The Loneliest Christmas

Christmas, whether you celebrate Christ’s birth or not, is a time of the getting together of family and friends.

Encouraged, even demanded by the retail sector, it is a time of gift giving and gift giving is always portrayed as a family event with people arriving at someone’s front door laden with gifts or in someone’s living room with a room full of beloved and loving people.

Television is guilty of creating a feeling of everyone else is happy, everyone can afford to give and receive expensive gifts in houses that have huge rooms and fireplaces. These imaginary houses are perfect from both the outside and the inside. Everyone is healthy. Everyone is happy. Everyone is wealthy.

I walked through the toy section of Walmart yesterday. Part way through the tour, I thought this is insane. No one needs all this, or any of this. Out of the glittery boxes, the toys are nothing more than brightly painted bits of plastic. I then went to an exclusive Victoria store. Just inside the door there was a coffee table for seven thousand dollars. The perfect gift for one of those perfect houses in the advertisements. Who, I asked myself, buys seven thousand dollar coffee tables?

Since I don’t know, maybe I just hang out with the wrong crowd. Maybe I need to upscale myself.

There is no power more powerful than television to make people feel inferior. Show after show has apartments and houses that the characters in the show, in real life, couldn’t possibly afford. In Vancouver where tear-downs are being bought for 1.2 million and over, yup, you have to pay 1.2 million, tear down the current house and then build a new one, people are buying condos the size of walk-in closets. They are buying lane houses no bigger than a one car garage.

Wages have not kept up with prices. Mortgages in Vancouver are taking as much as eighty percent of the combined salaries of a husband and wife. Then there are car payments and food and clothes and dental work and one thousand dollar baby carriages. Credit card companies are charging over nineteen percent and people are taking out HELOCS so they can buy groceries.

“I saw it on TV. Not once but many times. People our age, driving a new car, going on exotic holidays, buying each other enormous gifts. What’s the matter with me? Why am I such a loser?” If this is how you feel, give your head a shake. Drowning in debt doesn’t make anyone a winner. The Magi may have brought expensive gifts for Christ but they were kings. They weren’t using a credit card to buy the frankincense, myrrh and gold. You don’t prove you love someone with your gifts.

Instead of buying like a king of ancient times, how about attending a Christmas service? There are free concerts. Christmas pot lucks work just fine. If the spirit of Christmas is giving, not getting, one can have a busy, productive Christmas, especially if the giving is the gift of including people so they aren’t lonely.

Times of celebration can be the loneliest times for people who are left out of the celebrating. There are a lot of people out there who don’t have family, who will be spending Christmas alone. For them an invitation to share Christmas dinner or to go look at Christmas lights with you or attend a concert, even if it is a school concert, will go a long way to making their Christmas a happy one. There is no joy like the joy of being included, to be part of someone’s festivities, to share a meal, to not be alone while everyone around you celebrates. You can give that to someone. Without maxing out your credit card.

When I was young, all my friends seemed to get married at the same time and, in a while, to have children at the same time. Now that I am old, many of those same friends are widows or widowers at the same time and not all of them have children nearby. Some are divorced. Some have a wife or husband in an institution. An invitation to share part of your Christmas can make the season joyful for them.

I always admired my father for what he did one Christmas. One of his seasonal working men was a terrible alcoholic. He got his pay cheque and drank it away. His temporary friends at the beer parlour helped him with that. He hadn’t saved anything to pay for room and board before the fishing began again and he took up residence in a caboose (a one room shack covered with building paper and tar paper, sometimes plywood) that sat on an old sled. The caboose was some distance outside of town at the back of the beach among a copse of poplar trees. There was always a large amount of drifting snow in that area. My father drove until the snow drifts stopped him, then walked over the drifts, carrying a bag of food and a twenty-six of whiskey.

He couldn’t find the caboose until he saw a chimney pipe sticking up through the snow. He then discovered a beaten down track and followed it to the caboose. He knocked and was let in. It was one room, one chair, one bunk, some wooden fish boxes for cupboards, a tin stove, some firewood, a lamp. There was a small window that let in light and when it wasn’t covered in frost, a view of the vast surface of ice that went all the way to the horizon. It would have been hard to have found a lonelier place

My mother had packed up some butter tarts, some shortbread cookies, some Christmas cake, a meal of turkey and vegetables.

Gunnar wouldn’t leave his lonely snow driven place. My father and he talked for a while, then my father left and Gunnar, we’ll say he was called Gunnar, spent the night alone with the snow and wind and his thoughts.

Some people asked my father, why did you take a bottle of whiskey along with the food. My father’s reply was that it was the gift Gunnar wanted. It wasn’t up to my father to judge what he should or shouldn’t have.

I’ve thought of Gunnar often when I’ve felt lonely, when, for a period of time, because of circumstances, fate, ill luck, I found myself alone when others joined together to celebrate. I’ve comforted myself by thinking of that cold winter night with the wind blowing, the snow drifting, a man alone in a caboose and saying to myself this temporary moment I’m going through isn’t so bad.

