When I finished ‘Meadowvale’ it turned out that there were some inconsistencies with ‘A Time to Mend’ (which I wrote first, over ten years ago, even though chronologically it comes after ‘Meadowvale’). So – I’m having another go at ‘A Time to Mend’ to bring it back in sync with ‘Meadowvale’. Here’s the fourth chapter.
Two weeks after my interview, I received an email offering me the position at Gypsy Lane School in Headington. Emma gave me a triumphant high-five when I told her the news; “Back to your old stomping grounds, then?”
“Yeah. It looks like things might have changed quite a bit since the last time I taught there, though”.
“Are you nervous?”
“A little. It’s nearly twenty-one years since I’ve started at a new school”.
“And in a different country, too”.
She gave me an inquiring look; “How do you feel?”
“Mixed feelings, I guess. I think it’s the right thing to do, but I can’t say I’m looking forward to leaving Meadowvale – even for just a couple of years”.
She nodded, looking down at the floor; “I know what you mean”.
I stepped forward and put my arms around her, and for a moment we held each other close. When she looked up at me again, I saw that there were tears in her eyes, and I kissed her gently on the forehead. “I can still say no”, I said softly.
She shook her head. “I know it’s the right thing to do and I’m actually pretty excited about it. But, like you said…”
“Yeah, I know”.
I booked our flights to England for the night of July 31st, arriving in London on August 1st; it did not occur to me until afterwards that this would be twenty-one years to the day since I had first arrived in Meadowvale. It was Will Reimer, my father-in-law, who pointed this out to me. “I still remember you coming into the arrivals lounge that day with your guitar case and your long hair and your scrawny little beard. I don’t mind telling you, I wondered how long you would last in Meadowvale!”
I laughed; “I just remember how hot it was. Hot and dry; I’d never felt anything quite like that before. And I remember having supper at your house that night, sitting out on the back deck with you and Sally, trying to keep my eyes open through the conversation”.
“Yeah – you were doing your best to stay awake but we could see how tired you were”.
“Little did I know how many times I’d be coming over to your place for backyard barbecues in the years to come!”
“Isn’t that the truth? Well then – we’d better have another one before you and Emma leave”.
And so a couple of nights before our move Will and Sally hosted a farewell barbecue for us at their house. Will was seventy-two now; his beard had long since turned white and it took him longer to get up out of a lawn chair, but he was as gregarious as ever and he still loved having company in his spacious back yard during the warm months of summer.
Joe and Ellie were there, along with Jake and Jenna. Jake was working all summer for a local beekeeper, as he had done for the past three years; Jenna, meanwhile, was working as a lifeguard at the local swimming pool and she was as brown as a berry from days spent out under the sun. Ellie brought her fiddle and Jake brought his guitar, and I knew we would have music that night, especially when I saw Darren Peterson arriving with his mandolin and banjo.
Kelly’s younger sister Krista and her husband Steve Janzen came up from Saskatoon with their children Mike and Rachel. Steve worked as a wildlife habitat specialist with the Saskatchewan government, and Krista ran her own consulting business as well as teaching wildlife biology at the university. When our kids were little it was Steve who had first dubbed them ‘the Pack’. Nowadays of course the members of the Pack were all teenagers; Mike was sixteen and Rachel fourteen, and although they lived in Saskatoon they were as close as ever to Emma and Jake and Jenna. The Pack had some honorary members too; Brenda Nikkel’s son Ryan was now twenty and her daughter Jessica was fifteen. They were there that night, along with Brenda’s sister Erika, her husband John Rempel and three of their four children; their youngest son Dustin had graduated with Emma and the two of them were good friends.
Rhonda Janzen had also graduated with Emma; she was the youngest daughter of John and Ruth Janzen. Ruth was the sister of my principal Don Robinson, and John was Steve Janzen’s older brother. He had taken over his father-in-law Mike Robinson’s carpentry business when Mike retired; it had been John who had first gotten Kelly and I interested in Habitat for Humanity, and over the years we had spent many hours working with John and Ruth on Habitat building sites in Saskatoon and down in Mexico.
Glenn and Karla Pickering came to the barbecue with their children Molly and Tommy; Glenn was one of my oldest friends in Meadowvale and we had all been very happy when he had married Ellie Reimer’s sister in 1988. Don and Lynda Robinson were there too, along with their younger daughter Beth Fuhr. Don was Kelly’s cousin; he had been my friend and teaching colleague through all my years in Meadowvale and had taken over as principal at our high school when Will retired. As for Beth, she had not only been Emma’s babysitter, she had also been one of the founding members of an informal youth gathering that met at our house once or twice a month for several years in the 1990s. We had always resisted calling it the church youth group as it was not formally connected to our church; we saw it more as a casual gathering of friends, meeting at their request and discussing issues that were important to them.
Kelly and I had become very fond of all the members of that group, but Beth was special to us and over the years we had become very close to her. Her parents were not churchgoers but her grandmother Rachel Robinson was; she had begun taking her granddaughter to church when she was five, not long after I moved to Meadowvale, and over the years Beth had developed a thoughtful Christian faith of her own. Even though she had lived in Saskatoon for some years we still saw her frequently and made a point of visiting her when we were down in the city. Her accountant husband Greg, however, did not share either her Christian faith or her attachment to the community of Meadowvale; occasionally he came with her when she visited her old home but most of the time she came by herself.
Another member of our old Sunday night group was Megan Neufeld. Megan’s father Rob had been our pastor for most of my years in Meadowvale; he had baptized Kelly and me in February of 1984 as well as officiating at our wedding in October that year. Rob and his wife Mandy now lived in Saskatoon but they made a point of coming up for our farewell barbecue along with Megan and her younger brother Matthew.
