All my life I have never been able to sleep on aircraft. From my first flight over to Europe as a teenager to my transatlantic trips, it has never mattered how tired I am; I still can’t go to sleep. I suppose it’s partly a fear of flying, although once the initial terror of take-off is over I’ve gotten quite good at controlling that part of it. It might be that I just don’t seem to be able to get comfortable in the seats on airliners. But a big part of it is still a mystery to me. I’m good at napping and can generally go to sleep anywhere for brief periods of time, but once in the air, I’m wide awake.
And so, when Emma and I took the overnight flight over the Atlantic in late July, I went through my usual motions of getting comfortable, turning the light out, controlling my breathing, saying some mental prayers, and all the other sleep-inducing techniques I had come across over the years. Eventually, however, I gave up, sat up and took out a novel from my overnight bag. While Emma slept through the night beside me, I lost myself in the complicated character developments of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, an old favourite. It was not until the flight attendants began to come through the cabin with morning coffee that I closed the book, and by that time Emma was beginning to stretch.
I leaned forward, slipped the novel back into my overnight bag, and looked at my daughter sitting in the seat beside me. Her hair had been tied back for the trip, but some of it had come loose while she was sleeping. She yawned, opened one eye and looked at me. “Ouch!” she said as she moved her neck.
“These seats are designed for midgets. What time is it?”
I looked at my watch; “British time, eleven-fifteen in the morning”.
“How much longer to go?”
“About two hours”.
She looked over at me, her eyes bleary. “Did you sleep?”
“Poor Dad”. She leaned over, kissed me on the cheek and said, “I’ll be back”. Getting up, she wrapped her blanket around her and made her way toward the back of the aircraft. I noticed that at some point during the night she had taken off her sandals; her feet were bare.
It had been an emotional farewell in Saskatoon the day before. Kelly’s parents, Will and Sally Reimer, had driven us down to the city; Joe and Ellie, Jake and Jenna had also come down to see us off, and Steve and Krista, Michael and Rachel had met us all in the city for a farewell meal. Will Reimer had been my school principal when I first arrived in Meadowvale in 1982, and in many ways he had become a father figure for me, especially after I had married his daughter in the Fall of 1984. Now 72, and retired for six years, he and Sally were still very close to Emma and me. They understood why we were moving to England, and they had been very supportive, but Emma was their granddaughter, and I knew that the news of our leaving had hit them hard. Nevertheless, Will kept his bearded face as cheerful as possible as we checked our baggage through to Toronto and then to Heathrow. We had plenty of it, of course; several suitcases and boxes, and two guitars in hard cases as well. When it had all been checked in and the excess baggage fees paid, Emma told me that she and her cousins were going off for a walk together for a few minutes, and I nodded, knowing how deeply the five of them were feeling this parting, especially Emma, Jake and Jenna, who had grown up literally around the corner from each other. The rest of us went to the coffee shop, where we sat together talking about little things and trying not to watch the clock. After a while the five cousins came and joined us, sitting at a table by themselves to drink their lattes and continue their conversation.
Eventually I looked at my watch and said, “I guess we’d better be moseying on down to the gate”. We all got to our feet, and they followed us down to the security check-in. I said my goodbyes to Krista and Steve and their kids, and then Jake and Jenna and their Mom and Dad. Joe squeezed me in a bear hug for a long time, and when we stepped back from each other, I could see the emotion in his eyes. “You keep safe”, he said quietly, “and don’t be a stranger”.
“I won’t; I’ll call, and you call us too”.
Will was embracing Emma, and that was the point at which his cheerful composure slipped a little; I saw the tears beginning to course down his wrinkled, sunburned cheeks as he gripped his granddaughter tight. “You take care now”, he said in a husky voice. “Look after your Dad for us, eh?”
Emma nodded; I could see that she was far too upset to reply. She turned to Jake and Jenna and gripped them in a desperate three-way hug. I stood beside them, waiting; even Jake, one year Emma’s senior, had tears in his eyes, and when Emma finally released them she was unable to speak or even look at me. I took her hand and led her toward the entrance to the security lounge; she remained silent as we cleared security and as we waited in the departure lounge, and on the three and a half hour flight to Toronto she said barely a word, although she did reach out occasionally to grip my hand. On the transatlantic flight to Heathrow she ate her supper in silence and then quickly fell asleep, leaving me to cope with my insomnia – and my own sense of grief – alone.
