It is Christmas noon in Vancouver, rainy but warm and I have just come back from a sweet waffle and coffee with my next door neighbour a long ago co-worker. I had fallen asleep in my chair last night and slept through until I smelled the coffee from her side of the house. She and her family are greeting Christmas visitors now and I am preparing to go off to my activities but as I am full of last night at the shelter I thought I might contribute that to the conversation.
Usually I work daytimes at Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter where I have worked for more than twenty years. Nowadays I am actually employed half time by the national organization, The Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centers (CASAC). But for the pleasure of it I volunteered for Christmas Eve. Perhaps a moment of it will put your praise and criticism in perspective.
From five in the afternoon the crisis line was quiet which disappointed the new trainees who had diligently arranged to do their regular shifts in spite of their seasonal parties. One depressed man called and said life had been tough recently and he was having a hard time. The young woman who answered his call was new and a bit awkward but managed to find him a resource to comfort him and sent him on his way. She went back to trying to help the smaller children find or make or hide from our stash something to give their mothers for Christmas. None of them had yet been taught that.
Instead they had witnessed and learned the abuse. Take it or dish it according to gender. I remember that having nothing to give to loved ones is perhaps the cruelest price of poverty at christmas. We have become skillful at making sure the mothers and children and the poorest of the volunteers and workers have access to gift giving for their beloved. Tonight the house is crammed with stashes of various secrets: the jams and chutneys a volunteer made for each of us, the soaps that have been hand made in the kitchen with the help of another volunteer and hidden by the residents to give each other, the gifts from a local law firm addressed to each child. I could feel the underlying grief in the house but the shared determination and generosity was also palpable.
Two of the children who had been driving everyone crazy with their frenetic energy were especially frantic but responsive. That boy of ten with an Indian top knot began to believe in me when he knew I read Harry Potter and when he realized that I knew he had found ‘book two’ in our small library and secreted to his room for solitary pleasure. He could stop overpowering his teasing sister of nine whenever we played vertical checkers long enough for him to win.
Try as I might it was impossible to top him until a Chinese woman helped me by pointing clues. Finally that boy asked if he could select toys to give to his sister and to another child living with us and he disappeared into the basement to search and wrap and hide his loving until morning. With no English and almost no Mandarin the Chinese woman had coached me. Newly recovered from being dumped in the sea off Vancouver island and not yet out of the danger of Canada Immigration border guards or the gang members known as “snakeheads” she found a way out of her isolation by helping me in this children’s game. We all laughed with the relief of human understanding on a Christmas Eve: a small boy momentarily relieved of being “the bad one”, a lonely forty year old trafficked migrant worker half a world away from home, and me.
While we played that small boy’s sister constructed the farm set loving left for her by a regular worker from the collectiveand the resident Mexican woman tried over and over again to get past the busy operators to reach her family gathered in Mexico city.
The dining room all smiled when we heard her tone shift to greet her family. After her tears of missing her grown sons and her parents she told us her volcano news including about the ash falling on Mexico City. When she realized we could struggle with some Spanish and some English she told of the humiliation of this recent marriage and the husband who only gradually has revealed his drug and gambling addictions to her. She talked of returning to her wonderful Mexico but not until she has fully recovered so that she doesn’t take her pain home to that family. She feels it belongs here where he hurt her so.
She had to wait a long time for the phone, since another woman, who has a son in jail, had monopolized it for hours in comforting him. Barely informed of each other’s unusual phone needs, they hugged each other, these two women, as though their lives were transparent. They can understand in language very little of each other.
‘Annie’, on the other hand, seems to understand everyone . Her English is limited but she lived several years in Calgary so she comprehends Canadian culture more than the new ones and is generous with her understanding. She had taken another family with her 4 year old daughter out to the mall this afternoon to see the lights and Santa and the fun of Christmas Eve shuffle. Between the six of them they spent five dollars. They were all exhausted but full of sensations by the time we gathered twelve at the dinner table.
We forged a make shift dinner, holding out on treats until tomorrow, although a box of chocolates pretty much disappeared just before dinner, a kind of chocolate appetizer. Roti and rich curry of cauliflower and peas got mixed with veggie patties and rice all mixed up with yeast buns and followed by gallons of tea.
