The Moveable Feast

cnristmas

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.