Meadowvale (2016 revision): Chapter 5

Link back to Chapter 4

Box 981
Meadowvale, Sask.
Oct. 15th 1982

Dear Owen:

Thanks for your letter of October 6th that I received yesterday. Sounds like you and Lorraine are getting on quite well.

I met an interesting girl this past week. She’s Will Reimer’s daughter, her name is Kelly, and she’s a nurse in Jasper, in the Rocky Mountains.

Will invited me to join his family on Sunday for Thanksgiving supper, which is a big thing over here. People cook turkey with all the trimmings, and pumpkin pie, and have big family gatherings. There were about twelve of us at the Reimers’, including all three of Will and Sally’s children. Their oldest, Joe, had his fiancée Ellie Finlay there too. Joe is a vet and lives here in Meadowvale, but this was the first time I had met him.

Kelly is my age and very pretty, with long blond hair and a really outgoing personality. We had a good talk on Sunday night, and Monday she drove me out to Myers Lake Recreation Area, a few miles north of town. I can’t believe no one’s told me about Myers Lake until now! It’s a beautiful place with miles of walking trails by the lakeshore and through woodlands with aspen, spruce, and poplar trees. Most of the leaves have fallen from the aspens and poplars, but spruce are evergreen, as you know, so the effect was really striking. Kelly’s an outdoor sort of person and really likes walking, so as you can imagine we hit it off quite nicely.

You’ll also be interested to hear that she seems to be on a spiritual journey. She walked away from her Mennonite church background for a few years, but now she seems to be trying to find her way back in. She and I had an interesting talk about Christianity and Jesus – very much like the kind of talks you and I have been having over the last few years. I also discovered that Mennonites don’t baptize babies; you have to be an adult so that you know what you’re doing. I suppose I knew that there were Christians who believed that, but I’ve never spoken to one of them before (not that Kelly is a Christian at the moment, or at least, not yet).

When we got back to my place after our walk she asked me to play her some music, so I got the guitar out and sang her some of our traditional songs – ‘The Snow it Melts the Soonest’, ‘Lord Franklin’, ‘John Barleycorn’and a couple of others. She likes music, but like most people here she doesn’t know much about traditional folk music. She seemed to enjoy it though. I ended up giving her some lunch, and later on she took me over to visit her grandmother, Will’s mother; her name is Erika Reimer and she was born in Russia. Apparently there was some sort of major persecution of Mennonites in Russia under Lenin in the early 1920s and a lot of them fled the country if they could. Will’s parents came here in 1924, broke the land, and built a homestead. She was telling me about some of their experiences in those early days; all I can say is, those people must have been tough.

I think Kelly went back to Jasper on Wednesday. Last night I was doing some marking after supper when there was a knock on the door and her brother Joe was there. Apparently he had enjoyed meeting me on Sunday night and wanted to get to know me a little better, so I made him a pot of coffee and we chatted for an hour or so. He’s quite different from Kelly; she’s very up front, whereas he’s quieter and more reserved (more like me, in fact!). He told me some things about the history of the town and their family, and he asked me about England and Oxford. He said that Kelly had told him about our conversation. Joe, it seems, is a pretty convinced Christian, but not pushy about it. He and Ellie are getting married in the spring, and apparently she’s a bluegrass fiddler. She was born in Humboldt (a town south of here), but at the moment she’s living in Saskatoon.

I still haven’t heard anything else from Wendy, and I’m beginning to think that her omission of an exact return address on her last letter was intentional, and that she really doesn’t want to have any contact with me. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised; as you know, things were totally messed up between us when I left. I wrote back to her, care of her old address, and I’m assuming her landlady would have forwarded it again, since she obviously has her London address (or how would Wendy have received my last letter?). But I think I’ve reached the point of giving up on that; if she doesn’t want to have any contact with me, there’s nothing I can do about it. I can’t help feeling a little sad about it, though.

The other thing that’s really hurtful is that Becca doesn’t seem to want to know me either. I’ve continued to write to her, but Mum says that she doesn’t read my letters, she just throws them away. I don’t know what to do about that. Again, I can’t really blame her; she thought I was being totally honest with her, but all the time I was planning this move I didn’t tell her anything. I feel like I’ve really let her down and betrayed her. I wish I could talk to her and apologize and just have some sense that we could rebuild things.

My father of course has been totally silent, but then, after what he did to me, it’s up to him to make the first move. As far as I’m concerned, he’s burnt that bridge, and he can rebuild it.

How’s the hospital going? Are you going to be there for a while? I’m a little unclear about this stage of your medical training.

Well, it’s late Friday night and I’m tired after a day’s work and an evening of marking, so I’ll stop here. Write soon and give me all your news.

