By Madonna Hamel
It’s been a long week of -20 and -30 C weather. A couple nights dipped below -40. The café door’s been covered in a sheet of ice, looking like a waterfall in winter. Some days getting the key to turn in the lock requires kneeing on the door in one spot and pulling at it in another. Last Saturday, after finally getting the door open, I peeled off my scarf, mitts, toque and coat and headed for the sink and began filling it, plunging my arms to my elbows in hot soapy water to chase away the chill.
Then came the search for something festive on the radio. Eventually I found a channel that played big band Christmas music of the 30s and 40s. Louis Armstrong was moaning: “Baby it’s cold outside” and Ella was reconsidering whether she should have another cigarette before venturing out into the night. Over the space of a week I’d hear five different versions of the song, ranging from a classic flirt between a smooth Casanova and a naïve ingénue, and a witty repartee between a seasoned Pearl Baily telling a goofy horn-playing Hot Lips Page to pour her another drink. I cranked up the volume and settled in to the routine: dicing vegetables, boiling water, surveying the fridge and freezer to see what I could concoct for the evening’s special.
Soon a truck pulled up and Casey ran from a warm cab to a warm café, wearing nothing more than a bunny hug and those new-style jeans with more holes than fabric. She plunged her hands in the sink and began filling it with warmer water.
“Hope you don’t mind the tunes, I’m a bit of a Christmas sap,” I said, dicing onions.
“Oh no, I love Christmas carols!”
“Me too! This is one of my all-time favourites,” I pointed in the direction of the radio with my knife and starting singing along. “‘Silent night. Holy night. All is calm. All is bright.’ I mean, really, pure poetry. ‘Sleep in heavenly peace.’ Elegantly simple.”
“Listen to this horn solo, you just don’t hear music like this anymore! What band has a horn section these days?”
“They spend their money on light shows and fireworks when they could be paying musicians to play music like this!”
“I know.” It was possible that Casey was just being agreeable, letting me go on, say a few words to show she’s listening, put in her three hours and then get on with her evening. Then she said: “Oh this one’s my favourite!”
While I chopped and Casey washed we hummed to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” When it got to the point when all the other reindeer wouldn’t let poor Rudolph join in any reindeer games Casey gave a muffled “argh!” She wiped at her eyes and left the kitchen.
“Yeah. It’s the onions.”
Of course. Right. Can’t expect a 15-year- old to get choked up over Bing Crosby or Nat King Cole, not “everybody knows, a turkey and some mistletoe help to make the season bright.” In fact, I don’t think I’ve even seen a plastic replica of mistletoe since I hung some in my first boyfriend’s basement apartment in 1977.
Foolishly, I ran over to the store in just my apron to get whatever vegetables were available for a catering gig. When I entered the grocery Stella took one look at me and gave me a hug. I must have looked pretty bad; hugs aren’t something prairie folk dispense with ease.
“Fed up?” asked Stella.
“I know, eh?”
Out here, in the winter when everything slows down and we gotta work with what we got. We only get one diner, usually Cal. But there’s always a roast, a chicken or a ham served with a hot bowl of hearty, thick soup. We can do magical things with root vegetables, stock and seasoning. We can turn a limp carrot into a magnificent carrot cake and a bunch of ripe bananas into an extra-moist banana Bundt cake with peanut butter icing and a box of apples into a bubbly sweet crumble worthy of grandmother’s seal of approval. We feed people, no matter what. Personally, if I can send someone home full, smiling and feeling cared for, my work is done.
In the produce section I found a leek to chop in tiny bits to resemble chives for baked potatoes. I bought a “holiday” yam for a festive side dish, although what made it a holiday yam as opposed to a yam for ordinary times is beyond me. A plastic lemon filled with reconstituted juice suffices when a recipe calls for juice of a whole lemon. A red pepper will add a splash of holly jolly colour to any dish.
I left the store as Stella and Carol started talking holiday plans. Ever since we sold the family home the family has been scattered. Last year I stayed in Val Marie to help with Christmas mass music. The children’s choir consists of the Andree family, which is basically one half of the congregation. We decided to do our own version of “Go Tell It on The Mountain,” with Catherine, the eldest and perhaps best co-ordinated of the lot, leading the group out front. I handed out maracas and we practiced a couple times to a near-empty church, something we are used to on the best of Sundays.
Come Christmas Eve the church was full of locals with visiting families and grandchildren. They all ran up to join the Andree choir, along with Theresa, the sacristan, who added her own lovely twang to the classic Christmas spiritual. Up front Catherine stuck to the choreography, held her rhythm, did her best to lead, the rest of the gang shook their maracas and heaved their bodies back and forth, up and down to and fro, as the spirit moved them. It was a resounding, rejoicing success.
But as suddenly as it began, the mass was over and everyone was gone, off to eat, open presents, imbibe various versions of yuletide spirits. I was left standing outside the church, in front of the Nativity Scene. The plastic figures were almost as big as me, and lit from within, they were the only things glowing in the big dark prairie night. But something wasn’t right- none of them were looking down on baby Jesus, except his mom and the donkey. The three kings from the Orient seemed to still need guidance to the perfect light as they stared independently in three directions. Joseph seemed more fixed on the hem of King Melchior’s garment than his new radiant boy. And the shepherds seemed lost without their sheep.
After I straightened everyone out I went home, made myself a cup of tea, changed into my pajamas and dug out an old mixed-tape cassette of Christmas music I’d made when I was in university. I threw on my coat and boots and ran out to my car, plugged it into the cassette player and drove around town, several times, counting Christmas trees in living room windows, five in all. When Judy Garland’s version of “”ave Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” came on I was back in Victoria, sitting in my old friend Michael’s apartment, getting fuzzy and sentimental over hot toddies. When it got to the last line: “Through the years we all will be together, if the fates allow” we joined in: “…until then, we’ll have to muddle through, somehow!”
Then Michael turned to me and said: “Nowadays they don’t sing that, y’know. They say: “hang a shining star upon the highest bough.” Promise me you will never, e-VAH sing THAT!”
“I promise you.”
It was slow night at the café. Just after closing a couple I’d never seen before timidly stuck their heads in the door and asked if maybe they could get something to go.
“I just happen to have two pot pies and there’s enough squash soup to fill two bowls!”
“Oh thanks, we’ve been driving since Calgary! And do you know where we could get some gas? Our card doesn’t work.”
Cal and I exchanged glances, then Cal asked the couple, “Where you headed? How much gas you got left?”
“Frontier. Not much.”
“We better go over and use my card, says Cal. You can pay me in cash, how’s that?”
“That would be great! Thanks!” As the couple headed for the door I whispered
“That’s very considerate of you, Cal.”
“What’re you gonna do?” he whispered back. “They can’t be out in this cold. They’ll die.”
It’s true. Sometimes we need to ask for help just to muddle through. As if on cue Judy Garland came on over the airwaves, a blast of cold air filled the café as Cal and the couple, yelling Merry Christmas, left the building. As I turned off the “open” sign Judy promised, fate providing, “we all will be together.” But, “until then…”
Madonna Hamel is a writer and performer. Her radio documentaries have won awards for CBC for whom she’s worked as writer, producer, reporter and broadcaster covering the arts, religion and current affairs for over 20 years in Quebec City, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto and Kelowna. Born a Westerner, she calls Val Marie, Sask. home.