The Christmas Bus

Yesterday, we headed out to a nearby city to treat our starving student-daughter to a meal. She chose a place called “Prince Albert’s Diner”– a popular spot that stays open late, often frequented by hungry students who have spent their evenings and their student loan allotments bar-hopping. We sat in a booth beside a large window that overlooked the busy street. A retro place–old movie posters on the walls, paper napkin dispensers, and milkshakes served in the dented mixing cans they’re whipped up in. We sat, chatting and sipping at our shakes (I tried so hard to have just a taste, but it was the ultimate milkshake of my entire life, and how do you memorialize something like that with just one, paltry sip? I had a veggie burger and salad to compensate for the ridiculous calories).

When I was going to university in that same city many years ago, my mission throughout the month of December was to spot the Christmas bus. The transit commission in that city traditionally decorates one bus in their fleet for Christmas and changes its route every day, so that it can be seen all over the city through the days leading up to the holidays.

I have never been one to go ga-ga over Christmas. I have always felt that preparations for Christmas should begin no more than a week before the event–it seems to begin earlier every year, and by the time it gets here, the whole thing is crazy and over-blown and anti-climactic. People become frazzled and over-extended and exhausted. Which seems to defeat the whole “peace on earth” theme that Christmas justifiably deserves.

That being said, there was something about that bus. I don’t understand it. On the rare occasions that I saw it, I could not contain myself. (Aside: I LOVE that expression! It elicits a picture of this giddy little girl who cannot be restrained, and she comes bursting out of my demure, adult persona in spite of all efforts to contain her.) I would shriek and squeal when I spotted that bus, and if I happened to be in a car at the time, its driver was less than appreciative when the Christmas bus happened past. Maybe, it had nothing to do with Christmas at all; it was just the excitement of finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. Then again, we’re talking about Santa sitting at the steering wheel of a bus festooned with wreaths and cartoon characters….

I never saw the Christmas bus again once I was done going to university in that city, even though I was often a visitor there. I wondered over the years if the transit commission had given up decorating a bus, but my daughters, who all go to school there, claimed to have spotted it. I wondered if they were just teasing me–and I wouldn’t put it past them, either.

So, there I was, sitting in a booth by the window in Prince Albert’s Diner, still telling myself that I was just taking a few “sips” of this incredible vanilla milkshake, and having a pleasant conversation with my daughter between rapturous gulps. Inexplicably, my head turned of its own accord towards the window…just as the Christmas bus glided by in the street. There was no mistaking it–long, painted white, gigantic Christmas images on the side, under the windows. I broke off in mid-sentence. My arms flailed towards the window. I sputtered and gargled and gasped. I was trying not to shriek in Prince Albert’s Diner. I am not sure the sounds I made were preferable to  shrieking. The other customers must have thought I was having a stroke. My daughter looked out the window in time to see the  retreating cause of my lunacy. Her eyes flicked back to me, and she threw her head back and laughed.

The guy behind the counter was looking over at us, and she had to explain.

“My mom just saw the Christmas bus.”

Elton

I often find myself taking the long way to work these days. I drop my son off at his high school and head down the back roads, in the general direction of my school. “My little iPod,” as I call it with great affection, is synched with my car’s Blue Tooth. I plug it in, holler “U. S. B!” to the Blue Tooth audio lady in as clear a way as is possible whilst hollering. If I’ve yelled clearly enough, my precious tunes come wafting from the sound system. If not, Blue Tooth Lady sneers, “I did not understand you” and I yell a little louder, with the addition of expletives. In the end, I am rewarded with a selection from all the good tunes of my life. My little iPod is kind enough to randomize for me, so there is always the element of surprise.

This morning, as I drove past the forgotten orchard (forgotten, because the ground around the trees is littered with the rotten apples that no one ever came to harvest), my little iPod gave me “The Bridge,” by Elton John.

The achingly beautiful first chords had a Ghost of Christmas Past effect on me. There stood the almost 49-year-old me, looking into my dad’s car and watching myself as a twelve-year-old girl on a long-ago starry night. I used to steal my dad’s keys in those days and sneak outside to the driveway to listen to the radio by myself. I’d lay on the front seat with the doors open so that I could look for shooting stars while my fingers cramped, twisting the dial, navigating through all the staticky A.M. stations in search of “Daniel.” It was like finding a needle in a haystack, but I did deliriously happen upon it once in a while. One of the first albums I ever bought with my babysitting money was “Elton John’s Greatest Hits,” the one with the cover of him in a white suit and matching fedora, posing rakishly on a piano bench.