Cheers,

Tom

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Flat No. 3, 76 Albert Street,
Headington, Oxford
Oct. 23rd 1982

Dear Tom:

Thanks for your letter about Kelly and Joe that I received yesterday. I was up at the hospital for a twelve hour shift today so I know you’ll forgive me if I just make this a short one tonight and maybe add a bit more tomorrow. By the way, yes, I’ll be at the hospital until Christmas, and then probably in a general practice or some other medical setting for a few months after that. This two years of house officer training is supposed to give me exposure to several different sorts of medical practice before I choose a specialty, which I will then train in for a few more years. In my case, I’m already sure that I want to be a GP, but quite a few of my colleagues here haven’t made their minds up yet.

Kelly sounds delightful and it’s obvious that you enjoyed her company. And yes, I think you’re right to turn the page when it comes to Wendy. It’s hard, because the three of us have been good friends for the past two years, and you two had become much closer in the last few months. I still find it hard to believe that she went back to Mickey after all he put her through, but then, human beings are complicated and sometimes we do very strange things.

Before I forget, Dad asked to be remembered to you and he says he’ll answer your last letter when he’s had a bit more time to think about it. He seems pleased to hear from you. He and Mum are doing well.

What else have I been up to? Well, Steve and I (my brother Steve, that is, not Steve Francis) have started playing badminton together on Saturday mornings; you might remember that we used to do that when we were teenagers. Ian Redding and I went out for a drink one night; he’s at the same hospital as me but we’re not usually on the same shifts. But the biggest thing is that I’ve been getting a band together to play at church. We had our first practice this week. It’s people from the church, so you probably don’t know any of them, but just for information, this is the list so far: Dave Bradshaw on guitar and vocals, Dan Pargeter on bass, Garth Hacking on percussion, and me on guitar and vocals.

Right, bed; talk to you tomorrow.

                                    Oct. 25th 1982

Hello again. As you can see I didn’t get right back to the letter, since yesterday I did another twelve hours at the hospital and then Lorraine and I went out for a drink last night. Afterwards we went back to her digs (you’ll remember that she lives with her sister) and she showed me some of the water colours she’s been working on. All very good, I hope she can make some money at it soon.

As for the big question: no, we’re not at the point where we’re calling each other ‘boyfriend’and ‘girlfriend’. She wants to take it slow; I get the idea she had a bad experience with someone when she was at art school, but it’s one of the many things I don’t know about her yet. You introverts can be maddeningly difficult to get to know sometimes!

I’ll be very interested to hear of any continuing conversations between you and Kelly about Christianity – or you and Joe, for that matter – although I suppose with Kelly in Jasper (which I just looked up on a map, and realized once again what an enormous country you live in!), it’s not likely the conversations will be thick and fast, is it?

Okay, that’s it for me tonight. I’ll post this tomorrow and try to do better next time. Maybe I should write to you on days off after I’ve had a good night’s sleep!

Cheers to you too,

Owen

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P.O. Box 373
Jasper, Alberta
Oct. 28th 1982

Dear Tom:

Are you surprised to hear from me? Well, never mind; I wanted to write to tell you that I ordered that Nic Jones album you told me about, ‘Penguin Eggs’, and it came yesterday. Since then I’ve played it three times, and I absolutely love it. Nic Jones has the quintessential English folk singer’s voice, doesn’t he? Not that your voice is all that shabby, either, Tom Masefield, but this guy is amazing! And I’m obviously not qualified to comment on his guitar playing, but it sounds really good to me. What a fantastic discovery! Thank you! Does he have any more albums that I should collect?

Anyway, I’m writing to you on a day off; it’s about ten in the morning and I’m sitting in the living room of my apartment, drinking tea and looking out on a beautiful Jasper skyline. You don’t know the town, of course, but if I were to tell you that I can see Whistler’s Mountain and Mount Edith Cavell from my living room windows, that might give you an idea of what I’m looking at. I should send you a photograph; maybe I’ll do that next time. There’s been snowfall high in the mountains for the last few days, and we’ve had some in town too, although it looks like a warm day today so it might melt. But I’m starting to get excited about Marmot Basin opening up – that’s our local ski resort, a few miles south of the town site, and it usually opens in late November. Imagine skiing down steep mountainsides with trees flashing past on either side? It scared me when I first tried it, but now I love it.

I’ve thought a lot about our conversations since I got back to Jasper. Sorry if I treated you like a curiosity, but, if you’ll forgive me for saying so, I grew up with a very predictable type of guy, and you’re different, which was refreshing! I like to think that I’m not uptight, but a lot of the high school culture I grew up in was all about drinking and partying and coupling, and I was never really into that, even after I stopped going to church. Anyway, it was really nice to have some intelligent conversations of the sort that I don’t get with too many other guys except my brother, God love him!

