Emma turned eighteen in early December. I wanted to give her a good party, and so a couple of weeks beforehand I sat her down and asked her who she would like to invite. We made up a list together: my family members, Owen and Lorraine and their family, a couple of the friends who volunteered with her at Marston Court, and three young people from our little church, all of whom had also been involved with Habitat for Humanity. “And what about Colin?” she asked; “Do you think he would come?” We had seen Colin a couple more times through Habitat, and he and Emma had struck up a pretty good relationship, despite the nearly two years’ age difference between them; I knew that they talked to each other on the phone occasionally.
“I’ll pass on an invitation to him at school if you want”, I said.
“Yeah – let’s ask him”.
We eventually came up with a list of about twenty potential guests, and it then became clear that our little house couldn’t hold that many people. That was when Emma came up with the idea of asking Owen and Lorraine to host the party; they lived in a large and rambling house in Headington, and there would be plenty of room there for all the people we wanted to invite.
“Would you mind if I asked Colin’s Mum as well?” I asked Emma. “If the party’s going to be at Owen’s house, it might be fun for the three of us to have a chance to visit again after all these years”.
“No, I wouldn’t mind, but do you think she’ll come? We haven’t had much success with her so far”.
I shrugged my shoulders; “I can only ask, I guess”.
As I expected, Owen and Lorraine were delighted to be asked to host the party. It happened that the birthday itself fell on the first Saturday in December, and so we decided to start the party in the middle of the afternoon and run it into the evening. Emma decided that she would like to have jambalaya for the main meal, her thinking being that not only was it tasty but it was also easy to make in large quantities. Owen wasn’t sure if he and Lorraine had a recipe for it, but Becca, who was in on the conversation at this point, had been introduced to it by Kelly at our house and had been making it herself ever since. Emma then asked if she could help Becca make it, and this led to a spirited discussion about whether or not it was appropriate for the person whose birthday was being celebrated to help cook the meal. Emma and Becca dug their heels in, however, and we finally had to agree that they would cook the main meal together, I would make the cake, and Owen and Lorraine would provide the drinks and the munchies. “And I want everyone who has musical instruments to bring them”, Emma added; “That can be part of the celebration”.
Emma made up her invitations herself, and the next day I took Colin’s to school. We had our tutorial session that afternoon, sitting side by side at my desk at the front of the classroom, and when we were finished I took the invitation out and handed it to him. “Emma asked me to give this to you”, I explained. “She’s having a birthday party on December 7th and she wants to know if you can come along”.
“Nice! How old is she going to be?”
“Right; I’ll talk to my Mum about it”.
“I’m going to send your Mum an e-mail about it too. The party’s being held at Owen Foster’s house; the three of us were good friends when we were in university together, and I don’t think she’s seen him for over twenty years, so I’m going to ask her if she can drop by for a while”.
“Okay; that’ll be cool”.
Later on that evening, after Emma and I had eaten supper and done the dishes together, I sat down at the computer in my little upstairs office and wrote an e-mail to Wendy.
Colin’s probably told you that Emma has invited him to her 18th birthday party on December 7th. It’s going to be held at Owen’s house – the address and a map are included in the invitation I gave to Colin. I mentioned to Emma that it might be fun for you and Owen and me to have a visit after all these years, and she was very happy with the idea of you joining us for the party. It’s going to be a very informal sort of thing; music and movies and munchies and all the usual stuff. I hope you can come.
Her reply came the next day:
I’m not sure whether or not I’ll be able to stay. I’ll drop Colin off, but there are a few things I’ve got to do that day. However, I’ll be sure to drop in and at least say hello to you and Owen, and wish Emma a happy birthday.
