From Montreal, With Love

We’ve been gone eight days, but it feels like we have been gone a month. My third Christmas tree story takes place this year, when our family of four decided to break with tradition and drive until we left the country. We went to Montreal, Quebec.

It was all Carolyn’s idea. As I have mentioned here before, my daughter loves adventure and travel. She is also in her senior year of high school and speaks often about how much she looks forward to being done with us, on her own. Just as soon as she leaves for college. Does she know where she wants to go? I hear you say. If one more person asks her that, she’ll burst. I remind her about her deadlines and ask about letters of reference. She promises me, with a toss of the hand, that she has this college business sorted.

Many months ago she asked if we could travel to a foreign locale instead of going to Wisconsin to see our extended families for winter break. I thought this was sweet. It seemed to me she was signalling to us that her last Christmas before she moves away meant something to her, that she wanted to make it count. She says not really. She just wanted to change the routine.

Carolyn suggested Canada in light of the fact that both she and her brother would enjoy a properly snowy Christmas. My son Henry is 14 and loves the feeling of being cold. He got his wish. We left DC, a place where December temperatures were hovering around 70 degrees, for a place where the daytime high was 17.

Our drive to Montreal involved a stop in Rutland, Vermont, a town that represents to my husband what Shorewood, Wisconsin, represents to my boy — the most idyllic years of his childhood. We arrived in Rutland after a harrowing passage through the Green Mountains at night in dense fog. The next day, Paul stood in front of the house with the screened in porch where he once played poker with his grandmother while it rained and lightning struck nearby. He showed us where a candy store had been where he bought comic books, the gazebo in the park where activists gathered to protest the Vietnam War, and the hill where he and his friends raced bicycles.

Lastly, we found the elementary school he attended, which is now boarded up. The kids and I paid attention to his stories. We snapped a photo of the house. I told Henry that one day he may stand in front of our old house on Newton Avenue with his kids, describing what life was like in the early 00s. He laughed.

Watch, I said. Families change.

The next day we drove through an ice storm to arrive in Montreal which had seen quite a bit of snow. The storm had knocked out power for hundreds of thousands of people in Toronto, but in Montreal the weather was kinder. Plows had not yet cleared foot-deep snow in the streets. Cars, buildings, sidewalks and trees were all coated in white, like in a holiday greeting card.

In the weeks leading up to this trip, Henry was concerned about keeping our traditions on the road. Would we exchange gifts on Christmas Day? Would we watch Miracle on 34th Street like always? (We would.) What about a tree? I could see he was not totally on board yet with our travel plans.

About a week before we left, I secretly took Henry to a department store. We bought a few presents. Henry insisted we also buy a small tree, something portable that would fit in the hatchback with all of our luggage. We found a plastic evergreen that stands about 18 inches tall. After that, Henry was more excited about this holiday vacation. The first thing he did when we arrived at our hotel in Montreal was unpack the little tree and set it up on an end-stand with the gifts around it. We didn’t decorate the tree or spend much time looking at it. This tree was just there, in the background, with us all the time. I thanked Henry for setting the mood. “Yes,” he said. “Without the tree, this would be just another road trip.”

I loved the city. One night Carolyn and I walked to holiday-lit, Old Port of Montreal. She bought lithographs from a man selling art under a street lamp, and we got tickets to midnight Christmas Eve Mass at the Notre-Dame Basilica. I am not a church-going person, and Carolyn is a self-described atheist, but we went anyway. We enjoyed the grandeur inside and the roof-raising holiday hymns. Everything was in French which we don’t speak. But we understood well enough. I lit a votive candle and said a prayer for our family’s safe journey home.

One day, all four of us ate at a French-style cafe where the waiter brought a huge platter of meat — sausages and p√Ęte and ham surrounding a pot of fondue. Afterwards, we discovered this meal cost a small fortune. So we bought a loaf of bread and some mustard and lived off the left-overs of that platter for two days.

In the morning, the kids and I trekked a series of snow-covered stairs up Mount Royal to take in picturesque views of the city in falling snow. Carolyn and I toured the Montreal Museum of Fine Art where we saw expert Inuit sculptures made of stone. This was Chrismas like we’ve never seen it before. Everything in Montreal was new to us.

We made two stops on our long drive back to Maryland – for sushi at our favorite restaurant in Sleepy Hollow, and for a walk through Central Park with a friend in New York City. We recapped the week, and got on each other’s nerves. We talked about whether there would be another road trip together anytime soon, since next year Carolyn may have plans to be with other people, or she might be traveling to Istanbul or Paris. Or, she may be surprised to find out she misses us, and all those cozy hours in the Prius. You never know.

We arrived at our home late at night and travel-weary, and we went through our mail which had piled up. In amongst the holiday cards and bills was a large envelope addressed to Carolyn. She took it to her room to open.

