought of a request her mother had made some time ago – that when she died, Lorraine received her last rites as a Catholic.
Worried that hadn’t happen, May-Whitebear called the priest who was traveling with Lorraine to Danville but in the car behind. “I had all this stuff going on [gathering my family], but I managed to call that priest who saw the whole accident,” she said.
As it turned out, that priest, as well as a Jesuit priest who happened to be Lorraine’s best friend growing up – Father Broder – were nearby and gave Lorraine her last rites.
“Can you imagine?” said May-Whitebear. “What a gift.”
May-Whitebear has continued her mother’s commitment to the community by working as a nurse for many years, comforting and helping people in times of physical need. In addition, she has embraced her mother’s dedication to spirituality, though in a slightly different fashion.
“I do lots of spiritual work – I’ve gone to my Native American roots,” said May-Whitebear. She is Abenaki, and has become a spiritual elder. In addition to being a resource for local people looking to embrace their Native American heritage, she also runs a 24/7 hotline for anyone – Native or not – in crisis.
“It’s the Abenaki spiritual hotline,” said May-Whitebear. “There should be somebody out there if someone’s feeling like they need to talk.”