Saturday December 7th dawned wet and windy; I came back from my early morning walk soaked to the skin, had a hot shower and completely changed my clothes. I brought Emma a cup of tea in bed, gave her the cards and presents that had arrived from Canada, and sat with her for a few minutes as she opened her parcels. We had been particularly curious about a huge box from Jake and Jenna; it turned out to be a ‘Canadian care package’ which included several flavours of ground coffee, a large container of Skippy peanut butter and a jar of Saskatoon Berry jam, several months’ worth of the ‘For Better and For Worse’ cartoon strip, some recent copies of the ‘Saskatoon Star Phoenix’ newspaper, a book and a CD of Stuart MacLean’s ‘The Vinyl Café’, and three CDs by Great Big Sea, Sarah McLachlan, and K.D. Lang. We laughed the hardest at the inclusion of the cartoon strips; Emma was a huge fan of ‘For Better and For Worse’, and she had often mentioned to her cousins her disappointment at being unable to find it in England. She made room for me to sit beside her on the bed, and for about twenty minutes we poured over the cartoons together.
Eventually Emma laid her head back against the pillow with a sigh; “What do you miss about Saskatchewan, Dad?”
“The big sky”, I replied without hesitation, “and being able to see thunderstorms coming twenty miles away. How about you?”
“Total strangers waving to you when you pass on the road”.
“Right! And while we’re talking about roads, how about roads that actually have room for cars on them?”
She laughed; “I’ll go for the road to Prince Albert National Park”, she said; “and big lakes where you can go canoeing for hours and see loons and muskrats and beavers”.
“Let’s not forget the road to the mountains, and camping so high that you’re cold when you wake up in the morning, even in the middle of summer”.
She looked at me reproachfully; “Strictly speaking, that’s not in Saskatchewan!”
“True, but it’s part of my memory of living there”.
“Okay then, I’ll include Mount Robson, and the Pallisades, and Maligne Lake”.
“And I’ll include ‘Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan’ and the Edmonton Folk Music Festival”.
“Oh yeah! And how about being able to go out to a restaurant and being able to buy a cup of coffee that actually tastes like coffee?”
“Well, up to a point; I have to admit I don’t miss that rotgut they sold at the Esso on the highway!”
“True – but I’d go a long way for a cup of coffee at the Beanery”.
“Me too – especially if I could pick the company”.
I saw the sudden sadness on her face; “Yeah, it’s the people really, isn’t it?”
“It is”. I took her hand, and for a moment we sat together quietly, our thoughts far away. Then she gave a heavy sigh and said, “Right! Enough of this morbidity – I’d better get up and get dressed”.
“What’s the rush?”
“I promised some of the old folks I’d go over for a few minutes this morning so they could wish me happy birthday”.
We drove over to Owen and Lorraine’s house in the early afternoon. By then the rain had stopped, but the weather was still cold and windy. The Foster home was an old brick-built place, situated on a quiet residential street with a mix of duplexes and detached houses; Becca’s little Renault was already parked out front when we arrived.
I parked my car behind Becca’s, and we walked up to the front door; Emma was carrying two guitar cases, while I had the birthday cake in a cardboard box. We were met at the door by Owen’s son Andrew, a skinny twelve year old with red hair and freckles; he greeted us with smiles and hugs, took our coats, wished Emma a happy birthday, and invited us to go through to the kitchen. There we found Becca and Lorraine assembling the ingredients for the jambalaya, with Lorraine’s nine-year old daughter Katie hovering in the background. They all wished Emma a happy birthday, and then Becca said, “Right, Emma and I will now take over the kitchen. The rest of you, go for a walk or something!”
“Where’s Owen?” I asked, putting the birthday cake down on the countertop.
“Right here”, came a voice from the living room, and Owen appeared around the corner, a black garbage bag in his hand. “Just finishing the pre-party cleanup”, he said with a grin. “I don’t know how four of us make so much mess!”
I pitched in and helped him finish the cleanup, and then he and I put our raincoats back on and went for a walk around the neighbourhood. The sky was still dark and cloudy, but the rain was holding off. Owen’s house was not too far from Shotover Hill, and we walked around under the bare trees in Shotover Country Park for a while, the wind rattling the branches above our heads, our hands jammed into our pockets for warmth.
“Did you hear back from Wendy?” he asked.
“Just the little note saying she wasn’t sure she’d be able to stay after she dropped Colin off. I’m not counting on anything”.
“She doesn’t seem too inclined to know us any more, does she?”
“Listen, on another subject, in the light of what you told me about your brother, I’ve decided against alcoholic beverages this afternoon. I hope that’s all right?”
“I think that’s a wise move. I’m sure no one will mind”.