Through her door, we heard her holler out — she’s been accepted into that art school in the midwest that she wanted. And they’ve offered her a fat scholarship.

With that, we bid adieu to our winter holiday, and turned our attention to the coming New Year.



Joan’s Escape

I recently gave my first speech at my local Toastmasters Club. I told the following story about my mother and the surprising things that happen when she takes up painting late in life. I wanted her story to be the first that I shared here. I find her inspiring and hope you do, too. –Amy.

My mother grew up in a town on the shores of Lake Michigan in the southeastern corner of Wisconsin. As a teenager, she spent two summers sailing with her family and friends on a boat called The Escape. When she was 23 years old, in 1956, her parents gave her an oil paint set. Looking back fondly on those summers, Joan painted a charming picture of the sailboat from memory.

For more than half a century, this painting was kept in storage. And, in a manner of speaking, so was my mother’s artistic talent. When she finally got around to taking up a paintbrush again, she was 77. By now Joan had 11 children, 14 grand-children and two great-grandchildren. The intervening decades had been full ones for her.

Her youngest daughter, Sally, is now an art teacher in a town about two-hours drive away. A few Christmases ago, when asked what she wanted, Mom asked Sally for art lessons. Why now? She said if she waited too long, she wouldn’t be able to. Mom and Sally started meeting about every two weeks to work on art. In no time, it became apparent that our mom was onto something. Sally found that she didn’t need teaching so much as just a bit of encouragement. Color, line, contrast, balance. Mom had a knack for this stuff.

Joan created painting after painting, using acrylics mostly. She painted abstract designs and landscapes and butterflies and horses. She painted tiny floral refrigerator magnets and giant wall-size waterfalls. Her art became one more way of being generous to people. Many of us received paintings as gifts. Her work was made into calendars and printed onto coffee mugs and hung lovingly in our homes.

Three years later, it was Christmas again. And this time our extended family was trying to figure out what to do to for Mom’s upcoming 80th birthday. While she was out of earshot, we hatched a plan to host a public art exhibit of her work. It took us a few months to pull this together. For starters, we had to make sure Mom would agree to it. She’s not one to show off. And to our surprise, she did. We rented a small mansion in her hometown and attracted a bit of press coverage from the local paper who wanted to interview this local artist making her debut at age 80. Remarkably, our bashful mother went along with that, too.

It wasn’t until we were in the final stages of preparation that we realized how much art Mom had created in three years. We had expected 30-40 pieces. There were 104, including that original piece with her maiden name. Every piece was properly framed, labeled and mounted in a team effort led by Sally.

On the night of the event our family was seated at tables in the center of a giant ballroom and the art was displayed around the perimeter, when I noticed an older gentleman enter the room.

“Welcome,” I said. “Are you here to see the art?”

“I am here to see the artist,” he responded with a grin.

I led him across the room to where my mom was sitting. He squatted down at her level and asked “Do you know me?”

No, she shook her head. She didn’t. “How about this picture?” he said. He flipped open his cell phone and showed what appeared to be a copy of Mom’s painting of the sailboat. His phone was a little older and the image wasn’t clear. We looked closer. It was not a copy of the painting. It was a black and white photo of the actual boat! This gentleman’s family owned The Escape and this man knew my mother when she was a teenager and he was a small boy.

After this amazing reunion, our visitor asked to see the painting of The Escape. I took him to where it was displayed in a place of honor, right next to the birthday cake. As he and I compared the photo and the painting, we were struck by how accurate my mother’s memory had been of the light and shadows. This had to be the photo she had pictured in her mind. He said the actual boat had long since been sold and probably aged out somewhere in Florida.

The gentleman explained that his mother had seen the art story in the paper. At age 93, she wasn’t well and had sent her son to the art exhibit hoping he could purchase the sailboat painting, at nearly any cost. He leaned in to read the label and asked “What does NFS mean?” I had to break it to him, that this particular piece was marked Not For Sale.

There were more surprises that evening. Long-lost friends appeared as a result of her story that my mother hadn’t seen in decades. And family, too. Her cousin brought a laminated copy. Not only were these dear people able to appreciate her artwork, but they had a chance to meet this expansive and growing family Joan raised. Most of these were folks we could not have tracked down any other way. If my mother had not begun to paint, or had not agreed to let us celebrate her publicly, we all would have missed out.

At the end of the night, a number of visitors had purchased artwork to take home. I bought a painting of the Kenosha Lighthouse, which happens to mark a spot with special significance to our family. To me, the lighthouse is also a reminder. When you stand in your joy and allow yourself to be seen, wonderful things find their way to you that could not have found you otherwise.

Thank you for reading.