Well, here’s another lively take on a traditional tune from the mighty Bellowhead. I will miss this band!
The mighty Bellowhead!
Well, here’s another lively take on a traditional tune from the mighty Bellowhead. I will miss this band!
The mighty Bellowhead!
Years ago when I lived in Valleyview, one of the members of my church decided to do something he had never done before: read the Bible all the way through. He was quite excited about this. He had a Good News Bible, which is a fairly easy translation to use, and he set aside fifteen or twenty minutes each night to read a few pages. I had warned him that he would not finish the project quickly, and in fact it took him about eight months, at the rate of about four or five pages a day.
He was quite surprised by some of what he read. Like many Anglicans, he’d only ever encountered the bits of the Bible that we read in church on Sundays, and if you didn’t already know this, let me tell you now that we tend to airbrush out some of the more difficult passages for public reading! But he was determined to read the whole thing – bloody sacrifices, cursing psalms, incestuous relationships and all. He had absolutely no idea how much of this stuff there was in the Bible, and it really bothered him.
“I thought the Bible was going to be full of inspiring stories about people – good examples to follow”, he said to me one day when he was about half way through. “But it’s not. The people in the Bible are just as bad as we are! What’s the point of reading a book like that? How does that help us?”
He’s not alone in thinking like this. I know of young people who’ve given up on church because, as they put it, the church is full of hypocrites who don’t practice what they preach. Of course, as we get older, we gradually come to realize that hypocrites are all God has to work with. There’s not a single one of us who practices what we preach perfectly. We’re all flawed and sinful human beings; every one of us knows that we have not loved God with our whole heart and we have not loved our neighbour as ourselves.
And yet, in God’s mercy and grace, he continues to be patient with us and to work with us. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians, ‘But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us’ (2 Corinthians 4:7). The ‘treasure’ he’s talking about is the gospel message, and the ‘clay jars’ are you and me – not much to look at, but we’re all God’s got to work with!
And so we come, once again, to David. The story of David is the longest biography in the pages of the Bible; it stretches from 1 Samuel 16, where he is a seventeen-year old shepherd boy in Bethlehem, through the rest of the first book of Samuel and the entire second book of Samuel, and on to the second chapter of the first book of Kings, where he dies as an old man of seventy. Our Old Testament readings through early summer have been following his story and will continue to do so for a few weeks more, but of course a lot has been skipped over; you can’t read everything, at least, not if people want to get home in time for Sunday lunch!
Today’s reading is the turning point in the story; after a twenty-year wait, David is finally crowned as king over all Israel.
‘Then all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron, and said, “Look, we are your bone and flesh. For some time, while Saul was king over us, it was you who led out Israel and brought it in. The Lord said to you: It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel”. So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron; and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel’ (2 Samuel 5:1-3).
But this coronation has been a long time coming; as I said, it’s twenty years since Samuel first anointed young David as Saul’s successor, and the journey has been a long and convoluted one. Today I want to step back from it, and offer two observations about the story of David as a whole.
The first is the length of time it takes for God’s promises and God’s call to be fulfilled. As we have seen, when David was seventeen, the prophet Samuel went to his home in Bethlehem and anointed him as king over Israel. But Israel already had a king at that time: Saul, who had disobeyed God and who had consequently been rejected. It was many years before Saul’s reign actually came to an end; for some of this time, he actively persecuted David, who he understandably saw as a threat to his throne. It was thirteen years before David became the king of his own tribe of Judah, and seven more years before he became king of all Israel, in the passage we’ve read today.
David would have been less than human if he had not doubted the call from time to time during those twenty years. Many times during those years Saul tried to kill him, but the record is clear that he never responded in kind; as far as he was concerned, it was God’s job to bring Saul’s reign to an end in his own time, and David didn’t need to do it for him. Some Bible scholars are skeptical about this; they think that the authors have whitewashed things out of the story. My response to that is that if whitewashing was happening, there are lots of other things that would have been left out, too – David’s adultery with Bathsheba, for instance, and his murder of Bathsheba’s husband so that he could take her as his own wife! No – David had lots of failings, especially in the area of marriage and family, but he seems to have been able to hold on to his sense of God’s purpose, even when things looked dark for him. He chose to continue to believe that the call was real, even though it took a long time to be implemented.
I think I have a sense of what David might have felt like. As many of you know, when I first went into full-time ministry I was part of an Anglican missionary organization called the Church Army. We were trained as evangelists in a two-year training program, but we were not ordained priests – we were lay ministers. Many of us actually ended up being asked to work in parishes as full time lay ministers, and in some cases this caused complications because we could not preside at celebrations of Holy Communion; we had to bring ordained priests in to do that. But we were cheap and cheerful, and we went where we were sent, and in those days bishops appreciated that, as not all of their clergy would go where they were needed – a situation, I might add, that is even more true today than it was then.
I was commissioned as a Church Army evangelist in May of 1978. Marci and I moved to Arborfield, Saskatchewan as newlyweds in October of 1979, and within a year of that move, I had begun to sense that God was calling me to be ordained as a priest. I raised the subject with my bishop, and he and I began to have conversations about it. There was, of course, a well-travelled path to ordination, which would have involved me going back to school for no less than seven years, but, for a number of reasons, that road was problematic for me. Eventually I left Saskatchewan without being ordained and moved to the Diocese of the Arctic, and there, about ten years after I first sensed the call, Bishop Jack Sperry ordained me as a deacon. But it was another eighteen months before I was ordained as a priest, in Valleyview, by Bishop John Clarke.
It seemed like a long and winding road, and there were a few times when I felt like giving up and staying as I was. But I couldn’t avoid the sense that God was in this, even if the church didn’t always seem to agree, and in the end, in God’s good time, it came about. And of course, I learned a lesson on the way: that God’s timing is often different from ours. We live in time, and we perhaps have a sense of our own mortality, so we tend to be in a hurry. God, I believe, does not live in time, and God sees the big picture, and feels no need to be in a rush. In fact, teaching us to be patient may be a much higher priority for God than it is for us!
So if you sense that God is calling you to something, don’t be unduly worried if that call isn’t fulfilled right away. As I mentioned last week, in Luke chapter eighteen Jesus told the parable of the persistent widow, and Luke says quite clearly that it was about ‘their need to pray always and not lose heart’ (Luke 18:1). He would not have told them this parable if he thought they wouldn’t sometimes be tempted to lose heart and give up on their prayers! So the lesson is: keep praying, keep being faithful to what you believe God is calling you to do, and leave the timing in God’s hands. That’s the first thing.
The second thing that impresses me about the story of David is David’s real, and flawed, humanity. This goes along with what my friend discovered when he read the Bible through for the first time. People in the Bible are not saints with halos around their heads; they are ordinary sinful human beings like you and me. And David is no exception.
I can’t summarize the whole story of David here today; as I said, it’s the longest piece of sustained biographical writing in the whole Bible. I would strongly encourage you to read it for yourself.
But if you read it, be prepared: this David is not a saint with a halo around his head. Yes, he’s a brave young man who fights off Goliath and leads Israel to great military victories, and he’s also a man whose natural respect for those God has chosen to be in authority over him prevents him from ever being in real rebellion against Saul, even though he knows God has called him to take Saul’s place. The Bible presents him as praying and seeking God’s guidance and God’s blessing; it calls him ‘a man after God’s own heart’ and ‘the sweet singer of Israel’, and many of the Old Testament psalms are associated with his name. How many of them he actually wrote is impossible to tell for sure, but there’s no doubt in my mind that some of them come from him.
All well and good, but there were depths of darkness in David’s soul too. He was hopeless at marriage and family relations. In a few weeks we’re going to read the most famous example of this. After he became king of Israel, while his army was out fighting against the Ammonites, he was walking on the roof of his palace in Jerusalem one day, and he saw a beautiful woman having a bath. He sent for her and slept with her (I don’t imagine she had a great deal of choice in the matter). Her name was Bathsheba and she was the wife of Uriah, one of the soldiers fighting for David at the front.
Inevitably, Bathsheba got pregnant, and now David had a problem; he had a reputation as a man of God to uphold, and also, according to the Law of Moses, Bathsheba was in danger of being stoned to death. David’s first plan was to get Uriah home from the front line and into bed with his wife as soon as possible, but for one reason or another that didn’t work (you’ll have to read the story to find out why!). So David sent an order to his general for the troops to attack an enemy stronghold and then withdraw and leave Uriah to his fate. And that’s what happened: Uriah was killed in battle, Bathsheba mourned for him, and then, very quickly, David married her.
Later, the prophet Nathan confronted David with his sin, and David repented. I believe David’s repentance was genuine; after all, in those days, kings had absolute power, and if David didn’t like what Nathan had said, he could easily have had him killed. But repentant or not, this is the sort of man David was. He had eight different wives that I can count (not that this was a biblical record: his son Solomon had several hundred of them!), and he made no secret of his favouritism for one of his many sons, Absolom. Absolom had a sister named Tamar, and when their half-brother Amnon raped her, Absolom plotted and eventually killed his brother. Eventually, by a complicated series of events, Absolom led a short-lived rebellion against his father, which ended up in his own death as well. And inevitably, when David was an old man and on the point of death, there was a power struggle between his sons; Bathsheba’s son Solomon was ultimately successful, and Adonijah, his chief rival, lost his life too. That’s the sort of family life that David had; it’s not very edifying, is it?
Even at the end of his life, David had apparently not learned some of the most vital lessons of living. During his life he had carried several grudges against people; on the surface he had forgiven them, but apparently this was a sham. On his deathbed, he gave his son Solomon careful instructions concerning these people; “Don’t let their grey heads go down to the grave in peace”, he said. Solomon did as he was told; one by one, these old enemies of his dad, who thought David had forgiven them, were bumped off by Solomon’s hatchet man Benaiah son of Jehoiada.
So this was David: a man who loved God, a man who prayed, a man who tried to do what was right, but also a man of lust, a murderer, an adulterer, a man who made a show of forgiving his enemies while all the time carrying a deadly grudge against them in his heart.
Is this okay? Of course it’s not okay; all of these things are serious, and in the end, David suffered from them too – as we said last week, he was ‘his own worst enemy’. These things spoil the life God has planned for us, and Jesus is calling us to leave them behind and learn a new way of life from him.
But here’s the thing: we’re not going to be successful in entirely freeing ourselves from sin, at least, not in this life. All of us are works in progress. We’re people of faith, people who love God, people who are trying to learn the way of Jesus. But we’re also sinners: selfish, self-centred people. We have sinned in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We love doing things God hates, and we hate doing things God loves. We wish we could be different, and we try, but over and over again, we fail.
We know this is true, but in our dark moments we tend to think it means God can’t use us to serve him. The story of David assures us that this isn’t the case. Flawed and imperfect human beings are all God’s got to work with. And this means we have to be patient with ourselves, and patient with each other as well. I think it was Groucho Marx who said, “I would never join any club that would accept me as a member”. Well, brothers and sisters, this club has accepted each of us as members, with all our faults and imperfections! We’re well aware of our own shortcomings, and this ought to make us more gentle with the shortcomings of those around us. And through it all, God continues to use us to bless others, just as he used David.
So what ties all of this together today? I’d suggest that the common theme is the patience of God. God is doing a work in Israel, and God is doing a work in David, and God is prepared to take a long time to do it, if that’s what it takes.
Are you thankful for the patience of God? I have to confess that sometimes I’m not. Sometimes it irritates me! There are prayers I’ve been praying for decades that I haven’t seen answers for yet – at least, not answers I like! There are things I think need changing, and I wish God would hurry up. I suspect you feel the same way.
I would suggest that we need to learn to be deeply grateful for the patience of God. I’m aware that there are besetting sins in my life that have been ‘besetting’ me for all the years of my Christian journey! Is that God’s fault? No, the fault is entirely mine. And there has been change, yes, but nothing like what could have happened if I’d always responded wholeheartedly to God’s call. I believe God is grieved by this, but I also know that God loves me and will not give up on me. And meanwhile, God can still use me to do his work and to bless other people.
