An (east coast) Christmas story

Christmas in the Maritimes is something special.

There’s lots of dancing and singing and great food and drink. But chiefly, Christmas, or winters in the east coast of Canada – and by east coast I mean the true east coast, none of this Ontario east coast fakery that people in Toronto are always trying to pull off because they think that they’re living in New York.

(They’re not.)

Winters in the true east coast of Canada are defined by freezing wet snow and lots of it.

It makes it hard to get places, so people who move away rarely go back and people who stay, don’t ever leave.

In 2007, I was flying home to see my family.

For the first time in years and years of going home for Christmas, I was travelling through Ottawa – a true mainstay of central Canada  – and the weather was terrible. Every flight was grounded.

Every flight, weirdly, save mine.

It was strange to see an entire list of cancelled flights, while right at the very bottom, shining like a beacon of Christmas hope was: WestJet – Halifax – on time.

I thought: I’m either very lucky or my pilots are daredevils with death wishes.

Turns out – a little bit of both.

As we began our descent into Halifax International, the woman sitting next to me proceeded to throw up the two mini cans of Pringles potato chips while breaking every bone in my right hand, to which she was clinging for dear life.

I too definitely thought we were done for. I distinctly remember being so sad that I was never going to get marry Marc, as this was to be our last Christmas apart before we were married the next year.

Luckily, we pulled through. (The plane, Marc, and I.)

Leaving the airport, I marveled at our surroundings. Halifax, like my airliner, had been completely buffeted by winter. Snow, ice and fog were everywhere. Driving into the city, the snow banks lining the streets were the highest I had ever seen them, as if the fallen snow had been parted by a wintertime Moses, and not the city’s plows.

“They’ve got to be like 9 feet tall,” I said to my mum.

“You should have seen them last week,” she said. “Before it warmed up.”

I checked the temperature gauge in the car. It read -12 C.

It was in this moment that I realized that British Columbia had forever ruined me and I could never again move back to Halifax, lest I die immediately from frostbite due to -12 C somehow being defined as “warmer”.

But, nevertheless, we made it home to properly set off the Christmas celebrations.

My family and I – that is my sisters, mum and I – are really big on traditions. Baking and decorating gingerbread men, holiday concerts with lots of singing and dancing, setting up the tree – it’s all a part of how we make this time of year special.

In terms of Christmas Day, it’s fair to say that we like to keep things simple: Stockings. Gifts. Cooking. Eating.

Which is why as soon as I arrived home, we set out to prepare everything for the big day. We trimmed the tree and helped decorate the house. On the 24th my older sister Kate and I traipsed over to the Organic Earth Market (the very broke Halifax equivalent to Whole Foods) so I could load up on tubers and cranberries and chestnuts and so she could get our free range, organic turkey.

“We only have frozen ones!” yelled the guy behind the counter.

We looked at each other and shrugged. SOLD.

Home we went, to put everything in the fridge before going to bed.

The next morning we opened our stockings, opened our presents and then set about getting ready to cook our dinner.

I’ll never forget my mum opening the fridge door, pausing and then exclaiming:

“THIS BIRD IS FROZEN TO ITS VERY CORE!”

Kate looked up from the stuffing.

“Oh,” she said, quizzically. “I…I thought it would defrost in the fridge over night?”

My mum’s right eyebrow arched so high it hit the ceiling.

“Defrost? In the fridge?” She shut the fridge door and began pacing.

Jessi, my younger sister, sauntered into the kitchen, picking up a piece of one of the carrots I was chopping. “Yeah,” she said. “That’s never going to work.”

Kate glared at her.

I dropped my carrot and looked around at the metric tonne of vegetables I had left to peel and chop and yelled out: “Let’s just order pizza!”

I was already imagining us hanging out in our sweatpants and watching a movie instead of slaving away for the next six hours.

The looks I received from my family immediately withered my enthusiasm.

“We are NOT ordering pizza,” they all yelled back at me.

We were going to eat Christmas dinner on Christmas Day if it was going to kill us.

My sisters and my mum immediately set out trying to find a place where we could get a booking.