But I need to ask you to forgive me for being too pushy; I don’t have the right to go charging into your private business, especially when it concerns your family. I guess I’ve been very, very lucky with my family; my mom and dad have always been warm and loving and completely supportive of everything I wanted to do. Even when I stopped going to church, which I know was hard for them, I never felt they were mad at me or saw me as a problem that they needed to fix. Why am I saying this? Well, I get the idea that there’s a lot of pain in your relationship with your family. I may be way off base here, in which case, I apologize, but I don’t think I am. And if I’m right, I’m sorry, Tom. If the time comes when you want to talk about it, I’ll be happy to listen, and I want to assure you that even though Joe says I never have an unspoken thought, one thing I never speak is the stories people tell me about themselves. That’s part of being a nurse, I guess. Okay, now I’ll back off, and it won’t be mentioned again between us unless you mention it.

As for Christianity – I think you’re right, I think I’m on my way back into it. I just don’t want to rush in and declare myself before I get answers to some of my questions. Not that I expect to get answers to all of them – Joe says I need to accept that life is full of mysteries, and I guess he’s probably right.

Are you interested? You sounded as if you were.

By the way, thanks for coming with me to visit Grandma Reimer. I’ve always gotten along well with all my grandparents, but for some reason I was closer to Dad’s parents than Mom’s – although Opa (that’s the German word for ‘Grandpa’ – we used to call them ‘Opa’ and ‘Oma’ when we were little) was a little more reserved and harder to get closer to. When we were little kids and living in Rosthern, we used to stay at their place when we went home to Meadowvale. They were still living out at the farm in those days. Rosthern’s not far, so we often just did day visits, but Joe and I sometimes went over for a week at a time in the summer, and we used to help Opa with farm chores – well, we called it ‘helping’, I’m not sure what he thought of it! We moved back to Meadowvale in 1965, and Opa and Oma left the farm and moved into town a year or two after that, I think.

I think Grandma Reimer liked you, anyway! And make sure you take her up on that offer of home-cooked meals; she’s a really good cook, and there’s nothing she likes more than spoiling her grandchildren and their friends (I think you already count as a friend, especially since you hang around with Mom and Dad so much).

Anyway, I’ll finish here and give you time to get over the surprise at hearing from me at all.

Your friend,

Kelly

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Box 981
Meadowvale, Saskatchewan
Nov. 3rd 1982

Dear Kelly:

You’re right, I was surprised. Pleased, though. I’m glad you liked Penguin Eggs. Yes, it’s actually Nic’s fifth and most recent solo album. There are four others, called (in order of release), Ballads and Songs, Nic Jones, The Noah’s Ark Trap, and From the Devil to a Stranger. If you’re interested, I’ll see if I can get Owen to pick you up some copies in the UK. There seems to be some problem with getting these earlier albums now; I don’t really understand what it is. Sadly, Nic was involved in a car accident back in February this year; I understand he was very badly injured and it will be a miracle if he ever plays again. I’ve seen him live several times in Oxford; he was amazing.

As for what you said about my family – well, thank you. Yes, there are issues, and no, I’m not ready to talk about them yet. As you’ve already noticed, I’m not quite as up front as you are. Sorry! I’m sure you really don’t need me to tell you how lucky you are in your family. I did really enjoy spending time with your grandma, and will definitely take her up on her offer of a home-cooked meal before too long.

Jasper sounds great and I’d love to see it. Maybe I’ll get up there one of these days. I’m not sure I’ll be brave enough to try downhill skiing, though!

Christianity. Hmm.

Well, I’ve sat and looked at the page for ten minutes now. I should just stop thinking and start writing.

Yes, I am interested. I can say with some confidence that I’ve attended church maybe twenty times in my life – once to be christened (which I don’t remember), once when my brother Rick was christened (which I don’t remember), once when Becca was christened (which I remember quite well) and then every year on Christmas Eve until I was about eighteen. I have to say that although I’m quite interested in history, the Church of England generally leaves me totally cold. But then, I know enough to wonder if it’s exactly what Jesus had in mind.

Like you, I tend to think that the balance of probability is on the side of the existence of a God of some kind. And like you, I find Jesus quite admirable. But I’ve got lots of questions. Whose picture of God is the right one? Plato’s? Muhammad’s? Moses’? Jesus’? The Pope’s? Yes, they have a lot in common, but there are differences, too. And as you said, it seems a bit arrogant to assume that the religion we happen to have been born into (well, I wasn’t really born into it, but I was born in a country with a Christian history) just happens to have got everything right about God.

But I can’t claim to have had experiences of God, as some people have. I wish I had. Maybe it would help me deal with the questions.

I do know that I’m totally done with the idea that wealth and success have anything to do with real life. I’ve seen that close up, and it just leaves me cold. As far as I can see it poisons people’s souls, wrecks their families and sets them in competition with each other when they should be helping each other out. Not that I want to live my life in poverty; far from it! I want to have a comfortable place to live and a meaningful job so that I can provide for my family (if I’m lucky enough to have one, one of these days). But I’ve seen what greed and avarice can do to people’s lives and I want none of it. If I’m interested in finding a spiritual dimension to life, it’s probably because I’ve seen how bankrupt a totally materialistic life can be.

