Best. Christmas. Ever.

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.


Apple of My Eye

My grade 5 teacher picks on me, encourages my friends to turn away from my leadership, and even accuses me of cheating when I continue to excel in school. I start to hate school. My older sister, only 2.5 years my elder, refuses to share a room with me and so I am put in a room with my baby sister, five years my junior. My little sister coughed, wheezes and snores all night because she suffers from terrible allergies, and I can’t sleep because of those noises. This lack of sleep exacerbates stress at school in that already horrible grade 5 year.

Nightly, once everyone in the house is asleep, I take my blanket from my bed and creep into the living-room to sleep. One night, my dad finds me there and nudges me awake.

“Come on, hen. Back to bed.”

Taking my hand, he escorts me to my room where the wheezing, snoring and coughing of my sleeping sister prevails.

“It’s her allergies, Dad,” I sob. “I can’t sleep.” I cry in frustration and am shocked to see that my dad too has tears in his eyes.

“You know yer the apple of my eye, don’t you?” my father says, patting my hand.

His lower lip quivers, and he looks away from me discomfited by this rare show of emotion. I stare at my dad’s handsome face. I hadn’t known that. How could I? He never says it or even tells me that he loves me. I feel deeply loved by my dad in that moment.

I don’t know then, as a child, that the phrase ‘apple of my eye’ refers to something or someone that one cherishes above all others. It appears in the Bible on at least four occasions. “Keep me as the apple of the eye; Hide me in the shadow of Your wings” (Psalm 17:8). “For… he who touches you, touches the apple of His eye’” (Zechariah 2:8). “He guarded him as the pupil of His eye” (Deuteronomy 32:10). “Keep…my teaching as the apple of your eye” (Proverbs 7:2).

My dad and I fight when I am a teen. My dad sees an angry, rebellious teen take the place of his beloved daughter. I go from being a real Daddy’s girl to being a shutdown teen. He never understands why. When I am late for curfew in high school or when it is obvious to him that I’ve been out partying as a teen, he brutally strikes me the moment I walk through the door. There is anger between us for years.

The night my father dies, I am writing the law school entrance exam at the University of Toronto. Inexplicably, I suddenly feel surrounded by my father’s love the way I had that night he told me that I was the apple of his eye. I feel that he can see me and is proud of me. I don’t yet know that he has passed, but I feel his presence. He is there with me and I feel his love.

Once I confided to my dad that I couldn’t sleep in that room with my younger sister, my dad made me a bedroom in the basement of our small house on Cantley Crescent. I chose lavender floral wallpaper and a lilac carpet to finish it off, and it became my haven, somewhere I had peace and quiet in that hellish home.

My APLOFI license plate is for my earthly dad but also for my Heavenly Father. I’m the cherished daughter of two kings.


In 1966 Scotland, Catholics must indicate religion on job applications, thwarting another work opportunity for them in Presbyterian Scotland. Billboard, radio and television advertisements invite worker Scots to go to Canada. In Glasgow’s Canada House, my father enquires about this place: Canada. A tall man with a soft Canadian accent rolls a map of Canada before my father and asks him where he wants to live and what sort of work he would like to do. Scotland has no place for him while Canada is a Proverbs’ bride offering hope, prosperity, and the optimistic future that has been denied him in his sectarian homeland because of his religion.

We live in newly constructed apartments on Hamilton Road in London, Ontario. A Dominion grocery store stands behind the apartments, its neon-lit red maple leaf brandishing its mocha-colored brick, and the Thames River flows nearby. At Easter, as I hunt for chocolate eggs, I find a bird trapped in the gold draperies over the glass patio doors. It swoops above my head and I feel air on my face from its frantic wingspan. I yelp and run down the hallway to my parents’ bedroom, my tiny feet padding the cold linoleum. I sneak to my father’s side of the bed, and poke at his bare shoulder. My dad opens his big eyes and wants to know what’s wrang. I tell him there’s a bird trapped in the house.

“Och,” he says. “That’s a wee bird your mommy brought home last night. It has a broken wing.”

“Its wings are working now,” I tell him.

My dad climbs from his bed, and takes my small hand in his hard palm as we walk together into the living-room. The bird careens at a rapid speed above our heads.

“See, Dad?”

“Aye, pet. I see right enough.”

My dad opens the patio door.

