BRATTLEBORO -- Last year, when Deirdre Baker announced that she was going to stop organizing the annual Charlie Slate Christmas Breakfast after eight years, Judy Flynn agreed right away to taking it on this year with her family.
Flynn's father, Charlie Slate, founded what has become an annual tradition when he decided in 1981 to serve a free breakfast to anyone who came by on Christmas morning. The previous year, Slate had dropped his wife off at work at the Linden Lodge and when he went to look for a place to eat everything was closed. Slate knew he had a home and a family to go back to but he wondered about those who were less fortunate. Slate bought all of the food the first year with his own money, got a few volunteers and served about 50 meals.
Flynn worked right beside her father the whole day. She was at just about every breakfast since then, sometimes working, other times just eating the meal with her father.
After he died, the free breakfast became a day to remember Slate and all of the work he did for the community during the holiday.
Last year, Flynn had been diagnosed with cancer when she agreed to take on the organization, and Baker was battling the disease herself. The two women bonded and agreed to work together this year to make the breakfast happen. They joked about the Big "C" being for Christmas, and not for the cancers that were growing in their bodies.
The annual Charlie Slate Christmas Breakfast will be held Christmas morning, from 8 to 11 a.m. at the American Legion on Linden Street, but this year it will be in honor of Flynn, who died unexpectedly Dec. 17 from complications attributed to the disease.
Flynn was organizing the event this year and planned on being there on Christmas morning to serve the 600-700 meals, her sister, Charlene Anderson, said.
"She knew she wasn't going to be around for long, but everyone thought she was going to be here through Christmas or else she would have handed it off," Anderson said.
Anderson says it was a kind of a therapy for her sister to take on the Christmas breakfast this year.
"I got it. I got it," Flynn would say when anyone offered to take on a job.
Flynn had some ups and downs this year as she fought the disease, just as anyone with cancer might experience, but she was sure she'd make it to Dec. 25. Talk of taking on the organizing for 2014, after another year of potential chemotherapy and surgery, would have to wait until after Christmas morning.
"She was a take charge person. It was hard to keep up with her," Anderson said. "It was a tough year for her. She had treatments and an operation and she did not know what her outcome would be. But she was determined to see it through."
One of the first things Anderson and the family did after Flynn's death was call Baker and see if she would be willing to help with the final preparations. Baker admits she was looking forward to waking up at home this year and having a quiet Christmas morning with her family. She saw Flynn just last week and the two talked about some last minute details, and about how strong Flynn had been while pulling the meal together this year.
Now, with less than a week to go before Christmas, Baker is back at the helm.
"I told the family that together we were going to get through this," Baker said. "The family has a lot to think about right now. I know how to do this and we're going to do it."
The breakfast, for the most part, takes care of itself. At this point Baker has all of the volunteers she needs and plenty of food. Her crew will arrive before the sun is up to start cooking. Drivers will deliver hundreds of meals to people who are home and can't get out. And all morning college students who are back from school, the homeless, families who have been coming for decades, and people who are showing up for the first time will sit down together and share Christmas breakfast.
"We'll pull up our boot straps and go to work and make it happen," said Baker. "I know there was no doubt in her mind that she would be here for it. That's how you deal with cancer. You don't let cancer get you. Unfortunately in the end, cancer does beat you."
Baker herself has been cancer free, though she is going in for another operation right after Christmas and will probably be in the hospital for the New Year holiday.
Neither Baker, nor any of Flynn's siblings, are talking about next year yet.
Baker said Slate's spirit of being there for others who have nowhere to go is alive and it is the magic that holds together the Christmas breakfast every year. That spirit, Baker said, can never die.
The first year Baker organized the breakfast she met Slate at the meal. He was old and he took her hands in his, she remembers, and thanked her. It was Slate's last Christmas. He died later that year.
"I feel very fortunate I was able to meet him. He said ‘I love you. Thank you so much for doing this for me and my family,'" said Baker. "He knew it would be all right. He knew it would go on and not stop. It's going to be OK."
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; or 802-254-2311, ext. 279. You can follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.