Now I’ve surprised myself, because I’ve opened the door for you a bit wider than I thought I would. Shall I tear it up and start again? No, probably not.

We had a light dusting of snow here today too. Your dad tells me it will be here to stay in a few weeks.

Thanks for writing; I enjoyed your letter very much.

Cheers,

Tom

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Box 981
Meadowvale, Saskatchewan
Nov. 6th 1982

Dear Owen:

I’m writing this in the delicatessen in the back of the Co-op on Saturday morning. I’ve taken to coming down here on Saturdays, having a coffee, and then doing my weekly shopping. A number of others have the same idea, so I see some familiar faces. Did I tell you that there are two coffee shops in this town? The other one is the ‘Travellers’ restaurant on the highway beside the Esso station; Will calls it the ‘greasy spoon’because it specializes in the sort of food that causes strokes and heart attacks. I’ve been up there a few times – Joe and I went up there one night for coffee and a chat. It’s full of farmers and truckers in work shirts and baseball caps, and they’ve all known each other all their lives, and when they see me coming in they look at me long and hard and wonder “Who can he possibly be related to in this town?!”Oh, and the coffee’s pretty bad up there, too! So I’ve made the Co-op deli my coffee shop. The drawback is that it’s only open when the Co-op’s open – grocery store hours – while the Travellers is open early in the morning and into the evening too.

Well, it’s snowing today. We had a slight dusting a couple of days ago – the sort of snowfall that melts when it hits the ground – but today it’s colder and it seems to be laying. Maybe this is the beginning of winter. It seems strange to think that back home people were burning bonfires and setting off fireworks last night. They don’t have Guy Fawkes’night in Canada. Not that I miss it; there are things I definitely miss about England, but I was never a big fan of Guy Fawkes’.

A church band? Only a few weeks ago I told Will I’d never heard of anyone playing hymns on guitar. Now you’ve made a liar out of me! Seriously, I hope you enjoy playing with them.

Surprisingly, I had a letter from Kelly. I introduced her to Nic Jones, and she got a copy of Penguin Eggs, which she really likes. Can you find out for me if it’s possible to track down the first four albums? She might be interested.

She certainly seems to be interested in exploring her Christian roots again, and she’s asked me to join her in that – or at least, she’s asked if I’m interested. She’s pretty forward, though, and you know what that does to me; my natural inclination is to back off and clam up. You and I both know that if I ever was to be attracted toward becoming a Christian, part of it would be out of anger toward my dad and the sort of life he lives. I just don’t know if I’m ready to talk with her about that, given that I hardly know her. And what would be the point of starting a spiritual journey with someone if you couldn’t be honest with them? And once I started talking about Dad, one thing would lead to another, and I’d end up saying a lot more than I wanted to.

Anyway, it’s not really fair to Jesus to adopt him so that I can spite my dad, is it?!!!

On another subject, I should mention that last Saturday I rode a horse for the first time in my life. Joe was the instigator. His Uncle Hugo – Will’s brother – has a farm up in Spruce Creek, about fifteen miles north of Meadowvale – you remember me telling you about going up there to help with the harvest a few weeks back? Well, there are some horses up there and apparently one of them is really Kelly’s horse. Joe was going up there to do some regular vet stuff with the horses and he asked me if I’d like to go up with him, it being a Saturday morning. So I went up with him, and he ended up giving me an impromptu riding lesson. I actually quite enjoyed it, although I found it rather terrifying as well. Unlike driving a car, you’ve got absolutely no power over this animal other than the power of persuasion!

Well, I’d better finish my coffee and do my weekly shopping. Thanks again for your letter, and please give my regards to your dad and mum.

Cheers,

Tom

P.S. How do you pray? What I mean is, how do you pray? I don’t know why I’ve never asked you this. I’m assuming that prayer is important to Christians. It seems to me like it would be a good sort of ‘field research’ if you were investigating Christianity, right?

T.

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Flat No. 3, 76 Albert Street,
Headington, Oxford
Nov. 14th 1982

Dear Tom:

I’m writing this early on a Sunday morning; I’m not working at the hospital today, so I’m off to church, and our band is playing for the first time. We’ve done a lot of practicing and I think we’re sounding pretty good, but I suppose we’ll find out this morning.

I woke up pretty early, and I’m sitting writing to you with my first cup of tea of the day. After that I’ll pray, which brings me to your question: How do I pray?

I pray in two ways. I try to pray first thing in the morning, in a semi-disciplined sort of way, every day unless I accidentally sleep in. At least, that’s the ideal; I have to confess that I miss some days. And then I pray in a disorganized, ad hoc sort of way through the day when I feel the need of it.

