The Lies of Christmas

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The lies of Christmas. They’re all around us. Every day in every way. I saw lies everywhere I walked in the mall. There were signs that said or implied, buy this coffee maker and you’ll be happy. Buy this shirt and you will have a wonderful Christmas. Love, many of the signs said, can be judged by how expensive the gift. The more you love someone, the more you should spend on them. The more you want someone to love you, the more you should spend on them.

Show your family and friends how successful you are. Buy them this jewellery. Buy them these golf clubs. Buy them gifts that cost more than what your brothers and sisters bought, or your uncles and aunts, or your neighbours.

The signs all chanted buy, buy, buy as I walked by. Some signs whispered. Some shouted. One had a new car wrapped with a red ribbon. A gift for someone you love, a gift you can put In your driveway so everyone can see how much you love your wife or your husband or your fiancé or you son or daughter.

The strange thing is that when I look back on decades of Christmases, I remember very few gifts. What did I get for my sixth Christmas. I dunno. What did I get for my fourteenth Christmas. I dunno. What did I get for my twenty-fourth Christmas. I have no idea. I do remember I used to always get a book for Christmas. I remember the gifts under the Christmas tree, gifts that we opened on Christmas Eve. I remember that there was always a gift from Santa on Christmas morning. But I’ll be darned if I remember what they were. When I was twelve I got my Cooey. 22 single shot. Another year I got a football but I don’t remember what year it was. Probably when I turned fourteen. A gift I do remember and will never forget is the finely knitted vest my grandmother made for me. Like her cooking, it was made with love.

What I do remember are Christmas’s at my mother’s parents. Grandma Smith didn’t have a dining room but she had her fold out table all set with her best plates and cups and glasses. She was a wonderful cook and she had turkey and dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy, vegetables and her special scones. The house was hot from the cooking so we had the front door open and the cold air made clouds as I flowed in. We talked and people told stories and after supper we had tea and sweets and my brother and I fell asleep sitting with my parents on the couch.

I remember Christmases in Gimli at my parents’ house. Exciting Christmases because my grandparents would come from Winnipeg. We watched for them to arrive on the bus. Some of my father’s siblings and their husbands and wives and kids would join us. My parents’ best friends and their two daughters would come through the door. I’ll never forget those Christmas suppers. The smell of supper cooking, the setting out of the table, the laughter, the joyousness of our friendships.

When I think of Christmas’s past, it is people I think of. I don’t regret the disappearance of the gifts, whatever they were but I regret the loss of the people who came through our front door, who shook our hands, who hugged us, who were obviously happy to see us, who embraced us in their friendship. There is nothing so precious at Christmas as to be among people who love you.

I thought as I walked through the mall what lies the signs whispered. I would take a Christmas without the blenders, the DVDs, the vacuum cleaners, the head phones, the ear buds, to be surrounded by friends and family. Yes, the Magi brought gifts to the Christ child, but they didn’t do it as a promotion for the myrrh, frankincense and gold industries. They didn’t do it to boost GDP.

They didn’t do it to buy Christ’s love.

There’s nothing wrong with gifts and may you enjoy the gifts you receive this season and may those you gift enjoy the gifts you give them but remember that love comes from the giver and the receiver not from the price tag on present.

Home or House?

 

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Someone asked me what I’ve been doing lately.

I said, “Fixing up my house.” It’s true. I fixed up my office: repairs, paint, new floor, etc. Now, I’m fixing up the laundry room. I’m not planning on selling. I’m just dealing with normal wear and tear. But just down the street is a house for sale. Nice place. The people who bought it and renovated it are asking 995,000. If someone puts twenty percent down and pays all the expenses, taxes with cash, they’ll still have a mortgage of 805,000. If they own 190,000 of the house and the bank owns 805,000, who really owns the house?

Made me think about my house. That’s what we say, isn’t it? My house. But it isn’t really my house.

