Posts Tagged With: Christmas

A Merry Little Condensed Christmas

When the Christmas SWAT team came a knocking, it was completely unexpected. It was an innocent July day—there was nothing Christmasey about it, except for the fact that Kim and I loosely agreed to be part of the “Jolly Holly Tour” in November when asked point-blank. We had been cornered in our backyard while drinking beer, intermittently digging up coneflowers and wayward Bachelor Buttons between gulps. We were deep into summer, sweat stinging our eyes, shirt sleeves rolled up, flip flops kicked off. Why wouldn’t we want over a thousand strangers to traipse through our house? Surely that wouldn’t entail much work to prep for. We warned the organizers that we had about four decorations between the two of us, but that didn’t seem detract them.


Our vivacious neighbour Dawn had nailed us as a target. She had watched us industriously transform our gardens into near Buckingham for the parade of 150 Galt Horticultural Society members in June. We seemed like an approachable couple, eager to have mass amounts of people traipse through our backyard—and, why not inside our house too? Dawn wooed us with fall fair-winning lemon loaves and chunky oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. Plus, she somehow always smelled like vanilla frosted cake, putting me under a cosmic cake spell to anything she asked.

“We usually sell about 1,200 tickets a year for the event.” My god, Kim and I and our little stone cottage were going to be like a rock concert—1,200 was half the capacity of Massey Hall!


It all seemed so far, far away and we joked about our commitment to something so Christmasey. It wasn’t our nature–our family members and friends roared with laughter at the prospects. Coming off the tsunami of relief after the garden tour, we didn’t fret about Jolly Holly until we found ourselves in mad decorating brainstorming sessions in at the end of August.

To clarify, our idea of the perfect Christmas is four decorations and on the eve, a bottle of champagne, cheese, charcuterie and watching Love Actually for the bazillionth time. Christmas Day we make the pilgrimage to my parents’ house in Walkerton where Christmas comes alive and we can simply immerse ourselves in the holiday spirit courtesy of my mom’s splendid decorations. It’s like walking into a glossy December magazine feature complete with clove-studded oranges, reindeer of wood, wool and silver, nutcrackers, whimsy and gravy-scented rooms.

Dawn brought over a stack of House & Home mags for inspiration. Her holiday sidekick and designated sparkle guru, Kathy, pulled out her iPhone and showed us her ideas gleaned from Restoration Hardware. They already had our house wrapped up in black tuile and were losing sleep over mercury owl placement and dogwood planters. Kim and I were not losing sleep. Yet.


The Jolly Holly Tour is an annual event hosted by the IODE—Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire. I kept referring to the group as the IUD which raised a lot of eyebrows, but also attracted interest. In 1900, Margaret Polson Murray recognized the need to support Canadian troops departing to fight with the Empire forces in South Africa. She formed a group in New Brunswick that urged the human condition basics: loyalty, patriotism and service. They sent parcels to the troops while providing for families in need at home. The IODE has evolved its mandate to “women dedicated to making a better Canada.”  Dawn and Kathy were apparently part of the “Make a better Christmas at Kim and Jules’ house chapter.” We made them promise not to barf Christmas all over our house. We couldn’t say no to a group that just oozes good.

The IODE donates to the Cambridge Memorial Hospital’s children and maternity ward. They give to summer camps, support suicide prevention and bereavement counselling programs, the local hospice, the food bank. They donated Canadian flags to local elementary schools, reading programs, crisis shelters…

We said yes to the dress—despite realizing that our house would have silver sparkles dotted around it for another 153 years. For the tour, five local houses would be decorated to near National Lampoon standards. If you build it, they will come. For $20, holiday flockers spend a day touring around the homes to get in the Christmas groove, looking for inspiration coupled with a little bit of permissible nosey-parker-ness. Who doesn’t want to snoop around somebody’s home? How else do you get the opportunity? The IODE raises over $20,000 from the house tour event alone.


The bombardment started before Halloween with the assembly of the tree in the carriage house. Dawn and Kathy, the holiday drill sergeants, enlisted other members. Dawn’s sister and a cousin joined the crew and soon we found our minimalist house feeling very maximalist.


We’re not talking Clark Griswald though—the women kept to our simplistic, subdued, rustic request and created a lovely condensed Christmas. Kathy must have cut down a swath of cedar, birch and pine from her property to deck our halls. And this woman had balls! A lot—red, silver—bowling ball-sized. The balls and glitter found homes with the rest of their combined Christmas cartel.


I littered Facebook with posts on the process—who had we become? Kim was hanging garland the day after Halloween!

Kim and I transformed into Christmas zombies about four days before the show. In the midst of all this we had our en suite shower glass installed, bagged 23 bags of leaves, painted the hallway, the back door, installed a new light fixture and medallion in the guest bedroom (in the dark, with headlamps on), vacuumed and scoured to the standards of a Queen’s visit. We even met with our investment advisor to see when exactly we could retire–maybe we were holiday decorators at heart, stymied by our full time jobs.

