When I finished ‘Meadowvale’ it turned out that there were some inconsistencies with ‘A Time to Mend’ (which I wrote first, over ten years ago, even though chronologically it comes after ‘Meadowvale’). So – I’m having another go at ‘A Time to Mend’ to bring it back in sync with ‘Meadowvale’. Here’s the fourth chapter.
On our past visits to England we had always attended church on Sundays, either at the village church in Northwood or in Headington with Owen and Lorraine. My father had been an atheist for as long as I could remember and he found our continued church attendance puzzling, although he rarely said anything about it unless he happened to catch me by myself. Emma and I had agreed that we would continue our usual practice on the Sunday after our arrival; we would go down to the village church for the morning service, even though it would be very different from the style of worship at our Mennonite church back home. “When we get settled we can look around for something a little closer to what we’re used to”, I said, “but for now, the village church is fine with me, if you’re okay with it?”
“I’m good”, she replied with a smile; “I remember it from the last time we were here. It was kind of like a Catholic service, wasn’t it? I remember the pastor and the choir members wore robes”.
“Do you think we’ll see Uncle Owen’s mom and dad there?”
“No, they’re staying with Owen’s brother and his family up in Lancashire right now; Owen says they’ll be back in a week or so”.
“What time is the service?”
“The church sign says nine”.
“That’s kind of early”.
“Yeah; I seem to remember the vicar has two or three different churches to look after so they’re probably all competing for prime time”.
We mentioned to my parents on Saturday night that we would be going to church the next morning. Becca had gone back to Oxford late in the afternoon, so it was just the four of us sitting around one end of the long table in the dining room. My mother smiled as she and I were setting the table together; “We should probably just go back to eating our evening meals in the kitchen”, she said. “That’s what your dad and I usually do, but I wanted to keep it special for you and Emma for a day or two yet”.
“And we appreciate that”.
After we had finished our supper and were sipping our tea, I glanced at Emma and then turned to my mother; “We’re going to get up and go to church tomorrow morning”, I said. “The service is at nine, so if you don’t want to get up that early on a Sunday we’ll be happy to look after ourselves for breakfast”.
“I don’t mind getting up and making something for you; I’ll be awake anyway”.
My father looked at me for a moment and then shook his head reproachfully; “Still participating in that foolishness, then?”
“It’s not foolishness to me; it’s one of the ways I make sense of my life”.
He glanced at his granddaughter, looked back at me for a moment and then shrugged his shoulders. “Suit yourself; Sunday dinner’s at one”.
Emma gave a cheerful laugh. “I don’t think the service will last quite that long, Grandpa!”
The sky the next morning was a clear blue and the day was already pleasantly warm as we made our way down to the church. We walked in silence for a few minutes, and then Emma took my arm and said, “I’ve never really talked to Grandpa about Christianity”.
“That’s a conversation he’s not very interested in”.
“He’s an atheist, isn’t he?”
“Yes – and also a very good debater”.
“So there’s not much point in arguing with him then?”
“Not unless you want to learn how his opponents feel in court”.
“I guess it would have been hard to be a practising Christian when you were growing up”.
“Well, I wasn’t a practising Christian at the time, but yeah, I’m sure he would have taken every opportunity to make an issue out of it”.
“I noticed he wasn’t very respectful last night”.
“That was mild for him. If you hadn’t been there he’d have been a lot more aggressive.”
“Perhaps I’m being unfair; maybe he’s not feeling quite so belligerent now he’s dying of cancer”.
“Did you ever go to church when you were growing up?”
“I’m told I went when Rick was christened as a baby but I don’t remember that; I do remember Becca’s christening. Apart from that we only went on Christmas Eve and I stopped going when I was about thirteen; my dad didn’t care and my mum didn’t force the issue”.
“Grandma came from a churchgoing family, didn’t she?”
“She did – her dad was a church organist and he and his wife were both very devout. And do you remember my Uncle Roy?”
“Of course; he was one of Grandma’s relatives, wasn’t he?”
“Yes – he was married to my Auntie Brenda. He died about six years ago, not long after the last time we were here”.
