OPED: Reflection on steam whistle concerts

Nicole Watt

I had recently moved back to York after living away for over a decade. It was good to be around family and familiar faces and to make a fresh start after a time of difficulty. I had enrolled in school and worked part time at the mall in one of the largest stores, which sold everything from clothing to cookware, toys and sweets. The Christmas season had arrived and the mall was decorated to the hilt. Everything was set for a perfect Christmas.

A couple listen to the Christmas whistle concert last year at METSO Minerals on Arch Street in York City. (Bil Bowden - For The York Dispatch)

One bitter, cold evening while working the register, a beautiful young woman came behind the counter to help. She couldn’t have been older than 16, but her presence was powerful. I almost didn’t notice she was missing part of her left arm, from the mid-forearm down.

Trying not to stare, I smiled more awkwardly than I had hoped, impulsively taking another glance at her arm. Sticking out her chin, she stared me down as if to say if I was going to work with her, I’d better not be entertaining thoughts of pity.

To accent her unspoken point, she grabbed a shopping bag and sliced it through the air. Holding it open with her stump, she began putting the purchased items in the bag, flashing an impish grin.

“I’m Julie. I hear you’re new.”

Julie was a hard worker. She had trouble with some tasks, but wouldn’t be helped. She showed amazing ingenuity in solving problems that arose due to her disability. She was open, friendly and fun to work with, but always there seemed to linger a red rim of sadness around her eyes as if she had cried recently, or was on the verge of doing so.

“I live with my dad and little brother,” she revealed one quiet night when the ice and snow had kept most customers away. She spoke of her dad as a gentle soul with a big heart, a stable and loving man. She made no mention of her mom.

“Have you ever gone into York City to hear the steam whistles at the York Wire Co. on Christmas Eve?” I asked.

“No, what’s that?” Julie smiled, perking up.

“The owner of the company uses the factory whistles to play Christmas carols. I’ve never experienced anything like them anywhere.”

“I would love to go.”

Christmas Eve arrived clear and frigid. By the time we arrived at the York Wire Co. we were well into the spirit of the season. Sitting quietly in the warmth of the car, sipping steaming hot cappuccinos, an awkward silence fell over us for the first time in our friendship. Our holiday cheer seemed to amplify what we both felt we were lacking in life.

For the last month we had witnessed the frenzy of gift-buying. Some people had experienced joy finding just the right gift. But many had been haggard, spending money on people they didn’t really care for and money they didn’t really have.

Julie and I hadn’t bought each other anything. We had given each other a safe place to be ourselves, flaws and all, and be accepted. Our friendship was one of my favorite gifts of the season.

Just as I was about to ask Julie what she was thinking, the steam whistles opened up their first song to the night sky. We stepped out of the car, and into a song, the name forgotten now, but the sound remembered forever, notes like a slide whistle, slightly exaggerated and off key, beautiful and otherworldly. Julie stood in awe as the whistles resounded off the buildings of the city.

Taking the risk, I reached out and wrapped my arm around her stump. She looked up at me with her classic smile. As the whistles played on, I understood, Christmas, or any season of life, isn’t about finding the perfect gift, or having the perfect family, or the perfect life. Perhaps the perfect life — the perfect gift — is giving the imperfect gift of ourselves, those parts of all of us that are off-key; our true song the one playing in the dissonance between what we believe life should be and what it is.

As if in affirmation, a puff of steam poured over the buildings, above the street lights. And for a moment I saw in my mind’s eye the factory organist at his instrument of whistles, smiling at the joy of his unique labor, sharing his gift of Silent Night echoing now, breathing into the dreams of the city.