Link back to Chapter 23.
This is a work of fiction; I haven’t yet finished it, and it will probably get revised after it’s finished. It tells the story of Tom and Kelly’s marriage; readers of A Time to Mend will know that it will have a sad ending, but hopefully it will be a good story.
Note the things I said about revisions here.
Becca kept her promise to stay in touch with us; she wrote to us at least once a week, and we spoke to each other regularly on the phone. She went into her final year of high school determined to do well, and she did; she got three excellent A-levels, and she was accepted by several universities. One of them was Oxford, which she had applied to at my father’s request, despite her desire to get away and go somewhere else. This led to a few weeks of tension, so I was told, as my father urged her to go to Oxford, but she was determined to go further afield. Eventually, once again, my mother persuaded my father to back down, and Becca chose to go to Edinburgh, where she would begin her studies in the Fall of 1988. I knew, of course, that my sister-in-law Alyson was from Edinburgh and that her parents still lived there, but I wasn’t surprised when Becca told me that she was planning to avoid them if she could. “A bit too much like home, don’t you think, Tommy?” she said.
“I guess so. Are you looking forward to it, apart from that?”
“I really am. I’ll have my own flat, I’ll be studying stuff I’m interested in, and I’ll be able to arrange my life the way I want”.
We kept our promise to help her out with the air fare to visit us if she needed it. She came to us again in the summer of 1988 just after Glenn and Karla’s wedding, and she stayed with us for three weeks; as it happened, her visit overlapped with Owen and Lorraine’s, and we did a couple of camping trips together. Owen was finished his training now and had become a partner in a small medical practice in Headington; he was glad to see Becca again, and to hear that she was pursuing medical training and wanted to be a GP. “Who knows?” he said; “Perhaps you’ll come and work with us some day?”
“Perhaps I will!” she replied with a grin.
By that time, Owen and Lorraine were in the middle of a struggle of their own: the struggle to have children.
It was after Becca’s first visit to us, in the summer of 1987, that Owen had told me on the phone that they were having problems. “You’ve probably noticed that we’re not having a great deal of success getting pregnant”, he said. “We’ve actually never used birth control, because we wanted to get started on having a family as soon as we could. But it’s been three years now, and nothing’s happened”.
“So what’s going on?” I asked; “Do you know?”
“At the moment, no. There are all kinds of medical reasons for difficulties with conception, including something doctors call ‘unexplained infertility’. But Lorraine was a bit reluctant to treat it as a problem and do something about it, and I suppose I was too; we knew that people often don’t conceive right away, and we kept hoping that it was just a normal delay. We’re past that now; we went to talk to someone about it a couple of months ago, and we’ve started to have the tests – a whole battery of them, for both Lorraine and me of course”.
By the summer of 1988, when they visited us, they were not much further ahead. Tests had shown that there was no problem on Owen’s side, but nothing conclusive had turned up so far on Lorraine’s side, either, and her doctor had begun to speak in terms of ‘unexplained infertility’, which Lorraine found enormously frustrating. “How can it be ‘unexplained’?” she asked; “These people go to expensive medical schools where they benefit from the most recent advances in medical science, and all they can say is ‘unexplained infertility’? That sounds like ‘unexplained idiocy’ to me!”
Kelly instinctively felt for Lorraine. Most of the time she was her old cheerful self, and only very rarely did she allow herself to spend much time in her own dark place because, as she said to me on one occasion, “There’s no point in it; if I once let myself get onto that downward spiral again, we’ll be back in the summer of ‘86”. Nevertheless, during Owen and Lorraine’s time with us she did allow herself to briefly revisit that sad place; she would sit out on the deck at night with Lorraine, as she had done with Becca, and sometimes I could tell from their faces when they came in that they had both been crying. And before they left, as so often happened with people who got to know Kelly, Owen said to me, “I know it was a good day for you when you met Kelly, but it was a good day for the rest of us, too. I just want you to know how grateful I am for all she’s done for Lorraine”.
While Owen and Lorraine were visiting us, Rob Neufeld said to me, “Maybe you two would like to do a house concert while Owen’s here?”
“A house concert?”
“Yeah – I’m sure you’ve heard of them”.
“Of course – I’ve just never thought of doing one in Meadowvale. And it’s summer time, and a lot of people are away”.
“Why don’t I call around and see if we can gather a few people? If it’s small, we’d be glad to host it; if it’s bigger, we can do it in the church if you like”.
It turned out that there were a number of people, from our music circle and beyond, who were interested in hearing Owen and I play; in fact, about twenty people said they would like to come. “It’ll be a little tight”, Rob said to us after church the following Sunday, “but we can fit everyone in our living room if we take the couch and the easy chairs out and replace them with hard chairs from the church basement. What do you think?”
“Well, we’re off to Jasper tomorrow and we’re back on Saturday, and Owen and Lorraine are leaving the middle of the following week. Do you want to do it Sunday night?”
“Sure. I’ll organize it”.