“I remember that; he had a heart attack”.
“Yes. He and Auntie Brenda always went to church; I think she still does”.
“It must be hard for Grandma not to be able to go”.
“I’m not sure my dad would actually try to stop her, although he’s never been backward about trying to control other people’s lives. To be honest with you, I’m a little shy about asking her about it”.
“Yeah. We’ve talked about lots of things through the years, but faith isn’t one of them”.
“How come? You and Grandma are pretty close”.
“My family tends to be more reserved about some things, I guess”.
“But you and I talk about almost everything”.
“But if I knew there was something you didn’t want to talk about, I wouldn’t push you; I’d let you decide when you were ready”.
“Right – I guess that’s true”. She smiled at me and laid her head momentarily on my shoulder; “That’s because you’re such a great dad!”
“Thank you; you’re pretty special yourself, too”.
In the centre of the village there was a small grass-covered square with a cross-shaped war memorial; the old stone church stood on the west side of the square, and the primary school on the east. The church was a solid-looking building with a tower at one end, set in a churchyard dotted with old gravestones, with a stand of trees behind. There were a few cars parked on the road in front, and a couple of people were going into the church through a porch on the north side of the building.
Inside, the air was pleasantly cool. The walls were plastered white, with stained glass windows higher up, and at the front the altar and choir stalls stood behind a wooden rood screen with the morning sun pouring in through another colourful window. There were already some people in the pews, including a couple of families with small children. An elderly lady with a big smile greeted us and handed us our books and bulletins and we took our seats near the back, just across from the porch where we had come in. Emma was looking up at the carved wooden ceiling. “I remember this now”, she whispered; “It’s fifteenth century, right?”
“I remember the pastor showed me around last time we were here. Was that after a service or something?”
“No – we wandered in here on the first day of our holiday, when we were out for a walk. It was just you and me, remember? Your mum couldn’t get the whole five weeks off work, so she came a couple of weeks later”.
“We’d been sitting down for a long time and we wanted to take a walk so we came out for an hour or so. The minister just happened to be here when we stopped in to have a look; I think he said he was tidying up after a funeral”.
“I wonder if he’s still here?”
I glanced down at the bulletin I had been given. “Not unless he’s changed not only his name but also his gender”.
She looked at her own bulletin and then laughed softly; “The Reverend Claire Lucas”, she said. “Right – definitely not the same person!”
A few minutes later the service began. The choir entered from the back during the singing of the first hymn, followed by the minister; she appeared to be in her mid-forties, with greying blond hair cut just above her shoulders, dressed in the customary robes worn by Church of England clergy. The singing seemed a little timid compared to our Mennonite church back home, but the congregation participated well in the various prayers and responses throughout the service. Some of the rituals were strange to us but the minister did well in giving directions as to what was expected of us, and I speculated that she had probably noticed the presence of newcomers in church that day. She preached a fine, practical sermon with plenty of food for thought, and I quickly found myself warming to her.
At the end of the service, during the announcement time, the minister gave an invitation for everyone to stay afterwards for a cup of coffee. However, when the time came Emma glanced at me hesitantly and said, “Do you mind if we don’t stay?”
“Of course not”. I looked at her curiously; “Are you okay?”
“Just missing home”, she said quietly.
The sun was riding high in the sky as we left the church, and people were already out enjoying it; couples were walking with their children and the road was busy with cars and bicycles. I smiled at Emma; “Shall we walk down to the river before we go back to Grandma and Grandpa’s?”
“Sure; lead the way”.
So we strolled south on the main street and then took the old wharf road down to the river. There were several boats moving on the water, and I pointed out to her the little wooden jetty that Owen’s family had used for their canoeing during our teenage years. Emma and I both enjoyed canoeing, and we agreed together that we would beg or borrow the use of a canoe as soon as possible. “I won’t be surprised if Becca has one stored somewhere”, I said; “I don’t know for sure, though”.
We wandered along the footpath beside the river, heading east toward the Kingfisher Inn and the bridge over the Thames. After a few minutes I spoke hesitantly; “Are you missing our own church?”
