A truck driver's Christmas gift nobody saw coming

Barry's Bay -- Certainly, it isn't an ordinary Christmas story. In fact, it's a very private story about a young couple, brimming with the true meaning of Christmas. Still, it's a truly remarkable local love story.

It happened Christmas Eve, 1988 and it happened to Sue Klatt, the Chief Administrative Officer of the Township of Madawaska Valley. Only, back then, she wasn't the municipality's much-respected CAO. She was a young mother, living in Madawaska with her husband, Bart, a truck driver, and their two boys, Dan and Mike, aged three and five.

Sue was helping to make ends meet by working at St. Martin's Catholic School in Madawaska and it was coming up on Christmas. She was determined to stay home that year instead of traipsing off in possible bad weather, perhaps having to dangerously shuttle her family back and forth between her parent's home in St. Charles and Bart's family in Palmer Rapids. Instead, she just wanted to start her own Christmas tradition in Madawaska.

"So, on Christmas Eve," she said recently of that 1988 effort, "we went to an early mass at St. Matthew's with Father Afelskie. And I had gotten some games ready for the boys after mass."

Sue also cooked a traditional meat pie but after mass nobody seemed hungry or interested in playing games for very long.

"So, instead, we read the Christmas story and then my dad called, wishing us a Merry Christmas. I cried and he cried. And I tried to tell him we were all grown-ups now and we were staying home for Christmas, and I told him about all the fun stuff we were doing."

It was only a little after 10 o'clock but Christmas already seemed doomed; her bright hope of starting a new tradition had not really gotten off the ground. She said that's when Bart started packing up all the Christmas presents.

Incredulous, Sue asked, "What are you doing?"

''This is ridiculous!" Bart said with a big smile. "I know what you've been trying to do. We're going to St. Charles!"

"No! No! No!" Sue protested. "At least, let me think about it!"

Prior to her marriage, Sue Klatt had grown up as Sue Bedard, the daughter of Maurice and Jeannette Bedard, who had a home in the largely French-Canadian village of St. Charles. It had a population about the size of Barry’s Bay and it was only a stone's throw from Sudbury where Sue's father worked in the mines. The language spoken at home was solidly French-Canadian, and so Sue had been brought up on all those Christmas traditions known to francophones all across Canada

For the Bedards, Christmas was a three-day fête, starting about four in the afternoon Christmas Eve, as dozens of neighbours, friends and relatives -- some expected, many not -- all converged on the Bedard household. Everyone opened presents or pitched in preparing the Réveillon, or 'long dinner' -- essentially, two meals in one, and lasting 12 hours; the first one served early Christmas Eve, usually long before midnight mass, and the second one ending long after midnight mass.

The long dinner usually ended about four or five Christmas morning and included a tourtière, a meat pie that in the Bedard household was made with equal portions of moose, pork and beef, and with lots of cinnamon. That dinner also included French-Canadian ragoùt, a dish made with pig's knuckles and a thick and savory brown-flour gravy and moose meatballs.

The long dinner also featured a wide variety of abundant desserts -- including Jeanette Bedard's much-sought-after 'tomato soup' Christmas cake.' It was part of an endless supply of sugary between-meal-snacks needed to fuel 12 hours of live fiddle music, card-playing, games of all sorts, and endless conversations with those friends, relatives and neighbours who were expected to come and go as they pleased. At some point, the long dinner also included a command performance from Sue's Aunt Mickie, a yodelling aficionado of some renown.

Only after the Réveillon had ended, did everyone sleep well into Christmas Day before they all awoke again just in time for The Big Turkey Dinner that included Jeannette Bedard's very unique Christmas dressing, made with mashed potatoes, crackers, ground giblets, secret spices, but only one egg. It was baked separately from the turkey and was only served on Christmas Day.

On the third day, Boxing Day, everyone was treated to whatever left-overs remained in the Bedard household from their previous Réveillon and the Big Turkey dinners.

That three-day fête was what Bart assumed Sue single-handedly was trying to recreate for their family that Christmas Eve. Having hailed from Palmer Rapids, he had grown up with his own, quite different German Christmas traditions. Still, he loved his wife, and he knew she secretly longed for the joy of those three-day fête's of her childhood. He had watched carefully as she had gotten out her mother's recipes and baked something intended to pass for Jeanette's famous tourtièr and then prepared some other make-shift ingredients for the long dinner.

But Sue's dream just wasn't working out and so Bart knew his wife well enough to know she was profoundly disappointed. That's when a light went on and he looked at Sue and started to smile.

"No! No! No!" she had yelled.

But she also said she'd think about it. In her wordless silence that followed, she frantically ran around filling suitcases. He smiled again, realizing she didn't have to say another word. Her actions spoke louder than words.

"At first, I was ecstatic," Sue said as she remembered the moment she silently accepted Bart's offer to drive to St. Charles in the middle of that night. "But as we drove those four or five hours, I kept thinking, 'This is ridiculous!' I'm being selfish. Because I'm only thinking of me. We didn't call ahead; we'll just show up. I knew it wasn't my idea."

So, if you happened to be in Madawaska late Christmas Eve 1988 and around 11 o'clock, if you headed to midnight mass maybe a bit early to catch the church choir belt out a few classic Christmas carols, you also might have seen a set of red taillights flying by as the Klatt family vehicle shot past St. Martin's and St. Matthews like Santa's reindeer. They took off into the night, on into Whitney, and on through Algonquin Park, like Donner and Blitzen, until sometime after 3 a.m. their car pulled up to that Bedard family home in St. Charles.

And it may have been in the middle of the night everywhere else in Ontario, but as every French-Canadian knows, that three-day Bedard Christmas bash was just getting underway as sure as Aunt Mickie was just beginning to yodel her heart out. And outside in the driveway stood Sue Klatt with the biggest smile she'd ever known, not only because she was home for Christmas but because, like the wife in O. Henry's Gift of the Magi, she knew she had one heck of a husband.

His wild and crazy gift of driving her to her childhood home in the middle of the night was a Christmas gift she will never be able forget.

"I came to the realization," she said, thinking again about the madness of that four and a half-hour drive, "that I didn't have to make my own Christmas tradition just yet, because I already had a good one in St. Charles."

Barry Conway, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader