Empty Chairs

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Christmas for me is about memory. I find that the rituals and routines of the holidays — putting up the tree, shopping for gifts, Christmas parties, the music — all serve to evoke strong and vivid recollections of places I’ve been and people I’ve spent my time with. People who live on in memory.

When I lived in Frobisher Bay, I became good friends with John and Nicole Barclay. These two couldn’t be more different. John was a tall, slim English Canadian with a love of the outdoors. Nicole was short, in constant battle with her weight, a French Canadian who couldn’t imagine going a day without washing her hair. He was full of corny jokes and she with passionate ideas about life and work. Yet they were a great couple.

On Christmas Eve they hosted a traditional Quebec fete. It was a remarkable time. Friends and not-so-friends would gather at their place, all differences set aside for that one night. We would talk and laugh and especially, we would sing. There was food and drink through the evening but the best was yet to come. At midnight the Catholics and the Anglicans would head off to midnight mass, leaving the heathens and the Baptists to fend for ourselves. A half hour later and they would return, buoyed up by the service and flushed with the -30 degree evening air.

Then the party would start. Turkey and ham and tourtière would appear. Desserts of every imaginable type, Drinks — wine beer and spirits for the imbibers and elaborate punches for the teetotallers — flowed like water. The lights were dimmed and replaced with the glow of candle and firelight and the sparkle from the Christmas tree. One year, someone looked out the front windows and suddenly threw back the curtains to let the light of the moon and stars and an amazing aurora borealis flood in.

Faces gleamed in the diffuse light, voices, somewhat restrained before midnight, now rang out with joy and hope and wishes for peace on earth, good will toward men. I recall two men in particular — Rick and Mike —- who seldom saw eye to eye on anything, standing side by side, harmonizing on ‘Away in a Manger.

We would talk and laugh and sing and finally roll home at about 4 in the morning to gather a few hours sleep before the more relaxed celebrations of Christmas day.

It was a glorious time and I remember them all so well. A few years after I left Frobisher Bay, Rick, 38, died of a massive heart attack. One night, a few years after that I got a frantic call from Nicole. John had died in a climbing accident in Switzerland. Nicole never recovered and faded from everyone’s view. Mike lost his son when he died in a blizzard a few miles from town. Mike struggled after that and died a few years ago.

So many empty chairs now. Vacancies that can only be filled by memories. Yet I still see their shining faces, filled with joy and pleasure and gentle loving companionship. That’s what Christmas means to me.

And that’s ten minutes.

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