Emma and I went out to Northwood on the evening of the 22nd, and Becca came out to join us as soon as the clinic closed on the afternoon of Christmas Eve. The three of us went to the village church that night at seven; the pews were almost full, and Claire Lucas preached a thoughtful sermon which seemed to hold even my sister’s attention. Becca had usually accompanied us to our church on her visits to Meadowvale, but I knew that she rarely attended when she was home in England.
After the service was over we walked back to my parents’ house through the cold night air. Becca grinned at us; “That was a bit different from your usual service at Meadowvale Mennonite Church”.
“A little”, I replied, “but we like it alright. The people here are getting to know us, and we get to see George and Eleanor”.
“And Claire’s started to recognize us, too”, Emma added; “I had a nice conversation with her last time we were here”.
“You two are so easy to get along with! Surely you must miss your own church just a little bit on Christmas Eve?”
“Oh yeah”, Emma replied softly; “I miss a lot of things about home”.
“Who’s going to be at Will and Sally’s for dinner tomorrow?”
“Uncle Joe and Auntie Krista and their families for sure, and I think David and Anna will probably be there too”.
“How many’s that?”
“Twelve, I think”.
Becca grinned at me; “I think that for once we might have a bigger group here!”
“Uncle Arthur and Uncle Bill are coming, aren’t they?”
“Yes – and their wives, and Ann and Mark and their family, and Auntie Brenda, and all of us: that makes nineteen”.
“Do you know why Auntie Sarah’s not coming?”
“I think Uncle Graham’s pretty frail; they don’t stray too far away from home these days”.
“Auntie Sarah’s Grandpa’s sister, right?” asked Emma.
“Yes”, I replied. “Grandpa’s the oldest, and the others are Arthur, Sarah, and Bill”.
“Which family does Ann come from?”
“She’s the oldest daughter of Uncle Bill and Auntie Joan. Her husband is Mark Fogerty, and Caitlin and Molly are their kids; they’re seven and four”.
“They’re the ones that live in Oxford?”
“Yes. Ann’s actually the only one of my cousins who’s kept in touch with me through the years”.
“Have I ever met her?”
“Last time we were here she and Mark and Caitlin drove over from Cambridge to see us; Caitlin would have been a baby at the time. You probably wouldn’t remember it, though”.
“Actually I think I do; she was kind of tall, with long blond hair. Her husband was a little shorter than her, and his hair was really black and curly”.
“Yes, that’s them”.
Becca took my arm. “It’s a long time since anyone from Dad’s family came for dinner on Christmas Day”.
“Well, there’s a bit more of a sense of urgency this year, isn’t there?”
“I would think so”.
I was up early as usual on Christmas morning, and I went for my walk while it was still dark; there was a sharp frost in the air, and I knew that when the daylight came the bare fields would look spectacular with their thin white covering, different and somehow colder than the snow I was used to from my prairie home. Praying while walking had been a habit for me for many years, but on this, my third Christmas without Kelly, I found that there wasn’t a great deal that I wanted to say. It seemed to be enough just to walk quietly, breathing a few prayers of thanksgiving for Christmases past, and asking God to watch over the many loved ones who were far away from us this year.
When I got back to the house my mother was already up and working in the kitchen in her bathrobe and slippers, stuffing the Christmas turkey. We chatted for a few minutes while I made tea; I promised to come down and give her a hand, but she shook her head and said, “Becca’s just getting up, and we’ve got a good system between us. You take Emma her tea and then the two of you just enjoy yourselves for a while; we’ll be alright”.
“Are you sure?”
“Okay then; thanks, Mum”.
I poured two mugs of tea, kissed her on the cheek and went up to Emma’s room. She was already awake, with the debris from her stocking spread over her bed; she greeted me with a smile and a hug and held up the paperback I had wrapped for her a couple of days before. “Adam Bede”, she said; “I’d been thinking about getting this one for myself”.
“Aren’t you glad you didn’t?”
“I know the rules about December shopping. Did you look at your stocking yet?”
“Not yet; I’m going to drink my tea and grab a quick shower, and I’ll probably do it after that”.
“Are you going to play us some carols today?”
“Would you like me to?”
“I love it when you play carols; it brings back lots of happy memories. I heard you and Grandma practising on Saturday”.