Unfortunately, trying to locate a space available on Christmas day for four people was hard. Very hard. Most places weren’t open and those that were had booked up months prior.

I was really starting to believe that my pizza wish was going to come true when Kate yelled out from the living room: “I did it! I found us a place! The holiday Inn Select will take us! It will take us tonight at 7pm!”

I nearly fell over.

The Holiday Inn Select? I had been making fun of that place since before I even know what sarcasm was.

“BOOK IT!” yelled my mum.

We were in.

At 6:30 pm we started the walk over to the hotel. In truth, it was probably only a 5 minute walk, but it had gotten so cold and windy that we budgeted a lot of extra time. We all huddled together as we exposed ourselves to the freezing night. Swirls of ice and snow flew across the abandoned expanse of the city.

Walking up the deserted street, I stared ahead at the glowing, fluorescent sign at Cruikshank’s funeral home, which advertised both the time and temperature of the day.

The numbers glowed eerily cold against the dark of the night: -26 degrees.

As I contemplated my life, walking to the Holiday Inn Select on one of the coldest Christmas Days I could remember, I ruminated aloud on how weirdly poetic it was to be walking towards a funeral home, as this was something of a funeral march.

“That’s not funny,” was my mother’s response.

We arrived at the hotel right on time for our reservation.

The Maître D immediately perked up when he saw us, mostly because my mother, despite her insistence on coming to the hotel, didn’t want to be confused with any of the other people who had really planned on being there for dinner. She was wearing a full-length ball gown that had been made for her a few years prior when she and her friends had gone to a gala to ring in the New Year.

It stood in stark contrast to not only the majority of the other clientele but to my sister Jessi’s low-rise jeans.

“Reservation for Gillis?” I asked, making one final wish for an Italian, wood-fired Christmas.

He escorted us to our table.

The dining room was huge – probably not the full length of a football field, but it certainly felt that way. And despite it being a ballroom, my mother was the only one who had dressed the part. Everyone else was sticking to Nova Scotia classic – jeans, running shoes and a hooded sweatshirt that’s just a little too big.

It wasn’t five minutes into our arrival that my mother had garnered her first fan.

A woman with a very thick Valley accent (Annapolis Valley, not California) came up to her and exclaimed, “YOU ARE THE MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMAN I HAVE EVER SEEN. Can I take a photo of you?”

Over the course of the evening, my mother posed for no less than nine photos for this woman. To this day, I always wonder where those pictures ended up.

The dinner was a buffet so we all set about getting to our food. I’ve never been a big fan of buffets, so I mostly picked at a very large piece of cheesecake that I had topped with about a quart of cranberry sauce to give it more flavour. My sister Jessi on the other hand has always loved buffets and exploded the button right off of her low rise pants, effectively making them no-rise pants.

I laughed so hard I almost peed mine.

Kate, the most steadfast of our group, spent a lot of the night asking my mother to “keep her voice down” as she proceeded to provide colour commentary on all of the other guests and “what part of the province they had to be from.”

I wanted to say something about the bird not being free range, or organic, but I kept my mouth closed.

We sat, ate, talked, laughed and made plans for how to properly tackle our Christmas feast the next day. And despite the commotion of the ballroom all around us, and the cold of the outside night, I felt a distinct warmth between us.

On our slow, bundled up walk back to the house, my mum began humming one our favourite east coast Christmas songs and I immediately began singing along. Together we all linked arms, and began two stepping down the street – without any cars in sight, there was enough space for us to dance together.

Our voices rang out into the night.

And that – that more than anything, is a maritime Christmas.

She brought me to life

How do I write the world?

I am a woman of many words but in this, I am without.

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So I’ll tell you about crawling into her bed on early Sunday mornings and begging for stories about Antigonish and the always fabled east coast.

Edmonton, Calgary, Toronto.

Ottawa. Ottawa and the Minto hotel.

I needed to know these places. These homes that housed my momma, the indomitable supermomma, a women whom I loved more than anything and anyone in the entire world. So much so that I often wondered how – how could my little heart hold this much?

