My best ever Christmas present
I learned that when things seem darkest and you feel most alone, that is when they are about to get better, writes Patrick McKenna
I arrived in Canada on the last day of January 1975, on my owney-oo: I had no friends, family, relations, or Irish community at my destination, a small WASP town in rural Ontario. My homesickness, that started right away, took the form of an industrial strength loneliness that was as alien and as unpleasant as the bone chilling -20C cold of winter.
On my second Friday, at 5pm, my week’s work over, I tramped along the snow-covered shoulder of the highway back towards the motel. In what remains of the daylight I see a solitary set of boot prints in the snow, heading towards the factory I had just left. I suppose I felt a bit like Robinson must have, upon seeing the human footprints on the beach. “Hmm”, I wondered, “Who made those?” I stop. A thought comes to mind. I place my boot over and then into one of the prints. It fits, exactly. Just like Cinderella and her glass slipper. These are tracks I made on my way to work that morning. No one had passed that way since. At that moment I felt very alone indeed.
After a month in the motel, I rented a semi-basement apartment, furnished it with tables chairs, sofa, lamps, bed, mattress, bedclothes, and knives, forks, spoons and plates, and got on with the business of life. I broke the solitude of evenings and weekends by writing airmail letters, making expensive ($10 for three minutes) phone calls home, teaching myself sketching, and reading – I got through all four volumes of Winston Churchill’s History of the Second World War in my first winter. I became the most faithful client of the town library.
My first Christmas was a bit of a stretch, emotionally, and I was glad when it was over. I am sure you undestand that, in Canada, Christmas happens to fall roughly in the middle of the five-month Siberian like winter. Being alone at Christmas also meant being alone in the “Heart Of Darkness” deep freeze of of mid-minter.
For my second Christmas I journeyed back to Belfast. A meagre 10 days was barely enough time to process the reality of home. It took mum at least the first three days to tell me two years worth of bad news. The Troubles were as bad as ever. We had no central heating, no electric blankets. I froze.
The only person who seemed to understand my situation in Canada was an elder brother studying in Dublin. There, he told me, he was incredibly lonely. Hard to believe, I know, but true. For everyone else, at home, I was, “Lucky Jim”, leading the good life in Canada. Just as I had acclimatised to home, it was time to head back to Ontario.
After I spent my third Christmas alone I decided to call it quits and return to Belfast. I’d take my chances with the Troubles rather than continue to live in isolation. Well that was my plan, but in early 1978, I accepted a job offer in Montreal. There, for some reason, I felt much more “chez moi”. I had a social life, there were shows and movies to go to, people to meet. To my great surprise I was able to learn French, which had been my very worst subject at school.
Even so, for my first Christmas in 1978, I was alone again. As always, that was tough. Christmas 1979 was worse. Someone I cared for a lot had dumped me – my fault of course – a few weeks before the holidays. It was too late to make arrangements to travel back. “So”, I thought, “it’s another Christmas by myself. Well, I’ll just get on with it. It’s just another day after all, isn’t it?”
Unbeknownst to me, though, something was about to change. It all started with a sunset. You see, I love sunsets, always have. I think – hope – most people do. That Christmas, alone in my apartment, I found myself drawn to the window at 4pm to gaze westwards. Every afternoon I watched the last crimson sliver of sun disappear behind Mont Royal.
On Christmas day, for some reason, as the sun disappeared, I noted the time of day and wrote it on my kitchen wall calendar. The next day I did the same. I continued this new habit of mine through the holidays. I guess this was my variant of what all “Lifers”, P.O.W.s and in the old days, castaways did, to mark the passage of time – scratching each passing day into a hard surface.
From the times on my wall calendar I could see on that each afternoon lasted a few minutes longer than the previous one. Now, of course, the lengthening of the days after the New Year is not news. However, seeing the trend emerge, before my eyes, on my wall calendar, seemed quite the revelation. Knowledge I have learned from life usually seems that much more significant that what I read in books.
The knowledge that summer was on its way back gave me the emotional resilience I needed to get through the winter. “Where there’s light there’s hope,” is what I had learned. I like to think that our Neanderthal ancestors in Newgrange, or the Iroquois, who once lived in their great Long Houses, not so far from my high rise, felt the same way.
Since that Christmas of 1979, as I made my way through life, I saw, more than once, that when things seem at their darkest, they are about to get better. That little bit of wisdom was, and still is, the best Christmas present I have ever received.
Patrick McKenna is a regular contributor to Generation Emigration. Read his previous articles about feeling ‘at home’ in Montreal, letting go of his ‘Irish’ identity, getting ‘that call’ when abroad, living with homesickness for 34 years, and 10 things to consider when moving abroad.