Ferdinand Hérold: Symphony #2

I heard this piece for the first time at the Winspear Centre in Edmonton on Wednesday night, in a program of French composers who were completely unknown to me. This was the last piece on the program and I found it very enjoyable, especially the last movement which reminds me at times of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony.

The program notes from Wednesday night give the following info about Hérold:

Ferdinand Hérold (1791-1833)… From a long line of musicians, Hérold’s father had been a pupil of C.P.E. Bach, and Ferdinand had studied with Méhul. After winning the Prix de Rome in 1812, Hérold studied music in Italy, and his operatic compositional career really got started when Boieldieu asked the young composer to write part of a privately commissioned opera – beginning a steady stream of both operas and ballet scores by Hérold. He wrote only two symphonies, and Symphony No. 2 was written as part of his requirement for winning the Prix de Rome – laureates were expected to write such works to demonstrate their progress as composers. In fact, both symphonies were written during his time in Italy, the second in 1815. (notes by D.T. Baker)

Meadowvale (2016 revision) Chapter 33

Link back to Chapter 32

      Kelly had always been a reader, and not just of poetry and novels either. She was one of the few people I had ever met who had actually read Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species; she was fascinated by books about DNA and the human genome, and when Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time was published, she was one of the first people I knew who read it. She was very knowledgeable about issues of faith and science, a knowledge she put to good use with our Sunday night kids, several of whom had questions in these areas.

      Of course, there were plenty of books on specifically Christian subjects on our shelves as well. Joe had got me started on authors like C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton; from them I had gone back to old classics like Augustine’s Confessions and Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ (both of which I found hard work), and Dante’s Divine Comedy (which I had read in university and had always loved, even before I was a Christian). Kelly tended to follow themes in her reading; when she was coming out of her chemo and her depression she explored the problem of pain and why bad things happened to good people, working her way through at least a dozen books on the subject, often reading late at night after I had fallen asleep. Later, after Donny came out as a gay man, she tackled the issue of homosexuality; she read various Christian treatments of the subject, from both traditional and non-traditional viewpoints, as well as some scientific studies.

      I remember coming home one day in the late 1980s and seeing a book on our kitchen table called The Politics of Jesus, by John Howard Yoder. Kelly was working on supper, but she had just made a fresh pot of tea, so I poured myself a cup, picked up the book and flipped through it. “What’s this about?” I asked.

      “Apparently he’s one of the leading Mennonite theologians of the second half of the twentieth century; Rob says that’s his best-known book. He’s arguing against the idea that Christianity doesn’t have anything to do with economics and politics. He thinks the teaching of Jesus has all kinds of economic and political implications – just not in a traditional, partisan kind of way”.

      “Sounds interesting. Have you started it?”

      “I’ve got as far as the end of the second chapter”.

      “How is it?”

      “It’s not an easy read; sometimes I have to go over sentences two or three times to make sense of them. But I’m definitely enjoying it”.

      “Should I read it?”

      “I’ll let you know for sure when I’m done, but so far, I’d say yes”.

      And so Yoder became one of the authors we shared with each other. Later on, we discovered the writings of the American farmer, novelist, poet and essayist Wendell Berry, and we immediately found another kindred spirit. We shared some of these books with the Sunday night kids, especially Beth and Megan, both of whom were avid readers who enjoyed having their minds stretched.

      By the Fall of 1995 our group had grown. We continued to resist calling it ‘the youth group’ or giving it any sort of official status with the church; it was just a group of young people who enjoyed coming over to our place a couple of times a month to discuss various issues in the light of Christian faith. The core membership was still Beth, Katie Thiessen, Jenny Ratzlaff, Megan Neufeld and Dan Rempel; Ricky Ratzlaff had graduated the previous year and was now away at university, but a younger generation had also begun to join us. Dan’s sister Jennifer, now fifteen, had been with us for a year or so; we tended to call her ‘Jen’ to distinguish her from Jenny Ratzlaff. John and Ruth Janzen’s fourteen-year-old son Joel had also joined us, and Joel’s younger sister Kathy was beginning to make noises about coming as well, although she was only twelve and Kelly thought that was a little young for some of the subjects the group discussed. However, we knew that a big change was on the horizon; in June of 1996 all of the remaining original members of the group would be graduating from high school, and most of them would probably be moving away.

      Dan Rempel continued to be a headstrong young man who caused his parents a lot of heartache; his father was always getting after him about what he saw as his laziness and stubbornness, and Erika was powerless to stop the two of them from butting heads. Increasingly, Dan was responding in kind to his father’s anger with him, and there had been several times when he had left home in a rage and disappeared for a couple of days. He usually showed up eventually at Hugo and Millie’s, and after feeding him and talking him down, they would call his mother and let her know that he was with them.

      There seemed to be very few authority figures who Dan respected and deferred to; his grandfather was one of them, and for some reason, Kelly and I were the other two. In my English classes at school our unspoken agreement held; he didn’t challenge me or disrupt my class, and I didn’t make an issue of his lack of interest in it. Strangely enough, as time went by he actually seemed to be working harder at it; he never got very good marks in English, but he did succeed in getting passing grades, and occasionally he surprised me by participating in a class discussion about one of the books we were reading.

      From time to time the subject of homosexuality would come up again in our Sunday night group, and although it was usually raised in a general sort of way, we all knew that it was Donny and Alan who were at the back of everyone’s mind. They rarely came to Meadowvale; Alan’s parents in Saskatoon were very supportive of their son, and it was natural for Alan and Donny to go where they knew they were welcome. They mainly came up to Hugo and Millie’s for special occasions: Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays, Mothers’ Day and so on. They were always glad to welcome any of Donny’s relatives to their home, and when Kelly and I were in Saskatoon for any reason, we always made a point of dropping by to see them, even if only for a few minutes. In fact, we became quite fond of them, and they returned our affection; if they were in town for a visit, they always stopped at our place to have a coffee with us.


      One evening a few weeks after we returned from our Christmas visit to England, Rob dropped by our place and asked Kelly if she would consider joining the preaching team at the church. She looked at him in amazement across our kitchen table; “Me?” she exclaimed. “Surely you mean Tom?”

      Rob grinned. “No; I mean you”.

      “Why me?”

      He looked at me. “What do you think? Why Kelly?”

      “Well, I would guess that it would be because she has a good grasp of the Bible, and she’s prayerful, and she reads a lot and thinks deeply about things, and she doesn’t try to give simplistic answers to tough questions. And also because she works hard at practising what she preaches”.

      “Very good, but there’s more”.

      I reached across the table and took Kelly’s hand. “Would it also have to do with the fact that she’s been through cancer and she knows that the Christian life isn’t always sweetness and light?”

      “That’s right”.

      “But most of those things are true of Tom, too”, Kelly protested.

      I shook my head; “No, I don’t think so. I’ve always known, right from the beginning, that you were further ahead than me spiritually”.

      “But I’m not a good public speaker”.

      “I saw you stand up in front of three hundred Reimers a year and a half ago without any problem at all”.

      “But that was different; it was family, and it wasn’t as important as this”.

      “You don’t need to make it something it isn’t, Kelly”, Rob said. “I don’t think you’d have any problem with the substance, but if you need help with the form, then I can give it to you. I have to tell you, though, that I prayed about this, and I feel pretty strongly about it”.

      She was quiet for a moment, looking at him, and then she nodded and said, “Okay, then I have to take it seriously”.

      “Thank you”.

      “But Rob, I can’t handle a big commitment right now; Tom and I are trying to cut things out of our schedule”.

      “I noticed that, but it wouldn’t have to be a big commitment. It would be three or four times a year at the most”.

      She looked at me. “What do you think?”

      “I’m all for it”.

      She got up from the table, walked over to the kitchen sink, and stared at the darkened window for a couple of minutes. Then she turned back toward us. “What does John think?” she asked.

      “John Redekopp?”

      “Yes”.

      “I haven’t asked him”.

      “Are you going to?”

      “I’ll bring your name to the board if you agree to it. I don’t think John will oppose me”.

      “He’s not happy about the fact that we’re friends with Donny and Alan”.

      “I know that, but he likes you a lot, Kelly, and I think he knows you well enough to know that you wouldn’t use the pulpit of our church to advance an agenda”.

      She shook her head; “I would never do that”, she said softly.

      “I know that. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have asked you”.

      She came back to the table and sat down beside me. “Can I talk to Joe first?” she asked.

      “Of course”, Rob replied with a smile on his face; “I know you respect his opinion”.

      She stared at him; “You’ve already asked him about it, haven’t you?”

      “Actually, the idea first came up in conversation with him”.

      “When was this conversation?”

      “About two weeks ago”.

      “He didn’t say anything to me”.

      “No, we said we’d pray about it before either of us mentioned it to you. We did, and both of us felt really positive about it, so I said I’d come and sound you out. It’s not a done deal, though, Kelly; you need to be at peace about it too, so I’m not asking you to give me a firm answer tonight. I want you to pray about it, and see where you think God might be leading you. Will you do that?”

      “I will”.


      She preached her first sermon toward the end of April, on the Sunday after Easter, on the story of doubting Thomas, and she won people over right from the start when she said that she was married to a guy called Thomas who sometimes struggled with doubts, so she thought she could speak from personal experience about the passage. I could tell that she was nervous, but nonetheless she handled her material well, and I thought she made some excellent points.

      Emma had decided not to go to Sunday School that day because she wanted to hear what her mom had to say, so the two of us sat together in the pew with Joe and Ellie and their kids. After the service was over she went up to Kelly and gave her a big hug; “Good job!” she said.

      “Thank you, honey! Did you understand what I was trying to say?”

      “Of course; it was really good, Mom”.

      “Thanks”.

      She preached twice more that year, and each time Rob gave her plenty of notice because he knew she wanted to take a lot of time to prepare. She got me involved in the preparation process too; she would share with me the scripture passages she was thinking of preaching on, and we would talk about them together, identify our questions and issues with them, and pray about them. Rob lent her some Bible commentaries from his shelves, and sometimes she read to me from them, so it became a learning experience for me as well.

      “Did you ever think you’d be married to a preacher?” she asked me one night when we were sitting together at the kitchen table with her books spread out around us.

      “No, I can honestly say that it came as a surprise”.

      “You’re okay with it though, right?”

      I reached across and put my hand on hers. “More than okay; you make me very proud”.

      She leaned over and kissed me; “Thank you”, she said softly.


      “I hear Kelly’s a preacher now”, Glenn Pickering said to me one day when we bumped into each other in the Co-op.

      “Yes, she is”.

      “Is she thinking of a career change?”

      “No, she’s just joined the team that spells Rob out from time to time”.

      “How often will she be preaching?”

      “Rob says three or four times a year”.

      “I might have to come and listen to her. Do you think I might set off alarm bells if I showed my face in church?”

      “Definitely; you’d better let me know ahead of time so I can make sure you get issued with an honorary Mennonite identity card!”

      “Can you get one of those if you don’t have a genuine Mennonite name?”

      “I used to have one, and my name’s Masefield”.

      He laughed softly. “All kidding aside, let me know when she’s preaching”.

      “I will”.


      Dan Rempel surprised us by expressing an interest in coming to hear Kelly preach as well. The young people were talking about it at our place after one of our Sunday evening meetings; he was not a regular churchgoer, of course, so he had not heard about it. “You’re a preacher now?” he asked her.

      “Occasionally; Rob says it’ll be three or four times a year”.

      “You’ll tell us when the next time’s going to be?”

      “If you want me to”.

      “I do; I’d like to be there”.

      She looked at him for a moment with a faint smile on her face, and then she said, “Thank you, Dan; that’s a real compliment”.

      He shook his head; “If all preachers were like you, I might come to church more often”.