When I had a mortgage, it was mostly the bank’s house. If I’d sold my house, the bank would have got most of the money. Some of my friends who didn’t have houses thought owning that 1915 house built by a Welsh shipwright meant I was rich. They mixed up debt with assets. I just owed more than them.

My grandparents and my parents were scarred by the Great Depression. My grandparents had their house taken away by the bank. The bank foreclosed. It really didn’t take my grandparent’s house. The bank took back its own house.

The problem is that we all suffer from recency. We think whatever conditions exist will continue to exist. If there is a depression , there will always be a depression. If there are high interest rates, there will always be high interest rates. If house prices are going up, they will always go up.

The longer a trend continues, the more recency is reinforced. Even though housing prices are at absurd levels in Vancouver and Toronto—in Vancouver, a vacant lot can cost two million dollars—people are still buying. Young people are taking out 700,000 dollar mortgages. Are they afraid that house prices could fall twenty percent (140,000)? Their down payment and their equity could be wiped out? No, because, you see, house prices always go up. That’s what the TV shows say.

House prices don’t always go up. House prices crashed in the USA. House prices in Victoria in the 1980s fell so hard that the banks and credit unions had room dividers set up that were covered in pictures of houses they needed to sell. An offer of fifty percent of the mortgage would get you a deal.

House prices in many areas in Canada are starting to slip. Money is still cheap but it isn’t just in Alberta that people are losing their jobs. It doesn’t matter how cheap money is if you are unemployed. Or underemployed. My grandfather always had a job but the railway cut his wages not just once but many times. He was working full time but he no longer could make the monthly payments.

According to Garth Turner’s blog, http://www.greaterfool.ca/, house prices in Saskatoon are down 15% from this time last year. 96 houses sold last week. 85 went for below the asking price. Then there is Calgary.

House prices are notoriously sticky. People who have financial problems will keep paying the mortgage as long as possible. They need a place to live. They’ll skimp on other things but they’ll make that payment. When they can’t, they’ll put the house up for sale. They’ll start by asking for a price that’ll get them back the money they’ve paid. If the market isn’t there, they’ll be forced to drop their price so they can give the bank the money they owe. If they don’t get enough money to cover closing costs and the bank debt, they still owe the difference. A lot of people think they can just walk away from a mortgage. Nope, no jingle mail here. You owe 700,000 The house sells for 500,000. You owe 200,000.

Recency. We all suffer from it.

I sold my first house for more than double what I originally paid. My second house I sold for four times what I paid. I wasn’t investing in houses. I just bought a house I needed and then a house I wanted. It seems to prove that house prices always go up. Buy now or buy never. That’s the mantra. Except the assessed value of this present house has slipped every year since I bought it. I’m glad I’m not planning on selling it to provide a pension. I’m glad I don’t have a big mortgage. I’m glad I accidentally made money on the first two houses.

My house. Maybe. In a way, I guess it’s my house. If I pay the strata fee every year. If I pay the taxes every year. If I pay the utilities every year. Stop paying those plus the mortgage and, like my grandfather, I’ll discover whose house it really is.

It’s not just Alberta that is having economic problems. It’s not just low prices for oil and natural gas. Our economy is resource based. We sell oil, gas, ore, lumber, grain, fish. China doesn’t need our natural resources or Australia’s natural resources the way it did. Our oil can’t compete with oil that can be sold for as little as twenty dollars a barrel. You don’t work in any of these areas so you are okay, Jack? No, you are not. There is a business and tax chain that runs right through the country. Oil field workers come from all over the country. Suppliers exist all over the country. They can’t sell their product, they’ll shut their doors. Medicine Hat is already seeing service and supply businesses closing.