The flight attendants were bringing breakfast trays around now; when Emma returned to her seat, she shook her head at sausage and eggs but accepted a continental breakfast instead. I was already eating my own breakfast, and the strong airline coffee was beginning to do its work.
“You slept pretty well”, I observed.
“Yeah, I don’t remember much about the night”. She took a mouthful of croissant, chewed thoughtfully for a moment, and then said, “So Owen and Lorraine are meeting us at Heathrow?”
“Owen, anyway; I don’t know about Lorraine”.
“I wonder what Andrew and Katie are like now?” My friend Owen Foster had two children, Andrew who was twelve and Katie who was nine.
“I expect they’re a lot quieter than they used to be”, I said.
“What about Uncle Rick’s children? It’s so long since I’ve seen them, I can barely remember who’s who”.
“Eric’s sixteen, Sarah’s just turned fifteen, Anna’s eleven”.
“What are they like?”
“I hardly know them either; my brother’s never been very good at keeping in touch and passing on the family news. Eric seems like a pretty studious sort of guy. I expect his Dad is grooming him to be the next generation of Masefields to go into the Law”.
“I take it that you don’t mean his Dad wants him to be a cop?”
I laughed; “I doubt it”.
“So what sort of family are they? Are they close?”
“I don’t really know. I think Rick successfully inherited our Dad’s work ethic, which means he believes in fourteen-hour days at the office; also, I should warn you that his drinking problem has gotten a lot worse in the past few years”.
“How much worse?”
“Becca says he drinks most evenings. Sometimes he says things he probably regrets afterwards; I saw that when I was there back in March. I don’t think anyone in the family is dealing with it all that well, with the possible exception of Becca”.
There was a thoughtful look in Emma’s eyes; I knew that one of her close friends had an alcoholic parent. She gave me a wry grin and said, “You Masefields are a weird lot, Dad. You and your father had a bust-up twenty years ago, Uncle Rick’s an alcoholic, and even Becca doesn’t really know how to relax and have a good time! Thank God the Reimer side of our family is a little more normal!”
I laughed and said, “Got that right!”
She looked down at the tray of food in front of her, her mood suddenly subdued. “I miss them already”, she said quietly.
“I know; so do I”.
She glanced at me with sadness in her eyes. “Sorry I was such a wreck at the airport in Saskatoon; I wasn’t much help to you, was I?”
I took her hand. “It was always going to be a pretty harrowing experience for you. Don’t feel bad about feeling bad; don’t feel bad about feeling mad, either”.
She smiled; “The problem is, I can’t quite figure out who to be mad at. It’s not Grandpa’s fault that he’s dying of cancer, and it’s not your fault that you want to be with him while he’s still alive. I guess I could be mad at God, but he kinda holds all the cards, doesn’t he? Anyway, I’ve had enough experience at being mad at him to know that it’s not really very satisfying, on account of the fact that he refuses to get mad back!”
I squeezed her hand; “I guess that’s true, although I’ve never heard it put quite that way before”.
“Well, anyway, thanks for the offer, but I think I’ll steer clear of ‘mad’ and just stick to ‘sad’ for now”.
We landed at Heathrow early in the afternoon, just as I had done four months before when I had come for my interviews. Owen had promised to bring a large rental car to the airport to pick us up, with all of our luggage.
And now I should say something about my friend Owen Foster. We first met when I moved to Northwood from the Oxford suburb of Summertown at the age of eleven. I had been happy in my circle of friends in Summertown, and as a shy, introverted sort of child I was not looking forward to beginning all over again in a new place. To make matters worse, my first experience of school in Northwood was not a happy one. During the mid-morning break on my first day I was attacked in the playground by three of the bigger and stronger boys; I was not a fighter myself, but Owen came to my rescue and helped me hold them off until one of the teachers intervened. Afterwards he introduced himself to me, and so began the longest friendship of my life.
Owen’s family lived in a comfortable old house down the road from us; he was the oldest of four children, and his father was an English teacher at the high school in the nearby town of Wallingford. Like me, Owen liked to read, but he also knew the countryside around our village. He knew exactly where to walk to see badgers or find bird’s nests or good streams for fishing or anything else you liked; he had a delicious sense of rootedness about him. By September, when we went to high school in Wallingford together, we were fast friends. We spent most of our holiday time together; we walked in the country for miles, and he took me out on the Thames and taught me all about canoeing. We both got our first guitars when we were twelve, and in our mid-teens we spent hours working out how to play songs by the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Wings, and the other popular bands and artists of the early 1970’s.