      In February of 1996, after about two and a half years of quiet rumblings on the subject, John Redekopp finally took advantage of his position as moderator of our church to raise the issue of homosexuality at our annual general meeting.

      The meeting was held in the church basement after the Sunday service; there were about seventy of us sitting around circular tables in the room, with John, Rob Neufeld and the church secretary sitting at a rectangular table at the front. After the various reports had been received and the election of officers had taken place, John put Kelly and I on the spot by asking us to tell the congregation what exactly we were teaching the ‘youth group’, as he called it, about homosexuality. Before we had a chance to reply, Rob intervened, stating quite clearly that we were not running a church youth group, but simply hosting some friends over at our house once or twice a month for discussions about faith and discipleship. But John was not buying it; he wanted one of the elders to sit in on our group and make sure we were not leading the kids astray on the issue. Several people had opinions on this idea, and they stood up one by one and shared them with the meeting; Kelly and I had not yet had an opportunity to speak for ourselves, so we sat quietly at our table with Joe and Ellie and Will and Sally, waiting our turn.

      The atmosphere was getting more than a little tense, with several people trying to speak at once; Rob was trying his best to help maintain some semblance of civility, but with John in the chair, there was only so much that he could do. Several people had raised their hands to speak, but then to my surprise Hugo got to his feet, cleared his throat, and said, “John, I’ve got something to say, and I think, since it’s my family you’re talking about, that I’d like to jump to the front of the line and say it now”.

      Immediately everyone quietened down; I could tell by the expression on John’s face that he was not happy with the interruption, but he could read the mood of the meeting and he knew that if Hugo wanted to speak, people were not going to stop him with the rules of order. “Go ahead, Hugo”, he said.

      Hugo put his hands in his pockets, looked around the room, and said, “First of all, like I said, it’s my son we’re talking about here. He’s not a member of this church, and I suspect that he never will be again. There were a good many years when Millie and I hardly saw him; he felt he had things to hide from us, I guess, and I’m not surprised that he was afraid to come clean with us. But thanks to his sister, he finally got up the courage to tell us the truth. It wasn’t a truth Millie and I found it easy to hear, but it was the truth, and we Mennonites believe in truth-telling. We also believe in reconciliation, and I’m glad that our son is reconciled to us now. I don’t necessarily believe in the choices he’s made, but I figure if anything’s going to bring him closer to the way of Christ, it’s kindness”.

      A few heads were nodding around the room; Hugo paused for a moment, and then he said, “Anyway, I’m grateful that Kelly and Tom have showed kindness to him. They’ve always been welcoming to him and Alan, and I know they’ve had some good conversations; I know that, because Donny’s told me. Some of those conversations have been about Christianity; you can imagine that I’m glad when Donny tells me he’s enjoyed having a conversation about Christianity with Tom and Kelly.

      “And then there’s my grandson Dan, who isn’t here today. Dan, you know, lost patience with church some time ago, and he very rarely comes any more, although I notice that when Kelly’s preaching he makes a point of being here. There aren’t many places where Dan feels comfortable talking about Christianity; in fact, I can only think of one: Kelly and Tom’s house.

      “They never asked for this group, you know; it all started off with Bethie and Jenny and Katie asking Kelly if they could go over one night and talk about some questions they had. I know lots of good Christian people in this church who might think twice about giving up their time and opening their home to a group of young people for discussions like that, but Kelly and Tom have never refused them. And I know – because my grandson tells me – that the kids feel safe and comfortable there; they feel like they can open up and say anything and ask anything, and they aren’t going to be judged for it. And what’s the result?” He looked around the room. “Some of you here have kids in that group; wouldn’t you say they’re better and more thoughtful Christians because of it?”

      Once again heads were nodding, but at this point John had clearly had enough; he got to his feet and said, “That’s not the point, Hugo. We all know it’s a good group, and we all know Tom and Kelly have an influence on those kids. We just want to make sure that they’re giving them accurate guidance about what the Bible says about homosexuality”.

      “Why just homosexuality?” asked Brenda, getting to her feet and standing beside her father. “Why not divorce and remarriage? After all, the Bible has some pretty clear things to say about that, too. I’m divorced, and I’m a member of this church; what if three or four years down the road I decide I want to get married again? Are you going to ask Tom and Kelly what they’re teaching the kids about divorce and remarriage? And if not, why not? It’s a lot more common than homosexuality, and it’s certainly touched a lot more members of this church”.

      I could see that Brenda had touched a nerve; there were at least two couples in the meeting that day who were on their second marriages, and, as she had said, several other families had been touched by it. Suddenly there were about six people talking at once, and John raised his hands and implored people to be quiet. “It’s never going to work if we all try to speak at once”, he said. “One at a time, please”. He glanced over at George Penner, who had his hand up. “George, you were next, I believe?”

      “Just a minute, John”, Hugo said; “I haven’t quite finished yet”.

      “But I thought…” John replied, inclining his head toward Brenda.

      “I’m sorry”, Brenda said, sitting down; “I was out of order”.

      John nodded at Hugo. “Very well; finish what you want to say”.

      “Actually, I’d like to hear what Tom and Kelly have to say; they’re sitting right here with us, and we haven’t given them a chance yet to answer the concerns people have raised”.

      “Well, they can certainly take their turn…”.

      “I think they’ve been waiting for half an hour for their turn. You asked them a question, and then they never got a chance to answer it, and for the last half hour they’ve had to listen to other people talking about them without once getting the chance to respond to your question. I want to hear their answer”.

      Once again, I saw heads nodding around the room, and a couple of voices said, “Yes, let them speak”. John shrugged his shoulders, looked at Kelly and me, and asked, “Is there anything you want to say?”

      Kelly glanced at me; “Do you want to do it?” she asked, and I could tell immediately by the expression on her face that she couldn’t trust herself to speak. I thought for a moment, and then I got to my feet and said, “Sure, I’ll talk”.

      I looked around the room, taking in faces of people I had come to know and love over the years – old timers and young people, parents and grandparents, farmers and professionals. I felt a sudden reluctance to speak; I knew I loved these people dearly, and I had no wish to divide them, or to divide myself from them.

      “I don’t really have a lot to say”, I began. “As Hugo says, Kelly and I have never started a church youth group. Beth is our babysitter, and she had already had conversations about faith with Kelly from time to time; she called us up one Sunday after supper and asked if she could bring a couple of friends over to ask a question. I was doing schoolwork at the time, so Kelly sat with them and discussed the issue they raised, and apparently they found it helpful. Two or three weeks later it happened again. From there it grew gradually to the point it’s at today, with six or seven kids who come over to our place once or twice a month on Sunday evenings”.

      I paused for a moment, trying to gather my thoughts. “It’s not an organized group”, I said, “and it’s not something Kelly and I lead. The kids decide when they want to meet and what they want to talk about. It’s true that sometimes they ask questions, and we do our best to answer those questions, but we’ve never pretended to be giving authoritative answers on behalf of the church. We tell them what we think, and we ask them what they think. If they don’t agree with us, they say so, and if they don’t agree with each other, they say so. It’s that kind of a group”.

      “Have you discussed homosexuality with them?” John asked.

      “We have”.

      “And what did you tell them?”

      “Well, I think the subject’s been raised two or three times since the group started, and each time it’s been the same sort of discussion. We’ve asked the kids what they thought, and they’ve explored the issue; there’s no real consensus, of course, but we’ve encouraged people to listen carefully to each other and try to learn from each other’s viewpoints. When they’ve asked us for our opinion, we’ve told them that we’re not sure, because we’re not. I’ve read the Bible through a few times, and I know the passages everyone’s thinking about. But it’s not plain to me that those passages are talking about committed monogamous relationships, and it’s not plain to me that the biblical writers knew about sexual orientation as something you’re born with. I can see the strength of the arguments on both sides of the issue – well, on all sides, because I actually think that there are more than two points of view – and I can’t feel sure about any of them. So that’s what I’ve said”.

      “So you gave the kids the impression that there was a range of legitimate viewpoints on the subject?”

      “Yes, because I think there is”. I looked around the room for a moment, ignoring the sudden flurry of conversation, and then said, “If we had a vote on the subject this afternoon, I’m sure the traditional view would win, but it wouldn’t be unanimous. It’s a plain fact that the members of this church don’t all agree on this subject. Even those who take the traditional view don’t all agree on how important it is”.

      “But our church does have a position…”

      “I understand that, but I’m not sure what you want me to do about it”.

      “I want you to teach the church’s view to the kids”.

      “We did”.

      “Yes, but as one possible position among others”.

      “That’s right”.

      “I want you to teach that the traditional view is the correct one”.

      For a moment I didn’t reply, but I looked around the room again, trying to read the expressions on the faces that were turned in my direction. Eventually I said, “Are you speaking on behalf of the whole church, John, or are you just expressing your wish?”

      “I’m happy to put it to a vote if you want”.

      I could feel myself getting angry now, but I took a deep breath and asked, “How would that vote be worded?”

      “Well, I haven’t got anything written down, but it would probably be something like, ‘That this congregation requires that the traditional view of homosexuality be taught in the youth group, and that the elders be empowered to make sure it happens’”.

      Kelly shook her head, got to her feet slowly and took my hand; “This is unbelievable”, she said.

      “What is?” John asked.

      “You keep calling this ‘the youth group’, but we’ve said over and over again that this is not a church youth group. No one is forced to come to it; it’s never been advertised in the church bulletin, and we don’t spend a single cent of church money on it. We don’t do baptismal preparation or catechism or anything like that. It’s just a group of young people who come to our house to talk about following Jesus, because they feel safe there. They feel like they can ask any question and have it taken seriously. If I’d had a place where I could have asked those kinds of questions, I might not have left this church when I was a teenager”.

      “Kelly, we’re not disputing that…” John began.

      “But you want to change it”, she replied, interrupting him. “You went to make it something it’s not – an official church group that teaches official church doctrines, and you want to empower the elders to police it, to make sure that happens. Well, I’ll tell you this for sure: that is never going to happen”.

      For a moment there was a stunned silence in the room, and then John said, “You mean you would defy the vote?”

      “I mean I would dispute the authority of this meeting to even hold the vote! This is not the 1940s, and we’re not an old order church; this is 1996, and we’re General Conference Mennonites. These kids meet in our home, mine and Tom’s, and their parents are happy for them to come. Our gatherings have no official connection with this church; Tom and I have never been appointed as the church youth group leaders. I’m sorry, but no one is going to tell us who we may or may not host in our own home, and no one is going to tell us what we can say with them, or who we have to invite into our home to make sure we say the right things to them. Their parents trust us, and that’s good enough for me. This conversation’s over”.

      For a brief moment I couldn’t stop myself from looking at her in amazement; I knew she felt strongly on the subject, but never in a million years would it have occurred to me that she would speak as forthrightly as she had. But then she looked back at me, and I understood immediately what was going on; she loved the kids dearly, and she loved our times with them, and she was determined that nothing and no one was going to damage what we had built together.

      John cleared his throat. “I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a young person speak so strongly in defiance of the will of a church meeting before”.

      There was silence for a moment, and then Kelly smiled and spoke quietly: “John, I’m thirty-six years old and I’m a cancer survivor; it’s a long time since I’ve thought of myself as a young person”.

      Rachel Robinson was sitting at the table beside ours, with Beth and the Janzens; now she got to her feet. “I would like to speak, John, if Tom and Kelly will allow me to interrupt”.

      “Of course, Aunt Rachel”, Kelly replied, and she and I both sat down. John looked at Rachel for a moment, and then shrugged and said, “Go ahead, Rachel”.

