I just remembered an essay I wrote and read for CBC and dug it out. 16 years ago, it was unimaginable that my mother would die on Christmas Day. That my grown-up children and I would celebrate by eating take-out Chinese. And, though I wrote about the possibility, that I would actually become a real live grandmother. Talk about ebb and flow.
Christmas, a long time ago. At the age of twenty-four, I moved across the
country to Vancouver where I knew no one, and so found myself alone, on
Christmas morning, cat-sitting in someone’s apartment. The little box my mother
had sent sat under the rubber tree in the living room; opening it, slowly, was
my festive activity for the day. Luckily, in the evening, I was invited out for
Christmas dinner. Still, it was a long quiet December 25th.
of the day, and then, suddenly, I had a life’s partner, someone to spend
Christmas with forever and ever. And then, just as suddenly, we were expecting
a baby. That year we joined my parents in Edmonton on Christmas Eve. With great
ceremony, my father opened the bottle of 1959 Burgundy that he had stored in
the cellar for just this occasion – to toast new life in the family.
residence, and from then on, the holiday was buried under snowdrifts of paper,
boxes and ribbons. When the next baby came, a few years later, our Toronto home
became the centre of the family. My parents flew east for the celebrations.
Auntie Do drove down from Ottawa with my brother and two dozen freshly baked
mince pies. After his wife died, my bereaved uncle flew up from New York for
his first visit ever, to be with us. The house was really full then – my
husband and I, our children, my parents, all those other relatives – one year
my in-laws too, from B.C. – and always, in memory of that lonely day in
Vancouver, a few people who didn’t have anywhere else to go. Homeless waifs, we
called them – a fixture, a necessity at our festive table.
out carols on the piano; we’d stand around singing in the paper hats we’d
pulled from Christmas crackers, the table behind us strewn with plates,
bottles, tangerine skins and nutshells. As he sang, my father loved to offend
with his own irreverent lyrics; “Deck your balls with cloves of
garlic,” was his favourite. Later, the children would settle down to read
with him or do a puzzle with Grandma and Auntie Do. It was exhausting, and
there was always a familiar family tension under the cheer. But this, I felt,
was what Christmas was really meant to be.
diagnosed with stomach cancer. That
year, we went to Edmonton for the holidays. Our plates at Christmas dinner were
piled high, as usual. In front of him sat a small bowl of turkey broth, which
he couldn’t finish.
the centre of our gathering, though we were all aware of the irony of our grief
– my father, an atheist and a Jew, had never really liked Christmas. At least,
the religious, manger part; he loved feasting and giving gifts. The rest of us
mourned and drank a good bottle of wine in his honour. After that my uncle, his
brother, decided he didn’t want to travel at such a difficult time of year.
“I’ll be sure to look you up.”
separated. Though we struggled, in the end successfully, to remain friends,
each year there was a painful tussle over the children at Christmas – who would
be where when, for what. My aunt announced she could no longer manage the
journey to Toronto; she and her mince pies would stay at home. My brother
bought his first house and decided to stay at home too. I was grateful to our
homeless waifs for filling out the table.
included my ex-husband and his girlfriend. It was good to see him at the head
of the table again, carving the turkey in his yellow paper hat. This year,
though, he’s overloaded with work and can’t come. My mum has just bought a
condo in Florida, so she’ll be staying south. This year, on Christmas morning,
it’s just the kids and me.
myself wondering – will I end up once more alone, with a small present under a
large plant? I don’t think so. I think these children will keep coming back, if
they can. They seem to feel that there’s only one place to wait for the feast –
at home, even if the dog and I are the only ones here.
again, who knows? My kids will find partners. Maybe one day they’ll make their
own joyful announcements, and with great ceremony I’ll open the bottle of 1982
Burgundy I have stored in the cellar, to toast new life in the family. On
Christmas Day, the children of my children will settle down to read and do
puzzles with their grandma. That’ll be me.
tablecloth covered with debris and bottles and chaos and carols and paper hats.
And always, homeless waifs on a solitary leg of their own journey, invited to
join us at the ever-changing banquet table of life.
yours – Merry Christmas.