Another factor in Owen’s life was his faith. His family was strongly Christian, and as he moved into his teens he became more intentional about his own Christian beliefs. No one in my family went to church except at Christmas, but Owen attended the local Church of England church with his family every week. Sometimes I asked him questions about this, and he was always happy to talk about it, but he never tried to coerce me into adopting his beliefs.
At our high school, Owen’s father George Foster taught me English language and literature, and he was a firm but patient teacher. In fact, he was the one who first gave me the idea of becoming a teacher. I kept this idea to myself for a long time, but I remember vividly the first time I mentioned it to my parents. It was in my fifteenth year, during the Easter holidays, and we were eating our evening meal; Rick would have been thirteen at the time, and Becca about three. My father had begun to talk about how I would be going up to Oxford in a few years to read Law. This was not news to me; I had long been aware of his plans for me, but until now I had made no comment about them. However, something made me decide to speak up on that day.
“Actually, I don’t want to read Law”, I said quietly.
I heard my mother’s sudden intake of breath at the other end of the table, and my father looked up sharply at me. “Don’t want to read Law? What nonsense is this?”
“Well”, I said, “I actually think I’d like to be a teacher”.
“A teacher!” he exclaimed. “Don’t be ridiculous! People only become teachers when they can’t do anything else!”
“That’s not true!” I protested. “Mr. Foster isn’t like that. He’s very clever; he could have been a doctor or a scientist or anything, but he wanted to help other people and he thought teaching was the best way to do it. He told me about it once, when I asked him why he’d decided to become a teacher”.
“So you’d rather be like him than me, then?”
“That’s not what I mean, Dad!”
“Then what precisely do you mean?”
And so the Great War began. That was what Owen and I called it, because of course I told Owen about it; he and I talked about everything. I talked to his father about it, too; I was always welcome in their home, and I often talked to him about things. He would never have presumed to interfere in the internal affairs of my family, but he was always willing to listen, and I felt he understood and sympathized with me.
I well remember that first time I told him about the conflict between my father and myself. After I had finished talking, he sat quietly for a moment, then looked across at me and quoted “This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man”.
“Hamlet”, I replied; I had already come to love Shakespeare. In fact, in my own edition of the Complete Works, the words he had quoted were underlined, and I had already reflected on their significance.
But it was my mother’s intervention in the Great War that finally tipped the balance in my favour. It was early October in my Upper Sixth Form year; the decision about what I was to study at university could no longer be put off. My father wanted me to do pre-law studies, but I was adamant: I wanted to do a B.A. in English, followed by a postgraduate certificate in education. The discussion was taking place in the living room; my parents and I were the only ones present, but as the conversation turned into an argument and the volume got louder and louder I had no doubt that Rick and Becca could hear us in their rooms. My mother had long since given up imploring us to stop shouting at each other, and was now sitting in silence, her sadness written plainly on her face. And then something new happened, something I had never seen before. My father must have been extremely frustrated; I realize now that he must have felt he was losing the Great War, because only desperation could have led him to ask for my mother’s help in the matter.
“Irene”, he said, “can you talk some sense into this boy?”
She had been looking down at the cup of cold tea in her hand, but now she looked straight up at him and said, “I think you should let him do what he wants to do, Frank”.
I have rarely seen my father so angry. His face turned purple with rage; he opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again. Turning on his heel, he strode out of the room, slamming the door behind him. The room was tense: I hardly dared to breathe. My mother was silent. Eventually I raised my eyes and looked across at her. “Thank you, Mum”, I whispered.
She looked up at me, and I could see that the sadness was still there in her eyes. “Follow your dream, Tom”, she said. “It’s the only thing any of us can ever call our own”.
I have no idea whether my mother suffered any consequences for speaking her mind. All I know is that from that point on my father said nothing more about my plans for university. My mother helped me make all the arrangements, and so it came about that Owen and I went up to Oxford together: he, who had always known he wanted to be a doctor, and I, who had long known that I wanted to be a teacher. When in Oxford we walked together, drank beer together, played music together, and were altogether inseparable. Even Wendy Howard, our musical partner through our later university years and a close friend to us both, was still very much a newcomer to us. It was Wendy, in fact, who had first made the comment that Owen and I were like two trees growing out of the same root; ‘joined at the roots’ was the phrase she used, and it stayed with me over the years, as did Owen’s friendship.