Of course, Owen and I had been playing music informally pretty well every day since they arrived, but we had never had anything like a formal practice. Nonetheless, we felt confident that we could still put across our old songs. “Do you just want to do the old songs?” Owen asked me, “or do you want to have a couple of solo spots where we can each share some of the stuff we’ve been learning since then? Maybe you and Ellie could do some of your stuff together too”.
“What do you think?” I asked Kelly.
“I think a 1988 snapshot would be better than a faded 1982 photograph”, she replied. “I love hearing your old stuff, but you’ve both moved on a bit, and it would be nice to hear some of that, too”.
And so we gathered the group together at the Neufeld house on the Sunday evening after our return from Jasper. Most of the guests were from our singarounds, although there were a few people from the church and from our circle of family and friends who had never attended any of our musical events. Owen and I sat on stools at one end of Rob and Mandy’s living room, playing without amplification as none was needed. We revisited some of our favourite traditional songs – pieces like ‘Lord Franklin’, ‘The Snow it Melts the Soonest’, ‘Clyde Water’, and ‘Scarborough Fair’. Owen had been learning more Irish and Scottish material lately – ‘Celtic’ music, as it was often called – so he played some of that by himself, and I played a couple of bluegrass tunes with Ellie, as well as one of Kelly’s favourite Bruce Cockburn songs, ‘All the Diamonds in the World’, and of course ‘Master Kilby’, which Owen joined us for. We ended the evening with an old favourite that we had known since our university days, ‘Mary and the Soldier’.
After the music was finished Rob and Mandy invited people into the kitchen or out on the deck for hot chocolate and munchies. I was chatting with a couple of people out on the deck when Don and Lynda Robinson came up to me with Amy (who was now twelve) and Beth (who was ten); I had been surprised to see the two girls come in with their parents, but they had sat through the whole evening and had seemed quite interested in the music.
“That was a great evening, Tom”, Don said; “You and Owen sound really good together. You can tell you’ve done it a lot”.
“It’s been a while, though”, I replied; “I was relieved to find that we still remembered those songs”.
“I’ve never heard songs like that before”, said Beth; “I liked the stories. Can you get that kind of music on records or CDs?”
“Yes, you can”, I said to her; “I’ve got lots of them. Maybe next time your Dad and Mum come over to have coffee with Kelly and me, they can bring you along, and I’ll play you some of those records”.
“That would be great!” she replied with a grin.
Don had brought his grandmother with him; she was using a walking cane all the time now, and after the concert she sat quietly by herself in the corner of Rob and Mandy’s living room while people were milling around drinking hot chocolate. I knew she preferred tea, so I made her a cup, took it over and handed it to her. “Well?” I said; “What did you think?”
“Very enjoyable!” she replied with a bright smile, taking the tea cup from my hand.
“Did you know any of the songs?” I asked.
“Yes, I did! My husband used to sing that one about the snow melting the soonest – I remember him singing it around the house, although of course he didn’t do it as well as you and your friend”.
“That’s an old Geordie song”, I said. “When Owen and I played together in university we had a girl who sang with us, Wendy Howard; she loved that song, and so we learned to play it so that she could sing it”.
“Well, it sounded very nice; I don’t mind telling you that it brought a tear to my eye”.
I sat down beside her; “How are you doing?” I asked. “Since Owen and Lorraine have been here I haven’t really made time to come over and see you”.
She shook her head; “You mustn’t worry about me, Tom”, she said. “My children and grandchildren are really good at looking after me; I see Michael or Ruth almost every day, and the others come over quite frequently as well. You know that I’m always glad to see you, but I don’t want you to feel you have to come when you’ve got other things to do”.
At that moment Kelly appeared at my side; she bent over and gave Joanna a kiss on the cheek; “You’re looking pretty good, Mrs. Robinson”, she said with a smile. “What did you think of my husband, then? He’s not a bad musician, is he?”
“I was just telling him how much I enjoyed it”, Joanna replied.
“When we’ve gotten rid of Owen and Lorraine and Becca, we’ll have to have you over for a meal one night”, Kelly said; “I’ll cook stew and dumplings, and Tom can make you a nice strong pot of tea. How would that be?”
Joanna reached up and put her hand on Kelly’s arm. “Kelly, you know I’m always glad to visit with you two and your delightful little girl, but I was just telling your husband that you mustn’t worry about me. I know you’re busy, and I’ve got lots of family who take good care of me”.
Kelly shook her head. “Who said anything about worrying?” she replied with a grin. “We’re always glad to see you. Why don’t we set something up after our company’s gone home?”
“Alright”, Joanna said with a smile; “I’ll look forward to it”.
