We were rushing headlong toward our first ever Christmas as a family. Granted, we’d been together the year before, but the only ‘family’ had been me and my daughter. Now my daughter had two new brothers and a step-father. I had a new husband and two new sons and so did Brad. I should have been ecstatic, but I wasn’t. We still didn’t know where we would be when we woke up on Christmas morning. We didn’t even know if we would all be together. I had more than a few nightmares about it.
Grant still assured us we would be in our new house for Christmas, and he insisted that everything was on schedule, but I couldn’t help feeling responsible for the kids not being able to enjoy the full impact and joy of the holiday season. I couldn’t help thinking that we should have rented an apartment somewhere instead of the Winnebago. At least we would have been able to decorate a bit and set up a tree. In the Winnebago, there was barely enough room for us let alone a tree and decorations.
“We’ll make it work, Ted,” Brad told me one night as we lay in bed talking about it. “Whatever happens, we’ll make it work. We both made the decision to rent Winnie. All of us. And we’ll deal with it together. We’ll figure out a way to put up some lights and a tree in here. It won’t be much, but it’ll be something, and it’ll be enough. The kids won’t miss out on any of the fun. If we’re here and not in the house on Christmas Eve, the hardest thing we’re going to deal with is how to explain to Jeremy and Justin how Santa is going to squeeze through the roof vent.”
He tilted his head to give me a kiss on the cheek.
“We have to have some faith in Cam and Grant, Pops,” he continued. “They’ve both done everything short of guaranteeing we’ll be in. Let’s let them do their work and just concentrate on making enough money to pay them and to buy everything that’s going in it. Which reminds me – I don’t get that D-end table Spencer was talking about in the Email tonight.”
“Changing the subject?” I asked with a lopsided smile.
“No. I just thought of it.”
“Well,” I explained as I rolled onto my side facing him and propping my head in my hand, “The other table sat ten people. The D-end seats twelve.”
“See? That’s what I don’t get. It’s the same size, isn’t it?”
“Pretty-much,” I said. “It’s a bit longer, but the ends are rounded and two people can sit there instead of only one.”
Brad lay there in silent thought for a moment or two, and then his green eyes widened and his chip-toothed grin appeared. “Oh, I get it. Two people sit crooked on each end. That could come in real handy for when our parents come over for dinner.”
“Or for when the gang shows up on our doorstep for the weekend.” The gang, of course, being Nathan and Barry, Warren and Bill, and David and Brook. With the new house, there would be the guest room upstairs and the Murphy bed in the office-slash-den, so somebody might have to sleep in the livingroom on the portable bed we bought for the twins for when they slept at their Grandma and Grandpa Hayes. There would be room for everyone to sleep over and nobody would have to sleep on the floor. It was something to look forward to. We could have a housewarming party with our friends and keep warming it for the entire weekend. Nobody would have to go home. It actually made me smile.
Brad’s studies continued. In fact, he had closed down his laptop after finishing his lessons for the night only a minute or so before the conversation I just described. Every spare minute was dedicated to his online courses. He even took his laptop to work with him so he could study during his lunch hour and coffee breaks. He’d set his own study timetable and, so far, he was sticking to it without interfering with his duties at home. Well, for the most part, at least. Many were the hours we’d be in bed together with me reading or doing some work I’d brought home with me and Brad sitting up with his laptop on his lap and tapping away in English and Latin.
The kids came first, of course. Brad was completely dedicated to them. I liked to think that I came second, but I didn’t. I came third after his lessons. I didn’t mind. Brad came second to the kids, too. I would have preferred to be more important than landscaping lessons, but I knew what they meant to him. They were his future. They were his means of providing for his family. They were his dreams.
There was a time not too long ago that I had tried to talk Brad into giving up those dreams. In my need to be in control, I had tried to convince him to return to Ryerson and finish his engineering degree. He had rebelled, of course. He had stood up to me and, in my fear of losing him, I had backed down. Brad dropped out of Ryerson, taken on a full-time job, and registered for the online landscaping classes, and all I could do was to sit back and watch. He had let me know in no uncertain terms that I could not control him, either before or after we were married. Either we were equal partners in this relationship or there would be no relationship at all. If I wanted him to love me, I had to let him make his own decisions. As much as it pains me to admit it, I was wrong. It was a tough lesson for me to learn, and I was still learning it.
Brad had made the right decision - for him at least. I’d never seen him as excited and eager to study and learn engineering as he had been to study and learn about landscaping. Looking back on it, engineering had intimidated him. It had even frightened him as evidenced by our date at the top of the CN Tower and Brad’s little field trip to Thunder Bay. ‘Up’ was not a place Brad liked to be. It was, in fact, only for his parents that he had even considered becoming an engineer, but it was for his family that he decided to become a landscaper. Engineering probably would had set him for life in well-paying jobs, but I seriously doubt if he would have been happy doing it even if he never had to climb anything higher than a step ladder. Engineering would undoubtedly come in handy in his landscaping. It would give him a better understanding of structures, but it certainly wasn’t the right career for him. He was much happier and much more at ease with gardens and plants and dirt than he was with girders and skyscrapers and other high things which would make him feel much more comfortable if he was wearing a parachute or the antigravity boots the Star Trek crew wore.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that Jeremy took a keen interest in his Daddy Brad’s new obsession. If Jeremy was awake when Brad was working at his lessons, Jeremy was there, too, sitting beside his father or in Brad’s lap, watching with keen interest and absorbing much more than we could have suspected – so much so, in fact, that Brad promised him that they would go out shopping for houseplants while Lindsay and I were away from home on our weekend trip to Peterborough. He kept that promise.