And you too. So if God is calling you to do something, don’t say, “I’m not worthy of doing anything like that”. Of course you’re not! That’s why Jesus died for you! So remember David, and give thanks that our patient God uses flawed human beings to do his work. And then press on and do it, and while you’re doing it, ask God to help you come closer to his dream of the kind of human being he wants you to be. Keep on praying that, and don’t lose heart, and in time, if you’re patient, you’ll notice that God is gradually answering that prayer.
I’ve gone through the ‘Meadowvale’ story over the past few weeks and done a rewrite. I will be posting the revised chapters here over the next few months, at the rate of about two a week. The originals are still on this site (go to ‘Meadowvale’ in the sidebar) in case you want to compare! I hope you enjoy them.
We took an early afternoon flight back from Edinburgh on the bank holiday Monday, then drove home to Northwood, arriving just before five p.m. It was a glorious summer afternoon, the temperature hovering around twenty-five degrees, with just a few clouds drifting across the clear blue sky. We took our bags to our rooms, washed up and unpacked, and then I went downstairs to the hallway, picked up the phone, and dialled Owen’s number.
“Owen Foster”, he said.
“It’s me. We’re home”.
“How was the swanky wedding?”
“The less said, the better. Except that if yours is even remotely like it, I swear I’ll renounce my newfound Christian pacifism and murder you”.
He laughed. “Do you need a music fix?”
“Shall I bring Lorraine?”
“I’m counting on it. I checked with Mum and the big room’s available after supper; she’s got no students tonight”.
“Shall we have supper at the Kingfisher first?”
“Foster, you are a genius!”
“I’ll pick Lorraine up, and we’ll meet you at the Kingfisher about six”.
“Okay, I’ll walk down with Kelly and make sure there’s room on the terrace”.
“See you there”.
Northwood was an oddly elongated village by English standards, stretching over a mile from north to south; it was actually more like two smaller villages connected by a main street. My parents’ home was on the north side, not far from Owen’s parents, but the Kingfisher pub was at the southern end, not far from the bridge across the river Thames; on fine summer nights its riverside terrace was a popular place in Northwood for meals or drinks. I had worked there for three full summers during my university years, as well as the month of July 1982, just before I moved to Canada.
“So you were a bartender?” Kelly said with a bemused smile as we walked hand in hand down the high street.
“You are a man of many talents”.
“Well, I did get to be pretty good at drawing a pint, if I say so myself”.
“You’ve never struck me as being much of a bar hopper”.
“Pubs are a bit different over here, Kelly”.
“Well, I’m not saying no one ever gets drunk in them; that would obviously not be true. But I would say that most of the village people I met when I was working at the Kingfisher would far rather go to the pub seven nights a week for one pint than one night a week for seven”.
“I’m not much of a beer drinker, you know”, she said.
“I do like a glass of wine, though”, she added with a grin.
“Yes, I think I’ve noticed that!”
Kelly liked the Kingfisher as soon as we walked through the door; the bar room had a bare wooden floor, dark circular tables, a large fireplace, and a low beamed ceiling. “Oh my goodness, this is so classic!” she said with a grin; “I wish I’d brought my camera!”
“Well, the beauty of it is that it’s only a twenty-minute walk. We can come here for a drink every night if you like!”
We went through to the back terrace and found a table right by the low stone wall, with the river flowing by on the other side. There were already people out there, so Kelly sat down to claim it while I went back inside to get drinks for us.
There were a couple of people ahead of me, so I had to wait a few minutes before the girl behind the bar drew me a pint of the local bitter and poured me a glass of red wine. I carried our drinks out onto the terrace and stopped for a minute to look at Kelly; she was sitting back in her seat with her arm on the stone wall and a serene expression on her face, looking out over the river. After a moment she turned and saw me; “There you are!” she said with a smile.
“Sorry; there were a couple of people ahead of me”. I put the drinks down on the table, sat down and said, “So, what do you think of the view?”
She looked out over the river again. At Northwood the Thames was still a fairly narrow, meandering stream, with ancient willows hanging over its banks, and the occasional riverboat moving slowly past. On the far bank there were a couple of newer housing estates on the other side of the bridge, but across from us, open fields stretched out in a south-westerly direction toward the next village three miles away.
“It’s perfect”, she said with a smile, picking up her wine glass and raising it in my direction. “To simple pleasures!” she said.
“Simple pleasures”, I echoed, touching my glass to hers and taking a sip of bitter.
“Hello, is someone boozing already!”
I turned to see Owen walking across the terrace toward us, with a tall, red-haired girl at his side. Owen was tall too, with a dark, rascally look about him; I got to my feet and he immediately enveloped me in a huge bear hug, slapping me on the back and saying, “Good to see you, Tom”.
“My God, you have absolutely no idea…”
“I think I do”. He released me, then turned to Kelly, who had also gotten to her feet. “Kelly, I feel like I already know you well enough to give you a hug”.
“Go for it!” she replied with a grin.
He gave her another bear hug, then turned and said, “My fiancée, Lorraine Hutchinson – meet my oldest friend, Tom Masefield, and his lovely fiancée, Kelly Reimer. Kelly, did I say your last name right?”
“Reimer – it rhymes with rhymer, as in a maker of rhymes”, she replied.
“I’m buying”, I said; “Bitter, is it?”
“Cider for me, please, Tom”, Lorraine asked.
“Genius girl!” I said; “I never thought of that!”
“There’s always the next round”, Owen said.
“Did you guys check the menu on the way through?” I asked.
“They have chicken curry on special tonight”, Owen replied; “Are we we all okay with curry?”
“I am so okay with curry!” Kelly exclaimed.
“Four curries, then?” I said.
I went back inside, got drinks for Owen and Lorraine and ordered food, and then went back outside to join them on the terrace. Owen was already asking Kelly questions about the trip to Edinburgh, and as I sat down he said, “Well, you won’t find it quite so posh in two weeks, will she, Lorraine?”
“Oh, no!” Lorraine replied; “Cold supper and a cash bar, I’m afraid! We’re saving all our money to come to Saskatchewan!”
“Sorry about that”, I replied.
“Don’t be sorry!” Owen said; “How can you say ‘sorry’ when you’re sitting beside the lovely Kelly the rhymer? Mind you, it’s a mystery to me that she can have been so deluded as to take you on…”
Kelly pointed her finger at him; “If you carry on insulting the love of my life, Owen Foster, our friendship will be short-lived”.
He looked at her with mock horror on his face, then turned to me and said, “You didn’t tell me she was ferocious!”
“That’s Kelly – tiny but tough!”
He shook his head and looked across the table at the two of us. “I can’t tell you how good it is to see you two!” he said.
We all nodded and gave a sort of collective sigh, and then Kelly said, “What about you, Lorraine – are you an Oxford girl?”
She shook her head; “Born and bred in west London; my dad owns his own chartered accountancy business, so my sister Jenny and I were raised in a very ordinary house in Acton Town. Jenny came out here to go to Oxford Polytechnic to do architectural drafting, and she liked it so much she decided to stay here if she could get a job. She was lucky – she found work right away. I visited her a few times and I liked it here, so I thought I’d come and join her and see if an aspiring water-colour artist could make a living in Oxford”.
“And can she?” I asked.
“Well, one aspiring watercolour artist might be able to, but as it turns out, there are rather a lot of us here, so I’m having a mildly successful career waiting tables at one of the local coffee shops while I wait for Owen to take me to the altar!”
“You two met in church, didn’t you?” Kelly asked.
“Yes, that’s right. I wasn’t raised in a Christian home, but I had a conversion experience when I was at art college – not something you normally associate with art college, is it? But I had a couple of friends who went to a rather lively evangelical church not far away, and they invited me to join them one week. It sort of went on from there”.
“I know how you feel”, I replied; “I was invited by the pastor at our church to come and play guitar for them, before I was even a Christian”.
“You were on the way, though”, Kelly said.
“Yeah, I was”.
“Anyway”, Lorraine continued, “on my second Sunday in Oxford I tried out St. Clement’s, and ended up sitting in the pew beside Owen. And you know the rest of the story, I think”.
“And what about you, Kelly?” Owen asked, looking across at her significantly. “Who actually is Kelly Reimer?”
She laughed; “What do you mean?”
“Well, what I mean is, you’re here for another two and a half weeks, and then you’re going back to Canada, and in less than nine weeks you’ll be marrying my oldest friend. So I haven’t actually got a lot of time to get to know you”.
“I’m sure Tom’s told you some things”, she replied.
“He has, but I like to go straight to the source, you know”.
She grinned at him; “You’re a little direct”, she observed.
“Rumour has it that you are too”.
“It’s true; I can’t deny it”. She thought for a moment, and then said, “I don’t know – I guess I’m a country girl, a teacher’s daughter, a nurse who loves working with old people”. She grinned; “I’m not used to being self-reflective, Owen – it’s tough for me!”
“Indulge me”, he replied.
“Well, I guess I should say I’m the granddaughter of Mennonite immigrants who fled from Russia in the 1920s to escape from the Communists; that’s when my grandparents moved to Saskatchewan”.
“What actually is a Mennonite?” Lorraine asked.
“Mennonites are Anabaptists; they were the 16th century Christian radicals. They were against state churches and infant baptism, and they were strong on obeying the teaching of Jesus, including things like pacifism, and simple living, and not taking oaths”. Kelly smiled again; “You’d think they’d be kind of inoffensive, but in fact my ancestors were persecuted almost from day one, by state churches and governments”.
“So your ancestors were Russians?” Owen asked.
“Actually, they moved to Russia from Germany and the Netherlands, by way of Poland, in the eighteenth century. But they preserved their own language and traditions; my grandparents still speak Low German, and it’s not uncommon for them to sing Low German hymns as part of their church services”.
“So your family were farmers?” Lorraine asked.
“My grandparents were farmers; my dad’s a schoolteacher”.
“Right; I should have remembered that”.
“It’s a good question, though, because even though we didn’t live on a farm when I was growing up, I’m more than half a farm girl. Two of my dad’s brothers still farm in the Meadowvale area, so we’re not that far removed from it. My Uncle Hugo and Aunt Millie still farm the land my Reimer grandparents cleared when they first came. I like going out there and thinking about what it was like for them when they were homesteading there in the 1920s. And I have a horse there, too”.
“A horse?” Lorraine asked.
“I told you about that”, Owen said to her.
“Did you? I must have forgotten”.
Kelly nodded; “Uncle Hugo knew I loved horses”, she said, “so when I was eleven he gave me a foal. Of course, he looks after him most of the time, but now I’m living in Meadowvale again I get to spend more time with him”.
“So you’re a German Russian Mennonite farm girl, raised by a schoolteacher, who likes riding horses, nursing, and working with old people”, said Owen.
“She also likes listening to music”, I added, “and her tastes are a lot wider than ours”.
“Oh yes? What sort of music are we talking about here?”
I grinned at Kelly; “The first time I met her, she told me she liked all kinds of music except opera and whiney country stuff!”
Kelly laughed; “I’d forgotten about that!” she said. “It’s true, though; I like the Police, and Dire Straits, and Billy Joel, and I like the old time bluegrass and mountain music that my sister-in-law Ellie likes to play. And I’m particularly fond of Bruce Cockburn. Oh, and U2 as well”.
Owen grinned; “Not a lot of connection with Tom’s style there”.
“Oh, I love all of his stuff, too – and I can’t wait to hear the two of you play together tonight!”
“We’ll try not to disappoint you. So, where have we got to? Kelly Reimer is a German Russian Mennonite farm girl, raised by a schoolteacher, who likes riding horses, nursing, and working with old people, and listening to lots of different types of music”.
“And reading poetry”, Kelly added, “and canoeing, and cross-country skiing, and just plain old walking. But those aren’t the most important things”.
“What are the most important things?”