“Fly away, little bird,” I say.

“The wee thing’s frightened. He’ll find his way out when he’s ready to go.”

The cold air from outside invades the apartment and I shiver in need of a pee. My dad asks if I want cereal, and I say ‘yes’. He pulls a small, blue plastic bowl from the cupboard and fills it with Cornflakes, sugar and ice cold milk.

“Sit up here, pet-lamb,” he says.

I climb onto the stool next to the countertop. On the chipped formica lies a shoe box, holes pierced in its lid. Inside the shoebox is a terry facecloth. I want to know what the box is for.

“Your mommy made the wee bird a bed.”

My dad asks me if I managed to find any Easter eggs, and I shake my head no. I look up at the bird as I eat my cereal. He flies too fast for me to get a good look at him. I don’t want to be afraid, but I cover my head with my hands each time he plunges past.

“Och, he’ll no hurt you,” my dad says. “He’s a harmless, wee sparrow.”

The bird finally finds an opening through the gold drapes and escapes into the April sky pregnant with the promise of an icy, Easter morning rain.

“That’s him away,” my dad says.

“Where to?” I ask, relieved the bird is gone.

“He’s away back home,” my father says, following the bird’s flight with his bright, blue eyes. My dad turns, winks at me and smiles.

We’re home already, I know. Canada gave us the life denied us in Scotland.

Embrace of Faith

After I leave my marriage, feeling rootless in Canada, I travel several days by plane, train, ferry and bus to reach the remote, coastal village in Donegal that is Griffin ancestral land. I cross the border into the Republic of Ireland at Londonderry, Northern Ireland. Still two years before the Good Friday Peace Agreement of 1998, armed British soldiers stand guard at the border crossing. My Uncle Frank awaits my arrival beneath a bus depot light, newspaper tucked beneath his arm, navy knit-cap resting above bright, blue eyes so like my father’s and my own.

“A hundred thousand welcomes,” he says, smiling.

It is midnight before my uncle mutely leads me to his cottage, each of us puffing frozen exhales into an aubergine sky. My fatigue is replaced by a sense of marvel at the brilliance of the stars against the blackness of night. A simple mattress placed in front of his fireplace is to be my bed, and after a snack of warm biscuits and hot tea, I sleep feeling closer to God than I have in sometime.

In the morning, I open the curtains to look upon a postcard view that the darkness hid from sight the previous night. White cottages dot emerald hills, white clouds break an azure sky, and white sailboats dance on cobalt water. My uncle and his toothless hound-dog, Binbo, walk towards town. Pulling on my boots, I chase after them.

The Catholic Church is white and quaint in its splendor. My uncle and I take turns entering the chapel and stand outside with Binbo. As we depart the chapel, my uncle says, “It’s divorce, then?” Ashamed, I can only nod. “Give it to God. He gives beauty for ashes,” Uncle Frank says.

My uncle is constructing a home for himself and his wife, Bridie, with the help of my Griffin cousins. I join in the assembly and physical exertion and the sweet sensation of belonging begin to quell my grief. I attend daily Mass with my uncle, and find that my faith sustains me.

On my daily run over the surrounding hills, I stop at the white cottage that is my grandfather’s birthplace. Touching its damp stones, the same prayer always settles on my lips. “God. Carry me.” My heart is shattered.

I buy a postcard showing the village chapel. On it I write: “I’m in God’s country. Standing where your father stood. Walking where he walked.”  I mail it to my father in Canada. 

Rain christens Donegal on my last day in Ireland. I pluck a rock from the north wall of my grandfather’s cottage to bring Griffin strength home with me when I leave that place that has proven to be my sanctuary in January 1996. My uncle takes me to a seaside cemetery and together we examine family headstones.

“There’s always arms for you to fall into, Angela,” he says.

I turn to face the seashore, hiding my tears from him. Ocean waves wash clean silver sands, the water reclaiming in its visiting grasp life stuck there, eager to return to the sea. The rain, fragrant with Donegal bell heather, falls ever softly. Something sacred surrounds me and the internal voice I am beginning to heed whispers above the roar of the Irish Sea: I’m with you always.

In the doorway of the bus station, a British soldier stands guard, his unwavering gaze fixed past me. Inside the station, I write on an ocean-view postcard: You’re never alone.

I mail it to myself.