She nodded. “It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with this one; it just made me think of home and all the people going to our church today”.
“It reminded me of Mom, too; she was with us last time we came to church here”.
“That’s right – she was”.
“I liked the service okay though”.
“So did I”.
“The minister preached a good sermon, didn’t she?”
“Yes she did”.
“Of course, I’m not used to all the written prayers and ceremonies – that always feels a little strange to me”.
“I know what you mean”.
“I like the sense of history here, though. And the building’s not too fancy, is it? I don’t think I’d feel good about going to a really fancy church, like some of those cathedrals we saw in London last time we were here. I’m not quite sure how they make that fit with what Jesus says about not storing up for yourself treasures on earth”.
“I know what you mean”.
“It must be hard for the minister to have three churches to look after; she must do a lot of driving”.
“The communities are closer together here, though. That’s one of the first things I noticed when I moved to Saskatchewan: how spread out the towns are. Here it’s an easy four mile walk from Northwood to Wallingford. Owen and I even used to walk home from Oxford sometimes when we were up at university”.
“How far is that?”
“About ten miles if you go direct, but we used to like to make a day of it and take the Thames path; that’s about seventeen miles”.
“That’s a long walk”.
“Not as far as Saskatoon to Meadowvale, though”.
She laughed softly; “I guess not”.
That afternoon Emma and my mother were both busy in other parts of the house, and I found myself alone with my father. He looked tired and pale after Sunday dinner and the afternoon was warm and muggy, but to my surprise instead of lying down for a nap he suggested we take a walk around the garden. He was wearing a white shirt and a pair of old grey trousers, and I had changed after church into shorts, tee shirt and sandals.
Gardening was my father’s only real relaxation, but since his illness he had been too tired to look after the grounds and he had reluctantly agreed to my mother’s suggestion to have a professional gardener come in once a week. I strolled along beside him for a while, listening as he pointed out the various plants in their beds and told me how they had been grown. Afterwards we went back to his greenhouse and sat down together on a wooden bench outside the door. He took off his glasses, wiped them with his handkerchief, and dabbed at his sweating brow. “The heat’s a bit too much for me”, he said.
“How have you been feeling?”
“Oh fine, fine. A bit tired of course, but that’s only to be expected”.
“You’re having another chemo treatment this week?”
“Supposed to be”, he replied, putting his glasses back on. “I’ll be seeing the doctor on Tuesday to make sure I’m ready for it”.
“The white blood cells don’t always build back up the way they should?”
He gave me a sideways glance. “Kelly had chemotherapy too, didn’t she?”
“Yes. It wasn’t enough of course, but I’m sure it gave us a little longer before she died”.
“Well I’m not going to let this thing get the better of me; I’m sure I’ll be fine once the treatments are over”.
“What’s your oncologist saying?”
He looked up at me sharply; “What have you heard from your sister?”
“Actually it was Mum, way back in January; she told me they’d said two years. A few weeks ago Becca told me they were still saying the same thing”.
“Then why are you asking me?”
“Because I’d like us to be able to talk openly and honestly about these things”.
“Are you accusing me of dishonesty? This from the man who told us he had a teaching job in Reading and then went off to Canada instead?”
I shook my head. “I’m not accusing you of anything, Dad. It’s just that I’d like to think we could talk about these things between ourselves rather than having to use other people as go-betweens”.
He looked at me suspiciously. “This is a new line for you. Why this sudden desire to talk to me? You’ve never been especially interested before”.
“I would think that would be kind of obvious”.
“Perhaps – although I can’t help being a bit suspicious that it’s got something to do with my money”.
“I don’t care about your money, Dad; I have all the money I need”.
He laughed; “I find that rather hard to believe!”
I didn’t reply, hoping my silence would ease the sudden confrontational tone the conversation had taken. But he had another issue he wanted to raise with me, and after a moment he said, “You know, I’m surprised that an educated man like you still carries on with churchgoing. I know Kelly and her family introduced you to religion but I’d hoped by now you’d have been able to see through all that”.