“Family, and Jesus, and Tom”.
“‘Jesus’ is included in being a Mennonite, isn’t he?”
“Well, in theory, yes, but ‘Mennonite’ is an ethnic identity as well as a faith tradition, and lots of folks who have the ethnic identity haven’t followed on with the faith tradition. Also, although I love being a Mennonite, I don’t want to get boxed in by that. Following Jesus is the important thing”.
“Owen told me that you left Christianity for a while”, Lorraine said quietly.
“Yeah – when I was sixteen I started going through a doubting time. It wasn’t really a rebellion – more of a time of rethinking, I guess. Anyway, I’m back now, thanks to Tom”.
“Thanks to me?” I exclaimed; “I think it’s the other way around, isn’t it?”
“You obviously helped each other”, Lorraine said with a smile.
“I think so”, Kelly replied, putting her hand on mine. “We started talking about our questions and comparing notes with each other…”
“We had a pretty active correspondence when she was still living in Jasper”, I added.
“As well as a lot of phone calls”, Kelly said with a grin. “Then we started reading the gospels and trying to make sense of who Jesus was, and Tom was having some conversations with Rob, our pastor in Meadowvale”.
“Also, I was watching Kelly’s family”, I said, “and I was pretty impressed about how they tried to live their faith”. I took a sip of my drink, and then continued; “Back in April a year ago Kelly’s cousin Corey was killed in a car accident on the road just south of town. The other driver was a local guy, too, and he was drunk; his name was Billy Collins. I had his daughter in my English classes, and of course he had lots of relatives in town, just like the Reimers. But I was really impressed when Hugo and Millie – Corey’s parents – went out of their way to build bridges with the Collins family. Pretty well the whole Reimer family got involved; that got my attention”.
“I remember you telling me about that”, Owen said quietly.
“It was a milestone on the road for me”, I said. “It wasn’t long afterwards that I started talking with Rob, and he roped me into playing guitar for the services, along with Kelly’s dad and her sister-in-law Ellie”.
“So was it your conversations with Rob that persuaded you about Christianity?” Lorraine asked.
“No – they helped, but they weren’t the turning point”.
I glanced at Kelly sitting beside me, and then said, “During the Christmas holidays this past year I was out snowshoeing one afternoon by myself – Kelly was sick in bed with the flu – and I had this very vivid experience of the love of Christ…” I shook my head, feeling the familiar constriction in my throat. “Here I go again!” I said, smiling through my tears; “It’s been eight months, now, and I still haven’t gotten through this story without choking up!”
Kelly put her hand on mine; “Tom called me a couple of hours after it happened”, she said. “He told me it was as if the whole world had gone transparent, and he could see through it to the majesty of God; he felt God’s love reaching out and enveloping him, and he knew instinctively that the name of that love was Christ”.
“Wow – that’s amazing”, Lorraine said.
“It didn’t last very long”, I added; “probably not even a minute, but I knew it was real. After that, most of my intellectual questions just seemed to vanish away. Kelly, God bless her, had been waiting patiently for me to catch up with her, and so right away we told Rob that we were ready to be baptized. He did a bit of instruction with us, and we were baptized together in February”.
Owen opened his mouth to speak, but at that moment the waitress appeared beside our table with a tray of food. “Four curries, I think?” she asked.
“Right here”, I replied.
She put the plates down on the table with a smile; “Enjoy your meals, folks”, she said.
We thanked her as she turned to go, and then Owen said, “Well, shall we go public and say grace?”
“Absolutely!” Kelly replied.
Much later that evening, at around ten o’clock, Kelly and I were walking together in the garden under a clear night sky; Owen and Lorraine had left about half an hour before. We had sat together in the big room at the back of the house where my mother taught her piano students, and for a couple of hours Owen and I had played our old songs, while Kelly and Lorraine had listened. After a while my mother had brought us a big pot of tea, and she and Becca had sat with us for the rest of the evening.
“That was a wonderful night”, Kelly said as we walked slowly side by side, her arm in mine. “You guys sounded so good together”.
“I was full of good intentions about throwing in a couple of your favourite Bruce Cockburn pieces”, I replied, “but it just didn’t happen; sorry”.
She shook her head; “No, I didn’t even notice. Tonight was about you and Owen and the music you used to play together. By the way, that guitar of his sounded really awesome; what is it?”
“It’s a 1972 Fylde Oberon; they’re a handmade guitar, built in the Lake District. Owen’s really lucky to have it; an uncle of his bought it and then got into electric guitars and lost interest in acoustics, so he sold it to Owen for about half what he paid for it”.
“What is that room, anyway? It’s too big to have been a living room, isn’t it?”
“My dad thinks that when the house was first built it was a sort of small ballroom, used for country dances and that sort of stuff. If I remember rightly, when we first got the house in 1969 there was a carpet on the floor of that room, but at some point, in about 1975 or 76, Mum had the carpet taken up; maybe she put a new wooden floor in, too, I don’t remember. When Becca was little Mum only had a few piano students, but later on she took a lot more. She’s always used that room for her piano lessons”.
“You and Owen must have played in there sometimes?”
“We usually played music at his house rather than mine, but after Wendy started singing with us we sometimes used that room for practices; Wendy liked the sound we got with the bare wooden floor”.
We walked in silence for a couple of minutes, listening to the sound of the leaves rustling in the treetops in the gentle evening breeze. Then she said, “Are you going to see Wendy at all while we’re here?”
“We haven’t got any up to date address information for her. Owen sent her a wedding invitation care of University College, London, but he never heard anything back, so he doesn’t know whether or not she received it; personally, I doubt it. That’s a big university with thousands of students; I doubt if a letter addressed to one of the students and just sent to the general office would actually be forwarded to anybody”.
“Probably not”. She hesitated, then asked, “Are you disappointed?”
“I wouldn’t have minded if tonight had been a threesome”, I replied; “Wendy’s got a really beautiful voice, and I would have liked it if you could have heard her singing with us. But as for getting together with her – well, she’s obviously decided that she wants to move on, and, to tell you the truth, I’m pretty happy to have moved on too, Miss Reimer!”
She laughed and laid her head against my shoulder for a minute; “Good to know” she said.
We spent a quiet two weeks at my parents’ house between the weddings. Kelly and I made a couple of trips; we spent a day in London so that she could see some of the sights, and we also spent two days tramping around Oxford together. She was particularly interested in seeing the places I had told her about, so I took her to see the college Owen and I had both attended, Lincoln, and we walked down to Jericho and had a drink at the ‘Plough and Lantern’, although it turned out that Bill Prentiss was away that day, so she didn’t get to meet him. I showed her the house on Victoria Road in Summertown where we had lived before we moved to Northwood, and, as she had asked, I took her walking on Port Meadow where Rick and I had often wandered with my mother when we were little boys. It didn’t take long for her to fall under the spell of Oxford, and we spent our second day there just exploring, looking into any college that would let us in, having coffee in coffee shops and lunch at the Eastgate Hotel, walking the perimeters of Christ Church Meadow and Addison’s Walk, and ending with a visit to the University Church, St. Mary the Virgin.
I soon realized that Kelly had really taken to the English countryside. She loved the fact that you could walk for a couple of miles, come to another village, stop for a cup of tea or a drink in the pub, and then walk back again. She loved the deep green of the trees and hedges, the thatched cottages and the grey stone houses, the narrow country lanes and the public footpaths through the fields. That August was one of the warmest and driest on record, and we went out walking for a couple of hours almost every day.
Becca’s fourteenth birthday was on August 13th; she had a party at the house to which several of her friends were invited. Rick and his new bride were still away on their honeymoon, but Kelly and I were there, and Becca seemed happy to have us. Unusually, my father was home on time that night, but he didn’t really take part in the conversation around the table, which was of course dominated by the back and forth between Becca and her friends. A couple of them were people I knew, especially Stevie Fredericks who had been friends with Becca from their earliest days in primary school together.
During the summer most of my mother’s piano students took a break, but she did have one or two who came occasionally. Kelly, however, was quite fond of classical music and enjoyed hearing her play, and so from time to time they would sit in the back room together while my mother went through some of the pieces in her classical repertoire. Rick and Becca and I had all been taught to play the piano when we were young; Becca was still taking lessons, and sometimes in the evenings we would hear her playing. She liked her privacy while she was practising, though, and she kept the door to the back room closed while she was using it.
A couple of nights after Becca’s party I was helping my mother clean up and wash the dishes after supper; when we were done, I went back to the living room to look for Kelly, only to find my father sitting alone reading his newspaper. “Did Kelly go upstairs?” I asked.
He shook his head; “I think she went out into the garden”.
I frowned; “Is everything okay?”
“Of course; why wouldn’t it be?”
I shrugged; “She usually tells me what she’s up to, that’s all. I’ll go and find her”.
Outside, the air was warm and humid, and I noticed that the clouds were gathering on the western horizon; there might be rain to cool things down tonight, I thought. There was no sign of Kelly in the garden, so I went through to the apple orchard, then followed the path through the trees until it came to the clearing in the wood, and the shore of the little lake. There was a small jetty there, and a couple of benches under the trees on the far bank, and Kelly was sitting on one of them. She saw me and waved, and I wandered around the shore toward her. As I got close I saw to my surprise that she had tears in her eyes. “Kelly – what’s the matter?” I asked, sitting down beside her and putting my arm around her.
She put her head down on my shoulder; “I’m just being stupid, that’s all”, she replied.
I kissed her forehead; “You are the most un-stupid person I’ve ever met in my entire life”, I whispered. “Come on – what is it?”
She sighed; “It’s just that I can’t win with your dad, no matter how hard I try”.
I felt a sudden surge of anger; “What did he say to you?” I asked.
“It was nothing, Tom; there’s no need to make a big deal out of it”.
I put my hand on her cheek and tilted her head so that I could look into her eyes. “Well, it obviously is a big deal; you don’t get upset easily. Please, tell me”.
She shook her head. “I was just trying to make conversation with him in the living room, that’s all, and at one point I asked him if he was going to be able to come out for our wedding”.
“What did he say?”
“He said he was sure I was a delightful girl, but he wasn’t going to pretend he was glad you and I were getting married. He said he never wanted you to move to Canada, and he always thought you were making a big mistake, and he’d always hoped you would come to your senses and move home. So he said he didn’t like the fact that you’re now making stronger ties with Meadowvale by marrying me, and joining yourself to my family’”.
I shook my head angrily; “Unbelievable!” I exclaimed, getting to my feet. “I’m going to go back there right now and have this out with him, and make sure he apologizes to you!”
She grabbed my hand; “Tom, sit down”, she said. “Please, listen to me, and don’t react in anger. Remember everything we’ve been learning”.
“But he had absolutely no right to talk to you like that!”
“Please, Tom, sit down”.
I sat down again, my hand still in hers. “I should never have brought you here and put you through this”, I said
“Don’t be silly!” she replied; “I’m having a wonderful time with your mom, and I’m getting on pretty well with Becca, too”.
“But my dad…”
“Your dad is who he is, and I’ve got to learn to deal with that. I’m not angry, Tom. Yes, I admit, he hurt me, and I’m sad and disappointed, and I have to learn to accept the fact that there are some people I just can’t win over, no matter how hard I try. But what are we going to do – move out and go over to Owen’s? That won’t help; your mom and Becca will be hurt, and your dad will just get angrier”.
“You’re probably right, but that doesn’t make it any easier”.
“If things here had been easier, you would have stayed here and not moved to Meadowvale, and we would never have met, and I wouldn’t be about to marry you – which is a thought that’s so horrible I don’t even want to try to imagine it”.
I stared at her; “I never thought of that. Well – I guess maybe I should be thanking my dad, shouldn’t I?”
She leaned forward and kissed me. “Hold me, please”, she whispered; “I love you so much”.
“I love you too”.
We sat together in silence for a few minutes, our arms around each other; I was enjoying the smell of her hair and the warmth and closeness of her body. Eventually I heard her say, “Fifty-two days to go”.
