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Have you lost your Christmas Gifts?

I grew up working on a farm.  From 11 or 12 until the age of 21, Cedar Valley Farm was a center of gravity for me.  Every summer and most days after school you’d find me making the five-mile trek from town to the end of The Happy Corner Road.  I still marvel that I grew up in a place with a road called Happy Corner.

In spring there was fencing.  In summer there was haying.  Fall was firewood, but then there was winter. Winter on a dairy farm in Northern Maine is expectedly cold and difficult yet it was somehow so much more.

Cedar Valley was a second generation homesteaded farm owned by Robert and Louise Guptill.  My childhood memories of the Guptill house go well beyond my years working for Robert, but much of my character was shaped in those tractors and barns.

I’d started working for them as a boy when Louise decided “we kids were more useful in a hay field than any man she could find in town.” The summer job throwing bales became a fall job shoveling out calf stalls.  Then came winter chores and weekend help.  I loved it all but there was something about Christmas on the farm.

Robert, the quintessential New England farmer, was hard working, fit as an athlete, and appropriately introverted.  But below the surface, he was deep as the ocean with a unique value of moments.  He seemed to understand that experiences mattered even if they were fleeting.

Around the end of November, before any significant snow fell, we’d set off to cut down a tree from the back 40 acres.  It would usually be a tree Robert would have noticed in the spring during fencing and had eyeballed for Christmas harvest.  Over the years he took to trimming a couple of trees to get them ready like a tree farmer.  I always marveled at the advanced thinking of farmers and their understanding of seasons.

At one point we would cut down 5 trees.  One for inside the Guptil house, one for the yard, one for grammy Lilian who lived in the old farmhouse, a small one for aunt Edna who lived over grammy Lillian and then there was the one for the lawn in front of the barn.  The barn tree was my favorite.

It was usually a spruce or fir tree anchored in the lawn or snow bank depending on how early it got put up.  There were no ornaments that I remember, but it had these glorious Charlie Brown lights.  Sunset in Maine in December is close to 3:30 in the afternoon which meant that it was dark as night by the time we finished milking chores at 5:30.  Shutting down all the equipment and machines as we left the barn I can still see in my memory the diffused lights of the tree through ice coated single pane glass windows of the milk house.  Driving away from the barn, the pitch-black of the countryside night would be illuminated by this simple tree that you could see for miles.

After trees, we had to cut boughs for the church ladies and their wreath-making party.  Robert even designed this wooden stake “thing” to hold the boughs as we tromped through the woods with our cuttings.  It was added work to an already non-stop farming workload but he seemed to relish it.

The decorations draped the house but the food inside was the real draw.  Louise would make homemade butter-cream candy.  Some years I’d take a Saturday off and spend the afternoon rolling and dipping chocolates for hours just laughing and telling stories with Louise.  She’d make scotcheroos, caramel corn, fudge, sweet bread, and Grammy Lillian’s Christmas Tree Cake.

There was always so much to do on the farm but at Christmas, it doubled joyously.  Few memories are as satisfying to me as the sound of the John Deere 4030 tractor grinding to a stop in the shop yard and Robert waving me up into the one seated tractor cab to sit on the armrest while he drove us about the day’s chores.  Steps to shovel, hay to feed, water pipes to be thawed…and singing.

Robert was determined that we know the old Christmas songs, “No place like home for the holidays” stands out to me. I can still hear him singing, “I met a man who lived in Tennessee and he was headed for…Pennsylvania and some homemade pumpkin pie…”  I was recruited young to our little church choir, Robert would have Lana plunk our tenor part out on piano and record it on the little black tape recorder.  He and I would listen on the tractor tape deck and sing along for practice to get ready for the ever looming Christmas cantata.

And of course, there was the Christmas Caroling.  Robert and Louise were the unofficial hosts.  Everyone would gather at the church and we’d pile into vans and cars.  Seniors to teens to kids, we’d squish in together and take to the dark icy roads.

Caroling became life lessons for us kids as well.  People who you’d sing with one year could be someone sick and homebound the next.  We’d go to the nursing homes, senior living village (which we, unfortunately, called wrinkle city) and anyone out in the countryside someone thought needed some love.  My first understanding of the pains of cancer came from a time singing carols as a kid in the humblest of homes to a sweet woman named Helen Lynch.  Too sick to get up, I remember crowding in the hallway and in around her bed.  And as some of the adults kissed her now bald head and said what would be their good-byes, I somehow knew this was more than just singing.  It wasn’t just fun, it wasn’t just laughter, it was an experience that could give life.  And we were lively.

As teenagers we still loved it and I can still see us all playing around as we walked house to house.  We had a pretty limited song catalog but would all laugh together as the night drew longer and “We wish you a Merry Christmas” came sooner and sooner.  After a while, you knew each song delayed Louise’s homemade eggnog and all that was waiting for us down Happy Corner Road.