I craved her memories – needed to know, needed to see, needed to feel these things my momma had known, seen, felt – devoured every word, curled up perfectly, in a momma-sized crook, each piece of part of her life nourishing and sustaining, brightening the beat of my heart.

She brought me to life. She brought me to life.

I cannot find the words, because I am my mother. And she is me.

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I am the knowledge of a world and a love manifestly bigger than my own single self.

It echoes in the hollows of my bones.

Momma, momma, momma.

Donna Marie.

Vanessa Marie.

I feel her everywhere. I see her everywhere. She’s in my fingertips when I write. She’s in my laugh with friends. She in the tree dancing in the wind outside of my home.

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Tell me about Suzan.

Tell me about blueberry picking with Marilyn. Tell me about the dances and camping trips with the MacFarlanes. Tell me about the boys you liked and about the girlfriends you loved more.

Tell me. Tell me. Tell me.

I’d say please (please). I’m your man.

When we were young, my parents would take us on long winter road trips to Red Mountain and Silver Star. We didn’t do much as a family, but we skied.

The five of us would cram into our Toyota Turcel, packed to the hilt with equipment, clothes, blankets, pillows, and enough mandarin oranges to stave off scurvy for one hundred years. These trips also marked the yearly détente in my parents’ hard-lined approach to all things junk food, and over the course of the drive, my sisters and I would patiently await our gifts: a big bag of plain Ms. Vicky’s potato chips, Turtles chocolates, and homemade gingerbread cookies.

If heaven could be defined.

Other than the lingering smell of sea salt and a constantly queasy tummy (as the middle child I was forced to endure the middle seat), the thing I remember most about these trips is the music.

The wonderful music.

My family I would listen to tapes and tapes and tapes of Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, and The Beatles. The Rankin Family and Stan Rogers. Boney M and Enya. Our tastes were eclectic as they were magic.

Because with so little to define us, they did just that.

I campaigned constantly for The Commitments Soundtrack, but my musical candidate was a consummate loser to Leonard Cohen. And every time I lost, I would beg the powers that were to “please.”

Please stop playing Leonard Cohen.

Unfortunately, they didn’t, and I suffered in silence.

I hated how his songs were too much. Couldn’t stand the way they made me feel. Drained of all emotion, and yet somehow still full to bursting. Slightly sweaty. Squirmy and shirty. Filled with a restlessness. An energy that was only exacerbated by the car’s hot and cramped quarters.

It was music that made me want to run away.

The only song that I could stand was “I’m Your Man.” I liked the synthy keyboards and the other moody instruments that, try as I might, I could never place. How it was more spoken word than song. The slow raspy voice. I liked how it had an immediate and sobering effect on my fellow passengers, forcing us all to pause.

To stop our frenzied fights. Breath life into our suffocating silences.

It made me feel warm. Cozy. I imagined dancing, slowly, as a grown-up.

But after grade seven we stopped going on ski trips.

After grade ten my parents divorced.

And I don’t know when I stopped listening to Leonard Cohen. I didn’t even think about him until after I started dating Marc.

We were up at his own parents’ cabin on the Sunshine Coast and we were looking through their record collection. We were trying to decide what to play next. We were slightly drunk and eating peanut butter sandwiches.

“We need something that we can dance too,” I said.

He pulled out Songs of Love and Hate.

“Not Leonard Cohen,” I heard myself say. I didn’t even stop looking through the other albums. “I hate him.”

Marc looked at me dumbfounded. “No one hates Leonard Cohen.”

“I do,” I said. “We used to listen to him all of the time on road trips. He’s depressing.”

Marc looked me in my eyes. Long and hard. And then he put the album away. “Okay,” he said. “We can play something else.”

And we did.

For years and years, we always played something else.

The Faces. Cat Stevens. Bob Dylan.

In the spring of 2010, I defended my thesis and bid adieu to graduate school. Marc and I celebrated on the Coast. Driving along the highway, I closed my eyes to the late afternoon sunfall. It felt like, for the first time in my entire life, I was no longer worried about school.

