Happy music. Twinkling lights. Good cheer. All the ingredients of the happy holiday season. Some people, though, do not look forward to, and, in fact, dislike the phony and commercial aspects of Christmas. Many are fearful of being lost and alone while everyone else appears to be in high spirits. To these people, the holidays brings a combination of fear and distaste.
Heather MacLeod surveyed the surroundings of her new apartment. She was content with what she saw. It was the result of years of hard work and struggle. She had a list of chores to do in the apartment on her first morning. She turned on the television to keep her company and began with a selection of pictures to hang. As she picked up the first picture she heard TV commentators describing the seasons Santa Claus parade. She stopped in her tracks to turn to look. Was it possible? With the move uppermost in her mind she had lost track of the fact that Christmas was fast approaching. A feeling of dread overpowered her like a storm cloud in August. She loathed this time of year – all those people walking about buying unnecessary trinkets for undeserving recipients. Then there was the false levity of the season. She felt a migraine starting at the base of her neck.
Could it be five years since she left Cape Breton? The decision had not been a easy time for her. At eighteen she had to escape from the small town atmosphere of Sydney that seemed to choke the very life out of her. Sidney was a dreary, dull city that reminded her of the unhappiness of her childhood and the constant bickering with her parents. There was no future in Sidney for a young person. She took a drastic step and fled. With the bitter shouts of her father still ringing in her ears, she ran off to the big city of Toronto to start a new life.
It was not long before Toronto took on some of Sidney’s negative aspects. It was difficult to make new friends and finding work for a high school drop-out was easier than getting a well-paid job. Heather picked the first job she saw advertised in the newspaper. It was a dress shop that paid low wages but just enough for her to afford to pay the rent for the tiny room she found. Over the years, she continued to work her way up the financial ladder until she landed her current position in an e-commerce company. Her salary had increased enough to now be able to afford a small one bedroom apartment. Five years after her arrival, life still seemed empty. Lately she thought more and more of home.
Bands and brightly decorated floats passed by the television screen. She was not paying much attention. She put down the picture that she was about to hang and decided to write a letter to her mother instead. They had not communicated since she left. She tried several beginnings, but none seemed to flow right and the crumpled balls of paper grew into a pile. In exasperation she grabbed the telephone and called. Dialing the number felt strange. She found herself counting the rings. At five rings she was about to hang up when she heard her mother’s voice. When her mother recognized who was on the line her voice changed noticeably. After the initial awkwardness of five years of separation, Heather blurted out her decision to come home for a Christmas visit. There was an uncomfortable silence on the other end. Then her mother agreed that it was time. With the arrangements settled, Heather hung up the phone and stood staring at the parade on TV. The screen seemed blurry, but this was not due to transmission difficulties.
Flying home on Christmas eve was a travellers’ nightmare on normal occasions. This holiday season the airlines were threatening a strike action and it was not until she was strapped into her seat that Heather breathed a sign of relief. She had ample time during the flight to review her plan. Her mother seemed genuinely happy that she was coming home but what about her father? Had he forgiven her, or was he as adamant as the day of their altercation so long ago? She felt a creeping uneasiness that the visit would end in disaster. Reading the book she brought with her did not help. She felt one of her migraines starting up again and she quickly gulped down two Tylenols. Finally she removed her reading glasses and lay back with her eyes closed wishing the trip was over. The flight was longer than usual with heavy snow and obligatory changes of aircraft adding to her discomfort.
The drive from the small airport outside of Sidney was no revelation of change. The area appeared to have been frozen in time. The tiny wooden structures seemed barely strong enough to withstand a summer breeze. Now they were fortified with plastic wrap at the windows. It was the only outward sign of the constant barrage from the gales to come. Those North Atlantic winds would pummel the thin clapboard constantly during the winter months.
The airport shuttle bus managed to find every rut and fault on the highway into town. As they approached the outskirts, Heather was amazed that she still recognized many of the buildings. There was, the always incongruous, Sean’s Italian Pizza Bar, its dangling sign showing a reproduction of a faded pizza that was a harbinger of the taste to come. The high school, as morose looking as ever, was on the right. The black soot-encrusted quarry stone building hadn’t changed and it still looked like a prison for hard labour. The bus passed Julie’s apartment over the fish and chip shop. She wondered what had happened to her. The last time they spoke, Julie had been pregnant at sixteen and couldn’t quite figure out which guy was to blame. She left school a few months before the birth and never returned.
The bus lurched hard left and just as hard right as it maneuvered the tight S curve approaching the bus depot. Heather’s headache returned. She could see the tops of the houses on her parents’ street. They looked like miniature doll houses stuck together in an unending line. The chimneys mimicked students off school property as they puffed gray smoke into the crisp air. She would walk the short distance to her parents house even though the streets were icy and glazed with fresh snow. The perennial winds from the north east were blowing briskly. She pulled up the collar of her coat and grabbed her small bag, She headed towards Liscombe Street, her head down to protect her face from the wind. As she reached the corner, a sudden rush of fear engulfed her. She hesitated a moment and then mentally willed her feet to move forward. Flurries of ice crystals were flying horizontally at her as if to ward her off. After thirty feet, she turned her back to the wind for a moment’s respite from its angry bursts. She was panting with the effort of the walk and it was an excuse to catch her breath. The house she had stopped in front of was Ian MacPhearson’s. Again the nostalgia of bygone friends swept through her. The house was not well preserved. The paint was peeling badly and in some areas had disappeared completely, leaving the bare wood exposed. Ian’s mom would never have allowed that. She was always a touch snooty, thinking herself better than her neighbours. And she doted on Ian in public, much to his embarrassment. She guessed they must have moved away because of the run down look of the building.
