I’ve never done this before. I wrote this in 2009, and had an editor make me rewrite it, totally. The finished product that ran actually resembled what I’d initially written very little. At the time, I remember being a little bummed, but as is the case for all but the loftiest, you do as you’re told. It’s not that I didn’t like the rewrite. It’s just that it wasn’t what I wanted for this. So, because I can do what I want here, I’m running my original unpublished piece. Even if The Editor was right, this is still what The Writer wanted to say.
(2009) Nearly 11 years ago on a bloodless March afternoon in an airless attorney’s office, the words “the children will alternate Christmas Eve and Christmas day between both parents” seemed an amicable and sane solution at the end of a hopeless marriage and worse divorce negotiations.
I’d bought my parent’s house – my childhood home – and upon doing some renovations, I’d decided that the fireplace in the living room had to go. “Nowhere to put a couch,” I’d reasoned. And two little boys and open flame seemed like an unnecessary combination. For the record, don’t make fireplace decisions in May.
As I removed the mantle, a trove of lost artifacts was revealed. School photos, newspaper clippings, greeting cards – all important enough to display, yet oddly not missed when they disappeared. I shoved the lot into an envelope, deciding to sort them another time.
Fast forward three years, and that “alternating” scenario was real. In the days leading up to my first Christmas Eve without my sons, I came across that envelope, wedged behind dusty decorations. Dumping it out, my eye caught a tiny yellowed clipping I’d never seen. A small notice announcing a Christmas Eve service in a Kitchener Lutheran church.
When my father came east from Saskatchewan, he settled first in Kitchener. This was before he met Mom, before he worked in Hamilton, before he had the twinkle in his eye that would become me. And, of course, my sisters.
As was true for many prairie boys, the church held a special place in my father’s heart. I knew this only because I’d been told; by the time I was small, he had left the church, a divorce I’d come to learn was every bit as horrid as most. Holding this scrap of paper, I realized it was from the early 50s, and predated all of us; I also knew my father, dead three years, was telling me what to do on my dreaded Christmas Eve.
Confiding only in my sisters, I made plans to find the church. Both had offered their homes and company to me; but both would be missing my boys as much as I was, and empty chairs are never more acutely felt than during the holidays. A new journey, especially one that seemed destined, would make this about me and my gone- forever father, instead of my gone- for- a- day boys.
With my sister over my shoulder, we Googled and Mapquested from the brittle clipping. The church was still there; it still celebrated Christmas Eve on the same night. What I didn’t realize was that Gilly was also checking weather reports.
“Rainey, there’s a huge snowstorm coming in tonight,” she said quietly.
“Write this down: take exit….what?”
“Storm. You sure this is a great idea?”
“No big deal. I still have the Laredo,” I told her. The ’96 Grand Laredo would be gone soon too, and I figured a heroic trek in a violent snowstorm was as good a farewell as any.
In a strangely silent house that night, I got ready. Snow was already swirling; I tried to think what I could wear that would be appropriate for a dour German church service as well as flagging down help beside a Laredo stuck up to its door handles in snow. I realized bulky and warm would work in either scenario. Grabbing my map and the clipping, I headed out.
A decade later, I can still see in my mind all the places I should have turned around. Highway 6 north was already blowing slanted sheets of snow from field to field across the four lanes of traffic. As the road narrowed, drivers slowed to a crawl. My hopes that Hwy 401 would be any better were dashed as I crossed the bridge to the ramp: a single lane creeping along, two black stripes the only thing visible where usually thousands of cars thundered pass every minute.
The ramp itself was icy, but I joined the queue, wondering at the pull we all feel to be there, to be here, to be somewhere, on a night like this. Thirty minutes became ninety, and I cried tears of frustration that I was messing up my message. Surely all this was leading me to some new understanding of myself, but I wasn’t finding it on Highway 401 during a blizzard.
The truck was handling fine, as long as I stayed off the brakes. Which was just as well; the damned thing needed brakes every 20,000 kilometres, which totally aggravated me.
“What kind of vehicle needs the brakes replaced every 20K?” I said out loud.
“The kind where you’re too heavy on them, that’s what,” I heard my father’s voice say back.
“That’s crap. I am not hard on brakes, and you know it. This thing’s front end is too heavy,” I told him.
“Well, then it was a stupid purchase. You should have done your homework,” he said back.
“I didn’t purchase it. It’s leased,” I told him. Stupidly. Even in my head, even in an imagined conversation, I knew what was coming.
“Leasing is for idiots. Paying those conmen to borrow their car,” he growled. “Do your homework and buy a goddamned car that’ll last for ten years. That’s how you buy a car,” he finished.
I didn’t bother to ask if he knew I was putting myself in mortal danger just to go visit his goddamned church.
I finally found my exit, and pulled into a city where under a heavy blanket of snow, everything looked the same. I stopped to check my map again, but within minutes was hopelessly lost. As usual. Deciding it couldn’t be hard to find a little church on Christmas Eve, I crept around peering through the windshield.
If the world is ending, go to Kitchener. They have churches everywhere in Kitchener.
I revised my search after another check of the map. My truck had a compass thing in it, but all directions confuse me and I’d never bothered to ask anyone if NE meant you were heading northeast, or coming from it. It wasn’t helping much, and Dad had gone silent. But I figured if I could just find a small, stark church full of frumpy people, I’d have my Lutheran congregation.
I found it. With the parking lot overflowing, I hauled the truck up on a snowbank, and leapt down. I was late, and I could hear the music. Eyeing buried sidewalks, I crept up to a door on the side near the back, and gave it a gentle pull. Locked. Suddenly, it swung open, and a not- frumpy- at- all lady graciously ushered me in.
Sneaking into one of the only empty spots on the end of a pew, I quietly looked around. Beautiful stained glass windows shone just from candlelight, placed at the base of each one. I tugged the Christmas program from the slot in front of me, gazing down the list of hymns and carols, trying to ascertain what I had missed.
Childhood memories flooded back. My father was a lousy singer, but when my oldest, at age 4, had handed everyone lyric sheets one Christmas and announced we were all to sing carols like in his preschool, Dad had croaked along, laughing. And like all good Germans, Silent Night was more than a song to him.
When the choir began this gentle, soaring carol, I knew I was supposed to be here. Every decision I’d made, from a broken family to a broken mantelpiece, had brought me here. As I shook hands and hugged people I’d never see again, I didn’t bother wiping the tears from my cheeks. I figured everyone there had their own reasons for being there, and I may have been alone in their midst, but I wasn’t lonely. I went back out into the night, where the snow had stopped. The trip home was calm.
I’ve lost that clipping. It no doubt swirled off the seat and out in the wind of an open door that night. I looked for it, certain that losing it meant yet another thing I’d messed up. But it didn’t mean that at all. My father had taken me where I needed to be that night, and given me the understanding that missing him didn’t mean he wasn’t there.
That journey started me on a thousand more.