For many Canadians Christmas means driving somewhere to be with our dearest by not so “nearest’. Weather plays a major role in the Christmas Story and can end up the force most difficult to reckon with. We’ve all driven through storms, cringed at the site of flares on the side of the road, crawled along ice or through blinding storms. I remember one year driving to Kelowna from Banff with my brother. He stopped to pick up the new Bruce Springsteen cd on the way out of town and we sang along with the Boss for most of the drive. We pulled into the driveway of the family home just as our mother was staring out the window watching the beginning of a heavy snowfall.
For decades my sister and brother-in-law, with children in the back seat, drove from Medicine Hat to Kelowna for the holidays, the Rogers Pass looming before them, like a wild card ride in a rodeo. Everybody has a story about a particular tricky stretch of highway that makes for a restless night on the eve of departure day. The Hope-Princeton with its hairpin curves, the Coquihalla with its long steep plunges, the Roger’s Pass with its sudden drops have made travel more a challenge than a joy. And so have the sudden blizzards along the TransCanada between Calgary and Medicine Hat and Medicine Hat and Swift Current.
Once, driving back from Platsburg, New York to Quebec City, I got caught in a sudden white out storm. I was the last traveler let through before they closed the treacherous Autoroute behind me.When I finally pulled into the parking lot of the radio station in time for the afternoon show I careened into a snowbank after sailing across a sheet of ice. The producer was shocked to see me and told me he’d already called in a replacement. I dropped my head on my desk and wept openly. “Sorry”, he said. “Nonono. That’s fine. It just hit me what I just did. And now I’m scared in retrospect!”
There was a moment in the drive when I just wanted to pull over and wait out the storm. But the only other vehicle on the road was the snowplow and it kept piling snowbanks in front of every exit so that I was forced to stay on the road. At one point a semi passed and wedged himself between me and the plow. Visibility lessened, the semi loomed menacingly in front of me, all I could do was keep moving forward. I recalled Churchill’s saying: “When going through hell, just keep going.” The man I had just left behind taught me pretty much the same thing: drive through storms, don’t pull over, your chances of getting hit are higher when you stop than when you move. Weather changes. Eventually you will come out the other side. I remember saying the same to my younger sister the year we moved her to Banff and were driving through Minnesota with a storm headed our way. At one point we passed a storm chaser headed in the same direction. She phoned me on her cell a few paces behind. “That can’t be good. Did you see him, hunched over his steering wheel? Going our way!” “Yeah, but the storm’s not. It’s headed the opposite way, so we’ll be out of this soon.”
I just spent a day in Banff, en route to Kelowna. My sister had recently been to the Lake District in England and showed me a picture of her scattering the remainder of mom’s ashes in a brook frequented by Wordsworth. I marveled at how she’s overcome her fear of flying and is now a seasoned traveler. “We don’t have time to be afraid,” she reminded me. “We’re not getting any younger! Plus the ativan helps.”
Settling into my sleeping bag that night I spotted a book on her shelf called “Life Unlocked”. It’s a scientists’ look at fear and how our unconscious brain, ruled by the amygdala, works overtime perceiving threats, often long-outdated, and floods us with fears we may not consciously realize we have. We can let these fears prevent us from doing what we yearn to do. Dread is a feeling state that overrides desire because fear is about immediate survival and immediate survival is more urgent that our future goals, so our brains will listen to dread and fear first and foremost. However we can ‘develop new neural connections’ by shifting the brains’ focus. We can, promises the author “re-frame the fear story”.
The morning I left Banff the sky was clear and blue and the roads were bare. Perfect conditions for a road trip. I took my time, letting the restless speeders pass me, enjoying the drive, feeling the sun’s rays through the windshield, watching the mountains change expression and shape as the sun’s rays cast new shadows along their shoulders. Once I got to Revelstoke I rewarded myself with a stop at The Modern Cafe for a mountaintop cookie and perused the bookstore next door before continuing on my journey home. By the time I got to Salmon Arm I’d sung along to the entire Handel’s Messiah and written an ode to the tiny village of Grindiron, based on past memories of summers and winters on the last leg of a long journey marked by large sweeping curve outside the small town.
I made it to my old hometown in time for Sunday morning mass with my father and uncle and coffee in the church hall afterwards. Church with dad was how I began my effort to form a relationship with him. It required nothing more than showing up. I decided I would try and be present in a place that meant a great deal to him. As a result, I spent three years going to daily mass every morning and watching Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy every night and somewhere along the way we grew to be comfortable with each other. Somewhere in this past Sunday’s sermon the priest, a biblical historian, told us that churches where built to look like upside down arcs as a reminder that floods do not wipe out all sinners nor do away with the ills of our world. He also joked: “however, this church looks more like an upside down barge!” The point is, we’re never going to have perfect relationships, but we can learn to accept each other where we are at.
I also made it to Kelowna in time for the famous Christmas buffet at the retirement home where my father now lives – (and plays an impressive amount of bridge, a skill I never did acquire in the hopes of forming a father-daughter bond. Neither of us have the patience it would take for me to learn the game and we’d have undone all the good we accomplished.) Missionwood is like a cruise ship:there’s always something to do if you are so inclined: there’s swimming, movies, bridge games, book clubs, happy hours- the schedule is exhausting just looking at it riding the elevator to my father’s room, where a tiny ceramic Santa sits on the little ledge outside his door. “ Oh that’s cute! You did that, right? ‘Cause I can’t imagine dad bothering to decorate”, I said to my sister before knocking. The other ledges in the residence were festooned with elaborate themed Christmas villages, snowman families and poinsettia arrangements. “Yeah. I put it there last year. It’s been there all year. Like the tin of shortbread cookies on his counter. Don’t bother trying one, they’ve petrified. Oh and don’t forget, we’re doing his laundry today. You have to distract him while I throw away the threadbare shirts. He keeps wearing the same three ones, you know.”
The brunch buffet was a half-mile long table of every meat, cheese, fish and fowl known to humankind. Chefs spent days preparing pastries for an onslaught of relatives; it was a feast meant to be shared. And I can’t imagine what it must be like for residents with no one to visit them. Because the Christmas buffet is above all else a chance for parents and grandparents to show off their offspring to their fellow cruise ship passengers. If we can no longer gather in the family home, as we did for so many years, never daring to think that hearth and table would one day be removed from the centre of our universes, then we must show up for occasions like these and be a family in bits and pieces.
In the past family was a given; I just assumed we’d get together later, if not sooner. I got caught up in my own life, in pursuits exhilarating, all-consuming and, just as often, debilitating and self-absorbed. I made mistakes, dropped the ball, missed out on milestones like graduations, recitals and anniversaries. Then, suddenly my mother was gone. The nephews and niece were full-grown. So now I am trying to make up for lost time, make memories, laugh and play. “Life is about relationships”, I’m fond of saying. And I intend to deepen and strengthen the ones I still have, the ones with my sisters and brother, their siblings, and our dad. And I’m not about to let my amygdala stop me!
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.