“Want to stop by the pub for a quick pint on the way home?”
We both laughed; “Better not”, I replied; “I don’t really want to welcome my brother to a dry birthday party with the smell of alcohol on my breath!”
We arrived back at the house around 2.45 p.m., and shortly afterwards the company started to arrive. Emma’s friends from church and from the nursing home were the first to get there, closely followed by my brother and his family. I caught just a hint of alcohol on Rick’s breath when I greeted him, but he seemed happy to accept Owen’s offer of a coffee. Emma, ever the diplomat, introduced her cousins to her friends, and soon they were sitting around the L-shaped living room in chairs and on the floor, talking in animated tones.
By three fifteen or so everyone was there except for Colin, who had sent word that he was going to be a little late. My father was looking better than I had expected; he had received another chemotherapy injection at the beginning of the week and had been very ill on Wednesday and Thursday. Today, however, he seemed cheerful, and was quite polite when Owen shook his hand and welcomed him. Colin arrived at about three forty-five; his Mum had dropped him off, he said, but she would be coming back in a couple of hours. We introduced him to the people he didn’t know, he gave Emma a gift, and soon he was chatting away with the other Habitat volunteers.
Opening gifts always took a while with Emma, because she was meticulous about removing wrapping paper without unnecessary tearing. Her teenage friends almost all gave her CDs, while Becca, who knew her well and knew what she liked to wear, had bought her clothes, and my brother had got her a gift certificate from Blackwell’s Bookshop – a surprisingly perceptive gift, and I gave him a smile of appreciation. My father and mother had given her a card, and when she opened it I could see there was a cheque enclosed. I could tell by the expression on her face that it was a substantial cheque, and I guessed that my father was following through on his plan to pay for her tuition. She looked across at me, and I gave her a little nod. She got up and went over to where my father and mother were sitting; she hugged them both and thanked them quietly, and then went around the room giving hugs to everyone else who had brought her gifts.
One of the younger people had brought a movie, and soon after the gift opening was over the party split into two; some (mainly the teenagers) were watching the movie in the living room, while others (mainly the adults) were sitting in a loose circle around the corner in the dining area, chatting and drinking coffee around the dining table. Later on, after the movie was finished, Emma asked for some music, so those who had instruments moved into a loose circle, and Owen and I got out our guitars and led them in a few songs.
We had just finished our third song when the doorbell rang. Emma went to answer it, and a moment later she came back into the room with Wendy, who was dressed in jeans and a wool sweater, her hair hanging loose below her shoulders. Owen had just started to play the chords for the next song; when he saw Wendy standing there he stopped. “Well”, he said with a smile, “better late than never, Professor Howard!” He got to his feet and enfolded her in a huge bear hug. “Welcome to our home”, he said, and I could hear the deep emotion in his voice.
“Thanks, Owen”, she replied, returning his hug. “It’s not ‘professor’, though – I’m only a tutor”.
We introduced Wendy to the others, Becca brought her a cup of coffee, and then Owen said, “You’ve arrived in the nick of time, Wendy”.
“I think Tom and I are about to deteriorate into folk music!”
She took a seat between Colin and Emma, across the room from Owen and me. “I haven’t sung anything for years!” she protested; “I probably can’t remember any of the words!”
“They’ll come back to you once you start singing”, I encouraged her.
“You boys sing something, and I’ll drink my coffee and see if I can get my courage up”.
“ ‘You boys’?” Becca repeated with a smile; “You really have known them for a long time, haven’t you!”
Wendy gave Owen a mischievous grin, and he smiled in return; “Fair enough”, he replied, turning to Emma; “What’s it to be, Em?”
We sang a couple more songs, with Emma and Eric playing along on guitar, and Katie Foster playing the recorder. Then Becca got up and went out to the kitchen to do some last minute preparations with the food, and Emma said, “Now, Dr. Howard – please sing something with my Dad and Owen!”
Wendy still seemed reluctant; “I honestly haven’t sung very much for the past ten years”.
“You choose something you can remember, Wendy”, I suggested quietly.
She thought for a minute and then said, “I think I could manage ‘The Recruited Collier’.”
