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The Essence of an American Christmas


Dr. Richard Withington, from Round Island, sends this letter to his friends and family… Enjoy.

Dear Island Neighbors,

It is Christmas Eve, and as is my custom, I want to bring you all greetings from Round island. For those of you who have never spent a Christmas Eve here, I'll try to describe it.

I was away for a few days skiing with Marcy and the girls. Came back today, which enhances the impressions. Two things hit you. It is silent and it is dark.

By silent, I don't mean quiet. Quiet is like a library, there is background noise. Silent is when there isn't any noise at all. If you listen carefully, you only hear your own heartbeat or the blood passing through your ears.

If in fact you do hear a noise, and you didn't cause it, then it is either a cause for interest (What made that noise), or concern (Is that something bad starting to happen?)

It is a little eerie at first, then it is delightful. Those who live in urban areas may never experience it. ,,,, Then there is the darkness.

Now this is not absolute, but there is no moon, and the sky is clear. You can see a million stars and several planets. Occasionally a plane passes over about 7 miles high. I look at the direction and try to guess the origin and destination of the flight.

Absolute darkness occurs in a cave; the island is not quite that dark but to walk the paths on a night like this you look up not down, and watch the outline of the treetops against the sky. If you are on a first-name basis with the trees, you can follow the trails without looking down.

Obviously, your feet are also part of the input system. The summer I spent living in the Adirondacks, I learned to follow a foot path by the feel of the ground through your moccasins. It's a skill I never expected to use, but it helps here at night.

So OK, now we add a tiny cottage, a nice fire in the wood stove, some Christmas lights and decorations, and some Christmas music,(which incidentally, is getting hard to find these days). The cats are rough-housing upstairs, and Tug is finally asleep on the porch dog bed.

 The evening has been punctuated by some calls from love ones and friends. The one that stood out came as I was preparing supper. I was preparing a favorite omelet, and being a bit of a back woodsman, I decided to flip the omelet in the air and catch it in the frying pan. Usually this goes OK, but this time the omelet had not set quite enough. You guessed it; about a third of it missed the pan on the way down and landed on the cooking surface, creating a nasty mess and smell.

Just then the phone rang and it was my old buddy, Skip Rawson, (old, because he's a little older than I). It was great to hear from him and share Christmas greetings. We hadn't talked in a long time.......I guess that is part of the magic of the season. Good excuse to have a chat.

Now comes the good part - Some of you will recall that I attended the Grindstone Island Christmas service last year, and I was very impressed with the beauty and purity of the old-time spirit. I felt that I had really experienced Christmas in its most basic form.

This year I was invited again, but I feared that I would not be back from Quebec in time. .I knew the barge (ferry) was leaving at noon for the afternoon service.  I hurried to get away from the hotel early, and crossed into the US through the Native American reservation on Cornwall Island to save time. At 11:45 I called Junior and told him I couldn't make it as I was still only in Ogdensburg. He said the service started at 1PM.

I was at Bari's at 12:40 and jumped in the boat without bothering with luggage.

· First glitch: the boys had thrown locking hitches on the dock lines.......NEVER a locking hitch after November 1!!. It took a while, but a long strong boat brush handle conquered the dock lines just before the knife was called for.

· Next stop, Round Island to pick up my bicycle. I knew everyone on Grindstone would already be at the church, so the bike seemed the most likely solution.

· Glitch #2. Flat tire.

· Glitch # 3 The nozzle had been removed from the compressor and dismantled. Notice how the glitches are getting closer together? No problem. I have an old hand pump for just such an occasion.

· Glitch #4 - The hose fitting wouldn't latch on.So I held it with one hand and pumped with the other. Slow process, but it worked.

Bike in boat, and off to Grindstone. Arrived at 1PM. Now all I have to do is peddle myself across the island. (Did I mention the temperature?  Mount Tremblant was well below zero, Grindstone about 4 above.) Road was well-sanded (dirt road) but going down the first hill I discovered that the shady areas were snow covered (I don't have chains for the bicycle wheels).

Believe it or not, I got there, having just missed the first part of the service. Now, it's a wonder that the church doesn't fall on the head of a straight-laced Catholic there. I love the informality of the occasion. The pastor is long gone, so the folks run their own service.

The church was beautifully decorated with pine boughs and candles. Gracie, Junior Brown's great-granddaughter sang a solo carol accompanied by her grandmother on the piano. Folks stood and spoke of their island traditions, and memories of past services.

A young lady,  Hannah Connolly, daughter of John & Rebecca Lashomb Connolly, read an essay from her college application. It was better than most college graduates and some English teachers could do. I was very impressed. 

After the service we were greeted by a band dressed in large hats and long duster-type coats playing Christmas music in front of the row of mailboxes, which had been decorated with tinsel.

One of the instruments was Leon Rusho's violin, and another was Bob Ada's gut bucket, played by his daughter, Patsy Parker. The usual food and drink followed, and I rode back across the island. Fortunately, the wind was calm and the sun was out. I left feeling again, like I'd really experienced the essence of an American Christmas.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a "sleep tight".

Dick

Dr. Richard (Dick) L.  Withington is a retired Orthopaedic Surgeon, living out a childhood dream spending his fourth consecutive winter alone at the head of Round  Island. His wife Roseanne heads to Florida when "Rivercroft" is closed in October and Dick moves into the former servants' quarters, "Wintercroft".     Dr. Withington has an airboat which he keeps at  his own dock in winter ready to help. The Sheriff's office will call him directly if and when there is a problem.  His first article for TI Life, A Winter Islander, was published in January 2009. To see all of Dick’s island experiences search TI Life under Richard L. Withington. 