My house. I want to feel that it is my house. Although someone else lived here before I did and someone else will live here after I leave. The banks, the credit unions, the mortgage brokers, the real estate agents, the TV hypsters, all say now is the time to buy. Certainly, for them it’s a good time for you to buy. Maybe they’re right. Maybe I grew up too close to the Great Depression. Maybe I’m still influenced by the Great Depression that destroyed so many lives. Maybe house prices always go up. Maybe. Maybe no one will ever have to go through the trauma my grandparent’s went through. I hope so but I wouldn’t bet on it.

(WDV studied economics in university. Theory of Business, Money and Banking, Labour Relations, International Trade but then foolishly went off to write poetry, fiction, and drama.)

The Kindest Gift

DSC00595Yesterday, I found an unexpected package at my front door. I’m not used to receiving packages unless it is a book I’ve ordered over the internet.

The return address said it was from Clayton and Doris Bristow.

My finding the package, picking it up, reading the return address, taking the package into the house and setting it out on the dining room table, opening it, is a scene in a long narrative that began before either Clayton or Doris or I were born.

My great grandmother, Fridrikka Gottskalksdottir, came to Canada in 1876. She was three years old. Her parents had left a desperate situation in Iceland and traveled to the UK, changed ships, traveled to Quebec City, then on to a swampy, forested shoreline on Lake Winnipeg. They were part of what was called The Large Group. Earlier, a small, initial group had arrived on the shores of Willow Point after their barges were cut loose by a steamboat captain because a storm had started.

Shortly after my great grandmother and her parents arrived, smallpox broke out. One hundred and three people died. One of those was Fridrikka’s three month old brother. That they all didn’t die was probably due to the fact that some of them had previously had the cow pox, either from working with dairy cattle in Iceland or because they had been inoculated. .

At sixteen, Fridrikka went to Fort Garry to work. There she met William Bristow, a member of the British Army. The Icelanders had come to Canada hoping, like many other groups, to preserve their language, culture and religion. They named the exclusive reserve the government had given them New Iceland. None of the fantasies of cultural purity had much impact on young people and certainly not on Fridrikka. She married William Bristow.

One would expect that he would have stayed in the army, that Fridrikka would have become English. After all, the English dominated Western Canada politically, financially, and socially. Instead, William Bristow left the army and moved to what was now Gimli. Gimli, a small village on the shore of Lake Winnipeg, survived on commercial fishing. William became a fisherman.

William and Fridrikka had thirteen children.

My grandmother, Blanche Bristow, was a sister to Clayton’s grandfather, George Bristow. George and his wife, Dolly, lived across the big field from us. We were on third and they were directly opposite us on second avenue. Times were hard but at Christmas we always exchanged gifts.

Dolly and George had four children. One of those was Clayton’s father,Rudy.  Rudy and I, in spite of our travels,  have always stayed in touch.

Clayton and Doris live in Winnipeg, a three or four day drive from Victoria. I don’t get to see them very often. Usually, if we bump into each other, it is at Gimli’s annual Islendingadagurinnin. This is the way of the world in 2014. When I was growing up, our families all lived close to each other. Nowadays, we are spread across the world.

This journey that culminated on my front porch began when Fridrikka, and her parents Gottskalk Sigfusson and Holmdridur Jonatansdottir, made the decision to leave Akureyri, Iceland. When William Herbert Bristow, the son of a Church of England minister,came to Canada on his own at fifteen.

When I opened the package that Clayton and Doris had sent me, there was a cheerful cookie tin. When I pried open the tin, there was a Christmas card and a vinarterta, the layered prune tort that symbolizes everything about our North American Icelandic culture. The note was from Doris and it said that like me, Clayton has celiac disease, and they knew how much I must be missing having vinartera at Christmas. They’d baked some vinartera as an experiment and were sending me one of the layered cakes.

It’s been a long journey, from Aukreyri and Oxford to decades in Gimli, Manitoba,, from Gimli to Winnipeg, from Gimli on my crooked path through Iowa and Missouri to Victoria, from 1876 to 2014.

