“At school we painted pictures,” he says.
“I can make super-sonic laser beams come out of my eyes.”
“Can I take Jasper out for a walk?”
Andy is annoying me with all his talking. I want to tell him to shut up but I won’t. He’s only seven years old.
Andy is my foster brother. He stays with my family on weekends. Mom and Dad decided to become foster parents since all their kids have grown up and moved away for university. I admire the fact that my parents are doing something for children who need help and love but it’s Christmas. I don’t want Andy around. I want my Mom and Dad all to myself because I’ve been away for four months and have a lot to tell them.
Andy never stops chattering. He follows me around telling me about his latest ninja adventure.
“Me and the ninjas hang out a lot. We just went and beat up some bad guys real bad. They’ve got blood coming out of their noses,” he says.
Andy’s mum doesn’t like him. In fact, she hates him. She never asks how school was or looks at him or kisses him goodnight.
He likes coming to our house because we don’t hit. He said that once. He likes coming to our house because we don’t ignore him. He said that too.
A friend and I were catching up during that same holiday Andy was part of my family. After Katherine and after our coffees, we found a kitten behind the café. It was a freezing cold Saturday and it took a long time to capture the baby. Every time Katherine and I got close she would dart into the brambles.
I managed to catch her when she climbed a tree and was too weak to get very far.
I put the kitten in the car and she howled all the way home. She was starving and wild and scared. At my house I gave her some warm milk and mush to eat. I cleaned her up and she’s beautiful. She tried to snuggle into my collarbone. She looked up at me asking for love with her enormous eyes. She made me cry. She made me put Andy into perspective.
Andy is like the kitten, abandoned and scared. He wants attention and love, except he’s not cute and cuddly. He’s a skinny little boy. He can’t fit into the nook of my shoulder. So he talks constantly to get people to notice him, even if all they’re going to say is be quiet.
After this revelation I try to be nicer to Andy. We walk through the woods together. I show him how to play the piano and how to build a house out of Lego. But he still keeps talking.
Christmas is on the horizon and for many of us, that means lots of cookies and eggnog and family time. My immediate family (and family-in-laws) don’t live close enough to us to hop over for some seasonal cheer but my husband and I consider our friends as extended family.
It’s a gift we have these people in our lives in Calgary. This week though — this cold, cold week — I’ve been thinking about other gifts that I’m grateful for: and not expensive presents.
It’s super-duper freezing outside and I walk everywhere (most everywhere). Somehow, I’ve lost two winter coats. Oh I know they’re packed in boxes but I’m not sure which boxes. I didn’t label them when I loaded them full of housewares and clothing and knickknacks in preparation for a move. Well, that move hasn’t happened yet but winter has. I did know where one special winter coat was put and dug it out.
The special coat was my Nana’s. It’s pink and pure virgin wool (so says the tag) and has a fur-lined hood. Nana lived in northwestern Ontario and it’s cold there. The coat must have worked because she used it for a long time and then handed it to me before I moved from Nova Scotia to the Northwest Territories (N.W.T.) about 10 years ago. I never used the vintage coat in the N.W.T. because I had a black, puffy parka that looked like a sleeping bag on steroids.
Now I can’t find that black coat nor another black parka that looks almost the same. I had to start using my Nana’s coat. I put it on today and walked downtown in the -33 (with wind-chill) weather. It worked! I was warm and cozy in the wool coat and I even got some compliments on it while I was shopping in the mall.
I never saw Nana again after she gave me the coat: she died soon after I went to the N.W.T. Her gift is finally being put to use 10 years later and I’m grateful for its warmth and the reminder of her as a flesh and blood person. She wasn’t always an old woman. She wasn’t always my Nana. She was young and had ideas and dreams and perhaps, in her coat, she lived some of them.
Another gift is the gift of nature in the city. Like I said and many of you know, it’s freaking cold. But have you seen how beautiful it is outside? The fog rolling off the Bow River in the morning turns everything around it silver. The fresh snow covering the brown leaves on the ground and ugly grey pavement convinces us that the streets are pretty and Christmas is just around the corner. At night, when the festive lights are turned on, they still can’t compete with the stars. The clear cold air only accentuates their brilliance, reminding me that I’m one small person on this large planet.