The bottles of wine were like downed bowling pins with sleepover guests. We had a few nights of cheese and cracker dinners around 10:30pm.


The show was an immense success—and, as part of our evacuation plan on Sunday, my parents joined us on the tour of the showcased homes. (Side note: with a pit stop for the best bison burgers at the New Dundee Emporium!)


A huge thank you to the IUD for keeping us sane and calm during the invasion. Thanks to Monica and Graham at Monigram’s for jumping in last minute to showcase Galt’s best coffee beans and merch on our countertop. (*And for those perky Americanos that you delivered to our house during the set-up!).


Thanks to Hercules at Grand River Soap Company for supplying the generous stack of lavender studded and lemon balm sensory appeal in our main bathroom. Calgon, take me away!

If you missed the show, here’s the virtual tour—and as you walk through, consider giving handsomely to the IODE as they do keep it local and make life sunnier and hopeful for so many.


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14 Predictions for the Torti Christmas: 2012 Edition

025 The Torti Christmas is always a lovely orchestrated chaos of champagne, pant-wetting laughter and storytelling. Are we becoming predictable? I know these things to be true, and everyone in attendance will no doubt agree that:

1. My father (who we nicknamed “Flo” eons ago) will nickname my brother’s Romanian boyfriend after 15 mispronunciations of “Dragos.”

2. My sister Kiley (via satellite in Banff) will be put on speaker phone and have the distinct pleasure of deciphering six people talking at once. Speaker phone conversation may also include one of the cats (Izzy or Chloe) if they are cooperative and interactive.


3. Dax will (conveniently) disappear to “delete cookies from Mom’s laptop web browser.” This will occur when the dishes need to be done.


4. All of us will intermittently disappear to delete the cookie supply in the sunroom where the Tupperware and tins moan with sugar and butter. Here, layers of Nanaimo bars snug up with pecan shortbread, macaroons and butter tarts. This is precisely what I dreamt of in Africa in 2008 as I ate stale vanilla wafers and slugged back potentially salmonella-laden unrefrigerated egg nog.

5. My dad will be in charge of washing/drying the dishes because my mother goes all Iron Chef in the kitchen with delegation. As per every year, my father will leave all the dried dishes and pots on the countertop, because, after 10 years of living in their home in Terrace Hill, he doesn’t know “where mom keeps them.”

6. My mother will remark “did everyone see Flo’s museum display?” This comment will be in reference to my dad’s display of dried dishes which will take up every valuable inch of countertop space.

7. Before the traditional bird dinner, Flo will eat six consecutive slices of buttered toast in complete dire straits, patiently waiting for dinner to be ready.


8. Mid-afternoon, my mother will prepare an ooh-ahh worthy platter of fine cheeses, charcuterie and artisan crackers. She will prep a separate plate or delineate the tray for my dad: “This is your section. You won’t appreciate the expensive stuff.” My dad’s section will include Cracker Barrel cheddar and mozzarella cubes which he will enjoy in his usual Pac Man fashion. He will be served a thimble of wine because he won’t appreciate the value of the wine either.

9. Somebody will re-tell the story of the Great Unicycle Incident of 1985. This is when Dax decided to test drive his brand new unicycle in the livingroom and pulled the mantelpiece and miniature Grandfather clock off the mantel, nearly killing my dad and the family dog.

10. Somebody will reminisce about Nan’s Nordic knit sweaters. In the summer of 1987 our grandmother sneezed and wheezed her way through four sweaters (despite a lethal allergy to wool). Nan’s sweaters were a force to be reckoned with. The stovepipe arms narrowed and cinched so closely in the armpit that they threatened to cut circulation off. The waist ballooned out to allow for teenage pregnancy. The sweater’s neck was either large enough for two necks or required three people to assist in the pulling-over-the-head process.


11.My mother will periodically crank her favourite Paul Potts, Il Divo and Pavarotti songs on the stereo. My father will attempt to sneak in and turn the volume down when my mother is distracted with julienning or basting. She will notice. The volume game resumes. Repeatedly.

12. My dad will retreat to the “TV room” (with buttered toast) where he will use my girlfriend as a pawn. “I’m just keeping Kim company—she wants to watch the World Junior Hockey action. Hey Kim, can I get you a beer?” (Flo disappears into the TV area with a beer for Kim and a rye and ginger for himself with a thumbs up and wink). My mom will re-crank Pavarotti’s Nessun Dorma. Kim will remain seated to help facilitate sport-watching time for my dad.


13. When it comes time to unwrap gifts, Dax will use his traditional wrapping. “Close your eyes and hold out your hands.” Dax has never wrapped a gift in my Christmas memory.