So Owen and Lorraine went home, and a couple of weeks later Becca followed them, starting her studies at Edinburgh that Fall. We had thought of going to England the following summer, 1989, but that was the year that both our vehicles died, the Chevy Nova I had bought the first month I had lived in Meadowvale, and Kelly’s old truck. We talked for a long time about whether we needed two vehicles; Kelly liked having a truck, but we knew that a single cab wasn’t big enough for the three of us with Emma still in a car seat, and a crew cab was beyond our means financially. Eventually we decided to buy a one year old Ford Taurus and make that our only vehicle; “We can always borrow a truck from someone if we need one”, I said. Kelly accepted the fact that this made financial sense, but I knew she was disappointed, nonetheless.
That same year the old furnace in our house died on us, and we had to replace it, so financially we took a hit, and we had to postpone our trip to England. I knew that my mother was disappointed, and so was Becca, but the upshot was that Becca came back to visit us again for a couple of weeks in the middle of the summer; this time my mother paid her fare. We did our usual camping trips, and the people of Meadowvale gave her a warm welcome again.
Old Joanna Robinson had been born in the first decade of the twentieth century, and that winter, the last winter of the ninth decade of the century, she was getting very frail. She was moving very slowly now, and always with the help of a cane or a walking frame, and her mind, which had been very sharp up until a year or so ago, had begun to forget things. I found myself being asked the same question several times when we were visiting, and I noticed that she was starting to forget things other people said to her and to lose track of who had been to visit her and when they had been there.
In early April 1990 her family moved her into the Meadowvale Special Care Home. Joanna had not wanted this; she loved hosting people in her own home and making tea for them, and she loved sitting in her old familiar living room with the pictures on the walls and all her old furniture around her. I knew that she and her son Michael had been talking about the move for a while, and at first she had opposed it, but gradually she seemed to lose her will to resist, and eventually, when she moved, she seemed to be content to sit in the chair by the window in her room, looking out at the little garden behind the building, and sometimes shaking her head slowly.
Her family, as always, were very good at visiting her; all five of her children still lived in the Meadowvale area and most of them were in at least once a week. Michael, her oldest son, and his wife Rachel were in almost every day, and I knew that Don and Ruth frequently dropped in as well. I went by myself a couple of times a week, and Kelly and Emma and I fell into the habit of dropping in to see her on Sunday afternoons. As Kelly remarked to me, Joanna’s short-term memory might be failing, but there was nothing wrong with her ability to recognize people; her face seemed to light up when we walked into the room, and she was always especially glad to see little Emma, who was now four years old and very lively.
One evening in late April I was visiting with her by myself; I had made her a pot of tea the way she liked it, and we were chatting about England as we had known it. After a while she seemed to run out of things to say, and for a few minutes we sipped at our tea in silence. Eventually she said to me, “How long have you lived in Meadowvale now, Tom?”
“It’ll be eight years this summer”.
“Why did you move here in the first place?”
It was a question she had asked me several times over the last few months, and usually I had given her a fairly non-committal answer. But this time I looked at her for a moment, and then I said, “I had a long-standing quarrel with my dad, and eventually I came to the conclusion that we weren’t going to be able to fix it”.
“Oh, I’m sorry”, she said; “It was obviously quite serious”.
“Yes, it was. My dad’s a lawyer, you see, and his father was a lawyer before him. Dad had always assumed that I would become a lawyer too; in fact, he was pretty determined to make that happen. But I wasn’t interested, and we fought about it for three or four years. Eventually my mum made him back down, but he’s never forgiven me for it. He’s always been a very controlling person, and I guess I was a rebellious teenager. But I really wanted to be a teacher, and I wasn’t prepared to let go of that dream”.
I saw a faraway look in her eyes. “Sometimes a dream is worth fighting for”, she said softly. “I had a quarrel with my father too, you know”.
“Did you?” I replied cautiously.
“Yes. Like you, there was something I wanted and I knew he wouldn’t want me to have it. I was right. And Will and I ended up moving here to Canada so we could keep our dream”.
“You’ve never told me that story, you know”, I said.
“No, I haven’t told anyone”. She looked across at me and said, “I haven’t even told my children, you know, although I love them very much. It was a very painful experience for me, Tom. Perhaps one day I’ll tell you about it, but if you don’t mind, I don’t want to talk about it any more tonight”.
I reached across and put my hand on hers; “That’s fine”, I replied.
“Are you going to England this summer?” she asked.
“We are, actually; we’re going for six weeks, leaving on July 9th”.
“Will you be staying with your parents?” she asked.
“For three weeks. My little sister wants to take us off on a holiday through northern England and Scotland for about ten days, and then my friends Owen and Lorraine are hosting us at their place for a few days as well. Do you remember Owen and Lorraine? When they were over two summers ago, we played music together at Pastor Rob’s house”.
“Oh yes, of course! And your sister was there too, wasn’t she? Now what was her name?”
“Becca, yes, of course. She’s the youngest in your family”.
“That’s right; you do remember her, then?”
“Yes”. I saw the faraway look in her eyes again; “I was the youngest in my family too”.
She nodded. “There were four of us. Edward was the oldest, but he was killed in the Great War. Edith was the second, James was the third, and I was the fourth”.
“What was your name before you were married?”
