Avoiding Christmas

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The warm sodium lights seemed to be throbbing up from the earth’s surface in suburban patterns of cul de sacs and highways. Snow lay in the yards and large undeveloped patches but had melted from the roads and the trees. The snowfall had not been consistent everywhere; it seemed to have chosen select communities in the Lower Fraser Valley. By the time we flew over Burrard Inlet with its sulphur docks in Port Moody and the Lions Gate Bridge in Vancouver, out into the Georgia Straight for a landing from the west, all traces of the wintery white were gone.

Below, the lights were crisp and clear, cheerier and richer in colour at this end of the Christmas holiday season than they would be at any other time of year.

I had been up at seven, Ottawa time; on a bus to Montreal by nine, arrived at Pierre Elliott Trudeau Airport in the community of Dorval by eleven. I ate an early lunch, fully aware from my flight from Vancouver that there would be no meal service and only tightly compressed sandwiches bound in swaddling plastic wrap or junk food to be had from the airline’s “cafe” menu. I sensibly downed a Caesar salad and a clear glass of cool water then went to security check-in.

Beyond the point of no return there were few shops to linger in. There was a coffee stand with croissants, sweets or sandwiches that you could take with you on the airplane, more sensibly boxed (therefore not crushed into eraser-like carbohydrate wads). I bought an oatmeal cookie telling myself that it was whole grain cereal with only a bit of sugar and a cheese croissant for my on flight sustenance. I bought a cup of decaf which I immediately downed. I would not be getting a decent cup of this until I got home again.

You may have noticed that I haven’t posted for three weeks. I took the luxury of a holiday to visit two of my cousins and my nephew Hugh and a fine relaxing holiday it was, too. I met with two friends, one recently met through our mutual friend, Mother’s university friend who was in touch with her until the very end, and one of my colleagues from my former workplace.

Cousin Beryl in Ottawa spent a week with me and then went on holiday with her partner of 30 years. They were off to play indoor tennis, Patrick having recovered only recently from a knee operation and still unable to go skiing. She works too hard, very devoted to her job as director of a humanitarian organization and needed some downtime, some renewal time.

Cousin Clara, whom I had started this holiday with, had gone on to Toronto to visit her daughter’s family and then on to Florida where she spends some winter time in the comfort of a warmer clime.

Coming back through Montreal, there was no point in going up to her house during the three hour period I had before my flight. She wasn’t there. The whole city felt empty knowing that Clara was not in it. It was somewhat the same feeling I had leaving Byrel this morning as she saw me off at the bus station.

I had stayed in her house while she was away on her holiday. All the personality of her decor could not make up for the the fact that she was not there. The house all of a sudden felt empty. We have similar tastes in music and I played her CDs a good part of the time I was alone but it was not the same. I felt a good measure of joy in talking with her as I do with Clara.

Beryl is one of those rare people who speaks her mind clearly without hesitation. We had a parting hug before we left the house. When we got to the station we looked like two people who barely knew each other. As we were standing in line up with about seventy other people headed for Montreal, she said, ” I never understood really why you wanted to come to Ottawa for Christmas.” It was a question.

In my inimitable way, I blurted out my inability to sit down at the dinner table with my family this year. Too much water under the bridge. A damning situation. A log jam of emotions, if you prefer which, by the way, I did not say out loud. I’d had great cooperation and assistance from my sisters, but Otto had been obstructive. I wanted a neutral territory to celebrate Christmas on. I could perhaps have sat down at the table for an hour with him, but not stayed in the same house with him listening to him extol the merits of family and how wonderful family was when he had taken care to tell me how odious I was over the matter of Mother’s estate.

I must say I hadn’t been very tactful in answering Beryl. My original idea in my getting away at Christmas was to avoid unpleasantness. To be somewhere where every decoration, every change from tradition would remind me of my Mother’s passing. But as I began to think where I might go, I knew that Hugh would be alone and missing the festival of the year that he most delights in. If I were to make the trip, I would most certainly want to spend some time with Beryl. Clara was reasonably close by in Montreal, and so as I conceived of this trip, I wanted to ensure I saw her too. They are both “safe-haven” kind of people.

So that was the explanation I gave to her forthright question. We parted company only five minutes afterwards. I was on the bus and grumping somewhat about ending this delicious holiday with a full day of travel – two hours of bus, three hours in between time before the flight, five hours of flight – and I had time to reflect.

These two cousins are like sisters. We understand each other. We are of the same generation, and unlike direct family, we don’t have to see each other. We’ve chosen to do so.

I met Beryl and Clara after a forty year hiatus. I had know Beryl and seen her only occasionally before I was ten and then not afterwards. Clara had visited only once in my hippie-dippy days at our mutual age of 23. Many years later in my working career, as I was often travelling back and forth for my job, I often flew into both Ottawa and Dorval. On these trips, I reconnected with these fine women. It didn’t take us long to uncover our common ground – how we felt growing up, what we were doing now, our successes and failures in our relationships, marriages, and partnerships.

My father and their mothers were siblings, but it’s our mothers and our upbringing that we feel are the common thread. We talk about the vicissitudes of childhood and early adulthood that were more characterized by the upbringing of our Mothers and their culture than our common thread of our parent siblings. Fathers had less to do with the day-to-day management of children and they figure quite differently in our affections and family heartaches.

So as I ruminated on these things on the bus to Montreal, passing through a rich sepia world of farmlands and small forests all softened by a fresh dusting of snow that was still falling, I regretted that I had not mentioned how much I had come to love Beryl and our Cousin Clara; how any opportunity where I can add on a visit to one or the other, I will; how I am vastly proud of Beryl for her humanitarian work; just as I am of Clara for her stubborn determination to learn to paint and now that she is proficient and sure of her skills, her volunteer work with difficult medical patients, teaching them to paint, bringing joy to their impoverished lives.

I ruminated on the gifts these two ladies had given me. Both had given me their trust in speaking freely of their lives, their loves and their families. It’s not sugar coated. It’s down to earth real. We take a Giordian knot of relationships and try to sort out the whys and wherefores of family, of our joys and hurts and we try to find ways to heal them or heal ourselves.

They have both given me a welcome that made me feel that I was important and valued. Now, how great a gift is that! And it didn’t die after three days…. you know that aphorism about fish and visitors stinking after three days. We were still sharing stories as avidly after a week as we had on the first day. And if we don’t see each other for another year, or two even, now that I’m retired and travelling less, we will catch up the conversation as if it never had stopped. That’s a mark of a good friendship.

Beryl phoned a day after my return to the Wet Coast. I asked her what she had meant by her question on my reasons for coming to Ottawa.

“Oh, the weather,” she explained. “Why would you want to come knowing we might have snow?” I had completely misunderstood the intent of her question. And, well I might. In Ottawa, people go away to have a break from perpetual cold and snow. On the West Coast, we are inundated with perpetual rain. Grey skies prevail. We only have two seasons – cold autumn and warm spring. The heat of summer lasts two weeks and the snows come for two days and melt away. Had I understood the thrust of her question, I might have answered, “Oh, we don’t get snow. I thought a white Christmas would be glorious!” Instead, I fueled a day’s worth of rumination on family and some of my most favourite people whom I was leaving behind until next time. Dummy me! I’m glad I misunderstood.

In all of this rambling, I haven’t even talked about seeing Hugh again. It was wonderful! But that’s another story.

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