Will Reimer’s older brother Hugo and his wife Millie also came. Hugo was seventy-five and he and Millie had been living in town for a couple of years, but he still drove out frequently to the old Reimer farm at Spruce Creek which had been their home for almost as long as I had known them; it was now being worked by their grandson Dan Rempel, John and Erika’s oldest son. Kelly had loved riding horses and when she was eleven Hugo had given her a horse, Jackson, who he had kept out at the farm for her. For many years we had visited out there regularly; I had learned to ride on Hugo’s horses, and so had Emma. Hugo and Millie had become dear friends of mine, along with their daughters Erika Rempel and Brenda Nikkel and their youngest son Donny, who lived in Saskatoon with his partner Alan Chambers. Donny’s coming out as a gay man ten years ago had been a seismic event in the Reimer family, but over time Kelly and I had become very fond of Donny and Alan. They didn’t usually come to large gatherings in Meadowvale, but I was glad they had made an exception for our farewell barbecue.
“Holy crap!” Dan Rempel said to me as he looked around the crowded back yard; “You sure have a truckload of friends!”
“Not bad for a shy introvert, eh?”
“You, an introvert? Surely not; you’re one of the most social people I know”.
“I think you’re confusing me with Kelly. She was the gregarious one; I was just freeloading on her”.
“Well if that’s true you disguised it well”.
“Thanks. You didn’t bring your lovely lady with you tonight?”
“She’s working, unfortunately, and she couldn’t get out of it”. Dan had married Cara Ratzlaff the previous summer; she had been one of my high school students too, a year behind Dan, and she was now working at the Meadowvale Special Care Home.
There were plenty of conversations that night; I wandered around the yard all evening chatting with everyone, and I saw that Emma was doing the same thing, although she also spent a lot of time with Jenna who was her closest friend. Later on the musicians all got together as I had expected, and for an hour we went around the circle playing our songs for each other. The configurations had changed a little over the years; Ellie and Darren, my old musical partners, were now playing much more frequently with Ellie’s son Jake, who was a big bluegrass fan and had become a very good flat picker on his dreadnought guitar. Emma sometimes played along with them too, although she had wider musical tastes than they did. Will Reimer played old classic country tunes, and he and Ellie and I also played gospel songs together; we were still leading the worship music regularly at our church on Sundays, as we had done for the past twenty years. As for me, I found myself more and more playing along with Beth, who had picked up my taste for the traditional folk songs of England and Ireland in a big way. She had long since come out from under my shadow and had been creating her own song arrangements for a couple of years now.
Toward the end of the evening, after the song circle had broken up, Beth came over and gave me a warm hug. “You keep in touch, okay?” she said.
“I will, and so will Emma”.
She looked at me in silence for a moment, and I found myself remembering the little ten year old girl who had heard me play traditional folk songs at a house concert in the summer of 1988, and had started coming over to our place soon afterwards to find out more about folk music. She was now a lovely young woman of twenty-five, dressed casually tonight in jeans and a tee-shirt, her long brown hair tied back under a ball cap. “I’m going to miss playing music with you”, she said quietly.
“I’m going to miss it too. But you don’t need me; you’re doing just fine by yourself now. You’re still playing the piano, right?”
“Oh yeah; Grandma won’t let me quit, and I enjoy it”.
“Can I ask you a personal question?”
“Are you and Greg thinking of having a family any time soon?”
She nodded. “He wanted to wait until he was all finished his accounting degree, but now he’s working full time at the bank…”
“Might not be long, then?”
“Maybe”, she replied with a smile; “Sometimes these things don’t happen to order, so I’ve been told!”
“How’s your dad doing, Tom?”
“He’s having chemo right now; Becca says he’s tired all the time”.
“Are you okay?”
“Most of the time I am, but every now and again I have my moments”.
She looked up at me in silence for a moment, and then she said, “Do you need another hug?”
“Any time you like”.
She put her arms around me again and we held each other close. “We’re all going to miss you”, she said softly.
“I’ll miss you, too”. I stepped back and smiled down at her. “England’s a nice place to visit, you know”, I said.
“Oh – believe me, I’d love to come!”
“And we’d love to have you – you and any little addition you might like to bring with you”.
She laughed, reached up to kiss me on the cheek, and then turned and made her way across the yard to where Emma and Jenna were standing with some of the other young people.
“They grow up fast”, Don Robinson said as he appeared at my side with a half-empty bottle of beer in his hand, watching his daughter as she went up to Emma and put her arms out to give her a hug.
“They sure do”, I replied.
“Do you remember the first time Kelly brought you over to visit Lynda and me, when Amy and Bethie were just small?”
“I do; you never know what’s going to come of small beginnings, do you?”
“Isn’t that the truth?”
“As far as I know; she’s not the best person in the world for keeping in touch. I think Bethie hears from her more often than we do”.
“I haven’t seen your dad for a while; how’s he doing?”
“He’s okay most of the time, I think, although he never says very much”.
“Maybe that’s where Amy gets it from”.
He laughed. “In person, she’s the life and soul of every party she goes to, but when she’s far away…”
“Yeah, I know what you mean”.
He glanced at me; “Don’t you be like that, Tom Masefield”, he said quietly.
“I’ll keep in touch, Don”.
“Make sure you do. That school’s going to be very different without you around”.
Will and Sally drove us down to the city on July 31st; Joe and Ellie and their kids came separately, and we all converged on Steve and Krista’s place for a family meal before going to the airport. I knew Will and Sally well enough to know that they were dreading this parting; nevertheless, Will tried to stay as cheerful as possible as we checked our baggage through to Toronto and then to Heathrow. We had plenty of it; several suitcases and boxes, as well as two guitars in hard cases. When it had all been checked in and the excess baggage fees paid, Emma told me that she and her cousins were going off for a walk together for a few minutes, and I nodded, knowing that there were things they would want to say to each other.
