by Orysia Dawydiak
Christmas eve, 1961, was a night I will never forget. I don’t remember how I ended up at my aunt Stella’s that day, a reprieve from my own hectic household with three younger brothers aged 6 months to 8 years. As the only girl, I was often invited to spend time with my sophisticated cousin Jean, a teenager with one foot already in the adult world. But she tolerated me well enough. Perhaps she felt sorry for me, encouraged by her gentle mother, my aunt Stella, to give me some time away from my own frazzled and rough-handed mother. Or perhaps I amused Jean, like the time we played strip poker in her bedroom and unbeknownst to me she had stuffed her fluffed up hair with bobby pins, an inside-out porcupine. Each time she lost a hand of cards, she removed a pin, while I shed clothing until I hid shivering beneath the covers, buff naked. To the end she remained fully clothed, smirking at me, with bobby pins to spare. I declined a second game.
Perhaps I was visiting that Christmas eve because Jean was giving my pencil straight hair a perm. She loved to play with hair—she coloured it, permed it, straightened it, teased it into cotton candy beehives when that style was all the rage. She’s the one who streaked my brunette tresses for my high school graduation. I returned home late that night and when my mother came into my room the next morning, I was awakened by her shriek; “Who are you? Where is my daughter?” Jean had gone a little overboard with the bleaching and from the front my curly locks were a solid platinum blonde. I rather liked the look, once I got used to it.
Jean sometimes took me to the movies when no one else would go with her. “The Day of the Triffids” and “The Village of the Damned” were especially notable for the months of nightmares that followed. So, she wasn’t a particularly good judge of movies for children, but I adored her. She was cool and she actually acknowledged my existence.
Aunt Stella was married to my mother’s brother, a man cut from the same coarse bolt as his sister. Even so, my mother looked down on his drinking, smoking, card-playing ways and rarely had a kind word for him. The two of them could be verbally abusive to each other, and anyone else in firing range as well. My uncle worked in the mines, a dirty, dangerous job that kept his family housed, clothed and fed. Much later I learned that he was the one who had sent money to my parents so they could leave England and start their own lives over in Canada after the Second World War. I wish I had known him better, but a heart attack and stroke cut him off in mid life while I was away growing into adulthood.
Aunt Stella was my guardian angel. She comforted me when I was angry and hurt, she kept me when I ran away from home as a young adult, sulking at my mother’s irrational outbursts and brutality. She never judged me, even when, as a child, I combed all the hair out of a doll dressed in a traditional Ukrainian costume she had sewed and embroidered. Sure, she was annoyed, but she didn’t hold grudges like my mother did. When aunt Stella died, I felt I had lost my soul mother, like a part of me had disappeared. For weeks after I found myself crying at night as I lay in bed. I often dreamt of her.
That all ended the night she came to see me. She stood beside my bed, looking down at me with love and sympathy. “I am happy where I am, child, do not fret about me. All is well. There is no need to grieve.” I opened my eyes, I was awake and there she was evaporating from my bedside as ghosts are wont to do.
But on the Christmas eve when I was nine, I lay on the couch in her living room, and gazed at the decorated tree sparkling in the dark, with glowing icicles and tinsel reflecting street lights shining in through the window. It was so quiet, just the sounds of a sleeping house breathing, the air moving from my baba’s room to the living room, from my aunt and uncle’s room to the kitchen, to Jean’s room, and then floating back to where I slept. And then, around midnight I heard them, the fairy footsteps of reindeer on the roof. No, I didn’t believe in Santa Claus, but I did believe in flying deer. And that night, they were there, I heard them. I held my breath, my heart raced until their patter ceased, and my heart calmed and I knew they were gone. And then I slept, deep and sound and dreamless.