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“Nothing like a dame”

Xmas is looming. This chaotic year, I’m doing the minimum, no tree, few decorations, but presents for the kids, of course. That’s enough. What a relief. And there’s the pageant, of course – a rehearsal tomorrow at the farm. But to celebrate being more or less ready, I went to a wonderful film this afternoon: “Nothing like a dame,” four brilliant British actresses, all dames, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, and Eileen Atkins, sitting around talking, telling stories, dishing, gossiping, reminiscing. “Larry” – Laurence Olivier, Plowright’s husband and a fellow actor to them all – looms large. I loved this film so much, I’d gladly see it again. They are as funny as standup comediennes, these magnificent actresses. For me, hearing them talk about life in the theatre was like hearing people living in a country where I used to live speak a language I used to speak.

On the Xmas theme, I dug out this essay I wrote and read for “Fresh Air.” Here it is, for your pleasure. Merry Everything to you all.

CBC, Fresh Air, December 21, 1997
As this time of togetherness approaches, I 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.
In subsequent years, I had friends to help 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.
The following Christmas, there was a busy 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.
After the groaning excess of dinner, my 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.
The summer my first-born turned seven, my 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.
Next year was very hard. There was an 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.
“If I’m ever in Toronto, though,” he deadpanned, “I’ll be sure to look you up.”
One bleak November not long after, my 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.
Last year was a celebration of another 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.
They’re teenagers now, leaving home before 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.
One day, our ranks will swell once more. 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 once again, there’ll be a big turkey 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.

From the ebb and flow of my house, to the
ebb and flow of yours – Merry Christmas.



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About Beth

I began keeping a journal at the age of nine. Nearly fifty years later, I started this online journal, sharing reflections, reviews, updates, and the occasional secret.

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