“You could even join us if you wanted”.
“I don’t play them as well as you do”.
“Your voice is lovely, though”.
“Thanks. Is Grandma already up?”
“Yes – she’s stuffing the turkey”.
“I’d better get up and give her a hand”.
“I already offered, and she told me she and Becca have a pretty good system”.
“What time are the guests arriving?”
“I think dinner’s at one-thirty. I expect Rick and the family will be here before noon; I’m not sure about everyone else”.
“Is it a ‘dress for dinner’ kind of day?”
“It was when we were here back in ‘94”.
“Oh yeah – I remember Mom coming down in her jeans and then running back up to put a dress on!”
“Did you bring a dress?”
“I brought a skirt and a nice sweater; I hope that’s okay”.
“I’m sure Grandma would be happy for you to come in jeans if you wanted to”.
“Well, it’s a denim skirt, you see!”
I laughed; “Very nice!”
“Thanks; it’s the warmest skirt I own, too!”
Auntie Brenda arrived at around eleven-thirty; she greeted us with smiles and hugs, went into the living room to put a few gifts under the tree, and then joined my mother and Becca in the kitchen to help put the finishing touches on Christmas dinner.
Rick and his family made their appearance just before noon; we met them in the hallway, exchanging hugs and handshakes and wishing each other ‘Merry Christmas’. Emma had been hanging a few extra decorations in the dining room when they arrived, and Sarah and Anna immediately joined her there, while Rick talked cheerfully with me as I helped him bring in a few presents and place them under the Christmas tree. Afterwards my mother served coffee from a silver coffee pot in the living room; I knew she only brought this pot out on special occasions, and Emma had helped her polish it the previous afternoon.
A few minutes later my father’s two younger brothers, Arthur and Bill, arrived with their wives; they had come together in Uncle Bill’s car. They were all dressed formally, my uncles in jackets and ties and my aunts in elegant dresses, pearls, and brooches. Emma sat down with them almost immediately and began to ask them questions about their homes and their families in her usual quiet way. By now she had changed into her denim skirt and sweater, and I had put on my jacket and tie in deference to the unspoken dress code.
My cousin Ann and her family were the last to arrive, and she apologized profusely to my mother for their lateness. “The girls were enjoying their Christmas presents”, she said; “They weren’t very impressed when we told them it was time to leave them behind to come to Northwood!”.
“Did you bring a few of the presents with you?” I asked, pointing to the backpack she was carrying over her shoulder.
“I did actually!” she replied with a smile; “How are you, Tom? It’s lovely to see you!”
We greeted each other with a hug and a kiss, and I bent over to introduce myself to Caitlin and Molly, but they were obviously wary of strangers, and four-year old Molly hid behind her mother’s leg. Emma laughed and said “Way to go, Dad!”
“Do you remember me, Emma?” asked Ann.
“I do – I remember you coming over to visit us last time we were here. I also remember you sending us a lovely card and note after my mom died; Dad and I really appreciated that”.
“Yes, we did”, I agreed.
“Do you want me to take that backpack?” Emma asked Ann. “Maybe if I have the toys I might be able to interest the children in playing with me”.
Ann smiled at her; “You are your mother’s daughter, aren’t you? I remember her taking Caitlin from me almost as soon as I walked in the door”.
As Becca had said there were nineteen of us sitting down for Christmas dinner. We had put two long dining tables together end to end and dressed them with festive tablecloths and decorative candlesticks, and the meal was served on my mother’s best china with silver cutlery and crystal glassware. The turkey had been cooking since early morning; it came with all the trimmings, along with the appropriate vegetables, and afterwards we had Christmas pudding and a selection of pies and cakes to choose from.
“When was the last time you had this many people around your table for Christmas dinner, Grandma?” Emma asked.
“I honestly don’t remember”, my mother replied with a smile. “There would have been eleven of us last time you were here for Christmas; that’s probably the most we’ve ever had until today”.
“Wasn’t there a time when Tom and I were little when we had all the aunts and uncles at once?” Rick asked.
“I’d forgotten about that”, my mother replied.
“We set up the tables in the music room, didn’t we?” I said.
“Yes, we did”.
“How long ago was that?” Emma asked.
“Before my time”, Becca replied.
“Maybe not”, I said; “I think you were a baby. You were born about the same time we moved here, and I definitely remember us eating in the music room, in this house”.
