Searching for what you already have

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 So, because I can do what I want here, I’m running my original unpublished piece.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.

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18 responses to Searching for what you already have

  1. Zena says:

    Thank you, Lorraine.

  2. Roz says:

    Man, I hate it when you make me boo hoo hoo.

  3. Sandy says:

    I remember all too well reading this the first time around. It tore me up then and this one is too. Its been eight years since I had to do that first Christmas Eve after divorce with no kids but it don’t find it getting much easier. People are all around but it just isn’t the same.
    Thanks for hanging on to it and letting us read this.
    I think you can now tell that editor to get stuffed.

    Hope you have a wonderful Christmas!

  4. Tricia says:

    Your christmas stories deserve binding, I think.

  5. *** sniff *** You crack me up. Obviously the editor that made you change that was no Woody McGee. The man (or woman) was obviously a lunatic. That is a beautiful piece of writing. Woody McGee would let that light shine under the bush.

    Tomorrow night we go to grandma-with-the-beads’ house for dinner, then get into our PeeJays, hop in the blue Odyssey, and drive around Burlington admiring all the Christmas lights. Look for a van full of 19, 22, 55 and 84 year olds in their jammies, hot chocolate in hand, eyes wide in wonder at the sights that are Christmas. We’re a bunch of freaks but we know how to have a good time.

    Merry Christmas to my small family here at Lorraine’s House. I enjoy everyone’s fellowship and hope you are all as happy and content this Christmas as I am. I am a very lucky individual in so many ways it hurts.

    Sleep in heavenly peace.

  6. Lorraine Lorraine says:

    Aw. You guys are great.

    It wasn’t my intent to throw any editor under the wheels. Their job is to get the piece they need, and I respect that. I just wanted to throw some sun on the one that was closer to my heart. You guys are far more indulgent of my traipses through history than many – thank you.

    I love hearing about everybody’s stories, from grandma with the beads to uncooked cake during the war. Who needs to make anything up?

    Love and best wishes to everybody who checks in here. You keep me (nearly) sane.

  7. jim curry says:

    Yes there are some of us up. reading your blog and listening to cbc. thank you and i do mean thank you. i’ll be back tomorrow nite for my last christmas and next week my last new years eve workin.

  8. Gilly says:

    Still a beautiful piece. Thanks Rainey.

  9. nursedude says:

    Beautiful…thanks for sharing it.

    Merry Christmas all.

  10. Sandy says:

    I’ll keep my eyes open for that blue van when I’m travelling thru Burlington tonight!

    Have a wonderful Christmas everyone.

    Will post details of my turducken adventure in the next few days.
    How bad can it be? turkey, duck, chicken and stuffing all in one neat package.

  11. Kerry says:

    It’s a good story as is i agree . Brought a tear to my eye .

  12. Padraig says:

    You are never really alone in church. A blessed Christmas to you all, my dears.

  13. The Artful Dodger says:

    Christmas? Haven’t been crazy about it for a while now. Changed my focus when I started to understand why my Dad never opened his presents. He preferred to watch our faces as we opened ours. His would be opened later after the real joy of Christmas was waning. I realized that Christmas was like the long-awaited visit from Auntie Grace from Dunblaine, Scotland. It always happened but never stayed around for long. Much like Christmas! It never Stays! This offer valid for the next 24 hours. (Not valid in Quebec.) Twenty four hours later, we’re lined up at Future Shop hopimg to get a deal on a 50″ HDTV! This particular circle around Lorraine’s blog? They are so giving and honest of themselves with their stories, honesty and desire to share….I may be whining to the wrong people. It’s just that you add up The Grinch with Linus and Lorraine’s best friend, George from It’s a Wonderful Life and so many people are missing the boat about Christmas! We should be “Paying It Forward”! The feeling and intent of Christmas should last ’til next Christmas….or longer! Because it’s Christmas, my 10 year old asked me about religion…..not about celebration but about wars and fighting!?!? Maybe the only day we can really celebrate peace and goodwill toward all men is Remembravce Day?

  14. The Artful Dodger says:

    Whining and complaining? Sorry Lorraine’s family….Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night! Love sharing and listening!

  15. DJW says:

    A flood here.

    Made more poignant as Thing 2 gave birth on the 23rd, and named her daughter after my mother.

    She is smiling down, I’m sure.

    Warmest thanks.

  16. Beth says:

    Merry Cahristmas all.

    We are at my parent’s house for actual Christmas instead of visiting the weekend before. I know there are a limited number left with them and Lorraine has made me value it even more.

  17. The Artful Dodger says:

    I apologize for being Mr Misery the other day but….it’s 14 years ago today my father had a stroke he never recovered from and by March he was no more. Nothing stranger than returning home from the parents than to be called back home 12 hours later. At least we had Christmas..

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