In the Presence of Christmas Past

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One writes out of only one thing—one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give.” —James Baldwin

Mercurial Melbourne did it again yesterday. As I listened to the wind howl and the rain splatter and felt the temperature plummet, I wondered what happened to the notoriously hot Christmas weather sunny Australia promises? But then, it is Melbourne – four seasons in the one day, and predictable in its unpredictability.

A good time to pause and remember last year when I was somewhere predictable – and cold – very cold! I spent the Christmas with my daughter Anne, into her third year travelling in North America and resident in Toronto for a couple of those years.

On Facebook, I read a message from Tovah and Michael and the photograph of their hanukkiyah in their window holding the candles to celebrate Hanukkah. This photograph lets me time travel to last year.

view from Tovahs window with candles

A Christmas Surprise

I pause at the nearest panoramic window and soak in the first outside view of Pearson Airport, Toronto. Incandescent fixtures gleam with a second skin and neon lights transform mundane utilities into glittering crystal artefacts. A cheap flight enabled this holiday to be with oldest daughter Anne, a back-packer who fell in love with T.dot.

‘Look Mary Jane! Isn’t it beautiful?’ I gush, unable to hide the rising excitement at the prospect of a Christmas not experienced since I was nine-years-old. My family emigrated from Scotland to Australia in 1962 and we had to acclimatise to the cultural shock of Christmases ‘Downunder’.

Born in Australia where Christmas is often spent at the beach and a white Christmas only a song until now, my daughter laughs and catches my childish enthusiasm.  Our grinning reflections vindicate the spur of the moment decision to fly to Canada. I click my camera phone and capture a winter scene, albeit a world of workers swathed in fluorescent safety gear attending planes through a shimmering veil of snow.

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A close-knit trio, since the death of husband John when the girls were teenagers, we’d adjusted to the sadness of special days like birthdays, anniversaries and seasonal celebrations, however, into her third year away from home, the last two Christmases without Anne only made bearable by Skype.

The most special gifts don’t involve money and when Mary Jane and I discussed the ubiquitous Christmas List, we agreed with Dr Seuss, Christmas, ‘doesn’t come in a store…(it) means a little bit more.’ In a tone that did the Spice Girls proud, Mary Jane said, ‘What I really really want is for us to be together–-all of us!’

And here we are walking into the widespread arms of Anne wearing a smile as warm as an Aussie Christmas. She clutches two single red roses and a bundle of winter accessories in case we are ill-prepared. With a mock shiver, she explains, ‘It’s the chill factor that makes you freeze.’

The uninhibited joy and unconditional love etched on the faces of the girls, a delicious moment to be stored in my memory bank, along with Anne’s protracted ‘Mum!’ which blocked the cacophony of the airport terminal for the few seconds it took me to exit customs. The bear hug lifted me off my feet.

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From the airport, we catch a bus and two trains to Ossington where Anne shares a house with three young Canadians. The journey seamless, if a little cold, as we adjust to winter’s icy clutches and the face-numbing air. Evidence of Christmas abounds with passengers toting brightly wrapped parcels and bulging bags. The occasional decoration glimpsed as suburbs flash past. When we climb out of the subway at Ossington a silent fall of snow greets us. Anne suggests a taxi, fearing black ice; a treacherous surprise turning pavements into obstacle courses. ‘You left Melbourne 32 hours ago and must be tired!’

We insist on walking. Mary Jane determined to savour her first sojourn in the snow, and I have a wonderful feeling of love and contentment to keep me warm. A wind is absent, but snowflakes swirl and tantalise, falling soft and gently like feathers. Mary Jane tilts her head back, turns her face to the starlit sky, pokes out her tongue and drinks the gifts from Heaven. Our hats, scarves, and coats dusted with icing sugar specks. A magical transformation.

We giggle and twirl, slip and trudge, drag suitcases along the street, Anne confides it is usually empty and dark at night, yet houses twinkle and shine lighting our way. Christmas advertised–more flamboyantly by some–until we reach the house opposite Anne’s. It groans under the weight of bud lighting flashing every colour in the spectrum to make rainbows in the air and on the snow-stained road. We spot Santa and his sleigh, reindeers, candy canes, snowmen, penguins, bells and lanterns, trees and presents; every commercial Christmas motif imaginable.

overdecorated houseschristmas lights galore from the house opp annes

Cannily stepping in footprints carved by others, we cross the road to Anne’s home above a Portuguese bakery; dim and conservative in comparison to brightly lit neighbours. We climb internal wooden stairs, the heat like a blow torch. We don’t need encouragement to strip off protective gear in the tiny hallway. ‘Welcome to Canada,’ Anne jokes, ‘where you allow 20 minutes just to put on and take off all the extra winter layers!’ Housemates appear from their rooms to welcome us and point to a huge sign they’d made declaring themselves: ‘The Neil Appreciation Union’.