My mother nodded; “I think Tom’s right”.
“Thirty-three years ago, then”, said Rick; “It’s hard to believe we’re all that old”.
Rick was wearing a jacket and tie like the other men, but I noticed that for once he was not continually checking his Blackberry. I grinned at Becca; “I think there’s something missing from our brother’s personal accessories today”.
“Something small and noisy, maybe?”
“We’re not hearing any chimes or alert sounds. I wonder where that cheeky little Blackberry is today?”
Alyson laughed; “I insisted he leave it at home; if anyone rings him on Christmas Day they deserve to be ignored!”
“I’ll check my messages when I get home!” said Rick.
“You are definitely an addict!”, I replied.
He shook his head; “It’s the world of modern business, I’m afraid”.
Emma tactfully changed the subject; “Grandma, are you going to play some music for us a little later?”
My mother smiled; “We’ll see how the afternoon goes”.
“Don’t let her get away with that excuse!” Auntie Brenda said with a smile; “I’m her sister but you’d be amazed how rarely I get to hear her play!”
“We’ve got lots of other musicians here, too”, my mother said; “Tom, Emma, Eric…”
“Do you play Christmas songs, Tom?” asked Ann.
“Does he play Christmas songs?” Becca exclaimed with a laugh.
Emma grinned at me; “Dad loves playing Christmas songs! I know for a fact that he and Grandma were practising on Saturday”.
I grinned at my mother; “I think we’ve just been smoked out of hiding!”
Emma looked across the table at Eric; “Did you bring your guitar?”
“I did, but I don’t really know any Christmas songs. I’ll be happy to play along, though”.
When the meal was over and the Christmas crackers had all been pulled, we took our coffee into the living room, where we spent a while retrieving gifts from under the tree and opening them. When we were done, Emma smiled at my mother and said, “Well, is it music time, Grandma?”
“If you insist”. She glanced at my Masefield relatives and said, “I know you’ll be wanting to get on the road soon; don’t feel you have to stay for this unless you really want to”.
“We’ll need to be getting these two home before too long”, Ann said apologetically, “but we’ll stay and listen to a couple of tunes if you don’t mind?”
“No, of course not”.
“We should get going before too long as well”, my Uncle Bill said, glancing at his watch; “We don’t want to be driving in the dark for too long”.
“Perhaps we could stay until Ann leaves”, my Auntie Joan suggested.
“If that’s what you want, dear”.
So we went back to the music room, carrying a few hard-backed chairs with us; my father apologized for taking the only armchair in there, but his brother Arthur said, “Don’t you worry, Frank – you make yourself comfortable”. My mother went over to a bookshelf in the corner where she kept a few music books; she selected an old red hardback with a faded cover, smiled at me, and said, “The Oxford Book of Carols?”
“Sure. Why don’t you play some of the least guitar-friendly ones first, and then I’ll go get our guitars and we can play along with a few of the others?”
My Masefield relatives said their farewells at around four o’clock but the rest of us stayed in the music room for another half hour or so. My mother had played three carols and then insisted that we join in, so Emma and I accompanied her for a few of the old traditional carols I liked and Eric did his best to play along with us. Later on Emma and her cousins went out for a walk, and Becca and I told my mother to sit tight while we cleared up from dinner and washed the dishes.
Rick and Alyson ended up staying into the early evening; their children were obviously enjoying spending time with Emma, and when Alyson announced at about five o’clock that it was time for them to think about heading for home, all three of them protested. “Can’t we stay a bit longer, Mum?” asked Sarah.
“I don’t think Grandma was anticipating feeding us again today”, Alyson replied.
“Oh, nonsense!” said my mother; “The house is full of food, and anyway I’ll be surprised if anyone’s really all that hungry”.
“I’m certainly not!” I said.
“Nor me”, Becca agreed.
So my mother put some cheese and crackers out, with a few cakes and a bit of Christmas baking, and we continued nibbling in the living room while the children played board games and the adults carried on their quiet conversations. After a while Emma smiled at me and asked my mother if she had a Scrabble set anywhere; my mother quickly produced one from the sideboard, and Emma, Alyson, Sarah and I played a game for a while with a few of the others watching. I wasn’t surprised when my daughter won, although in the end the scores were quite close.