In the morning I usually sit in my chair and have a couple of minutes of silence to start off with, just to orient myself into God’s presence. Then I like to read a passage from the Bible. I read in sequence so I don’t waste time choosing what to read on any given day, I just follow right on where I left off the day before. Quite often the passage will give me something to meditate on. Not always – sometimes it just confuses me, but if that happens I don’t let that bother me. Sometimes I’ll talk to God about what I’ve read.

After I’ve finished reading, I spend a few minutes praying in an informal sort of way. The three sorts of prayer I try to fit in are, first, thanksgiving – thanking God for all his blessings to me – second, confession – saying sorry for my sins, which I try to be specific about – and third, petition – that is, asking for things, for myself and for other people. I like to finish up with the Lord’s Prayer, in case I’ve forgotten anything important.

I should say that I recently read some things in a book by C.S. Lewis about a couple of good rules to follow when we pray. One is never to try to manufacture a religious emotion. It’s tough, because sometimes you read about mystics and others having amazing experiences of the nearness of God, and it can be tempting to try to make that happen. The problem is, the mystics never made it happen. Usually it took them by surprise. So I’m trying to remember to just say my prayers and leave the emotions in God’s hands. That’s a relief, actually; I do often get a sense of peace out of praying, but I don’t tend to have amazing mystical experiences.

The other rule Lewis followed was not to leave his prayers until bed time, which is of course the classic time to pray. That makes a lot of sense to me, because I’m a morning person too. You know how incoherent my letters to you can be when I write them last thing at night! Morning is my best time, so I try to give God my best time.

Like I said, I also pray in a disorganized, ad hoc sort of way during the day. This is entirely according to my sense of need. If I find myself thinking of a friend who needs help during the day, I pray for them. If I’m facing a difficult situation at work, I ask God for help.

I should say that, for variation on the first method, I sometimes go for a walk and pray. I can’t do the Bible reading part when I’m walking, but I like the sense of closeness to nature, especially if I can walk in Shotover Country Park.

Speaking of being outdoors – horseback riding! Next time I see you you’ll probably be a cowboy.

By the way, Lorraine and I have agreed that we’re now ‘going out’, as they say. The more I get to know her, the more I like her. One thing I’ve discovered about her that surprised me is that she’s quite interested in politics (not normally something you associate with water colour artists, is it?!). She’s rather scathing about Maggie, I must say. Still, so are you, as I recall!

Now, back to you and Kelly for a bit.

If you’re really interested in doing any sort of spiritual search, doing it together with someone else is always a good idea. Of course, you and I can always talk about this stuff, but it’s not the same as having a fellow-traveller who’s more or less at the same place you are. You and Kelly can help each other along the way, share your questions and the answers you find (or don’t find), and just generally support each other. And if you’re really going to do that, you’re going to have to take the risk of being honest with her about stuff, Tom. I know that’s a terrifying thought to you, but it sounds to me like she’s the sort of girl you can trust. So why not try opening up a little bit to her and see what happens?

Besides which, a girl who writes you an unexpected letter and likes Nic Jones has got to be good news, don’t you think?

Have you got plans for Christmas? I’m not naive enough to think you’d come back to England, but I wondered if you were going away anywhere?

Right, time to pray and then go get the band set up at church.

Cheers,

Owen

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P.O. Box 373
Jasper, Alberta
November 23rd 1982

Hi Tom:

I’m on two days off. Yesterday Krista and I went downhill skiing for the first time this year (she was up here for a few days doing some field research for her caribou study, and of course she stayed with me). It was a beautiful clear cold day and the sun was shining on the snow, which always makes me feel happy. I had an amazing day. Now today Krista has just left, and I’m sitting having a mid-morning cup of tea in the living room, and thinking of you.

You said that you weren’t ready to talk about your family, and I told you that I would leave that door closed until you were ready to open it. But later on in your letter you did open it a little; you talked about being burned out on materialism, and knowing that it was a bankrupt way of life. You knew that you’d maybe opened the door a little wider than you’d meant to, but you decided not to tear up the letter – you sent it anyway. I’m going to take that as a sign that you’re ready to take a risk.

So I’m reading between the lines and guessing that your parents are the materialistic people you’re talking about – the people whose lives you see as being soul-less and barren. I’m guessing that one or both of them is very rich and successful, but that this has done tragic things to their family life – your family life, growing up – and that you don’t want anything like that to happen to you.

If I’m right, then I’d say that finding a spiritual dimension to your life is even more important for you. I don’t think you should try to avoid it out of fear that you might be over-reacting; you’re not. I’ve seen that sort of life too (thankfully, not in my own parents), and I think you’re right – it is barren.