He was waiting for us as we emerged from the doorway into the arrivals lounge. At forty-five he was still taller than me, with short dark hair, dark eyes and a thin-faced, rascally look about him; he had been the natural choice to play the part of Captain Hook in pantomimes of ‘Peter Pan’ when we were children. Today the rascally look was underlined by the black tee shirt and dark wrap-around sunglasses he was wearing. He had managed to position himself right at the end of the rope barrier, exactly where he needed to be to meet us; we saw him immediately, and steered our baggage carts toward him. He welcomed us both with warm hugs, grinned at my bleary eyes and said “Didn’t you sleep on the plane?”
“I never sleep on planes”.
“Of course not – it would be in such bad taste. Come along then – the car’s not far away”.
“Will we be able to fit all this luggage in?” I asked.
“Don’t worry – I rented an MPV”.
His vehicle was parked very close, and the reason for that became clear as we got near to it; his wife Lorraine was in it, and she had been driving around and pulling up to the waiting area every few minutes. She already had the tailgate up, and after greeting us with hugs she helped us pack our luggage in. Lorraine was as tall as Owen, with graying blonde hair cut just above her shoulders. After slamming the tailgate shut she turned and gave Emma another hug. “It’s so good to see you again, Em!” she said. “Andrew and Katie are looking forward to seeing you, too!”
Emma gave a cheerful grin; “The last time they pounced on me – like in the Calvin and Hobbes cartoons, you know!”
We all laughed, and Owen said “They’re a bit older now, so it isn’t quite that bad. You’re a bit older too, Emma; you’ve grown into quite a beautiful young lady since the last time we saw you!”
“Thanks”, she replied shyly.
We climbed in, Lorraine insisting that I sit in the front with Owen while she and Emma took the back seats. Owen steered the van away from the sidewalk; “So you’ll be staying at your mother and father’s for a few weeks?” he asked me.
“Yeah, until we find a place of our own. We’ll see how it goes”.
“Sounds like a recipe for disaster to me, but you know your own business, I suppose”.
“Well, since I’m supposed to be here to build a better relationship with my Dad, it seemed to make sense to stay with them for the first few weeks”.
“You know that the offer to stay with us is always open”.
“I know – let’s see how it goes”.
“Em, I see you’re still playing your guitar?” Owen observed, glancing over his shoulder at her.
“Have you played at any open stages yet?”
She laughed; “There aren’t too many in Meadowvale!”
“I suppose not; never gone down to one in the city, then?”
“Well, you’ll have to get your Dad to take you out to one in Oxford; there are some really good ones”.
“I don’t think I’m quite ready for that yet!”
“How’s your band doing?” I asked him.
“We’re playing at the ‘Plough and Lantern’ in a couple of weeks”, he replied.
“So the ‘Plough’ still has live music?”
“Yes; open stage every Friday night, and concerts on Saturday nights”.
“Is Bill still there?” Bill Prentiss had been the landlord at the ‘Plough and Lantern’ pub in our university days.
“He is, actually, but he tells me he’s only going to keep it up for one more year. He turned sixty-five in April, you know. Do you feel like playing there with us in a couple of weeks?”
I laughed; “Not without a lot more practice!”
“You didn’t do too badly last time you were with us”.
“Yes, but that was six years ago. I wouldn’t mind getting together informally some time just to play some tunes, though”
“That would be good”. He glanced at Emma again in his rear view mirror; “Are you tired, Em?”
“I’m fine – I slept pretty well on the plane”.
“You’re not in any particular hurry to get to Northwood, then?”
“No – why?”
“I thought I’d take the slow route and take you up through some pretty villages and towns on the way home. We could stop for a cup of tea at Henley, if you like”.
We all agreed to this, and so Owen took the M4 west past Slough and Maidenhead, before cutting northwest across country toward Henley-on-Thames. While we were still on the busy motorway, with several lanes of traffic going in both directions, Emma noticed the familiar bulk of Windsor Castle a short distance away on our left. “I should know what that place is, shouldn’t I?” she asked Lorraine.
“That’s Windsor Castle”.
“Right – that’s one of the Queen’s houses, isn’t it?”
I saw her out of the corner of my eye, scanning the castle as we sped past. “Looks like she’s got lots of room for a few homeless people in there”, she said.
Owen laughed; “If I were you, Em, I’d be careful about making those sorts of observations while staying at your grandparents’ house!”
“Didn’t you two go down to Mexico again last year?” Lorraine asked her.
“Yeah, we did”.