      “Thank you”. She looked around for a moment, and then she said, “A few years ago, I asked Kelly and Tom to consider becoming our church youth group leaders. This was not long after my granddaughter Beth and her friends started going over to their house”. She put her hand on Beth’s shoulder for a moment, and then continued. “I told them I thought they had the gifts for it, and I thought they could have a good influence on the youth in our church. I asked them to think about it and pray about it, and they said that they would. A week later, they came back to me and said that they didn’t want to do it; they were both very busy people, and they didn’t want to commit themselves to running a weekly youth group meeting on top of everything else they were doing. But they assured me that they had no intention of telling Beth and her friends that they had to stop coming over to their house”.

      She paused, looking around the room in silence for a moment, and then she said, “I’m as concerned as anyone else that our young people learn what the Bible teaches on these subjects. But as I’ve listened to you all, and especially to Tom and Kelly, I’ve realized that they’re right; this church has no authority to tell them what they can or can’t say or do with an informal group of young people who meet at their house. Tom and Kelly aren’t our church youth group leaders; they refused that position. What they are is a very godly and Christlike couple who love these young people deeply, and I can assure you, it’s making a difference in their lives. So I would like to move that this conversation end, and that we go on to the next order of business of this meeting”.

      John Janzen raised his hand; “Seconded”.

      John Redekopp looked around the room, and I could see by the expression on his face that he knew he was defeated. “The motion’s been moved and seconded; is there any further discussion?”

      “Question!” cried a dozen different voices.

      “The question has been called for. All in favour of the motion that this conversation end and that we move on to the next order of business”.

      A forest of hands was raised, and it was immediately obvious that the motion was carried.

      “Very well”, John said; “Are there any other concerns before we bring the meeting to a close?”

      Rob leaned forward in his chair; “Could I say something, please, John?”

      “Of course, Pastor Rob”.

      Rob got to his feet, put his hands in his pockets, and said, “I’m sure this has been a difficult forty-five minutes for some people in this room, whatever your view on this subject. For Hugo and Millie and their family, this is a deeply personal issue, touching someone they love; for others, it’s also deeply worrying, because they want our church to stay true to the teachings of Jesus and the scriptures, which I agree with. For Tom and Kelly, this is tough, because they’ve poured many hours of love and labour into the lives of the kids in their Sunday night group”.

      He paused for a moment, and then he said, “Whenever this subject comes up in churches, it’s divisive, even for pacifists like us. We Anabaptists don’t have a good history of disagreeing well; we’ve tended to split into more and more denominations, sometimes over relatively minor issues like how much water constitutes a valid baptism.

      He smiled; “I think we’re all selective literalists. There are several Old Testament texts that tell us that we should not lend out money at interest, and yet some of us here have pension plans that rely on lending out money at interest in order to grow, and most of us have taken out bank loans. And the same passages in the Old Testament that many of us appeal to in condemnation of homosexuality also tell us that we should execute the offender, which I don’t think anyone here would go along with. On these subjects, most of us here are less than literal in our understanding, and yet we all like to think we’re being faithful to the Bible.

      “So I guess I’d like us all to recognize that everyone who has spoken this afternoon is a faithful Christian who is sincerely trying to understand what it means to follow Jesus, and to put that into practice. And I’d also like us to be gentle and patient with each other. Years ago everyone thought that believing the Bible meant that we believed the earth was created in seven literal twenty-four hour days, but then new scientific knowledge came along, and the church went through decades of rethinking on that issue. I think most of us here today would now agree that Genesis chapter one isn’t intended to be a scientific account of the creation of the universe – which doesn’t mean we don’t think it’s the word of God, it just means we don’t think we need to read it as a literal account in order to read it faithfully.

      “Will the same be true of homosexuality? In years to come, will we realize that new scientific knowledge has challenged us to rethink the way those Bible passages should be interpreted? I think it’s too early to say. For myself, I still believe the traditional interpretation is correct, although I recognize that it’s a tough cross to bear for people who’ve always known themselves to be gay or lesbian. But I’m sure that all Christian congregations are going to be talking about this issue, and it’s not going to be an easy discussion.

      “For myself, I’m going to pray that God would give me clarity of thought on the subject, but also an openness to new ways of thinking, and a readiness to admit that I can be wrong. I think we all need to pray for humility, and a teachable spirit, and also that God would help us to be faithful to the things Jesus teaches us, even the more challenging things, like loving our enemies, and loving the people who disagree with us in church meetings.

      “So, anyway, I think I should pray now, and then turn things back over to John to bring the meeting to a close. Is that okay with everyone?”

      Heads nodded around the room, and John Redekopp said, “Go ahead, Pastor Rob”.

      Rob bowed his head and said, “Father God, this has been a difficult conversation for many of us, and we know the subject isn’t going to go away. But please don’t allow us to lapse into thinking of this as an ‘issue’; help us to remember that we’re talking about real human beings here. And so we pray for those who experience same-sex attraction, that you would guide them into your will for them, and also that you would assure them of your love for them.

      “Bless our church as we continue to talk about this subject; give us humility and patience, understanding, and love for one another. Bless Tom and Kelly and the young people in their group, and give them a growing desire to follow Jesus. And most of all, Father, may your church be one, as Jesus prayed. We ask it in his name, Amen”.

      There was a murmur of amens around the room; for a moment there was quiet, and then John cleared his throat and asked, “Is there any other business?”

      No one spoke, and after a moment Hugo said, “I move the meeting be adjourned”.

      “All in favour?”

      Every hand in the room was raised, and John said, “Carried. Meeting adjourned”.


      We had a quiet afternoon and evening at home; it was one of those rare Sunday evenings when we had neither the Sunday night group, nor a shared supper with Joe and Ellie and the kids. It was also unusual in that somehow I had very little schoolwork to do; after supper the three of us watched a movie together, and then I read to Emma until her bedtime. Kelly wasn’t saying much, and I guessed that she was still preoccupied with what had happened at the church meeting. After Emma went to bed I put in about half an hour at my desk, and then when I came back upstairs Kelly made hot chocolate, and we sat on the couch in the living room, our feet up on the coffee table, our shoulders touching. We could hear the February wind howling outside; the mercury had been falling gradually all afternoon, and the temperature was now sitting at around minus twenty-five; I could only guess what it might be when the wind chill was factored in.

      “You were quiet this evening”, I said.

      “Yeah”. She sighed, shifted a little on the couch, and said, “Kind of ashamed of myself, actually”.

      “Oh?”

      “Not for standing up for the group; I’m not sorry I did that. But I can’t believe how rude I was to John in front of the whole meeting”.

      “You were pretty forthright”.

      “All I needed to do was make a point; there was no need to go in for the kill like that”.

      “You were upset”.

      “I was, and I forgot that the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God”.

      “Don’t be so hard on yourself; you love those kids”.

      I put my arm around her, and I felt her head coming down on my shoulder. For a few minutes neither of us said anything, until eventually she sighed again; “I need to call John tomorrow”.

      “Yeah?”

      “Yeah; I need to apologize to him”.

      “Are you sure?”

      “Yes; I’ve been thinking and praying about it all afternoon”.

      “Do you think I need to apologize to him too?”

      She shook her head. “You kept your temper; I didn’t”.

      “You’re not working tomorrow, right?”

      “Right; I’m going to call him in the morning and ask if I can go over to see him”.

      “Are you sure you don’t want me to come with you?”

      “No, at least, not right away; Matthew chapter eighteen says, ‘just between the two of you’”.

      “You’ve been reading that Yoder guy again, haven’t you?”

      She laughed softly; “Well, that Jesus guy, actually!”

      “Right”. I kissed her gently; “Have I told you lately what an amazing woman you are?”

      “No, I’m really not”.

      “That’s what you always say”.

      “That’s because I don’t feel very amazing; most of the time I feel like I’m just stumbling along, trying to find my way by the small amount of light I’ve got”.

      I leaned forward, put my mug down on the coffee table, then turned back to her and put both my arms around her. “Do you remember the first time I came to visit you in Jasper?”

      “Mmm”, she said, snuggling in closer to me so that her face was against my neck; “That was when I started to realize I was falling in love with you”.

      “Me too. Do you remember when we went out for supper the last night?”

      “We went to the restaurant at the Pyramid Lake resort. The food was great; the coffee, not so much!”

      I laughed softly. “The company, on the other hand, was wonderful”.

      “Yes, it was. That was when you still had long, long hair, my English guitar-playing hippy!”

      “I did. And I remember very clearly that at one point that night I looked at you across the table and thought, ‘Tom Masefield, you could live your whole life through and never meet a woman as beautiful and passionate and true as Kelly Reimer’”.

      “Thank you”, she whispered.

      “You’re welcome”.

      “Kelly Reimer; I haven’t thought of her in a long time”.

      “I’m kind of partial to Kelly Reimer, myself; she really swept me off my feet”.

      “She was okay, but I like Kelly Masefield better”.

      “Well, yes, I’m very partial to her, too”.

      “Good to hear”.

      We were quiet for a moment, and then she said, “Is it just about time for us to pray?”

      “I think so”.

      “And then afterwards, maybe…?”

            I smiled; “That’s what I was thinking, too”.

The Trouble with Normal

Suddenly, this Bruce Cockburn song from the early 1980s seems horribly relevant again.

 

Strikes across the frontier and strikes for higher wage
Planet lurches to the right as ideologies engage
Suddenly it’s repression, moratorium on rights
What did they think the politics of panic would invite?
Person in the street shrugs — “Security comes first”
But the trouble with normal is it always gets worse

Callous men in business costume speak computerese
Play pinball with the third world trying to keep it on its knees
Their single crop starvation plans put sugar in your tea
And the local third world’s kept on reservations you don’t see
“It’ll all go back to normal if we put our nation first”
But the trouble with normal is it always gets worse

Fashionable fascism dominates the scene
When the ends don’t meet it’s easier to justify the means
Tenants get the dregs and the landlords get the cream
As the grinding devolution of the democratic dream
Brings us men in gas masks dancing while the shells burst
The trouble with normal is it always gets worse

Written by Bruce Cockburn • Copyright © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc, Carlin America Inc

Meadowvale (2016 revision) Chapter 32

Link back to Chapter 31

      My parents had an old-fashioned open fireplace in their living room, and my father had stubbornly ignored my mother’s hints about replacing it with a gas-burning heater. Their armchairs were normally set on either side of the hearth, with a small sofa between them facing the fireplace. The living room itself was quite large and had other chairs scattered around it, and when my parents had company, they moved the furniture around to open up the whole room. When we arrived for the holidays there was a large Christmas tree set in one corner, hung with lights and decorations, and there were already a few presents wrapped underneath it.

      While we were staying there over the Christmas holidays Kelly came to love the fireplace. She had been somewhat skeptical when I had warned her that she would feel the cold in Northwood, even though there probably wouldn’t be any snow. “England’s always damp in the winter”, I said, “and Northwood’s in the Thames valley, so it’s even damper”.

      “But it hardly ever goes below freezing, right?”

      “Right, but trust me, you’ll be cold”.

 

      We got to Northwood on the afternoon of Thursday December 22nd, and the moment Kelly stepped out of Becca’s car she shivered, turned to me and said, “Okay – you were right about the cold!” From then on, whenever we went out for walks she dressed in several layers, and when we got back she would immediately make herself a cup of hot chocolate or strong tea and go and sit by the fireplace. My father was amused, but the next day he got some extra logs to add to the coal fires. “Can’t have you freezing to death, can we?” he said to Kelly with a smile, and then she embarrassed him by going over, giving him a hug and a kiss, and saying, “You’re a sweetheart, Frank; thank you!”