One of the reasons that I’m searching for a closer relationship with God again is that I find the purely materialistic view of life completely unsatisfying. I’m told that I’m here totally by accident, that all my deepest emotions and aspirations are entirely explainable as a result of chemical reactions in my body, and instincts bred into me as a highly developed animal. I’m told that I arrived at a certain point in time, and that I’m programmed to survive and mate and produce children and all that, not because of love but because of the survival of the species, and that one day it will all come to its natural conclusion and they’ll bury what’s left of me in the ground and that’ll be the end of my story.

Well, my response to that is to ask, “What the hell’s the point?”If all love and all morality and all art and beauty are purely chemical phenomena – in other words, if they aren’t really morality and love and art and beauty at all, but just highly developed survival mechanisms – then all the deepest things we humans believe about life are a lie. How do you think that would have sounded to some of your literary heroes – Jane Austen, or J.R.R. Tolkien? Surely we can’t let reductionistic science have the last word here? There’s got to be more to life than that!

Anyway – getting back to your family and your experiences with them – if you have a sense that a spiritual sort of life would involve living simply, not piling up lots of possessions, and concentrating on stuff like love and compassion and justice, and actually doing things to make other people’s lives better, rather than just piling up more stuff for yourself – well, then I’d say, go for it. And by the way, I think Jesus’way is for you, because as I read the gospels, I find myself more and more convinced that he believed those things, too.

On another subject, I’m still listening to ‘Penguin Eggs’and loving it. Tell me some time how you came to get interested in this traditional folk music, will you? And tell me who some of the other artists are that I should be listening to. And I’ll tell you a few, too. Do you know Bruce Cockburn’s music? He’s a Canadian songwriter and an amazing guitar player (and I know you enjoy good guitarists). His last couple of albums have gone more in an electric direction, but his earlier ones were heavily based on acoustic guitar – fingerstyle, is that what you call it when a person plays tunes on the strings instead of just strumming? When I come home for Christmas I’ll try to remember to bring a few albums with me so you can listen to them, if you’re not already familiar with him.

Speaking of Christmas, I’m working Christmas Day (which is a Saturday) and then I’ll be driving home on Boxing Day and staying in Meadowvale for a week. Are you going to be around? I hope so!

Take care, Tom, and I’ll see you soon.

Kelly

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Box 981
Meadowvale, Saskatchewan
Nov. 27th 1982

Dear Kelly:

Thanks for your letter which arrived yesterday. I’m sitting in the Co-op deli on a Saturday morning; I’ve taken to getting up, going for an early morning walk, and then coming down here to have a coffee, write a letter or two, and then do my weekly shopping. Usually I’m writing a letter to Owen, and sometimes my mum, but today it’s you.

That was an outstanding letter, by the way. Thank you.

I found the bit about needing to discover a spiritual dimension to life to counteract the materialistic, soul-less view especially compelling. You’re right; whether or not Christianity turns out to be the right religion for me, I know I need to find out if there is a way to live in contact with my Creator. And yes, I do find the purely materialistic account of life totally unconvincing; it makes a nonsense of all the most important things human beings – or most human beings, I should say – believe in.

Your instinct is partially right, and I’m going to take the risk and open the door up a bit. This is not easy for me to do, because I tend to be a private person, as you’ve already discovered.

It was my dad, not my mum, who soured me on the life of wealth and success. My dad’s a lawyer and he’s devoted his life to his profession. I didn’t realize that I was experiencing an unusual sort of life until I met Owen Foster and got to know his family; Owen’s mum and dad are very warm, family-oriented people, and Mr. Foster is always doing things with his kids (Owen’s the oldest of four – his siblings are Steve, Anna, and Fiona). My dad, not so much. He works long hours, every day except Sunday, and he spends Sunday in his garden. When he did get involved in our lives as kids it was to push us toward the sort of life he had planned for us. He was determined that I would be a lawyer, and when I was young he refused to contemplate any other sort of life for me. We fought about that for several years when I was a teenager; Owen called it ‘The Great War’. It ended up in a long shouting match in October in my last year of high school. My mum eventually intervened and told Dad he should let me become a teacher, since that was my dream. He was really, really angry – at her and at me – but he gave in and let me study English. Still, he tried a few times during my university years to point me in the direction of law, and then after he started to realize I wasn’t going to budge, he switched to trying to steer me toward teaching jobs in the ‘right’ sort of schools – you know, ones in upper middle class areas, full of the children of doctors and lawyers and bankers and stockbrokers and Conservative Party politicians! So I gradually came to realize that if I stayed in England it would be very difficult for me to live the sort of life I wanted to live – he’d always be trying to control me and remake me in his image. That’s why I decided to leave Oxford and England and emigrate. Like I told you at your mum and dad’s, I had a friend at college from Canada, and he told me that little towns like Meadowvale were always looking for teachers. That’s how I came to apply for the job here.