“Oh yes!” Owen exclaimed; “Good choice!” He looked across at me with a delighted grin; “Key of C”, he said.
Owen and I were sitting on stools, and Wendy was on a hard-backed chair; we instinctively moved a little closer together, so that we were facing each other in a rough triangle in the middle of the room. Owen and I began to play a slow introduction, and suddenly, even though there were over twenty people in the room, for me the group seemed to shrink down to Wendy, Owen and me. I knew exactly when she was going to come in, and she did not disappoint me. It was as if we were back in the ‘Plough and Lantern’ over twenty years ago; she took a deep breath, closed her eyes and began to sing:
“What’s the matter with you my lass,
and where’s your dashing Jimmy?
Them soldier boys have picked him up,
and taken him far from me.
Last pay day he went into town,
and them red-coated fellows
Enticed him in and made him drunk,
and he’d better gone to the gallows”.
A stillness seemed to descend on the room; Wendy might not have done much singing in the past decade, but her voice had lost none of its power. For the second verse of the song, I sang harmony with her:
“The very sight of his cockade
it sets us all a-crying,
And me I nearly fainted twice;
I thought that I was dying.
My father would have paid the smart
and he ran for the golden guinea,
But the sergeant swore he’d kissed the book
so now they’ve got young Jimmy”.
After the third verse, Owen played an instrumental break, and as I looked around the room I could see that even my father and my brother seemed to have been moved by the power of Wendy’s voice. My father was leaning forward in his chair, his hands on the top of his walking stick, his eyes fixed on Wendy. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Becca leaning against the door frame, her arms crossed, obviously captivated by the music.
The three of us sang the last verse together:
“As I walk o’er yon stubble field,
below where runs the seam;
I think on Jimmy hewing there,
but it was all a dream.
He hewed the very coals we burn
and when the fire I’m lighting,
To think the lumps were in his hands
would set my heart a-beating.
So break my heart and then it’s o’er,
oh break my heart my dearie;
And I lie in this cold, green ground,
for of single life I’m weary”.
When the last chord died down, there was a brief silence in the room. I looked around at my two musical partners, and I was surprised to see that Wendy was blinking back tears. Then Becca shook her head and said, “My God; that was absolutely gorgeous!”
Immediately everyone began to applaud, and I smiled at Wendy; “Thanks!” I whispered.
“Do another one!” Emma said.
“We don’t want to monopolize your party, Em”, Owen replied.
“It’s my party!” she insisted with a mischievous grin, “and I’m asking for an encore!”
“Are you okay with it, Wendy?” I asked.
She nodded, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. “Oh yes”, she replied in a voice full of emotion; “I seem to be unexpectedly enjoying myself! Why don’t one of you boys choose something now, and I’ll see if I can remember it”.
“Well, surely you remember ‘I Wonder What is Keeping My True Love This Night’?” Owen suggested with a grin.
Wendy smiled; “I think I can probably manage that one!”
We ended up singing our old songs together for over half an hour. Eventually Becca put her head through the hatch from the kitchen and said, “Well, I hate to break this up, but this jambalaya is ready and we should eat it while it’s hot!”
“Of course”, Owen responded. “Let’s bring all the stuff out onto the dining room table and then eat buffet style. We’ve got some food trays for people who like to have something hard and flat to put their plates on”.
We all stood up to help, but as the people began to mill around, Owen and Wendy and I seemed to move spontaneously together. The next thing we knew, the three of us were gripping each other tight in a three-way hug. For a long moment we held each other, and when we stepped back, Wendy’s eyes were shining. “Thank you both”, she said quietly; “I wasn’t expecting that, but it was the best half hour I’ve spent in a long time”.
Becca and Emma brought the pots of jambalaya out onto the table, and when the plates and cutlery and everything else were ready, my sister said, “Now, I should explain that we have two pots here, one super-spicy and one with minimum spice. Emma wanted us all to have super-spicy, but I explained to her that not all of us have her kind of stomach!”
“For which some of us older folks are profoundly grateful!” my father replied with a smile.
Across the other side of the room I saw my mother and Wendy talking together. I found myself in the line for food beside my brother; he smiled at me and said, “Quite impressive; I didn’t realize you were such musical pros back in those university days”.