14. While unwrapping gifts we will make fun of Kiley until my dad will say, “Now, don’t make fun of your sister, she’s not here to defend herself.” But, I know Kiley won’t mind. I will re-hash the story of Kiley and Her Gift-Giving Saga. Dragos doesn’t know all the Torti tales, so, we have renewed opportunity to share nostalgic stories. Kiley’s gift-giving has included:

a) A $200 autographed hockey stick that she bought on ebay for my dad (and convinced us to chip in on). Flo couldn’t recognize any of the signatures and thought it was a fake (insert Kiley’s pout and official ebay document of authenticity here). Further investigation reveals that the stick is signed by real players, from the Leafs farm team.

b) The $200 bird. Kiley buys a heron that is made out of rock and iron at an art show in Canmore, Alberta in the fall. Would Dax and I like to chip in on it? Chipping in on the bird for my mom will also cover the expense to ship the 100 POUND BIRD across Canada in time for Christmas.

c)The present for Dax that was “in the mail” that never arrived because there was no gift ever sent. (Love you Kiley!! And, I’m so glad nobody else in the family writes a blog).

This is just a prediction. Soon I may have to get my family members to sign a media release to protect myself from defamation charges.

But, then my dear family will be reminded of how grateful I am to be part of such a family. Eccentric, yes. Adoring, tenfold. I am so lucky to have a solid gold foundation.


We will miss having Kiley and Mark with us this year, but, via speaker phone and champagne stories, they are with us! Oh, and this is where the 15th prediction comes in. One of us will reminisce about that stupid Cabbage Patch Kid that Kiley got for Christmas. That doll with the head and booties made out of CEMENT that she beat us SENSELESS with.


Merry Christmas everyone. Love the ones you’re with.


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Wish You Were Here

Last Christmas I was poolside with a gin and tonic in hand, writing about all that I had seen on safari that day in Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda. Our morning had begun in the dark with a slip of a moon, bleary-eyed over 6 am coffees. We left the Myewa Hotel as the last of the stars bled into dawn. There were kob en masse, picking their way through the long grass, two lions and a cub at a distance, long-tailed mousebirds spinning in lazy circles and dozens of startled bushbuck running in a whisper.

The infinity pool at the hotel perched over Lake Edward and Lake George. The sky that day was a violent purple, growling thunder edged closer with the frequent spikes of lightning. Elephants at the water’s edge dragged their trunks along the surface of the lake, spitting and spraying their torsos in a seemingly choreographed dance, oblivious to the storm that would throw down rain in angry torrents in less than an hour.

I wasn’t feeling Christmas at all. No glitter, tinsel, nutcrackers, wet snow, buttery shortbread or carols on repeat. But I was lying by a pool, sweat trickling down into my navel, my mouth raw from eating so many wedges of fresh pineapple at breakfast. I was watching elephants by the lake. My mind was still reeling from the prickly thrill of seeing the gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park just days before.

I thought of how lovely the Canadian landscape would be with marshmallow snow topping fence posts, pristine aprons of snow in the branches of weeping cedars and pines. But, I was in Uganda, and marvelling at the verdant tea plantations and flat expanse of savannah, dotted with the exotic animals that I had completed so many elementary school projects on.

I spent this morning reading my Christmas journal entries from last year, and 1994, when I spent three months volunteering in Costa Rica. The words pull up vivid images of the jungle and the hum that penetrates you as soon as you step into it. I was in the Monteverde Cloud Forest—and when you live in a cloud forest, you wake up in the clouds due to the elevation. The rain was pelting down on the corrugated iron roof of our cabin as we gathered around our makeshift Christmas banana tree.  We made ornaments out of tin cans (and were happy that we`d had tetanus shots before the trip). Alex had tucked away a bottle of Argentinian white wine from his dad`s village, Alice had Australian lollies to share. Phil pulled out a prized bottle of amber Quebec maple syrup and pancake mix that won us over in an instant. There were a few cans of beer as warm as bathtub water, and egg nog that came in cartons with the rum already in it.

I was the Dona in the kitchen that Christmas Day. I had prepared a marmalade-lemon juice-coconut sauce marinade for the chicken and managed to make peanut butter-banana-oatmeal no-bake cookies. The jungle kitchen was very basic—i.e. cooking was done over a fire pit that had to be constantly tended to due to the leaking roof. There was no running water (except off the roof into the fire)—we had to slog up plastic jugs from the river which we treated with iodine tablets. And Mother Hubbard`s kitchen was bare! I often felt like a contestant on Just Like Mom (a TV Ontario show where competing kids had a cookie bake-off (with one minute of prep time), and the poor mothers had to guess which sloppy cookie their kid made. Contestants were given all the same ingredients: chocolate chips, flour, eggs, garlic, wieners, Coke, mustard, relish. It was just a gong show of gross. Jungle cooking was similar considering the pantry was only stocked with cans of mackerel, stewed tomatoes, marmalade, oatmeal and five kilos of peanut butter.

Somebody suggested we sing Christmas carols to channel more of a festive feel in the heart of the rainforest. There were 12 of us—from Canada, Guyana, Costa Rica and Australia. We soon realized that collectively we didn`t know the words to one entire Christmas carol. However, everyone knew the jingle for The Flintstones and Gilligan`s Island.