“What was that about again?”
“We were building houses with Habitat for Humanity”, Emma replied.
“How many times have you been down there now?”
“I don’t remember the first time – I was only little – but I remember two trips while Mom was still alive. Last year was the first time Dad and I have been down there since she died”.
“What was it like?” Lorraine asked.
“I don’t really know how to describe it”, Emma replied. “I mean, I get sucked into consumerism as easily as anyone else, but every time we go down there and see the poverty people live in – well, I’m like, I’m never going to live in extravagance again”.
“Stand by for some good views of extravagance when we get to Henley-on-Thames”, said Owen with a grin; “It’s where the rich and famous live and play!”
When we arrived at Henley, Owen found a riverside pub that served afternoon tea, and as the weather was fine we sat out on the patio, watching the boat traffic on the river. Emma had lapsed into silence again, and Owen and Lorraine were instinctively sensitive to this; I had alerted them beforehand to the ambivalence she felt toward our move, and I was grateful that they made no attempt to ‘cheer her up’.
Leaving Henley behind, we pressed on through the Chiltern hills, and now Owen purposely left the main roads behind, taking us through picturesque little villages with old grey stone houses lining narrow streets. We passed village greens with quaint little churches, and pubs with names like ‘The Blue Boar’, ‘The King’s Head’, and ‘The Angler’s Arms’. It would have been hard to imagine a stronger contrast with the long straight roads and wide open spaces we had left behind in Saskatchewan. Nonetheless, Emma perked up a little on this section of the journey; she was obviously charmed by the beauty of our surroundings, and she made frequent comments and observations about things she saw along the way.
We came down into the Thames Valley again at Wallingford, where Owen and I had gone to High School; he drove past our old school, pointing it out to Emma and telling her a couple of stories about our joint escapades. We crossed the river again on the old stone bridge with its graceful arches, and turned toward our old home town of Northwood. This was going to be the first time Emma had been at her grandparents’ home since she was eleven; over the two years since Kelly died I had become steadily more adept at guessing what was going on inside my intensely private daughter, and I knew that she was nervous as Owen steered through the village and then turned left onto the driveway to my parents’ spacious home.
“Wow!” she said. “I’d forgotten how big it is! How many rooms does it have?”
“Twenty-five”, I replied.
“With a spiral staircase, and servants’ quarters, right?”
“Yes, although there were never any servants in our time. In fact, I’ll bet you’ll be sleeping in the servants’ quarters. Those rooms have been fixed up very nicely now; they’re quite cosy”.
Owen pulled up opposite the front door and turned off the engine. As we climbed out of the car my mother was already advancing down the steps to greet us. The afternoon was warm, and she was wearing a loose summer blouse which left her arms bare. She and I embraced, and then she turned to her granddaughter with a smile; “Hello, Emma”, she said, holding out her arms; “Welcome back to Northwood”.
Emma returned her smile and gave her a gentle hug; “Hello Grandma; it’s nice to see you again”.
“I’ve got your rooms all ready”, my mother said. “How are you, Owen?”
“Very well, thank you, Mrs. M.; we’ll help carry Tom and Emma’s stuff inside”.
“Thank you – that would be very kind”.
And so we all trooped inside, and Emma whistled her admiration at the spiral staircase. “I’d forgotten what it looked like!” she exclaimed. “Didn’t I slide down that the last time I was here?”
“Yes”, I replied, “and I got into trouble for letting you get away with it!”
Once we were settled, and all our luggage delivered to our rooms, Owen and Lorraine excused themselves, promising to call me in a day or two. My mother left us alone in our rooms for a few minutes while we ‘freshened up’, as she called it. I splashed cold water on my face, put Kelly’s photograph back on the night table, changed into a clean shirt and then went down the hall to Emma’s room. As I had predicted, it was in the old servants’ section at the back of the house, but it had been beautifully redecorated as a guest room, and it had an excellent view out over the apple orchard. I knocked lightly on the door and heard Emma answer “Come in”. She was standing at her window looking out over the trees and the fields below, a faraway look in her eyes. “I’d forgotten what a magical place this is”, she said quietly.
“You still like the grounds?”
“I love them. Can we go and have a look?”
“In a while. I expect there’s something to drink down in the front room, and before too long it’ll be supper time. Is this room going to be okay for you?”
She turned from the window and surveyed her surroundings. The ceilings were lower in the old servants’ quarters, giving the rooms a cosy feeling; the wallpaper was quiet and tasteful, the curtains at the window simple and elegant. The single bed had a polished antique wood headboard, with a matching bedside table on the window side.
