Hamilton-based writer Jane Christmas's best-known book, What the Psychic told the Pilgrim, recounts her Camino de Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage with 14 female strangers. It revealed that adult girl-on-girl bullying can trump hoped-for bonds of sisterhood.
Her new memoir moves on from sisterhood to mother-and-daughterhood. It shows mutual understanding as far rougher, the love and rage deeper, and wisdom more hard-won when it's family.
After years of being hectored (obsessively about hairstyles, when not about most everything else), Christmas decides, in her fifties, to push through reciprocal collected injustices to a rapprochement with Valerie, her old and ailing mother. Her chosen vehicle is a trip to Italy; a place mother and daughter have always longed to visit.
"Italy seemed the best place to view our relationship ... we could regard the hurt, the rage, the what-ifs, the sharp words, the crushing disappointments with breezy dispassion. ...When we ooh and ahh over stone follies, pastoral views, oil paintings and antiques, we give voice to a common denominator that confirms our familial tie, a tie frayed by too many years of tugging."
What Christmas did not fully grasp (or didn't wish to acknowledge) was how infirm her elderly widowed mother had become. Christmas mère could still talk the talk, but walking the (cobblestoned, narrow-laned and hilly) walk would prove impossible.
For the duration of their journey, with or without her bright red walker, Mrs. C. can barely get about, needs sleep at all hours, and has unpredictable, embarrassing control problems with her bowels and urinary tract. Hence the book's title.
Christmas notes debate about this title. I believe the wrong side won: Incontinent on the Continent is initially amusing, but ultimately cheapens a heartfelt book about very real matters - matters being faced by an increasing segment of the population.
One also has to question the detailed information regarding the mother's bodily functions. Mrs. C. is alive and trying to be well. Her embarrassments and frustrations about incontinence certainly read as true - but even in our informationally proctological times, did she need them graphically detailed in the memoir of a daughter who seems to be seeking rapprochement? Might there be (even unconsciously) a "gotcha" here?
Travelling in the off-season, when sunny Italy receives a lot of rain and occasional snowfalls, can be difficult for even the most ambulatory. For the author's mother, it is hellish.
The duo is, therefore, regularly thrown into two housebound solitudes. With alternating crankiness (from both women, who are of different experience but similar temperament), tenderness and humour.
Christmas has a prodigious knowledge of art, architecture and Italian history, which reads in counterpoint to her family struggles. Her vivid description of a huge, beautiful old cemetery in the southern Italian town of Alberobello - tall cypresses, elegantly wrought monuments and mausoleums, artful landscaping and local families and friends in a happy fervour of spring cleaning - place the reader there, sharing unexpected joy.
"Designed in the Egyptian style in 1890 by Antonio Curri ... according to his vision of Heaven, and ... every inch that. A happy place ... women ... chatted amiably with one another while their young children skipped along the paths and played hide-and-seek among the crypts ... a very different atmosphere from what you would find in a North American cemetery."
Mother, daughter and this reader fell deeply in love with Trulli, the half-Moorish, half-Martian whitewashed, conical dwellings that fill Alberobello. Thanks to Jane Christmas, we three wanted to live in a trullo .
At the opposite pole from desire was Racalmuto, the Sicilian town whence comes most of her Canadian hometown's large Italian population. Christmas was eager to see this roots-place for so many of her friends and neighbours, and to spend the night in Racalmuto's Hotel Hamilton.
The town, probably due to emigration and government neglect, is now sparsely populated and run down. The Hotel Hamilton, as with many small Italian and Greek hotels named for their primary migration city, is run with sullen indifference and bad food. In fairness, succeeding generations with families to support, limited hostelry skills and no other job options frequently inherit these properties, producing a resentment in them toward those free souls who breeze into town and can breeze back out.
The tourist, seeking to embrace some shared heritage and not leading a dead-ended daily life, only sees "lousy hotel, bad food, rude staff." We all hate bad hotels, especially if already dealing with heavy physical and emotional freight, and strong intimations of mortality. I did, however, wish the travel-savvy, new-language-courteous Jane Christmas had shown an awareness of the underlying complications in much of small-hotel Europe.
When reality overwhelms, Christmas has a wild and whimsical gift for creating pacifying but understandably unsustainable daydream bubbles.
Dream: "I had fantasized about sashaying down a charming cobblestone street. ... A warm breeze would cause the fabric of my long, white, multigored skirt to flutter gently ... slender tanned arms ... silver bangles. ... Large silver hoop earrings ... sparkle against my dark hair ... my body ... smooth and tanned ... breasts ... high and firm. ... Like the Girl from Ipanema, I would be regarded by one and all as an exotic, mysterious creature."
Reality: "I was exotic and mysterious in the way (of) the Creature from the Black Lagoon. My eyes were crusty, my hair was thin and frizzy. My body was a pudgy billboard for the sweets I had stuffed into my maw. ... If I so much as sashayed in this condition it might very well bring Italy to its knees in laughter."
There are some puzzling choices (e.g. the pointed announcing of temperatures in Fahrenheit, the visit from a boyfriend (I know, "partner" - but "partner" still sounds like a law firm and "lover" seems, for some, to be about sex rather than love), whose presence and persona never come alive on the page.
Also, Christmas proclaims hatred of Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, the U.N. and cellphones. Only the latter antipathy is explained. The stand-alone grousing bounces the reader out of the book, speculating. It's a bit like a gun in a play; if you introduce it, someone has to fire it.
Quibbles aside, Christmas is a fine travel writer, and the personal journey she shares is one with which more and more of us are dealing as all our lives move, with welcome and enriching detours, down their one-way streets.
Contributing reviewer Gale Zoë Garnett's novel Savage Adoration centres on a daughter dealing with family craziness and the illness of her 89-year-old father.