“Fifty-two, is it?”
“Yeah”. She looked up and grinned sheepishly at me; “I’ve got a little calendar in my wallet, actually”.
“You made a countdown calendar?”
“I did. For each day it gives the date, and the number of days to our wedding”.
“I wish it was tomorrow”.
“I wish it was today!”
We both laughed, and then I saw her looking over my shoulder toward the path back to the house. “Becca’s here”, she said.
I turned, and saw my sister on the far side of the lake; Kelly beckoned to her, and she walked slowly around the shore toward us. “Sorry if I’m interrupting”, she said when she got closer; “I can go away if you want”.
“Of course not!” Kelly replied; “Come and sit with us”.
I moved over a little to make room for her, and she sat down beside me; “Did one of you have a fight with Dad?” she asked.
I glanced at Kelly, and she nodded and said, “I wouldn’t exactly call it a fight; he and I were talking in the living room, and he said some things that I found a little hurtful”
“I heard him and Mum talking about it in the kitchen when I went past”, Becca said; “he was on one of his rants about how stupid you had been to move to Meadowvale, Tommy, and how he was unhappy that you were settling down there with Kelly. I couldn’t believe he was saying those things. He was going on and on about it to Mum; of course she was trying to calm him down and defend you at the same time”.
“Sounds like you got a good earful”, I said.
“Yes; I listened for a minute and then I went in and told him what I thought”.
I stared at her; “You did what?”
“Well, I really didn’t like what he was saying”. She looked at Kelly; “You don’t deserve that”, she said; “If he can’t see that you’re a good thing, then he’s the stupid one!”
Kelly smiled; “Thanks”, she said. She looked down for a moment, and then said, “I know October’s school time, but I’m still really hoping you can come to the wedding”.
“I want to come. I’ll try talking to Mum about it”.
“Good, because I want you to be in the wedding party”.
“Like, as a bridesmaid, you mean?”
“Yeah. Tom and I each have three people standing up with us. He’s got Owen, and my brother Joe, and our friend Glenn Pickering; I’ve got my cousin Brenda, and my sister Krista, and I’ve been saving the third spot for you”.
“But – you hardly know me”, she replied with a slow smile.
“I know you a little bit, but I know that your brother thinks the world of you, and that’s good enough for me”.
Becca smiled at her. “Thank you”, she said; “that would be fantastic!”
“You’re welcome. And this is not just for Tom, by the way”.
“What do you mean?”
“I have a hunch about you and me”.
“What kind of a hunch?”
“Well, you’re right, I don’t know you very well yet, but I think in the years to come that’s going to change. Even though you’ll be in England and we’ll be in Canada, I think you and I are going to be really good friends. At least, that’s what I want”.
Becca smiled again; “I’d like that”.
“Good; that’s settled, then”.
We were quiet for a moment, and then Becca glanced at me and said; “Can we talk?”
I nodded, and Kelly immediately said, “Would you like me to leave?”
“No, I want you to stay”, Becca replied.
We were quiet for a few minutes; my sister was staring out over the lake, her elbows on her knees. Eventually she spoke softly; “I understand why you had to go away, Tommy, but I hated you for it”.
She sat back in the seat, turning to face me. “Dad doesn’t go after me like he went after you and Rick, but he’s tried to push me toward Law as well, and he’s not happy that I’m not interested”.
“What are you interested in?” I asked; “You’ve never told me”.
“I think I might like to be a doctor, actually”, she said quietly, “but I haven’t made my mind up yet”.
“That’s great, Becs; you should talk to Owen about that”.
“Yeah, I’ve thought about him; I wanted to ask him about it last week when he was here, but I never got the chance”.
“Shall I get him to contact you?”
“Maybe”. She looked away again; “One thing I do know – I don’t want to study in Oxford”.
She shook her head; “I want to get as far away from here as I can”.
“Well, there are lots of universities out there”.
We lapsed into silence again for a minute, and then she said, “Why did you lie to me, Tommy?”
“I didn’t lie to you”.
“You did. You told us all you were moving to Reading”.
“Well, I didn’t specifically lie to you”.
“Yes, you did”.
I looked away for a minute, conscious of Kelly sitting silently beside me, her hand in mine. Then I said, “Yes, I suppose you’re right; I did lie to you”.
“I trusted you completely; I never thought you would lie to me. That night in the living room when you told us all that you were moving to Canada, it was a total shock to me. I felt like I’d suddenly discovered that your face wasn’t really your face; it was just a mask that you’d been wearing, and underneath was a completely different person I didn’t even recognize.
“I knew how lucky I was, you know?” she continued. “I didn’t know many other girls who who were as close to their big brothers as I was. I knew you liked being with me as much as I liked being with you; I knew I could always count on you to help me and back me up. And I tried to do the same for you, too”.
“You’re still doing it”, I said quietly.
She turned to face me, and I could see that she was close to tears. “Why didn’t you tell me, Tommy?” she asked.
I looked at her for a moment, trying to choose my words carefully, but then I suddenly remembered Kelly telling me to speak my heart, and I said, “I was scared, Becs”.
“Scared of what?”
“I knew that you’d be really, really upset if you knew I was going to move to Canada. I thought you wouldn’t be able to hide that, and that Mum and Dad would notice, and they’d get the story out of you. I knew that if Dad once found out, he’d find a way to stop me leaving. I had to have everything ready, every detail in place, and I couldn’t risk him finding out about it until it was so close to the day I was leaving that there was nothing he could do to stop it”.
“But I wouldn’t have told anyone; you know I would have kept your secret”.
“Oh, I knew you wouldn’t have done it intentionally; I never questioned that. But like I said, I thought you’d be so upset that you wouldn’t be able to hide it. But I was wrong, I know I was wrong”. I found myself blinking back the tears. “This thing has haunted me for the past two years, Becs. I was wrong, and you have every right to be angry with me; I should have taken the risk, even if it meant that Dad would have found out. I should not have lied to you, no matter how scared I was; you didn’t deserve that. I’m so, so sorry”.
She looked up at me for a moment, biting her lower lip, and then we were holding each other close, both of us crying. “I’m sorry too”, she said through her tears; “I’m sorry I threw away your letters and never wrote back to you. I was so angry with you, Tommy, but I shouldn’t have done that. I’m sorry”.
I tightened my arms around her. “It’s okay”, I said, kissing the top of her head; “Like I said, you had a right to be angry. I’ve been angry with myself for the last two years, and I’ve been so frustrated because we couldn’t talk it through. I hated that there was this rift between us”.
“That was my fault. I’m sorry”.
“No – it wasn’t your fault. I’m the one who hurt you so badly”.
We were quiet for a few minutes, holding each other; I could feel Kelly’s hand on my back, and I was glad Becca had asked her not to leave. Eventually I kissed my sister on the forehead, and she sat back and smiled at me through teary eyes; “Thank you”, she said softly.
I shook my head; “I’m the one who should be saying thank you”.
“No; I’ve been really scared about having this conversation, but Kelly kept telling me to trust you, that it would be okay. She was right”, she added, glancing at Kelly with a shy smile.
“She’s a very wise woman”, I replied with a grin.
“Yeah, she is”.
Kelly got to her feet and held out her arms to Becca. “Come here”, she said.
Becca got up, and the two of them put their arms around each other and held each other tight. “You know that after Tom and I get married, you’ll always be welcome in our house, right?” Kelly said,
“I know, and thank you; I’m really looking forward to coming over and meeting everyone”. Becca turned to me with a smile; “Kelly’s been telling me so much about her family and friends, I almost feel like I already know them. Especially your mum and dad”, she added, turning back to Kelly; “They sound like really nice people”.
“You’re going to love them”, I replied. “Well, girls, shall we be brave and go back to the house?”
“We should”, Kelly said; “I think your mom’s going to need a hug just about now”.
Owen and Lorraine were married at St. Clement’s on Saturday August 18th. It was a simple wedding, with only two people in the wedding party – me as best man, and Lorraine’s sister Jenny as bridesmaid. All of Owen’s siblings were there – his brother Steve, and his sisters Anna and Fiona. His parents were very happy to see me, and Kelly and I sat and talked with them for a long time at the reception.
We were due to fly home the following week, so Owen and I knew this was going to be the last time we saw each other until they came to Meadowvale for our wedding in October. He and Lorraine left the dance for their honeymoon at about eleven on the Saturday night, but before they left, he and I slipped outside to the parking lot for a few minutes.
“So, you’ve had a pretty good visit after all”, he said.
“Yeah, apart from the usual complications with my dad”.
“Is Kelly okay?”
“She’s fine. She’s been getting on really well with my mum and Becca”.
We were walking slowly together, but now he stopped and turned to face me. “You know how lucky you are, don’t you?” he said.
“With Kelly, you mean?”
“Yes. It’s like you told me: she’s totally honest and straight, and she’s warm and passionate and wise – just so unbelievably wise, far beyond her years. How did you succeed in getting a girl like that? Are you sure you’ve told her the truth about yourself?”
We both laughed, and I said, “You don’t have to tell me how lucky I am. If there is such a thing as luck”.
“Yeah, you’ve landed on your feet, that’s obvious – a good job in a place you like, and Kelly and her family, and becoming a Christian – all in the space of two years. I’m really looking forward to seeing the place and meeting the people”.
“We’re looking forward to having you, too”.
“Well, I need to find Lorraine so we can be on our way”.
We looked at each other for a moment, and then I said, “Thanks for asking me to do this”.
He shook his head; “There was never going to be anyone else”.
“I’m sure Steve would have done a good job”.
“Yeah, but once I started giving one job to a family member, ten others would have lined up”.
I grinned; “I guess so; I think Kelly’s having that problem in Meadowvale; she’s related to half the town”.
“And you will be too, in a few weeks”.
We hugged each other for a moment, and then he said, “Well, Mr. Best Man, are you going to come in and announce that the bride and groom are leaving?”
“I think that’s in my contract, so I’d better do it”.
“Well, let’s go and do it then, because Mrs. Foster and I are looking forward to getting to bed!”
We both laughed again, and then I followed him back into the hall.
Bellowhead recently announced that they are going to bring their eleven-year career to an end (see announcement here). They have been one of the most exciting and innovative young bands performing traditional folk music in the UK today, and I will really miss them.
Here they are with their take on ‘Roll Alabama’.
Here’s Bellowhead’s website. Did I mention that I’m a huge fan?
In a recent interview in ‘Christianity Today’ magazine, Dr. George Wood, General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God in the USA, talks about a conversation he had with a Chinese Pentecostal pastor who, at the age of 75, had restarted a church after four decades of communist opposition and persecution.
He told me that when the church re-started 5 years earlier, he had 30 mostly elderly people. But, in answer to my question, he handed me a book with the names of the adult baptized members of the church hand-written on its pages. As I turned page after page, I learned that Pastor Mung’s church now numbered over 1,500 people. I was astonished at this and asked, “How did this happen?” He smiled and I surmised he thought I had asked a typical American question. After all, we Americans are interested in the techniques of church growth: what books did you read, what conferences did you go to, what strategies did you employ? I’ll never forget his answer: “Well,” he said, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. And we pray a lot.” Then he went on to describe what the Lord had done in that town, including some remarkable healings.
The entire interview is worth reading. In my earlier years as a Christian I was very much influenced by Pentecostal/Charismatic Christianity (Dennis Bennett’s Nine O’Clock in the Morning was the ‘burning bush’ that God first used to get my attention as a young teenager). I’m not so interested in it any more, but I resonated deeply with George Wood’s emphasis on Jesus and prayer.
A few years ago a survey taken among people who had recently started going to church revealed an interesting fact: overall, the new churchgoers were surprised about how hesitant long-time church people were to talk about God. The new churchgoers had assumed that church was all about God; why wouldn’t lifelong church members want to talk about him? And I think this applies all the more to Jesus. We want to talk about service opportunities, action plans, growth statistics, social justice, climate change, pastoral care – all good things, to be sure, and I’ve done more than my share of talking about them. But if the risen Jesus isn’t a living reality to us, how are we any different from social service agencies (apart from being less well-funded?).
