First Christmas Away from Home
It was forty-four years ago, one of the greatest periods of unrest in this country. President Kennedy had been dead for five years. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated in April. The Tet Offensive in Vietnam, after almost a disastrous initial campaign for the U.S. in January, had flared again in spring and once more in August. The military draft, wide open and frenzied, grabbing anyone it could get, would soon initiate a lottery which would be called by my age group, Death Bingo. In protest, I crossed into Canada in June of that year, taking my boyfriend with me. His mother was happy at the thought he might survive; my mother threw me out adding she was sorry she ever knew me.
That explains why on Christmas Eve 1968, I was walking the streets of Edmonton, the temperature 55 below zero, the wind pushing it to 72 below, with my tears which marked my first Christmas away from home, freezing on my cheeks as soon as they dumped over the rims of my eyes. My boyfriend, by then husband, had never celebrated Christmas and wouldn’t even let me have a Christmas tree. My memory was of Christmas at my house was of one that looked like Father Christmas had decorated it himself. With my husband in an alcohol-induced sleep, I went out to see the Christmas lights of others, my heart filled with the most dreadful doubt about my future and an exquisite sense of loss for the family I might never see again.
The cold finally drove me back inside, and I crawled into a cold corner of our bed and lay there wondering what more I’d come to know about this man I’d known since childhood, but seemingly barely knew at all.
Early in the dark of a northern winter’s Christmas morning, I heard a knock on our apartment door. I jumped up pulling my jeans on as I ran to grab my shirt. It was a sound to me akin to perhaps what a miner feels as someone digs toward the rubble that he is pinned beneath. When I got to the door, however, whoever knocked was gone. I pulled the door back toward me, but something on the other side of it banged against it. I stuck my head out the opening and peered round to see a Christmas stocking hanging from the knob, filled with Christmas sweets and mandarin oranges, a fruit I had never seen until then. But right in the toe was the gift of gifts on that day—an invitation to Christmas dinner at the neighbors across the hall. We had seen them in passing, but barely knew them, yet here they were inviting us into their family and ultimately their hearts.
We were so excited, we arrived an hour early and sat down shyly yet with the force of two people you’d have to throw out to get rid of. The Wereley’s were our first introduction to what we’d come to know as the open-hearted spirit of Canadians. There was their son who worked the rigs in western Alberta and their very pregnant young daughter. The father was a man bent in accentuated spinal curves from birth. In fact, his parents had left him in England as a child and moved to Canada, the British welfare system finding him and taking him in. There wasn’t a moment he didn’t know pain, yet he held 7 journeymen’s tickets, an unheard of accomplishment in the trades. Put anything in his hands, and he’d make something out of it. And then there was Mrs. Wereley, a mother-earth woman, whose middle name was kindness.
We stayed until late that Christmas night, eating, laughing, storytelling and letting our hearts mend. The Spirit of Christmas has never been more real for me before or since that Christmas with the Wereleys, and once you experience the beauty of love in any form, it lives in your heart forever.