With the holidays comes goodwill. People hold doors open for me. They stop their vehicles to let me cross the street. They put down their mobiles to engage in conversation with me, a stranger. This is a great gift and I wish it continued all year long because this is an important gift: the gift of time. Taking a couple of seconds to be friendly doesn’t take much and you’ll never know how deeply your kindness was felt.
“A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world. Hallo here! Whoop! Hallo!”
~Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
Almost every weekday at four o’clock in the afternoon, I stop work and watch the Young and the Restless. It’s my dirty secret. The silly show is a nice break and the story arcs are so fantastical they’re ludicrous. Except for a couple of weeks ago when a scene sparked a Christmas memory: Anne of Green Gables made an appearance on the show.
Yes, Y&R is a soap so I wouldn’t fault you if you thought Anne Shirley was actually brought on as a real-life character. But no, she stayed in word form. A little Y&R girl, Faith, couldn’t sleep and her stepmother (young Faith’s fifth or sixth stepmother) told her that when she was a child, her mother would read to her to help her get drowsy. The stepmother, Sage, then got a book from a shelf and said it was Anne of Green Gables.
Sage started reading the first paragraph of the first book that begins with:
Mrs. Rachel Lynde lived just where the Avonlea main road dipped down into a little hollow, fringed with alders and ladies’ eardrops and traversed by a brook that had its source away back in the woods of the old Cuthbert place; it was reputed to be an intricate, headlong brook in its earlier course through those woods, with dark secrets of pool and cascade; but by the time it reached Lynde’s Hollow it was a quiet, well-conducted little stream, for not even a brook could run past Mrs. Rachel Lynde’s door without due regard for decency and decorum; it probably was conscious that Mrs. Rachel was sitting at her window, keeping a sharp eye on everything that passed, from brooks and children up, and that if she noticed anything odd or out of place she would never rest until she had ferreted out the whys and wherefores thereof.
That almost put me to sleep too. Because it’s boring.
When I was about eight years old, my parents gave me a box set of Anne of Green Gables for Christmas. They also gave my sisters and me a tape recorder. (The tape recorder was the iPhone of our time.) The tape recorder was cool and I couldn’t wait to play with it. My parents suggested I read Anne of Green Gables into the recorder. Judging the book by its cover (a pastoral scene with two girls walking hand in hand) I thought it looked fine. I cracked the spine of the soft cover book and began reading aloud the same passage Sage read to Faith.
While I didn’t get to see Faith’s reaction, mine was one of disappointment. This book was going to be super boring. I liked the C.S. Lewis Narnia books: full of action and adventures in unknown worlds. Who was this Mrs. Rachel Lynde and who cared about the stupid brook?
I couldn’t get into the cast of characters who lived in the pages. They were not coming alive in my imagination. I read a couple more paragraphs aloud and captured my voice on cassette tape. (We still have it somewhere at home.) Then I put the book down and put in an ABBA tape to listen to.
I used the tape recorder a lot over the years but it took a while to get back to Anne. She wasn’t someone I wanted to get know right away. Then one day, I picked up the book and pushed past the beginning and something magical happened. Anne became my bosom buddy. I wanted puff sleeve. I fell in love with Gilbert Blythe. I cried my heart and eyes out when Matthew died. It was a sad day too when I finished the last Anne book.
Children before me and after me and everywhere in the world feel the same way about Anne. One of my memoir clients who grew up in Poland in the fifties read Anne of Green Gables. Lucy Maud Montgomery gave us a place to go with a girl who knows what it’s like to not fit in and who gets in trouble without meaning to. Ann with an e was our best friend when we didn’t have one and our escape from school and life. She never changes no matter who is reading about her. Even if Faith gets another stepmother, she’ll always have Anne.
Looking for some Christmas fear? Yes, it’s still July and many of us aren’t thinking about Christmas but I have announcement. One of my fiction stories was picked up and is being published in the Fright Before Christmas anthology. I’m being paid for it too. Always a happy event for an author.
FRIGHT is a collection of 13 tales, from 13 different authors and will knock the stockings off your fireplace this Christmas season. Earlier this April, I read that the publisher, Leap Books, was looking for submissions for the anthology. That’s when I scraped together an idea and wrote about a stenchy monster that takes instead of gives on December 24.