So the adults went to the coffee shop where we sat together for an hour or so, talking about little things and trying not to watch the clock. After a while the kids came back and joined us, sitting at a table by themselves to drink their lattes and continue their conversation. Eventually I looked at my watch and said, “Well, I guess we’d better be getting down to the gate”.
“Is it that time already?” Will asked.
“I’m afraid so”.
We all got to our feet reluctantly and made our way down to security. Steve gave me a hug and a smile, and then Krista put her arms around me and held me tight. “Take care of yourself, Tom Masefield”, she said, her voice catching a little in her throat. “Don’t forget you’re a Reimer, okay?”
“Never”, I replied, hugging her again and kissing her on the cheek. “Call me, okay? I really like your phone calls”.
I hugged each of the children in turn, and then Ellie, and Will and Sally. Joe squeezed me in a bear hug for a long time, and when we stepped back from each other, I could see the emotion in his eyes. “You keep safe”, he said quietly, “and don’t be a stranger”.
Will was hugging Emma, and that was the point at which his cheerful composure slipped a little; I saw the tears beginning to course down his wrinkled, sunburned cheeks as he gripped his granddaughter tight. “You take care now”, he said in a husky voice. “Look after your dad for us, eh?”
Emma nodded; I could see that she was too upset to reply. She hugged her cousins one last time and then I took her hand and led her toward the security gate. We went through the metal detectors and the carry-on baggage checks, turned and waved one last time to the family and then made our way down to our departure lounge. I put my arm around her and kissed the top of her head, and she looked up at me and smiled bravely through her tears; “I love you, Dad”, she said.
“I love you too”.
All through the three and a half hour flight to Toronto she barely said a word, although she did reach out occasionally to grip my hand. We had a two hour layover in Toronto, but neither of us particularly felt the need for coffee, so we found our departure lounge and took our seats together in one of the corners; I put my arm around her, and I felt her head come down on my shoulder. “Sorry, Dad”, she whispered; “I’m looking forward to it, I really am, but right now I just don’t seem to be able to think about that”.
“I know, and I understand”.
I’ve never been good at sleeping on planes, and that overnight flight was no exception. I went through all my usual motions of getting comfortable, turning the light out, controlling my breathing, saying some mental prayers, and all the other sleep-inducing techniques I had come across over the years. But eventually I gave up and reached for a book from my carry-on bag; it was a new novel by one of my favourite authors, Wendell Berry, and all through the night as Emma slept beside me I lost myself in its pages.
It was not until the flight attendants began to come through the cabin with morning coffee that I finally closed the book, and by that time Emma was beginning to stretch. I smiled at her; “Good morning, sleepyhead”.
She yawned, opened one eye and looked at me; “What time is it?”
I looked at my watch; “Eleven-fifteen in the morning, U.K. time”.
“About two hours, then?”
“I think so”.
She looked over at me, her eyes bleary. “Did you sleep?”
“I rested my eyes from time to time”.
She leaned over, kissed me on the cheek and said, “I’ll be back”. Getting up, she wrapped her blanket around her and made her way toward the back of the aircraft. I noticed that at some point during the night she had taken off her sandals; her feet were bare.
When she returned to her seat the flight attendants were bringing food trays around; she shook her head at a cooked breakfast but accepted a muffin and a fruit bowl instead. I was already eating my own breakfast, and the strong airline coffee was beginning to do its work. “You slept pretty well”, I said to her.
“Yeah, I don’t remember much about the night”. She took a bite from her muffin, ate thoughtfully for a moment and then said, “Owen and Lorraine are meeting us?”
“Are they bringing Andrew and Katie?”
“I doubt it. It would have to be a big vehicle; I warned Owen that we had a lot of stuff”.
“I’m sure you’ll get a chance to see them pretty soon”.
She nodded. “I think Uncle Rick and his family are coming for supper at Grandma and Grandpa’s tonight”.
“You probably know more about that than I do”.
“Sarah said they’d been talking about it but no-one’s said anything since last Sunday; she says her dad’s been working late every day this week. She thinks it’s still on though”.
“I’m glad you and Sarah have been emailing each other”.
“Me too; I like her a lot”.
“Kind of a kindred spirit?”
“In some ways”. She frowned; “What’s her mom like? I barely remember her”.
“I don’t know her all that well. She and Rick started dating during my last year up at Oxford but I didn’t see much of them even then, and after I moved we didn’t really keep in touch”.
“I don’t remember them being around much last time we were there”.
“No, we only saw them once”.
“Why was that?”
I shook my head slowly. “They were in the middle of doing renovations on their house. Rick was working a lot of hours too, but that’s always the story with him”.
“It seems weird that we were there for five weeks and only saw them once”.
“A little different from our Meadowvale family, eh?”
“Yeah”. She looked down at the food tray in front of her, her mood suddenly subdued. “I miss them already”.
“I know; so do I”.
She glanced at me with sadness in her eyes. “Sorry I was such a wreck last night; I wasn’t much help to you, was I?”
I took her hand. “It was always going to be tough. Don’t feel bad about feeling bad – or mad, either, if you want”.
She smiled; “The problem is I can’t quite figure out who to be mad at. It’s not Grandpa’s fault he’s dying of cancer and it’s not your fault you want to be with him while he’s still alive. I guess I could be mad at God but he kinda holds all the cards, doesn’t he? Anyway – I’ve had enough experience at being mad at him to know it’s not really very satisfying, on account of the fact that he refuses to get mad back!”