Kelly, please do not breathe a word of this to your mum and dad. I’ll tell them one of these days, but I’m just not ready for it to be public knowledge, okay? The wound is still very raw. I haven’t told you everything; I’ll tell you more at Christmas time. I’ll probably tell Joe, too; he’s been coming over for coffee and we’ve had a few good chats. He took me horseback riding the other week – another new and scary experience for me, but I ended up quite enjoying it!

Getting back to Dad, I mentioned this to Owen the other week in a letter and I said I didn’t think it was fair on Jesus to turn to him to spite my dad! But your letter helped me there; you helped me see that I’d be moving toward the Christian way out of hunger for something I hadn’t found in my dad’s way of life, not necessarily because I wanted to spite him. Thank you for that.

My mum, I should say, is an outstanding person. Like I told you, she’s a classically trained pianist and she taught me to play the piano when I was young. She was the one who taught me to enjoy the outdoors as well. She’s always encouraged me, and I like to think that we’re close. My sister Becca – well, we used to be close, but things have taken a bad turn. I’ll tell you more face to face, perhaps. My brother Rick and I were close as little boys, but we’ve been distant for years.

I envy you that your best friends are extended family members. I know it upset my mum, but I think I turned away from that in my teens. Owen became my closest friend, and in a sense, I guess his dad became a sort of father-figure for me. Rick and Becca and I are close to our Auntie Brenda and Uncle Roy – Auntie Brenda is Mum’s only sister, and they have no children – but apart from that, we haven’t had much to do with our extended family.

Speaking of Owen, he’s going to look up those other Nic Jones albums for you. When you’re here at Christmas you should come over to my place and I’ll play you some other traditional folk albums and introduce you to artists you might enjoy. And yes, I’ll be happy to listen to Bruce Cockburn; I’ve never heard of him, but you’re right, I always enjoy good guitarists (especially acoustic guitarists).

I’ve got no plans to go away at Christmas. I’ll look forward to seeing you. Somehow I expect that a few family dinners at your mum and dad’s will figure quite prominently in my Christmas holidays!

See you soon, Kelly, and thanks for another really enjoyable letter.

Cheers,

Tom

*************

P.O. Box 373
Jasper, Alberta
December 4th 1982

Dear Tom:

I worked a twelve-hour shift today, so I’m feeling a little owlish tonight. But I picked up your letter on my way home from work yesterday, and I’ve been thinking about it all day. Thank you, by the way, for taking the risk to open the door a little more for me; I don’t take that trust lightly.

As I read your letter I realized yet again how lucky I am to have the sort of parents I do. It was good for me to remember this, because sometimes I can get nitpicky about little things, but then I think about friends whose parents have broken up and gone through painful divorces, or people who’ve had distant or overbearing parents, like yourself with your dad. I don’t know what to say, Tom, except that I’m sorry.

I don’t know how much Joe might have told you about our home. As I said, Joe and Krista and I were born in Rosthern. Dad graduated from university in 1954, and that summer he and Mom got married and moved to Rosthern, which is where he started out as a teacher. He worked there for eleven years, and of course during that time Joe was born in ’56, me in ’58, and Krista in ’60. We’re all Fall kids, by the way; Joe’s birthday is September 8th, mine is September 16th, and Krista’s December 5th (tomorrow, in fact). Mom didn’t work outside the home when we were kids; she didn’t start studying to be a bookkeeper until Krista started school, and even then, she never worked more than half time. So we didn’t have a lot of luxuries when we were growing up, but then, neither did anyone else we knew.

Like I told you before, in those days Opa and Oma Reimer were still farming the land where Uncle Hugo and Auntie Millie live now, and we often went to visit them on weekends, with longer visits in the summer – all of us together, or just us kids (well, Joe and me, anyway – Krista was a little too young). Uncle Hugo was working alongside Opa in those days; he and Auntie Millie had built the place they live in now in about 1955, I think. Opa and Oma lived on the other side of the yard – not in the old homestead, which had been knocked down a long time ago, but in another place Opa built back in the 1940s; it’s gone now, of course. Joe and I usually stayed at Opa and Oma’s even though there was more room at Hugo and Millie’s. I guess those trips were when we got really close to Hugo and Millie’s kids, which is probably why, to this day, Corey is Joe’s best friend and Brenda is one of mine. And after we moved back to Meadowvale in 1965, of course, we saw even more of them.

The other thing we used to do in the summer was go camping, usually up here in Jasper, which is how I first fell in love with this place. We were tent campers, and we usually came up here for at least a week every summer, sometimes longer. Dad and Mom took us out hiking at a very young age and of course we’d all learned to ride at the farm, so we did trail rides as well. Dad would always bring his guitar along and in the evening he’d get us singing around the camp fire, although by the time we were teenagers we were kind of embarrassed about that. You know Dad, he’s got a sort of George Jones kind of voice, and a knack for making every song into a country song. Nowadays I find it kind of comfortable and homey, but when I was a teenager it was – well, you can guess, I think!