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It is almost a week until Christmas Day, but Anne announces a surprise. Her close friends Tovah and Michael have offered their cosy flat to us to spend Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day. They’ll be visiting relatives out of town and thought we’d appreciate a ‘home away from home’ to be a family at this special time of year. This practical embodiment of the spirit of Christmas from two strangers becomes the highlight of our Canadian trip.

The few days before Christmas Eve, Mary Jane and I explore Toronto while Anne is at work despite a ‘catastrophic ice storm’ slamming the city, destroying 20% of tree coverage and leaving hundreds of thousands without power. Fortunately, Ossington is relatively untouched, but as subzero temperatures and wind chill announcements dominate nightly News, I wake each morning to the drip of ice melting and pooling on the windowsills in Anne’s tiny room. I miss the raucous sound of Australian birdsong: magpies carolling, the wattlebirds harsh chok-choks, and Australian ravens cawing as colourful rosellas swoop and squeal.

However, the winter hush has its own charm and I have my two daughters close. Grey squirrels cavort among tree branches stark and dead beneath winter’s cloak, and on our walks home in the evening tree branches turn majestically silver with coruscating stars and pale moonlight highlighting their breathtaking beauty.

ghostly tree branch and snow

Christmas card scenes are everywhere, icicles suspended from eaves and gutters, rooftops and gardens caked with snow while brown and withered foliage peep from pristine white coats. Coated with frost, hardy plants still live although their crystallised leaves snap if touched. Squeals and laughter infectious as families toboggan and slide in nearby parks, and cute dogs wearing booties chase frisbees and balls.

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Tovah and Michael’s apartment has double glazing and power.They leave a message on their kitchen whiteboard after Googling Aussie slang. Any feelings of being in a strange land dissolve with our laughter:

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Good arvo and Merry Chrissie cobbers!
Open some prezzies and drink some amber fluid.
There is a Maccas within cooee and a bottle-o a few doors down!
Eat a lot of lollies and have many grogs,
hopefully not to be followed by a liquid laugh? Or technicolour yawn (what!?)
Yabber on ladies…

On Christmas morning as dawn penetrates the blanket of light grey cloud, I stand by the window and watch snowflakes flutter to the ground. Within moments, already partly covered bicycles and parked cars are submerged and roads and paths disappear as if a gigantic can of white paint has spilt. Street lamps glow orange, the world is silent and still. I have a lightness of being.

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Gentle snores from Anne and Mary Jane mingle with the poetry from countless carols playing in my head and memories of Christmases past. The age-old Christmas messages of joy, peace and love my reality this wonderful Canadian Christmas.

Canadian Christmas Haiku

Mairi Neil

Leaden cloud, blankets
sleeping expectant city.
Christmas snow surprise

Snowflakes caught in flight
silent flurries, dancing fluff
Christmas Day memory.

Patch of blue sky winks.
Memories stirred of home
and hot Aussie sun.

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Waiting Rooms, Patience and Patients…

It is my annual check-up with the breast surgeon in Brighton. I made the appointment for 8.30am because in the afternoon I have  my last class for the year at Godfrey Street, Bentleigh. Of course, the traffic has to be horrendous. Patience is a virtue, but I keep this thought to myself as my daughter curses the idiots abroad. Every set of traffic lights turns red as we approach – it’s always the way when you’re stressed or pushed for time.

Australia is a country in love with the car and with governments reluctant to invest in public transport, traffic congestion is the norm all over Melbourne, especially during morning and evening peak hours. Mary Jane drops me off a few minutes late and goes hunting for a parking spot – as rare as gold in some places, especially around shopping centres, railway stations, public buildings – the places we all want to go! The cluster of medical specialists in Brighton are popular and never short of patients. As I hurry into the waiting room I envisage MJ’s face reddening, to match the colour of her little Hyundai as she trawls the nearby streets for a parking space; frustration feeding her worry.

My daughters fear this visit as much as I do. An unforeseen complication after my initial mastectomy four years ago led to an emergency operation and they had to approve refusing life support (my wishes) and wait a harrowing few hours to see if I survived.  Traumatised onlookers, they are haunted by memories  I don’t have because of effective modern anaesthetics.  Carers now have more recognition and much deserved praise, but there’s still a lot we could do within primary health care to support them, especially when events turn dramatic!

So, here I am again – twelve months disappear fast. I remember my Mum lamenting time passing more quickly as you age – at least I’m down to annual visits…

Christmas tree in the corner, bamboo stars in the window, tinsel trailing along the windowsill. Christmas filling a corner of the waiting room for the patients, brightening the severity of the black leather lounge suites interspersed with black vinyl chairs. My hazel eyes are drawn to the silhouette of a bird sitting on the electric wires outside the window. A crow? A premonition? (I have a lot of my Irish mother in me and the Scots are no slouches when it comes to being fey!)

From the corner of the room a ghetto blaster tuned low, plays music – not predictable Christmas carols, but soothing melodies. I recognise the song and struggle to suppress the tears lurking behind my eyes,  raw emotion threatens to undo the calm exterior I  portray on these visits. I take a deep breath, this is a positive omen, surely?  John is with me as our special song wafts across the room, Always On My Mind...  his spirit definitely here!