Elton’s tunes were the soundtrack to my teenaged years–his sad ballads intertwined in that strange half-sleep you fall into when you’re babysitting and it’s three in the morning, and the parents are still not home yet. His more jangly tunes were the theme songs of many parties and gatherings, the ones we sang along to when we were all stuffed into someone’s father’s car, going out for pizza or Chinese food (“B-B-B-Benny and the Jetssssssss….”) I went through many musical phases, including one really awful one that had me buying Alice Cooper albums and sketching black widow spiders, but I always seemed to find my way back to Elton.

A few years ago, I went with a group of friends to hear Elton in concert. I was very excited to go, but I had no idea of the way that night would affect me. Our seats could not have been farther away from the stage. It didn’t matter. I remember sitting there, waiting for him to come on-stage, thinking, Man, this is gonna be great…and then he came out, and the rest was just one dizzy, exhilarating, joy-fest. He performed for more than three hours without an intermission. He would do one of his classic tunes that had the entire audience in a swoon, and then, giving us no recovery time, launched right into another. Every so often, he would turn from the keyboard and look out at the audience, a quick flash of that classic gap-toothed grin. I felt staggeringly drunk, like I could hardly stay upright in my seat. When I thought to glance around at my friends’ faces, they were just as gob-smacked as I was. Losing all vestiges of self-control, I sang along with every song. It must have been wildly irritating, but there was no stauching it. It was like I got to live my entire youth over again, in the span of a few hours–probably the closest thing to time travel I will ever know.

This morning, on my way to work, with “The Bridge” seeping into my ears, I was transported back to that massive, darkened arena filled with cheering fans, sitting in the nosebleed seat that cost me $160.00. The price of that seat was truly ridiculous…and I would pay it again in a heart-beat.

Bittersweet

Last night, my mother and father-in-law popped in for a visit, and as we drank our tea, the “bittersweet” experience resurfaced in our conversation, as it often does. My parents-in-law are both in their eighties. For as many years back as I can recall, since marrying into this family, we have always taken a day in August to drive out together to Bittersweet Farms for our year’s supply of blueberries. It’s always an enjoyable drive, and the farm is beautiful, with its row upon row of high-bush blueberries. The berries, a deep blue bordering on purple, have a dusty blush, and are the size of grapes. Their flavour is incredible.

On arrival, we always check in at the barn and they load us up with buckets and take us out to the fields. Every year, up until this past August, we were taken off to the right in the fields, where we wandered and plucked at will, pinging a few berries at Grandpa’s head when his back was turned. The kids always came with us when they were small. This year, it was just the four of us.

We were all four escorted to the left into the fields this time. We had never picked there before, but no one thought anything of it. We were left with our buckets and sit-stools in the company of other berry-picking enthusiasts. When we looked around, we saw that, not only were the berries tiny in that area, they were also sparse. I worked for half an hour and barely covered the bottom of my pail. Through the bushes drifted the whispers of others’ disgruntlement. “Why would they put us here?” “There are hardly any berries on these bushes.” “This sucks.”

Of our own accord, we made our ways to other rows, which were filled with berries, and three times as big. It wasn’t five minutes later when a young woman on a four-wheeler came speeding around the field. She jumped off and demanded, “Is this where we put you?” Like chastised children, we went back to our designated spots and resumed our “Where’s Waldo?” search for the elusive tiny blueberries.

A few minutes later, one poor woman in the next row tried again to relocate. This time, she was told by a worker who suddenly appeared, guerilla-like, out of the bushes, that those berries were reserved for the owners, and to go back to where she was assigned.

Grandma, just ahead of me in the row, started to fume. Finally, she grabbed her bucket and announced, “I’m going to pick somewhere else!”

“Now, Gloria…” Grandpa, always the guy who likes to fly under the radar, began…

“I can pick where I want to. It’s a free country!” she sputtered. “Besides, what are they going to do? I’m an eighty-year-old woman!” And she flounced away.

