By Elaine Brown
Christmas Story Contest winner
The day before Christmas! Norah looked with half excitement and half sorrow around their small house. Rented, of course; Norah and her husband, Fred, had only been in Canada for two months. The economy was frail in British Columbia and employers wanted Fred to have “Canadian” experience. He was still unemployed, which meant the small stash of savings they had brought into Canada was alarmingly low.
Norah shuddered. She wasn’t used to being concerned about money. She tried to think of Christmas – which felt about half a planet away.
About 16,500 kilometres away.
Norah’s mind drifted back to the Christmases she’d had in South Africa. First of all, there was no snow. Friends, family and laughter at their backyard pool, a whole side of mutton and boerewors (farmer’s sausage) on the braai (grill/barbecue). Wine from the country’s many vineyards, the warmth of the afternoon sun and of knowing everyone around you was having a grand holiday. Their gated community was relatively safe, giving them a small reprieve from the cultural and racial turmoil the country was plunged into, and Norah would have looked around at her mother and brother and sister, with their families, hugging herself in delight. The laughter and buzz would have settled in her ears, and she’d have looked over at Fred managing the braai. He’d have winked playfully, telling her to jump in the pool with his cousins.
Now, Norah wrapped her arms around herself against the cold. She wasn’t used to dry, brittle cold. It seemed to cut right through her. Norah decided that northern British Columbia wasn’t cold – it was frigid.
Norah missed her family. Her loneliness seemed to peak as the last of the afternoon light drew away and the evening became dark. How odd to be far enough north that it was dark before dinnertime. She wondered if her brother had made it safely to Pretoria where their mother and sister lived. Norah’s brother, with his wife and children, lived in Cape Town, where Norah and Fred had lived since they married, six years ago. Norah hoped they’d had a safe drive. Accident rates rose terrifically around holidays in South Africa. Norah often wondered how long until her family became part of the statistics.
It didn’t feel like Christmas. Norah felt weighed down with snow and cold, worry and doubt. She was starting a job in the New Year as a receptionist, but if Fred couldn’t find anything, he would have to start looking at different options. Why did it seem that his decade in accounting didn’t have any value here? Was the economy that bad, or was Norah missing something?
Rufus, Norah’s tubby dachshund, trundled into the living room and pushed his damp nose against her leg. He knew her discomfort. Stroking vaguely, Norah rubbed his back while she wondered what she could do to make the place feel more familiar. For the past two months, she had been searching endlessly for some kind of familiarity in a place that offered none.
Canadians even sounded different. People said “flipper” instead of “egg lifter.” They said “Band-aid” instead of “plaster.” They spoke so quickly, as well, and some of them dropped their h’s – erbs instead of herbs. But, Norah considered, she and Fred must sound just as odd to them. At least everyone she had met was friendly. People smiled and said hello when they walked by on the street. Norah was not used to that. In South Africa, you kept to yourself and watched your back.
How could she feel more at home?
For the rest of the evening, with bobotie in the oven waiting for Fred – he’d been dropping off resumés in desperation, even on Christmas Eve – Norah tasked herself. She shuffled through the unopened boxes in the back room and pulled out their red satin tablecloth, which she dotted over with white doilies. She put Moses, the bust of a black man which looked so alike their friend they had named it after him, on the mantle with her small collection of porcelain cats.
They had a small tree with a few decorations gracing its branches. Norah cut out paper snowflakes like the ones she had seen in store windows, adding them to the tree. She was not good at crafting, so they all looked different and lopsided, but she kept them anyway. Fred would appreciate that she was trying.
What she wanted to do, however, was somehow incorporate something from Cape Town to add to the Christmas spirit. She had never been one to decorate for Christmas, because she didn’t treasure the work of putting everything away after. Still, she kept at it, digging through the boxes and finding books, Fred’s miniature model trains, her brass bell collection, their wooden elephants, and the carved owl Fred’s best man had given to them on their wedding day. It stood about a foot and a half tall. All the things she had left in their boxes, thinking they would remind her too much of home.
They did remind her of home, just not the way she’d expected. Instead of being pained by all the memories associated with the items, she was pleased. Spreading little pieces of South Africa throughout the house helped meld the two countries together. When she felt out of place and looked at the mantle or the sideboard or the coffee table, she felt a small sense of warmth, of belonging. In trying to inspire Christmas spirit, she had unknowingly made the house cozy. Maybe you didn’t have to “do” Christmas every year; maybe it was part of you.
Norah looked up eagerly when Rufus scurried toward the door. She threw the last chair cover over the back of a vacant kitchen chair and flew down the hall to squeeze Fred in a tight hug.
Fred looked down at her in surprise. For the first time since landing in Canada, Norah looked happy. Quickly glancing around the house, Fred knew why. She had finally given Canada a chance, by bringing South Africa into it.
“What smells so good?” he asked. He didn’t want to bring any attention to the happy gleam in her eyes, knowing if he mentioned anything, she might think what she had done was foolish and retreat back into herself. So he let it be, knowing what was best.
“Oh, that’s bobotie. I thought I would make that to warm the house up. What would you like for dinner tomorrow? Remember I thought a turkey would be too much for the two of us? I could make stir fry, or corned beef, and we also have a couple of things I could make stew with. What would you like? I could make fish, too, if you’d rather.”
Fred looked at her as Norah took his coat and hung it up before moving to the stove and pulling out dinner. She seemed more talkative this evening. Was it Christmas that made her happy? The house was less stark because she had unpacked some of their belongings. He had prompted her several times to do this, but she had been so gloomy she had avoided it.
“Whatever you like, Norah,” Fred replied as he came into the kitchen, Rufus in his arms. “I have some uplifting news as well. I met a man today who said he could do with an accountant. He runs a small firm and one of his men retired in the summer. The wage would be low to begin, but it would be something. I go for an interview the second week of January.”
“I knew you would find something, Fred. Come and eat – I don’t want the food to get cold.”
Fred smiled. When things started to perk up with Norah, everything bloomed. Sometimes keeping her morale up was challenging, but he understood. Leaving her home and family was hard and he had been her only company for months, but he knew they were safer here. Perhaps she could even convince him to have children in a year or two, before she turned thirty.
Norah smiled at Fred over the table. “I’m more excited about Christmas than I expected. It’ll be lonely and it won’t seem like Christmas, but I was thinking about the Cape, so maybe tomorrow we could go through some photo albums and look at some of our Cape Town Christmases. Would you be all right with that? What would you like to do?”
“That sounds perfect, Norah. I’m just happy that you’re happy.”
Norah sipped her Vinecrafter wine. “I’m getting there. We’ll make a day of it tomorrow. I’ll call Mom and talk to everyone, and you can open that port you got from the game reserve.”
“That sounds lovely. Good job, Norah.”
Norah smiled. Christmas would be just another day, but right now, that was all it needed to be.
Elaine Brown, 25, lives on Highway 24