Mother Nature was doing her best to give us the mild autumn promised to us by Environment Canada. For the most part, she was succeeding, but there were the a few days and nights when the thermometer dipped a bit too low for the small furnace to keep the Winnebago cozy and warm. It wasn’t cold inside, but there was a definite chill in the air. On those days, we all wore sweaters, except for Brad. Apparently, he had been born with his own built-in furnace. No electric blankets were needed when Brad was in bed with you.
On those chilly nights, we tried to convince Justin and Jeremy to sleep in their grandparents’ house, but they would have none of that nonsense. They were quite content to sleep in their flannel pyjamas and a pair of socks beneath a down-filled comforter that Mom bought for them. They didn’t sleep there for long, though. They seemed to know the exact moment when Brad and I settled in for the night. After Brad had shut down his laptop and I had placed my bookmark in the book I was reading and set it on the bedside table, and after the light was turned out, we would hear the telltale squeaks of the wooden ladder to the boys’ loft bed and then the muffled thuds of running feet as the twins ran the course from their bed to ours.
Justin would appear in the doorway first, of course, and he’d leap onto my side of the bed and crawl toward the headboard. Jeremy leapt onto Brad’s side. We’d already have the blankets pulled back so they could crawl in beside us. They’d grown out of sleeping on top of us and had taken to curling up beside us, using our shoulders and upper chests as pillows. We still don’t know why they stopped using us as beds and began using us as pillows instead. We never asked and they never said. It just happened one night. We chalked it up to that twin ‘mind thing’ they were famous for.
* * * * *
When Spencer came aboard as our designer, I doubt that he expected that he’d be taking on a side job as well. It actually began during Spencer’s second trip to the city. We were sitting at the tiny kitchen table having a nice, hot mug of coffee and listening to Spencer’s decorating ideas. We had decided early on to concentrate on the rooms we would be moving into first, those being the kitchen, the livingroom, the den/guestroom, the downstairs bathroom, and, with a bit of luck, the diningroom.
I sat on one side of the table with Spencer. The twins were kneeling on the opposite bench on either side of Brad, sipping at their mugs of hot chocolate with mushy mini marshmallows floating on top, watching everything that was going on in front of them and hanging on our every word. I don’t know why I remember this, but we were talking about stovetop pot fillers. Both Brad and I knew about them, but neither of us had thought about installing one.
“We have one,” Spencer was telling us as he showed us a variety of faucets on his laptop. “My wife loves it and so do I. It’s so much easier filling pots right there on the stove. With your clan, it will save a lot of footwork back and forth from the sink to the stove. I like the elbow type most,” he added. “It can fill pots on all of the burners.”
“Why do you talk so funny?” came a small voice from across the table.
“Justin!” I said harshly. “Don’t be rude!” I chanced a rather horrified glance at Spencer to check his reaction. He was smiling, and then he looked at me.
“It’s okay, Ted,” he said. “I don’t mind. He’s right. I do talk funny. It’s a valid question and it deserves an answer.” Spencer turned his attention to Justin and Jeremy. “I talk funny because I don’t hear very well.”
“Are your ears broke?” Jeremy asked, keenly interested.
Spencer smiled. “Yes,” he replied. “They’re broke. Sort of.”
“Can the doctor fix them?” That was Justin.
“No,” Spencer said, “but he can help me hear better with this.” He turned his head slightly and pointed to the hearing aid there. “This makes things louder so I can hear them better.” He turned his head to the other side. “I have another one here.”
“Can we hear?”
So, you may be wondering where all of this is going. Well, I’ll tell you. Spencer removed one of his hearing aids and, after allowing me to adjust the volume (it was loud enough to make me wince, causing me to appreciate just how deaf Spencer really was), Justin and Jeremy heard what Spencer’s hearing aids did for him and they finally understood why they had to be looking at him when they talked to him. More importantly, though, they discovered that Spencer could talk with his hands. By the time Spencer went home that evening, both boys could spell their names with their fingers. They spent the rest of the evening up in their loft bed practicing spelling their names to each other until they fell asleep.
From that day on, whenever they were around Spencer, our designer made a point of signing as he spoke, whether or not he was talking to the boys. He knew they were eager to learn and he was just as easy to teach them. I picked up a few words. Brad picked up a few more than I. But, over the next few weeks and months, Justin and Jeremy picked up enough sign language that they could talk not only to each other, but to Spencer and his son, Brendon, whenever Brendon accompanied his father. We didn’t mind. Brendon was a good kid. Spencer even let him stay overnight one weekend. I suggested that Brendon sleep on the daybed, but he managed to fit himself comfortably on the camper loft bed with the twins - Justin and Jeremy with their heads at one end of the mattress and Brendon with his head at the other end. The twins acted as matching bookends for his feet and legs.
