The date is Nov. 18, 2007. I’m 18 years old. I have been living in Canada for five months, and I hate it here.
I have just moved from the hallowed halls of a private boarding school in Windsor, Conn., to a small two-bedroom apartment in Toronto. I miss the freedom of living in a dorm with my best friends, the joy of endless nachos at faculty houses and the thrill of seeing the senior boys hanging out on the quads. I miss it all.
Instead, I now live with my Bangladeshi Muslim immigrant mother. She moved to Canada to be with me, leaving my father behind with his job in Thailand. She doesn’t speak much English, doesn’t work, doesn’t drive and doesn’t have many friends. My mother, who was a respected professor of political science in Narayanganj, Bangladesh, moved to Canada in her late 40s to cook for her child, pray to Allah five times a day and watch the endless 24-hour news cycle blaring on channel CP24. I leave her to it.
Nov. 18, 2007, is a lazy Sunday. I’m in my room, scrolling through Tumblr when I hear a tap on my door. “Ki?” I ask my mother in Bengali. “What is it?”
She sighs heavily. “Ami bujhi na,” she responds. “I don’t understand.”
“Ki bujho na?” I ask. “What don’t you understand?”
“Shanta Claus ke?” she asks. “Who is Santa Claus?”
This is the day of the annual Santa Claus Parade in Toronto. And my mother had turned on CP24 to face a strange, fat, bearded man wearing ridiculous clothes and yelling “Ho, ho, ho!” — words she cannot find in her pocket dictionary.
“O ekta lok. Christmas-er lok,” I stutter. “He’s a man. The Christmas man.”
As I say these words, I can distinctly feel the distance between my mother and me. This gap has been growing since we left Bangladesh when I was 11. I am keenly aware of it when I go to my friend Laura’s house and hang out with her cool mom, Cheryl, who bakes us cookies and asks if I have a boyfriend.
In this moment, this gap stands between us like a wild and stormy river. We live in the same house but in different worlds. We stare at each other from opposite shores, and there are days when it feels like neither of us has the tools necessary to build a bridge.
“Ki jonno ashe?” she asks. “What does he come for?”
“O gift ane,” I answer. “He brings gifts.” As we talk, I realize that I don’t really understand who Santa is either. I know his job description, based on what I’ve heard from my peers. But I can’t explain why it’s his responsibility to travel the world to bring presents. I give up. I tell her: “I’ll take you to the mall to meet Santa. You can ask him all your questions.”
Over the next decade, my mother and I settle into our life. I eventually like Toronto; I make friends in university. My mom starts taking ESL classes and volunteering at a daycare. We find our own people and our own peace. The gap between us remains, but we work around it and we fight less. We take comfort in the routine tasks of groceries, laundry and errands.
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One winter, I ask my mom if we can get a Christmas tree and make a turkey dinner. “No way,” she says, shaking her head. “I will cook you turkey, but I will not buy you the tree of the infidels.”
I am furious. The river between us runs wild. We fight about this for days. “It’s just a plastic tree,” I yell. “It doesn’t even have to mean anything!”
“Doesn’t matter, we’re not getting one.” She doesn’t budge.
I cross my arms and plan the perfect revenge. “Someday when I have my own apartment, I’m gonna get a Christmas tree,” I tell myself. “And I’ll decorate the whole place like a real infidel.”
The year is now 2021. I am 32 and I live alone in my own apartment. My mother passed away four years ago.
I constantly think about her. I wear her ring; I have her signature, Hasina Sultana, tattooed behind my ear; I pore over her handwritten recipes for tetuler chutney and mashkolai’r daal and wonder why mine never taste the same.
My mother didn’t meet Santa; we never found the time. And I still can’t bring myself to buy a Christmas tree. I stand alone on the shore of that river but still feel her presence on the other side. I wouldn’t dare break this peace with the tree of the infidels.
Shohana Sharmin is a writer and theatre artist in Toronto.
This story first appeared in Broadview’s December 2021 issue with the title “The Christmas Man.”
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