No – we have to emphasize what is central to us – Jesus, his life, death and resurrection, and his living presence among us by the power of the Holy Spirit (and if that’s not real to us, then we have some pretty basic problems). And prayer – the way we connect with God, individually and corporately – should surely be our greatest joy, and also our first resort when we’re facing challenges and problems, successes and failures, opportunities and setbacks.
Deep down inside, this is the church growth strategy I really believe in: put Jesus at the centre of our life and message, pray a lot, and teach people to pray. Everything else follows on from that.
I’ve gone through the ‘Meadowvale’ story over the past few weeks and done a rewrite. I will be posting the revised chapters here over the next few months, at the rate of about two a week. The originals are still on this site (go to ‘Meadowvale’ in the sidebar) in case you want to compare! I hope you enjoy them.
Kelly and I took an overnight flight to London Heathrow, leaving on the evening of July 31st and landing early in the afternoon on Wednesday August 1st. The weather was warm and humid when we arrived; the mercury was sitting at about 23º celsius and the skies were mainly clear, with scattered clouds. For the last hour of the journey we had been enjoying spectacular views of the English landscape far below, and Kelly, who was sitting by the window seat, was drinking it all in with her usual infectious enthusiasm.
I knew that she was really looking forward to meeting my mother. She had surprised me one day in early March, when we were cuddling on the couch at her place, by saying, “I had a very nice letter from your mom today”.
“My mum? How did that happen?”
She grinned up at me; “Well, I must admit, I wrote to her first. I sent her a copy of the picture Joe took of you and me after we were baptized, and I wrote her a letter to go along with it”.
“You did, did you?” I replied with a smile. “I bet she appreciated that”.
“Apparently she did”.
“Are you going to show me the letter?”
She hesitated for a moment, and then she said, “I’ve kind of got mixed feelings about that”.
“How do you mean?”
“Well, of course I really don’t want to have secrets from you, and there’s nothing in the letter I don’t want you to see. But on the other hand, I think it might be nice if I kept it between your mom and me. I can’t exactly explain why, but I like the feeling of having direct contact with her, just between the two of us. Kind of like you and my dad, you know? I know it’s not quite the same, because you work for him, but you’re friends too. I know there are things you talk about, and I don’t expect you to repeat every word of it to me; I want you to be able to carry on being friends even when he’s your father-in-law, if you know what I mean?”
I was quiet for a moment, and then I said, “I do; I hadn’t thought of it like that, but that’s a good way of looking at it”.
“Are you sure? Because if you really want to read every word your mom writes to me, I’ll absolutely be okay with that; it’s not about keeping secrets”.
“No, I understand, and you’re right – I know she’ll enjoy it. How about if I just leave it up to you to decide whether you want to show me letters from her when you get them?”
She smiled and kissed me; “Thank you”, she said.
“You’re welcome. So – is there anything in this letter you’d like to share with me?”
“Oh, she said some pretty nice things about you; she told me about how she’d taught you to play the piano when you were a little boy, and how she used to take you for walks in the country. Did you tell me about that, by the way? I can’t remember if you did – I thought it was Owen that first got you into that?”
“Mum used to take Rick and me out for country rambles when we were really young, when we were living in Summertown. Our house wasn’t that far from Port Meadow – that’s an open area immediately west of Oxford, between the river Isis and the Oxford canal, and we often wandered out there. But Owen was the one who introduced me to the countryside around Northwood after we moved there; Mum didn’t know that area, of course, or at least, not at first”.
“Maybe you can show me Port Meadow some time when we’re over there”.
“I’m sure we could do that”.
“I’m making a list, you know”.
“You are, are you?” I replied playfully.
“Yeah. I’ve been writing down the places you mention when you tell me about Oxford and Northwood; I want to be able to visualize them, just like you can visualize Meadowvale and Rosthern and Jasper”.
I kissed her then. “I love you”, I said quietly.
“I love you too”.
My mother was the one who picked us up at the airport on that warm August afternoon. She was standing patiently by the rope barrier in the arrivals area, surrounded by dozens of other people waiting to meet their friends and family members. I saw her immediately, standing toward one end of the crowd; her hair was a little shorter and slightly greyer than I remembered, and she was wearing a light summer dress and sandals. “There she is”, I said to Kelly, and we pushed our baggage cart over in her direction.
The first thing my mother said when she saw me was, “You’ve cut your hair!”
“I decided it was probably time to let go of 1975”, I explained with a grin.
“I was mad at him at first”, Kelly added, “but I got over it”. She held out her arms to my mother; “Hello, Mrs. Masefield; I’m so excited to finally meet you!”
The two of them hugged and kissed each other, and then my mother held Kelly at arm’s length for a moment and looked at her. Kelly was dressed simply, as usual, in faded jeans and a comfortable-looking tee-shirt, and she had tied her hair back in a loose ponytail for the flight.
“Look at you, my dear”, my mother said with a smile; “You look absolutely beautiful!”
“Aw, it’s nice of you to say so!”
My mother turned to me. “Hello, Tom”, she said.
We put our arms around each other and held each other close for a long time; I knew that she had tears in her eyes, because I could feel them on my face. “Thank you for coming home”, she whispered in my ear.
“Well, I had to show off my beautiful bride, you know”.
She released me and stepped back a little, looking from one of us to the other. “Yes, I must admit that when you left, I never dreamt that one day soon you’d be coming back with a lovely girl for us to meet”. She smiled at Kelly again, and then said, “Now, are you hungry or thirsty, or should we get on the road right away? You must be exhausted from your flight!”
“I think we’re all fed and watered, thanks”, Kelly replied; “We’re ready to leave whenever you are. How long does it take?”
“About an hour and fifteen minutes”, my mother said.
“That’s pretty much exactly what it takes to drive from the airport in Saskatoon to Meadowvale”, Kelly observed with a grin.
I told Kelly to sit in the front of the car beside my mother, while I sat in the back. She had slept on the flight, so she was comparatively fresh; I, on the other hand, was feeling quite weary, and I knew I’d be lucky to make it all the way to Northwood without dropping off to sleep.
“So we don’t actually go through London on the way to Northwood, then?” Kelly asked as my mother steered the car onto the motorway.
“No”, my mother replied, “and we don’t go through Oxford at the other end of the trip, either. Heathrow’s west and a little south of the City, and Northwood’s southeast of Oxford, so we take the shortest route between them. We’ll be going past Windsor Castle in about ten minutes, though; that’s one of the Queen’s residences”.
“Do you think she’ll be there?”
“I expect not, at this time of year; if she’s not off somewhere on official business, she’ll probably be up in Scotland”.
“The royal family have another house up there”, I explained.
I knew instinctively what Kelly would be thinking about that, because the passage from the gospels we had read on the plane had included Jesus’ words about people who had two coats giving to those who had none. In the months since our baptism she had become even more committed to living as much as possible by what she read in the words of Jesus; we often talked about how much we wanted to live a fairly simple life, uncluttered with lots of possessions.
“Might have to make an exception about guitars, though”, I had said to her once.
“Yeah. I like those Larrivées that your friend Bruce Cockburn plays. I’m thinking I might like to get one before too long”.
“But you already have a guitar!”
“Yes, and I like it a lot. But the Larrivée has a different sound than the Martin – they’d compliment each other, you know? They’re different instruments, really”.
She shook her head with a grin; “Is this where we part company with Jesus?” she asked.
“Jesus”, I replied mischievously, “would play a Larrivée!”
“Maybe, but he’d give away his Martin first!”
“So we’re heading up to Edinburgh tomorrow, then?” I asked as we passed Windsor Castle off to our left and headed west toward Oxfordshire.
“Yes, sorry it’s so close to your flight, but we didn’t want to leave it until Friday, with the wedding being on Saturday”.
“And they’re getting married at St. Giles’ Cathedral?”
“That’s rather grand, isn’t it? How did that come about?”
“I think Alyson’s family have some connection there; I don’t know if they’re regular churchgoers, though”.
“Is that a very old church?” Kelly asked.
“Fourteenth century, I think”, my mother replied.
Kelly looked at me over her shoulder and smiled; “A little older than Meadowvale Mennonite Church, then!” she said.
“And many times larger, I think” I replied. “So, Mum, are we staying at a hotel or something, or with Alyson’s family?”
“Oh no, we’re not staying with her family; I think they’ll probably have lots of company of their own. Your dad’s made hotel reservations for us close to the cathedral; your aunts and uncles are all coming, and your grandparents, and some of the cousins as well, so we take up a rather large space in the hotel”.
Kelly smiled back at me again; “You’ll have to help me out with the names”, she said.
“Some of them I’ll barely recognize”, I replied. “We’ve seen quite a bit of Auntie Brenda, Mum’s sister, over the years, because she and Uncle Roy live in Oxford. But my dad two brothers and a sister, all of them married and with children, and we’ve never really seen much of them”.
“Well, they’re almost all coming”, my mother said, “so you’ll see a lot of them over the next two or three days”.
“Are we driving, or taking the train?”
“Oh, no – we’re flying. It’s about four hundred miles by road, so with a couple of stops it would probably be at least an eight hour trip. We decided to save our energy and book a hire car for when we get to Edinburgh”.
“You’ll have to let me know how much I owe you for those plane tickets, Mum”.
She shook her head; “No need for that; we’re just glad to have you with us”.
“That’s very kind of you”, Kelly said; “thank you very much”.
“Oh, you’re most welcome, my dear”. My mother gave Kelly a sideways glance; “Not that an eight hour drive would scare you, I’m sure; how long did it take you to drive home when you were in Jasper?”
“Well, it’s about six hundred miles, so if I didn’t stop at all, and if the roads were good, I could do it in about nine hours. But in the wintertime you can’t go as fast, and I usually stopped a couple of times for a break”.
My mother shook her head; “We’ve got no idea of distances in this country”, she said.
Eventually I dropped off to sleep in the back of the car, while my mother and Kelly carried on a steady conversation in the front. I didn’t wake up until the car began to slow down on the edge of Northwood.
I had warned Kelly about my parents’ house; it had twenty rooms, a spiral staircase, a servants’ wing in the back, and an old stable block, which my father had converted into garages and workspaces. The grounds included two large gardens, an apple orchard, a sizeable wood and a small lake (“or a large pond”, I said to Kelly, “depending on how you look at it!”). Several fields were also attached to the house; my father rented them out to a local farmer and made a good income from the rent money.
My mother pulled the car into the courtyard at the side of the house; the old stable block was off to our left and the house itself on our right. Turning off the ignition, she smiled at us both; “Well, here we are”, she said.
I glanced at my watch; it was just after 4.15 p.m. “Who’s home?” I asked.
“Your dad won’t be home for a couple of hours yet; he’s working today. I think Becca’s here somewhere; she knew I was going to pick you up this afternoon”.
We got out of the car, my mother unlocked the boot, and Kelly and I lifted out our two bags and my guitar case. “How is Becca?” I asked.
“She’s alright, I think. I don’t think she’ll be so completely rude as to refuse to talk to you, but please don’t be disappointed if she seems very cold”.
I shook my head. “I’m not worried; she’ll come around”.
“I hope you’re right”.
We followed my mother into the house through the side door. “This is the old servants’ area”, I explained to Kelly. “The kitchen’s here on our right, because of course when this house was built in the eighteenth century the servants would have done all the cooking”.
“You don’t have servants, then, Mrs. Masefield?” Kelly said with a twinkle in her eye.
My mother laughed; “No, just a home help who comes in once a week to help me clean the place. I’ll put the kettle on for a cup of tea, shall I?”
“That would be great!” Kelly replied.
“Tom, can you find your way up to your rooms? You’re in your old room, of course, and Kelly’s in the first room in the back wing”.
“You”, I said to Kelly with a grin, “are in the servants’ block!”