Nobody fell out of bed, but I stubbed my big toe on the ladder when I went to check on them.
* * * * *
Lindsay’s excitement was growing by the day as our trip to Peterborough approached. One evening, she called our friend there. She had finished most of her Christmas village; there was no doubt that she would have it done and ready to set up for Christmas. She was rather anxious to show her handiwork to Neil. We were sitting on the sofa in Brad’s parents’ home - Lindsay to my right and Brad to my left. Justin and Jeremy were in the bathtub.
“Hi, Neil,” she began. “It’s me, Lindsay de Villiers. (pause) I’m fine, thank you. Me and my dad are coming to Peterborough for the Festival of Trees and a Christmas concert at Showplace, and I was hoping we could stop by maybe on Sunday morning so I can show you my Santa’s village. (pause) Almost. I only have one more house to put together. (pause) The post office. (pause) Yeah, I know. It looked really hard so I wanted to practice with the easy houses first. (pause) Oh, I’ll get it finished. I just have one more wall to do and then I can put it together and I’ll be all done. Oh, yeah, I almost forgot. How did you make the smoke come out of the chimney?” She paused and looked at me. “Daddy, can you buy me some pipe cleaners for the smoke?” I assured her I would and she turned her attention back to the phone. She was all smiles. “Daddy said he would buy some. (pause) Okay, we’ll see you then. I can hardly wait. (one final pause) Okay. I will. Bye.” She held the phone out to me. “He wants to talk to you, Daddy.”
I took the phone and held it to my ear. “Hi, Neil.” It was what seemed like hours before I spoke again, and, when I did, my voice was much more solemn. “No,” I continued. “I’ll do it. How are you doing? Are you managing okay? . . . Well, if there’s anything we can do. . . Right. Okay. We’ll call you Sunday morning before we come over. (pause) No, I’ll find you okay. We’re staying at the Holiday Inn. It’s just a few blocks south of you, right? . . . Great. See you then. Take care. Bye.”
I disconnected and slid my phone into my shirt pocket. I paused to take a calming breath.
“Ted?” Brad said softly, but I ignored him and wrapped my right arm behind Lindsay’s shoulders, pulling her to me.
“Sweetheart? Do you remember Neil’s dog, Sam?”
She nodded her head. “I can’t wait to see her again. She’s so beautiful,” she said. “Can we get some treats to take to her?”
“I’m afraid Sam died, Sweetheart.”
Beside me, I heard Brad whisper, “Oh, no.”
“What happened to her, Daddy?”
I took another calming breath before continuing. “She was very old, Lindsay, and she was very sick. She couldn’t walk anymore. She couldn’t even stand up by herself. Neil had to help her get up and he had to hold her up so she could walk. She was in a lot of pain, Sweetheart. She died the same day you went back to school in September.”
Lindsay looked down at the floor, staring at some spot or another for several very long and very silent seconds. The only sounds were those of the boys giggling and making splashes in the bathtub down the hall.
“I feel sad that Sam died,” she said finally, “but I feel happy that she doesn’t hurt anymore.” She looked up at me. “Is that wrong, Daddy?”
I wrapped my other arm around her and hugged her tight. “No, Sweetheart, it’s not wrong to feel that way.” I paused for a moment and, when it appeared she wasn’t going to say anything, I asked, “Are you okay, Sweetheart?”
Lindsay nodded and rested her head against my side. “I think I’ll ask Grandma to help me bake some cookies for Neil. Maybe they’ll cheer him up.”
“I’m sure they will, Sweetheart.”
A few moments later, she said with some finality, “I think he’ll like oatmeal and chocolate chip. They always cheer me up.”
I’d sampled Bernice’s oatmeal chocolate chip cookies many times before. I had no doubt that they would.
* * * * *
Lindsay was waiting for me when I pulled into the driveway after work, her face split by a smile as wide as Niagara Falls, makiing her look like a little girl again instead of the young lady she was rapidly becoming. Brad was there, too, along with the twins, and I was greeted with hugs and kisses from each and every one of them. It’s a very pleasant thing to come home to, and, if I may borrow a line from Ferris Bueller, “I highly recommend it.”
After a quick shower and a delicious chicken lasagne prepared and served up by Bernice Hayes, and after another round of hugs and kisses from Brad and the boys, my daughter and I were on the road and headed for Peterborough.
The traffic on the One-Fifteen was heavy what with all the commuters returning home from their jobs in Toronto, but eased at what I have since learnt is called ‘the Lindsay Turn-off’, a highway which connected to a small city north and west of Peterborough. My daughter, Lindsay, was rather excited to know that there was a city named after her. She usually sat in the back seats of the car and van and didn’t notice the signs the other times we’d visited Peterborough. She noticed them this time, though, and wanted to stop so I could take a picture of her beside one of the signs, but it was much too dark. “We’ll stop on the way home on Sunday when it’s sunny and there isn’t as much traffic, okay?” I promised. Lindsay promised that she would remind me. I had no doubt that she would, and I wasn’t surprised when she did.