Many of you probably think of Christmas as a time of good cheer and tinsel and hohoho. But my festive memories always have a bit of a scary side. That’s because my father used to bring home horror movies to watch as a family over the holidays.
This was pre-VHS machines and definitely before watching movies online. He rented out a large LaserDisc player and then stocked up on creepy films. I saw such Christmas gems as Alien, Aliens and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The Body Snatcher scene where the dog has a human head and his owner has his dog head really made an impact on me. I couldn’t sleep alone for weeks and would drag a blanket into one of my (younger) sisters’ rooms and curl up on the floor for the night.
It this kind of Christmas magic that I’m familiar with so I don’t have any problem writing a scary story for a happy holiday. FRIGHT is set to launch in November of this year and is for children in Grade 6 to 9. My other kids’ book is already out. The Raven named Flight and How She Learned to Fly is about a raven from Fort Smith, NWT. I wrote the story and had the illustrations done by Helen Monwuba. I published the book myself this past December 2014.
Blurb: http://blur.by/1zZpZdi / $32.99 CAD without shipping
Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1320278310 / $28.58 US without shipping
Blurb: http://store.blurb.ca/ebooks/p43a9f931da2cda4398e5 / $4.99 CAD
Apple iBookstore: http://itunes.apple.com/ca/book/id950045042
In 1993 I spent part of New Year’s Eve in a small mountain town near the Black Forest in Germany. The other part of the night I spent in a hospital. It was an evening to remember although not one of revelry.
I was in Germany for two weeks visiting my friend who was attending the University of Freiburg on an exchange program through Acadia University. I was in my fourth year at Acadia and feeling rather provincial so I went to visit Digger.
My flight to Europe left Halifax on Christmas Day (flights were cheaper on December 25.) The plane went from Nova Scotia to Amsterdam, where I waited in the airport for seven hours because I was afraid if I went sightseeing I would miss my connection. That flight was on to Mulhouse, France, the closet airport to Freiburg. After landing and picking up my baggage at the terminal I was given the option of entering either France or Switzerland. Oh oh. Which country did Digger say she was going to meet me?
This was before 9/11 so security was rather lax and I had no trouble walking into Switzerland. When I looked over to France, there was Digger waiting for me. I just had to walk back through to the other side.
Once we got to Germany we did a lot sightseeing around Freiburg, a beautiful town that had white Christmas lights and other elegant festive ornaments all over the streets and houses. We also climbed the many icy stone steps of the Freiburger Münster (a big medieval church) and ate lots of pretzels and Berliners, the jelly donut John F Kennedy made famous. The highlight of the week was going to be a rocking New Year’s Eve party where Klaus, Digger’s German boyfriend, would be playing with his band.
On Dec. 29 we got all dressed up and climbed in Klaus’ shaky olive green car for the ride to the party. I was excited to be going to an event with new people. Maybe some cute guys would be there too.
It was dark out during the drive so I didn’t get to see any of the German countryside. I knew we were going up and up in elevation though. In about an hour we arrived at a small community hall not unlike ones in Canada.
While Klaus set up his drum kit Digger and I got a glass of wine and some snacks. However, not even 15 minutes later Digger started to feel sick. Sick enough we had to leave the party filled with interesting looking people (cute guys) and drive straight to a hospital.
As soon as we walked into the hospital I started to feel ill too. I had drunk only one small glass of wine but it really affected me. Maybe it was the altitude but I felt like I had finished off the whole bottle.
“Excuse me,” I muttered, putting my hand over my mouth while I ran around searching for the first bathroom I could find. Man, I was not feeling well.
I threw up all over the restroom. All over it. I painted the town red but in a different way. When I emerged from the toilet I felt a lot better but Digger and Klaus were nowhere to be found
I attempted my poor German on hospital staff but no one knew what I was talking about. So what do you do when you’re half cut and lost in a foreign country? Call your parents.
“Are you drunk?” they asked.
They advised me to sit down and stay in one spot. To wait. I followed their instructions and slumped down by the hospital door. It was an entertaining place to be.
I watched a steady stream of people come in with all sorts of injures. Cuts, scrapes, bruises – one young man was clutching his blood-covered head and moaning. Wonder what happened to him?
When midnight chimed the only way I knew it was the new year was because all the nurses and doctors came out into the hall with champagne (or sparkling juice?) and said “Happy Silvester!”
Happy New Year to you too.