Flash forward to Christmas 2009 which kind of snuck up on me like my Chad Kruger Nickelback hair that needs a desperate cut. Snow flakes are drifting by the window sideways. There are a few sparkly decorations scattered about the house to induce festiveness. Dogs are walking by in boots and jackets, often wearing more clothing than the children that are also in tow.

My sister is home for a week from Banff and is landing on my doorstep tonight. Her arrival (and too-soon departure on the 28th) reminds me of the impact of my boomerang lifestyle. As much as I love having Christmas abroad in rainforest huts and safari lodges, there is a place where we should be for Christmas, and that`s home.

I selfishly spent one Christmas Eve in Toronto, just because I wanted to buck all tradition and watch Bridget Jones Diary and Love Actually and eat greasy Chinese food. I had friends over who had lost their sense of home, or simply weren`t invited to come home with their loved ones because it wasn`t appropriate. People would talk. Aunt so-and-so can`t handle it. Your father can`t accept it. Meanwhile my father was saying he should play the lottery more often because he had two out of three that were gay. How lucky was he!

I am still appalled by the response to Nova Scotia MP Scott Brison`s Christmas card controversy. The card is a proud photo of Brison and his civil partner, Maxime St. Pierre (married in 2007) in an autumn field by the ocean with their retriever, Simba. Newspaper websites were forced to shut down or disable comment sections on the article because of the backlash. Apparently not everyone is ready to don their gay apparel, even at a time when we are supposed to extend goodwill to men. But maybe only straight men?

As lucky as I am to have spent a Christmas in Uganda with bathing elephants, and in Costa Rica with flocks of toucans barking outside the hut as I wrote in my journal, I`m even luckier to have a home to go home to, where my loved ones are equally loved and embraced.


I have two parents, still married after 37 years, and a brother and sister that I genuinely like. We are as rare as a flock of toucans being spotted in downtown Toronto. Dax, Kiley and I will head home on the 24th as a convoy. My mom will have the phyllo pastry ready for Dax to make his traditional spanokapita. There will be champagne in the freezer and Pavarotti blasting at concert levels (which will send my parents back and forth, alternately, to the stereo in a lower volume, higher volume contest). We will listen to The Cat Carol by Meryn Cadell, as we always do, and cry over the cats and dogs that we loved so much. They each have memorial ornaments on the Christmas tree with engravings that are traced over with fondness.

My dad will eat six slices of toast, waiting for the rest of us to realize that we`ve forgotten about the turkey dinner because we are slowly getting smashed on champagne bubbles. We will laugh at the classic stories that are re-told every year. The story of Dax and the unicycle and his failed attempt to ride it on Christmas morning will be heard, again. How he grabbed the mantle piece and almost took my dad out with the garland and clock that weighed as much as a piano.

We`ll make fun of Kiley and the hockey stick gift she insisted my dad would love. It was signed by all the Toronto Maple Leafs and came with an official document—it should have been The Best Christmas Present in the World. Or so she thought. My dad couldn`t identify a single signature as they were all farm team players and rookies.

Kiley wins the Brooke Shield's Brows award AND owning a shirt that looks like a couch cover prize.

The photo albums will eventually come out and Kiley and I will argue who had the bigger Brooke Shield`s eyebrows. My dad will eat more toast. We will reluctantly sit down to eat, somewhere around 9 o`clock and then decide to open presents somewhere around 11 at which point both my parents will fall asleep watching the other unwrap.

And when they finally tuck into bed, Dax, Kiley, Mark (Kiley`s non-gay partner)a and I will sit on the kitchen counter eating cold turkey and shortbread until we`re sick.

And this year I won`t have to send a postcard to my family with a sappy wish you were here because I`ll be there. Home, and that`s where we all travel back to on sleepless nights, when we are oceans away, submerged in hot baths and at Christmas.

Merry Christmas and all that rot, as my mother would say (but probably deny).

 Last year`s blog entry Egg Nog and Cat Carol Crying–

The controversial Christmas card–

 Just Like Mom footage–

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A Tribute to Nan

I posted this tribute in November of last year, when my grandmother died. Her birthday was December 9th, and it seemed only fitting that I run this post again to honour her great, glowing spirit. She loved Christmas, and this season and golden memories of her will never be separate in my mind. Thanks Nan for illuminating our lives year round, you are terribly missed.

‘’I don’t know anyone whose grandparents are divorced, that’s just weird.’’
‘’What about yours?’’ Kelly asked, always one bright step ahead of me.
Funny, I never thought of my grandmother of ever being married, let alone being divorced. When my dad was two, she divorced Angelo and cut the Torti family tree in half, letting all those limbs crash to the ground to rot. She was just Nan to me, and besides, she had Buffer, my dad’s sister. Apparently we couldn’t pronounce Cathy as kids, it came out Buffer (maybe we had mouthfuls of marshmallows when we tried to say her name? I dunno). Anyway, Buffer and Nan were a package deal, an odd Thelma and Louise if you will. They lived together in a tiny wartime house in sleepy Eagle Place, Brantford, Ontario. We were spoiled to have a Great grandmother who lived right beside us, and my mom’s mom lived just a few farmhouses further up the road. But, our urban Nan had cable, was walking distance to Mac’s Milk convenience store AND Earl Haig Swimming Pool.