We made it into Peterborough without incident and I drove directly to the Holiday Inn without getting lost even once – unlike our first trip to the city when we became hopelessly lost and had to ask a perfect stranger not only for directions, but if we could use his bathroom as well. It was serendipity, I suppose, but we earned a good friend out of it and we would be visiting him again in two days time.
As we pulled into the lot of the Holiday Inn, Lindsay announced emphatically, “Look, Daddy! Tim Hortons! Can we get a doughnut?”
“How about we get two of them?” I replied. “One for you and one for me.”
“Oh, Daddy, you’re silly.”
“Why, thank you, Sweetheart. I’ve been thinking of taking silly lessons, but I guess I don’t really need them, eh?”
Lindsay was silent for a few moments, and then she hit me with, “How much are the classes?”
I didn’t even have a comeback for that, so I just kept my mouth shut and listened to my daughter as she giggled away to herself for successfully one-upping me.
We checked in at the front desk of the motel and found our way to our room. The first thing Lindsay did was to toss her suitcase onto her bed and run to the sliding door which opened onto the small balcony overlooking Little Lake. I joined her a few moments later after a quick visit to the bathroom. The river which runs through the middle of Peterborough and empties into Little Lake lay directly ahead of us. The lake lay ahead and a bit to the right. To our far right, beyond the marina, was the park where we had watched the fireworks. We stayed only a few minutes before locking up our room and heading off hand-in-hand for our evening snack. With four lanes of traffic to cross, I thought it best – not to mention safer - that we walk down the street a short ways to a crosswalk.
As we walked back up the other side of the street toward Tim’s, walking past a parking lot and a small L-shaped shopping centre to our left, Lindsay suddenly yanked on my hand, bringing me to an abrupt halt. “Look, Daddy!” she said, pointing at a sign at the entrance to the parking lot. “Bowling! Can we go bowling instead?”
“It’s your weekend, Sweetheart. We can do both. Do you want bowling or a doughnut first?”
“Let’s go bowling first,” she replied without hesitation. “We can get the doughnuts and eat them on the balcony so I can look at the river.”
The Lakeview Bowl wasn’t visible from the street, but we found it easily enough, situated on the upper floor right at the bend of the ‘L’. We played three games of five-pin. I won the first game and Lindsay legitimately won the second game. I flubbed a few spares to let her win the third game as well. Fathers are supposed to do that. I should have done, though. When we got home on Sunday and she was telling Brad, the boys, and her grandparents about the weekend, she gave them a play-by-play of our bowling match and how she had won two games to my one. I managed to keep a straight face until she said, “I let him lose.”
Hey. That’s what fathers are for, right?
We left Lakeview Bowl and made our way to Tim Hortons a short distance away. I bought an apple fritter for myself. Lindsay couldn’t decide between a jelly-filled and a Bavarian Cream, so I bought one of each for her. We both agreed on hot chocolate to wash down them down. We took them back to our room and sat out on the balcony, enjoying our late-night snacks and talking about everything from Daniel to school to the way Terry seemed to be smiling a lot more these days, especially after her dates with Tom Kent. The lake sparkled from the city lights lighting the darkness around it. Muffled music from the hotel lounge down and to our left made its way to our ears. The air was cool, clear, and comfortable. It was a very pleasant way to end the day.
I expected to have a restless night considering it had been a very long time since I had slept alone, but I fell asleep quickly and slept longer than usual, waking much later than I had in quite some time. My eyes opened to the ruffled and empty bed beside me. The open bathroom door beyond it told me that my daughter wasn’t in either place. I rolled onto my back and lifted my head. Lindsay was standing between the floor-length drapes at the patio doors looking out over the balcony and through the railings at the landscape beyond. Her fascination with the small lake intrigued me.
I sat up, grabbed my bathrobe, and pulled it on as I rose to my feet and walked toward Lindsay. When I reached her, I placed my hands gently on her shoulders, bent down, and kissed the top of her head. “Good morning, Sweetheart. Have a good sleep?”
She tilted her head back, looked up at me upside-down and smiled broadly, then bobbed her head in a tiny nod. I bent down again to give her an upside-down kiss on her forehead. I knelt on one knee beside her, wrapping one arm around her back and cuddling up to her. “You see Lake Ontario all the time,” I reminded her. “What’s so interesting about this lake?”
She shrugged her shoulders slightly. “I don’t know,” she began. “I guess it’s because all you see is Lake Ontario. You don’t see anything else. Here, there’s so much to see around it, and the water is so calm that you see it all upside-down, too. Did you know there’s a cemetery over there?”
Lindsay lifted her right hand and pointed. “Over there,” she said. “Past those houses. You can see it on the other side of the lake on that little hill.”
I looked beyond the homes on the spit of land at the mouth of the river in front of us, toward the morning sun which dangled above the horizon like a beach ball of fire hanging in the sky. I could just make out the fenced cemetery where my daughter was pointing. Like the houses around it, the cemetery looked old.
“I saw some people go in,” Lindsay added quietly. “They were walking, and they had a dog. It was like they were going for a walk in a park.”
“Some people like walking in cemeteries. They find it very calming and peaceful.”
