think of one 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.
make an occasion 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.
seven-month-old in 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.
mother would pound 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.
father was 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.
unbearable silence at 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.
he deadpanned, “I’ll be sure to look you up.”
husband and I 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.
sort: the guests 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.
too long. I find 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.
Perhaps I’ll marry 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.
and the best 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.
ebb and flow of yours – Merry Christmas.