“Wendy makes all the difference”, I replied; “Without that voice, Owen and I were just two more guitarists in a city full of them. By the way, nice choice for Emma’s birthday gift”.
“Thanks; I thought I detected the bookworm genes in her”.
I had given Emma a Loreena McKennitt CD as part of my birthday gift, and she had slipped it into the player while we were lining up for our food. Several conversations were soon going on in different parts of the house; Emma was floating around with her plate in her hand, trying to talk with everyone, but Wendy, Owen and I seemed to gravitate together to one corner of the living room. As we sat down, Owen smiled impishly at Wendy and said, “I’m glad you didn’t have to run off so quickly after all!”.
“Me too. How long have you lived here, Owen?”
“Seventeen years this past summer”.
“Have you always worked in Oxford?”
“Yes, I joined a little practice after I finished my degree, and eventually I became one of the senior partners. It’s been a rather predictable life, I suppose! Becca’s one of my partners now, actually”.
“Oh, is she a doctor too?”.
“I didn’t know that. The last time I saw Becca I think she was about eleven; didn’t she come to that concert we did for your Mum’s music society, Tom?”
“Yes, I think she did”.
“Did you already know your wife while we were here, Owen?”
“No, I met her not long after you two left – in church, actually. I’ve always been a churchgoer, as you know, and she showed up there one Sunday in the September of 1982”.
“I’ve actually become a churchgoer again myself in the last few years”, Wendy admitted with a shy smile.
“Returning to the fold?” Owen asked.
“Something like that. My Dad’s pleased, of course. My children aren’t really that interested in it, though, so most of the time I just attend my college chapel. The chaplain and I get on well together, and I like having contact with the students there”.
“We go to St. Clement’s”, Owen said. “I was going there through most of my student years, and just seemed to stay there”.
“I’ve been there once or twice. I suppose it would actually be my parish church – I live at the top of Headington Hill, not far from your school actually, Tom – but it’s a bit too charismatic for me; I like something more traditional”.
“We three have really got the Christian spectrum covered!” Owen observed.
Wendy looked at me in surprise; “ ‘We three’? Have you become a churchgoer too?”
“He’s a Mennonite!” Owen said with a grin; “Didn’t you see his horse and buggy outside?”
“A Mennonite? How did that happen?”
“Well, I sort of married into it”, I replied with a smile; “that really is how it started. Kelly’s folks were pretty strong in their faith, but she had rebelled against it as a teenager. When I got to know her she was just finding her way back into it. Her Dad was the principal of my school, and her brother Joe and I became pretty good friends. Gradually it just seemed to make more and more sense to me”.
“I seem to remember reading that Mennonites are pacifists, aren’t they?”
“Yes, that’s right”.
“So you’re not cheering for Bush and Blair and their war with Iraq?”
“No, we’re not. Working for peace and justice is a very important part of our faith for Emma and me”.
“So Emma’s involved with your church, too?”
“Yes, she is; her faith’s very important to her”.
“That’s really nice; I wish I could find a way to help my two make that connection”. She glanced across the room to where Colin was sitting talking with my nephew Eric, their plates of jambalaya balanced on their knees. “So what was it that attracted you to the Mennonite faith?” she asked. “I mean, I know you said you married into it, but obviously there was more to it than that”.
“Well, it’s not really very complicated. When I got to know the folks in Kelly’s church, I found a group of people who put a strong emphasis on actually trying to put into practice the things that Jesus said. That included the things about peace and turning the other cheek and caring for the poor. I liked the fact that there wasn’t a hierarchical understanding of leadership; worship seemed to be more of a communal activity instead of something put on by people at the front. I liked the fact that it was a simple and radical form of Christianity with a strong emphasis on community. It’s got its problems, of course, but it still seems to suit me”.
“So you don’t have priests or ministers?”
“Most Mennonite churches do have pastors, but our tradition is to see ministry as more of a partnership, so we share the leadership of our Sunday services, and our elders are involved in the pastoral ministry during the week. And the little Baptist church that Emma and I go to right now doesn’t have a paid minister; we have four volunteer leaders who share the responsibilities among themselves”.
“That’s very different”.