Dinner conversation only ended when two of us had to join Annie in trudging up the street in the rain to the McDonalds where Annie’s ex-husband is ordered to release and return his daughter from her visit. For a while, the whole house was tense again because he hasn’t always returned the little girl when he should. Last time he stole her from her mother in Hong Kong and hid her in Canada for eight months.
But soon we saw them heading home. Although the daughter was laden with presents from daddy, the mother Annie was comforted by the knowledge that, despite his ability to out-gift her with his pay cheque and his refusal to pay child support, Annie had a stash too, and the child needn’t feel guilty or compromised by her gifts. Tomorrow it will all be clear.
I called back the lawyers after dinner about the security scare in our human rights tribunal. A worker from the abortion clinic checked out a suspicious man in the room and worried that he looked too much like the doctor killer. Police agreed with her but found this man to be someone else and armed only with a knife. So now there will be security in the court. We tried to assure each other that we are accustomed to being scared and know very well how to be vigilant and are learning how to make peace and joy even in the midst of this patriarchal war zone. The phone calls are mostly because we are all trying to make sure everyone can be relieved of the pressure of the vigilance for at least a day.
The afternoon worker returned at nine with the son of the evening worker after riding the Santa Train with him at Stanley Park. We checked to see that each of us had a holiday friend and company and food and drink. We put away as many of the donated toys as we could for the coming year and the weary children yet to be driven from their homes.
The house was beginning to smell of the stuffing prepared for use the next day, the soaps under the tree, the endless sweets, the anticipation of safe and happy, sleepy children. The young trainee who had come in talking of her brother’s new levels of violence to her family and her worry about them all, checked to see if she could keep her mother’s car overnight so she might stay in the shelter but she was needed at home and headed out for the hour long drive to Surrey in the last of the rains of this century.
The one Jewish collective woman elected to stay the night with our residents to help keep everyone safe and to secretly put out the last of the presents…our basket for each woman and our stockings for the babes. She and I rearranged the living room where she would sleep and meet the babes in the morning and then we turned down the lights except on the scrawny tree and lit some candles while mothers bedded their children.
I headed downstairs to see if the stuffed silver-backed gorilla was still available to take to a baby whose grandmother studies them. They have invited me over for Christmas dinner. Christmas is hard in that house too. Drugs and despair have made a murderer of the baby’s young father and now her life will go on without him. I will help her grandma and mother struggle to make the world perfect for her for Christmas and all the rest of our tomorrows. But before her second birthday too much of her life has been set. Too much was set before her birth.
The air was so heavy with the goodwill of women. It is not essential that goodwill come from women but this goodwill was forged of women’s labour, of women’s collective intelligence, of women-held dreams and women-lived dread. I stayed past midnight to delight in this work, this house, these women.
In the car as I wept, warm and full I was grateful once more for my mother’s old Celtic sayings, for her knowledge that grief and sorrow are always part of the celebration too and must be welcomed in. Grief for the ones who need but didn’t call, for my beloved alone, for the sons and fathers and brothers who have not found their way, for those who settled for the treasures of the mall, instead of what we have shared tonight, for those who settled for romance instead of this love we share tonight, and grief for us all, poor ordinary people like me and like you.
I wept and I whispered my gratitude and my plea for mercy to whoever is listening in this dark wet night. And maybe as you imagine us in your deliberations about the court case you will think of us as we are this Christmas night.
In December 2000, Vancouver Rape Relief was defending itself in a Human Rights Complaint brought by Kim Nixon as to whether or not Vancouver Rape Relief discriminated by refusing access to our collective to Nixon, a male who had surgery at 30 to become female. The case was accompanied by a vicious press campaign against Vancouver Rape Relief.
Lee was called to testify to the feminist herstory and politics of Vancouver Rape Relief. She had not been present for the incident of refusing Nixon. Lee had been on the stand for several days when the court broke for Christmas, and at the request of Nixon, the court ordered that she not talk of the case with anyone during the break. In that imposed silence she wrote this account of Christmas and the issues of the case.
Eventually the case was settled in favour of Vancouver Rape Relief and Womens Shelter.