I glance around the room. There are two couples and three single women, including me. Another couple sit outside the Pathology Lab. I don’t think we are all waiting for the same doctor, he’s usually well organised. However, it is Christmas and the long summer break ahead, a time of year always difficult to schedule.

The reception area filled to capacity; six receptionists working hard, including a male, a new addition since last visit. They’ve claimed a little of the Christmas atmosphere by stringing glittering gold balls along the counter. One young lass even has tiny reindeers dangling from her ears.   The couple beside me are called into pathology and one of the women is led into a nearby room. The doctor works from two rooms. This is year four for me, I know the drill. He deals with one patient while another is disrobing for examination in the other. Almost immediately another woman is called to pathology. The doctor’s efficiency won’t let me down, it will soon be my turn.  I try not to stare at the couple leaving. She is pregnant and they have a toddler. Cancer sucks.

Waiting Room – such an apt title and great writing prompt. In fact, I gave the following scenario (courtesy of one of the many writing prompt sites on the Internet) to my writing class this week. A surprising coincidence because I plan my lessons well in advance. Perhaps my sub-conscious was at work to create such serendipity!

Waiting room
Three strangers are sitting in a doctor’s office waiting for their appointments. A patient’s bag tips over on the floor and something falls out. What is it? What do the characters say to each other that makes this a significant moment in their lives?

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How many waiting rooms have I (and many others) sat in during a lifetime? Dentists, doctors, hospitals, train and bus stations, job interviews, government departments, council offices, schools, universities, funeral parlours … enough to become a patient with patience!

I try to remember the first waiting room and decide it was the dentist’s and I determine to block that 1950s experience out because I can still taste the horrible rubber mask, smell the gas and feel the bitter mouthwash as my blood swirls down a tiny sink attached to the chair.  I can hear Mum promising to buy me ‘something special for being a brave girl.’

There were no childhood visits to the doctor because in Scotland our family doctor, Dr Reid,  made house visits. He delivered me at home.  Scotland also had a system of health visitors, district nurses a la the popular television series Call the Midwife. No waiting rooms filled with harassed mothers and hyped up, bored, or crying children.

Dr Reid was a regular visitor to our house in Braeside, Greenock and had a penchant for Mum’s baking. A fresh pancake, Irish soda bread, scone or fairy cake served with a cup of tea whenever he called. Mum was a ‘tea jenny‘ her greeting to all visitors, ‘a cup of tea?’

Another reason for Dr Reid calling frequently was my parents’ generosity with the telephone. When making visits in our area, Dr Reid would check in with his surgery or family, or perhaps arrange an ambulance or book people into hospital – all from our phone. Today with the proliferation of mobile telephones it is sobering to recall a childhood where ‘being on the phone‘ was an expensive luxury for most, and a rarity in working class homes.

My parents made the decision to have a telephone because it would allow Dad to work more, therefore a good investment. A train driver easily contactable was offered more shifts – an important fillip to our budget. Supporting a wife and six children never cheap!

Number 35 Davaar Road was the first house in the immediate housing scheme to get the telephone connected, and to my knowledge the only one  to generously share the instrument. (Some people left coins in the money box that sat beside the phone, but not always. Calls were timed therefore many people were reluctant to risk big bills by trusting others.)

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Mum had a clatter of eager messengers. My older siblings ran to fetch or tell neighbours a relative was on the phone, they had to report to work early, travel arrangements were changed, or a myriad of other personal messages. Mum was privy to emergencies, planned celebrations like marriages, sad news of illness and death, joyous (sometimes) announcements of pregnancies, job offers, exam and scholarship results, visiting relatives, holiday plans… the full gamut of community life.

A natural disaster in America meant a distressed neighbour worried about her sister. Mum rang the US Embassy, got a number to call for information, and after several anxious hours, exacerbated by the time difference, reached the neighbour’s  sister on the phone. Those women never forgot Mum’s kindness and continued to thank Mum every year in a Christmas card until their death. There were other dramas witnessed – all because of a revolutionary communication tool, which in my lifetime has been transformed beyond recognition.

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Today, with instant communication across the world via satellite, the expectation everyone has either a mobile phone or access to the Internet, reflecting on my Scottish childhood confirms the past is indeed ‘another country’ in more ways than one!

A receptionist ushers me into a room for the next stage of waiting for the doctor.  I put on the gown with the flap open at the front. My surgeon is one of the most respectful, professional men I’ve met on this journey, but despite his manner I always feel vulnerable clutching the white cotton gown at my chest, sitting in a chair staring at the examination table and waiting…

It is good news. Another year notched up without the cancer appearing in my remaining breast or other parts of the body (metastatic disease). I can breathe normally. I text my daughter and wait outside looking skywards and soaking in the sunshine. The bird on the electric wires not a crow, but a  butcherbird (Cracticus nigrogularis) that has a beautiful call. I hope he will sing. This patient with patience waits and is rewarded. Another year to feel blessed.

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