“Rowley. I was Joanna Rowley”.
“Did you get on well with your sister and brothers?”
“I was closest to James. I looked up to Edward; I was very sad when he was killed”.
“I guess so; I can’t begin to imagine something like that”.
“No. Still, it was a sad time for many people; lots of families were losing sons and brothers”. She smiled at me; “Enough about me”, she said; “Are you looking forward to going?”
“Yes and no. It’s six years since we were there; the last time we went was the summer before Kelly and I got married. The only family member I’ve seen since then has been Becca”.
“So your father and mother have never seen their granddaughter?”
“No, and she’s going to be five in December. Neither has my brother”.
“Did I know that you had a brother?”
“I think I’ve mentioned it before”.
“I’m sorry, Tom; I’m getting so forgetful these days”.
I shook my head; “It’s not a problem”.
“Tell me about your brother”.
“He’s a lawyer; he works in my dad’s firm in Oxford, actually. His name is Rick and he’s married to Alyson, and they have a son called Eric who’s nearly four, and a daughter called Sarah who just turned two”.
“So your father’s pleased with him, I suppose?”
“I think so; I suspect he’s glad at least one of us went into the Law”.
“Do you and your brother get along with each other?”
“To be honest, I hardly ever hear from him. He never calls, and he only writes at Christmas and birthdays. Actually I should say he sends a card, and it’s actually in Alyson’s handwriting”.
“I’m sorry; that must be hard”.
I shrugged; “It is what it is. My mum keeps in touch all the time, and I’ve got the world’s best little sister”.
“She visits you regularly, doesn’t she?”
“Every year. She and Kelly are very close, and she’s very fond of Emma, too”.
“I expect she’ll be glad to see you”.
“Yes, she’s looking forward to it”.
Becca had been very pleased when I had told her on the phone that we were coming over for six weeks. “This year you’ll be in England for my birthday!” she said.
“Twenty years old”, I replied; “Where has my little Becs gone?”
“Don’t forget you’re twelve years older than me!”
“I know”, I replied ruefully; “I’m an old man of thirty-two!”
“Any grey hairs yet?”
“That’s for me to know and you to find out!”
She laughed; “Fair enough. I’m glad you’re coming, Tommy”.
“I’m glad we’ll see you and Mum; I’m not sure how I feel about staying at Mum and Dad’s”.
“Yeah, I know what you mean”.
“Does he ever talk about us when you’re there? Or about Emma?”
“He talks about Emma sometimes; I think he’s curious about her, despite himself”.
“Not curious enough to come to visit her, though”.
“He’s stubborn; so are you, you know?”
“Don’t you start!” I exclaimed.
“You’ll be fine, Tommy, and if it gets to be too much for you, well, I’ll take you three off somewhere to play tourist”.
“That’s right, I keep forgetting you’ve got a car now!”
“The whole of England is at your disposal”.
“I thought you wanted to take us to Scotland?”
“I do – Edinburgh, and over to St. Andrew’s, and maybe up into the highlands if the weather’s good and if Emma’s not bored”.
“Sounds good to me, Becs; I’ve only ever been to Scotland that time we went up for Rick’s wedding”.
“Well, we’ll try to give Glenallen a wide birth, shall we?”
I laughed; “That’s up to you! How are Rick and Alyson and the children, anyway?”
“They’re okay, as far as I know – not that I see them very often, and I only ever hear from him at birthdays and Christmas. Alyson’s got that familiar neglected Masefield spouse look these days”.
“He’s working long hours, then?”
“Oh yes; a regular chip off the old block, is our Rick”.
“Dad must be pleased”.
“I think so; he goes on at great length about what a fine lawyer Rick is, and how he’ll be a partner before too long”.
“I’ll probably hear a lot about that when I get there”.
“Don’t let it bother you, Tommy. You and Kelly are happy, and you make enough money to live on, and you wouldn’t want to live like Dad and Rick, would you?”
“Oh, believe me, I’m quite okay with the way we live”.
“Alright then – that’s all that matters, isn’t it?”
“You’re pretty wise, small one, even if you are only twenty!”
“Only nineteen, actually – I won’t be twenty ’til August”.
“I’m glad you and Kelly are coming, Tommy”, she said again.
“See you soon, and give Kelly and Emma hugs for me”.
That spring Ellie and I played a couple of gigs of our own in coffee shops in Saskatoon. We had been participating in open stages for two years now, and we had gotten to know quite a few people in the music community in the city. We had developed a good repertoire of folk and bluegrass tunes, Ellie was getting more confident as a singer, and we were thoroughly enjoying ourselves.
Our families came down to the city with us for our first gig, which attracted a respectable Friday night crowd in the same coffee shop where we had first played at Jerry Weaver’s Saturday open stage. Kelly and Joe brought the kids to the first half and then took them over to Gary and Brenda’s place while Ellie and I played our second set. When we were done we had a quick coffee with Jerry and a couple of other people and then drove over to Gary and Brenda’s to pick up our families and head for home.
