During the Christmas of 1973, my mother decided that she had had enough of Canada’s snow-belt and thought that we should go as a family to Florida for the holidays. There was a gas crisis in North America the year they decided to take us to Disney World for the holidays. We took the greyhound bus to Florida (undoubtedly one of my mother’s bright ideas). My father wasn’t at all pleased with not driving himself.
“Aye. Greyhound right enough,” he said. “It stoaps a’ every bloody lamppost just like a bloody dug.”
I loved all of the stops my father so detested, relishing in the comings and goings of strangers. I liked getting off the bus by myself to buy a snack or use the washroom before clamouring back onto the Greyhound to take my seat and continue to where places and faces constantly changed. I was animated to sit on the dark bus surrounded by these outsiders who sat reading books or knitting under the solitary, overhead lights that shone just for them. My seatmate changed constantly as I occupied a seat away from my family. Cissy sat with Lil and my mother and father sat together while I sat by myself. I was always the odd-man out, the left-over child.
The more days we traveled, the darker skinned the passengers became. I’d never seen many black people in 1970s London, Ontario and was fascinated by these dark-skinned, wild-haired folk. They wore bright colours and flamboyant fashions that I was not accustomed to seeing. When we stopped in Tennessee, it was late at night. My mother got off the bus alone to buy us snacks in the depot, and when she climbed back onto the bus she was crying.
“What’s wrang?” my father asked her concerned.
She was unable to speak at first but eventually she revealed to us the reason for her distress.
“The auld bitch in there, looks like Granny frae the Beverly Hillbillies, threw ma money in ma face. She said ‘they don’t take oor funny money doon here’ and flung it in ma face.”
The bus driver, who was listening to my mother’s explanation for her upset, immediately disembarked to go inside the roadside cafe and have a wee word with Granny Clampet. My father stayed on the bus with us. I was in shock. I’d never seen my mother weak before nor witnessed her crying. I wanted to punch Granny Clampet in the face for my mother.
It rained every day we were in the Sunshine State over that 1973 Christmas holiday. We stayed in one small hotel room, and I slept in a cot at the foot of the other two large beds. Cissy and Lil slept together in one bed, and mom and dad occupied the second big bed. Lil was just two-and-a-half-years-old at the time. She liked to chase the seagulls along Daytona Beach and we all howled with laughter at her red hair winged in the wind as she raced after the seagulls in her Canadian red and white maple leaf anorak and tiny purple jeans.
I was not sure if Santa existed then. My faith in magic was under attack by external forces. Some of my friends told me that there was no Santa, but some still believed as did I. I pestered my mother and father during that trip, asking if Santa Claus really existed. They told me that he did probably because they feared that I would ruin the magic for Lil if I knew the truth. On Christmas Eve we went to Mass and then we were to settle into our beds, but I was unable to sleep as I always was on Christmas Eve. My sisters snored softly in their bed located in the right-hand corner of the room as I, pretending to be asleep, spied my parents through half shut eyelids. I saw my mother and father fuss about the room, wrapping gifts and setting up a small Christmas tree on a dark laminate table in front of the hotel room door, my mother snapping at my father in a hushed, terse tone. I couldn’t trust my own eyes, and was crushed at the realization that there was no Santa.
I had often imagined seeing and hearing Santa’s sleigh and reindeer fly on Christmas Eve if I saw a red light break the darkness of the night sky. In my childish mind’s eye the red light was Rudolph’s blinking nose rather than an air traffic control light ushering in homeward bound flights. On Christmas Eve, when my dad would come to fill my stocking placed at the foot of my bed, I never believed it was my dad. I’d feel the weighted sock near my feet and as soon as the person who stuffed it had left my room I would dump the sock onto my bed and feel with my fingertips in the dark every treasure that had fallen from it. Then I would set about eating the chocolate coins that littered my bedspread too happy to sleep.
It continued to rain on the day we went to Disney World during the Griffin 1973 Christmas Florida excursion, and we wore sweaters and jackets to keep warm. Due to the inclement weather the park was deserted and we never had to line up for a ride. My older sister refused to come on any fast rides with me and so my father, who I later learned hated fast rides and heights, agreed to accompany me. When my sisters and I went on rides together, Cissy snuggled next to Lil, and I sat across from them on my own. We spun on the magic teacups together. I twisted the metal wheel in the center of the cup so that it would spin faster and faster though Cissy objected and told me to stop. I liked the Pirates of the Caribbean, the It’s A Small World, and the Jamboree Bears attractions. I loved the talking characters and the storytelling aspects of each experience. I prized the Peter Pan ride above all because of the sensation of flying through the star-filled, night sky as I watched the ship of Captain Hook beneath me. It was magical.
We visited Cape Canaveral too. My parents wanted to see the location of the 1969 space launch. It was another cold day, and my sisters and I were wearing trousers and hooded parkas to stay warm. Cissy and I climbed into a moon golf cart with what we thought was a model of an astronaut – a man in a puffy, white and silver space suit – and had our picture taken with him. The spaceman man put his bulging left arm around my shoulders, and I screamed as I jumped out of the moon-raking vehicle and fled. My parents howled with laughter as Cissy stood by annoyed that I seemed to be the center of attention once again.
The bus ride home was uneventful and less exciting for me since I had already experienced it. We also traveled more by day on the way home and so it wasn’t as cozy for me who was always comforted by the dark. The Christmas trip was a happy trip for us as a young family. It was a magical time.