Lindsay gave a little shiver and then turned her attention to the small homes directly across the river from us. “If we lived here,” she said, “I’d like to live in that house right on the end.”
It looked much too small for our family, but I had to agree with her. It would be a lovely place to live.
Showered and dressed for the day, we made our way down to the main floor and to the hotel restaurant for breakfast. Our waitress was a delightful young lady named Karen. She had a face full of freckles and her auburn hair pulled back in a ponytail. She had a smile that lit up both her face and the room. We placed our order and, when she returned to serve it to us a short time later, I asked if she could tell me how to get to the homes across the river. Her bright smile became even wider and she laughed. “Trust me, Sir. You don’t want me giving you directions. I’d probably get you lost just going to the bathroom.”
As we were laughing, she looked over her shoulder to a young man clearing one of the tables. “Keith,” she called to him. “Could you come here for a second?”
He came immediately. His smile matched Karen’s. “Good morning. How can I help?” he asked politely.
“Could you give this gentleman the directions to the houses across the river, please? If I do it, they’ll probably end up in Montreal!”
Still laughing, she went about her duties. Keith remained and pulled an order pad and pen from his vest pocket and began sketching the route as I watched intently.
As it turned out, a hand-drawn map wasn’t really necessary. When he was finished sketching, Keith pulled off the sheet and set it on the table in front of me. He bent down beside me so I could follow the route as he traced it out, using his pen as a pointer. “Turn right out of the parking lot and head north. Go past the Galaxy Theatre and turn right at the bank. Cross the bridge and turn. Go as far as you can go and turn right again. Up the hill, turn left, and you’re there.” I noted that he had a delightful, fresh-out-of-the-shower smell which I knew would be gone before his coffee break, so I took in as much as I could before he continued with his duties.
We went there after breakfast and parked at the side of the street in from of Lindsay’s dream house. From where we stood, with our backs to the house and facing the lake, we could see the Otonabee River, the Holiday Inn and the Marina to our right. Little Lake spread out in front of us and, further to our left, was the cemetery which Lindsay had spotted the night before. We were standing at the tip of a small peninsula, surrounded by city, but it was a world apart. No hustle. No bustle. Just a lot of quiet and calm all around us. My daughter sure knew how to pick ‘em.
I suddenly appreciated why my parents had bought a house in Maple when they moved here from Crystal Beach. There was an appeal to being alone. Like my daughter, I could easily see myself living in that place.
Lindsay snapped lots of pictures, including the Inn across the river and the cemetery which was clearly visible now on the opposite shores of the lake. It was, indeed, an old cemetery, filled with large and weathered stones which looked well over a century old. As strange as it may seem, it added to the peacefulness of the area. There was nothing spooky about it. I took a few pictures of Lindsay, including a few of her with her dream home in the background and a carefully-arranged photo of her pointing to our room and balcony at the Holiday Inn. She took a few of me in various poses. We even convinced a couple about my parents’ age to take a few more of Lindsay and me together.
After that, we sat for a time on the grass overlooking the lake. Lindsay sat between my legs and rested her back against my chest. I wrapped my arms around her and she folded her hands over mine, just like we used to do before Brad and the boys arrived on the scene. We were a part of something I had never experienced before. Except for us, the only people who were there belonged there. We were nestled away in the midst of a city, yet I felt that she and I were the only people there. It had been a long time since I had experienced that sensation. I suddenly felt that I had been neglecting her. I hadn’t realised how much I had become preoccupied with Brad and the boys. I hugged my daughter a bit tighter and made a promise to myself to become more of a father to her again. That weekend was a good start.
As much as we wanted to stay, we had things to do. A long day lay ahead of us. We climbed back into our car and set out for the Memorial Centre where the Festival of Trees was being held. I knew where the Centre was. We’d passed it on our way to the Holiday Inn. It would be easy enough to find. I took a roundabout route, driving off the peninsula and back down the hill, continuing straight until we drove over a bridge over the canal. The canal was closed and drained for the season. Only a small amount of water was left in it. We could see the landmark Liftlock to our left.
Two more right turns took us to the Memorial Centre, but it took us almost as long to find a parking space as it did to get there. Even then, it was a fair walk to the venue. It was a busy, busy place. With tickets in hand, we entered the arena and walked right into Christmas. It looked like Christmas, it sounded like Christmas, it smelt like Christmas, and there was even a taste of Christmas in the air. There was no winter on the other side of the doors, but a shitload of holiday cheer surrounded us as we walked into a magnificent Winter Wonderland.
The pictures we had seen on the internet did not do justice to what we were experiencing. We had barely stepped inside and already it had been the price of admission. As much as I had expected, it was ten times more. I knew it was a hit with my daughter as well when she grabbed my hand, squeezed it tightly, and whispered loud enough for me to hear clearly over the holiday tunes which filled the air, “Oh, Daddy. It’s beautiful.”
It was like an entire chunk of a small country wood had been yanked from the ground (trees and cabins and all), plopped in the middle of the Memorial Centre, and turned into Christmas. Cedar mulch paths weaved their way through a maze of dozens of trees, adding an authentic evergreen smell to the air. Each tree was painstakingly and lavishly decorated by a local charitable or business group. A public auction on Sunday, the last day of the festival, would see the sale of all the trees with all proceeds going to local charities. It would have been fun to attend the auction, but the tickets for that day had been sold out long before we bought ours. Still, there was a lot to see and the time flew by quickly.