The three of us that were left exchanged glances and waited. Sure enough, the menacing sound of a speeding four-wheeler approached. We didn’t see what happened. We only heard it.

Blueberry Nazi: “Is that where we put you?”

Grandma: “There aren’t any blueberries there.”

Blueberry Nazi: “Yes there are. Now, go back to your row.”

Grandma: ” I don’t want to go back to that row. I’m staying right here.”

Blueberry Nazi: “You can’t pick there. You need to go back to where we put you.”

Grandma: “I’m staying right where I am. You can’t make me leave. This is ridiculous!”

Grandpa: “Gloria? It’s time to go…”

Blueberry Nazi: “You’re leaving. Here, get on the back and I’ll drive you to the barn.”

Grandma: “I’m not going anywhere with you! And I want to be taken off your mailing list!”

My husband and I walked with Grandma up towards the barn, Grandma still sputtering her outrage. Grandpa, who had some how missed the part in the argument where Grandma had indignantly refused a ride on the four-wheeler, accepted a ride himself (“Oh, great! Good idea! Thanks!”) We saw the top of his tilly hat as he sped towards the barn. 

Grandma (laughing helplessly): “Oh, dear Lord! I guess he didn’t hear!”

We surmised that the Blueberry Nazis had to be new owners. They wanted the easy-pickings for themselves and for their u-pick customers to have the more difficult task of picking the smaller and more sparse crops.

Me: “Well, that’s not a good way to do business, if they want their customers to come back.”

Grandma: “I am never coming back here!”

By the time we got the berries paid for (Grandma still furious, and not attempting to hide that fact to the counter staff) and got in the car, we were a sombre group.

We started towards the highway.

Grandpa: “I used to love coming to Bittersweet Farms.”

Silence.

Grandpa: “Well, Gloria. That’s just one more place we can never go back to.”

We must have laughed for ten minutes before we finally recovered. Then…

My husband: “Today, we tasted the bitter in bittersweet.”

My November 11th

It’s Remembrance Day.

On the eleventh day of the eleventh month at eleven o’clock, all heads were bent in our school’s gymnasium for a moment of silence. It is a strange thing to have silence in a crowd mostly comprised of children. A school is never a silent place, least of all, during an assembly. Yet, through all the years I have been working in this school, Remembrance Day has always been the one time during the school year when our students can pull it off.  The sobriety of the occasion permeates through everyone’s issues, and the quiet mantle of gratitude, sadness and respect falls upon our collective heads. The reverence of that moment when everyone turns inward and remembers in their own way is an awesome thing. I am inspired by it every November 11th.

The students sat quietly through the Assembly, their bright red poppies pinned over their hearts, and listened to the Primary students’ offerings of songs and words of peace. No one clapped. They were not told to refrain from clapping; they just knew it was not the time for applause.  The sight of those earnest little faces, singing so open-heartedly from their well-organized rows…that’s what Remembrance Day is all about. It is the sacrifices of those who went to war that have made it possible for these children, and for all of us, to pursue our lives’ purposes in the freedom we so often take for granted. It was not won easily, or without enormous cost. I like to think of the unseen souls that might be watching and listening in school gyms all through the country on November 11th. I like to believe that when they look down on the bent heads of silent children, they find renewed assurances that their sacrifices were not in vain. I guess that is the essence, or at least, my essence, of hope.

There are some who think that Remembrance Day should be a civic holiday. I disagree. If people were given a day off school or work on November 11th, they would be missing an invaluable opportunity to pause and reflect. The quiet eleventh hour would pass unnoticed and unmarked.

When the time comes that I am retired and finished with working, I think that I will venture into that school gym for the remainder of my November 11th’s. There is a lot to be said for wreaths and cenotaphs, but the sight of four hundred kids bowing their heads is what brings the most poignant meaning to my Remembrance Days.

November Woods

We set out for a late afternoon hike today. A distinct chill in the air, but an ample amount of sunlight, given that it’s November now.

Earlier in the day, as we turned into a country road, we startled three enormous wild turkeys out of the ditch. They rose like albatrosses out of the long grass. One after the other, they blundered into the air in front of us, their great wings splayed like feather dusters as they dragged themselves into the air. I had never seen wild turkeys before. They seemed to rise in slow motion right in front of the windshield, and we had a very clear view of all three.