One of my last memories of the farm was a year home from College when I told Robert I wanted to come in and help with milking on Christmas morning.  There’s an old story of barn animals kneeling at midnight on Christmas Eve to honor baby Jesus and I told him I wanted to see the cows kneel.  Honestly, I just wanted to be with him.  I wanted to experience the black early morning, before the world was awake, carry the milk, sing the songs, listen to the country Christmas music on the parlor radio. It was a treasured time for me.

I’ve thought over the years about what I’ve learned on the farm and wondered if as the world changes, were the things that were good lost.  But they aren’t.  What the Guptills and the farm gave me can never be lost because they aren’t things.  I was given confidence, joy, hard work, sacrifice, grace, love and challenges too.  You see, my farmer friend from the Happy Corner Road understood then what a world is desperately trying to learn today.  Spend your life on experiences, not stuff.  Give moments.  Give time.  Give attention.  Give love.  It was all given to me, and none of it has been lost.

Merry Christmas!

Michael D.

  • totosmom53@hotmail.com

    Well written Michael D.

  • Tammy Rogers

    Thank you Michael D. Robert Guptill is my uncle (my mother’s brother) And Lillian was my Gram. I love that farm…..I have MANY wonderful memories.

    Tammy Rogers

    • michael@thedauphineegroup.com

      Thanks Tammy. I remember you and the family. Thanks for commenting. Merry Christmas.

  • morningstat1007@hotmail.com

    Beautifully written. Michael! And so true of the Fulfill family! Many memories resurfaced!

  • Robyn Carnes

    Michael,

    What a beautiful post! It brings back so many memories of the farm I grew up on in Iowa. And a great reminder that I WILL be sending my boys back there every summer for a good chunk of time. Merry Christmas!

    • michael@thedauphineegroup.com

      Great to hear from you, Robyn. There is something about a farm education. Merry Christmas!

  • Betti Jo Bates Michaud

    This is beautiful Michael. I grew up in town and knew Louise and all her family. I didn’t have farm memories but otherwise wonderful ones growing up in our small town of Patten. I miss Noni’s (Louise’s Mom) fudge and all the great Christmas memories we all, as a community, made over the years.

  • Chris Niedbala

    What a great read this Christmas Eve morning. A reminder of the reason for every season.

    • michael@thedauphineegroup.com

      Thanks Chris. Merry Christmas.

  • cyrbecky@yahoo.com

    Beautiful! My husband and family grew up in Patten, Maine. I love going up there in the summer to visit … we try to be there for Patten days. God bless!

    • michael@thedauphineegroup.com

      Merry Christmas Becky. Patten has a special place in my heart was well.

  • aebgarner@ec.rr.com

    Michael, what a wonderful story about my cousin Robert and Louise. I was home this summer for the first time in 20yrs and he is still the same person he was back than and what a wonderful ccook Louise is. Thank You

  • gonepostal@fairpoint.net

    Awesome Michael D. 😀 You definitely have a gift with words !! So many memories of the farm I grew up on, were stirred with your story. Not just farm memories, but the Christmas "gatherings", carol singing, etc. So sad that no one comes around singing any more !! I think that every person (child or not) should have the wonderful opportunity to live at least part of their life on a farm !! 😀

    • michael@thedauphineegroup.com

      We were blessed in our own way. Thanks for commenting Naomi. Merry Christmas.

  • Deb Porter

    Thank you Michael, it was like a look back at my grand parents farm for me as a child. I of course love the Guptils and glad you had this wonderful Christmas experience. Merry Christmas to you.

    • michael@thedauphineegroup.com

      Merry Christmas Deb. It’s important to remember.

  • Yvette Funderburk

    What a wonderful story and as I sat here in my home in Alabama I was taken back to my home town, Patten. I love to visit my cousin Louise and her husband Robert when I come home and what a blessed young man you were indeed to experience "life on the Guptil farm." Precious people and I think it was their influence that helped to shape you into the person you are today. Thank you for sharing you story on this beautiful Christmas Eve. Marilyn Guptil was my friend and classmate. God bless you and Merry Christmas!

    • michael@thedauphineegroup.com

      Thanks Yvette. Merry Christmas!

  • Sue Guptill Ouellette

    Michael, you nailed the Guptill Christmas tradition. You were blessed beyond measure to live that " old fashion" Christmas era. It made me homesick for those days and warmed me as well. Now you need to recall the crazy times on the farm like driving, was it 8 in spikes, pulling the old bunker silo together? Putting gas in the diesel tractor or was it diesel in the gas tractor will never be forgotten along with " be careful on the east side of the field where Laurie got struck with the truck". Laurie seemed to get stuck with the loaded truck in every field!! Lol There are those times when God spared our earthly lives too and makes us shudder to think about it. Hope your Christmas is special for you, Michael. Thanks for the blessing!

  • Elsie

    Hi Mike, Lana found this for us Christmas Day-a beautiful tribute to Robert and Louise-and an inspired depiction of life as we have experienced it. Life not in the ‘abundance of things we possess’ rather in experiences with simple living surrounded by love of family and friends God has blessed us with. You have done well-we are proud to say we knew you-back when you were 1 and man of few words! Have a blessed 2017. Dana and Elsie