Decking the halls, and a trip home on the 501

Yesterday was the first official day of my Christmas vacation. I was so excited that I bolted awake at 7:30 a.m.

I baked the cookies: the usual gingerbreads, shortbreads, and snickerdoodles, and, thanks to a recipe from a friend at work whose mother in law is Greek, some kourabiedes.

Presents are wrapped, Christmas cards have been mailed, along with a package to Michelle in Italy. She just had a baby and my mom wanted to send her a little red sweater set that my Aunt Sandy had knitted. It must’ve been the last bit of baby wear that she’d completed before she passed away in February. Sandy outfitted a lot of babies–including me.

Sandy’s home in Strathroy–the same home my grandparents lived in–was where we spent Christmases, with my mom’s siblings and their kids. The meal was always roast chicken and all the fixings. The tree, as wide as it was tall, always had the same decorations.

I found some of them in her basement, along with a couple of rolls of 30-year-old wrapping paper, and have put them to good use.

At the beginning of December, I was talking to my mom on the phone and  ironing out holiday plans, which for the last five years have included me making Christmas dinner and Boxing Day brunch and bringing it to my mom and Russ in London.

“Wouldn’t it be easier if I came to Toronto?” my mom asked. “The only reason you kids always came to London was because Russ couldn’t travel.”

It hadn’t occurred to me. But since we lost Russ in June, it made perfect sense.

So this Christmas day, the six of us–Simon, me, my mom, brother, sister in law, and nephew–will gather at our place.

The groceries are bought, the house is clean, and I’m writing this while wearing pyjamas.

All this goes to say that usually on the 23rd, I’m a bit frantic. Today, however, I spent the morning and early afternoon reading. I haven’t felt this happy, this calm, for a while.

Maybe it’s been all the holiday parties with old friends, new friends, colleagues who are friends, and the visits with friends and their babies. Maybe it’s the Chinese winter solstice feast we ate last night with Lainey and her family. Maybe it’s that I left work on a high note and feel very excited about getting back at it in January.

But I think it all began on a night–the first night it really snowed here in Toronto–on the 501 streetcar home from work. It was packed. I did my usual scan for people wearing their knapsacks and then tried to will them to come their good senses and hold them by their sides. There was a young woman sitting with the biggest baby stroller I’ve ever seen taking up nearly the entire width of the streetcar. I couldn’t see the baby, but she was feeding it bits of something or other and talking to it. “This is your favourite!” she said at a volume that I tend to question when I’m in a crowded public space. “Don’t you dare spit that up!”

An old Chinese woman, dressed in flashy sneakers, a little cap decorated with rhinestones, and a puffy black parka, was sitting in front of where I was standing. She offered the man sitting beside her what looked to be some leftover sushi. He declined. Next she pulled out a clementine. He didn’t want that either, and he fell asleep.

She had several grocery bags on the floor and a cane by her side. Two young women pushed past me to get off and one of them said–without looking at her–that her “shit was in the way.”

I don’t think she heard them, or understood them. In any case, she was unfazed by the exchange.

The woman with the baby carriage was getting off. People parted on either side of her, hugging their bodies against the streetcar poles. “Let’s get home sweetie and we’ll see daddy!” she said–again, at the same questionable volume. I looked inside the stroller. There was no baby. It was a little dog.

The old Chinese woman pointed at the baguette sticking out of my bag. We’d done a food segment on the show that day and there must’ve been a dozen baguettes free for us to take home. She asked me where I got it.

“From work,” I told her, “but you can pick one up at most grocery stores.”

She reached into her parka pocket and fished out some change and tried to offer it to me in exchange for the baguette, the end of which she was now holding.

“Oh you can just have it,” I told her as I took it out of my bag and put it one of hers.

A blue seat, the sort reserved for people who need them, opened up  perpendicular to hers. “Sit, sit!” she told me. I looked around. There didn’t appear to be anyone who needed it. “Sit now! SIT NOW!”

So I did. She took out the leftover sushi and put it on my lap.

“Oh no, I couldn’t,” I said. “I’ve got dinner at home waiting for me.”

