Click the play button to hear my (not too cheesy) reading of the post.
“Let me host Christmas Eve!!!!” screams my middle son Graham over the phone. He’s in Toronto, and I’m in Halifax wrestling over what to do for Christmas this year.
“What? Host? What about Mike? Won’t he mind me being there, not mention your brothers and Spence and me sleeping over?”
Mike is Graham’s roommate and Mike’s celebratory Hanukkah would be long over by December 24th. Aside from the fact that Mike would probably be home and might not want the Jones/Clerk hoard descending during his holiday break, Graham’s apartment is all of 600 square feet.
“Nah,” Graham insists, “he’ll be happy cuz he won’t have anything to do that day.”
“Alright,” I say, “let’s do it.”
i. a continuing pattern of culture, beliefs or practices;
My holiday tradition with my sons was once well established. Christmas Eve dinner at my house, three kid-dult sons sleeping over, stockings and presents in the morning, and a lazy breakfast before they went off to their dad’s house on Christmas Day.
The first runaway year, it was tough to hang on to any semblance of tradition when my home was in Halifax. The second year, I gave the whole idea a pass, soloing it in Quebec City with friends but without my sons. Oh, how I’d ached for them.
Now year in three of the runaway life, 2017 turned out to be the annus horribilis. The year was filled with great family upheaval. My father passed away, and I saw my mother for the first time following a fifteen-year estrangement. Finishing off the year, my oldest son Cary was leaving with his girlfriend Myra on December 28th to live in Scotland for a two-year long adventure.
When much of life is topsy-turvy, tradition offers salvation. Christmas Eve at Graham’s was a lifeline, and I needed it.
When the plane landed in Toronto on December 20th, there wasn’t a wisp of snow in the air or on the ground. That’s because Ontario’s snowmageddon decides to hold off until I’m on the 401, driving from Waterloo to Toronto in a monster SUV rental vehicle. At least the SUV has heated seats, a heated steering wheel, and it’s high enough off the road that I can see over every other vehicle road except, of course, the transport trucks which outnumber regular sized cars by a factor of 5:1.
With my nephew Spencer riding shotgun and ever thankful for all-weather tires, I plow through the greasy driving conditions and miraculously arrive at Graham’s St. Clair West flat in less than two hours, record time even for fair weather conditions.
I pull the behemoth SUV curbside and amidst knee-deep grey slush coloured by exhaust fumes, Spencer dutifully unloads umpteen groceries bags, the Christmas Eve turkey and my luggage.
I’m chief cooker of Christmas Eve dinner, as per tradition, and I begin with a kitchen assessment.
A quick once-over says it’s boy-clean. Not ideal, but workable, except for the kitchen windowsill, which is covered in a deep layer of textured grey sludge.
It’s neither Graham nor Mike’s fault. The stove is bashed right up against the window, and being the two are the same height, the sill is a bit of an extension of stove. And remember, I did say boy-clean.
I suit up yellow-rubber-glove-style and assemble the arsenal—Comet, SOS pads, Windex and several noxious industrial cleaners, not to mention an old butter knife, for scraping as required.
In a jiffy, the place is as spic and span as it’s gonna get, and the windowsill is back to bright white. Pooped, I crash in Graham’s room. He’s moved out of it temporarily and into the living room for the duration of my 2-night stay. I fall asleep listening to the chit-chat of he and Mike and the streetcars rumbling down St. Clair West Avenue.
In the morning, I haul the bird out of the fridge and jam chunks of butter between skin and flesh because, you know, everything tastes better with butter, particularly turkey.
At my feet, the two flat cats, Zelda (Mike’s cat) and Superbad (Graham’s kitty), start going crazy, dodging my steps between sink and stove before leaping onto the (now clean) windowsill. They poke their heads into the pot of potatoes and the pan of brussel sprouts and pretty much everywhere I don’t want a cat.
The distraction is good. When my mind isn’t occupied with a task, it floats into misery as I mentally go over all the missing ‘nots’ of Christmas without having my own anchor home in the province for my family to gather.
… not gonna hang stockings, not gonna flake into my own bed after frantic mid-night present wrapping whilst watching It’s a Wonderful Life and drinking Baileys, not gonna watch The Snowman movie and get shushed by my brother when I try to sing along… not gonna wake up first and enjoy a bit peace before my sons wake up.
I feel it… the tingle of woe-is-me right behind both eyeballs.
And then Zelda jumps down from the windowsill and Superbad shoots out of nowhere, dive-bombing the unsuspecting Zelda.
“Shoo,” I say to Zelda.
“Shoo,” I say to Superbad. “Achoo!”
Cat allergy aside, I can’t think of a better reminder that I need to roll with the punches.