I pick up this package and take it inside and put it on the dining room table where the winter sun shines on it and I cut off the padded envelope, then I take off the brown wrapper and open the tin and find within it that special vinarterta and I stand there and think, thank you Clayton and Doris, Rudy and Sig, Dolly and George, William and Fredrikka, Gottskalk and Holmfridur. Thank you. .

The Moveable Feast

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After I was born, my father and mother and I took the bus to Winnipeg every December for Christmas. Then, when I was four, my brother joined us and the four of us made this perilous journey. We went to my mother’s parents’ house. At first we took the street car down Osborne then struggled through the snow along Walker to the small bungalow with the glassed in front porch. They sold that house and, briefly, bought a brick house on Stafford. My grandparents stayed there for only a couple of years while they had a house built a short distance away on Fleet.

We came with a few gifts, never anything extravagant, and under the Christmas tree with its bright lights and brightly colored decorations, there were gifts for us. Usually, hand knitted sweaters, vests, for my grandmother was a talented knitter and seamstress, maybe toy for each of us. One Christmas when we made this journey over the frozen countryside, the Winnipeg weather was bitterly cold with a sharp wind. We had to stand in the open waiting for a streetcar and nothing my parents did could keep us warm. My father and mother held us close, tried to protect us from the wind but our hands and feet became so cold, we cried. When we got to our stop, we still had a distance to go over sidewalks piled high with drifts.

My mother said to her parents, we can’t do this again with two little kids. You’ve got to come to Gimli. And, dutiful parents that they were, they gave up the tradition of Christmas dinner at their home.

Christmas to us, was more about people than it was about gifts. Like all children we enjoyed getting gifts but it was the decorating of the house, the smell of the prepatory baking, the cookies and cakes and pies, and then, on Christmas Eve, my grandparents arriving on the bus. My brother and I were glued to the window, kneeling on the couch, looking into the darkness for our grandfather in his wool overcoat and my grandmother in her Persian lamb. “They’re here. They’re here,” we’d announce and rush to the door. There is no feeling so great as the arrival of someone whom you know loves you and whom you love in return.

On Christmas day there would be all the preparations. Sometimes, other relatives would also have arrived on Christmas Eve and since we lived in a very small house with three tiny bedrooms, we gave over the bedrooms to the adults and thought it a great adventure to be able to sleep on the living room floor.

The transition to Christmas at my parents’ house went smoothly, although, I expect that it wasn’t without some regret that my grandmother no longer set her table and planned the most important meal of the year.

In their final years, my grandparents moved in with my parents. During those years, I had moved away, taking jobs, going to graduate school so Christmas was too far away for winter travel. Eventually, I got a job in Victoria, British Columbia and, once again, Christmas shifted, now with my parents coming to Victoria, with my sister in law and her children joining us, with neighbours from next door filling out our table. My nephew moved to Victoria and my niece moved Abbotsford and, when she retired, my sister-in-law moved to Victoria. My parents came for twenty-six Christmases.

During those years, it was my turn to host our Christmas Eve of gift giving and to have Christmas dinner. But then that changed as marriages took place, family members had to divide their time between our Christmas Eve and Christmas dinner and those of their spouses. Times have changed again. My children have children. I’m in my seventies, just as my grandparents were and just as my parents were when our Christmases changed location. Christmas now is at my daughter’s house. She and her husband make the Christmas meal, set out the table, greet us at the door. My son and his wife and two children come from Bellingham to join us.

Four generations of Christmas, in Winnipeg, Gimli, Victoria and Victoria again, four homes. We suffer from the modern disease, move-itis, not out of frivolity but because modern life demands we move to where we can find work. I found work at the University of Victoria. My children came with me. My niece and nephew and sister-in-law followed.

I would have preferred to have stayed in the town where I grew up but there were few jobs there. All across Canada, young people were faced with a similar situation. Leave because there are so few jobs, get an education, then find you can’t return home because the jobs you are qualified for don’t exist in the town from which you came.

