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    A Beautiful Day for It
   
 The Vancouver Sun
    December, 1993

 

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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 in Switzerland?

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 died."

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. "After presents?"

"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 to school.

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 with myself.

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.

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