“What’s not to like?” she asked. “The servants must have had a pretty classy life!”
At that moment there was a knock on the door and Becca slipped into the room, dressed in a summer skirt and a loose top, a warm smile on her face. Emma’s face lit up; “Becca!” she cried, and the next moment the two of them were holding each other tight, laughing, kissing each other, leaning back to smile at each other and then hugging each other again.
“Did you just get here?” Emma asked.
“I just walked in the door”. She turned to me, and we gave each other a hug and a kiss.
“Are you staying for supper?” Emma asked.
“Absolutely”, she replied, stepping back with a smile, “and Rick and his family will be here in a little while, too. And tomorrow being Saturday, I’ve got the day off, and if you want, you and I can spend the day together”.
Emma laughed; “What’s the plan?”
“Anything you like. Coffee at a fancy café, sightseeing in Oxford, a DVD at my flat, walking, canoeing on the river – it’s up to you!”
“That’s if she’s still awake and over her jet lag”, I observed with a grin.
“I’m awake!” Emma insisted. “Will you be alright without me, Dad?”
“Absolutely; I may even do a bit of wandering around myself”.
“Anyway”, Becca said, “I was sent up here on a mission to summon you very shortly to the living room, where drinks are being served, following which, when the rest of the family arrives, we will move to the dining room for supper”. She fixed me with an admonishing eye and added, “You are going to shave before supper, aren’t you?”
Emma laughed. “It’s the summer holidays”, she said; “He only shaves once a week!”
I stroked my bristly chin defensively; “I’m rather fond of my stubble, actually”, I mused.
“Remember, Tommy, we’re all trying to get along with each other”.
“Right; okay, give me a minute and I’ll be as presentable as you like”.
As Becca had said, Rick and Alyson and their children joined us for supper. We ate in the dining room, with the French windows open to let in the warm evening air. The room was elegantly furnished with an antique dining suite; there were paintings on the walls, and a formal sideboard on which to place the food. My mother and father sat at each end of the table; Rick and I sat on either side of our father, with Alyson beside Rick and Emma beside me. Becca sat on the other side of Emma, and Rick’s three children on either side of my mother. Emma and Becca were soon deep in conversation, but after a while Rick’s children, who at first seemed a little in awe of their Canadian cousin, began to ask her some hesitant questions, which she answered quietly and politely, as I knew she would.
However, the overall mood at the table was tense; Rick had obviously been drinking already, and he was making short work of the bottle of red wine on the table in front of him. His face was flushed, and from time to time he made inappropriate or obnoxious comments, prompting embarrassed looks from his children and my mother, and occasional quiet protests from Alyson.
I had been shocked when I first saw my father again; his skin colour had faded noticeably, the lines on his face were deeper, and his voice was even thinner than it had been at Easter. He ate very little of his food, pecking at it disinterestedly, putting his knife and fork down when he asked Rick the occasional work-related question. He paid no attention whatsoever to the conversation of his grandchildren, and they, obviously well used to this, continued to talk amongst themselves.
My mother had obviously worked hard on the meal; a homemade cream of broccoli soup, followed by roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, with a selection of cakes for dessert. It was while she was serving the coffee and dessert that eleven-year old Anna looked across at Emma and asked innocently, “Didn’t your Mum ever have more children?”
“Let’s talk about something else, shall we, Anna?” said her mother hurriedly.
“That’s all right”, Emma assured her; “I don’t mind”. She gave me a quick sideways glance, as if to make sure that I was okay with the conversation, and then turned back to Anna. “My Mom had ovarian cancer when I was a little girl”, she explained. “She had to have surgery to remove her ovaries, and that meant that she couldn’t have any more children”.
“So you couldn’t have any brothers and sisters?”
“No, but my Mom’s brother, my Uncle Joe, lives in Meadowvale too; he and my Auntie Ellie have two children, Jake and Jenna, and we’re about the same age. So I grew up with my cousins really close by; they actually live just around the corner from us, and we’re kind of like brother and sisters. And then my Mom’s younger sister, my Auntie Krista, lives in Prince Albert, and she and my Uncle Steve have two kids, Michael and Rachel, but they’re a little younger than me”.
“They’re a very close family”, Becca added, “and a big one too – Kelly’s Dad was one of eight, I think, wasn’t he, Tommy?”