I’m not sure how long after that, maybe five minutes, maybe longer, Digger and Klaus popped out of one of the rooms. She had had an allergic reaction to something but was fine now. It was 1994 and time to go home.
Santa Claus was not part of my family’s Christmas. My parents decided they wanted the birth of Christ as the main focus of the holiday and not Jolly Old Saint Nick. Which was fine by me until I went to school.
When the festive season rolled around all the kids started talking about Santa Claus. Of course I knew who he was but still, I couldn’t believe that my classmates believed in such a thing. And I told one or two so. Yes, yes I did kill Santa for them I do hope they don’t hold any resentment towards six-year-old me. Because even I thought maybe, just maybe, my parents might be wrong and Santa might actually exist.
On Christmas morning I still got presents under the tree, lots of them. But they were signed “Love mum and dad.” Although I knew who had given me the gifts, there was an inkling of doubt. Maybe there really was a man who went around the world delivering presents via shooting down a chimney. We did have a chimney. Santa could use it to get to our tree. I had seen Santa at the mall before. He seemed ok with his big bushy white beard and comfy cozy looking red suit. Perhaps I should leave out some cookies and milk for this guy.
One Christmas eve I did wait up for Santa. I stayed awake so long my parents went to sleep. Then I quietly got my of bed and softly put one foot in front of the other and walked down the hardwood stairs to the landing. Here there was a small window that I could reach.
I can’t remember what I saw when I looked outside but it wasn’t Santa Claus.
I went back to bed and woke up Christmas morning. It was still a magical and majestic day despite the absence of Mr. Claus. Besides, he had too many kids to worry about anyway. I was one less.
One of my first Christmases away from my family was when I was teaching English in South Korea. It was 1997 and the Korean currency, the won, had fallen. I wasn’t making any money, but I was getting rich in experiences.
I was living on my own in Puyo, a rural town. I didn’t know many people and had been only there just over a month and a half. It was a lonely time and one I wouldn’t wish to relive but glad I went through it.
The lead-up to Christmas in Puyo wasn’t too bad. They didn’t go all out with decorations and blasting carols in shops. There were a few festive baubles hanging from a supermarket window but that was it. I also had to work during the day on Christmas Eve, which was different from what I was used to in Canada. However, this made things easier: I didn’t miss my family so much when it didn’t feel like Christmas.
But on Christmas Eve there was no escaping it. I love December 24 because it’s low-key and family-centred. No opening gifts, no gorging on a lavish feast – yet early enough that no feelings of sadness that Christmas was coming to an end. Christmas Eve is special to me because it’s the day before the flurry of activities. The 24th is for taking in everything and relaxing with loved ones.
We always head to church for the Christmas Eve service. Dad always makes us go super early so we have seats together. Then we sing carols and afterwards eat perogies, cabbage rolls and chicken wings and play board games.
I was missing this in Korea. But I could at least go to church. I did and sang many of the same Christmas hymns we sing in Canada. (Except I have trouble remembering lyrics so I sang the same line over and over again.)
After church I went out for a drink with my fellow teacher and roommate, Sun-yee. We had the best octopus ever that night too. It was so spicy I could hardly eat it but I kept putting it into my burning mouth. I went to bed trying not to think when I woke up it would be Christmas.
Christmas dawned and I slowly got up. Korea is 12 hours ahead of Nova Scotia so I called my parents on their Christmas Eve. It made me sad I wasn’t at home but I knew they were missing me too.
I had the day off from school and not much to do. I chose to go exploring. That’s what I did most weekends in Korea. I walked and walked and walked and walked. Covering many kilometres, discovering back roads leading to beautiful temples, acres of rice fields and a bridge over a quiet stream with a black goat tied under it. (There were no trolls).
I took lots of photos that day. None of anyone opening presents or stockings. I was OK — until I went into a favourite shop to get a treat. The store was playing Christmas music and the song bore a hole into my heart. I was going to cry if I didn’t get out of there.
I paid for my treat (probably a sweet bean bun) and left. When I called my parents again that evening it was their Christmas morning. I think I cried this time.
This would be the Christmas that lasted three days for me. The next morning, Boxing Day, was Christmas night at home. I didn’t feel too terrible that morning since it was back to work for me. Phew. Finally, something to take my mind off Christmas.