It was Christmas Eve, about 17 years ago. There was over two feet of snow on the ground. I returned from my family’s Christmas Eve dinner at about midnight to find that I was locked out of my home. The Cabbagetown streets in Toronto’s downtown eastside were quiet. My boyfriend, who had a set of keys, was with his family in Oakville and due home soon. This was before cell phones and e-mail and it was too late to call. I thought I’d take a chance and see if anyone was at my work, A Home for Creative Opportunity*, a community art studio in the depths of the Regent Park government housing project. I knew Jack** had keys, as a program supervisor, he had been staying there late a lot lately. I had been travelling home by taxi, and had with me bags of leftovers from the exquisite dinner – glazed ham, scalloped potatoes, sweet potatoes, grilled peppers, sauces, figs and a rich chocolate yule log.
From the taxi, I noticed a very dim light shining through the art centre window. I trudged through the snow, looked in and saw Jack, Nick, Fabrice and John sitting around a candelabra. The 2,500 sq. ft. studio was completely dark, but for the nine candles shining from the wrought iron candle tree. I knocked on the window, let the taxi go, and brought the yule log and all of the tinfoil wrapped delicacies to the table, and sat down. The men were homeless or recently homeless –living on the fringe, mostly with only a cigarette or a few quarters in their possession. It was a way of life that they couldn’t make their way out of. Jack was HIV positive and almost everyone was estranged from their families.
We sat by the candlelight and unravelled stories of our childhood Christmases, holidays and winters. Good memories came to the surface, some memories maybe easier to tell in the dark and in the tired and quiet hours of the night. We watched the candles burn down and slowly we made our way through the yule log and the leftovers. My boyfriend finally came to get me at about 2 or 3 am. I left the guys there. Jack kept the art centre open for the rest of the night, all through Christmas day, and through the holidays, for anyone to come in and paint, draw, have a coffee and eat. The colourful studio was an oasis in a bleak winter.
Within a few years of that snowy, quiet evening Jack died of AIDS and Nick jumped off the Bloor Viaduct into the Don River, he had been suffering from a deep depression. I don’t know the whereabouts of Fabrice, he had a terrible crack habit, and lived each day as it came. John has a home and job, and is doing well. He’s one of the most, if not the most, resilient people I have ever met in my life considering all that he went through as a kid living in 17 different foster homes.
Ironically, those few hours I had around the candelabra with the guys is now one of my most cherished Christmas memories. The community art studio that I worked at has always been and continues to be open throughout the holidays. All faiths are acknowledged and people are free to celebrate/participate, or not. For many, the holiday is a sad reminder of the people they are estranged from, or the materialism and creature comforts they don’t have.
When I light the candelabra now, I remember the simplicity of sitting around it in the dark on that snowy night in Regent Park and sharing stories, eating yule log and being there for each other, and how special the chance encounter was for me. It seems to put everything into perspective.
- Seanna Connell
*A Home for Creative Opportunity is now called ArtHeart Community Art Centre
** All names of have been changed.