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Illustration by Drew Shannon

After the quietest Christmas ever last year, thanks to COVID-19, I’m excited that three of my four adult children are coming home for the holiday. I’m like a mother hen getting the nest ready. It brings back memories of the Christmases when they were young and still happy to be safe in the den, before the teenage years, when the roost, at times, felt more like a jail, from which they longed to escape. Like the snowy owl, travelling with us to Saskatoon on Christmas Day, years ago.

That Christmas Eve, our birder friend called us with a request.

“Do you have room in your car for an injured snowy owl I found? The vet hospital in Saskatoon will take him. He just needs a ride there. It will be safely contained.” My family couldn’t have been more elated. A snowy owl? Of course! Isn’t Christmas about giving a hand to those in need, whether the human variety or our feathered friends?

He dropped off the magnificent bird in a cardboard box, with a lid we could lift, which my husband carefully did, after gathering our four young children around. Pure snow-white flecked with black markings, fearsomely hooked beak and big, round, yellow eyes staring at us then slowly blinking, acknowledging our mere presence, like a king nodding to his subjects. Majestic, imperial and regal came to mind. We closed the lid. Now where to put that box in the car for the two-and-a-half-hour ride to Saskatoon?

Travelling safely in winter on the Prairies requires a mountain of emergency supplies consisting mostly, but not exclusively, of enough sleeping bags for an Everest expedition, enough water to sustain a small village and sufficient food in the form of tourtieres, fruit cake, bread pudding and rum sauce to feed all members of the extended family for six months in the event of a nuclear attack. Oh! And also gifts. And also games. And also sleds. And also diapers, tuques, mitts. Maybe skates, too? But I can’t quite recall that detail. As we kept loading our car, I did wonder where the poor bird would fit. Only one spot was left, so we slid the box beneath the feet of our year-old daughter, ensconced in her car seat.

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If you’re an Easterner you may think that driving to visit family on Christmas means dressing up in fancy outfits. Not so in Saskatchewan, where the winter is so cold your words freeze midair. You have to warm them up for somebody else to hear them. Forget filmy skirts or shapely dresses. Sorrel boots, snow pants, parka, tuques, mitts and scarves are the order of the day. That year, at a balmy -35 C, we left, dressed for the weather and then, as the car warmed up, we peeled off layers, to be left in only our shirts and pants.

Our one-year-old started napping right away. Our four-year-old daughter sat in the front and looked at her picture books. Our two sons, 8 and 11, played together quietly in the back seat, while my husband drove and I, in the front, was wreathed in Christmas peace in a rare moment of blissful quietude. The snowy fields rolled by, the bright sun shone, the blue sky just plain beamed. What peace, what serenity, what calm! For the next two hours, we looked like a rerun of Father Knows Best or Leave it to Beaver. The owl meanwhile crouched in his box, quiet as a mouse. Once or twice, our oldest son interrupted this idyllic scene with, “Mom, dad. The owl’s sticking his head out.”

”Through the hole on the side of the box?” my husband queried.

“Yes,” he answered.

“Then don’t worry. It’s fine.”

Did I mention the peace, the serenity, the calm of that drive already? Not far from Saskatoon, our daughter in the back woke up crying. I turned and picked her up. Suddenly my son screeched, “Dad, the owl’s sticking his head out!”

Before my husband could reply our son shrieked louder: “The owl’s out!”

I turned, horrified, and beheld the owl, climbing out of its box onto the now empty car seat, its glinty talons clutching the base as it propelled itself to the rear window, straining to unfold its wings and smash through the glass with its powerful beak, in a desperate struggle for freedom.

I leaned over my daughters to shield them as my husband careened to the side of the road, shouting at the boys to get out. But at -35 and by now only in T-shirts and sock feet they weren’t too keen to escape into the frigid cold. They quailed against the back door, covering their eyes with their hands with the big wing buffeting the closest boy’s arm. That terrible hooked beak struck fear in my heart. One strike and an eye could be lost.

My husband kept yelling, “Get out!” at the boys while scrambling for his gloves and lunging for the owl from the front seat. He struggled to avoid its razor-sharp talons and eventually corralled it from behind with the help of my oldest son. What a huge relief when the mighty owl was finally confined again to its box.

For the rest of our journey, my husband sat in the back seat to keep the lid closed on the situation, so to speak. I took the wheel while my youngest son clambered into the front to hold his sister. After its exhausting adventure, the owl remained mild and meek as we drove our Christmas bird to the vet hospital.

Little did I know then, that this owl was foreshadowing the years to come for our children, the struggle for freedom as they tested the window of safety I tried to keep around them in their teenage years while, exactly like that bird, they yearned to unfold their wings and fly.

They all flew the coop eventually. The same fear for their safety often strikes me as they soar out into the world on strengthening wings. But I’ll be so happy to have them back in the nest for a few days where we can now laugh about our adventure with a snowy owl, wings unfurled, springing out of safety toward freedom.

Sylvie Roy lives in Regina.

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