“We’ve fixed it up quite nicely, though”, my mother added.
I led Kelly out into the hallway, where we spent a minute admiring the spiral staircase as it swept up to the first floor. “I guess you probably had some fun sliding down that, eh?” she said.
“When no one was watching. Rick fell off once and bruised the back of his head quite badly”.
“Ouch! Was he okay?”
“Yeah, he was lucky, but that was the end of sliding down the staircase”.
I led her up the stairs to the spacious front landing; “This is the main part of the house”, I said, “and my door’s the one in front of us here. The other rooms are off to the right; Mum and Dad’s is the one at the far end, right at the front of the house. Your room’s through this doorway on our left; there’s another corridor behind it”. I put my bag and guitar case down outside my own door; “Here, I’ll show you the way”, I said.
Kelly’s room had been beautifully redecorated as a guest room; the ceilings were lower in this part of the house, and the window had a good view out over the apple orchard. The wallpaper was quiet and tasteful, the curtains at the window simple and elegant; the single bed had a polished antique wood headboard, with a matching bedside table on the window side.
“This is nice”, she said, putting her bag down on the bed. “Can I see yours?”
As we went back out onto the landing a door opened a little further along, and my sister stepped out and turned to face us. I noticed immediately how tall she was; she had been almost twelve when I had left, and I knew that in a few days she would be turning fourteen. She had let her hair grow long, and was dressed in jeans and a loose tee-shirt.
“You’re here, then”, she said to me.
I nodded; “It’s good to see you”, I said. “Are you okay?”
“I’m okay”. She stepped forward and held out her hand to Kelly; “You must be Kelly”, she said.
Kelly took the hand that was offered to her, gave a warm smile and said, “And you must be Becca; I’ve really been looking forward to meeting you”.
“Yeah; your brother talks about you all the time”.
“That’s nice. Is he about to show you his room?”
“Yeah; I’ve heard a lot about this house since he and I met, so I’m glad to finally see it”.
“He talks about home, does he?”
“Yes, he does”, Kelly replied quietly.
Becca looked away for a moment, her hands in her pockets, before smiling brightly at Kelly and saying, “Well, I’ll see you later; I’m going out to meet a friend for a while”. She glanced at me, and I realized that she barely had to look up to me anymore. “You cut your hair”, she said.
“I was starting to feel a little old-fashioned”.
“It doesn’t look too bad”.
She turned and ran lightly down the spiral staircase. Kelly smiled at me, and then put her hand on my arm; “She talked to you”, she said softly.
“It’s a first step”.
“Yes. She’s not okay, though”.
“I know, Tom”.
“I just wish I could put my arms around her and tell her I’m sorry and ask her to forgive me, but I know her too well to spring that on her”.
She leaned forward and kissed me on the cheek. “Will you let me help?” she asked gently.
“Of course; what did you have in mind?”
“Well, there’s obviously a great big hurdle she has to get over before she can really talk with you, but she and I don’t have any history. And, you know”, she added, “I’m not bad at making friends with people!”
“No, you’re not!” I agreed with a smile.
“Well then, maybe I can help bridge the gap?”
I put my arms around her and kissed the top of her head. “Have I told you lately that you’re amazing?” I said.
She laughed softly; “Not in the last couple of hours, anyway!” she replied.
We ate dinner in the dining room that night. I could see that my mother had been unable to resist the temptation to put on a spread for Kelly and me: roast beef, vegetables, and Yorkshire pudding, followed by a sherry trifle for dessert. She had decorated the table with two candles, and there was red and white wine to accompany the meal.
“Killing the fatted calf for the return of the prodigal, are we?” my father observed gruffly.
He had arrived home at about six-thirty, gone straight upstairs to change out of his dark suit into a shirt and slacks, and then come back down to be introduced to Kelly. I knew he had just turned fifty-three that summer; he was tall and lean still, but his dark wavy hair had begun to turn decidedly greyer than I remembered, and he was wearing glasses all the time now. He was about the same height as me, but in my imagination he always seemed taller, and despite everything that had happened in the past two years I still felt the apprehension in the pit of my stomach when I saw him.
Kelly, however, was showing no fear at all; she had obviously made a decision to totally ignore any negative vibes at the table, and she talked to everyone with her usual infectious cheerfulness. She was sitting on my mother’s right, and I could see that they had quickly warmed to each other. Early in the meal, after Kelly addressed her again as ‘Mrs. Masefield’, my mother put her fork down with a smile and said, “Kelly, I wish you’d call me ‘Irene’; ‘Mrs. Masefield’ makes me sound like some battle-axe of a schoolmistress!”
Kelly laughed; “Thank God for that!” she exclaimed. “It felt so awkward, but being a foreigner, I’m never sure what’s acceptable and what’s not, you know?”
“Generally speaking, your instinct was correct”, my father observed coldly; “We don’t usually address people by their first names until we get to know them better”.
“But Kelly and I have been writing to each other for months, Frank”, my mother said; “We’re far from being strangers to each other”.
He didn’t reply, but Becca said, “Do people in Canada always call each other by their first names?”
“I can’t really speak for the rest of Canada”, Kelly replied, “but in Saskatchewan that’s what we tend to do”.
“Would you have called your schoolteachers by their first names?”
Kelly shook her head; “No; how about you?”
Becca laughed; “We wouldn’t dare!” she exclaimed. “We call them ‘sir’, or ‘miss’, and then we have nicknames for them as well, but we’d never use them to their faces”.
“Do you go to school here in the village?”
Becca shook her head; “We only have a primary and an elementary school here. The high school’s in Wallingford; I ride the bus every day”.
“How far is Wallingford?” Kelly asked.
“Not too bad, then”.
“I don’t like it in the wintertime”.
“My dad grew up on a farm in Spruce Creek, which is about fifteen miles north of Meadowvale”, Kelly said. “He was born in 1930, and when he was a kid they went to a one-room log schoolhouse, about five miles away from my grandparents’ farm. In the winters when he was very little my grandpa used to take the kids to school in a cutter”.
“What’s a cutter?” Becca asked.
“It’s a sled built to carry passengers; it’s not too big, so it’s usually drawn by just one horse. In the wintertime they warmed up rocks on the wood stove in the farmhouse, wrapped them in blankets and took them in the cutter to keep their feet warm. It got really cold in those days; they often had minus forty degree weather in the middle of the winter”.
“Minus forty degrees!” Becca exclaimed; “How did people not freeze to death?”
“They dressed well, and they cut lots of wood for the wood stoves in their houses”.
“Did you grow up out there on the farm too?”
Kelly shook her head; “My dad left the farm and became a schoolteacher. I was born in Rosthern, which is where he was teaching at the time, but we moved back to Meadowvale when I was six, and my dad bought a place in town. My Uncle Hugo has the old farm now, the one my grandparents used to work”.
“We go out there pretty often”, I added; “Kelly keeps her horse out there, so she likes to go and keep him company”.
“You ride?” my father asked.
“I do”, Kelly replied; “I’ve been riding for as long as I can remember”.
“I rode a bit when I was a boy”, he said; “Haven’t done it for years, though”.
“Tom rides too”, Kelly said.
My father looked at me in surprise; “Since when?” he asked.
“The first Fall I was in Meadowvale, Kelly’s dad took me out to Hugo and Millie’s to help with the harvest. Kelly’s brother Joe encouraged me to get on a horse, and I liked it”.
“You’re lucky”, Becca said to me; “I’d love to learn to ride, but of course it’s really expensive”.
“If you want riding lessons, just ask”, my father said; “I’ll pay for them for you”.
“Are you going to come out to our wedding?” Kelly asked Becca.
Becca frowned; “I haven’t really decided yet”.
“Well, if you do, I’ll take you out to Uncle Hugo’s and give you some riding lessons. He’s got five or six horses, including one or two good ones for beginners”.
Despite herself, Becca smiled: “I’d like that”, she said.
“It’s in school time, isn’t it?” my father observed. “A bit difficult for her to get time off school to go out there for a wedding”.
“Yeah, sorry about that”, Kelly replied; “Tom and I were trying to avoid the summer, because of all the weddings here. And then, Thanksgiving weekend’s a special time for us”.
“Why?” Becca asked.
Kelly put her hand on mine; “That’s when we met, two years ago”.
“How did you meet?”
“My mom and dad hosted a big family Thanksgiving supper at their house, with my brother and sister and a few aunts and uncles and grandparents. I was home from Jasper for Thanksgiving, and my dad invited Tom to join us for the meal”. She grinned at me; “He had very long hair and a beard, and I thought he looked exactly like a hippy; when I found out he played the guitar, that made it even better”.
Becca glanced across at me; “You look different with short hair”, she said. “Are you going to shave the beard, too?”
“I’m not sure yet. Kelly wants me to keep it for our wedding, but I’ve been thinking about taking the sides off and just having a goatee”.
Kelly shook her head fiercely; “Not going to happen!” she said.
I shrugged at Becca; “I guess the beard’s staying”, I said.
We took a noon flight out of Heathrow the next day, landing in Edinburgh at about one-thirty in the afternoon. My father had arranged a car rental for us, and he drove us into the city, my mother sitting beside him in the front, and Kelly and I sharing the back seat with Becca. We were booked into a hotel on Princes Street with a fine view of Edinburgh Castle up on the hill.
Kelly and I were in adjoining rooms; they were spacious and elegantly furnished, with queen sized beds, comfortable chairs and coffee tables, thick carpets, en suite bathrooms, and excellent views of the castle from the windows. She came through to my room while I was unpacking my bag. “This looks kind of ritzy”, she said.
“Yes, my dad doesn’t know how to live on the cheap”.
“Do you think you pay more for a room with a view?”
“I’m sure you do”.
She went across to the window and gazed up at the castle. “Do you think we’ll have time for some sightseeing?” she asked.
“I think we probably will. There’s just that supper with Alyson’s family tonight, but as far as I know there’s nothing on tomorrow before the rehearsal”.
“I’m not sure we’ll be able to accommodate your mom in quite this kind of style when she comes to Meadowvale”.
I came up behind her, put my arms around her, and kissed her neck. “Mum won’t worry, Kelly; she’ll be so glad to be with us, she won’t even notice”.
“Your mom and dad are so different from each other”.
“Yes, they are”.
She turned around in my arms, reached up and kissed me, and held me tight. “That door between our rooms is going to be a temptation”, she said quietly.
“Yeah”. She gave a little sigh; “I’m looking forward to it, Tom”, she whispered.
“Me too”. I grinned; “Remember what you promised me?”
“I do”, she replied mischievously, looking up at me with laughter in her eyes. “I said that after we got married, you could have all the sex you wanted!”
“I like the sound of that!”.
She reached up and kissed me on the lips; “So do I”, she said.
Rick’s future in-laws lived on a country estate a couple of miles west of Edinburgh, with fine views of the Firth of Forth from its front windows. The house was an imposing property set on a hillside, surrounded by woodlands rising up to a ridge behind. My father pulled his car up to the front of the property, and he was immediately met by a man in a jacket and tie. “If you give me your keys, I’ll park your car, sir”, he said.
“Thank you”, my father replied as we got out.
“What is this place?” Kelly whispered to me.
“The home of my brother’s future in-laws, apparently”, I replied softly.
Inside, we were led into a wide entrance hall, with plush carpeting, antique furniture and paintings, and a wide staircase leading up to the first floor landing. Rick and his fiancée Alyson were there to meet us, along with an older couple who I saw immediately must be Alyson’s parents. My brother shook my hand with a smile; “Welcome back to civilization!” he said; “Did you have a good trip?”
“Fine, thanks; not quite sure what time of day it is right now, though”.
“Of course; seven hours’ difference, is it?”
“I think you met Alyson once, didn’t you?”
“I did”, I replied, shaking hands with the waif-like dark-haired girl beside him; “He brought you home a couple of times before I left for Canada, if I remember rightly”.