My mother always thought public pools were cesspools, and she’s right, this one had its share of floating band-aids, and the odd dark turd would bob around until an alert lifeguard evacuated everyone. Buffer swam with us like the biggest kid, terrorizing us by yelling ‘’shark’’ and pinching us underwater. Kiley always ended up in tears from shark attacks, but I think at that age if she wasn’t screaming, she was crying. Such a sensitive child. What scared me more was Buffer’s big toe which had no nail on it from some mysterious infection. She would wrap it up tightly in two plastic bags secured with elastics and wade into the pool without concern. All the other swimmers would stop mid-stroke to assess what the plastic bag could mean, and whether swallowing pool water and spitting it in someone else’s face was still okay.

We swam with Buffer and Nan everyday of the summer I think. My dad would drop us off on his way to work, bleary-eyed, and we’d park ourselves sleepily on the couch and watch cable cartoons. We loved Chili the penguin and the one with the Anteater. Nan would have chocolate milk in a carton and offer us cowboy or sailboat sandwiches. Cowboy style came open face, sailboats in fours, standing erect, exactly like peanut butter sailboats would look. By the time we walked to Earl Haig we were ravenous again, and Nan always had devilled eggs and pickled beets for us. Buffer would pack a tin of Betty Crocker vanilla frosting and we’d smother dollar store Nilla wafers with an inch of the stuff. We never waited half an hour before swimming…

Our favourite days were when a storm would be brewing, foreboding clouds smudging the sky and the deadly humidity heavy in our lungs. We’d rush home, thunder at our heels, with Buffer telling us what was happening meteorologically. She should have been a storm chaser because she knows more about F5 twisters and funnel clouds than normal. Buffer often had us taking shelter in the basement because she knew when a tornado was approaching, she could smell it. But first we’d stop at the fish n’chip shop on Erie avenue and place a family size order. The fish always came wrapped in newsprint which nearly gave way with all the grease by the time we reached Nan’s and took cover.

Nan would finally put her feet up, turn on the fan to a level equivalent to that of a jet taking off. She couldn’t stand the humidity. She rarely wore shorts, and only inside. When she did my sister would ask her if she was from outer space, because of all the green bumpy varicose veins on her legs. When Nan left the room finally, we’d take turns putting on her thick glasses, because it was like being underwater with your eyes wide open. We were always caught, and she threatened us that we’d go blind if we kept doing it.
The other big Nan threat was that the house would blow if we ran around the kitchen. She made us equally paranoid of the pilot light on the gas stove. Not a day passed where Nan would suddenly flare her nostrils and say, “do you smell gas? Buffer, go check the pilot light. This house will blow if that light’s out.’’

When my dad was in a hockey tournament, we’d go to Nan and Buffer’s for the night. They let us stay up as long as we wanted, hell, why not? They were staying up too. We’d watch Hee Haw, Benny Hill and Johnny Carson eating our way through bags of Hickory Sticks and bbq peanuts.

In the morning, Nan would convince one of us to help shove her diamond or sapphire earrings into her lobes. Kiley was the most helpful, I still get queasy at the thought. Nan would do our eyebrows so we didn’t look like Brooke Shields and ask us if we wanted our hair permed like Buffer. My mother had already vocalized her opinion: no perms, especially Toni home perms. Kiley was always keen, but, I never thought tight poodley curls would be flattering on me.

We sometimes played with the city kids, but they were a different breed. A bit snotty we thought. Instead, we made homemade wet bananas in the backyard because Nan also had water pressure, something we never had living on a well in the country. We hosed down large sheets of plastic and sprinted, bellyflopped and slid across the plastic until we came to a dead-stop on the sharp grass. When we tired of that (because our ribs hurt from slamming the ground so much) we’d make some game with horse chestnuts on a string where you had to whack your opponent’s nut off. Too often it usually ended up being Dax’s real nuts… and the game would end. We’d walk up to the store, which we were allowed to do only if we held hands crossing the street (which we never did). Nan would slip us a few bucks so we could each get some candy. Mac’s had these fantastic tiny ice cream cones filled with a maple syrupy kind of fudge that we all splurged on. Kiley would get a fudgesicle or sour cream and onion chips, ju jubes or Fun Dips for Dax, and I’d be stuck somewhere between Kraft caramels, Swedish fish or hockey stickers for my scrapbook. We all had scrapbooks that we were working on: Star Wars, NHL, E.T. –the stickers came with that god awful gum covered in so much powder. One day we went all out, because Nan gave us a little more, but said she wanted change. How much change we weren’t sure about—so we went a bit hoggy. We bought Gobstoppers, Hubba Bubba grape, red lips, green thumbs, those invisible books with the magic pens and some Bottlecaps. We hopscotched home, thrilled with our purchases, until I gave Nan the change and she started to cry. We had spent all her pension money. Surely she was getting more than $5 for her pension? We felt sick about it, candy never tasted so rotten, but she refused to let us take our stuff back. I think that was the moment I learned how to budget and Kiley learned how to spend!