After we put Emma to bed that night, Kelly and I lay awake on a caffeine high for a while; I was lying on my back with my arm around her, and she had her head on my shoulder and one leg hooked over my body. We were both tired, but neither of us could sleep, and so we lay there and talked for a long time.
“It was a wonderful evening”, she said softly; “You guys were very good”.
“Do you think so?”
“Of course I think so. You’re both excellent players and you chose good songs. I was very proud”.
“It kind of gives me a sense of what it was like when you and Owen were playing together regularly”.
“I guess so. This is different, though; Ellie’s very different from Owen”.
“Do you wish it was still Owen you were playing with?”
I shook my head; “That was then, and this is now. I’m always happy to see Owen, and I’m glad he and I are still good friends, but I don’t hanker after those days, Kelly”.
She kissed me softly; “Good to know”, she whispered.
In the middle of May, Joanna Robinson had a heart attack in her chair; fortunately Ruth was with her, and was able to get her down to the hospital in time. When I saw her a couple of days later she was on oxygen and blood thinners and was looking very pale, but she seemed glad to see me and we talked for a few minutes. I called Don a little later, and he told me that the family were trying to make sure there was someone with her all the time.
“Kelly and I could help with that, Don, if you’re short of warm bodies”, I said.
“Would you mind? I know she’s got a soft spot for you two”.
“No, we wouldn’t mind”.
So we visited her up at the hospital a few times, and we kept in touch with the rest of the family on a regular basis. A couple of weeks later she was released from the hospital and went back to her room at the Special Care Home, but her children and grandchildren still wanted to keep a close eye on her, and Kelly and I continued to take part in that.
On Friday June 1st I walked over to the Special Care Home after supper and sat with her for a couple of hours. She was sitting up in her bed with pillows supporting her back, but she seemed particularly bright that night, and I read some poetry to her and talked about it with her for a while. Having heard about her brother who had been killed in the First World War, I had guessed the reason why she appreciated the war poets of that period, and I made a point of reading to her regularly from Sassoon and Owen. That night I read Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, which describes a gas attack and the horror of watching someone die from it. When I was finished, we sat quietly for a few minutes, and then she said, “I never did find out how Edward died”.
“No. The telegram just said, ‘Killed in Action near Cambrai, France, August 31st 1917”. She sighed; “I sometimes think I’d like to have known more, but then I wonder if perhaps it’s better that I didn’t”.
“I think I know what you mean”.
She was staring off into space now, and I knew that in her mind she was reliving her experiences in those long ago days while the Great War was raging and she was waiting anxiously at home for word from her brother. “I prayed for him”, she said; “I prayed every night that God would protect him and bring him home safely to us. His death dealt a real blow to my faith, but I kept on praying for the others from the village. What else could we do?”
“That’s what I think, too. I sometimes wonder why we pray about situations that involve human free will, but in the end I pray anyway, because it’s the only thing I can do; I can’t help myself”.
“What about your husband; did he serve in the war too?”
“No, he was too young. He was only fourteen when the war ended”.
“He lost a brother too, though; his oldest brother Sam was killed right at the beginning of the war, in the first Battle of the Marne, on September 10th 1914”.
“You have a very good memory for these dates”.
She turned and looked at me. “I remember those things as if they were yesterday, Tom”, she said. “Not that I knew Will when Sam was killed, but he and I often talked about it in later years”.
“Was your son Sam named for him?”
“Did either of you keep in touch with your families after you moved to Canada?”
For a moment she didn’t reply, and I wondered if I had gone too far, but eventually she smiled and said, “Will did; he and his father wrote to each other until his father died in 1946, but they never saw each other again after we moved here”.
I didn’t reply, but I reached across and put my hand on hers, and she nodded and put her other hand on top of mine.
After a moment she sighed and said, “I don’t think I’ve got much longer, Tom”.
“Why do you say that?”
“That heart attack scared me, and I feel very weak all the time now. I’m actually getting quite tired tonight”.
“I should leave you then, so you can sleep”.
“No, I’d like you to stay for a few minutes more, if you don’t mind”.
“I don’t mind”.
She turned to look at me again. “How long have you and I known each other now?” she asked.
“Six years and a few months, I think”.
“You’ve been very kind to me, Tom – you and Kelly, but especially you. I want you to know that I appreciate all the hours you’ve spent with me”.
“I’ve enjoyed it”.
“So have I. I’ve also appreciated that you’ve been very respectful of my privacy”. She smiled at me again; “Don’t think that I haven’t realized how curious you are”, she said. “I know that you’ve suspected for a long time that there was a lot I wasn’t telling you about my life before Will and I moved to Canada”.
“I have wondered…”
“Of course you have. And I very carefully haven’t told you anything. In fact, I haven’t told anyone anything”.
“And I’m fine with that”, I said quietly; “I don’t especially enjoy washing my family’s dirty laundry in public either”.