“Staying out here for a few days, then?” Rick asked me as Emma and Sarah were putting the game away.
“We don’t really have a time frame; I expect we’ll be here ’til Sunday morning anyway. Owen and his family are coming out tomorrow to spend a few days with his parents; I expect we’ll get together at some point”.
“I foresee more music in your future”.
“Maybe. How about you – straight back to work?”
“The office is closed ’til Monday but I’ll be working at home for a few hours tomorrow”.
“That’s too bad”
“Can’t be helped; we’ve got a big trial coming up in the new year and I’m a long way from being ready for it”.
“What sort of trial?”
“It’s a tax case; I can’t say much about it apart from that”.
“Corporate law then?”
He nodded; “That’s almost all I do. I used to do criminal law but now I leave that to a couple of the other partners who’ve made a specialty of it”.
“Are you going to see Alyson’s family over the holidays?”
“We’re going to make a quick trip to Edinburgh over New Year’s”.
“Do you have any commitments this Sunday evening?”
He shook his head; “I don’t think so”.
“Come for supper, if you like?”
He grinned; “You think you can squeeze us all in?”
“We’ll squeeze you in just fine. Do you like Indian food?”
“We do actually”.
“We’ll cook a nice hot curry, shall we?” I said to Emma.
“For sure”, she replied with a smile.
Rick glanced at Alyson; “What do you think?”
“Sounds lovely; can we bring anything, Tom?”
“How about if you bring the wine? Your husband seems to have a pretty discerning palate for it”.
“Yes, he does!” she agreed.
Rick and his family left at about nine o’clock, and a few minutes later Auntie Brenda said her goodbyes. As we stood on the front step waving to her, I could feel the damp chill in the air. “It’s going to be a cool one tonight”, I said to Becca.
She glanced up at the darkened sky. “I think we might get some rain; I can’t see any stars up there, and I can feel the moisture”.
“Maybe even snow”, Emma said with a smile; “I don’t think I’ve ever seen snow in England!”
“The children love it but the adults don’t; we’re not set up for it the way you are in Canada. The roads get slick and the trains get cancelled and everything gets chaotic”.
“Well, it’s a holiday, so it’s a good day for it”.
“Except that there’ll be thousands of holidaymakers on the roads tomorrow”.
“I guess; I didn’t think of that”.
My father was pale with exhaustion by then, and my mother and Emma helped him up to bed while Becca and I cleared up the debris from the living room, put the leftover food away, and washed and dried the dishes. My mother came back downstairs after about half an hour; she came into the kitchen, kissed me on the cheek and said “Thank you”.
I smiled at her; “You’re welcome”, I replied. “That was a wonderful dinner today. Is Dad okay?”
“He’s fine; he’s just very tired. Apparently Emma is too; she asked me to tell you she’s going to go to bed with her new book and she was wondering if you’d bring her up a mug of hot chocolate?”
“I’ll do that. Are you going to stay up for a while?”
“Do you mind if I don’t? I’m rather tired too”.
“You’re entitled, Mum”, Becca replied; “You did an amazing job today; you’re a wonderful hostess”.
“Yes, you are”, I agreed.
“Thank you both”, she said; “Are you two going to carry on your hot-chocolate-by-the-Christmas-tree tradition tonight?”
I glanced at Becca; “What do you think?”
“I wouldn’t miss it!”
“I’ll put the kettle on”, I said to my mother. “Shall I bring you up a mug when it’s ready?”
“That would be lovely”.
“How about Dad; shall I bring one for him too?”
She shook her head. “He was barely able to stay awake to change into his pyjamas; I’m sure he’s already fast asleep”.
So while my mother went upstairs again to get ready for bed I boiled a kettle and made the hot chocolate. I took a cup up to my mother, dropped another one off with Emma, and then came back down the stairs to join my sister in the darkened living room. I turned on the Christmas tree lights and stoked up the fire, and we sat side by side on the chesterfield. Becca kicked off her shoes, drew her legs up underneath her and cradled her mug in her hands. “You didn’t get any calls from Meadowvale today”, she said.
“No; we told them we’d be tied up with a family gathering this afternoon and evening. We talked to Joe and Ellie and the kids yesterday, and Will and Sally. We’ll probably call Krista and Steve tomorrow, and Beth”.
