Whenever I remember Christmas as a child in Scarborough, I can never remember whether the slush was new or old, or whether we lived on the sixth street north of the shopping plaza stoplights and I was seven years old, or whether it was the seventh street and I was six. But still my nose and fingertips tingle at the thought of Christmas in the row-housing, whose names rang their challenging, forlorn ways down to the fast-backed, nerve and gear-wracking lanes of the freeway: Elegance Manors, Tweedingham Mews, Buckingham Back Courts; and I am again a boy among boys, riding our crash-barred, chrome-bedazzling bikes through the supermarket swing doors, grabbing girls’ toques and Popsicles in the Mac’s Milk and diving with our arms spread to make angels in the snow-banks that the ploughs churned up, plunging our hands to the soggy, stitch-straining armpits and pulling out, as I am doing now, uncles with ham-red hands, scratchy and sizzling-hot in their wife-bought cable-knits and après ski, who through the live-long Christmas afternoons watched the Buffalo Bills and the Los Angeles Rams battling in full colour on a purple field, and sat through Sugar Bowls and Dust Bowls, Cotton and Flannel Bowls until the punch bowl was emptied for the last time and they moved up the queasy, shifting stairs from the rec-room to the hall. And clear as the chlorinated water in the taps, but not so clear as a secret rivulet in the snows that we boys found near the highway that was gone in the spring when the hill was cleared for a condominium, I see Uncle Harry turning away the Salvation Army girl at the door and making us all laugh as she fell on the path on the ice I should have chipped away.
Christmas in Scarborough was nothing if it was not families and laughter. But before the compacts and the late-models and the single sports car owned by Aunt Hetty, the divorcee, who bought the Fugs record, before the hoards of uncles and aunts and cousins jousted for a parking spot and the superintendent appeared to ask us to remove a car that had been parked in someone else’s spot, there were the presents that smoothed Father’s absence due to overtime, and Mother’s voice raised in the kitchen downstairs while the supper held in the stove at low heat congealed.
And there were disappointments, for as one scavenged among boxes and ribbons and discarded batteries from robots that never worked, and broken strings from suddenly mute Talking Barbies, there had to be one, small, bright and unutterably just right present that lies forever hiding over the rim of memory even now, as I remember, I can see it dancing somewhere in the dark room before sleep, and even in the dreams of Christmas night, when I ran through the vanished fields of our subdivision and climbed and tumbled in the haylofts of the vanished barns, it was there amongst the ghosts of swallows and blue jays and horses — all gone now, like the words we wrote in last year’s snow: Fanny Hill puts out. And, in the moonlight in the dark of the yard unlit by streetlights because of Charlie’s air rifle and where no car would desecrate its stillness and the dark velvet of its shadows with the cold incandescence of its lights, I crept close to the sleeping whaleback of the hay-breathing house. I stole past the oaken veneer majesty of my parents’ door, and finally warm in the acrylic goose down of my bed above orchards and cockcrow and the sailing ship moon on the skating pond; I slept until dawn sped back the whole farm and the cattle and the soft-eyed horses back to the darkest corner of my room where the sun never shines and socks can sometimes be found amid the slut’s wool.
And then it was afternoon: and all the cousins, friends of friends, who had been stuffed into spare rooms and cautioned to nap because they had stayed up all night in candy-caned anticipation of catching Santa and delayed for a day his return to the department store throne, were awakened and sent off into the streets. And, waking from a dream in which I chased the blue and white stocking-capped boys, bigger boys from the skating rink at City Hall, glimpsed once on television, I dress in my fur-lined boots, was stuffed into station wagons with protesting uncles who drove as though the football games of all the world were punting in the shadows of the last-minute goalposts. And then we were sliding down the slopes of everlasting snow, everlasting for as long as the machine flew Niagaras of chipped ice over its diesel-throbbing back. And there, in that spinning time, I have my ski-lift ticket stapled to me, as though I were my own receipt for being, and hug for dear day the live cable that pulls me to the top and almost doesn’t let go, and then I am poised on last year’s skis, and am ready to take my turn. And then I do that. And I do it again, and then I come home for tea, uncles and the barracks of my Christmas soon-to-be-forgotten child’s life.
And I remember that Aunt Hetty, who was the centre of attention in the kitchen but was not allowed in to help with the gossip, lay stretched out on the Spanish sofa, her soft, brandy-breath keeping Ernie, her latest lover, stupefied. Then Uncle Herbert appeared from the depths of the basement like a drunken porpoise and chased the whole kitchen gaggle with a plastic spring of mistletoe, and came to a bad end with his elbow in the gravy boat. Then Father phoned from Number 41 Station to say that he had been in the eggnog again and that he would be detained, and Mother drank the cooking sherry, and the turkey went unbased. Then Uncle Frank who had been a stockbroker and then a convict tried again to dance the Windfall of ’65 and fell through the picture window. Then the neighbours knocked on the wall and we knocked on the neighbour’s wall and then the police came.