I squeezed her hand; “I guess that’s true, although I’ve never heard it put quite that way before”.
“Well anyway, thanks for the offer, but I think I’ll steer clear of ‘mad’ and just stick to ‘sad’ for now if that’s okay with you?”
“That’s fine, love”.
Owen Foster and I had first met when I moved to Northwood from the Oxford suburb of Summertown at the age of eleven. He was the oldest of four children; his father taught English at the high school in the nearby town of Wallingford. We spent most of our holiday time together that summer; we walked in the country for miles, and he took me out on the river and taught me to paddle a canoe. In September we went to high school in Wallingford together, and by then we were fast friends. We got our first guitars at the same time, and in our mid-teens we spent hours working out how to play songs by the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Wings, and the other popular bands and artists of the early 1970’s. Later on we fell under the spell of traditional folk music, and by the time we went up to university together we had learned many of the old songs from recordings by people like Anne Briggs, Nic Jones, Steeleye Span and Martin Carthy.
Owen’s family was strongly Christian and as he moved into his teens he became more intentional about his own Christian faith. No one in my family attended church except at Christmas, but Owen went with his family every week. When we were in our late teens I became more curious about this part of his life and I began asking him questions about God and spirituality; he was always happy to talk about it but he never tried to coerce me into adopting his beliefs.
Owen’s father was a firm but patient teacher; in fact he was the one who gave me the idea of becoming a teacher myself. I kept quiet about this for a long time, but I remember vividly the first time I mentioned it to my parents. It was in my fifteenth year, during the Easter holidays, and we were eating our evening meal; Rick would have been thirteen at the time and Becca about three. My father had begun to talk about how I would be going up to Oxford in a few years to read Law. I had been aware of his plans for me for a long time but until then I had made no comment about them. On that day however, something made me decide to speak up. “Actually”, I said, “I don’t want to read Law”.
My father looked up at me sharply. “What? What are you talking about?”
“I think I’d like to be a teacher”.
“A teacher! Don’t be ridiculous! You’d be condemning yourself to poverty for the rest of your life!”
“Not necessarily; Owen’s family isn’t poor and his dad’s a teacher”.
“But they can’t afford very much more than the bare necessities, can they?”
“Well, maybe there’s more to life than money”.
He snorted; “That’s a typically romantic view but romance won’t support a family and give children the sort of start in life they need. You’ve got to have a good profession with a solid income”.
“I don’t think so. I like what Mr. Foster does; I want to be a teacher like him”.
“Rather than being a lawyer like me?”
“I didn’t mean it like that”.
“Then what precisely did you mean?”
And so the ‘Great War’ began. That was what Owen called it, because of course I told him about it; he and I talked about everything. I talked to his father about it too; I was always welcome in their home and I often talked to him about things. He would never have presumed to interfere in the internal affairs of our family, but he was always willing to listen and I felt he understood and sympathized with me.
But it was my mother’s intervention in the ‘Great War’ that finally tipped the balance in my favour. It was early October in my Upper Sixth Form year; the decision about what I was going to study at university could not be put off any longer. My father wanted me to do pre-law studies but I was determined to do a B.A. in English followed by a postgraduate certificate in education. The discussion was taking place in the living room; my parents and I were the only ones present but as the conversation turned into an argument and the volume got louder and louder I knew Rick and Becca would be able to hear us in their rooms. My mother had given up imploring us to stop shouting at each other and was now sitting in silence, the sadness written plainly on her face.
And then something unexpected happened. My father must have been extremely frustrated; I realize now he must have felt he was losing the ‘Great War’ because only desperation could have led him to ask for my mother’s help. “Irene”, he said, “can you talk some sense into this boy?”
She had been looking down at the cup of cold tea in her hand, but now she looked straight up at him and said, “I think you should let him do what he wants to do”.
I had rarely seen my father so angry. His face turned purple with rage; he opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again. Turning on his heel, he strode out of the room, slamming the door behind him. The room was tense: I hardly dared to breathe. My mother was silent. Eventually I raised my eyes and looked across at her. “Thank you”, I whispered.
“Follow your dream, Tom”, she replied; “It’s the only thing any of us can ever call our own”.
From that point on my father never mentioned my plans for university. My mother helped me make all the arrangements and in September of 1977 Owen and I went up to Oxford together. He was studying medicine and I was doing an English degree, so we were never in the same classes, but we were both living at Lincoln College and we saw each other almost every day. We walked together, played music together, and went to pubs and coffee shops and concerts together. Even Wendy Howard, our musical partner through our later university years and a close friend to us both, was still very much a newcomer to us, and after I moved to Canada in 1982 we both lost touch with her. But we remained in contact with each other, and after twenty-one years on opposite sides of the Atlantic our friendship was stronger than ever.
Owen was waiting for us as we emerged from the doorway into the arrivals lounge. At forty-five he was still taller than me, with short dark hair, dark eyes and a thin-faced, rascally look about him. He had managed to position himself right at the end of the rope barrier, exactly where he needed to be to meet us; we saw him immediately and steered our baggage carts toward him. He welcomed us both with warm hugs, grinned at my bleary eyes and said “Didn’t you sleep on the plane?”
“I never sleep on planes”.
“Of course not – it would be in such poor taste. Come on then – the car’s not far away”.
“Will we be able to fit all this luggage in?”
“Don’t worry – I rented an MPV”. He pulled a mobile phone out of his pocket, punched in a number and put the phone to his ear. “Hello, it’s me”, he said; “They’re here. Right – see you out front”. He closed the phone, slipped it back into his pocket, grinned at us and said, “That was Lorraine; she’ll be out front in about four minutes”.