“No, and I know you understand how difficult it can be when there’s family conflict”. She was quiet for a moment again, and then she said, “Still, I think it’s time I told someone”.
“Shouldn’t it be one of your children or grandchildren?”
“No; I love them all very much, but I don’t want them going back and digging up the past, when I have no idea who’s left and how they might feel about me”.
“You want me to leave things as they are?”
She gave a heavy sigh, and then said, “I would prefer if you did that”.
“Tom, could you possibly get me a glass of water?”
“Of course”. I got to my feet, went over to her little sink, poured her some water and brought it over to the bed. She took a few sips of it, then handed it back to me with a smile, and I put it on the bedside table.
“I was born in a stately home called Holton House”, she said; “The estate was called Holton Park, and my father was the owner”.
“Your father was the squire, then?”
“Yes, I expect some people would have called him that”.
I nodded slowly, and she smiled and said, “You’ve guessed as much, haven’t you?”
“I noticed that you didn’t have a typical midlands farmer’s wife accent; you sound more upper-middle class, like my parents”.
“I’ve come down a bit, then; we weren’t in the nobility or anything, but our family had owned Holton Park since the days of Elizabeth I, and my mother was a Courtenay, of the family of the earls of Devon”.
“Definitely aristocratic, then”.
“Yes, but I lost patience with a lot of that stuff when I was a teenager. I was confirmed at the end of the Great War, you know, and my parents gave me a Bible for my confirmation. I don’t know whether or not they expected me to read it, but I did – I read it all the way through. I struggled with the Old Testament, of course, or parts of it anyway. But when I got to the New Testament, and the stories of Jesus, the light went on”.
“I know what you mean; it’s like you’re seeing every part of your life differently, isn’t it?”
“Exactly. And I met Will in 1919, when I was still reading the gospels and thinking about what Jesus had to say there. I was already beginning to think that our life in the aristocracy was completely contrary to what Jesus had taught. You know what I mean, I’m sure – the way we were so comfortable with wealth and power. I had servants, of course, but I hardly ever talked to them; it was as if we thought they weren’t really there”.
“Was Will one of your servants?”
“Will’s father was one of my father’s tenant farmers, but Will came to Holton House to work as a stable groom in 1919, when he was fifteen. He was my groom – he looked after my horse. I was really interested in horses and I asked my father if I could help look after Diamond, and that’s how Will and I started talking”.
“And you fell in love”.
She smiled again; “It took us a long time to reach that point. He was quite interested in books, but of course his family was very poor and he didn’t have the opportunities I had to read and learn. I think he would have loved to have stayed in school longer, but all the boys in his family went out to work very young; they had very few financial choices. Anyway, I started lending him books and we talked about them together while I was helping him look after Diamond. and that’s how it started”.
“So you got married?”
She nodded. “By then we were making secret arrangements to meet each other when I went out riding. We were pretty sure our parents wouldn’t approve, but we were naive enough to think that if we presented our marriage to them as a fait accompli, they would accept it. So we eloped; we went to Scotland to get married, and then we came home and told our families what we had done”.
“That didn’t go well, I take it?”
She shook her head. “I had never seen my father so angry in all my life; my mother had to physically restrain him from assaulting Will. I won’t go into the details, but the upshot was that Will was dismissed from his job, and we had to find a place to live and a way for Will to earn a living. His family were as offended at what we had done as mine were, and they didn’t want to risk the anger of their landlord by helping us, so we were truly out on our own”.
“So what did you do?”
“Well, Will got farm labouring jobs in the area, although word had spread about what we had done, and some people were shy about employing him. Some months we did well, but other months he had a difficult time finding work, and we found ourselves in rather desperate circumstances”.
“Your family never reached out to help?”
“My father had disowned me and wanted nothing to do with us any more, not even when we sent word that Michael had been born and that my mother and father had a grandson”.
“Was that their first grandchild?”
“No; my sister Edith was married with three children, and I found out later that my brother James and his wife had a daughter about the same time that our Michael was born”.
“So eventually you decided to move to Canada?”
She nodded. “It was obvious to us that we were always going to be living a hand-to-mouth existence, and we were both very upset about the way our families were treating us. Will’s family were in a different situation, of course; I truly believe that if they had tried to help us, my father would have found a way to punish them for it, and he was their landlord, so there wasn’t much they could do about that. But I was furious with my father. I tried not to be, Tom; I tried very hard to remember all the things Jesus had said about forgiving people, but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t believe that he felt so strongly about this class nonsense that he would go so far as to disown me, as if I was no longer his daughter”.
I squeezed her hand, and she smiled and said, “Yes, you understand, don’t you?”
“My father’s never disowned me, but he’s never reconciled himself to what I did”.
We were quiet for a few minutes; I continued to hold her hand, while she stared off into empty space, her eyes far away. Eventually I said, “There’s another thing that has puzzled me”.
“Well, I guessed some of this story, though not the exact details, of course. But I’ve always wondered where you and Will would have found the money to come to Canada, in the late 1920s, when you were obviously quite poor”.