Sometimes we took the city bus to the mall, which was always a roar for us. We thought city kids were so cool, being able to take a bus around town. We couldn’t even get pizza delivered! The worst bus day was when we had done a marathon shop at No Frills, and when we climbed on the full bus, one of our plastic bags broke and all the canned goods rolled to the back of the bus. Cans raced and rattled back and forth as we took sharp turns and went through the streets of Strawberry Hill. Nan found a seat and I found the cans. My face was red hot as I reached behind legs and begged my pardon.

Nan never did travel beyond Buffalo. Never really wanted to either. When Buffer got her license she started renting cars, usually Ford Tempos because she had read that they were good vehicles. We’d pack the Tempo up with a cooler and head for the border to Walden Galleria mall to go cross-border shopping. Funny, we never minded wearing two or three lace teddies back under our clothes. Not even Dax, but, then again—look how he turned out. I don’t know who wore the teddies that we smuggled back, both my Nan and Buffer I think. Most of them were purple, which was both their favourite colour, so it’s hard to know. Buffer told us to keep mum in the back when we crossed the border, and we were never caught.

Every summer we’d take a road trip to Komoka to visit Nan’s “fucking sister Ruth.” Ruth had always wronged her in some way, but we loved her. She made the best chocolate milkshakes in her Hamilton Beach mixer. Ruth lived alone on a dill farm, her husband Jack had died when we were young. There were always little kittens, a few German Shepards and a giant barn that we played in until we were beside ourselves with rashes and itches from the hay. We swung from the rafters, found old chewing tobacco tins, bullet casings, and carved our initials in secret places. Ruth and my grandmother fought the whole time, and both of them would be crying at some point. We didn’t care. However, this is where we learned how to swear. Not so much from Ruth, but from Nan. Oh, she could get on a tangent calling Violet a hussy, and so-and-so a whore.

Yeah, Nan spoke all sugary to my dad, but we saw another side. The exposure became evident when Kiley walked up our driveway at home after one such Komoka road trip clippity-clopping in her new much-longed for Dr.Scholl’s wooden sandals. She was maybe seven. “These fucking shoes hurt my feet.” Dad was in earshot. Nan was in trouble. Kiley was always after Nan, for her language, the ‘bad things’ she was doing. And, my nan was secretly afraid of Kiley and her tell-all ways. Once, in the backyard when Nan sat on the wooden lounger and it collapsed to the ground in pieces Nan told Kiley, “don’t you tell your mother.” But, Kiley had already threatened, “I’m telling my muddah on you!’’ And, she always did.

So, Nan wasn’t exactly a traditional grandmother (most of them don’t say fuck). She liked Def Leppard, Poison, Wham, Boy George, rollerskating at the roller rink (so long as we didn’t tell my father ) and frying hot dogs and hot dog buns, all in butter. One winter, Nan, probably in her 70s by then, decided she wanted to have a go at the hill, and ride down on one of our red plastic flying saucers. She urged us to give her a push and ohmygod, there went Nan, spinning in fast, tight circles, until she was going completely backwards and then, just somersaulted right over. Of course, we were no help, all of us pissing our snowsuits at her crooked glasses and cries for help. She was only mad that she had lost her diamond earring. I don’t think she went tobogganing again, but she was always game for trying something new. Like having Buffer to teach her how to drive, even though she didn’t have her glasses with her. Of course she nearly ditched the rental Tempo at the first sight of headlights coming from the other direction.

Nan was eccentric in every possible way. She loved her patent leather heels as high as Tina Turner’s, crushed velvet stirrup pants, leopard print sweaters and Christmas pins that preferably lit up and sang. She loved her gold chains, Christmas, and crossing her eyes at us. We always seemed to be laughing in her company. Our nicknames stuck for years—Chucky, Wheatman (Dax??) and Kiley was Nimmers. I was Horse, because I could run fast, but it never seemed very flattering to me.

I think of Nan’s house, and how it remained virtually the same, years after our childhood time had paled. There was still the ketchup bottle explosion on the kitchen ceiling, and the piece of pink foil behind her livingroom door that I gave her when I was two. At Christmas all the treasures would come out again, and the house would become congested with crumbling gingerbread houses that should have been demolished years ago, popcorn trees with mere kernels left on the construction paper, broken clay gifts, yellowed cards—she had kept everything we had ever made for her.