She took it back and then tried the clementines, cupping my hand in hers, which were bulging with veins through her thin skin. There were bandages around several of her fingers.

“So cold, skin cracked,” she explained.

I took the clementine.

“My mom, she’s at home. She’s so hungry. And sick.”

I gave the clementine back, telling her that I had a case of them at home.

“My husband, he’s dead.”

“Oh no! I’m so sorry to hear that. How long ago?”

“A month. He died of cancer. Cancer HERE!” she said, pointing to her foot.

“From foot cancer?”

“Yes! Can you believe?”

“No! I’m so sorry.”

“Now my mother is home and I go feed her.”

Just then, the sleeping man, who I assumed was with her, bolted up and got off the streetcar. When he was out of sight, she waved her hand in front of her nose. “So stinky!” she said.

Then she reached into one of her bags and tried to give me a bottle of orange juice–but with a caveat.

“Do you have a token?”

“Like a TTC token?”


I got out my wallet, found one, and put it in her hand. I waved away the juice.

“Foot cancer!” she said again, shaking her head from side to side. “Another token?”

I got my wallet out, took out my last token and gave it to her.

“How about more?”

“That’s it,” I said holding my palms up. “That’s all I got.”

“Lansdowne! Lansdowne!” she shouted to the driver a few feet away from us.

“Is that your stop?” I asked.


I pulled the string.

“Do you need help?”

“You help me?”

“I’ll help.”

She picked up herself, relying heavily on that cane, while I gathered her bags. I had to leave my own on the floor. I nodded to a woman sitting nearby and without words knew that she’d watch them. The driver nodded at me and without words I knew he’d wait for me to walk her to the curb.

This took several minutes, or at least it felt that long. With each step, she winced. She had one hand on the cane, while I held the other. She gripped my hand so tightly that hers was shaking.

We got to the curb and she motioned to me to set her bags down on the sidewalk. A car was honking at us, wanting to get passed the streetcar, so we waved good bye and I climbed back on board.

We were stopped at a red light and from my seat I watched her out there in the dark, in the cold. She wasn’t going anywhere. Why did I get back on? Why didn’t I just walk her home?

Then she started waving at two very young men, one as wide as he was tall, the other lean, and towering over him, both bundled up in black puffy jackets with their hoodies pulled up over their heads. They looked behind them, not sure if they were her intended audience. She kept waving, so they approached her. She pointed at her bags. One of the men picked them up, while the other locked his arm through hers. Very slowly, they began to walk her home.

It’s been such a confusing, difficult year for so many. Sometimes it’s felt like there’s been more dark than light. But in that moment, as I watched the three of them disappear around a corner and shook my head at the oddity, the humour, and the warmth of it all–as if I was playing a part in a very peculiar made-for-TV Christmas special–I was filled with hope.

Anyway, Merry Christmas.

10 responses to “Decking the halls, and a trip home on the 501

  1. Happy Christmas to you.

  2. Such a strange, but beautiful story! Merry Christmas, Jess and all the best in the New Year!!

  3. Happy Christmas to you and your family. Thank you for sharing your life so eloquently.

  4. Have a wonderful Christmas Jess and Simon… Your home is beautiful! Great photos, great memories!

  5. Jess. This is beautiful!

    Sent from my iPhone

  6. Merry Christmas to you and yours, my dear!
    Thank you for being so marvelously you and allowing us glimpses into your day to day!
    Much love and all the very best wishes ❤

  7. A beautiful story Jess, and such lovely pictures. Happy Christmas to you all. With loving thoughts, Uncle Ron

  8. This story was so wonderful! I love Toronto. Merry Christmas Jess.

  9. Love this story, and the sense of kindness and compassion, humour, and hope it gives. I moved from T.O. to Vancouver many years ago but I still visit whenever I can and I ride the 501 every time! Love your writing, Jess, and your presence on The Social too! Merry Christmas to you and yours.

  10. Rebekah Skochinski

    It’s lovely when the world slows down like this — thanks for sharing. (PS Those decorations are the same kind my grandma used to have on her tree — what a special find!)

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