A BEAUTIFUL DAY FOR IT
Growing up in the Fraser Valley, I can say
Christmas was a lot of great things, but it was never white.
Bing Crosby could sing until he was blue in
the face, and every California sitcom family from the Clampetts
to the Cleavers could part their curtains Christmas morning to
witness "Santa's miracle," but by the time I was 12
I knew better. December 25 is nearly as green as mid-May and just
as wet. Of course, that never stopped me from hoping for snow.
On Christmas Eve, 1977, just after I went
to bed, my brother poked his head in the door and said "Charlie
Chaplin just died. Don't get up too early."
I gradually fell asleep listening to the rain
on the window and wondering how anybody so funny would choose
to die on Christmas. And in Switzerland! Isn't there always snow
As it turned out, I didn't get up too early.
My sleep had been troubled by dreams of people lost in the mountains,
buried beneath snow and ice. For the first Christmas ever, my
sister had to wake me up and I sat quietly by our living room
window, staring out into the rain as my family went about the
various holiday rituals.
Our home, like so many others in Mission,
looked over the sawmills and small industries lined up along the
river. Normally I would be able to see across the Fraser to the
Matsqui farmlands, but an enormous pile of cedar chips taller
than any house blocked the view, waiting to be barged down river.
Behind me, somebody was finding a radio station
playing "something Christmassy" (my mother's directions).
Kindling was starting to snap in the fireplace and I could smell
coffee. Any bad dreams or disappointments in seeing yet another
muddy Christmas began to drift away.
But then I noticed somebody standing on the
pile of cedar chips. He was far away, but I could see he was around
my age. He wore a soaked denim jacket and was doing his best to
slide down the wet chips on his back. Vainly trying to pull himself
forward with his feet, he left a bright orange trail behind him
as he scraped the wet chips away and exposed the dry ones beneath.
Instantly I was jealous of him. He'd gone
and found the closest thing to snow you can expect in the Fraser
Valley on Christmas Day. Mountains of it! So what if he looked
cold? That's what playing in the snow was all about! I wondered
if you could make cedar snowmen, or if it packed hard enough to
make a good orange snowball.
"Coming to open presents?" my Mom
asked me. "I just heard on the radio that Charlie Chaplin
She handed me an orange juice and I pointed
out the little figure sliding down the mountain that had temporarily
grown to block our view and would be gone just as certainly as
any snow melts away.
"Can I do that later?" I asked.
"Of course not, it's dangerous,"
she said practically. "What's he doing all alone out there,
I wonder. On Christmas, I mean."
Having a blast, I said to myself. I admired
him no end for coming up with the idea. Here I'd been hoping for
snow every Christmas since I'd been born and never once had I
been creative enough to make do with an obvious alternative.
My favourite present was a track suit. In
1977, the government was offering school kids medals and badges
if they ran 100 miles in six months and I was halfway there, covering
countless blocks. In the rain.
TV commercials compared the average middle-aged
Canadian to the average elderly Swede and said we were fatter
and more likely to die of heart disease. I was certain it was
because there was always snow in Sweden and people went by ski
The track suit, it turned out, was the perfect
excuse to get out of the house for at least an hour. I made a
big show of putting it on and saying I wanted to run for two miles
- maybe more.
"Come home if you're getting too wet,"
my mother said at the door, and I was off.
To go play on the cedar chips.
Within minutes my feet were soaked and mud
splashed on my new track suit, but I was closing in on the sawmill,
running along roads I'd never explored, feeling brave and adventurous.
The gate to the lumber yard was open and there
was nobody around. I walked around threatening-looking machinery
and found the boy's footprints at the base of the chip pile.
As the pile became steeper, the footprints
dissolved into mini avalanches. He'd slipped in some places, dug
his hand in deep for balance.
My determination began to falter. The chips
filled my shoes and forced their way past the elastic at my wrists
when I fell. They packed like snow but smelled like earth and
were as much dirt as chewed up trees. But the boy's path climbed
steadily and I followed.
Every Christmas I'd ever hoped for waited
for me at the top. Overnight, snow had made it to the far shore
of the river, falling just short of my home. There was barely
enough to hide the stubble in the fields, spread along the ground
across the river, just out of reach.
Brown smoke that normally went unnoticed against
the muddy land rose from the farmhouses and danced idly against
the white acreages. A coal train snaked across the bridge and
entered the white landscape, hauling the insides of mountains
toward the sea.
The boy was nowhere to be found, but he'd
clearly been just as entranced by the snow as I was; his trail
led down the other side toward the river. Ignoring my new clothes,
I sat down as he must have, and slid - faster than I expected
- toward the bottom, where I came to a halt, dirty and pleased
I followed his tracks along the wooden loading
dock where the barges would tie up. He must have been running,
laughing like me, toward the snow.
Cautiously I peered over the edge into the
river, swollen and dirty and indifferent to what day it was or
to little boys wishing they could be on the other side. Deep and
silent, the water swept past beneath me and I became very frightened.
My mother wanted to know how I'd gotten so
dirty and I lied and sniffled until she told me to jump in the
bathtub to stop shivering.
In no time, with a blanket around me, and
music playing and hot chocolate in my hand, it was Christmas again.
The rain outside picked up, and as I sat at the window looking
at the chip pile, a large snowflake fell to the earth and melted
into the ground.
A beautiful thing like that, choosing to die
on Christmas Day.