“Hey,” says Graham’s roommate Mike, ambling into the kitchen likely awakened by the noise of me and the kitties, “did you paint the windowsill white?”
ii. a long-established or inherited way of thinking or acting;
Dr. Saul Levine, a professor of Psychiatry, wrote that traditions help you achieve “a sense of being, belonging, believing and benevolence.”
When I was a kid, I used to make my own 1-dimensional rendition of an advent calendar, ‘x-ing’ off each excruciatingly long December day with a big fat black magic marker. The wait made me almost apoplectic. I just couldn’t believe that Christmas was ever gonna arrive.
Now that I’ve lived 56 of them, here’s what I know. Christmas always comes, and no matter how old you are, you never outgrow that need for Levine’s four B’s.
Tradition mainlines those suckers straight into the bloodstream.
The living room at 10’ X 13’ is tight quarters and the only room large enough to accommodate a bigger than expected crowd. Total count has reached nine including me, 3 sons, 1 girlfriend, 1 nephew, and 1 room-mate, plus 2 friends who, for one reason or another, have nowhere to go this Christmas Eve.
The room is furnished with one futon bucket chair, a one-seater leather chair and square coffee table. To bump up the seating, Graham and Mike carry in the teeny dining table and two chairs. We make it work, shooing the cats out of the way and finding places to wedge our behinds and perch plates of food on our laps.
Sorry Zelda. Sorry Superbad. Only spot for you two is under a table or up on the windowsill.
Sometime during dinner but before dessert, my son Warren asks each person to share a yearly highlight.
That used to be my job every Christmas and sometimes Thanksgiving, forcing everyone around the table to cough up a sentimental nugget.
We go round the room and reach Cary’s girlfriend, Myra, who’s sitting next to me.
“Well,” she says, putting down her knife and fork and sitting up real straight, “I have a story. One night not long ago I was settling in for a girlfriend night with my best friend, Laurie, who was visiting from Waterloo. We had really good cheese plate and a great bottle of wine, and we were all comfy on the futon when… Karalee shows up.”
Uh oh. I’d gotten in trouble for that drop-in.
It had taken place when I’d visited in November, hardly a month ago. I was staying at a B&B on Baldwin Street, a hop skip and a jump from Cary and Myra’s Henry Street flat. In my typical bosh-bam-boom-mama manner, I’d decided to drop in, unannounced, and crashed Myra’s wine and appie night with her best friend.
“Ma,” Cary explained gently when I saw him the next day. “You need to give us more of a heads up than just saying you’re gonna be in town. And ma, you ate all the cheese!”
I brace in my chair, waiting for Myra to finish the story, my mouthful of turkey converted to chalk.
“So Karalee waltzes in, eats the cheese, takes over the conversation and then she leaves,” continues Myra.
Yup, that’s exactly what I did, and I prepare to receive my just desserts.
“But after she left, though, I was thinking about it, and I realized something,” she says looking over at me with a giant smile on her face, “This is my new family, and I’m all in.”
When dessert is done, Apple Compote and Ice Cream with candy cane chasers, everyone clears the plates, insisting since I cooked they clean up. For once, I resist the urge to clean.
Because the flat is so teeny, without moving from my chair, I’m part of the living room hubbub, and I also have a direct sight line into the kitchen. Mike and Graham stand aside each other at the sink while Cary leans up against the door jamb, ribbing his brother every now and again. Zelda and Superbad, naturally, are slinking along the furniture, where they shouldn’t be.
Dishes done, we gather again in the front room. Mike, fully embracing the spirit of this Christmas thing, hangs three of his own socks on the bookshelf for Santa to fill. I populate them with a few pieces of home-made salt water taffy given to me by a Waterloo friend.
Eventually, outnumbered by 20 and 30-somethings and getting tired, I say my good night, Merry Christmas and head off to bed.
The door to Graham’s room is right off the living room, and as I lay in bed, I can hear them talking. So much of their worlds I don’t know, will never know, and really, I shouldn’t know. Comes a point when you have to face that you’re not in the driver’s seat anymore, and maybe running away from home got me to that a little sooner than usual.
Traditions are lovely but expecting sameness when everything always changes, except Christmas rolling around every December 25th, is truly a path to despair. And well, isn’t that what I’d been doing in moaning about all those nots, getting stuck in what was and not seeing what is.
This isn’t just Myra’s new family, it’s mine. In the coming years it will expand and grow as my sons settle in with life partners and the next generation of Clerk/Jones come along. For everyone’s benefit, there is simply no room for any nots.
Time to roll with it baby, and actually, it’s not so hard after all.
As I drift off to sleep, I hear Graham say, “Nah, ma doesn’t mind the noise. She loves going to sleep listening to us hanging out with friends.”
Yup, you’re right on that Graham. One tradition that will never change.