I smiled; “It didn’t start with Kelly and her family”.
“The Fosters, then?”
“They didn’t push it. I was questioning myself, long before I said anything to Owen”.
I hesitated. “Dad, do we have to do this today? I can’t see that argument between us is going to do any good; can we just accept that I see things differently? Like I said last night, my faith is one of the ways I make sense of my life”.
“So you actually believe all that stuff about God and Christ and miracles, and Noah’s ark and the snake in the garden and all that?”
“I believe in God and Christ and miracles; I’m not especially tied to Noah’s ark or the snake in the garden”.
“So you pick and choose what you believe and what you don’t? A little inconsistent, aren’t you?”
“I take the Bible seriously as literature, which means I don’t treat all its various genres the same way”.
“How very convenient for you!”
I frowned; “I’m not quite sure why you feel the need to have this conversation”.
“What’s the matter – are you afraid I’ll talk you out of your faith?”
“No – I’m not afraid of that at all”.
“Then why don’t you want to talk about it?”
“Because I don’t have your faith in the power of a good argument. A friend of mine used to say that when an argument starts it’s no longer two people seeking the truth; it’s two egos trying to win. And we both know you have a lot of experience at winning”.
I shook my head. “I don’t think so. When I came to faith I certainly didn’t leave my brains behind, but no one argued me into it. When it came right down to it, it was an experience of God that got me over the last hurdle”.
“That’s pure wish-fulfilment; we both know you’ve adopted religion as a crutch for your weakness”.
“Sometimes when you’ve got a broken leg a crutch can be a good thing”.
“So you admit you’ve only adopted religion out of weakness?”
“Would it make you feel better if I did admit it?”
“Of course not; I’ve always known you preferred to follow sentiment over reason but I don’t have to like the fact. You’ve allowed sentiment to twist your logic, just like you did when you decided to become a teacher because of your sentimental attachment to George Foster. Sentiment’s all very well but you need reason and common sense if you’re going to be able to deal with the real world and not spend your time living in some make-believe fantasy”.
I smiled at him; “Make-believe fantasy?” I said softly.
“Yes. I’m sure it’s a comfort of sorts to think there’s a god looking after you and you’re going to go to heaven when you die, but intelligent people deal with reality as it is, not as they wish it was”.
“So I’m the one who’s deluding myself here?”
“Of course you are, and I understand completely why you continue to do so”.
“Yes; to abandon your faith would feel like disloyalty to Kelly”.
“Or maybe it would feel like disloyalty to the God I met after Kelly and I got engaged”.
“Don’t be ridiculous; no one can meet God, for the simple reason that God doesn’t exist. People can persuade themselves to believe they’ve had all kinds of supernatural experiences, but modern, rational human beings know it’s all self-delusion”.
“So the spiritual experiences of millions of human beings around the world and throughout history are ruled out of court, just like that?”
“It’s not verifiable evidence”.
“Neither is the fact that you love Mum”.
“What an absurd comparison!”
“I don’t think so”, I replied softly.
We looked at each other in silence for a moment, and then he said, “You know how to hit below the belt, don’t you?”
“Bringing in Kelly wasn’t hitting below the belt?”
He looked away, shaking his head. “I’m probably wasting my breath trying to talk some sense into you”, he said dismissively.
“I don’t mind changing the subject”, I replied. “I don’t especially feel the need to set you straight about your atheism, and I don’t understand why you feel you have to set me straight about my faith in God”.
He got to his feet. “I’m tired”, he said; “I’m going to go and lie down for a while”.
“Fair enough; I think I’ll go inside and find out what Emma’s doing”.
My body had still not adjusted to the time change, and later in the afternoon I went up to my room to have a nap of my own. When I woke up after an hour’s sleep I could hear the sound of guitar music somewhere in the house. There was a small sink by the window in my bedroom; I went over to it, splashed some water on my face, combed my hair, and slipped quietly downstairs.