The next morning, I crawled out of bed and, alone, slid into the quiet of the house.

I tiptoed to the record player. Paused. Took out Songs of Love and Hate.

I held the cover lightly in my hands. Stared at the cover. Turned it over. Took out the record and placed it over the spindle. Set the needle.

And listened.

Always best to start at the beginning

The day after leaving Berlin, we spent a day sailing the Baltic sea.

We were knackered from the first three days of travelling and didn’t wake up until 10 AM. This was a welcome surprise, as it meant I was freed from roaming the ship like a homeless vagabond simply waiting for the sun to rise (and the gym to open.)

That afternoon, I ran and mum practiced yoga and then we met up with our trivia team for another hour of putting all of our strange and extraneous knowledge to good use.

I almost keeled over with laughter as we tried to figure out what animal is thought to represent long life in Korea.

When my mum suggested the duck I knew I was a total goner. Frank from New Jersey, known already for his serious side eye, nearly knocked over his beer. Good thing for gentle Queenslander Wendy, who quickly suggested that it might be the bear.

Turns out that it was the deer all along.

Afterwards, we returned to our room and laughed ourselves silly sharing hilarious stories, including a real doozy from Bath, New Brunswick, wherein on the way to a New Year’s Eve dance at the legion in Woodstock, NB (Bath being too small to have a legion of its own) both my mum’s boots and stockings melted all over her legs, coagulating into one gooey, goopy super pant.

As my mum put it: “Buddy’s heat in his car was all messed up. I kept telling him that I was cold so he kept turning it up. Turns out, he turned it up a little too high. I got out of the car and I had these big, big holes in my pantyhose and this goo all over my legs. I had to take them off and was left with nothing but my melting boots. That guy really liked me too. He kept telling Noreen that he was thrilled to be with me. All I wanted to do was get away from him. He was supposed to be the coolest dude because he had this stupid damn car. I didn’t care at all.”

I am actually crying with laughter just writing this down. Also, should you ever want to know why I am the way that I am, it’s because of this story. Period.

We capped off the day with dinner out on the terrace, drinking white wine and talking with the sommelier, who is a dead ringer for Novak Djokovic – just with better glasses. I am, of course, completely biased, but hey, they were good, good glasses.

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As we snuggled down to sleep, we watched Iceland go up one goal over England, and I swear to goodness, even this far out from the island, I could swear we heard that entire country lose its collective mind.

Alas, that night I was back to the insomnia, and was up at both 1 AM and 4:45 AM. Standing at the rail of our balcony, I let the Baltic wind blow through my hair. Let it whip through my clothes. Let it rip through me, and into my bones.

I watched as the colours of the heavens shifted and blurred; magentas bleeding into royal blues; the yellow of a daisy’s eye; a blossom pink.

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In the silence, everything softens. Everything cools.

Night rolls on, but the light.

It persists.

By 5 AM, the sun was wide awake, breaking through three layers of curtains into our room.

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I again crept outside, and watched it burn a path across the morning seascape.

I have wanted to go to Riga since reading Henning Mankell’s The Dogs of Riga when I was 19 and in my second year of my undergrad. I was taking a Northern European film and literature class and it was the last book on my class syllabus. That year I had read 92 pieces of literature (books, novellas, plays, graphic novels – just for school alone), and by the end of the semester I was burnt out.

The Dogs of Riga was sitting on my bookshelf and I was debating whether or not I would be able to get through the course without cracking it open.

One night, instead of writing a paper of his own, Marc read the entire thing in one sitting. The next morning, the first thing he said to me was, “Babe you really need to read this book.”

And so I did. Also over the course of one day.

It was that book that set off a twelve-year love affair with Mankell. I read, and re-read every Kurt Wallender crime novel, and most of his other fiction.  It was the catalyst for this trip. It is what is taking my mum and I around Northern Europe and into the Russian motherland, as I had passed on my love (and my collection of dog eared paperbacks) to her the last summer I lived in Halifax.

So today we adventured around Riga. We learned about the city and its history, marvelling at the incredible architecture of the new town, and the warmth and magnificence of the old town.