We pushed our baggage carts out into the warm afternoon sun; when we reached the pick up area Emma took Owen’s arm and said, “How are Andrew and Katie doing?”
“Oh, they’re fine. We took them off to Essex for a cheap holiday last week; my sister lives at Clacton and she and her husband had gone away for a few days, so they told us to use their house. I don’t suppose you get to the seaside very often in Saskatchewan, do you?”
Emma laughed. “We never get to the seaside in Saskatchewan; Waskesiu Lake’s the best we can do!”
Owen gestured toward the guitar cases on the baggage carts; “Still playing your dad’s old guitar, then?”
“I’m a lucky girl”, she replied, glancing at me with a grin; “It’s such a great guitar. Of course I’m nowhere near as good as Dad”.
“Keep working at it; we all had to start somewhere”.
I put my hand on Emma’s shoulder; “She’s way better than I was at seventeen”.
Owen smiled at her. “We’ll have to hear you play soon. Maybe your dad will bring you out to the open stage at the pub we used to play at”.
“The ‘Plough’ still has live music, then?” I asked.
“Yes, open stage on Friday nights and concerts on Saturday nights. Our band’s actually playing a Saturday night gig there in a couple of weeks”.
“Is Bill Prentiss still running the place?”
“Yes, but he tells me he’s only going to go on for a couple more years; I think he turned sixty-three last month”. Owen put his arm around Emma; “Has your dad told you about the ‘Plough and Lantern’?”
“I think we went there for lunch with Auntie Becca last time we were here; I remember the guy who ran the place had a thick grey beard”.
“That’s Bill; he’s had that pub since we were in university”.
“Dad said there used to be a lot of traditional folk music there”.
“There still is”.
Emma smiled at me; “Are we going to go, then?”
“If you’d like”.
“I would like”.
At that moment a blue Mazda MPV pulled up in front of us; the driver’s side door opened and Lorraine Foster got out. She was as tall as Owen, with greying red hair cut just above her shoulders; she came over to us, greeted me with a hug and a kiss and then turned to my daughter. “Look at you, Emma Masefield!” she said; “You’ve grown into a real beauty!”
“Thanks”, Emma replied with a shy smile.
Lorraine kissed her on the cheek, gave her a warm hug and then said, “Right, let’s get your stuff loaded up”.
I saw that they had removed the third seat to make room for all our luggage. We quickly loaded everything into the van, and then Owen slammed the tailgate shut.
“You ride up front with Owen, Tom”, Lorraine said; “I’ll sit back here with Emma”.
“Are you sure?”
We got into the van and Owen pulled away from the loading area onto Cromer Road and then down toward the tunnel under the runway. He glanced at me; “So you’re still planning on staying at your mum and dad’s for a few weeks?”
“Yeah, until we find a place of our own”.
“Are you sure? I seem to remember that didn’t go very well for you last time”.
“No – it was a little tense”.
“More than a little. If you find you need a break, come over to us for a few days”.
“Thanks, but I’m here to build bridges with my dad; I don’t think running away will help the situation”.
“If you’re sure”.
He glanced at Emma in his rear view mirror; “Are you tired, Em?”
“I’m fine – I slept well on the plane”.
“You’re not in any particular hurry to get to Northwood, then?”
“No – why?”
“I thought I’d take the slow route up through the Chilterns; there’s some pretty villages and towns on the way”.
“Of course, we’ll be going past Windsor Castle in a few minutes; we can always check and see if the Queen’s at home, if you like?”
We laughed, and Emma said, “I don’t think we’ve ever been there, have we, Dad?”
“No; shall we put it on our to-do list?”
Sure enough, a few minutes later we passed the familiar bulk of Windsor Castle on our left. I saw Emma looking at it intently as we sped past on the motorway; “How old is it?” she asked me.
“It was built in the eleventh century; I think it was one of William the Conqueror’s castles. There’s a really nice park around it; you approach the castle by way of a long road called ‘the royal mile’. That view’s definitely worth seeing”.
She was quiet for a moment, continuing to gaze out of the window. “Looks like the Queen’s got room for a few homeless people in there”, she said.
Owen laughed; “So speaks the daughter of Kelly Masefield!”
“I could do worse”.
“Yes you could, Emma Dawn. If you’ll take the advice of your uncle Owen, though, you’ll be careful about making statements like that when you’re with your grandpa Masefield!”
Emma loved the drive up through the Chiltern hills; Owen purposely left the main roads behind, taking us through picturesque little villages with old grey stone houses lining narrow streets. We passed village greens with quaint little churches, and pubs with names like ‘The Blue Boar’, ‘The King’s Head’, and ‘The Angler’s Arms’. It would have been hard to imagine a stronger contrast with the long straight roads and wide open spaces we had left behind.
We came down into the Thames Valley again at Wallingford, where Owen and I had gone to High School. We crossed the river on the old stone bridge with its graceful arches, and then turned toward our old home town of Northwood. Owen glanced over his shoulder at Emma; “Nearly there now”, he said; “Do you want to ring your grandma and tell her to put the kettle on?”
She laughed; “Can I?”
“Of course; Lorraine’s got a mobile in her pocket”.
Lorraine handed her mobile to Emma; Emma asked me for the number, punched it in on the keypad and put the phone to her ear. After a moment she said, “Grandma? Yeah, it’s me – Emma… Yeah, we’re fine. Uncle Owen says we’re almost at your place; we’re just driving through Wallingford now. Do you want to put the kettle on? Uncle Owen told me I should call and ask you”. She listened for a moment and then laughed and grinned at Owen; “Grandma says you’re just as cheeky as ever”.
“Well, at least I can be relied on to be entertaining!”
“Okay Grandma”, she said, “We’ll see you in a few minutes. I love you – bye!” She closed the phone, handed it back to Lorraine with a grin and said “I think she enjoyed that!”