Nan loved Christmas the most. All she ever wanted was a homemade card from me, to add to her collection. I probably should have written this sooner so she could have added it to her collection too, but, I think we were collecting the same things—shiny memories of a life lived well. She spent all her pension dollars on us, and we ate like kings. Those jell-o cubes at Woolworth’s with the dab of whipped cream seemed like the finest dessert going. And we always seemed to be eating buckets of KFC in a leafy park. Nan was so adaptable that when she was told to watch her cholesterol she ordered macaroni salad to have instead…and when the cashier forgot to pack her a fork, she resorted to eating her macaroni salad with a hair pick.

Nan died two weeks ago. Before I left BC in September she sent me a Christmas card with my Christmas money so she could be sure that I received it. She told me not to go in any boats, and not to swim in any lakes and for god sakes, don’t get eaten by a lion in Africa. ‘’If God spares me I’ll see you when you come home and visit your parents.’’ She had talked about God sparing her for as long as I remembered.
The world is a different place without Nan in it. It’s a little quieter, that’s for sure. But the memories of her are just at the surface, in the smell of a pan of melting butter, in twinkling Christmas lights, pool chlorine on my skin, hair picks, fast toboggan rides and vanilla icing. She is never that far away, even when I’m in Africa.

Categories: Wild Women | Tags: , | 2 Comments

Egg Nog and Cat Carol Crying

December 9, 2008

“Oh no, is this my Christmas card moment?”

My family knows exactly when they have made their faux pas of the year, the one that will be captured for eternity in ink, on a homemade Christmas card. Each of them receive one, it’s highly expected, and the presents fall to the wayside. My mother laughs until near-peeing-herself as the cards get circulated back and forth. They hate my elephant memory, and spend the months leading up to Christmas wondering what will be heralded as their 2008 Christmas cartoon. And this year was no exception. In the heat of August, in my BC backyard I was snickering as I cartooned the images.

Sitting in Uganda, the festive feeling is a bit diminished in the 28 degree heat. I am in cargo shorts, a tee shirt, and a bit sticky from the heat. Aura, or Mother General as she is somewhat kindly referred to, just arrived from Australia, bearing garish tinsel and artificial trees and the like. She also unpacked three fruit cakes from her suitcase that could kill five horses with the brandy wafting out of her luggage.

To get into the spirit I have been cooking. Egg nog. Twelve egg yolks and three cups of rum (a recipe from my friend Jann who rattled it off the top of her head). That’s another five horses down. It is sitting in the fridge, permeating everyone’s loaves of bread and veggies. I felt the need to share a little of the Canadian holiday culture with my loved ones here. Hopefully I don’t give them all rum-soaked salmonella instead. There are no refrigerated eggs here, but I figure the booze would kill off any free-range creepy crawlies.

Normally I would have already laboured over a gingerbread house, bitching about the poor holding quality of the icing. Inevitably, the plastic icing bag splits and I have icing snaking up my arm, and into the dog’s mouth and everywhere it should be but on the gumdrop that has also rolled onto the floor. Oh, how Bently loved when I opened the bag of jellybeans for the gingerbread rooftop last year–they sprayed in all directions, like rapid-fire bullets, scattering over the hardwood. He was on them like Pac Man. Mila, due to her age, wasn’t aware that something good was going on until Bently had successfully cleaned up the game board and advanced to the next level. Eighteen jellybeans, high score.

Despite my general global perspective of saving the forests of the world, I am a sucker for a live tree. Except for the year when my sister flew home early from Banff and wanted to do the authentic tree ”hunting” experience. Dax and I piled into his Jeep with my girlfriend Kelly, and we left our urban oasis and Toronto comforts with grande Starbucks gingerbread and egg nog lattes, whip and all. We were dressed like responsible Torontonians, all of us in Puma footwear despite the snowbanks. Who owns boots in the city? We met my dad and Kiley, who rolled her eyes at our poor clothing choices. No Gore-tex, no proper layering of cottons and wools to allow for wicking… we were doomed. Flo (dad) had on his eskimo-style Sorels which he has had for thirty years, and the jacket that he has also had for just about as long (that my mother keeps threatening to stuff in a Sally Ann bag when he’s not looking). We drove to a very whimsical tree farm on the outskirts of marshmallowy Brantford and began our Torti family tree search. Dax and I were already teeth-chattering, and too cool for toques. My jeans felt like they might crack in the cold. About 15 minutes into it, the wonderful magical thought of cutting down a tree sucked. My Pumas were frozen to my feet, Kelly’s teeth hurt, and Dax, due to his gayness had little resistance to the cold either. It’s just hard to look good in winter, and we weren’t about to sacrifice our vain ways for toques and boots. We headed to the truck. Kiley and my dad didn’t really care, it gave them time to bond without us making fun of them. We raced back to my mom’s tracker (she was apparently working, but probably just at home drinking in her work uniform ) and cranked the heat up to Florida temperatures. That’s right, save the forest, but if I’m cold, let the thing idle. Well, we thought we were going to have to call in the SWAT team or a helicopter task force. Where the hell were they? Waiting for a sapling to grow? Christ, night was falling upon us. Hell, I liked the pre-cut one sitting beside where we were parked. Soon we were rooting around my mom’s glove compartment and we all found sunglasses to wear. Most were tilted on one side, compressing our eyelashes and cheek when we smiled. Then the lipstick came out. Dax was dolled up, and Kelly had great fun doing us up Sandra style. We had music blasting, our jackets off and we were actually sweating with lipstick on our teeth. Flo, looking like Old Man Winter hammered on the window on the driver’s side–I think Kelly and Dax both screamed. He looked like he had just climbed Everest, and Kiley had cheeks pinker than maraschino cherries despite her layering and clothing with wicking ability. They had a tree, finally. My dad shook his head to see us all wearing my mom’s sunglasses and make-up. We thought nothing of it.