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Did you know that that legend behind Riga’s flag is that in the thirteenth century there was a mortally wounded Lavian warrior who was wrapped in a white sheet? The part of the sheet on which he was lying remained white, but the two edges were stained in his blood. During the next battle his soldiers used the bloodstained sheet as a flag.

The country has been occupied by the Swedes, Germans, Russians (Russian empire) and Soviets (USSR).

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In the fourteenth century, Swedish soldiers hated having to walk from their barracks to the beer brewing district, so they raised money to cut a gate into the city’s walls which would allow them easy access from their homes to the streets of beer.

In 1991, as the country was fighting for its independence, and Soviet tanks were rolling into the old town, the TV station fell, but the radio building stood strong.

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The Russian orthodox church that stands in the city’s Esplanade was a planetarium under Soviet rule.

The building that once housed the Soviet agriculture institute was my favourite thing from the entire day, and is today the Latvian Academy of Sciences.

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We visited the market, and the national opera house, and the museum, and the outdoor market, and the independence monument. We had a delicious lunch in an outdoor square and basked in the late afternoon sunlight as we walked back to the ship.

I would very much like to return to Riga. To meet more of its multilingual inhabitants and learn more of its fascinating history.

Because this city is in my heart.

And its beat is strong.

These women. These women.

A very happy International Women’s Day to everyone!

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This year’s UN Theme is: Empowering Women, Empowering Humanity: Picture it!

I encourage all of you – everyone reading at home, as well as those on transit (or in-transit!); everyone hunkered down, or waking up; everyone navigating this amazingly complicated conundrum of a world we call home – to picture all of the brilliant, powerful, and brave women in your lives.

How have they impacted the world? How have they changed your life?

How do they impact? What do they change?

What makes them extraordinary?

And how do you picture an empowered humanity? What can we all do to ensure that these visions are no longer just visions, but reality?

Here are some of the brilliant, beautiful, and brave women in my life.

My amazing mum Donna, who, as an arbitrator for the federal government, wrote and oversaw many ground breaking decisions in the early 1990s on pay equity and discriminatory labour practices across Canada.

My sisters: Jessi – newly minted red seal chef, business owner, and new mum-extraordinaire; Kate Woznow – dedicated activist, non-profit director, and triathlete.

My sister in-law Mel, who is so very incredibly strong (both on the inside and outside) and who is unflinching in her belief that we can all make impacting strides to better our world.

Her mother, Valerie, valiant and fearless feminist whose work continues to support and inspire academics the world over.

My formidable mother in-law Cheryl, who in light of the discrimination she faced as a teenager after her family immigrated to Vancouver from India in the 1960’s is now one of the greatest champions of multiculturalism I have ever met, and who in 1973 co-founded the The Door Is Open – a drop in centre on the Downtown Eastside, that is still open today at its present location at 255 Dunlevy Avenue, in the heart of East Vancouver.

I would be remiss not to touch on my great aunt in-law, Flo Curle, who was the first of my husband’s family to immigrate from India in the early sixties. A single woman, she moved to Vancouver and sponsored every single member of her family’s residency to Canada.

My sisters in-law Veronica and Vanessa: two women passionately dedicated to our environment and education, as well as the high-seas (Veronica) and circus silks (Vanessa).

My step-mother Susan, who as a conscientious and exasperated American does what she can to move her birth county in positive direction.

To my amazing colleagues at Big Sisters, who fight tooth and nail every day to ensure that young women all across the Lower Mainland have the opportunity to be matched with a life-changing friend and mentor.

My own Little Sister Melissa, with whom I have been matched for almost seven years. This young women has grown into a confident, excited, hard-working young women, who takes the world by storm each and every day.

To my outstanding, heart-bursting friends who transform and deconstruct; who build, breathe, and believe in a better today and even better tomorrow.

And finally, to all of you reading. To every woman who wakes up every day and makes change, kicks butt, loves herself, loves others, smiles brightly, laughs loudly, dances madly, cries freely, jumps blindly, catches discretely – for all who are unapologetically her, and her, and her.

This is for you.