      Almost every night of the holidays, Kelly and Becca and I made hot chocolate and sat by the fire in the living room, turning out all the lights except the ones on the Christmas tree, and sometimes talking until well after midnight. My parents were usually in bed by ten-thirty, and Emma of course was asleep long before that, but Becca and I had looked forward to renewing our old Christmas tradition. Kelly was hesitant at first about joining us; “This is your time”, she said to us on the first night; “It’s something special to you two, and I don’t want to intrude on it”.

      Becca grinned at her; “I’ve only got you for two weeks, Kelly, and I want to make the most of every minute. So please – come and sit with us”.

      Kelly was still doubtful; she looked at me and said, “There might be things you guys want to talk about just between the two of you”.

      I shook my head; “I don’t think so. In fact, if the past is anything to go by, it might be the other way around!”

 

      On the first night we were tired and jet lagged and I didn’t think we would stay up very late. I added an extra log to the fire, then went and sat beside Kelly on the sofa; she was wearing jeans and a thick crew-necked sweater, with red and green striped socks on her feet. She snuggled up to me and said, “Keep me warm, husband”.

      “Are you really cold, Kelly?” asked Becca.

      “I don’t find the house very warm”.

      “No – Mum and Dad don’t heat it very enthusiastically in winter, and of course it gets damp, too”.

      “It must be cold up in Edinburgh at this time of year”, I said.

      “Yes, but I’ve got a snug little flat with excellent central heating, and I’m in my seventh year of living there, so I’m used to it”.

      “Things are going pretty well for you up there?” asked Kelly.

      “Yeah. I’m in my first year as a Senior House Officer now; that’ll last two or three years, followed by a year of GP training if all goes well”.

      “Did you plan from the beginning to spend your whole training in Edinburgh?”

      “I wasn’t counting on it – I knew I’d be there for the five years of medical school, but after that there were no guarantees. I put in lots of different applications for house officer positions; I’ve just been fortunate so far that I’ve been accepted in Edinburgh for every position, but there’s no telling how long that will last”.

      “Do you think you’ll stay in Scotland when you’re all done?”

      “I don’t think so; I’ve really enjoyed living there, but I’d like to get a bit closer to home, especially when I go into general practice. I wouldn’t mind getting a position in Oxford, actually”.

      “It wouldn’t be a problem for you, being back here?”

      Becca shook her head; “Dad can be difficult, but he’s accepted now that I’m not going to be a lawyer. And I miss Mum and Stevie and Corinna. Also, I wouldn’t mind seeing a bit more of my nieces and nephew around here; I don’t feel very well connected with them”.

      “I wonder if they’ll come out here to visit before Christmas?”

      “I’ll be surprised; Mum doesn’t normally see them more than once a week, especially with Eric and Sarah in school. Occasionally Alyson brings Anna out for lunch on a weekday, and sometimes if Mum’s got a day without many students she slips into town to see them”.

      “Eric and Sarah must be getting big now”, I said; “We don’t get too many pictures”.

      “I haven’t seen them for a few weeks myself; don’t forget I only got here the night before you arrived”.

      “Right”.

      “And what about you, Becca Masefield?” asked Kelly. “There’s no nice Scottish boy up there in Edinburgh?”

      Becca laughed softly; “I’ve dated a few nice Scottish boys, but none of them have been so memorable that I’ve wanted to keep them. And I work very long hours; I don’t actually get a lot of free time. Being a house officer is a cut above indentured slavery, but it’s not far off”.

      “I remember Owen saying something like that”, I replied.

      “And then, of course, I’ve got pretty high standards for a relationship”.

      “Yeah?”

      She grinned; “Well, from watching you two, of course”.

      “Don’t put us on a pedestal”, Kelly replied; “We have our struggles, just like any other couple”.

      “Oh, I’m sure you do, but still, I think you two have the best marriage I know”.

      I put my arm around Kelly’s shoulders and said, “Well, I certainly have the best wife of anyone I know!”

      Becca laughed; “I’d have to agree with that!”

      Kelly shook her head, but Becca smiled again and said, “No, there’s no use denying it – you’re outvoted, two to one!”

      I could see that Kelly was uncomfortable, so I smiled at Becca and said, “Are Uncle Roy and Auntie Brenda coming out for Christmas dinner?”

      “I assume so; they normally do, or we go there. To tell you the truth, I haven’t asked Mum yet; with you being here, I just assumed she would be hosting it here”.

      “How are Roy and Brenda?” asked Kelly.

      Becca frowned. “To tell you the truth, Uncle Roy’s not been well, but he’s been keeping rather quiet about it. Mum told me a few weeks ago that he’s been having some angina attacks; apparently he’s been seeing his doctor about them”.

      “Stable or unstable angina?”

      “I don’t really know”.

      “He’s not especially obese, and he doesn’t strike me as being a Type A personality. I suppose his smoking must be part of it”.

      Becca nodded; “He’s been smoking that pipe of his for as long as I can remember”.

      “I have no memory of him without it”, I said. “It’s kind of part of his comfy image, isn’t it? I always associate him with the smell of pipe smoke and pipe tobacco”.

      “Me too”, Becca agreed; “Gold Flake”.

      “Right”.

      “As a future doctor I disapprove, of course, but I’ve never been able to find it in my heart to scold him about it”.

      “Good heavens, no! When I was a kid he was one of the few adults in my life who didn’t get after me!”

      “I really like them both”, said Kelly quietly; “I hope he’s okay”.

      “Me too”, I replied.

      We were all quiet for a moment, and then Becca said, “So, what about your side of the pond? Any news?”

      “Did we tell you that Krista’s about to start a couple of big projects?” asked Kelly.

      “No – what’s that all about?”

      “She’s still working with David Gustafson, of course. The first one’s about caribou; it’s an investigation into the health of the population in northern Saskatchewan. Apparently it’ll be a four-year study”.

      “That sounds like a big project; is she going to be able to find time for it?”

      “She’s going to resign her job with the Park, and Rachel’s going to be six this summer so she’ll be in school full time starting in September. But that’s not the only study David and Krista are starting; they’re doing one on migratory birds in southern Saskatchewan as well; I think that one’s about the impact of gas wells on habitat”.

      “Both government studies?”

      “Yeah; the first one’s actually a joint project between the federal and provincial governments”.

      “She’s going to be pretty busy”, Becca mused. She frowned thoughtfully; “Are they okay? Tommy told me a few years ago that Krista got a bit burned out once before”.

      “Steve’s been telling her for a long time that this is the sort of work she should be doing”, I replied.

      “Actually”, Kelly added, “between you and me, I think their days in Prince Albert National Park are numbered. I think within a year or two they’ll be moving into Saskatoon”.

      “Wow”, Becca replied; “That would be a big change for them”.

      “Yeah, although they have lived there before. But I think Krista will want to be closer to David so that they can work together more effectively when they’re not in the field, and I think Steve will be on the lookout for a Saskatchewan government job”.

      “They’d be closer to you if they lived in Saskatoon, wouldn’t they?”

      Kelly smiled. “Yeah, that would be nice; I sure wouldn’t mind seeing more of them”.

 

      “Should we tell her?” Kelly asked me a little later, while we were holding each other in bed.

      “I was wondering about that. I’d hate to think we’d given her the impression that we sail peacefully through life without ever having a problem or a disagreement”.

      “Yeah”.

      I was quiet for a moment, and then I kissed her on the forehead and said, “I guess I’ve been thinking I would follow your lead on that. One of my big mistakes this Fall was to break the privacy of our marriage; I still feel really guilty about that. I know this is Becca we’re talking about, but still…”

      “She must have noticed something when she was with us in the summer”.

      “She didn’t say anything. And of course, I wasn’t so busy in the summer, and Ellie and Darren and I weren’t gigging much, so maybe the stress didn’t show”.

      “Maybe”. She yawned and said, “Well, my husband, I think I might actually fall asleep now”.

      “I’ve actually been asleep for quite a while; I’m surprised you and Becca didn’t notice”.

      She laughed and kissed me; “I love you”.

      “I love you too; have a good sleep”.

 

      The next day my father got up at his usual hour, ate his breakfast and then drove into Oxford for his last day of work before the Christmas holidays started; he was just leaving when I got up at about 7.30 to go out for my walk. The rest of the family took a little longer to get going, and it was about 8.30 by the time we sat down for breakfast around the kitchen table.

      Emma was fascinated by the fact that there was no snow on the ground in England. “Don’t you get snow?” she asked Becca, who was sitting beside her.

      “Sometimes we do, but it’s not like your kind of snow; it’s wet and slushy, and all the children get excited and make snowmen and throw snowballs at each other. But all the adults get frustrated because the trains don’t run on time and the roads get really bad”.

      “Cool!”

      I grinned at her; “That’s what we used to say when we were kids”.

      Becca laughed; “I don’t remember us actually saying, ‘Cool’! Mind you, I barely remember you being young at all, Tommy; you were already ancient when I was born!”

      “Twelve is not ancient!”

      “Were you really twelve when Auntie Becca was born?” Emma asked me.

      “I was; she was a cute little squirt”.

      Becca stuck her tongue out at me, but Emma frowned and said, “So when you were as old as me, Auntie Becca wasn’t even born yet”.

      “That’s right”.

      “You’re really old, aren’t you, Daddy?”

      Everyone laughed, and I said, “Nine is old; thirty-six is venerable”.

      “He’s old”, Becca replied with a grin; “Positively ancient!”

      “Watch it, Small One!”

      “Why do you call her ‘Small One’?” asked Emma.

      Becca laughed; “He’s been calling me that since I was eight or nine”.

      “It’s from a movie we saw when she was a little girl”, I explained; “There was a donkey in it called ‘Small One’. I started calling her that right after we saw the movie, and she liked it”.

      “Of course, he’s been calling me ‘Little Becs’ for as long as I can remember”, said Becca.

      Emma smiled at her; “You’ve got a lot of names!”

      “Well, my real name is ‘Rebecca’, but I couldn’t say that when I was little, so I started calling myself ‘Becca’, and it stuck. At least, that’s what your grandma tells me; I can’t remember it myself”.

      “That’s right”, my mother agreed; “When you were little, we always called you Rebecca, but when you started to learn to talk you couldn’t say it properly – you used to say ‘Bebecca’, and gradually it became ‘Becca’”. Tom, of course, called you ‘Becs’ right from the beginning; I tried to stop him, but he didn’t take any notice of me!”

      Becca grinned at me; “I really can’t remember a time when you didn’t call me that”.

      “I certainly can’t remember a time when you didn’t call me ‘Tommy’ – you’re the only one who’s ever done that”.

      She shook her head; “I can’t remember why I started”. She turned back to Emma. “What about you? How long have you been called ‘Em’?”

      Emma looking quizzically at Kelly; “I don’t remember”.

      “I think we were probably calling you that before you could talk”.

      “Daddy calls me ‘Emma Dawn’ a lot”.

      “I do”, I agreed, smiling at Kelly as she sat beside me; “I’ve always liked the way those two names go together”.

      “Your daddy and I had a conversation about that long before you were born”, said Kelly.

      “When?”

      Kelly looked at me; “Were we even engaged yet?”

      “No we weren’t; it was the night of the first ever singaround, right after Joe and Ellie moved into their house, so that would make it the summer of 1983”.

      She was quiet for a moment, smiling at me, and I could see she was enjoying the memory. But Emma was curious now; “So you were talking about my name before you were even married?”

      “Before we were even engaged”, I replied.

      “Why?”

      I looked at Kelly, and she smiled and said, “You tell her”.

      “Well, we’d organized a singaround at Uncle Joe and Auntie Ellie’s”, I said to Emma; “They’d only been married a couple of months, and of course they had no kids yet. Pastor Rob and Mandy were there, and their kids were just little at the time; I think Megan might have been five. We all sat out in the back yard for the singaround, and your mum was helping Mandy a lot with the kids. Afterwards, when everyone left, she and I sat out and talked for a while, and then she walked me home. I said something about Rob and Mandy’s kids being cute, and then I asked her if she wanted to have kids. She said, ‘I’ve been dreaming about having kids since I was about fourteen’”.