I had spotted my favourite tree only seconds after we entered the display area. As a matter of fact, I could see it from the entryway. It was a white tree, artificial, of course, which had been completely trimmed in shiny blue balls, blue tinsel, narrow strings of blue garland, and hundreds of blue mini lights. Lindsay liked it, too, but I knew how difficult it would be to find all the trimmings in the same metallic cobalt blue. But there were plenty more trees, plenty more decorations, and plenty more ideas ahead of us.
Lindsay took lots of pictures of all the trees, except for one which she claimed rated seven eeeeeees on her ‘ew’ scale. (I thought it rated eight. Black with white ornaments and lights? Seriously? Come on! It might have been suitable at 1313 Mockingbird Lane, but not in my house!)
Most of the pictures were reserved for Lindsay’s favourite tree – a majestic, realistic, artificial blue spruce decorated with Victorian-style hand-blown and painted glass ornaments. It truly was spectacular. Silver tinsel was carefully and painstakingly hung over the branches; broad, silver garland was draped in a wavy spiral from top to bottom. Hundreds of multi-coloured mini lights lit the tree from both the inside and the outside It was topped with an amazing angel with long, golden hair, an angelic face, wispy gossamer wings, and hand-stitched robes of brilliant burgundy and deep forest green, all delicately trimmed with silver and gold hand-stitched embroidery.
After almost a full hour of close examination of every ball, every bulb, every bauble, every bell, every snowflake, and every cherub, my daughter stepped back and stared at her treasure. With a heavy, rather disappointed sigh, she said quietly, “I wish we could buy it.”
“So do I, Sweetheart. Maybe we can go shopping before we go home on Sunday and see what we can find. Maybe we can make one just like it. How does that sound?” Lindsay didn’t respond in words, but the glint in her eyes and the smile on her face when she looked up at me told me she was ‘cool with that’.
We’d located the Ye Olde Sweets and Gift Shoppe early on, tucked away inside a rustic, pseudo log cabin decorated for Christmas both inside and out, but we waited until we were getting ready to leave before we went shopping for candy to take back home with us. It was set up like a candy store you would see in a black and white Christmas movie with glass-front counters displaying containers filled with loose candy. Each had the obligatory metal scoop.
An old-fashioned balance scale sat atop the counter, framed on both sides with dozens of jars of larger candy: stick candy and candy canes in dozens of flavours, and Christmas-coloured lollipops from teaspoon-sized small enough to stick in your mouth to suckers so huge that Justin and Jeremy’s faces would disappear behind them when they licked them. A serving tray caught my eye. It was piled with long, flat strips of hand-pulled taffy like the taffy I used to buy in fairground midways when I was a kid. Each was wrapped in square of waxed paper. I got a sugar rush just looking at everything.
The walls of the cabin were lined with shelves displaying all sorts of Christmas novelties for sale. Lindsay was immediately drawn to a display of snow globes and a nearby shelf of Christmas figurines. She went to browse them as I bought an assortment of loose candy, a variety of flavoured candy canes, a good supply of stick candy, a supply of old-fashioned sponge toffee, and, after being given a bite-sized sample and finding it just as tasty as I remembered, a few dozen strips of the pull taffy. I knew Mom would enjoy them as much as I would. I think that’s the only reason she and Dad took me to the Toronto Ex each year when I was a kid – just so Mom could pick up a generous supply of taffy to last us a few weeks. Pull taffy is becoming a lost art. It exists mostly in our memories these days, so, when I see it, I grab it. I never know when I’ll find it again.
With my bag of goodies in hand, I joined my daughter as she was examining a shelf of miniature holiday figurines. There were carolers, a mother and her child standing beside a mailbox with the child standing on tiptoes to slip a letter into the box, a young boy pulling a sled upon which rode a Christmas tree three times as long as the sled, an older couple sitting on a park bench, a figure skater dressed in a long, white coat with the parka pulled up gliding across a pond-shaped mirror, and five other figures in various wintery poses. All were dressed in warm and colourful winter clothing.
I knew immediately what she was thinking. “These would be perfect for your village, wouldn’t they, Sweetheart?”
“Mm hmm,” she replied dreamily. “They’re so pretty, aren’t they?”
“Pretty enough for your village,” I told her as I grabbed up a box of the figurines from the shelf below and handed it to her. She gave me such a smile as she looked up at me and said ‘thanks’. It was worth the over-inflated price.
“Did you see any snow globes you liked?” I asked my daughter. “I saw you looking at them.”
“A few,” she told me. “I like this one and this one most.” One was a Currier and Ives winter scene with two hearty horses pulling a sleigh in which a young man and lady, all bundled up for the bitter weather, rode through a country lane. A small, black dog ran along beside them, enjoying the snow and keeping the young couple company. The other globe contained a large, winter-clad farmhouse with rolling drifts of snow blanketing the yard. A few snow-tipped evergreens stood out against all of the whiteness. A little boy and girl, barely visible under their warm, winter clothing, were building a snowman in front of the house. “It reminds me of Grandma’s and Grandpa’s house,” she said, and she was right. That’s what it reminded me of as well.
