One Christmas Eve when I was in my early twenties and my great-aunt Mary was in her early nineties, we were the only two family members going to Midnight Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes in Stellarton.
At the time, Mary was living in Halifax, as she had been doing for decades, but over the holidays, she was visiting my grandmother, who was still living just down the road from my parents in the Red Row.
I picked Mary up in my father’s car and drove her to church, which, as usual for Midnight Mass, was standing room only. Now here is the fatal detail: there was reserved seating for seniors, so that even though I had to stand, Mary got to sit: far, far away from where I was.
Midnight Mass is long. I was standing upstairs against a wall where I could not even see the altar. All that was in my field of vision were the few people directly in front of me. The choir was in full voice, singing the entire hymns, rather than the couple of verses they did in the off-season. The pipe organ, which had been out of service for years, and was recently restored, boomed away behind them.
In short, I forgot Mary was there. When mass was over, I got into my father’s car and drove home, where everyone had already retired. I went to bed and had a great sleep. It is quite possible that visions, perhaps even of sugar plums, danced in my head.
Meanwhile, my 90 year old great-aunt had to walk a mile back to my grandmother’s house in minus 15 degree weather.
When the phone rang on Christmas morning, I was still in bed. As soon as I heard it ring I sat bolt upright in my pyjamas, remembering I’d left poor Mary at the church.
Mary lived on to be 104, cheerful and independent, living alone in her own apartment until just a couple of months before she died. Part of what carried her to that great old age was her incredibly positive outlook. She wasn’t angry or bitter when I called back to apologize. She laughed. She told me that she had waited for me to come and when all the cars were gone from the parking lot and I wasn’t there, she just set out for home.
Perhaps as a way of wishing the whole sad mistake away, I got into the car and drove back to the church. There at the bottom of the incline before the front steps was a single set of footprints in the snow, turning away from the church and heading up the long road to my grandmother’s house. This was where I’d forced my great-aunt to begin her long march the night before.
I did learn two things from this episode, though:
1. From my own behaviour I learned that my mind has enormous gaps that must be cautiously attended to.
2. From Mary’s patience and good humour I learned that it is possible to take mishaps in stride.
Merry Christmas Eve