When my mom’s brother calls from Scotland with the news that their father has died, my mother makes high pitched wailing sounds and rolls on the living-room floor clutching the phone to her breast.
“Oh no, no,” she wails. “No!”
I stand watching not knowing how I might comfort her.
My mother decides not to go home for her father’s funeral. Rather we will go home to Scotland as a family at Christmas to fill a void for my grandmother.
My mother’s youngest sister takes me Christmas shopping in Glasgow. I buy my dad a watch for five pounds and we buy black crepe paper and canned snow to make a crèche at my gran’s. When I go to place the infant Jesus in the manger, my auntie tells me that I have to wait until after midnight on Christmas Eve.
“Can I place Him then?” I ask, certain that honor will be bestowed upon the eldest or the youngest rather than the middle sister.
“Aye, you can do it, hen,” she tells me.
To make sure it will be me, I pocket baby Jesus and don’t let Him out of my sight before Christmas Eve.
We gather for sing-songs at the homes of various family members. My sisters and I receive simple presents from some of our relatives. We walk in a soft snowfall as a family to St. Stephen’s Church for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, and return to my gran’s to the sound of pealing bells, the clock having struck one. I take baby Jesus from my pocket and place Him in the manger as soon as I burst through the front door.
On Christmas Day, we snap open Christmas crackers to find colourful tissue-paper hats, which we wear at dinner, as knells of laughter compete with my grandmother’s weeping.
“My man, my man, my poor dead man,” she cries.
My mom, embarrassed at her mother’s show of emotion, tells her to be quiet. “Och, mother,” she says. “Shush-up.”
My grandmother never gives my grandfather a minute’s peace when he is alive. When she wails for ‘her poor dead man,’ I don’t understand. They hated each other.
New Year’s Eve is my dad’s birthday. With my sisters and cousins, I help my gran make my dad a Hogmanay plum pudding with money baked into it. We wear paper hats that night too and at the bells, the children run outside to bang pot lids together and yell, ‘Happy New Year!’ in the streets.
My father flies home before we do. The night he is to depart, I am asleep with cousins in my gran’s back bedroom as the adults have a farewell party for my dad in the front room. Hearing a commotion, I creep out of bed and see my dad’s face through the frosted pane of the front door. He went to say cheerio to the Gannon family up the road and my gran deliberately locks him out. My auntie tries to pry the long, iron door key from my gran who holds it behind her broad back. I scream at my gran to let my dad in and seeing me there, she quickly hands my auntie the key. When the door is unlocked, my father rushes towards me and sweeps me into his arms to soothe me, returning me to my bed. I beg him to take me home to Canada with him, but he leaves without me.
That Christmas I am surrounded by kin, no matter how poorly behaved at times, and I have my father’s love. The holiday isn’t lonely for ten-year-old me. It is my best Christmas ever.