Owen had been listening to our conversation, but now he put his fork down and said, “What about you, Wendy; what have you been doing all these years?”
“Oh, well, my life’s not exactly been a smooth ride, I’m afraid!” She was quiet for a moment, and then she said, “I went to London, you know. Mickey and I were able to work things out, and so we moved in together”.
“That was a big surprise for me”, I said; “You seemed so keen on staying in Oxford for your doctorate, and I was also pretty sure you and Mickey were past history”.
“Well, in retrospect it might have been better if we had been. Anyway, Lisa was born about a year after we moved in together, and we got married not long after that. I worked on my doctorate in London, Mickey did well in photo-journalism and eventually set up his own business. He got to travel to all kinds of exotic places to take photographs for magazines, and while he was there he got to enjoy all kinds of exotic women too, although I didn’t find out about that part of it until later. By the time Colin was born I had my doctorate, and a couple of years later I got a job teaching at University College, London. The rest you know. I wrote some books, and I got a chance about six years ago to move back to Oxford and get a fellowship at Merton. The time was right because Mickey and I had just broken up”. She paused, and then said, “He got quite violent, and the children and I were just too afraid to stay with him any more. I actually had him charged when I left; he was convicted, and he spent some time in jail. He’s out now, but he’s supposed to stay away from us. Most of the time, he does”.
Owen and I were both suddenly silent; I was amazed by the matter-of-factness with which Wendy had summed up what had obviously been a horrific experience for her. I was about to say so, but then across the room from us Becca got to her feet, cleared her throat and asked for everyone’s attention. “I’m going to make a toast”, she said, “So if you could all visit the punch bowl and fill your glasses, you’ll be ready for it”.
We did as she suggested, and for a few minutes the room was full of movement. Eventually, when we were sitting down again, Becca said, “There are two things I want to say. First, for those of us who knew her, there’s an absent person at this gathering tonight, and I know Emma will want me to mention her now”.
She paused for a moment, and then continued; “Speaking for myself, ever since I spent a summer at Tommy and Kelly’s home when I was seventeen, I always looked up to Kelly as my older sister; in fact, in later years I came to think of her as the most outstanding human being it was ever my privilege to know. So, please raise your glasses, and let’s drink a toast to Kelly Reimer Masefield”.
Everyone stood and drank the toast; Becca glanced at me, as if she was wondering if she had said the right thing, and I gave her a nod of appreciation. Taking Emma’s hand, she continued, “Apart from Tommy, of course, I think I can say that I’ve been able to spend more time than anyone else in this room with my niece. I first met her when she was about eighteen months old, and I’ve had lots of opportunities since then to get to know her”.
She turned to face Emma. “Em, you’ve done us all proud”, she said. “We love you, we’re so glad you’re here now so we can spend more time with you, and we just want to say, ‘Happy birthday’”.
We all raised our glasses and said, “Happy birthday” together. After we had drunk the toast, Becca said, “Now, Tommy, it’s time to bring out that birthday cake”.
Later on, when Colin and Wendy were leaving, I followed them outside and walked with them to where their car was parked on the darkened street. On the way, Wendy said to me, “I wonder if you’d like to come over to Merton for a special Christmas event, Tom?”
“What sort of event?”
“There’s a visiting choir doing Nine Lessons and Carols on the evening of the Sunday before Christmas; there’ll be a formal dinner afterwards, and guests are welcome”.
“Tell me more”.
“It’s very traditional – a candlelight service, mainly music, with some Bible readings about Christmas interspersed between the carols. Actually, our own chapel choir did it a week or two ago, but of course they’re all gone down for the holidays now. I’m not quite sure where this visiting choir is coming from, but I know it’ll be a very lovely event. Would you and Emma like to come as my guests?”
“I think she might be interested in that; I’ll talk to her and get back to you, Wendy”.
“Good”. She held out her hand, and I shook it rather formally. Then, a little impulsively, she leaned forward and kissed me on the cheek. “This was a good evening”, she said; “Thanks for inviting me”.
“I’m glad you could come”.
I watched as she and Colin got into their car and pulled out onto the road. I raised my hand to wave to them, then turned and went back into the house to help with the cleanup.
Link to Chapter 12.