By Betsy Vereckey
The storm arrived without warning. I peered out the window of our tour bus into the darkness. Just a short walk away was Niagara Falls.
When we left Ohio earlier that day, the weather forecast had been favorable, but now no one in their right mind wanted to get off the bus. Our driver pulled off for the scheduled stop anyway.
My mother stood and buttoned her coat. “Well, come on! Let’s go!” she said in her usual cheery voice. “We didn’t travel all this way to sit on a bus!”
It was 1988, and I was an 8-year-old girl with an apparently crazy mother. We had traveled north to see the falls and the Andy Williams Christmas Show. My mother had been dreaming about this trip all year, maybe her whole life.
Christmas was the most wonderful time of year in my house. We had two trees: the fun one downstairs in our basement, adorned with half-eaten candy canes and crafty ornaments that I made from yarn, toothpicks and tongue depressors. And we had the serious tree upstairs in the living room window. We decorated that one with cranberries and popcorn while all the Christmas classics spun on the record player: Andy Williams, Johnny Mathis and Bing Crosby, the soundtrack to my happiness. Everything about the season was soft and warm and felt nothing at all like setting foot into a total whiteout.
My mother took my hand as we inched ourselves toward a wet railing that separated us from the edge. I couldn’t see a thing in the thick wet fog. The rumble of the falls was absolutely terrifying, like far off thunder.
I already thought my mother had gone too far in the name of Christmas, but I was certain she had lost it when she got out the camera to take photos. There was no way the photos were going to come out. We were in the middle of a snowstorm!
“Smile!” my mother said.
In the second the flash went off, I glimpsed the falls. Everything became clear: the wondrous rush of the water, the drop below into nothingness, and yet somehow, it felt less scary in the light.
All the adults on the tour bus stared in horror as we lumbered back to our seats.
“I can’t believe you went out there,” a woman said to us.
You obviously don’t know my mother, I thought, as I settled back into my seat and fixed my powder pink scarf, which I nearly lost in the wind. My mother, however, was not at all shaken. She had already gotten out her compact mirror to reapply red lipstick before the show.
Christmas without my mother is what scares me now. Even though she’s been gone for nearly 20 years, the first few chords of a Christmas song still make my throat tighten.
What I rely on are the scrapbooks my mother made by hand with mementos of all our adventures. I marvel at how she magically weaved the narrative of my life together from ticket stubs, brochures, receipts and photographs. I return to them in my grief, time and time again to piece our story back together, as I did recently with the holiday season approaching.
I had thought I buried the memory of our night at Niagara Falls down deep, somewhere irretrievable, but when I turned the page inside one of my scrapbooks and saw the old photos, I remembered the joy in my mother’s voice when we finally developed the roll of film months later.
“Betsy, look!” she said.
It was incredible: The photo of me came out perfect. I’m smiling, even though there’s so much snow in my hair that you can’t even tell what color my hair really is. My mother hadn’t wanted the opportunity to pass me by, and I’m glad it didn’t. I can’t imagine seeing Niagara Falls any other way.
Betsy Vereckey is a freelance journalist living in Hanover, N.H.