      “Which was absolutely true”, said Kelly, smiling at Emma. “Ever since I was about fourteen, I’d been having a dream about being the mom of a little blond-haired girl called Emma”.

      “You dreamed about me before I was born?”

      “I did. So I told your daddy that, and I asked him if he liked the name ‘Emma’. He said he did, and then he asked me if I liked ‘Dawn’, because he thought the two names would go together well. I said I did, and then he got this little smile on his face, and he said, ‘Emma Dawn – sounds like a plan!’”

      Becca grinned; “Sounds like Tommy had a plan, even if you weren’t officially engaged yet!”

      “I don’t think I’ve ever heard that story before”, said my mother.

      I didn’t reply, because I noticed that Kelly had suddenly started staring into space. I realized immediately that some new thought had just occurred to her and that she was trying to process it, and I put my hand on hers. “Are you okay?” I asked softly.

      She stared at me for a moment, and then she spoke in a hushed voice: “There was just one child in the dream”.

      “Yes”.

      “I had it several times; it wasn’t always the same situation, but it was always the same child: Emma. There was never any other child”.

      And then I understood. We looked at each other for a moment, and I saw the tears brimming in her eyes. She got to her feet: “I’m sorry; could you all please excuse me for just a moment?”

      She turned and slipped out of the room. Becca started to get up to follow her, but I reached across and grabbed her hand; “No, Becs. She’s okay, she’s not upset or anything like that; she just needs a minute to sort herself out”.

      “What’s the matter, Tom?” my mother asked as Becca sat down again.

      “Nothing; Kelly’s just noticed something about that old dream that never occurred to her before”.

      “What did she mean when she said, ‘There was never any other child?’” asked Emma; “Was there supposed to be someone else besides me?”

      At that moment I saw the penny drop in Becca’s mind; her hand flew to her mouth, and she said, “Oh my God – I get it!”

      “Are you going to explain it, then?” asked my mother.

      Becca looked at me, and I said, “I think Kelly would rather explain it herself, but she probably won’t be able to do it right away”.

      “Daddy, is Mommy alright?” asked Emma.

      “She is, sweetheart; she’s not sad, and there’s no need to worry about her. She’ll explain it to you as soon as she can. Mum, is there any more coffee in that pot?”

      “I’m afraid we’ve just drained it; would you like me to make a fresh pot?”

      “You sit tight”, I said, getting to my feet; “I’ll do it”.

      I got up and went over to the counter, filled the kettle and plugged it in; I cleaned out the coffee grounds from the cafetière, rinsed it out and put in some fresh coffee. A couple of minutes later I was just pouring boiling water into the cafetière when Kelly came back into the room, wiping her eyes with a Kleenex; she came over to me and kissed me, then sat down again at the table and said, “Sorry about that, everyone; I really didn’t mean to cause a scene”.

      “Are you alright?” asked my mother.

      “I am, Irene – thank you”.

      “Mommy”, said Emma, “what did you mean when you said that there was never any other child, just me?”

      Kelly looked at her for a moment, and then she said, “Do you know how sometimes you can be so happy about something that it almost makes you want to cry?”

      “Yes”.

      “And then you start to cry, and someone asks you why you’re crying, and you’re afraid to try to answer, because you know that as soon as you start, you’re going to cry even more, and you don’t want to do that”.

      “So you’re crying because you’re happy, not because you’re sad?”

      “That’s right – and it’s all because of you”.

      “Me?”

      Kelly nodded; “Yes, but if I try to explain it to you, I’m just going to cry some more, so do you think you could wait for a little while?”

      Emma nodded, her face suddenly serious; “I think so”.

      “Thank you”. Kelly glanced around the table; “Okay, if someone could change the subject, I’d really appreciate it!”

      “Who wants fresh coffee?” I asked.

      “Me, please!” said Kelly.

      “And me”, Becca added.

      I stirred the coffee in the cafetière, and then I refilled their coffee cups, handed them around, and poured a cup for myself. I sat down beside Kelly, smiled at my mother, and said, “So Auntie Brenda and Uncle Roy are coming for Christmas dinner?”

      “Yes they are, and they’re looking forward to seeing you”.

      “Becca tells me Uncle Roy’s not been well”.

      “No; I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, but he’s been keeping it rather quiet. He doesn’t want people to worry”.

      “Is it serious?”

      “Well, it’s angina, and that’s heart-related, so of course that’s always a worry”.

      “He retired this year, didn’t he?”

      “Yes – he had his sixty-fifth birthday back in March, and his retirement party the very next day!”

      I laughed; “I can see him doing that; he would have been looking forward to putting in some serious time on the golf course”.

      “Yes; he did quite a lot of that over the summer, but then in September he started having these problems with angina, and since then he’s mainly been staying home”.

      “Is Brenda okay?” asked Kelly.

      “She is, although I’m sure she’s worried”.

      “Mommy, what’s angina?” asked Emma.

      “It’s a pain that people get in their chest when their heart muscle isn’t getting enough blood”.

      “Why wouldn’t it get enough blood?”

      “Sometimes it’s because the blood vessels have a buildup of plaque on their inside walls, so they get narrower”.

      “You told me once what plaque is, but I don’t remember”.

      “It’s a fatty substance that develops in the blood vessels, and gradually it gets harder; that’s called ‘hardening of the arteries’”.

      “Is that what Uncle Roy has, then?”

      “I don’t know, but I doubt it; I think it might be something else. Uncle Roy’s been smoking a pipe for a long time. Smoking can damage the walls of arteries, and when that happens, special blood cells called platelets will form at the site of the damage and try to repair it. The buildup of the platelets can cause the arteries to narrow, and that can cause angina too”.

      My mother was watching this conversation, and I could see that she was fascinated by it. “You know a lot about the human body, Emma”, she said.

      “Mommy always explains things to me. She’s a nurse, so she knows all about that stuff”.

      “And she’s got a nice way of explaining it, hasn’t she?”

      “Yeah”, Emma replied, smiling across at Kelly; “I like it”.

      I took a sip of my coffee and cupped my hands around the mug. “What about Dad’s family? Any plans for a Christmas get-together?”

      “Not that I’m aware of. Of course, they’ve all got children of their own, and no doubt they’ll all have their own family gatherings”.

      “Any news of them?”

      “Well, you knew that Ann got married last summer, didn’t you?”

      “I have a vague memory of that; you might have mentioned it to me on the phone”.

      “Remind me which one Ann is?” asked Kelly.

      “She’s my Uncle Bill’s daughter”, I explained; “Uncle Bill is Dad’s youngest brother. Ann teaches history at Cambridge University”.

      “She’s really the only one of Frank’s nieces and nephews who keeps in touch with us”, my mother added. “She married a man called Mark Fogerty; he’s a Cambridge don too. I’m sure I’ve got a wedding picture somewhere”.

      “No word from Vern the punk rocker?” I asked with a grin.

      My mother laughed; “The last I heard, he’d given up his career in rock music and become a lorry driver!”

      “Really? That’s news to me! I’m kind of sad about that, actually; I always kind of warmed to the idea of having a punk rocker in the family”.

      Becca grinned; “A kindred spirit?”

      “Well, you did make a Billy Bragg fan out of me, and I suppose he’s sort of a punk rocker, isn’t he?”

      “He’s kind of post-punk, actually”.

      “I haven’t got a clue what either of you are talking about!” said my mother with a smile.

      “And a good thing too!” I replied, putting my hand on hers sympathetically. “On another subject, have we got any plans for Boxing Day?”

      “No; are you and Owen planning something?”

      “Actually, they’ve invited us to go in and have lunch with them”.

      “I’d be happy to have them out here if you like; you know I’m always glad to see Owen”.

      “I know, Mum, but they’ve got two little ones now, and I think Lorraine’s a bit anxious about taking them onto strange turf”.

      My mother smiled and nodded; “Of course – I remember that feeling! By all means, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t go; I always knew you’d want to get together with Owen at some point”.

      “What about Rick and Alyson?” asked Kelly; “Are they coming on Christmas Day?”

      “Yes, we’ve told everyone that dinner will be about two o’clock; I hope that’s alright?”

      “When she says ‘dinner’”, I said to Kelly, “she means the meal that your dad and mom have at supper time”,

      “Ah, yes, you’re used to having it later in the day, aren’t you?” said my mother.

      “That’s fine, Irene”, Kelly replied; “I have a hunch we might start getting phone calls later in the day”.

      Becca nodded; “Christmas calls from back home?”

      “There might be a few of them!” I replied.

      “So what’s the plan for today?” asked Kelly.

      “No real plans”, Becca replied. “Mum, do you need help with Christmas preparations?”

      My mother shook her head; “The baking’s all ready, and I can’t really start on the rest until tomorrow night or even early Sunday morning. Unfortunately, I haven’t quite got all my Christmas presents yet; there are a couple of things I still need to pick up. I know Oxford will probably be crowded with shoppers today, but I was thinking of doing a quick run in, parking the car at your dad’s office, and then walking around for an hour or two”. She smiled at us; “I’ll need to do the shopping part by myself, though”.

      “Maybe Tommy and Kelly and Emma would like to go in too”, Becca suggested. “I could drive in and park at Auntie Brenda and Uncle Roy’s, and we could pop in and say hello to them, and then walk into town from there. You might enjoy seeing the decorations”, she said to Kelly.

      “And there’s a nice Christmas buzz in Oxford, too”, I added.

      “How long a walk is it from your aunt and uncle’s place?” Kelly asked Becca.

      “About a mile”

      I looked at Kelly; “What do you think?”

      “I’m up for it!”

      “Right then”, said my mother, “I’ll wash these pots, and then we can get going”.

      “Do you want some help, Mum?” asked Becca.

      “Oh no, I’ll just leave them to drain”.

 

      We spent an enjoyable couple of hours wandering around Oxford. The weather was cool, and people were bundled up in coats and scarves, but to Kelly and Emma, who were used to seeing people in down parkas and winter boots at this time of year, it was very different. Emma kept coming back to the fact that there was no snow on the ground. “It seems so weird”, she said to Becca; “I never knew you didn’t have snow here at Christmas”.

      “We get some nice frosty mornings sometimes”, Becca replied, “and those tend to be the days when the sky’s clear and there’s no rain. Most of the time, though, it’s just wet and windy”.

      Emma enjoyed seeing the Christmas decorations in the streets and in the shop windows, and Kelly and I took advantage of the opportunity to slip surreptitiously into stores while Becca was keeping her occupied, so that we could pick up a couple of last minute gifts. Later, we stopped in at the Queen’s Lane Coffee House on the High, squeezing into a corner table while we drank our coffee and nibbled on mince tarts.

      “Do you remember any of this from the last time you were here, Em?” asked Becca.

      Emma was drinking hot chocolate; she set the mug down, wiped the whipped cream from her mouth, and said, “I don’t remember much about that trip at all; how old was I then?”

      “Four and a half”, Kelly replied; “We were here in the summer of 1990. Do you remember Auntie Becca took us on a long trip all the way up to Scotland; we went out on the sea in a boat”.

      Emma frowned thoughtfully. “I think I remember something about that. And when we went into the kitchen at Grandma’s house I remembered making cookies with her, too”.

      “You did that one time when Daddy and I went into Oxford so he could play music with Uncle Owen”.

      “I like Oxford; the stores are cool, and I like the old buildings too”.

      Becca smiled; “Well, we’ve grown ourselves an Anglophile!”