“He was”, I confirmed, “and her Mom was one of seven. Reimer and Wiens family reunions are enormous; they need to hire the community hall for them, and there are literally dozens of cousins and second-cousins of Emma’s generation”.
“So they actually have family reunions, do they?” Rick asked; “People actually attend that sort of thing?”
“They’re very popular in Saskatchewan”.
Rick took a sip of his wine, replaced the glass on the table, and said, “So, what exactly does one do at a family reunion? I find the concept rather bizarre”.
My mother was passing out coffee; I paused to accept a cup from her, and Emma said, “We’ve just had one a couple of weeks ago, actually”.
“So what did you do?” he asked her.
“On the Friday night we had a huge supper at the community hall, followed by a dance. Last time we did it we had a DJ, but this time there was a sort of family decision to put together a dance band, and Dad and I got to play some bluegrass music”.
My brother raised an eyebrow at me; “You play bluegrass music?”
“I can’t deny it; my sister-in-law plays bluegrass fiddle, and she introduced me to it”.
“Really, Tom – you never cease to amaze me!” He smiled at Emma: “Sorry I interrupted the gripping tale; do tell us more”.
I saw the confusion flash momentarily across Emma’s face; I knew instinctively that she wasn’t sure whether or not he was being sarcastic. She hesitated, gave me another sideways glance, and then said, “Well, the next day we had a softball tournament in the afternoon, and then in the evening we had smaller gatherings for supper. Some of the people there hadn’t seen each other in quite a while, so there was a lot of visiting and conversation. On Sunday a lot of us went to church together, and then in the early afternoon there was another enormous meal at the community hall. After that people started to head out for home”.
“And these were all Reimers, were they?”
“Actually”, I said, “this was a Wiens family reunion – Kelly’s Mum’s family. Not that there weren’t Reimers there, not all of them related to us – at least, as far as we know”. I grinned across at Emma; “Sometimes it seems like there are maybe a couple of dozen German Mennonite surnames that cover about three quarters of the population”.
“Sounds downright incestuous”, Rick replied with a bemused expression on his face. “One wonders how they manage to find marriage partners! Perhaps that’s why you were brought in – fresh blood, and all that. Perhaps you were part of a plot to rejuvenate the family tree!”
Emma said nothing, and I could tell by the expression on her face that she did not like the tone of the conversation. Eric, who had been listening carefully from further down the table, said “It must be very different to have a family that big, with all those distant relatives, and to have them actually come together all at once. I don’t think our family has ever done that, have they?”
“Thank God for that!” Rick exclaimed with a sneer. “Some of them are insufferable when they show up in ones and twos, never mind in packs!”
“Actually, I rather liked my extended family in Saskatchewan”, I said. “They were very good to me. In fact, Kelly and I first met at a little Reimer family gathering the first year I was in Meadowvale”.
“Really?” Rick replied with a grin. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard this story.”
I hesitated, glancing at Emma, and then said, “Well, Kelly’s father Will was the principal of Meadowvale School when I first moved there. The second weekend in October is Thanksgiving in Canada; it’s a big family gathering time, and Will knew I had no family or close friends nearby. So he invited me over to his place for Thanksgiving dinner. Will and Sally were there, and Kelly’s older brother Joe and his wife Ellie – actually, I don’t think they were married yet, just engaged – and Krista, Kelly’s little sister, who was home from university, plus a few assorted aunts and uncles and cousins, and of course Kelly. She was nursing in Jasper at the time, but she had come home for the weekend. We got talking during the meal and she found out that I liked hiking and camping and that sort of outdoor stuff, so she offered to show me around Jasper National Park if I was ever in that area. She was pretty good-looking, so I took her up on her offer!”
“Oh, that’s how it went!” Rick said with a lascivious laugh, his speech beginning to slur. “And before very long the two of you were banging away merrily in a tent, no doubt?”
He was reaching for the wine bottle and hadn’t noticed that the rest of us weren’t laughing. There was a shocked silence at the table; the blood had drained from Becca’s face, my mother’s hand had flown to her mouth, and I was barely restraining the sudden urge to strike at my brother. But it was Emma who broke the silence; the tears were welling up in her eyes as she got to her feet, looked straight at her uncle with the hurt plain on her face and said “I can’t believe you just said that about my Mom, Uncle Rick”. She turned and left the room; Becca began to get to her feet to follow, but I grabbed her hand quickly. “Let her go”, I said.