“I’ll bet she did”, Owen replied.
We crossed the river again beside the Kingfisher pub and drove through the village of Northwood; Emma was keeping her eyes open for familiar landmarks, and she recognized the old fifteenth century church on the west side of the village green. “I remember going to that church last time”, she said.
“You had a few conversations with the vicar”, I replied.
“Yeah, he was a nice man”.
A minute later Owen turned off the road onto my parents’ long driveway and we saw the old house up ahead. “Wow!” said Emma; “I’d forgotten how big it is! I remember the spiral staircase and the lake out back, and the orchard”.
Owen pulled up opposite the front door and turned off the engine. As we climbed out of the car my mother was already coming out to greet us; the afternoon was warm, and she was wearing a loose summer blouse which left her arms bare. She and I embraced, and then she turned to her granddaughter with a smile. “Hello, Emma”, she said, holding out her arms; “Welcome back to Northwood”.
Emma returned her smile and gave her a gentle hug; “Thanks Grandma; it’s great to see you”.
“I’ve got your usual room all ready”, my mother said to her. She smiled at Owen; “You’re still just as cheeky as you ever were, Owen Foster!” she said with a twinkle in her eye.
“Thank you, Mrs. M.”, he replied; “I’ll take that as a compliment. We’ll help carry Tom and Emma’s stuff inside”.
“Thank you – that would be very kind”.
And so we all went inside, and Emma grinned when she saw the spiral staircase; “Just like I remembered!” We took our bags and boxes up to our rooms, and then my mother turned to Owen and Lorraine; “Will you join us for a cup of that tea?”
Owen shook his head with a grin. “It’s kind of you Mrs. M., but Andrew and Katie are at my mum and dad’s and they can be a bit boisterous after a while, so I think we’d better go and pick them up”.
“Some time soon then? I’ll look forward to hearing you and Tom play together again”.
He nodded; “Absolutely”, he replied, bending down to kiss her on the cheek. He grinned at me; “See you later, then”.
“Thanks”, I said; “and thank you, Lorraine”.
“No trouble”, she replied with a smile, and Owen winked at Emma and said “Make sure your dad behaves himself!”
“I will. Are you guys going to be home for the next few days?”
“As far as I know; have you got something in mind?”
Emma grinned; “Well, I like Andrew and Katie you know!”
“Come over any time you like; just give us a ring to make sure someone’s in”.
“I’ll do that!”
My mother left us alone in our rooms for a few minutes while we ‘freshened up’, as she called it. I splashed cold water on my face, changed into a clean shirt and then went down the hall to Emma’s room. It was in the old servants’ section at the back of the house, but it had been beautifully redecorated as a guest room and it had an excellent view out over the apple orchard. I knocked lightly on the door and heard Emma answer “Come in”. She was standing at her window looking out over the trees and the fields below, a faraway look in her eyes. “I’d forgotten what a magical place this is”, she said quietly.
“Do you still like the grounds?”
“I love them; can we go out and look around?”
“In a while, but first we need to go drink that tea we asked Grandma to make for us, and then before too long it’ll be time to eat”. I kissed her on the top of her head; “So this room’s still okay for you, then?”
She turned from the window and surveyed her surroundings. The ceilings were lower in the old servants’ quarters, giving the rooms a cosy feeling; 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.
“It’s great”, she said; “It always has been”.
At that moment there was a knock on the door and Becca slipped into the room, dressed in a summer skirt and loose top, a warm smile on her face; “There you are!” she said.
Emma laughed with delight, and the next moment the two of them were hugging, kissing each other on the cheek, leaning back to smile at each other and then hugging again. I grinned at them; “Didn’t you two see each other a month ago?”
“Don’t be rude, Tommy”, Becca replied mischievously, coming over to me and giving me a hug and a kiss; “I’m allowed to be glad to see my niece”.
“Yes, you are. Are you glad to see your brother, too?”
“Very glad”. She looked up at me with a sympathetic smile; “You look a little tired there!”
“You know me and planes!”
“Are you staying for supper, Auntie Becca?” asked Emma.
“Absolutely, and Rick and his family will be here in a little while too. And tomorrow’s Saturday and I’ve got the day off, so if you want you and I can spend the day together”.
Emma laughed; “What’s the plan?”
“Anything you like. Coffee at a fancy café, sightseeing in Oxford, walking – it’s up to you”.
“That’s if she’s still awake and over her jet lag”, I observed with a grin.
“I’ll be awake,” said Emma. “Will you be alright without me, Dad?”
“Absolutely; I may even do a bit of wandering around myself”.
“Anyway”, said Becca, “I was sent up here to summon you to the living room for tea. When the rest of the family arrives we’ll move into the dining room for dinner”.
“Right”, I said with a grin; “Are you ready, Emma Dawn?”
“Lead the way, Doctor Masefield”, I said to Becca.
My brother and his family arrived a little later than expected, at about six forty-five. Rick had obviously come straight from work; he had removed his jacket and tie but was still wearing his suit pants and white shirt. Emma and Sarah greeted each other warmly; Sarah introduced Emma to Eric and Anna, and Eric smiled and said, “You’re a bit shorter than I thought you would be!”
“I take after my mom, so I’ve been told”.
“I don’t really remember her very well. She didn’t seem especially short to me – but then I would have been shorter, too, I suppose”.
They talked amongst themselves for a few minutes, and then Emma turned to my mother and said, “Do you mind if us kids go up to my room for a few minutes, Grandma?”
“Of course not; we’ll probably be starting dinner just after seven o’clock”.
Sarah glanced at Alyson; “Is that alright?”