      “What’s an Anglophile?” asked Emma.

      “Someone who loves England”.

      “So far it’s pretty nice. But Auntie Becca, you’ve never come to see us for Christmas, have you?”

      “No, I never have”. Becca frowned; “I’ve thought about it sometimes, but I suppose I always felt sorry for your Grandma. She’s already got one son away in Canada – your dad – and if I went away for Christmas too, that would only leave her Uncle Rick and his family”.

      “Well, there’s five of them”, Emma replied, “and between you and me and Daddy and Mommy, there’s only four of us, so she’d still be ahead!”

      Becca laughed and leaned over to kiss her on the forehead. “What do you like doing at Christmas, Emma Dawn?”

      “Going to Grandma and Grandpa Reimer’s. Sometimes Uncle Joe and Auntie Ellie go to Humboldt for Christmas, and sometimes Auntie Krista and Uncle Steve go to Uncle Steve’s family, but we’re always at Grandpa and Grandma’s. I like it when everyone else is there, though: Jake and Jenna, and Mike and Rachel; we have a lot of fun! Last year the weather was nice and we all went tobogganing in the afternoon while Grandma and Mommy were getting supper ready”.

      “Do you go to church on Christmas Eve, too?”

      “Yeah – we light candles and sing lots of carols, and the kids do a Christmas play”.

      “That’s not at midnight, then?”

      Kelly shook her head; “We’ve got so many younger families with kids, so we always have it earlier in the evening. I don’t think we’ve ever had a midnight service – not that I can remember, anyway”.

      “Mum will want to go to church tomorrow night”, said Becca, “although it’s not at midnight any more. The vicar has three or four churches to look after now, so they can’t all have prime time; I think Northwood has an early evening service this year. Still, it’s the one time every year when Mum gets to go to church. Dad used to go with her on Christmas Eve, but he hasn’t for a few years now, so I usually go with her”.

      “We all used to go when we were kids”, I said; “I think I stopped when I was about fifteen, though”.

      “Yes, I can’t ever remember going with you”.

      “No – when you were little, Mum stayed home with you, and by the time she started going again, I think I’d already stopped”.

      Becca grinned; “That’s funny! Are you telling me that our atheist father took his two sons to the midnight service, while his wife – the one who does believe in God – stayed home?”

      “Yep – that’s the way it was!”

      “You’ll be going this year, I take it?”

      “I think so”.

      “We’ve never actually been to church here in Northwood”, said Kelly.

      “No, we haven’t”, I replied; “Whenever we’ve been here before, we’ve always gone to church with Owen and Lorraine in Headington”.

      “We usually see Owen’s mum and dad in church when we go on Christmas Eve”, said Becca.

      “Of course you would; this is the church they go to. I’d forgotten about that”.

      Kelly smiled at me; “You’ll look forward to seeing them”.

      “Yes I will”.

      “Have I ever met Uncle Owen’s mom and dad?” asked Emma.

      “We saw them briefly the last time we were here”, Kelly replied; “Daddy took us over to visit them one evening, but you probably don’t remember”.

      Emma shook her head; “What are they like?”

      “Mr. Foster’s bald”, I replied with a grin; “As bald as an egg!”

      “He used to be your daddy’s schoolteacher”, Kelly added.

      “It’s true”, I said to Emma; “He taught me English”.

      “He was my English teacher too”, said Becca quietly; “He was very good”.

      “Yes, he was; it’s because of him that I’m a teacher today”.

 

      My mother put a late lunch on the kitchen table when we got home, finishing up with a big pot of tea. As we ate, we swapped stories about our trips to Oxford, and at one point my mother looked at my wife and said, “Now, Kelly, are you warm enough?”

      Kelly grinned; “I’m wearing quite a few layers, and a thick pair of wool socks, so I’m fine, thanks!”

      After lunch Emma asked if she could go outside again, and Becca said, “Do you remember the lake behind the house?”

      “Yes, I do! I’d forgotten, but now I remember!”

      “Shall we go up there, and leave your mum and dad to finish their tea with Grandma? Is that okay with mum and dad?”

      “That’s fine”, said Kelly; “Make sure you wrap up well, though, Em”.

      “Oh, Mommy! I was outside this morning and I wasn’t cold at all!”

      We laughed, and as Becca and Emma got up from the table and went off together, Kelly said, “I guess I’m the wuss around here!”

      I smiled at my mother. “So, are you going to play the piano for us at some point?”

      “I could do that, although of course I’d like to hear you play as well”.

      “Did you notice that Emma brought a guitar with her this time? She’s a little shy about it, but I know she’d love it if she could show you the chords she knows”.

      “I saw that little guitar case when you were unloading; is that some sort of beginner guitar?”

      “Yeah, we gave it to her for her birthday. Beth’s been teaching her chords on her three-quarter size guitar for a few months now, but this student model’s just right for her, and she’s enjoying it”.

      My mother smiled at Kelly; “You’ve raised a young musician”.

      “It was inevitable. She used to stand in front of Tom or Owen when they played, watching their hands on the strings; sometimes she’d put her hand out to touch the guitar when Tom was playing, so she could feel the vibrations in the wood. I always knew she would play sooner or later”.

      “She’s grown up so much since the last time I saw her; it’s hard to believe she’s nine years old”.

      We were quiet for a moment, and then Kelly said, “Is there any more tea in that pot?”

      “Of course!” My mother reached for Kelly’s mug, poured a little milk into the bottom of it, and then filled it up with tea from the teapot. She passed it back to Kelly with a smile; “What about you, Tom?” she asked me.

      “I’m alright, thanks, Mum”.

      Kelly cupped her hands around the mug. “I think maybe I should try to tell you what was going on this morning, Irene”.

      “If you’re sure you want to”.

      “I’ll talk to Emma about it later, but I don’t want to say very much to her; I don’t want her to get the idea that I’ve not been happy with having her as an only child”.

      “Right”.

      Kelly frowned thoughtfully, then looked at my mother and said, “I don’t think I’ve ever talked to you about how devastated I was at not being able to have any more children”.

      “Tom mentioned it occasionally, but no – you and I have never talked about it”.

      “That was a big part of that awful depression I had after my surgery. I’d always assumed that I’d be able to have three or four kids, like my mom; that’s what I was looking forward to when we got married. And then when I had my surgery, I felt like I’d lost almost everything I’d ever dreamed about; I couldn’t even nurse my baby anymore because of the chemo. That’s why I went into that deep dark depression, and even after I started to win against it later on in the year, it still put up quite a fight”.

      “It came back sometimes when you heard about people expecting new babies, didn’t it?”

      “How did you know?”

      “I saw it in your face last time you were here, when Lorraine told us she was pregnant; I could see how hard you were trying to be happy for her, but I knew you were struggling”.

      Kelly reached out and covered my mother’s hand with her own; “Thank you for understanding”.

      “It’s not hard to understand, Kelly”.

      “Most of the time I was alright, but every now and again the darkness would come down on me again – usually when people became pregnant or had newborn babies. I went through it when Joe and Ellie had Jenna, and when Krista had her babies, and when we heard from Rick and Alyson or Owen and Lorraine that they were expecting. Joe and Ellie guessed it, of course, and over the years they’ve gone out of their way to include us in Jake and Jenna’s lives; we live so close to each other, and our kids are together so much that it’s almost like they’re siblings”.

      She took a sip of her tea, staring thoughtfully into space. “I had a hard time again when Emma started Grade One. She was going to be in school full time, and it suddenly hit me that I wasn’t even thirty-three years old yet and my house was going to be empty all day long. It just seemed so wrong and unfair. I tried to hide it from Tom, but he found me crying one night and we had a long talk about it. That’s when we decided to really get serious about praying about it”.

      “Did it help?”

      “Yes, it did. It wasn’t a sudden thing, though – gradually, as the months and years went by, I realized the darkness wasn’t coming back as often, and it wasn’t as deep and dark as it had been. Funnily enough, having the church kids over to our house on Sunday nights helped; I got to be the clan mom, even though I knew I wasn’t really their mom, and they looked to me and asked me questions, and I felt like I was able to be there for them and help them”.

      “She started coming out of her shell again”, I said; “She still wasn’t the bubbly extrovert she was when we were first married, but she gradually got more interested in opportunities to reach out to other people”.

      “And all of that has helped”, Kelly agreed; “I’ve always known that the worst thing about my depression is that it turns me inward and makes me focus on myself. Whenever I can find the strength to reverse that, the darkness isn’t quite so dark”.

      “So this morning…?” my mother asked gently.

      Kelly was quiet for a moment, staring off into space with her hand around her tea mug. Eventually she said, “Those dreams I told you about this morning were really important to me. Even when I left the church I never stopped believing in God, and I found it very comforting that I had that dream several times over the years – the dream of the little blond-haired girl called Emma. I knew in the dream that her name was Emma, and I knew I was her mom. Like I said, I told Tom about the dream before we were engaged. When I got pregnant, I was pretty sure it would be a girl, and that we would call her Emma – well, Tom and I had already agreed on ‘Emma Dawn’ as a girl’s name. Now and again he told me I shouldn’t get too tied to the idea of having a girl, just in case it was a boy. But I kind of knew, Irene; I trusted the dreams. Does that sound crazy to you?”

      My mother shook her head slowly. “I’ve never had that sort of dream, but I would never describe you as crazy”.

      Kelly laughed; “Sometimes I wonder!” Then she frowned again, and I saw the fragile expression on her face; “This last part might be hard for me”, she said.

      “Don’t upset yourself if you’d rather not”, my mother replied.

      Kelly shook her head; “I’m not sad, but I am a little emotional”.

      I reached across the table and put my hand on hers. “Do you want me to finish the story? I think I can guess it”.

      “No; I’d like to try”.

      “Okay”.

      She sat quietly again for a moment, and then she said, “I guess I always wondered, deep down inside, whether something had gone wrong with God’s plan for me. I knew God didn’t send my cancer, and I knew he wasn’t punishing me or anything like that, but I guess I wondered how having cancer and losing my ability to have more children fit into the big picture. I knew bad things do happen to good people, of course, but I’ve still struggled with those questions over the years, like a lot of people do”.

      My mother nodded; “Of course”.

      “Well, when I told Emma about the dreams this morning, I suddenly noticed something I’d never seen before: she was the only child in the dreams. I had them several times over the years, and it was always just her and me; I knew she was my little girl, and that her name was Emma and her hair was blond, but never, at any time, were there any more children in the dreams”. Kelly’s lip was trembling now, and I could see that she was fighting back the tears; I took both her hands in mine, and she smiled gratefully at me; “I’m nearly there”, she whispered.

      “I know”.

      “It’s really hard to articulate this in a way that makes sense, Irene”, she said, turning back toward my mother. “I’d always felt those dreams were kind of like a message from God, letting me know that what I wanted to happen, would happen – that I would be a mom and have a little girl called Emma. And when it came true, it gave me a sense that there was a plan, and I was walking in it, and I got a lot of comfort and peace from that. And then this morning, when I realized for the first time that Emma was the only child in the dream – well, it gave me a sense that God had told me about that beforehand, too, and I hadn’t noticed it”.

      Kelly’s eyes were wet with tears now. “I just felt, deep down inside, for the first time, that it was really, totally okay. Ever since this morning, I’ve been completely at peace about it. Emma’s my daughter, and I’m her mom, and for us to be a family of three instead of a family of five or six is okay, because we love each other, and that’s what really matters. And I know that on Boxing Day we’ll meet Katie Foster for the first time; she’s four months old and she’ll be incredibly cute, and I’ll be fine with that – I know I will, because of what happened this morning. And I can’t even begin to tell you how incredibly thankful I am for that”.