She nodded; “I remember”, she said in a gentle Scottish accent; “it’s nice to see you again, Tom”.
“Can I introduce my fiancée, Kelly Reimer? Kelly, my brother Rick and his fiancée, Alyson Mackenzie”.
Kelly shook hands with them both, but she seemed uncharacteristically subdued, and I realized to my surprise that she was intimidated by the grandeur of her surroundings. She and I had packed lightly for our trip to England and had only brought one formal outfit each, which we were saving for the weddings, so we were dressed in our normal casual clothes, in contrast to our hosts, whose clothes were obviously very expensive, even though they were designed to look informal.
“Tom”, my brother said, “this is Alyson’s father and mother, Douglas and Moira Mackenzie. Douglas and Moira, this is my older brother Tom”.
Douglas Mackenzie was tall and thin, with steel grey hair. He shook my hand firmly and said, “You’re the one that got away, aren’t you?”
“The one that got away?”
“Weren’t you supposed to be the one that went into the family legal practice? Or did Rick misinform me?”
“No, he’s right, that was the plan, but now I’m a schoolteacher in Canada”.
“Do you like it?”.
“Very much. Let me introduce you to my fiancée, Kelly Reimer”.
He shook Kelly’s hand with a smile; “So you’re from Canada, are you?”
“I am”, she replied.
“And what do you for for a living?” he asked.
“I’m a geriatric nurse”, she said.
“Ah”. He turned to my father; “Frank – welcome to Glennallen, it’s great to see you again! How’s business these days?”
“Doing well, thank you, Douglas”, my father replied, giving the other man a hearty handshake.
“Come on through and have some drinks, everyone”, Moira Mackenzie said.
We followed them through the hall toward a doorway opening onto an elegantly-furnished living room. Kelly put her hand on my arm; “Glennallen?” she whispered.
“Apparently the house has a name”.
“Tom, you never told me about any of this!”
“That would be because I didn’t know”.
“I’m certainly being put in my place, aren’t I?”
I stopped and took her hand. “Excuse us just a minute”, I said to my mother; “We’ll be right with you”.
The others went into the living room, with Becca glancing momentarily at us before she went through the double doors. I turned to Kelly, took her hands in mine and kissed her on the forehead. “I am proud”, I said, “more proud than I can say, to have you with me today”.
She nodded; “I know, and I love you, but I’m getting an eye-opener about how your parents must see me. I’m not much of a catch for their oldest son, compared to all this”.
I shook my head; “That is nonsense!” I exclaimed. “What do you care what my father thinks of you? He thinks all this is real, Kelly! He’s totally deluded about what’s important and what’s not, and you know it. As for my mum, she loves you already, and even Becca thinks you’re cool. Just go in there tonight and be your usual warm and beautiful self; I’ll be cheering for you”.
She gave a little sigh, and reached up and kissed me on the cheek. “I’m being silly, I know, but that man made me feel about two feet tall, Tom! ‘What do you do for a living?’ ‘I’m a geriatric nurse’. ‘Frank, welcome to Glennallen – great to see you again’. That message came through loud and clear”.
At that moment my mother slipped out into the hall. “Sorry”, she said, “I don’t mean to intrude, but is everything alright”.
“We’re fine”, I replied.
Kelly shook her head; “I’m the one that should be apologizing, Irene; I’ve never seen anything like this before, and it just totally freaked me out, that’s all. I’m just being silly, and now I’m going to stop”.
My mother smiled, put her hand on Kelly’s arm, and kissed her on the forehead. “You’ve got absolutely nothing to be ashamed of”, she said. Then, dropping her voice to a whisper, she continued, “between you and me, I think Douglas Mackenzie is a pompous ass, but I’ll never admit to it until Rick is safely married to his daughter, who is actually rather sweet, despite her parents”.
Kelly laughed; “You are delightful, you know that?” she said.
“Thank you! Now – will you join us?”
Kelly nodded defiantly; “I will!” she said with a grin.
We had a four-course meal in an elegant dining room, with waiters on hand to serve the food and pour the drinks. We were joined at the table by Alyson’s older sister Sheila and her husband Alistair Cameron, who, we were told, was in the banking business. I found myself seated to the right of Alistair, but after a few exchanges he lost interest in me and spent the rest of the evening talking with his father-in-law, who was seated to his left. Across the table from me, my father was engaging Moira Mackenzie in animated conversation, while Kelly, who seemed to have recovered her composure, was talking easily with my brother. Becca was sitting beside me; at one point she leaned toward me and whispered, “This is painful, isn’t it?”
“A little”, I replied quietly; “Just eat your food and think of England”.
She laughed out loud, attracting a couple of surprised looks from people around the table. “Sorry”, she said; “Tommy just made a good joke, that’s all”.
“So, Kelly”, said Douglas Mackenzie in a confident voice; “Tell us about your family; are they originally from Canada?”
“My parents were born in Canada”, she replied, “but my grandparents were kind of like refugees, I guess”.
“Refugees?” he exclaimed.
“Yes. They were Russian Mennonites; they lived in southern Ukraine, near the Crimean peninsula. After the revolution in 1917 they went through a really bad time with the Communists; thousands of people were arrested and taken away and never heard of again. But there was a window of a few years when the Russian government was allowing people to emigrate, and some of the Mennonites were able to take advantage of that. The Canadian government had a program to encourage settlement on the prairies, and so arrangements were made with the Canadian Pacific Railway to allow the Mennonites to travel on credit. My grandparents were among the lucky ones; they came to Saskatchewan in 1924”.
“Some sort of a land giveaway, was it?”
“Well, I suppose, but there was a lot of sweat equity involved. They were giving away quarter-sections of land at a very low price, but this was unbroken land, in a country that had no roads, no communication system, no amenities of any kind. The settlers were expected to clear and work a certain percentage of the land within the first year, as well as building houses for themselves to live in. And when I say ‘clear the land’, I mean take down trees, pick huge rocks from out of the soil with horses and oxen, break up the earth, plough it, plant a crop, and harvest it. And the winters were bitterly cold, with weeks of minus fifty degree weather, and lots of snow. They heated their houses with wood stoves, so they had to go out and cut wood, and care for their animals in all weathers”.
“Quite an achievement, then”.
“I like to think so. In our area the Mennonites settled in Spruce Creek, which is about fifteen miles north of Meadowvale, where we live now; they worked together and helped each other, and they built themselves a log church and a schoolhouse, and hired a teacher for their children”.
“They were very self-reliant, then”.
“Yeah, they were”.
“Are your grandparents still alive?” Moira asked.
“Three of them are; my dad’s mother is eighty-four this year, and both my mom’s parents are in their early eighties”.
“So they’ve told you these stories?” Douglas asked in a slightly quieter voice.
“They have. I love to hear stories from the early pioneers; I think that’s one of the reasons I became a geriatric nurse”.
“You’re obviously very proud of your grandparents”, Douglas observed.
“Yes I am”, she replied; “I think it’s amazing that they achieved what they did”.
“That’s very commendable”, Douglas said. “I don’t often hear young people speak so warmly of the older generation. Good for you”.
“Oh, we’re quite taken with Kelly”, my mother said. “She’s been writing to me for months, you know; I only met her face to face yesterday, but I feel as if we already know each other very well”.
“Is that so?” Douglas replied; “I thought letter-writing was a dying art”.
Kelly grinned; “I’m sure Irene will tell you that the problem with me is to get me to write a short letter; I do tend to go on and on!”
“And very enjoyable it is, too”, my mother replied.
Kelly smiled at her; “Thank you”, she said quietly.
“You go, girl!” I said to Kelly later, when she came to my room to sit and read the Bible with me for a few minutes. “I told you! You were amazing in there!”
“Thanks”, she replied.
“No, thank you! I sat there listening to you, thinking, ‘That’s my fiancée – I’m the lucky man who’s going to marry that amazing woman!’ And of course, everyone in the room was thinking the same thing”.
She laughed; “Now you’re exaggerating!”
“I don’t think so”.
“What were you and Becca laughing about?”
“It was a rather crude joke, actually. She said to me, ‘This is painful, isn’t it?’ and I replied, ‘A little; just eat your food and think of England’”.
She shook her head; “That’s obviously an in-joke”.
“It’s a quote from Queen Victoria, slightly tweaked. It’s something she said in letters to her daughters, giving them advice about sex. She said that they should ‘lie back and think of England’“.
Kelly laughed out loud; “And Becca got the joke?” she said.
“Maybe she’s read the letters!”
The next morning we went off by ourselves for a few hours, walking the streets of Edinburgh and climbing up to see the castle and enjoy the wonderful views of the Firth of Forth. In the afternoon I had a nap for a while, and Kelly went out again with Becca; “We need to do a little sisterly bonding”, she explained to me. “It’ll probably involve ice cream and chocolate”.
“Sounds good. Don’t get lost”.
“I have discovered a wonderful invention”, she replied; “It’s called an ‘A-to-Z Street Atlas!”
“Ah, yes, they are rather good”.
She kissed me on the cheek; “Go lie down; we’ll see you later”.
That evening, after the rehearsal was over, the Mackenzies hosted a buffet supper at the banquet room of our hotel. There were about a hundred people there, from our family and from the Mackenzies; the food was sumptuous, and there was a limitless supply of alcoholic beverages to fuel the conversations. My father seemed to be spending all his time with Alyson’s father, and as I watched them, it suddenly occurred to me that my dad was seriously outclassed here. In the world the Mackenzies moved in, he was a little fish; in their eyes, their daughter was probably taking a big step down in the world by marrying Rick.
Earlier in the evening I had introduced Kelly to my three surviving grandparents. My father’s parents were both eighty and I noticed that they were both looking very frail, especially my grandmother who was in visible pain from arthritis. My grandmother on my mother’s side, however, who was a little younger, was looking very well, and we had an enjoyable conversation with her.
Toward the end of the evening I found myself standing beside my brother in one corner of the room. “What actually is it that Alyson’s father does?” I asked him.
“He owns one of the most successful distilleries in Scotland. Surely you’ve heard of Royal Mackenzie Single Malt?”
“Can’t say I have, but then, I don’t have a lot of experience with single malt”.
“Well, take it from me, he’s very successful, and he’s branched out into other businesses too. He owns the Mackenzie Group”.
“That’s some sort of consortium, is it?”
My brother shook his head; “You live a pretty sheltered life, Tom”, he said.
“You’re right”, I replied, “but I’m happy. How about you?”
“What’s not to be happy about? I’m working at the family firm, making good money, and I’m about to marry the woman I love”.
“You’re glad you went into the Law, then?”
“You’re done your articling now, are you?”
“Yes – I officially became an associate at Masefield and Marlowe back in June. All being well, I should make partner in six or seven years”.
“So you’re going to stay in Oxford? You’re not going to move to London?”
He shook his head; “Dad wants me to stay with the family firm, and I like it better that way too. And it’s not as if London’s not close, if we want to go in and do things”.
“Where are you going to live?”
“Summertown. Actually, we put a down payment on a house there a month ago”.
He laughed; “Not far from there, actually. It’s about a ten-minute walk from our old house”.
“Does the old place still look the same?”
“I honestly haven’t been by it yet, Tom”.
“It’s a pricey time to get into the housing market, isn’t it? What are interest rates like over here right now?”
“Running around 11%; they’ve come down quite a bit from last year”.
“Still, it adds up over twenty-five years, doesn’t it?”
“It does. Fortunately we were able to make a substantial downpayment, so things won’t be too bad for us”.
“Did Dad help you out with that?”
“No – Douglas did, actually”.
“Yes; he made us a rather generous wedding gift”.
“Wow – were you expecting that?”
Rick nodded; “Actually, I was. Sheila and Alistair got married last year, and they told us that Douglas had given them the money for a downpayment on a bigger house. Not that they were short of money; Alistair comes from an old banking family here in Edinburgh”. He glanced at me; “What about you and Kelly?” he asked. “Are you buying a house?”