I added the two globes to the figurines. “Want anything else?” I asked.
“No, but can I see those ones up there?” She pointed to two rather tall globes – easily twice the height of any other globe available in the shop - on a shelf far beyond the reach of small children. Instead of the usual bases, these globes were set atop high-gloss bases, each painted with beautiful Victorian village scenes. The globes themselves were elliptic rather than the more common spherical shape. Each contained a group of three or four Victorian carolers standing in a wintery woodland scene, one with a gas lamp post sticking up from behind the trees. The set cost considerably more than the other two globes and figurines combined.
I set our goodies on the floor and delicately grabbed the globes off the shelf, one in each hand. A small wind-up key emerging from the underside of each immediately explained the cost. They were more than just snow globes. They were music boxes as well. One played Silent Night. The other played We Wish You a Merry Christmas.
We left the Festival of Trees with four snow globes. No hesitations. No reservations. After losing almost everything she could call her own in the fire, my daughter had asked for very little. She didn’t even ask for these, but I wasn’t about to begrudge her the joy they would bring to her.
* * * * *
The Showplace Theatre was only a few blocks north of the Holiday Inn, so we decided to walk there. We left early, forgoing the restaurant at the Inn for dinner, and set out in search of a suitable place to eat. There were plenty of restaurants and cafés, but Lindsay’s choice was a place called Wimpy’s Diner.
Despite the kitschy décor (it truly was a ‘diner’ right out of American Graffiti), the food was surprisingly good and the service was decidedly excellent. In fact, as we were taking our seats in a vacant booth, a waitress was assisting an older woman with a cast on her leg and walking with crutches. As she passed our table as they headed toward the door, she said with a broad smile, “I’ll be with you in a moment.”
I returned her smile. “No rush.”
Like any authentic diner, the arborite tabletop was attached to the wall at one end while resting on a chrome pole at the other end. Cushy, vinyl-clad benches sat on either side. A simple chrome frame near the wall provided a space for the sugar shaker, the salt and pepper shakers, and the ketchup and mustard squeeze bottles with a slot for the menus behind them. Above the condiment rack, attached to the wall, was an authentic retro jukebox complete with song list and alphanumeric buttons. The only thing that wasn’t retro about it was a slot big enough to accept Loonies - the twenty-first century version of ‘three songs for a quarter’.
Lindsay wasn’t particularly bothered that our server was busy helping a customer and not taking our dinner order. She was too preoccupied trying to decide what jukebox songs she wanted to listen to for her two Loonies. When she’d made her selections, she dropped her coins into the slot and pushed the buttons. Her songs began playing quietly in the background as she began perusing the plastic-laminated menu. And if my charming conversation wasn’t enough to keep her busy, there were all the vintage posters lining the wall to keep her entertained.
We left the diner with full bellies and happy memories of the best burgers we’d ever eaten in our lives. We took our time walking as we made our way to the Showplace theatre, doing a bit of casual window shopping on the way. We arrived at the theatre with plenty of time to spare.
Mere words cannot do justice to the spectacle we watched that night. It wasn’t a professional performance by any means – the performers were, for the most part, local amateurs – but it wasn’t grade school level, either. Even though the decorations and stage props were sparse, when combined with the authentic costumes and songs and narration, the audience was given an excellent representation of what it would be like to experience Christmas in another country.
The show began promptly at seven o’clock when a curly-haired young man, dressed in vintage Welsh clothing, and looking very-much like Dylan Thomas, walked to the centre of the stage and sat on a wooden stool there. He held an unlit cigarette in one hand (which he pretended to puff on with great regularity) and an old, open book with dog-eared pages and a well-worn dust jacket in the other. He read the enchanting A Child’s Christmas in Wales to a silent and rapt audience. His lilting voice danced to our ears. His accent was distinctly Welsh.
Dylan Thomas was a master of words, and his words created incredible images in the minds of the listeners. We didn’t need actors portraying the story on the stage in front of us. We could see the whole thing on the stage of our imaginations, keenly choreographed and directed by Dylan Thomas himself. In my mind, that experience alone was worth the price of admission, and the performances which followed were frosting on a highly entertaining Christmas cake.
Six countries were represented: Australia, Greece, Mexico, Germany, and Holland. But that’s only five, isn’t it? The sixth country was, in fact, Canada, represented by a typical Canadian Mennonite Christmas. I suppose you could say that a seventh country was represented if you count Dylan Thomas.
As I mentioned a few lines ago, I won’t even attempt to describe the costumes and songs and traditions we witnessed and enjoyed that night. I don’t have Dylan’s gift with words. Suffice it to say that the costumes and props, the sketches and the songs, gave a clear and enjoyable idea about what a Christmas celebration would be like in those countries. The Greek group offered a tasty bonus. A number of kids, dressed in authentic Greek costumes, passed out authentic Greek cookies called Kourabiedes – sort of a crescent-shaped, almond-flavoured, shortbread cookie rolled in icing sugar. They were individually wrapped in clear plastic wrap and were absolutely melt-in-your-mouth delicious.
