My mother recently broke her wrist. Her arm is in a cast, so most of the time she has to hold it at a 90 degree angle, which gives the impression that she’s permanently asking questions. Which I suppose, in some ways, she is.
The Friday before Christmas, I drove home to see her. It took me three hours, through a snowstorm, in a rented Ford Escort. I was positive she’d be happy to see me alive.
“HI MOM!” I yelled when I walked through the door.
“You brought a whole suitcase for two days?” she said.
“How about 'Welcome'?” I asked. “Or, ‘Nice to see you!’”
“Could you stand on the rubber mat?” she said. “Your boots are dripping on the carpet.”
Saturday night was my high school friends’ annual Christmas get-together, hosted every year by Erika. Unlike my home life at the time, my high school years were as close to a movie or after-school sitcom as you could get. This is entirely because of my friends. We played music together, had bonfires on the beach, and went camping. We spent every waking minute together. I probably owe most of the sanity I accumulated until age 23 to them.
Most of them have gone on to become insanely successful. They are doctors, and professors. They are high-up government types, and aerospace engineers. They have homes – real homes, with swimming pools and yards – and a lot of them have kids. They have become the kind of people their parents hoped they’d be, whereas my parents are still hoping. Or were, last time I checked.
Erika and her husband live in the country, in a home with an actual West wing. Their house has more bathrooms than my apartment has bedrooms, and an atrium looking out over acres of forest. It is stunning. Their baby is so adorable she could be on the side of a diaper box, and Erika’s younger brother, who was also coming to the party, has a wife and an equally cute new baby. He is also an optometrist. He is two years younger than me.
At about 1 o’clock in the afternoon on Saturday, I started thinking about the party and began to panic. What would I say when they asked what I’d been up to? Writing an unpublished novel? Living in a rental in Cote des Neiges? I paced around, trying desperately to compose a mental CV of 2008. But it was pointless. My friends don’t wake up in the middle of the night to their alcoholic, wet-brain neighbours drunkenly singing the first two lines of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” at the top of their lungs, over and over (and not just at Christmas.) My friends throw baby showers. They have carpeting. They go on real vacations, in resorts. My life, I realized, was shoddy and unaccomplished. I has absolutely nothing to show for myself. I should stay home, hide my head under my pillow and drink eggnog through a straw.
But about three minutes after I got to Erika's, I forgot everything I’ve just told you. Her husband greeted me the hugest, warmest hug, and someone immediately poured me a glass of wine. We reminisced about the old days. The girls complained about post-breastfeeding boobs, and we gorged on oven-ready hors d’oeuvres. I stayed till 2am, on a chesterfield under a blanket, wedged between people I've now known for half my life, laughing so hard my cheeks hurt. It was one of the best nights I’ve had in a long time.
The next day, my mother told me to move my car to her neighbours’ driveway. They were in Florida, and she wanted hers to be clear for when the snowplow came. I went outside, moved the car, came back in, and took off my coat, boots, mitts, scarf and hat.
“Actually,” she said. "Why don’t you just put your car in the garage, next to mine? Then the neighbours’ driveway can be plowed properly too.”
I got dressed again and trudged back outside. I brushed off every last snowflake from the car, as my mother instructed. Then I got into her car, moved it over, got out and looked around.
There was not enough space in the garage for two cars.
"JUST PARK IN THE STREET!" My mother yelled from the doorway, so I did, then came inside and took off my coat, boots, mitts, scarf and hat. She was watching the news.
“You can’t park in the street,” she said. “They’re giving out tickets. Just go out there and move it around until the snowplow's finished."
The truth is, for me, the holidays seem to bring on a certain type of amnesia. And thank god for that. If didn’t forget my mother’s unfailing ability to drive me around the bend every single Christmas, I would probably never come back home. Which means I wouldn't be reminded that my old friends don't ask me why I don’t have a mortgage, or a garage, or a car for that matter. That they don’t ask what I’ll be doing about RRSPs, or why don't I behave more responsibly. That usually, they're just glad to see me.
And I’m glad to see them. It is important, around the holidays, to be with people with whom you share history. Even if that history includes drunkenly singing “Yellow Submarine” at the top of your lungs underneath Mike’s parents’ piano in the summer of grade eleven. That, I will never forget.