“Go on”, Alyson replied with a grin; “We’ll call you when we’re going to eat!”
I smiled at Rick, gesturing toward his formal clothes; “You didn’t have to dress up for me, you know!”
“I had a late afternoon meeting, so I didn’t have time to change…”
At that moment I heard a buzz from his pocket; he reached in and pulled out a Blackberry, frowned at the screen for a second and then put the phone to his ear. “Excuse me”, he said apologetically, turning to leave the living room; “I’ve got to take this”.
I grinned at Alyson; “Well, that was a quick visit!”
“Sorry; there’s something going on and I’m not quite sure what it is!”
We ate in the dining room with the French windows open to let in the warm evening air. The room was elegantly furnished with an antique dining suite; there were a couple of paintings on the walls and a formal sideboard on which to place the food. My mother and father sat at each end of the table; Rick and I sat on either side of our father, with Alyson beside Rick and Emma beside me. Becca sat on the other side of Emma, and Rick’s three children on either side of my mother.
While we were filling our plates Eric turned to his mother and said, “Mum, Emma’s got a Martin!”
Alyson looked at him quizzically; “I take it that’s a guitar of some sort?”
“It used to be Dad’s”, Emma explained; “He gave it to me not long after Mom died”.
“It’s a 1970 Martin 000-18”, I added; “It’s a fairly good guitar. You might remember it”, I said to Rick; “I bought it about the time I went up to Oxford”.
He shook his head; “I’m afraid I wasn’t taking much notice of your musical instruments at the time, bro”.
“Well, it sounds brilliant!” said Eric; “She let me play it, too”.
Emma grinned at me; “He’s pretty good – you should hear him play ‘Come on in My Kitchen’”.
I raised my eyebrows at Eric; “You play Robert Johnson songs?”
“I think Robert Johnson was brilliant!”
“How did you learn about him?”
“I heard one of his songs on the radio a couple of years ago; that’s why I wanted to learn to play guitar. Do you play his music?”
“No, but I know about him; he’s influenced a lot of people”. I looked across the table at Rick and Alyson; “You didn’t tell me this guy was into 1930s delta blues singers!”
Rick shrugged disinterestedly; “Sorry – I don’t know much about that kind of thing”.
I smiled at him; “Surely you’re not still listening to Mott the Hoople and Slade, are you?”
“It gets worse”, Alyson replied with a mischievous smile; “When he thinks there’s no one in the house, he occasionally plays his old Gary Glitter singles”.
Becca looked at Rick with a bemused expression on her face; “I vaguely remember you having some Bay City Rollers LPs, too”.
“He’s still got them”, Alyson confirmed, “but he doesn’t dare play them when the children are around!”
“What on earth are you people talking about?” my father asked.
“Our misspent youth”, I replied; “Apparently there’s still more to my brother than a suit and a Blackberry”.
My mother was looking at Rick affectionately; “I never had much success getting you interested in classical piano, did I?”
“Not for want of trying”, he replied, and at that moment his Blackberry buzzed again in his pocket.
“Can’t you turn that thing off?” asked Becca.
“I’m afraid not”, he replied, putting it to his ear as he got to his feet; “This is rather a big contract. Sorry, Mum – excuse me”.
I had been shocked when I first saw my father again. His hair by now was completely gone, which I had expected, but I also noticed that his skin colour had faded, the lines on his face were deeper and his voice was even thinner than it had been at Easter. He ate very little of his food, pecking at it disinterestedly, putting his knife and fork down when he asked Rick the occasional work-related question. He paid very little attention to the conversation of his grandchildren – partly, I suspected, because he couldn’t hear them very well – but Rick’s three children were obviously used to this and they continued to talk amongst themselves and with Emma. By the time my mother was serving the coffee and dessert Emma was talking to her cousins about our extended family in Meadowvale and the other people she was close to there; it was at that point that eleven-year old Anna, who had been mainly quiet so far, looked across at her with a little frown and said, “Did you ever wish you had a brother or sister?”
Alyson put her hand on her daughter’s arm; “Maybe we should talk about something else”, she said quietly.
“It’s alright”, Emma assured her; “I don’t mind”. She glanced at me, as if to make sure I was okay with the conversation, and then turned back to Anna. “I did wonder occasionally what it would be like to have a brother or sister, I guess, but I didn’t really think about it very much. And I had four cousins real close, and all my second and third cousins – I have so many of them I have a hard time keeping track!”
“It’s a really big family”, Becca explained to Anna; “Emma’s Grandpa’s got seven brothers and sisters”.
“And Kelly’s mum was one of seven siblings too”, I added. I smiled at Anna; “Sometimes we have family reunions but we have to hire the community hall for them because so many people come”.
“They have family reunions, do they?” Rick asked; “People actually attend that sort of thing?”
“Yes, they’re very popular in Saskatchewan”.
“What exactly does one do at a family reunion?”.
My mother was passing cups of coffee around; I paused to accept one from her, and Emma said, “We actually just had one at the beginning of July”.
“What did you do?” asked Rick.
“On the Friday night we had a huge supper at the community hall; there were about three hundred people there, so there was like, a whole lot of food! We had a big family tree up on the wall with all kinds of photographs, and we’d asked people to bring more, so that was fun – people kept adding pictures all weekend. The first night we had a kind of barn dance – but not in a barn, of course!” She smiled at me; “Dad was one of the musicians”.
Rick grinned at me; “I didn’t know you played danceable music, bro!”
“Yeah, but not ‘Dancing Queen’ or ‘Stayin’ Alive’!”
“What sort of thing were you playing?”
“Mainly bluegrass. Ellie Reimer got me into that a long time ago; back in the nineties I was in a band with her and our friend Darren Peterson. We don’t play together very much any more but we had a bit of a reunion for this event”.