Rick gave an awkward grin; “Well, someone’s a bit sensitive tonight!” he said.
“Rick, you are such a shit!” Becca said angrily; “I can’t believe you’d talk about Kelly like that. She was the most admirable human being I ever met; what the hell were you thinking?”
“Now, now!” Rick replied with an inebriated grin. “Listen to her language!”
“Richard!” my father’s voice cut thinly across the room. “Hold your tongue. Your comment was entirely inappropriate, and you know it”.
My father gave Rick an angry look, and after a moment my brother swore softly, got to his feet and stumbled out of the room. His children were watching, and I could see the pain on their faces. Alyson’s eyes were wet with tears. “I’m so sorry, Tom”, she whispered. “That was completely uncalled for”.
“It’s not your fault; let’s forget about it. Mum, this coffee’s excellent; can I have another cup, please?”
“Of course”. And as my mother got up to pour my coffee the conversation slowly resumed around the table. Inside, however, I was feeling desolate. My first conversation with my brother back in March had gone reasonably well, but I was beginning to understand that with Rick, conversations like that were a rarity.
It was about an hour later when Rick and his family left, Alyson clutching the car keys firmly in her hand. Just before slipping out the door she pulled me aside again and whispered “Tom, I am so sorry; Rick’s comment was so inappropriate! Please, please, apologise to Emma for us. He would never have said such a thing if he had not been drinking”.
“I know; don’t worry yourself over it. Drive home safely now”.
As I watched their car pull off down the driveway Becca came and stood beside me, her hand on my arm. “Are you okay?” she asked.
“I’m okay; how about you?”
“Oh, I’m getting over it. I know I shouldn’t have lost my temper, but I was just thinking about that first summer I spent with you when I was seventeen, and how kind Kelly was to me when I was just a confused teenager. I couldn’t bear to hear him talking about her like that”.
“I know, but you need to remember what Alyson said: he was drunk, and he would never have said it otherwise”.
“That excuse is wearing a bit thin with Rick, I’m afraid; no one holds a gun to his head and forces him to start drinking. What about Emma? Do you think she’s had enough time to get over it yet?”
“I don’t know. I’m going to go up now and see her”.
I went up the spiral staircase wearily, my body feeling the night’s sleep it had missed on the flight over. I made my way back to the old servants’ quarters and knocked quietly on Emma’s door.
“Who is it?”
I slipped into the room; the lights were out, and she was sitting up on the bed, her back propped up against the pillows. She had left the curtains open, and in the dying light from the window I could see that her eyes were red. I crossed the room, sat down on the bed and put my arms around her. “Are you okay?” I asked softly.
“I feel so stupid, Dad; he was drunk, and I knew it, so why did I let myself get so upset?”
“Because it was about your mom”.
I felt her nodding against my shoulder. “If he’d been rude about anything else…” Her body began to shake, and I tightened my grip around her, stroking her hair with my right hand as she cried.
After a moment her tears subsided. “I still miss her so much, Dad”, she whispered. “I don’t think it’ll ever go away”.
“Of course you do; I’m sorry”. She disengaged herself, kissed me softly on the forehead, and sat back against her pillows. “Are you all right?” she asked.
“I’ll be okay; don’t worry about me. Would you like anything to drink?”
“I can’t face them down there tonight”.
“Shall I bring you up a cup of hot chocolate?”
“Would you? That would be really nice”.
I got to my feet; “Are you going to get ready for bed soon?” I asked.
“Yeah; I’m really tired”.
“I’ll get your hot chocolate for you, then”.
I went down to the kitchen, where my mother and Becca were busy washing the pots and pans. “I’m going to make Emma a cup of hot chocolate”, I said as I went to the stove and picked up the kettle. “I presume there’s some in the house, Mum?”
“Of course; it’s in the tea cupboard”. My mother turned from the sink and looked at me through worried eyes; “Is she all right?”
“She’s very upset, but it’s more than half with herself. She’ll be alright”.
“With herself?” Becca asked. “Why?”
“She’s beating herself up for getting annoyed with a man who was drunk”.
“She had every right to be annoyed with him!” my sister replied angrily. “I felt like slapping him myself!”
“It was such a pity”, my mother commented sadly, turning back to the sink; “She was having such a lovely conversation with Anna. She was so kind and polite to her, Tom; I was most impressed with her tonight. Please tell her that from me when you take her hot chocolate up, will you?”
I kissed the back of my mother’s head. “Thanks, Mum”, I said. “I will”.