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 pâte 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.



Christmas To Remember

This holiday season, I offer you three stories of Christmas trees — long-past, more-recent past and present. This is the second installment. However you celebrate the season, I hope you enjoy these. 

At the time of my earlier story about my mom and her Ambrose Christmas Tree poem, I was not yet born. By the time of this second story, I was an adult with children of my own.

The year was 2004. It was the first snowy weekend of December in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 

Paul and I and Carolyn and Henry went shopping for a live tree together and brought it home and set it up. We set it in the stand and let it rest a bit first. Then, Carolyn who was 8 at the time and Henry who was just 5 helped decorate the tree. We used lights, candycanes, and some new orgnaments we picked up on the way home from the tree lot. I lit candles around the house and put on some music. Amy Grant was singing “Christmas to Remember.” Our house had dark hardwood floors and white Spanish plaster walls that reflected the ambient holiday light. 

Carolyn remarked several times, “This is the most wonderful feeling. I am all warm and fuzzy inside. This is the most perfect Christmas ever. I feel all smiley and relaxed.” 

The kids wanted us to all get together in the living room to look at the tree. Dad was busy hanging wreaths outside the house. When he was finished and I was done with my tea, we all gathered on the couch next to the tree. Whoops. Henry forgot his blankie. So he ran to get it. Finally, we resettled back into our places, all in a row. Paul sighed and said, “This is it, kids. It just doesn’t get any better than this.” 

In one synchronized motion, we turned together to admire our lovely tree. At just the moment we did so, it promptly crashed to the floor. “AHHHH!” Carolyn cried out as we all watched it tip slightly and then tumble in slow motion. Pop! Crackle! Smash!

Lights out, broken organments, the star topper snapped in two, water everywhere! Paul and I immediately started laughing. Our happy scene went from Hallmark Card moment to National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation in a matter of seconds. At first, Carolyn was mortified and couldn’t figure out what was so funny. Henry was likewise stunned.  

Paul and I sprang into action. After a little work, we got the tree back up again. Carolyn watched us struggle to find the center point of our wobbly evergreen and quipped, “I think this Christmas is going to be all about balance.”

The kids redecorated with the surviving ornaments. We restarted the holiday tunes and then took our places again on the sofa. At that point, we were almost afraid to look, but we again turned together to gaze at our pretty tree — only now with added appreciation for its perfect sense of comic timing. 

We spoke about the tree as if it had consciousness and knew exactly what it was doing. I pointed out that by falling down just then, the tree didn’t mean to ruin our perfect Christmas moment. I said the tree was just making sure we would never forget it.   

And so, we never have. 

Here’s wishing you and yours a holiday season to remember, with lots of light and laughter.