      My mother looked at her for a moment, and then she got up from the table, went to her, bent down and put her arms around her. “I hope you know how very, very grateful I am that you married my son”.

      “Thank you, Irene”.

      They held each other for a moment, and then my mother straightened up, smiled at her again, and said, “So Becca knows all this, then?”

      “I’m sure she’s figured it out; she knows me pretty well”.

      “Yes, she does”, my mother replied quietly, sitting down again; “She always says you’re her big sister”.

      Kelly laughed. “It’s a long time since I’ve been bigger than Becca; she’s been looking down on me for years!” She drained her tea mug, and then looked at me across the table; “Well, shall we go out and see what they’re up to? I’ve never seen the lake in wintertime”.

      “There won’t be any ice, you know”, I replied playfully.

      “I don’t care, I’m still going to put my scarf and tuque on!”

 

      I talked to Owen on the phone on the morning of Boxing Day. “Tell Becca not to try driving through Oxford today”, he said; “The place will be a madhouse. Tell her to come round on the ring road. If she’s got a road map, she should be able to find our house from there; we’re just on the eastern side of New Headington, not far from Shotover Country Park”.

      I grinned. “Owen, I stayed at your house for a week last time I was here; I know where you live”.

      “Of course I realize that – I was just telling you what to tell Becca: Palmer Road, in New Headington”.

      “I write letters and mail them to your mailing address too, you know”.

      “Sorry – I’ll just leave you to it, then!”

      I told Becca about this conversation as we were getting ready to go, and she laughed and said, “He thinks I’m still a child, doesn’t he?”

      “Well, he’s known you since you were about a year old!”

      “You’re taking a guitar, I see”, she said with a grin as I loaded my guitar case into the trunk of the car.

      “Well, you never know what might happen when Owen and I get together!”

 

      Becca pulled her car up to the sidewalk in front of Owen and Lorraine’s house at about twelve-thirty, and as we started to get out Owen and his family were already coming out to meet us. Andrew was nearly four years old now, but Katie was still a four-month old baby in her mother’s arms. Owen greeted us all with bear hugs as usual; “Come on in and get warm”, he said.

      “What time would you like me to pick you up?” Becca asked me.

      Owen stared at her. “Becca Masefield, have you got something against our company?”

      “Well, I didn’t want to presume…”

      “Don’t be silly; there’s plenty of food and we’ve set a place for you. If you’ve got something else you need to do, fair enough, but if not, we’d be delighted to have you in our home”.

      Becca hesitated; “Well, if you’re sure…”

      Kelly put her arm around her; “I insist!”

      So we all went inside, shed our coats, and gathered around the dining room table for an uproarious hour of food, conversation, and laughter. Owen did most of the serving while Lorraine sat beside Kelly at the table; at first she had been nursing Katie, but it didn’t take long for her to pass her over to Kelly. I watched as Kelly held Katie close as she slept, or talked to her after she woke up; at one point our eyes met, and she smiled and nodded; “I’m okay”, she said quietly.

      Emma was watching pretty closely as well, and at one point, after we had finished eating, she said, “Can I hold Katie too, Mommy?”

      Kelly looked at Lorraine, and Lorraine immediately smiled and said, “Of course you can, Em; you’ll be careful, I know”.

      “I will”.

      So Emma came and sat beside her mother, and Kelly carefully passed Katie to her. Emma cradled her in her arms and kissed her on her forehead; “Hi, Katie”, she said; “You’re so cute!”

      We all smiled, and Becca said, “A babysitter is born!”

      Emma grinned; “How old was Bethie when she started babysitting me, Mommy?”

      “She was twelve”.

      “Only three more years to go, then!”

      “So tell me”, asked Owen, “how was Christmas day at the Masefields?”

      Kelly laughed; “Nobody warned me about the dress code!”

      Owen grinned at me; “Black tie and tails at your mum and dad’s, is it?”

      “No, but the men do tend to wear jackets and ties, and the women wear dresses and pearls”.

      “Who was there?”

      “Rick and Alyson and their kids, and Auntie Brenda and Uncle Roy – and all of us, of course”.

      “So you forgot your pearls, did you, Kelly?”

      She smiled mischievously at him; “This is me we’re talking about! I was in jeans until the guests started to arrive, at which point I very quickly ran up to my room and put on the one dress I’d brought with me for the holiday!”

      “Did you wear a jacket and tie, Tom?” asked Lorraine.

      “Good heavens, no – I didn’t even bring a tie with me!”

      Owen stared at me in mock amazement; “You rebel, you!”

      “It was refreshing, actually”, said Becca. “I’ve always thought we looked a bit ridiculous in formal clothes and paper party hats, pulling our Christmas crackers!”

      “That was kind of different!” said Kelly.

      “We went to church in an old stone church”, said Emma, rocking back and forth with Katie in her chair.

      Owen nodded. “I heard you were in church; we were out at Mum and Dad’s yesterday, and they told us they saw you there”.

      “We sat with them”, said Emma; “Your mom shared her hymn book with me, Uncle Owen”.

      “She told me she enjoyed talking with you; she said you told her all about Meadowvale”.

      Emma smiled shyly; “She was really nice”.

      “So how did you find the service?” Lorraine asked Kelly.

      “It was a little more formal and traditional than your church. Of course, the Church of England’s always a little different for us Mennonites; we’re not used to reading written prayers out of a book, or at least, not very often”.

      “The pastor was wearing a long robe”, Emma added.

      “Well, you’ve seen that before”, I said, “when we’ve been to church with Uncle Owen and Auntie Lorraine”.

      “I can’t really remember”.

      “No, I guess not”, said Kelly; “It was four and a half years ago, which is half your life!”

      Lorraine glanced across at me; “How are your brother and his family, Tom?”

      “The kids are a few years older than they were last time we were here. Rick doesn’t send many pictures, so we got a bit of a surprise when we saw them yesterday”.

      “How old are they now?”

      “Eric’s eight, Sarah’s six, and Anna’s two”.

      “You know, we could move into the living room”, said Owen; “I’ll clear up the table and make some tea, and Emma can hold Katie in the rocking chair”.

      So we all moved into the living room, and Owen made tea and passed mugs around to all of us while Emma sat in the rocking chair holding Katie, who had quietly gone back to sleep. It was obvious that Owen and Lorraine had made an effort to clean the room, but it hadn’t taken four-year old Andrew long to get his toys out again, and there were wooden trains and Legos and action figures strewn all over the carpet. Lorraine apologized; “Sorry for the mess”, she said.

      “Looks pretty good to me”, Kelly replied  ; “I remember what it was like!”

      “Are you past the mess-making stage now, Em?” asked Lorraine.

      Emma gave her a sheepish grin; “I still forget to clean up sometimes”.

      “She still likes to play with toys”, I said, “but she’s quite the reader now, too – and the guitar player as well”.

      “I heard that!” said Owen; “Are you learning your dad’s songs, Em?”

      “Some of them, and some church songs. Bethie and Dad are teaching me”.

      “Speaking of guitars, I thought I saw one coming in…?”

      “You did”, I replied.

      “Would anyone mind if we played some music?”

      “I’ve been looking forward to it”, said Kelly with a smile.

      Becca grinned at me; “You promised you’d play me a couple of Billy Bragg songs”.

      “And I’m about to keep that promise!”

 

      One day during the week after Christmas we were sitting around the kitchen table after breakfast, drinking our coffee, and Becca was talking to us about Meadowvale and some of the people who lived there. After a while the conversation lapsed, and then my mother spoke quietly; “One of these days, I should come to Meadowvale again”.

      Kelly raised her eyebrows; “Oh yeah?”

      “Yes. It’s a long time since I’ve seen Will and Sally, and I’ve never seen your new house”.

      I smiled; “The new house that we’ve been in for seven and a half years?”

      “Is it really that long?”

      “We moved into it in the spring of 1987”, Kelly replied, “three months after I was told I was cancer-free”.

      “You’ll have to come to the mountains with us, Grandma!” said Emma; “We can go camping and hiking, and canoeing and trail riding!”

      “Or, alternatively, sleeping in a comfortable bed in a hotel”, I added with a smile.

      “I don’t mind camping”, said my mother, grinning conspiratorially at Emma, “but I’m not very good with bears”.

      “We make lots of noise, and then they stay away from us”.

      “I might not be able to keep up with you all on the mountain trails”.

      Becca grinned; “No one can keep up with Kelly; she’s a mountain goat”.

      My father lowered his newspaper and glanced at my mother. “I’m having difficulty seeing you in a tent”.

      “I won’t know until I try it, will I?”

      He shrugged; “Suit yourself”, he said, turning back to his newspaper again.

 

      “Do you think she’ll come?” Kelly asked me that night as we were getting ready for bed.

      “I doubt it; she hasn’t been in ten years”.

      “That’s what I thought; it’s just that it sounded this morning like she might be serious”.

      “I know what you mean; she’s never mentioned it in conversation before, and when I’ve said anything about it, she’s always said something about complications”.

      “By which she means your dad”.

      “Of course; he’d be seriously pissed off if she came to visit the black sheep of the family”.

      She was buttoning up her flannel pyjamas, but she paused, frowned, and said, “Do you really think that after all this time he still sees you as the black sheep of the family?”

      “Oh yes; that elephant will never forget”.

      “Has she ever talked to you about it?”

      “About what?”

      “About your dad being the reason she doesn’t come to visit us”.

      “No”.

      “No? Really?”

      “There are things my mum and I don’t talk about”.

      “Oh yeah?”

      “Yes. She doesn’t ask me about my marriage, and I don’t ask her about hers”.

      “You don’t talk to her about us?”

      “She asks me how you’re doing, and I tell her, but if we were having difficulties, I wouldn’t tell her”. I looked at her for a moment, and then I added, “I hope I’ve learned my lesson well on that score”.

      “I guess so”. She smiled at me; “Thank you for that”.

      “You’re welcome. Of course, I’m not planning to let the occasion arise again”.

      She came around the bed, put her arms around me, and said, “I’m glad about that”.

      “Me to”.

 

      Owen came out to Northwood one evening the following week, and he and I went down to the Kingfisher for a quiet pint. It was a cold and rainy night, and the pub was about half full; we found a seat at a corner table, drank our beer slowly, and talked quietly together. He talked for a while about the medical practice in Headington where he had worked since he finished his training, and in which he was now a full partner along with four other doctors. He asked me about Becca, and where she was in her studies, and when I told him that she had been talking about maybe looking for a position in Oxford, he said, “Tell her to get in touch with me when she’s finished; we’d like to have a couple more doctors in our practice, and one of our partners will be retiring in three years”.

      “I’ll do that; I’m sure she’ll be interested. Of course, she’s still got a few years to go”.

      He asked me about school and what was happening there, and I talked for a while about the kids – the challenging ones, and the ones I enjoyed – and also about my colleagues. “Things will be very different in a couple of years; Will’s retiring at the end of June 1996. We’d all like to think Don Robinson will follow him, but there are no guarantees”.

      “That’s Beth’s dad”.

      “Yes, and Kelly’s cousin; Don’s mum is Sally’s sister”.

      He grinned at me; “The tangled web of Meadowvale!”

      “I know”.

      We talked about our children for a while; as I had expected, he was thoroughly enjoying being a father, “Although our Andrew’s a bit like a human cyclone”, he said with a grin; “All he has to do is walk through a room and toys seem to fly out of their boxes and scatter all over the floor. There’s no telling yet whether Katie’ll be like him; if she’s lucky, she’ll take after her mum”.

      “Lorraine’s the tidy one, then?”

      “I’m afraid so; tidiness at home has never been my strong suit”.

      I grinned at him; “I remember that disaster area you called a room at Lincoln!”