She took a sip of her hot chocolate. “Our brother did rather well at being present in the present today, didn’t he?”
“He did; I can’t believe he went for a whole day without his Blackberry”.
“Well, he didn’t have much of a choice, did he? Alyson made him leave it at home”.
“One day out of three hundred and sixty-five”.
“What do you want to bet he’s on it right now, furiously checking messages and answering emails?”
I laughed; “Probably! His kids were sure having a good time with Emma today, weren’t they?”
“She’s good for them”.
“They’re good for her, too”.
“It was nice to see Ann and Mark”.
“It was, and Dad didn’t do too badly with their kids either”.
“No, he didn’t. It helped that they were at the other end of the table from him”.
We lapsed into silence, and for a few minutes the only sounds were the crackle of the wood fire and the ticking of the old clock on the mantlepiece. Eventually she sighed and said, “You and I haven’t had too many Christmases together in the past twenty years”.
“The last one would have been here, nine years ago”.
“Three years ago you missed it by one day, when you came out to us on Boxing Day”.
She nodded slowly; “The Christmas before Kelly died. I was so frantic, and she was so serene”.
“How are you and Emma doing this year, Tommy? Really, I mean?”.
“Okay for the most part”. I took a long drink of my hot chocolate and then set it down on the coffee table in front of us. “It’s been a different sort of Christmas for us so far, but mostly good”.
“How’s Emma feeling now about being in England? She doesn’t talk about it much with me”.
“She doesn’t talk about it much with me either. I know she still really misses home; she and Jenna talk a lot, and Jake too of course”.
“Jenna must really miss her”.
“I think so”.
“She’s been making some new friends here, though”.
“She has, and she’s really enjoying her cousins and grandparents”.
“Has Dad said any more about paying her fees?”
“No – I think he’s dropped the subject”.
“So telling him about the life insurance was a good idea?”
“Yes, but I should have done it a lot sooner”.
She was quiet for a moment, staring thoughtfully into the fire, and then she looked at me with a smile; “Do you remember the first year we came down here during the night?”
“You were eight, and I was home from university”.
“I couldn’t sleep with excitement about Christmas, and I came to your room and woke you up…”.
“I seem to remember I wasn’t very happy about being woken up”.
“But you were so nice about it! We talked for a while and then we snuck down here, and you turned on the Christmas tree lights just like this, and we sat and watched them for a while”.
“Actually we sat and watched them ’til you fell asleep, Small One, and I carried you back up to your bed”.
“Did you? I don’t remember that!”
We both laughed softly, and she drained her mug and set it down on the coffee table. “It was always such a comfort to me when you came home from university for Christmas. That’s how it feels this year too; just having you and Emma here makes it so much better for me”.
I smiled at her; “You’re in a pensive mood tonight”.
“I am, aren’t I? Maybe it was the churchgoing last night; it’s been a few years since I’ve gone to the Christmas Eve service”.
“You used to go with Mum sometimes”.
“Yes I did, and I was glad to go with you last night. Whenever I came home from visiting you and Kelly and Emma I always resolved to go more, but then my life seemed to swallow me up again and my resolutions seemed to evaporate into thin air”.
“The busy life of a doctor”.
“It’s crazy, isn’t it? You’d have thought losing Mike would be a wake-up call for me but I don’t seem to have learned much from the experience”.
“You’ve been slowing down a bit since we came back”.
“I’ve been trying to, but I still can’t escape that sense of being driven”.
“It’s a Masefield family disease”.
“You’ve found the cure for it somehow, though”. She stifled a yawn; “Well, I think it’s about time for me to find my bed”.
“Yes, I think I’ll find mine too”. As she got to her feet I took her hand and said “Listen, Becs – about church”.
“If you’d like to go from time to time, you’d be very welcome to come with Emma and me”.
“To Banbury Road, you mean? Is it like your church in Meadowvale?”
“In some ways it is, but there are some differences; there are more university students, and there’s more of an ethnic mix”.
“Well, I’ll think about it; you know I still have lots of questions. I know you found faith but it still seems to be really difficult for me”.
I got to my feet, and we made our way quietly up the spiral staircase. At the door of my room, she kissed me on the cheek and said, “Goodnight, Tommy”.
“Goodnight, Becs; see you in the morning”.