“My sister gave it to us”, she said.
“Your sister? But I thought you had no more contact with your family?”
“Could you pass me that water again, please, Tom?”
“Of course”. I handed her the glass, and she took a few sips from it and then gave it back to me. I replaced it on the bedside table, and she said, “My sister Edith was married to Reginald Willoughby, another landowner with an estate in Leicestershire. She had apparently been keeping a surreptitious eye on us, and she came to visit me one day”.
“You must have been surprised”.
“I was flabbergasted. Here she was, the fine lady, dressed in her expensive clothes with her car and driver outside, standing in my tiny kitchen in the farm cottage where Will and I were living. I had a brand new baby I was looking after, and of course my sister’s children were all being raised by a nanny, so she was obviously quite uncomfortable with the sort of life Will and I were living. She told me that she wanted nothing to do with me and was still very upset about what I had done, but she didn’t want Will and I to starve or end up totally destitute, so she was prepared to give us the money to emigrate and start a new life somewhere else”.
“Had she and her husband…?”
“I don’t think so. Edith had money of her own, of course, that she had taken into the marriage, and I think she used some of it to help us. I’d be very surprised if her husband even knew about it”.
“You must have been conflicted about the whole thing”.
“Yes, I was. Will was out at the time, and I told her I would have to talk with him about it. She said she would come back in a few days to hear what we had decided. So I talked to Will; of course he wanted to do it, but he was proud, too, and he didn’t want to accept charity. I remember we knelt beside our bed that night and prayed that God would guide us. And I suppose he must have done so, because we both agreed that it would be for the best. So my sister paid our passage and our train fare to western Canada, and she gave us a good sum of money to help us get started on a farm out here. We made the journey in the spring of 1929”.
“Did either of you see your families before you left?”
“Will went back to visit his father, and they had a very tearful parting, so he told me. Edith had told me not to contact our family; she didn’t want them to know that she had helped us. I never heard from her again, or anyone else in my family”.
I shook my head slowly; “I can’t begin to imagine…”
“We never looked back, Tom”, she said quietly. “Even in the hard years of the dirty thirties, when we very rarely made a profit on our crops and basically stayed alive on what we could grow and raise ourselves, we never once thought about going back. It was desperately hard out here, but we were free to be ourselves. Of course, I had my struggles; other farmers’ wives knew how to cook and clean and make clothes and so on, and I’d never learned those things. I’m sure sometimes Will wished I could help him with the farm chores like other farmers’ wives did, but I was never very good at that. I wish we hadn’t been estranged from our families, but we were, and that being the case, I’ve never regretted that we came to Canada. We made a good life for ourselves here, and we passed a good farm on to Sam”.
“And you’re the matriarch of a huge tribe now”, I said.
“I am, and they take good care of me, and I’m proud of them”.
“You’re sure you don’t want them to know this story?”
She was quiet for a long time, and then she said, “They will find it out after I’m gone, Tom”.
“I’ve kept a diary for most of my life. The diaries are in a box in my cupboard, with instructions that they go to Michael. Only Michael; I have some faith that he won’t do anything rash about them. I don’t want anyone going back to England and digging up skeletons. As I said, I have no idea who may or may not be alive, or what attitude they might take to my children and grandchildren, and I don’t want to expose my family to that. I think Michael will feel the same way”.
“What do you want me to do?”
“I want you to keep this to yourself. I don’t mind if you tell Kelly, but I don’t want anyone else to know. I don’t even want you to talk to Michael about it unless he talks to you”.
“Okay; if you’re sure”.
“I am sure. And now, Tom, I need to sleep; I’m feeling very, very tired”.
“Right; I’ll be on my way, then”.
“Perhaps you’d be good enough to pray with me before you go?”
She reached out again and touched my hand; “Tom, I want to thank you for being my friend”, she said. “I never expected to have this sort of friendship with a young man less than half my age. But you and Kelly have been very good to me – you especially – and I want you to know that it has meant a great deal to me”.
I leaned forward and kissed her on the cheek; “It’s been my pleasure”, I replied.
The next morning was a Saturday, and Kelly and I were clearing up the dishes after breakfast when the phone rang. I went into the living room and picked it up; “Tom and Kelly’s”, I said.
“Tom, it’s Mike Robinson here”.
“Mike; is everything okay?”
“Tom, I just wanted to let you know that Mom died early this morning. She had another heart attack, and she died before they could get her to the hospital”.
I sat down on the couch, suddenly unable to speak. Kelly came around the corner from the kitchen and looked at me; I pursed my lips, blinking back the tears, and held out the phone to her. She frowned and took it from me; “Kelly here”, she said. “Oh, yes, Uncle Mike; what…?”
