Sunday, November 30, 2003

Sunday now, and Thanksgiving is well and truly over, the carolling has started in all the stores to encourage buying, and the trees have been put on sale on all the street corners, smelling of the Adirondacks and the forests between Ottawa and Turrunno, that I loved sooooo much on the bus trip that goes the northern route via Peterborough.

When I was first settled in America and was hating New York, and missing my old European friends desperately, without any emotional lifenet yet in place, I wanted nothing better than a trip to Canada, where I did have old friends. For reasons of caution connected with my legal visa status, I could not risk such a trip, it just wasn't worth the worry of maybe being delayed at the border and being a no-show at work on a Monday morning. So when it came time to take my first summer vacation, I bought the Mobil guide and read it very carefully, and went to Blue Mountain Lake in the Adirondacks, to hike and canoe and look for bears and wildflowers and get some air. But I shall tell that particular story at some other time.

This time around, I shall tell my Canadian Thanksgiving story, let's see, it must have been in 1971 or 1972. Probably 1972.

Canadian Thanksgiving is earlier than American Thanksgiving by almost a month. I was staying with my longtime friend Gil, and we had been invited by her co-worker and friend, Anne Quinn, to spend Thanksgiving at her family cottage on Lake Simcoe, north of Turrunno.

We arrived up there fairly early on Thanksgiving morning after the first winter storm of the season had pulled down the electric grid. A huge hard-as-rock turkey was thawing imperceptibly on the porch; inside the cottage, we met Quinn's sister, Julie, and her fiance Bill, bustling about with logs in their arms, full of inexplicable enthusiasm and an optimism that totally failed to communicate itself to the three of us.

"We're hungry!" We shouted rudely. "We're going into the village to see if we can't get some breakfast!"

"You might offer to help..." Julie said acidly.

"What's to help with? The turkey isn't even thawed, the stove is electric... Do you have an idea?"

Of course Julie and Bill had an idea. They are the kind of people who go on outward bound style canoe trips, where you portage your canoe, dammit, and wear waterproof ponchos for days on end, as you shoot the white water rapids, tipping in and out of the swollen torrents, and when evening comes, you set up a sogging tent, fighting the wind and the driving rain, and build an unlikely fire, and cook a real dinner from scratch that takes forever and ever to cook properly, before snuggling down into a sopping wet nest of damp camping gear that has been dunked again and again throughout the day.

"You might at least decorate the table..." Julie yelled after us as we galloped off down the abandoned railway tracks.

We had a slap-up breakfast at the village coffee shop, that cooked with gas, bless 'em, taking our sweet time. We made sure we ate plenty, who knew when we would get another meal? And the we set back for the cottage. We had the perfect alibi for a leisurely walk: we were collecting things to decorate the Thanksgiving spread. We quite frankly didn't care whether there would be a turkey dinner or not (the village coffee shop had promised it was staying open all day).

I had a camera with me, a very small rangefinder, and it was in this post-storm wind that I chose to experiment with close-up photography of emperor butterflies poised on milkweed pods, with all that parallax correction stuff, heroic. We really had a wonderful silly time, and arrived back at the Baudouin cottage with our arms full of miscellaneous leaves, and branches, and wildflowers, and seeds and grasses and fircones, flushed and totally high from running around in the wind and breathing in deep so much oxygen.

July and Bill were in the kitchen, not too judgmental, give them credit. It actually smelt of a real meal getting ready. Mrs. Baudouin had arrived, and a brother, and Quinn's 8 or 9-year old son Shawn had reappeared from wherever he had gone while we went to the village. We built a hearty fire in the living room fireplace. And we set the table and decorated it with our found fixings.

Gil and I started our bottle of vodka around the fire, and every now and then I would spring up, and run down the stairs onto the beach to see how the sunset was coming along on Lake Simcoe. I wasn't going to miss that cliched stormy sunset.

Eventually, night fell and we sat down to eat. Julie and Bill had achieved a bang-up meal. They had somehow managed to hack up the frozen turkey and had baked it in a dutch oven over the antique woodburning stove, which they had managed to reactivate and on which they had also cooked all the usual Thanksgiving vegetables.

During the meal, I pulled out my little rangefinder, my tripod and flash, and we took a few pictures, mugging it up appropriately for posterity, when Shawn came over to me, as I was cocking the shutter for just one more, and said in his little boy voice: "Aren't you supposed to remove that?" pointing to the lens cap.

Well --- What can I say: Vodka before dinner, and wine with dinner, I was two sheets to the wind, it's fair to say.

So, we had another go, and the pictures are still good today.

As we were reaching dessert, Julie spoke up: "Well, I would jolly well hope that the guests, who didn't get off their arses to help with the meal, would at least take care of the washing up!"

We thought it was a fair deal.

Things were very mellow later on. Gil played her accordion. Gil and Shawn did their special number with empty wine bottles. In the middle of dinner, the brothers went down to the beach to dismantle the docking pontoon. We were all very silly and had fun. Gil and I did the washing up. We talked late into the night, it was a grand evening. I have a picture of Mrs. Baudouin, lying asleep on a sofa by the fireside, wrapped up in a plaid, looking most dignified, except for the fact we had set up all the empty wine bottles around her. I laugh whenever I see those empty bottles, because for sure neither Mrs. B, nor Quinn, nor Shawn, had helped with any of the drinking, so it just had to be the rest of us.... What a crying shame! Hehehe!

As I have been reading about the nostalgia and the traditions of others, these days, specifically surrounding Thanksgiving and Ramadan, I am forced to realize that the reason I am so little involved in any of these rituals, emotionally or otherwise, is that, as I say, I "was half a war orphan", and therefore have been left disaffected by my mother's culture, and my father came from such a poverty-stricken family that there was very little of anything extra in his background to create any sort of a tradition, basic necessities actually were in the miracle category.

I am almost completely detribalized. It makes it difficult for me to stomach these bleak shortening days with all their feverish preparations for rituals where I only feel thoroughly estranged and which only serve to make me feel even more of an outsider than usual.

It almost makes me yearn for a glass of my father's "Christmas glug"...
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