Lindsay enjoyed the entire show, but she truly loved the Australian Christmas, especially the Aussie version of Jingle Bells. I had to look it up on the Internet when we got back to the inn. I found the lyrics and even the original version sung by Bucko & Champs on YouTube:
Dashing through the bush in a rusty Holden Ute,
Kicking up the dust, Esky in the boot,
Kelpie by my side, singing Christmas songs,
It's summer time and I am in my singlet, shorts, and thongs.
Oh! Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way,
Christmas in Australia on a scorching summer's day,
Oh! Jingle bells, jingle bells, Christmas time is beaut,
Oh what fun it is to ride in a dusty Holden Ute.
However, whereas Lindsay’s attention was on the songs, mine was on a typical Aussie beach boy with a head of blond curls and a smile as big as the Southern Cross. He came onstage wearing a pair of sandals, Australian flag board shorts, and a white, sleeveless T-shirt with a health patch of blond chest hair peeking out of the neck band. From the neck down, he was built very much like Brad – so much so that I wondered briefly how he was managing on his own with Justin and Jeremy.
That thought was short-lived, though, as my beach boy blond pulled off his T-shirt and took his place behind the ‘barbie’, looking more like he was ready for a day on Bondi Beach than to be cooking Christmas dinner. He smiled another wide and bright Aussie smile as he made a show of putting a rather large turkey on one side of the barbecue and a shank of ham on the other. I was so intent on his hairless chest and blond curls that I didn’t even notice that the rest of the people on stage were now wearing clothes more appropriate to a scorching summer’s day at Bondi than being properly dressed for Christmas dinner. As my boy (as I had come to think of him) sang along in a hefty baritone voice as he tended the turkey, the party goers decorated a small Christmas tree with colourful balls and large, pastel stars. Simple, but beautiful.
The audience broke into laughter and applause when Santa Claus, carrying a surfboard, walked bare-footed onto the stage to join the festive group. He wore a full and bushy white beard, a bright and white ‘Santa’ hat, beach shorts (the left half red, the right half green) with snow white snowflakes plastered all over them and one particularly large snowflake to cover his ample backside. He was a blizzard of Christmas cheer – at least from the waist down.
It truly was the highlight of the evening.
Both of us were fascinated by the simplicity of the Mennonite celebrations. No frills. No decorations. No lights. No extravagance. Just Christmas at its most basic, and it all revolves around the church and family – the two most important things in a Mennonite’s life. For the children, their unwrapped gifts, placed in large bowls set on the table, are simple but practical – mostly tools for the boys and useful household items for the girls. These gifts are intended to help the children grow into adulthood and to start families of their own. Mixed in with the gifts, the children find candy and chocolate treats. There may even be a rare and treasured bottle of soda pop, an extra special treat for a Mennonite child.
“Daddy,” my daughter said as we walked back to the motel hand-in-hand after the show ended, “I didn’t understand what the lady said about why they don’t have Christmas trees and why they don’t wrap their presents.”
“Some do, Sweetheart,” I explained, “but many don’t. They live a very simple life where things like Christmas trees and wrapping paper are not only unnecessary and showy, but they’re distracting and they take attention away from the real reason for Christmas. They also think it’s a waste to kill a tree just for decoration their homes.”
She paused a moment, thinking, then said, “They could buy an artificial tree like we use.”
“They could,” I replied, but it still takes materials from the earth to make them, and that is just as much of a waste to them. Do you understand?”
“I think so, but I still like trees and wrapped presents.”
“I do, too, Sweetheart,” I told her. “I do, too.”
After a quick bath for Lindsay and a shower for me, we were sitting up in Lindsay’s bed, the cushy and warm sheets pulled up to our waist. Lindsay had asked if I would sit with her while we talked, and she cuddled up against me when I joined her. With my arm thrown over her shoulder, holding her close to me, we talked and sipped our three-dollar bottles of juice from the refrigerator in our room. While Lindsay was in her bath, I had taken the time to transfer our pictures to my laptop and to search for Lindsay’s song and video. She had copied the lyrics to Word and saved the video to the hard drive while I was in the shower. She was watching the video yet again when I came back into the room dressed for bed.
“Australia was funny,” she said, “but I don’t think I would like having Christmas in the middle of summer. It would be too hot, and it wouldn’t be much fun without snow.”
“Wouldn’t you like to eat your Christmas dinner in your swimsuit and go surfing after dessert?”
“I wouldn’t like my Christmas turkey cooked on a barbecue. I like it cooked in the oven with Grandma’s stuffing and gravy. But I liked it when Santa came out wearing board shorts and carrying a surfboard,” she said, giggling the entire time. “That was so funny.”
“Yes, it was, Sweetheart.”
We continued chatting and sipping our juice, but it wasn’t long after I set the juice bottles on the bedside table that Lindsay fell silent. Not long after that, she was asleep. I stayed where I was, thinking that I would hold her just a little while longer. I remember thinking that I should call Brad before I fell asleep and tell him that I miss him.
I don’t remember anything after that.
To Be Continued