We need others, we need community. Condo towers, suburbia, cities, apartments, poverty, illness, old age, death of a partner, a host of things work against community. Small acts of kindness, especially at special times like Christmas help restore it.

The 10 cent Christmas

My aunt Florence had a stroke and had to go into Betel, the nursing home in Gimli but, if she were still with us, there’s a story that she would tell. She told me about it many times and I was always happy to hear it again.

When my aunt was a recently married bride (she was 18), she and her husband were very poor. They lived in a shanty. Jack was an ordinary airman in the air force and the pay was not intended to support both him and a wife. However, my aunt was beautiful and he was dashing in his uniform and they, like many young couples, were full of hope for the future. Love, they believed, could overcome al l problems.

Their first Christmas Eve, all they had between them was 10 cents. Mind you, 10 cents still meant something. You could buy something with 10 cents. It was two-thirds of a haircut, for example. It was two-thirds of a ticket to the movie. It was two ice cream cones. Still, it was just 10 cents.

They set up a tree and decorated it with what they were able to make with foil they scrounged from cigarette packages, with tin from cans, with bits and pieces of glass, with chains made from colored paper.

My aunt went to the butcher shop and said to the butcher, “Can I get some hamburger for 10 cents?”

And the butcher, who had known Forence all his life for this was a small town, Gimli, Manitoba, where nearly everyone was related by blood or marriage, even though new interlopers like my  uncle were appearing because of an airbase was being built for the war effort in Europe, said, “Sure, Florence.” And took her dime.

He went to the back, away from the counter and, when he returned, he gave her a package wrapped in brown waxed paper and tied with butcher’s string.

When she got home and opened the package, there was the hamburger and with it, short ribs and steak.





Thanksgiving for angels

At Thanksgiving, my mind turns to angels. The strange thing about angels is that most people have it wrong. They think they should have wings and wear white robes. Nope. Real angels look just like you and me. They often enter our life, then disappear into the hurly burly of life. I expect there is lots of demand for their services.

One of my angels appeared just outside Denver, Colorado.

We’d been living in Nevada, Missouri for four years. Great job in a college for young women but the opportunity to return to Canada had come in an unexpected phone call  asking me if I’d like a job at the University of Victoria. It might seem like an easy decision but it wasn’t. I loved southern Missouri. I loved the heat (my bursitis disappeared), the shower roses, the pecan pie, the cicadas, the sense of living every day with history, the people with their soft drawling voices (my son’s name, Val, was drawn out to about three syllables, stretched like golden toffee).

However, the lure of Victoria with its charming Old England fakery, its harbour, the ocean, fresh fish, its moderate climate, its monkey puzzle trees, Murchie’s tea house, a hundred different things made me say yes, sure, of course.

We loaded up a too large Uhaul, we took everything, the piano, new stove, the kids, the cat.  The cat and the kids were in the car, but  you know what I mean and, early one morning, we eased away from the curb outside our house with the mulberry tree, past the pecan and redbud trees, and soon were in Kansas.

All went well until we were just outside of Denver then the car overheated on a steep slope. I am congenitally incapable of understanding motors;  however, even I could see that our fan belt had broken.

There I was in the middle of nowhere, a wife, two kids, a cat, a trailer. If I’d been a fix-the-motor with strange stuff like my father, I would have used a pair of my wife’s panty hose or something but I’m not. At the moment of greatest despair, a truck pulled up behind me, the trucker got out, said, “Ya’ll havin’ trouble?”

He took a look, then said, “They’ll be fine, you come with me.”  He took the broken fan belt, I hopped into the truck and off we went. It was a long drive to the next place with a garage that had car parts for sale. It was hot. He reached into a cooler, opened  a can of cold beer and handed it to me. I don’t normally drink beer but I wasn’t turning it down.

The garage didn’t have the fan belt we needed. “That’s okay,” the trucker said. “There’s a garage down the road.”

Over hills, down hills, until we came to another garage. They did have a fan belt. We turned around and headed back to the car. My wife, daughter, son, cat were limp with the heat. No shade. Wickedly large sun.

He pulled out some tools, loosened things, pried on the fan belt, tightened things. I started the motor. Everything worked. I was weak with relief.

“What do I owe you?” I asked.

He laughed. “Nothin’,” he said and squeezed my shoulder. I got a business card off him before he disappeared down the highway with a wave.

His truck disappeared over the crest of a hill.

“Nothin’,” he’d said. “Nothin’. You don’t owe me nothin’”.

I sat sideways with the car door open, overcome with relief.

“We made our way through Oklahoma, through Utah, through Washington State, onto the ferry at Port Angeles, cleared customs and parked in the driveway of our rented house in Victoria, safe.

I’d had one book published then. Bloodflowers. I opened boxes until I found a copy and I signed it to “Our highway angel” and mailed it.

“Nothin’,” the word rings like a bell in my head every time I think of that highway, no houses, no commercial buildings, no people in sight, the baking sun, the heat, my wife and kids, the car and trailer immobile. “Nothin’.”

That’s what angels say when you ask, “What do I owe you for kindness, generosity, time, effort?”