When the rest of us are trying to figure out what to do with the leftovers from Thanksgiving dinner, the MacDonald family of South Pugwash is beginning the huge task of decorating their property for their annual Christmas toy drive.
“It takes weeks to do all this,” Terry MacDonald says with a wave towards his front yard.
According to Terry, he got his love of lights from his father while growing up in Wentworth. when he got together with his wife, Teresa, “We didn’t do a lot at first but we kept getting bigger. My dad would give me an extra set of lights or two.”
The scale of their decorating changed once they moved to a smaller property on Route Six east of Pugwash.
“Once we started here, we had kids asking us if we lived in Santa’s workshop,” Teresa says of their 30,000 lights extravaganza. “As the years went by, with doing our lights, we had so much traffic and kids in the yard, Terry said he’d like to do something where we get toys for kids. We started that about eight years ago and it’s grown every year. Last year, obviously, was one of our biggest years and this year is down from that but that doesn’t matter as long as there are toys.”
They couldn’t resist the inflatables when they came on the market and they now have 28 which don’t fit in the yard all at the same time.
Early on, Terry says, someone suggested he take donations to cover his costs.
“I said, better than that, why don’t I take donations to give to children?”
So he set up a large box at the edge of their driveway to accept donations of toys.
“We put the box out about five years ago. Before that, the toy donations were mostly from us and the family and friends of the kids.”
|Alisha (MacDonald) Reade and her daughter Emma.|
Every inch of their front yard, home and gazebo are covered with Christmas decorations but for Terry and Teresa, two inflatables are extra-special.
“One is a helicopter which we as a family bought Terry and the other is an airplane that Adrian bought his father,” says Teresa.
It was thanks to their two children, Adrian, and his older sister Alisha (Reade), that Terry and Teresa have not missed a year with their display.
In 2012, Terry and Teresa went to northern Ontario to work. Instead of coming home for Christmas, and to put up the lights, they’d decided to wait and return home in mid-January for the birth of Alisha’s second child.
But that Christmas, Adrian and a very pregnant Alisha thought of the children who benefit from the toy donations so they assembled as many of their father’s displays as they could handle.
“Adrian took pictures on his phone and sent them to us to show what they’d done,” says Terry. “I asked if they did my archways and he said, ‘Dad, I’ll put lights out but I can’t do all you do’.”
The family was together for the birth of Alisha’s daughter, Anna, on January 17, with no knowlegde it would be their last celebration as a whole family.
On January 30, 2013, the day after Terry and Teresa returned to Ontario, Adrian was killed in a traffic accident.
He had pulled over on Route 6 in Linden to help another motorist caught by icy roads when another vehicle lost control on the slippery asphalt and hit him.
In that moment, everything changed for the family.
Now, Teresa says, “It’s bittersweet every time we put up the lights.”
“I built a lot of the decorations myself,” Terry says, “and Adrian was always sitting with me and helping me make the reindeer and get them tied up on the house so it didn’t seem right to be out there without him,” he admits. “That’s when we sat back and thought about what he did when we were gone.”
For them, it’s about the legacy of their son’s life: Helping others.
“When your 21-year-old son and 24-year-old daughter can take it all upon themselves to continue the tradition, how could we not?” says Teresa. “How could we not do it when the kids were always so proud of what we did? They were always into helping us. And Adrian gave his life. He stopped to help strangers. There were eight or ten people there that day and he’s the one who was killed.”
Although keeping the display going doesn’t heal their grief at all, it does allow the family to focus on their belief that Adrian would want them to carry on this tradition no matter how hard it is to carry on without him.
“People think we have to get over it,” Teresa says. “It’s very hard. We try to put on a good front for people but as soon as we walk back inside our house, our real faces are back on.”
Consider for a moment what else is going on here. This couple, working away in northern Ontario when their son was killed because they were struggling financially here, have covered their small property in Christmas lights and inflatables for nearly a decade.
Teresa has not yet returned to work, her grief deep and abiding, the reason for the loss of their son inexplicable, his absence inescapable.
Yet they don’t complain; there is not one mention from them about the cost of the lights.
Terry would put up more lights if he had more time, more room and less heartache.
Aside from the circumstances surrounding Adrian’s death, what truly upsets Teresa is listening to other people complain about the cost of Christmas gifts.
“I get so angry when people go on about their kids and having to buy for them,” she says as the second Christmas without her son approaches. “You know what, I get to put a tree on a grave. People say ‘My child wants this, my child wants that’. I’d buy him the world, I’d buy both of my kids the world but I can’t. I got to buy a headstone and a hole in the ground. People just don’t get it.”
After our conversation, the family was heading to the cemetery to place a Christmas tree on their son and brother’s grave. Adrian’s six-year-old niece, Emma, made salt dough ornaments to hang on the tree.
But even the dread she feels about that unwanted outing doesn’t distract Teresa from the MacDonald family’s Christmas mission.
“I just want everyone to know how appreciative we are. We couldn’t do this without the support of our community,” she says. “We put up lights and give a few toys but we couldn’t do what we do without everyone else. Strangers come, our community helps, our families help, our friends help. All we do is ask them to do it. We put up a Facebook page and let people know the lights are going up, bring a toy, have some hot chocolate. Like I said, last year was bigger than this year but that’s okay; we’re still going to help out a lot of kids. That’s the whole point of it," Teresa adds.
"And if people want to call it the Adrian MacDonald Toy Drive, they certainly can because at least his name is not forgotten.”