I shook my head. “Not for a while; Kelly’s been renting a house for the past year that’s just the right size for us, so we’re going to stay there for a while”.
“Helping someone else pay their mortgage?”
“Now you sound like Dad”.
“Maybe so, but I think he might be right on that score”.
I scanned the room, looking at the people sitting at tables, or standing in groups talking to each other, while waiters moved silently across the floor, refilling drinks and removing empties. Over on the far side of the room I saw Kelly sitting on a couch with Becca, their heads close together; I could see that they were deep in conversation, and suddenly I knew where I wanted to be.
“Excuse me, Rick”, I said; “I’m going to go and join Kelly and Becca for a few minutes”.
“Right – see you later”.
Kelly was wearing a light denim skirt and a simple white top that night, and I thought that with her Saskatchewan summer tan she was easily the most beautiful woman in the room. She and Becca looked up as I approached them. “Ladies”, I said; “Do you mind if I join you?”
Kelly looked at Becca; “Do we mind?”
Becca frowned, and then said, “I suppose not”.
I pulled up a hard backed chair and sat down beside them. “Are we having fun?” I asked.
“Not as much fun as we had at the ice cream shop this afternoon”, Kelly replied. “Actually, your sister and I have been having a serious conversation about how much longer we need to stay here”.
“Really? Are you planning a jail break?”
“I think so”.
“Can I join you?”
“Are you done too?”
“I’m so far beyond done, it’s starting to hurt. Do you girls want to come up to my room and watch some TV?”
Kelly looked at me apologetically; “Actually, would you mind if we took a rain check? It’s just that Becca and me…”
“Oh, sorry – have you already got a plan?”
“Some more girl talk”.
“No need to say anything else; I totally understand. Can I at least walk you girls to whatever room you’re planning to do girl talk in?”
“My room”, Kelly replied. “What do you say, Becca?”
“Let’s get out of here”, Becca replied with a mischievous grin.
We slipped quietly out of the room and made our way to the elevators. “That was unbelievably painful!” Becca exclaimed. “There’s something really depressing about watching a room full of rich and successful people getting slowly sloshed while they all try to impress other people they don’t even know, or like!”
I laughed; “Feeling a little merciless tonight, are we?”
“Just a bit”.
We rode the elevator to our floor in silence. I walked with them to the door of Kelly’s room, and as Kelly was taking out her key I said, “Okay, well, I’ll see you girls tomorrow. If you need me for anything, you know where to find me. Is there anything happening in the morning, by the way?”
“Apparently the women are all going out to the hairdressers to do whatever it is that women do to their hair at times like this”, Kelly replied. “But you know me”, she said with a grin as she ran her hand through her long blonde hair; “Wash and wear”.
“Looks pretty good to me”, I said, kissing her on the forehead. “See you in the morning, then?”
Kelly opened the door to her room; “Coming in?” she asked Becca.
“Can you give me a minute?”
“Sure; I’ll leave the door open”.
She went into her room, and then Becca turned to face me. “I like Kelly a lot”, she said.
“I’m glad to hear it”.
“Yes”. She looked down at the floor. “Listen, I know we’ve got to talk, but I can’t quite get there yet, okay?”
“Okay. Let me know when you’re ready; I’ll be here”.
“Thanks”. She looked at me for a moment, then said, “Can I have a hug anyway?”
“Of course you can”. I put my arms around her and held her close, thinking to myself that she was at least a foot taller than she had been the last time I had hugged her. I held her tight for a moment, kissed the top of her head, and said, “It’s so good to see you”.
She released me, stepped back a little, and said, “I’m glad you came, Tommy. Before you go back, we’ll talk; I promise”.
“Okay. Goodnight, Becs”.
The next morning Kelly and I slipped out of the hotel for a while and walked the streets of Edinburgh until we found a modest looking café, where we sat by the window drinking strong tea and eating toast and jam.
“I honestly had to get out of that place”, Kelly said to me. “I just don’t know how to deal with that much ostentation”.
“I know what you mean. You know how you were feeling on Thursday night about how you thought my parents must see you, compared to Alyson?”
“Well, I had a moment like that last night”.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, my father sees that his younger son is well set on the path to a shining legal career at Masefield and Marlowe, and he’s about to marry into one of the wealthiest families in Scotland. Meanwhile, his oldest son is an English teacher in a small town on the Canadian prairies that no one in England has ever heard of. Clearly, in my dad’s eyes, the older son is a dismal failure and the younger son is a shining success”.
“Just so you know”, she replied, “I’m really glad I’m marrying the older son”.
I smiled at her; “Me too”, I said.
“Are you sure you don’t secretly want to marry into the wealthiest family in Scotland?”
“No, I’m kind of partial to the Reimers, actually”.
She laughed; “That’s good!” she said. “I must say, though, I find the Masefields and the Campions quite interesting, too”.
“Do you, now?” I replied with a grin.
“I do. Your Uncle Roy is one of the most laid-back guys I’ve ever met”.
“Roy and Brenda are very special; they haven’t got any children of their own, so they’ve kind of adopted the three of us. Auntie Brenda plays the violin, you know”.
“The violin, not the fiddle?”
I smiled; “She’s a classical musician, like Mum. She plays in a string quartet, and she teaches violin, too”.
“Music really ran in your mom’s side of the family, didn’t it?”
“Yes, it did; Grandpa Campion was a church organist and he taught organ at the university, too”.
“I was talking to a girl called Ann last night; she would have been a couple of years younger than me, I think. She told me she was your cousin, and she’s reading History at Cambridge University”.
“Is she still there? She must be doing a Masters, then; I think she first went up to Cambridge the year I started my PGCE, so she’s been there about four years now. She’s my Uncle Bill’s daughter; he’s Dad’s youngest brother”.
She grinned; “Can you just run me through the aunts and uncles and cousins once more? You talk about them so very rarely, I always forget who’s who”.
“Me too. I see them so very rarely…”
“Please, Tom; this is important to me”.
I looked at her for a moment, and then I said, “Okay. Well, like I told you, my dad has two brothers and a sister. Dad’s the oldest, and Uncle Arthur is next; he’s a career soldier, and the last I heard he was in some kind of a staff position with NATO in Europe”.
She frowned; “I don’t think you ever told me he was a soldier”, she said.
“No, probably not. I suppose I’ve been feeling kind of ambivalent about it since I started hanging around with Mennonites”. I shrugged; “Anyway, he’s married to a woman called Pauline, who we all call Auntie Polly, and they have one son, Charlie, who’s a year younger than Rick. He’s a soldier too, I think; he got married just before I left England to a girl called Nicky, but I don’t know if they’re here yet”.
I took a sip of my tea. “Auntie Sarah comes next”, I said; “She married a guy called Graham Andrews”.
“Oh yeah, your mum introduced me to them last night”.
“They live in London; Uncle Graham’s an engineer or something. They’ve got a son called Gordon who I don’t think is coming to the wedding; he’s just started a new job in the Middle East somewhere. Their other son is Vernon, but he goes by Vern. He’s the rebel in their family; he’s a punk rocker”.
She raised her eyebrows with a grin; “You have a punk rocker in your family?”
“That’s what Mum told me last night; I didn’t know that before. I think the rest of the family sees him as a black sheep or something. Anyway, he lives in London and plays guitar in a punk band; I don’t think they’re especially successful, so he’s just scraping by. He’s not here, either; Mum tells me he was definitely invited, but they didn’t get a response from him”.
“Interesting”, she said with a grin.
“We’re an oddly mixed bunch, aren’t we?”
“You sure are! Is that it for your Auntie Sarah’s family?”
“Yes. And then there’s the youngest, Uncle Bill; he’s a chartered accountant. He’s married to Auntie Joan, and they had three children, but sadly, the middle one died of crib death when she was very young. Ann, the one you met, is the oldest in that family; I knew she was at university but I don’t know what she was studying until you told me just now. And then there’s her little brother David, who I think is still in high school; he must be about sixteen by now”.
“So you’ve got five cousins on the Masefield side, then”.
“Yes; there would have been six, but one died”.
“So including you three there are eight surviving; that’s actually a pretty small family by my standards!”
“I suppose so; I always lose count of yours”.
She laughed softly. “Twenty on the Reimer side”, she said, “although of course we lost Corey, so that makes nineteen; twenty-two, if you add Joe and Kris and me. On the Wiens side, there are fifteen, or eighteen if you include the three of us”.
“Wow; thirty-five. No wonder the guest list for our wedding is so big. And you probably know them all, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I do”, she replied, looking at me with a smile playing around her lips, “and I like most of them, too. Of course, I’m closer to some of them than others”.
“Don and Ruth, and Hugo’s kids”.
“Yeah. It’s actually funny that in Aunt Rachel’s family I’m closest to Don and Ruth, who are older than me. There are two younger kids, too – Steve, who’s my age, and Jean, who’s Krista’s age, but somehow I’m not really close to them”.
“Have I met them?”
“I don’t think so. Steve’s been working in the Alberta oil patch for a few years now, and Jean’s studying Law in Saskatoon. She’s kind of like the way you describe your dad, actually – an overachiever. I don’t think she really knows how to relax”.
“Do they have families?”
I drank some more tea, cradled the mug in my hands, and said, “On a completely different subject, how was your visit with Becca last night?”
“Good; we sat up until about midnight, just talking”.
“Anything you can tell me?”
Kelly shook her head. “She’ll talk to you when she’s ready, Tom. Until then, I need to respect her privacy”.
“I understand. But can I ask, do you feel like you’re getting somewhere?”
“Yeah, I do. And she spoke to you by yourself last night, right, before she came into my room?”
“Very briefly. She told me she knew we had to talk, but she wasn’t ready yet. However, she did ask me for a hug; that was a step in the right direction, I thought”.
Kelly looked at me for a moment, then reached out and put her hand on my arm. “We’re making progress, Tom”, she said; “You just have to be patient”.
“I know; I keep coming back to what I felt when I had my epiphany moment at Myers Lake back in January, when I had such a strong sense that Becca and I would be reconciled”.
“Hang on to that”, she said gently, “but don’t be in a hurry”.
We looked at each other for a minute, neither of us saying anything, and then she smiled and said, “We should probably be getting back soon”.
“Yeah. I’m glad we did this, though”.
“Me too. And this afternoon will be fine, Tom; your family will be themselves, and we’ll be ourselves, and it’ll all be good”.
I took her hand in mine; “You are amazing”, I said quietly. “I can’t wait to marry you”.
“Nine weeks today. It’ll be here before you know it”.
“I love you, Kelly Ruth”.
“I love you too, Thomas Edwin. I love you so much, in fact”, she added, reaching for her purse, “that I’m going to pay for your toast and tea!”
I laughed; “That sounds like a good deal!” I replied.
In the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage in all fifty U.S. states, this old phrase has been making the rounds again: “You can’t control who you fall in love with”.
Well, actually, you can.
In fact, when you get married you promise to do just this. You promise to forsake all others and stay loyal to your marriage partner.
Do you seriously think that you’re never going to be attracted to anyone else? Think again! We’re all living a lot longer these days; the chances are excellent that, at some point in the course of a fifty-year marriage, you’ll be tempted elsewhere. And the experience of a married person falling in love with someone else is very common.
But it didn’t start with love. It started with attraction, and it progressed when we made the choice to allow that attraction, to indulge it, to cultivate it in fact. And that’s when we made the choice to fall in love.
Having a healthy marriage depends on the ability to control who you’re going to fall in love with. If you can’t control that, your chances of making your marriage last are severely diminished. So there may be good arguments in favour of what its proponents call ‘equal marriage’ (I think there are), but this isn’t one of them, and I wish people wouldn’t use it. When it’s believed, it damages all marriages, gay or straight.
So let’s set the record straight. Let’s stop saying helplessly “I can’t control who I fall in love with”. Instead, let’s say “I meant the promise I made on the day of my marriage, and so I am going to learn to control who I fall in love with, because I want my marriage to last”.