The music was coming from the living room. I put my head around the door and saw Emma and Eric sitting on easy chairs across the empty fireplace from each other, playing their guitars, with Sarah and Anna sitting with them, listening to the music. Eric was playing and singing an old delta blues song, his accent imitating the old black blues performers like Robert Johnson and Mississippi John Hurt; Emma was filling in some tasteful lead guitar licks as well as singing along with him on the chorus. I stood at the door listening until they were finished, then applauded quietly as I slipped into the room and sat down opposite them.
Emma smiled at me; “How long have you been standing there?”
“Just since the beginning of the song. How long have you been playing, Eric?”
“A couple of years. I’m not very good yet; Emma’s a lot better than me”.
“Sounds pretty good to me; you’ve got that delta blues style pretty well nailed”.
“Dad’s a really good player”, said Emma; “Do you want to play with us, Dad?”
“Not right now; I’m happy to listen. Are your mum and dad here, kids?”
“Mum’s here”, Sarah replied; “She’s out on the patio having lemonade with Grandma and Grandpa. Dad’s working”.
I glanced at Emma. “Are you guys going to play something else? I’m not really awake yet, so I’ll just sit here and listen to the music while I wake up”.
Emma laughed; “Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around? Aren’t we supposed to play you to sleep?”
“What do you like to play?” Eric asked her.
“I like a lot of bluegrass tunes, and I like Dad’s old folk songs, too”.
“You mean like Bob Dylan and those guys from the sixties?”
She laughed; “Actually, Dad’s songs are a lot older than that. No one knows who wrote them – they were handed down from long ago, and most of them have been changed and adapted over the years. They’re kind of like old blues tunes in that way”.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything like that”.
“Yeah, you have; you just don’t know what they are. Do you know that old Simon and Garfunkel song ‘Scarborough Fair’?”
“I think so”.
“It was an old folk song they arranged”.
“Do you know it?”
“Yeah; would you like to play along with me?”
“What’s the key?”
“I play it in E minor, but Dad plays it a little lower”.
She showed him the chords, and then sang the song for him; he watched, and by the third verse he was playing along with her, as well as singing along with the ‘then she’ll be a true love of mine’ lines. When the song was over he smiled; “I think I’ve heard that one before but I barely remember it”. He gestured toward her guitar; “That guitar sounds so awesome!”
“Yeah – I’m really lucky to have it. It’s got a solid spruce top and mahogany back and sides; like Dad said the other night, it was built in 1970, so it’s thirty-three years old now”.
“Wow”. He glanced at me; “I can’t believe you gave away a beautiful guitar like that. What are you playing now?”
“A Larrivée; it’s the same kind of style but the construction’s a little different, so it’s got a slightly different voice. Emma and her mum and a whole bunch of other people got together to buy it for me for my fortieth birthday”.
“Mine’s just a cheap guitar; perhaps one day…”
“Sure – but don’t forget that Robert Johnson recorded all his songs on a much cheaper guitar than that!”
He nodded; “True!” he said with a smile.
I sat with them for about half an hour, listening to their music and joining in their conversation between songs. Eventually I got to my feet; “Sounding good, guys. Keep it up; I’m going to go find the others”.
I slipped out of the living room and crossed the hallway toward the back of the house. There was a large room there with a bare wooden floor, which at one time had been used for formal dances; it was almost empty now, with only my mother’s upright piano sitting in one corner, and a couple of armchairs scattered around the room. At the back, French windows opened onto an enclosed garden surrounded by a brick wall; beyond the wall was the orchard. My parents were sitting out there on the stone patio with Alyson, a jug of lemonade and some glasses on the table in front of them. Alyson was dressed for the heat of the afternoon in a loose sleeveless dress and a white sun hat. She was the first to see me, and she gave me a warm smile as I slipped out onto the patio and dropped into a lawn chair across from her. “Still getting over your jet lag, Tom?” she asked.
“Apparently. I hear my brother’s at work?”
“Yes; he had to go in for a while this afternoon”.
“Did you pass the musicians on your way out?” my mother asked.
“Emma plays very well”, said Alyson; “Did you teach her?”
“Some; her old babysitter Beth Robinson helped her a lot too”.
“What sort of music does she like to play?”