In 1957 I did not want to be a barber and fisherman like my father, I didn’t want to work in the fish processing plant. The airport that had provided so many jobs was beginning a long decline. Graduate school led me to Iowa, then Missouri and, finally, Victoria. I was one of the tens of thousands of the working class who were getting an education and moving away from rural Manitoba. We got good salaries, benefits, working conditions, interesting work but, at most, we could return home for our summer vacation. Christmas (and Thanksgiving and Easter and New Years) would be in a distant place.

We celebrated with neighbours, with John and Joan and Tina Economides in Iowa, with Al and Connie Fenske and their sons in Missouri, with our next door neighbours, the Kendricks, and their three daughters in Victoria and reveled in the connection of the Kendricks to our family, for Graham had worked with and knew my favorite uncle in the air force and Graham’s wife, Betty, came from Manitoba. We take what pleasures we can from circumstance. Gene and Agnes Kline and their family became part of our celebrations. Wherever we went we gathered around us people with whom it was a pleasure to share Christmas.

In Victoria, I had that most important of all things, a good job. Even an excellent job. In a good place because Victoria is regarded as the garden capital of Canada and the first flowers bloom in my garden in January.

However, there is a cost to the opportunity created by urban life, by the massive migration to cities and the abandoning of rural Canada. In the Globe and Mail, Elizabeth Renzetti says “Loneliness has been linked to depression, anxiety, interpersonal hostility, increased vulnerability to health problems, and even to suicide.”

When I grew up, I was surrounded by relatives, uncles and aunts, cousins of every description. They gave us a rich life. Loneliness hardly existed. No one sat alone at Christmas. The problem, if it was a problem, was how to fit everyone at the table, in the bedrooms, in our lives. My father visited relatives every Sunday, stopping briefly at the homes of his aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents, all contained within one small town.

However, we are now scattered like seeds on a winter wind. Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, the United States, distant foreign countries.
Now, with Christmas approaching, I rake the stiff, bronze leaves of the Garry Oaks. There is no winter here to speak of. In the mornings, there is sometimes a hard frost that is gone by early afternoon. The rhododendrons stay green all winter but as Christmas approaches, I my thoughts turn to Gimli, to the gravel road that runs north from town, a fragment of the original pioneer road on which my great grandparents traveled in the late 1800s. The ruts will be frozen solid, immovable until those early spring thaws. As I walk along it, snow will be drifting through the poplar bush, across the road, and I’ll hold out my tongue to catch a few flakes. The clouds will be grey, low hanging and the light will be weak. I’ll walk past snow covered hay bales, past old farm equipment, houses with lit windows even though it is still day. I’ll walk as far as the graveyard and climb over the chain link fence, pick my way through the headstones until I find my grandparents’ graves, my parents’, my brothers’. There they lie together in frozen ground. I’ll stand there in the fading light and think about those many Christmases, the laughter, the conversation, the warmth, the friendships, the love, my grandmother bending down to kiss me Merry Christmas, my grandfather picking me up so he could hold me tight. The memories will warm me in the fading light.

Christmas Past

I can’t find a suitable winter picture of my grandparent’s house so high summer will have to do.

There we are, the lot of us. I can’t find the photo but I don’t need it. I can see us quite clearly. We’re at my grandparent’s house in Winnipeg. It is a small, tidy blue house with a kitchen, a living room that was turned into a dining room on special occasions, two bedrooms, a bathroom, a basement. It is in a working class neighbourhood. The Italians have started to move in, buying up two story frame houses on twenty-five foot lots and fixing them up.

We weren’t a large family. My mother’s parents, my parents, my brother and his girlfriend, me and my new wife.  Grinning like all get out. We’re in our best bib and tucker. The women in their best dresses. Us guys in good dress shirts and slacks. Only my dapper father is wearing a suit.

We’ve gathered to celebrate.  But what, precisely, is it that each of us is celebrating?