I heard him talking through the receiver, and I saw the sudden stillness on Kelly’s face; she reached out and took my hand, and after a moment she said, “Okay, Uncle Mike, thanks for letting us know. Yes; Tom’s a little upset right now, so he probably can’t come back to the phone, but I’m sure he’ll call you back in a while. Let us know about arrangements, will you? Thanks Uncle Mike; give our love to all the family”. She put the phone down, then sat down beside me on the couch and put her arms around me. “Are you okay?” she said.
I shook my head. “I think I may have been the last person to see her alive”, I replied.
“And you had a pretty amazing conversation”.
“It was like she knew”, I whispered; “The way she thanked me at the end for being her friend, and the way she wanted to make sure I knew the whole story before she died. It was as if she knew what was going to happen”.
“Maybe she had a hunch; I’ve known old people who experienced that”.
“Maybe”. I looked at Kelly through my tears; “She was an amazing lady”, I said hoarsely.
“You loved her”.
“I did. It was almost like she was an honorary grandmother to me”.
Kelly nodded slowly; “An honorary English grandmother”.
“So what are you going to do about the story she told you?”
“I’m going to do exactly what she asked me to do”.
“You’re going to keep it to yourself?”
“Won’t that be a little difficult, with Don and Ruth being such good friends of ours?”
“Yes, it will, but it’s what she wanted. She didn’t want to expose them to the possibility of going back there to England and being rejected the way she was rejected”.
“But that might not happen. That was over sixty years ago; times have changed”.
“I know, but I can’t do otherwise, Kelly; it’s what she asked me to do, and I won’t go against her wishes”.
She nodded; “I think I knew that”, she said softly. “You’re a very honourable man, you know”.
Mike Robinson talked to me about his mother’s journals a few days later. Her funeral was held at the community hall with the local Anglican minister presiding, and to my surprise the family asked if I would read the eulogy. When I protested that surely one of them would be more appropriate, Sam shook his head and said, “I’m not sure I could get through it”.
“Me too”, Shirley added.
We were sitting around the kitchen table at Mike and Rachel’s house; Mike looked across at me, and I saw the sympathy in his eyes. “But perhaps”, he said, “you’re not sure you could get through it either, Tom. We know you were very fond of Mom”.
I shook my head. “No, I’ll do it for her”, I said; “Thanks for asking me”.
At the reception after the funeral he came over to where Kelly and I were standing talking with John and Ruth Janzen. “Could I have a word, Tom?” he asked.
I followed him outside into the sunny June afternoon; we moved away from the main doors, and he put his hands in his pockets, his eyes down. “Can I ask you something?” he said quietly.
“Did Mom ever talk to you about her past?”
I nodded; “She did, on the night before she died”.
“I thought maybe she had; I know you and her became pretty close friends”.
“Mike, I hope you’re not offended; she asked me not to talk with you about it unless you raised it”.
He shook his head; “I’m not offended”, he said. “She left me a big box of those journals, and a letter about them, giving me the bare bones of the story. I’m not surprised, although I hadn’t guessed anything about it”.
“She told me she didn’t want you guys going over there and digging up the past; she said she had no idea who was still alive, and how they would feel about it. I got the sense she was trying to protect you guys”.
He nodded; “She asked me in the letter to keep it to myself, and not to pass the story on to anyone else in the family. Well, I talked to Rachel about it, so I guess I disobeyed her, but I haven’t told anyone else, and I don’t plan on it. Does Kelly know?”
“Yes; she told me I could tell Kelly”.
“Maybe she won’t rise up and haunt me for telling Rachel, then!”
We both laughed softly, and I said “Have you read the journals, Mike?”
“No, and I don’t think I’m going to. I can’t see any point in dredging up the past. I was going to burn them, but Rachel persuaded me not to; she said that some time in the future, when us old people are all gone, someone might find them interesting. I don’t mind telling you we had a bit of a disagreement about it, but she persuaded me in the end. She can be quite persuasive”.
“I think I can imagine that”.
He looked at me and said, “We’re going to respect Mom’s wishes, though; right, Tom?”
“That was my plan”.
“I know it will be tough for you, with you and Kelly being so close to Don and Ruth and their families”.
I shook my head; “The subject need never come up, Mike. Your mum made it quite clear to me what she wanted, and I would never go against that; I respected her too much”.
He held out his hand to me; “You and Kelly were good friends to Mom these past few years, Tom. I want you to know that we appreciate it”.
I took his hand firmly; “It was a pleasure”, I replied. “I’ll always be glad I had the chance to get to know her”.
“Thanks”. He put his hands back in his pockets; “So you and the family are heading off to the old country again soon, Ruth tells me?”
“Yeah, in a few weeks; we’re leaving on July 9th and we’re staying ’til August 20th”.
“That’s a long holiday”.
“Yeah; I haven’t been back for six years, and my mum and dad have never met their granddaughter”.
“They’ll be glad to see you, then”.
“Yeah, I think they will”.
“Well, I’d better go back inside. Thanks, Tom”.
“Thank you, Mike. Let me know if there’s anything I can do”.
“I appreciate that”, he said, and then turned and went back into the hall.