Friday, December 22, 2006

The meaning of Christmas: A Canadian family journey

We were making the trip from Saint John, New Brunswick, to Ottawa, for a family Christmas.
It was cloudy, foggy and bleak as we abandoned the grey station wagon in the snowy parking lot. (I don't really remember the weather, but it was almost always cloudy and foggy and bleak for the three years we lived in Saint John.)
The airport was crowded with lost and discouraged travellers, their eyes pleading for help, or release from their misery.
We dragged two children and too many suitcases stuffed with dubious presents and a range of clothes for every social experience. Sam was five; Rebecca seven. It was for them a grand adventure.
We were bound for Ottawa, and Christmas at my ex father-in-law's home, one of those charming Eastern brick houses with a front porch, and a park - with a skating rink - next door.
So the luggage included skates, not the easiest thing to pack. Rebecca's skates wouldn't fit in any of the suitcases, so we crammed them in a backpack with other last-minute items, kids books and snacks. Even in those happier, simpler times, it turned out two long sharp blades were not the best thing to send through an airport X-ray machine on the busiest day of the year.

I wasn't sad that we weren't heading to Christmas with my family. We were all still recovering from a special family Christmas in Lake Louise the year before, which ended with smashed china, broken bones and my brother spending $700 to change his cheap airline tickets so he and his wife could fly home several days early.
Some 15 years on, we still don't speak about it. Ovid was wrong. Time does not heal all wounds.
But I was still faintly apprehensive. My father-in-law was one of the smartest people I have known, with a photographic memory and a vast store of useful information, a fine journalist and beloved professor.
He was also proudly eccentric, and more so in the years he had been a widower.
But it was Christmas. So I thought brave thoughts as we herded on to the plane, and off, struggled to find our baggage and battered our way through too many desperate people, their glazed, blank eyes staring straight head, sweat beading on their brows as they dragged oversize suitcases through the airport in search of a gate that didn't exist.

Don - that was my father-in-law's name - had prepared.
Sitting in a corner of the living room was a Christmas tree, that I truly believe had once been the finest on the lot.
"I shopped early, to get the best one," he said proudly.
But sadly, he had brought the tree into the house that day three weeks earlier, and leaned it against the wall without water, beside the out-of-tune piano.
My daughter went to look at its splendour, touched a branch. The cascade of dry needles made sound like gently falling snow. The floor looked lovely, like a pine forest. I thought of posting a fire hazard warning.
The tree didn't stand a chance.
Don's quirks extended to the domestic.
Perhaps because of a Depression boyhood on a farm near Moose Jaw, he preferred to keep the house at a balmy 82 degrees year-round, enough to keep him comfortable if he wore his customary bright red sweater over a dress shirt.
Don also preferred to keep all the lights on 24 hours a day, but that was merely disconcerting, like you were living in a science experiment. The heat - which seemed to suck all oxygen from the house - that's what got you.

But hey, a tree wasn't that important.
We dragged our bags upstairs, and went to check on the food supplies for Christmas dinner. Who knew what small, last-minute items might have been forgotten. Oh look, Don's hasn't got cranberries. Those men.
In the fridge there was cottage cheese, medium bright orange cheddar, HP sauce, half a loaf of brown bread and a bag of celery that had melted into a green puddle.

Did I mention that Don had no car, had never driven? So at 4 in the afternoon on Christmas Eve, in the growing dark and deepening cold, I hunted on foot for the food for a Christmas dinner for 15, and staggered home with white plastic grocery bags draped all over my body, my fingers growing numb. It seemed especially unfair that I got lost.

But over the next several hours the family arrived, from Toronto and Vermont, shaking off the snow, comparing travel stories.
Rebecca ran upstairs to get Meplauseth, her favorite doll, to show Fiona, her favorite aunt.
Her scream was epic, one of two times in her life to date that I have heard voice given to the purest terror.
We ran up the stairs, but I think I knew what was wrong.
We had not warned about Suzie.
You see Don collected. Books mostly. He had some 30,000 of them by then. Shelves walled every room. The basement looked the library in a struggling community college.
He also collected Mounties.
It started with souvenirs - plastic Mounties on horses, Mountie paperweights, Dudley Do-Right. But it grew out of control, as people lunged desperately at a possible gift for an impossible-to-buy-for man. He even got, from somewhere, a full red-serge dress Mountie uniform, used, but impressive. His son Murray had long ago found a female mannequin in an alley.
The mannequin - Suzy - modelled the uniform proudly, despite the chip to her nose.

So what Rebecca saw as she reached the top of the stairs was a crazed-looking women wearing an ill-fitting Mountie uniform and a dated wig, staring at her unblinking.
I guarantee you would scream too.
(Although, it could have been worse. For a time Don and family lived in Montreal, near the home of former defence minister Pierre Sevigny, famous for sleeping with a Soviet spy in CanadaƂ?s only really good sex scandal. Sevigny a war hero, and lost a leg in battle. When he updated his artificial leg, he threw out the old one. Murray - he of the mannequin - claimed it for the family collection.)

It was not, of course, all bizarre. We ate, and drank, and watched movies - I am still fond of the Three Amigos - and wore funny paper hats. Bound by weirdness, I think we all even behaved just a bit better.

But I had a dream. A Canadian dream.
In Ottawa, you can skate for five miles on the Rideau Canal, through the heart of downtown. I had told the kids about it back home, showed them a newspaper article about hot chocolate and bonfires, happy crowds and a skating dog. Rebecca read it to Sam, especially the part about stands selling Beaver Tails, giant flaps of fried dough dipped in sugar.
Now it was our last full day.
It was 32 below, and the wind pushed loose bits of snow down the street. The sky and the snow were the same pale grey colour.
Come on kids, I said. We're going skating.
They say exposed flesh, in those conditions, freezes in six minutes.
I can say that it takes nine minutes to tie three pairs of skates in an unheated wood hut. Sam was weeping quietly by the time we fell down the bank to the ice, where we stood alone, trying to decide if it would be better to stumble into the wind, and face it on the way back, or go with the wind now and suffer later. I didn't think they would go into the wind. I was afraid we wouldn't make it back if we skated the other way.
So we shuffled back and forth for three minutes. Rebecca and I were weeping then too. My feet were frozen, and I couldn't feel my fingers. It took 10 minutes to undo their skates.
We drove, in a borrowed car, to get Beavertails. Our spirits rose, and no marks of our ordeal remained.
Except on Sam. The tears had frozen on his face, and each one had left a white, frostbitten mark.

And then I realized the true spirit of Christmas. It's not about receiving gifts, or giving them. It's not about family, or forgiveness, or the brotherhood of man.
It's about courage. In the face of Mountie-clad mannequins, and frozen tears, and the certain knowledge of coming disappointments, Christmas is all about courage


Jordan Bateman said...

Great story.

Have a wonderful Christmas, Paul.

Gazetteer said...

While it doesn't happen all that often, this time around I completely agree with Mr. Bateman.

Happy Holidays Paul.