As we drove towards the woods, the sky was pleasantly blue, but crowded with clouds, all different shades of grey. There wasn’t much wind…just a cold, still day. We parked and started down the trail.

We’ve had several hard frosts, yet the grass is still so green. Even though the fall colour is gone now, the trail through the woods is still grassy and bright, under its thick bed of dead leaves. The trees are stripped bare. They don’t seem to mind the chill, as they keep patient watch for the coming of winter. The absence of leaves brings new sights to see–a small tree, dotted with wild yellow apples, still clinging to the branches. A woodpecker, tapping out its persistent rhythm near the top of a tall tree.

The creek beneath the bridge has darkened into cold silence. It has become a perfect mirror of stillness, the colour of something just beyond green.

Some day soon, snow will fall through the branches and the creek will freeze. All will be bathed in quiet white. Until then, the woods lie waiting in a half-sleep of remembrance and hope.

The Staff Room

 

The staff room at work is the most unattractive space ever contained within four walls. It contains two grungy couches, a coffee table circa 1969, a line of long tables around which are positioned various unmatching plastic chairs, a worn carpet to which no sane person would ever apply the three-second rule should they drop something out of his or her lunch, a used stove (we use the oven for heat in the winter), a single sink which is perpetually full of dirty cups and cutlery (CLEAN YOUR OWN DISHES notes abound), three microwaves (two of them work), a phone that only a fool would use at peak times, if they want to hear what the other party is saying, and a fridge so unspeakably filthy; I cannot believe I am admitting to putting my lunch bag in there.  The staff room also has one window. It allows a great vantage point for people sitting  near it to catch kids hiding in the bushes at the front of the school at recess, and if it’s open, to yell at them accordingly. The lurch of surprise and the subsequent dash are good entertainment. The prime entertainment, however, comes from the inside of that room. As hideous and unappealing as the staff room is, the people inside it are another story.

I will not offend the people who I work with when I say that we are a bunch of idiots in the confines of that room. They would agree with great enthusiasm. Not only are we idiots, it is necessary that we are idiots. It can be rough out in those hallways and classrooms. If we didn’t have that staff room, I don’t know what would happen to us. The staff room decor could be compared to a really seedy bar, without the advantage of alcohol. Once we get going, we don’t need it.

I don’t think there is any place in my life where I laugh so uncontrollably, not even when I watch “The Big Bang Theory” (which sometimes makes me laugh so hard; I can miss up to five minutes of the following dialogue). Today, we got singing. It started out with a rendition of Sheriff’s “When I’m With You” and went downhill from there. We were on our fifth song and one of us was still bellowing, “Bay-bayyyyyy” from the chorus of the Sheriff song. The Boy George tune went pretty well (a few issues with lyrics), and “Careless Whisper” was pretty freaking great, too. I really wanted to do “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but someone drew the line.

One of our staff has suggested that our staff room would be a great setting for a new reality show, and I think that’s a great idea. They could blur out our faces, change our names. This is joy that needs spreading!

We’re in the middle of a renovation, and at the end of it, we’ll be eating our lunches in something a little more spiffy and hopefully, a lot more clean. I have to say though, I’m going to miss the old staff room. As disgusting as it is, it’s…home. So many great memories.

As great as it is, I admit to feeling just a little sorry for the supply teachers that venture in so innocently with their lunch boxes and sit down at the table. In between red-faced bouts of belly laughter and truly disgusting jokes, I occasionally catch glimpses of their faces, and I have to say, they look somewhat stricken. What did they expect to find in there? A bunch of teachers?

Best Part, #2

The best part of today was my walk tonight. Cold, brisk air, a star-filled sky, leaves crunching under my feet. Silhouettes of the newly bare trees. (Branches without leaves always make me want to draw them, even though I don’t have a lot of talent in that line). The first night of 2010’s November. The air was delicious. It tasted of wood-smoke and a hint of snow. My lungs expanded with gratitude.

The year is on its last legs. Christmas commercials started before Hallowe’en. I’m not alarmed. November does not bring holiday obsession my way, nor even holiday planning, for that matter. November is skies all shades of blue and grey, the last of the colour splashed here and there among the dark trees. November is hot soup and the last of the apples, cups of tea with a little honey. Good books, read in bed under lots of blankets. Long, steamy baths.

Welcome, November.