At home my dad chewed his lower molars into nothing as the tree was too big and required the use of man tools. My mom buys him tools every year, that generally sit in the boxes they come in, until I come home with a tool-savvy girlfriend who gives him a band saw demo or instructions on how to use the mitre saw. Kelly wasn’t one of them, and the rest of us weren’t exactly helpful (aside from Princess/Kiley who is always at Flo’s side). Instead we were all in the kitchen with my mother spoiling our dinner with spanokapita, hot kielbasa and whirling up afternoon drinks in the martini shaker. And of course, the daiquiri mix always comes out because “it’s Dax’s favourite,” but really it’s my mother’s favourite so we indulge her.

The actual Torti Christmas dinner usually happens around 9 p.m. By then Flo has eaten seven consecutive slices of toast to ward off hunger. We have all been merrily drinking and have forgotten about the intent of eating. My mother insists on proper thematic dinner music and we are suddenly transported to an Il Divo concert with our wine glasses sliding across the glass table with the vibrations. By the time we make our way through all that is buttery and laden with gravy, we sink into the couches in the livingroom to endure three hours of present-opening. Dax and his boyfriend bring all their presents down for each other to open in front of us which I think is slightly odd, especially when the kinky stuff gets unwrapped. Flo buys my mother 56 stocking stuffers that are wrapped like they are going to be tucked up the bum of a drug lord going through a Turkish airport. We eat my mother’s decadent pecan pie and shortbread that isn’t short on butter until we all want to throw up. By this point my dad is falling asleep and we are taking pictures of him as he does his head-bobbing. When he wakes up to the flash, we only have to wait another minute before he does it again. By midnight, my mother usually makes a dramatic exit, simply declaring, ”I’m going to bed,” whether all the presents have been opened or not.

Their cats, Chloe and Casper breathe a sigh of relief as all the humans leave and they can resume their unpestered existence, curled up under their new tree.

But wait, I skipped the integral part of our Christmas. The annual weep over Meryn Cadell’s The Cat Carol. The song makes us all stop in our tracks and a hush falls over the livingroom. The local radio usually plays it twice, so if need be, we stop and cry twice. The song is about a cat who has been locked out on Christmas eve, and it is oh so cold. The cat finds a mouse, who is initially frightened of the cat, but the cat says because it is Christmas eve, he is safe, they will be friends–“on this freezing night we both need a friend.”‘ The cat curls around the shivering mouse to keep him warm, and when Santa arrives, the reindeer start to cry. The cat has died. The mouse says ”dear cat, wake up, we are saved!” But Santa says, “the cat gave you her life, the greatest gift of them all.”And Santa lifts the cat up and into the night sky and lays her to rest among the stars. ”Dear mouse do not cry you are not alone you will see your friend every year, each Christmas a Cat Constellation will shine to remind us all her love’s still here.”


Tell me that isn’t tragic. What a heartbreaker song. None of us can speak after listening, and Kiley near sobs. I’m no better, trying to hide my heaving chest, and Dax and my mom have tears running down their neck. Sometimes Flo falls asleep listening, which at least gives us something to laugh about after the ache of the little cat dying to save her mouse friend.


And that is a Torti Christmas. Laughs, tears, beers, and Dax standing with the fridge door open after midnight eating cold turkey between bites of shortbread with a plate of olives and crumbled feta. Eventually my mom comes down to see what we’re all up too, and then she’s having milk and cookies with us. Then my dad somehow stirs and feels like he is missing out on something and clomps down the stairs in his velour robe and old slippers (despite the new pair he got under the tree).

We gather around the tree again and reminisce about the ornaments, and ”our friends from Christmas Past,” as my dad says. That would be all our pets who have passed on: Xanadu, Moker, Drakkar, Phantom and Whisper. There is an ornament for each of them. And it can be expected that one of the gifts that we open is from our friends of Christmas Past.

Oh, we are a sappy lot. Our partners can hardly stand it, but it is a truly golden time and I love that we have such precious family memories together. Because cutting down a tree was never so fun as the time we actually didn’t cut down the tree but had a make-up party in the truck instead.
Merry Christmas to my nearest and dearest, and furthest away.
And of course, my friends from Christmas Past.

Categories: Into and Out of Africa | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

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