Note:  Lisa Daly provided the photographs below.  She explained “ A service was held in the Church, followed by two song performances by the band outside the hall, a luncheon and three more songs by the band inside Dodge Memorial Hall.  Brenda Patch and her sister Linda Brown put the whole program together and what a wonderful job they did !!”

Lisa identified those in the photograph in front of the fireplace from left to right:  Don Lingenfelter, Patsy Bazinet Parker, Ernest (Zeke) Brown, Jr, Lisa Daly, Laura Brown (back) Grace Waignwright (front) Madgel Brown (mother & mother-in-law of Don, Zeke, Lisa & Laura and Grace's great grandmother) - Madgel is a life long year round resident of Grindstone.   Patsy is also one of a few year round residence left on the island.

  • Grindstone gang. Photo identification above.  Photo courtesy Lisa Daly

    Grindstone gang. Photo identification above. Photo courtesy Lisa Daly

  • Grindstone Island Church on Christmas Day, 2012. Photo coutersy Lisa Daly

    Grindstone Island Church on Christmas Day, 2012. Photo coutersy Lisa Daly

  • Much work goes into decorating which is appreciated by all. Photo courtesy Lisa Daly

    Much work goes into decorating which is appreciated by all. Photo courtesy Lisa Daly

  • Decorated and ready for the special day.  Photo courtesy Lisa Daly

    Decorated and ready for the special day. Photo courtesy Lisa Daly

  • Dodge Memorial Center  Photo courtesy Lisa Daly

    Dodge Memorial Center Photo courtesy Lisa Daly

  • Grace Waingwright & Great Aunt Linda Brown. Photo courtesy Lisa Daly

    Grace Waingwright & Great Aunt Linda Brown. Photo courtesy Lisa Daly

  • Don Lingenfelter & Ernest (Zeke) Brown Jr. photo courtesy Lisa Daly

    Don Lingenfelter & Ernest (Zeke) Brown Jr. photo courtesy Lisa Daly

  • Don, Patsy, Zeke, Laura & Lisa. Photo courtesy Lisa Daly

    Don, Patsy, Zeke, Laura & Lisa. Photo courtesy Lisa Daly

  • Lisa, Patsy & Zeke entertain the guests. Photo coutresy Lisa Daly

    Lisa, Patsy & Zeke entertain the guests. Photo coutresy Lisa Daly

  • Friends and family on Grindstone make Christmas special. Photo courtesy  Lisa Daly

    Friends and family on Grindstone make Christmas special. Photo courtesy Lisa Daly

 

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Comments

Jan Arno
Comment by: Jan Arno ( )
Left at: 1:18 AM Sunday, January 15, 2012
Another great article.So descriptive.Some of us forget that these type of programs still exist.Thanks Dr. Withington for insight to your island adventures.
Ken Larson
Comment by: Ken Larson ( )
Left at: 12:29 PM Sunday, January 15, 2012
Thanks, Doc,
Almost as good as being there. It helps to hear of the places and see the faces. Is there no end to Patsy's talent? Caroline and I send our love to all of you on the River; hoping for the best in the New Year. See you in April.

Ken
Skip Tolette
Comment by: Skip Tolette ( )
Left at: 12:44 PM Sunday, January 15, 2012
Great article, great service, great people--wish we had been there--Thanks, Joan & Skip T.
Tom Davison
Comment by: Tom Davison ( )
Left at: 1:34 PM Sunday, January 15, 2012
Thanks for your thoughts, Doc Great article! Thanks to all who keep the Christmas spirit going at the Grindstone Church. Tom
Lee Ann LaVanchard
Comment by: Lee Ann LaVanchard ( )
Left at: 7:43 PM Sunday, January 15, 2012
I love this article. The thought that this kind of old fashioned Christmas service still exists is heartwarming. Thanks Doc.
Rex Ennis
Comment by: Rex Ennis ( )
Left at: 9:27 PM Sunday, January 15, 2012
This is Christmas service warms my heart, I wish only I had been there to offer a blessing. So has Tiny Tim observed "God bless us, everyone."
Rita Mecomonaco Phillipson`
Comment by: Rita Mecomonaco Phillipson` ( )
Left at: 12:40 AM Monday, January 16, 2012
I do enjoy reading Dr. Withington's articles. His Dad was our family doctor back in the 40's! Dating myself!
We have a place on Pillar Point in Dexter and I can't imagine spending the winter there! More power to you Doctor -you must be very happy doing what you want to do - minus your wife! We are in Florida also for the winter and will be thinking of you during your adventure.
Art Couch
Comment by: Art Couch ( )
Left at: 11:15 AM Friday, January 20, 2012
A beautiful article, it made me feel like I was there. Great work Doc.
Jerry McHenry
Comment by: Jerry McHenry ( )
Left at: 10:47 AM Wednesday, August 15, 2012
I just found this wonderful article written by my friend Dick. He is one of a kind.....I've never known anyone that is so gifted and can do so much.
Of any chosen field, Dick would be the very best. Roseanne is blessed to have Dick there by her side until she heads to Florida.
We had many wonderful times with their family while living on Watch Island. We finally sold the island after being in the family for 90 years, but the Withingtons will always be in our hearts. Jerry and Molly McHenry
Jerry McHenry
Comment by: Jerry McHenry ( )
Left at: 1:33 PM Wednesday, August 15, 2012
Molly and I have known Dick and Roseanne for many years while living on Watch Island. Dick help with our daughter Hilary's broken leg many years ago.

Dick is really very special to all who live in the North Country.

I now live in Houston, but do hear from him now and then.
Dick and Roseanne please take care of yourselves and we'll catch up with you before next Christmas. OOPS! Hilary just called and sends love to your family.

Jerry

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