For S, G, and the kids.
We’re new here. Moved in a few months ago, renting half of a house near railway tracks, the Corktown Pub, and the Bruce Trail. We don’t know many people.
Corktown is an old neighbourhood, one that has weathered the rises and descents of a steeltown like Hamilton. You can see old century homes on the same stretch of block as faceless apartment buildings, and you can walk from one end to the other in about five minutes and thirty seconds to see the whole range of then until now. And sometimes you can guess who’s renting and who owns their small patch of this railside neighbourhood by how many mailboxes you can see or how well the gardens are tended. The remnants of hard times are becoming scarce, though, as the old homes get bought up by professionals who prefer café-style lattes to coffee from Tim’s.
You can look in through windows, like anywhere, and get the briefest of glimpses into how others live their indoor lives. Especially at Christmas. Hamilton’s a city that hasn’t yet shrugged off the Christian side of the holidays – there’s still a crèche downtown, where baby Jesus looks out at Gore Park and Jackson Square. And for a few weeks at the end of every year, Christmas trees in living room windows shine like friendly beacons, winking at everyone that walks or drives by as if to say, Yeah, us too.
We know our neighbours enough to say hello, maybe hear tidbits about them here and there, about their weddings, their trials, their children. My Lady’s better at the contact – I learn from her. Our little corner generally keeps to itself, which is fine. A typical encounter you might recognize: “Morning,” one of us will say. “Morning.” “How’re things?” “Oh, fine, fine. You?” “Good thanks.”
It’s Christmas Day. Corktown’s quiet. Later in the day, my Dad will say with a smile and a far-off look, “There’s nothing nicer than driving on Christmas morning. Not a car on the road.”
We don’t sleep in all that often, but I manage to make it until 7:15. My Lady makes it another ten minutes or so, with me tiptoeing around in my tan moccasins and trying to make coffee on the quiet. Then I hear a cough and the rustle of sheets as she gets out of bed. I confess that I’m little excited she didn’t stay in bed too long – I was strategic last night as we got into our PJ’s. “Hey, I have an idea,” I said. “Mmm?” “How about pancakes tomorrow morning?” “That sounds nice.” And then I asked her to make them, hoping she’d say yes, planning my offer to make them if she didn’t. She did, of course, but sometimes you need to plan your offer, just in case.
As I sit to read the news, there’s not much going on in the world I care to read about. Christmas even slows the news down, it would seem. I don’t even click on links that talk about politics – even though someone, somewhere had the job of keeping the website updated, the poor soul – and scan straight into Lifestyle. Or maybe it was the wine section. I love the columnist’s name – Beppi – a good wine-trusting kind of name.
“Oh, no,” says my Lady’s voice, muffled by the open fridge door.
“What?” I ask after a few seconds. (I don’t multi-task well.)
“We’re out of eggs.”
Bummer. I’m about to move on and suggest oatmeal, and then I remember who suggested the pancakes in the first place. I ponder an offer to head next door for an egg, wonder if she’ll accept, kind of hope she won’t. I decide I probably should, the whole enterprise being my idea.
I mention I saw our neigbour getting stuff from his car, so they’re definitely awake. “I can go next door.”
Her very quick agreement catches me off guard so I try to hedge a little, throw out another option, delay having to put pants on over my boxers. I point in two directions, two neighbours. “Um, which side?”
“If you saw G at the car, they’re awake. Go there.”
Right. Time to make good. Put on my baggy, striped PJ bottoms over my boxers, which bunch up around my tender bits. “How do guys wear these things under jeans?”
My Lady’s a good sport when I speak banalities. “I know, right?”
I slide on my rubber shoes and unlock the door, expecting a blast of real cold, pleasantly surprised when it doesn’t come. It’s cold, but not cold. Mild Christmas, they’ve been saying, something about 95% of Canadian urban centres not having a white Christmas this year, even frigid places like Winnipeg and Edmonton. I head out, doing that strange walk we do when we’re underdressed for winter temperatures, a stiff, lurching blend of hop and shuffle.
Next door, I climb the stairs and listen for a moment. I smile. There’s a Christmas morning in full swing in there, seven kids, two adults, and 365 days of pent-up anticipation rattling the windows. Mom sounds tired, tells the kids there’ll be no whining on Christmas morning, and the decibels dip for a solid three seconds before I decide to knock. I’m too timid – they don’t hear my first one. The second one prompts a cheer and an excited exclamation from the oldest boy, “Leo is here!”
Five little girls in their best flannel PJ’s in primary colours and cartoon characters and stars all over them, and two boys in boxers and t-shirts, like the man of the house, open the door with one big collective smile. I’m not Leo, but those kids don’t miss a beat.
They all yell it at the same time, blessing someone they don’t really know even though he’s supposed to be someone closer named Leo. The girls are wiggling all over and crowd around me at the door, perfectly pleased with themselves, while the boys hang back, trying to be a little cooler even though their eyes are spilling their excited secret.
“Merry Christmas,” I say, notching up my enthusiasm a notch. “Did you know your house is vibrating because you’re so excited?”
They laugh. That’s so nice.
And then those little girls put a bigger smile on my Christmas morning. They all rush the guy at the door they don’t know from Adam, blessing his legs with a group hug worthy of the angels. I’m a little speechless at the display, but I hug them back, even as I realize I’ll never be able to match the enthusiasm and happiness spilling from five hopped up little ladies who could care less who the bed-headed guy at the door is but who are still going to pile the purest Christmas cheer on him the world has seen since the shepherds knelt beside that squalling baby in Bethlehem.
“Um, we’re making pancakes and don’t have any eggs,” I finally manage. It’s hard to speak normally when your face is smiling itself to split at the seams. “Could we borrow one?”
“Absolutely,” S and G, the Mom and Dad, say.
The girls are still hugging my legs, fiercely, with their eyes closed and their lips grinning, as Dad hands over an egg carton and Mom puts a gift wrapped in Christmas-tree green on top.
“Merry Christmas,” she says.
I can’t stop smiling as I head back to our place next door, shaking my head a little at the goodness that has just been poured all over me. The air is still cool, but I’m walking slower now. I can’t wait to share the story with my Lady – tell the universe, maybe – about ten strong little arms that could’ve lifted this stranger straight up to heaven.