      “Thanks very much, I’m sure!”

      “You’re welcome!”

      He took a sip of his beer. “How about you and Kelly? Are things okay with you?”

      I was quiet for a moment; Kelly and I had talked about this possibility, and she had told me to tell Owen anything I wanted, but I found I was a little hesitant nonetheless. Eventually I said, “We’ve had some tough times in the last year or two”.

      “Oh?”

      “I’ve been pretty stupid, actually”.

      He frowned; “How stupid?”

      I told him the story of our busy lives: my schoolwork and all its demands, as well as my gigging with Ellie and Darren, our Wednesday night study group and Sunday nights with the church kids, and Kelly’s full-time job. “It just got to be too much, and of course I didn’t want to admit there was a problem, because I was enjoying the gigging”.

      “Something woke you up, obviously”.

      I nodded; “Yes, you could say that”.

      He looked at me in silence for a moment, and then he said, “I’m listening”.

      I told him briefly about Leanne and what had passed between us, looking at the table as I spoke, and tracing patterns with my finger in the spilt water. When I was finished there was a long silence, and then he said, “So you were lucky, then”.

      “Yes”.

      “So what are you going to do about it? Because you and I both know that Kelly’s the best thing that ever happened to you, don’t we?”

      “I know, and we’ve already made changes. I’ve stopped gigging with Ellie and Darren, and I’ve stepped back from my friendship with Leanne. And when we get home Kelly’s going to go down to working half-time at the special care home; she asked them if they could find her someone to job share with, and it didn’t take them long to find another RN from town who only wanted to work half time”.

      “Will you be okay financially?”

      “We’ll be fine; we’ll have to tighten our belts a bit, but we’ve done that before”. I sat back a little in my chair, looked across at him and said, “It was a wake-up call, but we’re okay; please don’t worry about us. We love each other, and we’re getting back on track, and things are going well for us. In fact, Kelly’s just had a bit of a breakthrough”.

      “Oh?”

      I told him about Kelly’s epiphany moment when she had been telling Emma about her old dreams, and what it had meant for her in the days since then. “Did you see her with Katie?” I asked. “When Andrew was a baby and you came to see us, she had to fight hard not to be depressed, you know; she always tried hard to be happy for people with new babies, but deep down inside it always brought it all back for her”.

      “Lorraine said she noticed her struggling with it, but I didn’t; she hid it well”.

      “Yes; she didn’t want you guys to feel bad. But it looks like she’s finally got through it all; she’s just enjoying meeting Katie and holding her, and there were no tears or anything like that afterwards”.

      “Kelly’s really quite a mystic, isn’t she?”

      “How do you mean?”

      “Well, the dreams, and the way she just seems to share her life with God through the day. She’s such an outstanding human being; I hope you don’t ever take that for granted, because if you do, I might have to come over to Meadowvale and inflict an injury on you!”

      We both laughed, and he took another sip of his beer, a thoughtful expression on his face. “I remember that time you rang me, when you were about to go down to see the gynaecologist in Saskatoon, and you were still thinking it was just ovarian cysts, and it suddenly occurred to me that it might be ovarian cancer. All I could think of was the time you two had sat with Lorraine and me here at the Kingfisher, a couple of weeks before we got married, and I was so impressed with this amazing girl you’d found”.

      “That was a great evening”.

      “Yes, it was. Anyway, after we talked on the phone and you told me she was ill, I started praying for her whenever I thought about her; I don’t know how many times a day that was, but it was a lot, anyway. I still pray for her every day, and I’m not thinking of stopping”. He looked across at me in silence for a moment, and then he said, “You take care of that girl, okay? You nearly lost her once, and you and I both know that she’s one in a million. Don’t ever take her for granted; none of us knows what tomorrow might bring. So please – love her for all she’s worth, and don’t waste the days you’ve been given. Make every day count”.

      I looked at him for a moment, thinking how rare it was for him to be so directive with me. “Why are you saying this?” I asked; “Are you seeing something I’m not seeing?”

      He shook his head; “I’m not the least bit mystical; this is not crystal ball talk, and it’s not doctor diagnosis either. This is just me, loving you and Kelly – wishing we lived closer, of course, but wanting most of all for the two of you to keep on getting happier together. Please don’t waste a single day on stuff that doesn’t matter, Tom. Make every day count”.

      For a moment I didn’t speak; I looked at him, my oldest friend sitting across from me in the pub with a hint of grey now around his temples, and I nodded and said, “I’ll do my best. And thanks; I think I needed to hear those things, even though, deep down inside, I already knew them”.

      “You’re very welcome; I hope you’ll feel free to say the same sort of thing to me whenever you think I need it”.

      “I will”.

      “Good. Well, shall we drink up and get you home?”

      “Yes, I think my mum will be wanting to spend a bit more time with me tonight”.

      “Of course she will”, he said as we got to our feet; “She misses you, you know”.

      “I know, and I know I should come and visit her more often”.

      “Yes, you should”.

      I grinned; “You’re in a bossy mood tonight, Doctor Foster!”

      “Yes I am!” he replied with a smile.

 

      We flew home on January 4th; Kelly and I were both starting work again the next day, which we knew was a recipe for exhaustion, but we had wanted to give ourselves as much time in England as possible. It was raining at Heathrow, but it didn’t take long for the plane to climb through the clouds, and before long we were looking down on a blanket of snowy white underneath us. Kelly had the window seat this time, but she had not had a good night, and after we ate our meal she quickly fell asleep. Emma was reading a book, but after a while she closed it, looked up at me and said, “Are you going to miss them all, Daddy?”

      “Well, some of them more than others, but if you tell your mum I said that, I’ll be in big trouble!”

      She laughed softly. “I miss Auntie Becca all the time, you know”.

      “I know; so do I”.

      “Do you sometimes wish you hadn’t left England?”

      I shook my head; “Meeting your mum was the best thing that ever happened to me”.

      “I guess so. It would be nice if we lived a little closer, though, wouldn’t it?”

      “Did you have a good time, then?”

      “I really did, Daddy”.

      “What did you like about it?”

      “I liked some of the funny English things, like the Christmas crackers, and the people who came round to the door singing carols, and going walking in Oxford and seeing all the old buildings, and eating mince pies. Oh yeah, and I liked the fireplace at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, and the little bedroom I stayed in where I could look out over the garden and the orchard, and the books that Auntie Becca put in there for me. And I liked seeing where you went to school, and where you and Uncle Owen went to college – oh, and I liked Uncle Owen’s mom and dad, too, they were really cool people”.

      “I like them too; I’ve known them for almost as long as I’ve known Owen, and I met him when I was eleven, so that’s twenty-five years”.

      “I liked meeting Katie, too, and getting to hold her”.

      “I was very impressed with how careful you were”.

      “Thanks. But I think I liked best just being with Grandma and Auntie Becca”.

      “So did I”.

      She frowned and looked up at me; “But what about Grandpa?”

      “What about him?”

      “He’s not always very friendly, is he?”

      “He can be grumpy sometimes”.

      “Don’t you get along with him, Daddy?”

      I thought for a moment, and then I said, “Grandpa and I have had our disagreements. Sometimes parents and kids don’t see eye to eye on stuff. It’s not that we don’t love each other, it’s just that sometimes we want different things out of life”.

      She pondered this for a moment, and then she said, “This seat arm’s in the way”.

      “Hang on, I think it lifts up. Sit back a bit, love”. She moved back in her seat, and I pushed the arm up out of the way. “There! Now, what was it you wanted to do?”

      She moved over in her seat, snuggled up close to me and put her arms around me. “I love you, Daddy”.

      “I love you too, sweetheart”.

      “Will you read to me?”

      “Of course; what are we reading?”

      “The book Auntie Becca got me for Christmas – The Hobbit; I’ve just started it. You’ve got it at home, too, haven’t you?”

      “I have; it’s one of my favourites. Where have you got to?”

      “The dwarves have just finished washing Bilbo’s dishes”.

      “Excellent! Well, pass it over, then”.

      She handed the book to me, and I found the page. “Are you sitting comfortably?” I asked.

      She grinned and sat back in her seat; “I am!”

      “Right – here we go!”

Link to Chapter 33

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

(Reblogged, slightly adapted,  from 2013.)

No – not what you’re thinking. Not Christmas: Advent. It starts today, November 27th (the fourth Sunday before Christmas), and lasts until Christmas Eve.

Ever since my children were little I’ve loved the season of Advent with a passion. Advent tells us that there’s a better future ahead; it reminds us of the Old Testament promises of the coming of the Messiah, and the New Testament hope that he will come again to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom of justice and peace will never end. The Advent hymns and scriptures (mainly from the Old Testament prophets) reinforce these themes for us.

The oldest ‘layer’ of Advent, in my experience, is the traditional hymns. I was brought up in a churchgoing family and sang as a chorister when I was a boy, so these hymns are indelibly fixed in my memory. ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’, ‘Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus’, ‘On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry’, ‘Hark the Glad Sound – the Saviour Comes’ – these are just some of the best known examples of hymns that celebrate the Advent message. I love the music of Christmas, too, but I really don’t like it when stores start playing it right after Remembrance Day (all in an effort to enhance Christmas sales, of course). I don’t want to get to Christmas too soon; I want to wait, and savour the sense of anticipation that Advent gives. Singing the Advent hymns helps me to do that.

Speaking of waiting, when my kids were very little (back in our Arborfield days), Marci and I found a book about family Advent customs called ‘Celebrate While We Wait’, by the Schroeder family. It was this book that first introduced us to the Advent wreath; the wreath had never been a part of my childhood Advent experience, and until I read about it in the Schroeders’ book, I had never heard of it either. But we quickly made it a part of our family Advent practice.

I made our first wreath from a piece of circular styrofoam, but later I made a more permanent base from the top of an old wooden stool into which I drilled five holes for the candles. The candles are traditionally purple (some people now use blue, but I myself prefer the traditional colours), perhaps with one pink one, and a white one in the centre for Christmas. Marci and I still light our wreath at suppertime every evening, and after supper we use a book of Advent devotions to help us meditate on the themes of the season and to lead us into prayer together. There is a wealth of resources available for this; simply googling ‘Advent devotions’ brings up 304,000 hits in a quarter of a second, and searching for ‘Advent devotional’ on amazon.ca produced 570 results! We sometimes add our own prayers, and conclude with the Lord’s Prayer together.

Advent, of course, is about God’s kingdom of justice and peace breaking in to transform the world, and so Advent is a good time to think about what we’re doing to forward the work of God’s kingdom. What am I doing at this (often rather selfish) time of year to care for the poor and needy and to transform the structures of our society so that our world becomes a more just and peaceful place? A few weeks ago, in our church (St. Margaret’s, Edmonton), we were visited by representatives of a couple of Edmonton outreach agencies. Listening to them speak about the work their organisations do reminded me again that there are things that each of us can do to help translate the Advent hope into reality in the world for which Jesus gave his life. What might God be calling me to do this Advent, in a practical way, to live out the message of his Kingdom? (Here’s a good perspective on this.)

Christmas celebrates the central mystery of the Christian faith – God coming to live among us as one of us in the person of Jesus. Advent helps me enter more meaningfully into that celebration. It reminds me that as the light of the candles shines in the darkness, so the words of the prophets shine in the darkness of despair and hopelessness and point us to a time when we will study war no more, when the lion will lie down with the lamb, and when the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.

Let me close with my favourite Advent prayer, composed by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer for the original 1549 Book of Common Prayer and used in Anglican churches worldwide, with little variations, down to the present day:

Almighty God,
give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and put on the armour of light,
now in the time of this mortal life
in which your Son Jesus Christ
came to us in great humility,
that on the last day,
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge both the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who lives and reigns
with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.