Friday, 23 December 2016

A Child's Christmases in Toronto 5: The Big House With the Black Roof

That was our last Christmas in the little white house. In January my parents packed up and moved their goods, chattels and five children into a bigger house about three miles north, a few blocks shy of Toronto's northern border. It was not a beautiful house, but it had a swimming pool. A swimming pool! It also had almost enough bedrooms for everyone and, what was more, these rooms all had doors. After our semi-dormitory existence, this was privacy at last. Meanwhile, it was on the same bus route used by my friend R, which meant I too had an excuse to hang out in the bus station waiting to see boys.


By my sixteenth Christmas, I was much less self-absorbed than I was at fourteen, but home was still mostly the background to my Social Life. This was in transition, for my until-then best friend R had joined a new crowd and, according to her, I had blown all my chances of a proper boyfriend from my brother's school for having gone once to the movies with one of its pariahs. ("Everybody knows.") 

However, there were other boys' schools, and a fellow I was friendly with asked me out to the movies a few days before Christmas. He had previously told me he had fallen in love with a gypsy girl that summer while visiting relatives  (in Eastern Europe), so really I should been smarter with my heart. He told me all about Anika on our date, and also about the wickedness and proliferation of Albanians in his homeland.  

On Christmas Day, my stocking featured chocolates, four pairs of nylons, clip earrings, typewriter ribbon, a wide belt in red Stuart tartan from Le Chateau, and a tangerine. That must have been the year my sister Tertia and I shared a room, for my parents gave us half-shares in a tape deck/radio. They also gave me a big Italian-English/English-Italian dictionary and (via Santa) a desk calendar. My grandmother Elinor gave me black lingerie (why?), and my grandmother Gladys gave me pyjamas. Nulli gave me a Star Trek calendar, which I loved. "I think everybody likes the presents I got them," I wrote. "I am full of Chelsea bun."  I spent much of the day reading encyclopedia entries about Albanians and my crush object's hometown.

When NATO bombed this city twelve years later, I was shocked.  I was at work when I heard the news on the radio. I was the office expert on the wars in former Yugoslavia, and although it was industrial, this town was almost certainly a civilian target.  


I was very busy when I was seventeen. I had a part-time job before and after school as a barista, I wrote my high school's Christmas play (an adaptation of Little Women), I taught Sunday school and had written its Christmas play. I had a new gang of friends. The café brought me into more contact with the adult world, which included my boss, older employees, another franchise owner, neighbouring shopkeepers, mall security and regular customers.  Meanwhile, I took much more interest in the world outside my Social Life and began to write about other people's opinions and experiences. 

The Marches' Merry Christmas was a success. My parents were at the performance and took me to Pizza Hut afterwards. On the way there, I fussed about things that could still go wrong --like Sister Dorothy not getting her bust of Beethoven back. "Mum tried to calm me down, saying that the play was over, I was only the writer--not responsible for every detail, to stop worrying, to relax, wait until the [Sunday School] play on Sunday..."

 A Saviour was Born was less successful. Apparently "the costumes were magnificent, the audience was attentive, the kids had their lines was a mess. We had never had a proper rehearsal so the main angels and shepherds did not know when the angel choir was supposed to come in. Every time they went ahead Nulli [at the organ] and I had to figure out where to move the hymn to. The angel choir missed every cue and clue and had to be obviously prompted. 'Fidelia' forgot a couple of her lines, and there was a long awkward pause while I held my head in my hands and died a thousand deaths." When the play was over, I rushed out to cry behind the church. Then I went back and faked cheer, helping Santa give out presents and telling my students' parents how wonderful their children were. 

Nulli and I took our mum out to see Scrooged the week before Christmas. I bought Mum's ticket, and Nulli bought us all popcorn. He dropped his, so Mum and I shared ours with him. 

Christmas Day revealed a number of treats: "cool earrings, grey nylons, black nylons, typewriter ribbon...pyjamas, blue turtleneck, white blouse, 500 sheets of typewriter paper, a gorgeous, elegant shawl-scarf...a beautiful crucifix to put above my bed, a "Freedom jeanwear" oversize pullover (Tertia's into labels) that is terrific to write in, and a digital alarm clock with green numbers."

But the best was saved for last: Dad gave Mum a VCR. We children were incredibly excited. I never thought we'd get one. We watched Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Peggy Sue got Married. In the afternoon, we were called upon by two parish families, whose daughters were my friends, and later Nulli and I were dragged off to see my father's colleague and his family. 

Having gone on the worst-date-of-life-so-far with the eldest son of this family, I kicked up a tremendous fuss and even chanted HADES, MINIME, NOLO IRE! (roughly, "Hell, no, I won't go!"), but this was to no avail. We were supposed to be gone only an hour and a half, but my ordeal lasted four hours. "Look at it this way," said Mum, "It's grist for your mill."  True.

Nulli and I did our best to chat with the two boys-our-age, both of whom were absolutely brilliant at music and mathematics but sadly lacking in social skills. I felt it my duty as a woman to keep the chat flowing:

I managed to keep up some small talk to shorten the long, slightly embarrassing pauses in our  half of the room....  In one attempt to carry [stilted small talk] into a [conversation], I asked the boys what they got for Christmas. Nulli's favourite new toy was a mouse-pad. [Elder Son's] favourite is his Rubik's Revenge puzzle. [Younger Son] spoke with great enthusiasm about a painting of a Florida beach and a potted azalea. 

I believe I wore the mask very well until there was such an unfillable gap that Mrs B came over to suggest we watch a movie on their VCR. By now we had been there for somewhere around two and a half hours, and I wanted desperately to get back to [writing] my [new] play before I got tired. 

The movie, F/X, was full of senseless violence and the sound was turned down low so that the adults' conversation would not be disturbed. I could hear Mummy loud and clear from where I sat and silently berated my parents for making their children suffer like this. When we got home, Mummy congratulated me on my good, cheerful, interested behaviour. I growled. 

A few days later, I had a little Christmas party. Three out of the seven girls invited came. We talked a lot about other girls at school and once again enjoyed the story of what one enemy had told her cousin about his girlfriend's best friends, including me. (She said I was "queer" and the others were "strange.") The daughter of Italian immigrants claimed (again) that it was much harder for Italians than for anyone else to adjust to the New World.  The girl with Welsh parents told us all about Wales. We discussed the recent police shooting of a black teenager, and "not even" the black girl thought he had been shot because he was black. "Finally, we discussed what we thought the Feminist movement had really done or hadn't done and what we think of the school's religious program. We ate chips, pizza and coke. I think the party was a success."

And that was what Christmas was like when I was seventeen, all those years ago.  

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