“A reunion for a family reunion!” said Becca.
“I guess so”.
Rick leaned back a little in his chair, taking a sip of his coffee; “Tell us more about the proceedings, Emma”.
She shrugged; “There’s not much more to tell really. On Saturday we had a pancake breakfast in the morning and a softball tournament in the afternoon, and then in the evening we had another big meal. Some of the people hadn’t seen each other in a long time so there was a lot of visiting and conversation. On Sunday some of us went to church together, and then in the early afternoon there was another meal – like I said, there was a lot of eating! After that people started to head for home”.
“And these were all Reimers, were they?”
“Actually”, I said, “it was a Wiens family reunion – Kelly’s mum’s family”.
“There were some Reimers there too though”, Emma added.
“I guess so; there’s been more than one marriage between the two families over the years”.
“And the Janzens and Robinsons”.
I grinned; “Yeah, I guess pretty well every family in Meadowvale has been connected with the Wiens’ at some point!”
Eric, who had been listening carefully, said, “It must be very different to have a family that big, with all those distant relatives, and to have them actually come together all at once. I don’t think our family has ever done that, have they?”
“I don’t know whether to be happy or sad!” Rick replied sarcastically; “I find some of our relatives hard to take when they come in ones and twos, let alone in packs!”
“But don’t you think it would be interesting? I mean, the only cousins I’ve got are Ewan and David and Emma, and it’s not like we see each other very often”. He smiled at Emma and me; “It must be rather nice to be part of a big family like that”.
“I like it”, I agreed.
Emma grinned at me; “I guess you and Mom kind of met at a family gathering, didn’t you? Not as big as a family reunion, but…”
I laughed. “I thought it was big enough at the time; little did I know what I was in for!”
“When was that?” asked Sarah.
“October 1982; I had moved to Meadowvale that summer, and Kelly’s dad was the principal at my school. He and his wife were always inviting me over for meals and in October they invited me round to their place for Thanksgiving dinner. There were a few others there: Joe and Ellie had just gotten engaged, and Krista – that’s Kelly’s younger sister – was home from university. And there was also Kelly’s grandma Reimer and her grandma and grandpa Weins, and her uncle David and his wife Anna. And there was Kelly; she was working as a nurse in Jasper at the time but she had come home for a few days over Thanksgiving. So that’s when we met”.
“How long after that did you get married?” Sarah asked.
“Two years, almost to the day; we were married on Thanksgiving weekend in 1984”.
“My brother, the hopeless romantic”, Rick observed with a grin, draining his coffee cup just in time for his Blackberry to buzz again.
“Are you choreographing that?” asked Becca.
He shook his head apologetically at my mother as he got to his feet and put the phone to his ear again; “Richard Masefield”, he said.
Much later on, I was sitting up in my bed reading by the light of a single bedside lamp when I heard a quiet knock on my door.
“Come on in”, I said.
The door opened slightly and Emma slipped into the room, dressed in her old cotton pyjama bottoms and a dark blue tee-shirt, her hair tied back in a pony tail. “Do you mind if I sit with you for a minute?” she asked.
“Of course not”.
She came and sat down on the bed, glancing at the book in my hands. “Is that a new Wendell Berry book?”
“What’s it called?”
“I haven’t tried Wendell Berry yet”.
“I think you’d like him. He’s a good poet, too – that might be a good place to start”.
“I’ll have to have a look when your books get here”.
She was quiet for a moment, her eyes down, and eventually I said, “Something bothering you?”
She shook her head; “Not really. It’s just that – well, I liked talking about Mom at the table, but afterwards I felt a little sad”.
“So I thought I’d come and sit with you for a minute”.
“I’m glad you did”.
She leaned forward, kissed me on the forehead and said, “Uncle Rick’s really taken up with work, isn’t he?”
“Well, he’s a senior partner in a busy law firm”.
“Is that what it was like with Grandpa when you guys were kids?”
“There were no Blackberries in those days”.
“I guess not”.
“But he always brought work home, and sometimes the phone would ring for him”.
“That must have gotten annoying after a while”.
I shrugged; “I bring stuff home with me two or three nights a week, too”.
“Yeah, but you leave it down in your office when you’re done, and you always make time to do things with me”.
“Well, I’ve probably spent my life trying not to be like my dad”.
“He’s really not looking too good, is he?”
I shook my head; “I think he’s had seven chemo treatments now, with a little break after the third and the sixth, and he’s due another one in a couple of weeks”.
“How many does he have to have?”
“I don’t think there’s really an end in sight; I think they’re just doing their best to control the cancer. A lot will depend on how much his body can take”.
“That’s got to be tough”.
She pulled her legs up on the bed, hugged her knees under her chin, and smiled at me; “I like my cousins”.
“They’re all different from each other”.
“They are, aren’t they?”
“You and Uncle Rick are different, too”.
“Yes, we are”. I frowned; “I remember one of the times we were here visiting while your mum was still alive. Grandma had arranged for everyone to get together here for a meal a day or two before we went home. I have a very vivid memory of watching your mum walking on the grass with Alyson, obviously deep in conversation, while Rick and I were struggling to find things to talk about”.
She put her hand on mine; “That’s sad”.
“Yes, it is. Most of the time I don’t think about it, with us living so far away”.
“Not so far any more”.
“No – for a little while, anyway”.
She stifled a yawn. “Okay, I’m really sleepy, but I just wanted to come and make sure you were okay”.
“I’m fine, love; thanks for checking on me, though”.
“You’re welcome”. She leaned forward and kissed me on the forehead; “Goodnight”, she said.
She smiled at me again, then got up and slipped quietly out of the room.