As Heather turned to continue down Liscombe Street, she did not notice the lace curtain move in one of the upper storey windows. Her home was only a few buildings away. Where was the height she remembered? The house she grew up in looked very meek and humble and more than a little dowdy. Only the brilliant yellow front door indicated that someone in the past had had a flare for the dramatic. Heather smiled to herself for the first time in days. She had been the one to paint the door. A spur of moment thing. Her mom had been aghast. All hell broke loose when her father got home. He carried on for hours, threatening to remove the door and leave it off. But, in the end, the door remained in place and the colour was not changed.
She stood before the door for several moments before knocking. Her fingers traced the outline of the plastic Christmas wreath that hung on the door and flooded her with memories of Christmases past. The three slots of beveled window glass at the top of the door were the only luxury the house could boast. The door opened on her first knock and her mother stood trembling with emotion on the threshold. They embraced and Heather was astonished at how bird-like her mother felt in her arms. Here was the woman who had nurtured her and whom she considered, despite her youthful rebellion, a pillar of strength during her childhood. Now she was reduced to the skin and bones of advanced age.
“At last you’re home. It’s been so long. Come in. Let me take your bag. It’s so good to see you. You look well.” Her mother talked continuously in nervous excitement..
“Mom, it’s ok. Relax. How are you . . .and dad?” she asked quickly.
“Your father? Well, he’s fine, really. Although sometimes out of sorts. He’s been through a lot. You don’t know about the accident. Of course not. How could you know? I should have called. He wouldn’t let me, though. Didn’t want false sympathy, he said. I insisted it was not right. But it’s done and over. And now you’re here.” She burst quietly into tears but brushed them quickly away. “It annoys him if he sees me cry. He says it’s no use railing against the will of God. Quickly, let me take you in. He heard the door and knows you’re here. You will be pleasant won’t you dear?”
She led Heather into the back parlor next to the kitchen before she could ask any questions. In seconds, she was standing in front of her father. She froze. Ten thousand questions suddenly rose in her brain. Her father was in a wheel chair and he sat twisted and looking uncomfortable. His legs hung limp and lifeless as did most of his body. The only spark of electricity emanated from his eyes.
“So, you’ve come home, have you? Life in the big city is a pleasure to what is was here, I’ll wager. No parents to get in your way. Living a life of doing what pleases you was always what was uppermost in your mind. Why did you come back? We have nothing to offer you but pain and dependence. Look at me. A cripple! Your mother weak and sickly.
Heather walked up to her father and dropped to her knees beside his wheel chair. “Hush, now,” she said and leaned forward to brush his forehead with a kiss. “I came home to see you both. I should have come earlier. I should have called. I should have been here when you needed me. I should have done many things, but I did not. Now, perhaps, I will be able to decide what I must do first. Tell me about the accident and when it happened”
Heather heard how her father had been trapped in a mine cave-in the year after she left. Collier # 9B in Glace Bay was the trouble. Always something happening at that one. Never anything good. It is the fate of Cape Bretoners that they come from sturdy Scottish stock. It is this strength that they call on all their lives to battle the vicissitudes of life in a hostile environment. Her father’s gruff demeanor was not new. She realized now that it was a cover to mask his inner hurt of a life he thought had been wasted. But she could see in his eyes that he was glad to have her home. Perhaps, in his way, he was also happy.
“The legs are gone,” he continued, “but I got me this plaything to roll from room to room. Ian MacPhearson went to the government people and scolded them into giving it to me. You remember Ian? A good lad, he is. Now that his mom is gone, he comes here regular. Keeps your old man out of your mother’s way.”
“Nothing of the sort, you old fool. I like having you home,” her mother answered, not too convincingly. “Ian is coming for Christmas dinner,” she said, turning to Heather. “He’s looking forward to seeing you again. I always hoped you two would become more than friends”
“Yes, that would be nice,” Heather murmured, distracted by her thoughts. Her mind was already five years in the past with the memories flooding in like the tide in Sydney Bay. She trembled visibly as she remembered their goodbye. Ian’s profession of love and his passionate embrace had caught her off guard. She had treated him badly, but only because her own life was in turmoil. How many times had she relived that embrace and wished it had turned out otherwise. If she had been more gentle and accepting perhaps this five year hiatus would not have been necessary.
Her mother interrupted her thoughts.”Will you decorate the tree dear. My fingers. The rheumatism is frightfully painful. It’s this damp, cold climate. Just like the old country I remember as a child. If only your father had dug dinosaurs in Arizona instead of coal here.” She waved her hands in the air in a futile motion and went into the kitchen.
Heather picked up a cardboard box full of decorations from the sofa. Absent-mindedly she began to place the objects on the tree. A bauble here. An angel there. Twenty minutes later she startled herself as she realized she was quietly humming a Christmas carol. “It was the right thing to come,” she thought. “I didn’t realize how much I needed this place and the people I left behind.” She turned to see her father with his head tilted to one side in a nap. He had, for the first time she could recall, a slight smile on his face.