My Irish grandfather came to Canada before 1914. He had three sisters already in Winnipeg so he settled in the city. He got a job as a glazier, then as a drayman. I asked him once why he left Ireland and he said, without hesitation, “I got tired of having to carry a pistol in my pocket.” He was young, he was Protestant, he was living in Northern Ireland. The Troubles were constant.  I expect he was celebrating the fact that since he’d arrived in Canada that he didn’t need to carry a pistol in his pocket, that when he returned to Europe in 1915 to fight for King and country, he’d survived his wounds in the Great War, that as hard as things were in the Great Depression, he managed to hang onto his job.

My Irish grandmother was, I expect, celebrating that she’d met my grandfather when he was on leave and had gone home from the Front to see his family in Ireland, had met her and had saved her from spinsterhood by writing from Canada after the war, asking her to marry him. She’d booked her fair on the Empress of France and, a woman by herself, she crossed the ocean, crossed the continent and now had a home of her own, a daughter and two grandsons. Until my grandfather wrote she had seen her future as a babysitter, housekeeper for her brother’s wife because, even though her brother was the youngest in the family, he would inherit everything. Her own house. Her own husband. Her own child. Grandchildren.

My father was celebrating that he’d married my mother, that he’d survived numerous disasters, both physical and financial, that he was loved and liked by my mother and her parents, that somewhere north, through the falling snow, there was, in his home town, a large Icelandic-English family that supported  him through a number of tragedies. Times were difficult and he had to have two jobs to feed us, clothe us, put a roof over our heads, but he was doing it. He was proud of that. I expect he was celebrating that he had finally been able to buy a car. He’d wanted a car for a long time.

In the picture, my brother, four years younger than me, is tall, taller than everyone else. Good looking, very blond and, as an older brother, I’m not sure what, as a teenager, he was celebrating except being with his family, with his girlfriend. His smile says he’s very happy. In the not too distant future, he would die in an accident at work but in this moment, there is no warning, no presentment, only happiness with the place, the people, the food, the holiday.

The girlfriend? Although they didn’t marry, I expect she was celebrating in that moment because she knew that everyone in the room, not just my brother, loved her. She was the daughter my parents never had, my sister I never had, my grandparents’ granddaughter they never had. The happiness of that moment was so great she and I became like brother and sister and her family and her husband’s family, sort of related by marriage to us, have become a big part of my life. Happiness endures.

My wife? Celebrating her beautiful green Christmas dress she was so proud of, a dress that set off her copper colored hair, celebrating being recently married, celebrating being there in that room, safe, loved, secure, happy that there was a place for her, happy to be with people who wanted her, celebrating our having a place of our own, an apartment in the top floor of a house even though if you went barefoot, we were in danger of getting splinters. Celebrating that she had found a job and could support us as I finished my degree. Celebrating that my parents cared enough about her to buy her a muskrat coat (bought through a Winnipeg wholesale) so she’d been warm while waiting for a bus at five o’clock in the morning as she went to work.

And me? If someone had said to me, that evening, what are you celebrating, Bill? I’d have said, I’m celebrating that I’m in the last year of university, that I’m married, that we’ve found an apartment, that I’m writing, that I feel, in this moment, we’re together, talking, visiting, sharing a meal. I know that I wasn’t celebrating gifts. I have no memory of gifts. I know there must have been some, but whatever the gifts were, they are long gone, long worn out, long forgotten. What I remember is being together, the table set, the supper cooking, the conversation, us sitting on the wine colored, overstuffed couch and on chairs that had been added to the living room for extra seating, happy at being in the light and warmth instead of alone in the dark and cold outside where the wind whipped the snow over the drifts.

That was my celebration. The conversation, the voices, the food being placed on the table, the anticipation of eating, the place at the table, the knowledge that in this moment, we were one. In a day or two, we’d go back to our individual lives, the distance among us would need walking, driving, telephone calls, letters, to overcome the silences of the miles,  but for now we had us. That was something to celebrate.