“She likes my old folk songs, but she and Jake play bluegrass and country music too; her tastes are actually quite eclectic”.
“Does she ever perform in front of people?”
“She’s done that once in a while with Jake when we’ve had family reunions, but most of the time she just plays for her own enjoyment”.
My father had been listening quietly; he was wearing a Panama hat to shade his head from the bright sunlight, and I noticed again how pale and tired he looked. “What are her plans?” he asked.
“She’s planning to look for work once the summer’s over. If she can’t find paying employment, she’ll try to find a volunteer position in a seniors’ home; she’s done that sort of thing before”.
“Are you going to look for a house?” asked Alyson.
“Yes. I’d prefer to be in walking distance of the school, although I know that might not be possible”.
My father shook his head; “Headington’s expensive; you won’t find much in your price range”.
“Are you going to buy or rent?” asked Alyson.
“Rent. We haven’t sold our house back in Meadowvale, and I really don’t want to get tied up in another mortgage”.
“Buying is always a better idea”, said my father. “When you rent, you’re just pouring money down the drain with nothing to show for it at the end of the day”.
My mother gave me a sympathetic glance; “Are you and Emma going to get any sightseeing in before the school year starts?”
“We’ve been talking about it. We’ll go into Oxford, of course, and maybe London, and she’d like to go down and see Stonehenge again; we did that trip last time we were here and she really enjoyed it”. I leaned forward and poured myself a glass of lemonade. “What about you?” I asked Alyson; “Are your kids doing anything for the summer?”
“No definite plans; we’ll probably do some day trips. Eric’s just started working at a garden centre since school ended; it’s the first time he’s had a summer job. And Rick’s having trouble getting out of the office at the moment. Not that that’s an unusual situation, of course – there are very few times when he doesn’t have trouble getting out of the office”.
“Occupational hazard for a barrister”, said my father.
“It makes family holidays a bit difficult, though”, Alyson replied. “I get a month off in the summer but we rarely manage to get away for more than a week together. What about you and Emma, Tom? Do you often take family holidays together?”
“Ah well, I’m a teacher, you know, so I’m used to long lazy summers. When Kelly was alive we used to take family camping holidays a lot; we’d pack a tent and a canoe and take off for a few weeks. We’d go up to Jasper, or when Steve and Krista lived near Prince Albert National Park we’d stay with them. Emma and I still like to do things like that, and we’ve got a folk music festival and a Shakespeare festival we like to go to as well”.
At that moment Emma appeared in the doorway with her cousins. I smiled at her; “Come to join the old folks?”
“We’re getting thirsty”, she replied with a grin.
“Come and sit down”, said my mother; “The lemonade’s almost finished but I can easily go in and make some more”.
“I’ll do that, Irene”, Alyson said, getting to her feet and reaching for the pitcher; “You stay right where you are”.
“Are you sure?”
“Of course; I’ll be back in a minute”. She gave us a smile and then turned and slipped into the house.
My mother reach up and took Emma’s hand. “You were sounding very nice in there, my dear”.
“Thanks”, Emma replied as she and the other kids sat down with us. “Am I going to get to hear you play at all this afternoon?”
“Oh, I don’t know; I’m a bit out of practice”.
“We’re a friendly audience, aren’t we, Dad?”
“Of course we are!” I replied; “You should play for us, Mum”.
She shrugged; “Alright, if you insist – but I want another glass of lemonade first!”
She smiled sheepishly at me; “And as for you, I want you to forget all the critical things I said about your playing when I was teaching you!”
Emma laughed; “Were you a tough teacher, Grandma?”
“Your dad definitely thought I was!”
“It’s okay”, I replied playfully; “I seem to have survived the trauma well enough. And you did succeed in teaching at least two of us to play”, I added, smiling at my mother.
“I did, didn’t I? And Becca still plays occasionally, so it’s not all been lost”.
“I haven’t heard Auntie Becca play piano in a long time”, said Emma.
“Well then, you’ll need to get after her too, won’t you?” my mother replied.
“I guess I will!”
Link to Chapter 6