I’ve heard of kids who were brought up in Christian homes who had strict rules they had to follow, with parents who tried to scare them with hellfire and damnation. My mom and dad were never like that. They were pretty clear that being a Christian was all about love, and they really modelled that for us. It wasn’t that we were never disciplined – we were – but we were never put down or yelled at; in fact, I very rarely saw either of my parents lose their temper, although occasionally they did. They used to do a little Bible reading and prayer time after supper each night – just something short, so that we didn’t get bored – and of course they took us to church on Sundays every week, which I usually enjoyed, although it was a little boring sometimes. But when I look back on it now I realize that I really had very little to rebel against. As I’ve told you, my doubts about Christianity started because of intellectual questions – scientific issues, doctrines that didn’t make sense to me, and things in the Bible that bothered me – not because I found anything wanting in Mom and Dad’s way of life.

I’m not really sure why I’m telling you this, Tom, except that you wrote a little about your home life and it got me thinking about mine – and, as Joe says, I rarely have an unspoken thought! But maybe it’s also because I’d like to think we’re already friends, and I think friends ought to know a little about each other’s families and past history and all that.

Okay, I’m really tired now, so I’m going to bring this to a close. I expect we won’t write to each other again before I’m home for Christmas. My plans are still to drive home on Boxing Day, weather permitting, and to stay for a week. Take care, Tom, and I’ll see you soon.

Your friend,

Kelly

*****************

Box 981
Meadowvale, Saskatchewan
Dec. 4th 1982

Dear Owen:

No, no plans for Christmas; I expect I’ll just stay around here, or maybe go into Saskatoon for a day. I went down there last weekend to do a bit of Christmas shopping for folks back home – including you, of course!

It’s really snowy today. I think I told you last time I wrote that we’d had a snowfall; well, for the past week it’s been coming down every day, and it’s about a foot high around my house now. It’s cold too; the temperature this morning is sitting at about minus 18ºC, and it’s supposed to get colder in the next few days. Will tells me that we’ll have a few weeks of minus 30-35ºC before the winter is out. Most people are wearing down jackets, although the kids from town don’t tend to wear them as much. The kids who bus in from the country do – I suppose their parents don’t want to risk the bus going off the road and the kids not having proper warm clothing. I’ve mentioned, haven’t I, that our school draws kids from farms for miles around? Our local population is about two thousand in town, and another three or four thousand living out on farms in the ‘R.M.’ (‘regional municipality’) of Meadowvale.

Things are getting busy at school now. The term (‘semester’) system is a little different here; there are two semesters, not three, with the first one running from early September to the end of January. Also, they don’t have ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels like we did, with exams on two years’ worth of studies; they have exams at the end of every semester and if they pass, that earns them ‘credits’ toward their high school graduation. So we’re about two thirds of the way through the first semester now, but of course Christmas is coming and there are a number of activities planned. Will is trying to twist my arm to help out with a Christmas concert, although I keep telling him that I’ve never sung in a choir, let alone helped lead one! But somehow I don’t think I’m going to win this one; Will can be very persuasive. And as you know, part of my job is teaching drama, and we’re doing a play as well, so that’s taking up some time.

Speaking of the Reimers, I’m still having quite a bit of contact with Joe and Kelly. Joe and I have fallen into the habit of having coffee together a couple of times a week, and sometimes his cousin Corey joins us; Corey is the son of Hugo and Millie Reimer, who I think I mentioned to you before; they have the old Reimer family farm out at Spruce Creek. Corey’s an accountant; he has a little place of his own in town, but he seems to spend a lot of time out at Hugo and Millie’s. He and Joe are not just cousins but also very good friends. I really like them both.

As for Kelly, well, I took your advice and opened up a bit in the last letter I wrote to her, telling her some things about Dad and my differences with him. She’d made an interesting point in her last letter to me. Remember I told you that it would hardly be fair to adopt Jesus as a way of spiting my dad? Well, she pointed out that it’s not so much ‘spiting’ as the fact that I was hungry for something that I hadn’t found in his way of life. She said that it was obviously even more important that I find some sort of spiritual dimension to my life, and that I shouldn’t be put off by the fear of overreacting. She also said that she thought the values I was looking for corresponded pretty well with the values of Jesus, which surprised me a bit. I’ve never really read enough about Jesus to know for certain what his values might be; I only know what I’ve heard in my occasional visits to church, or school assemblies, or in my conversations with you.

By the way, thanks for what you told me about praying; I like the idea of praying while you’re walking. I’m in the habit of going for an early morning walk each day (yes, there have been some pretty frosty mornings lately!), and I’ve been trying to pray for a few minutes each time I go out, remembering your three divisions of thanksgiving, confession, and petition. I can’t say that I’ve really felt any sense of closeness to God yet, but I’m also trying to remember what you said about not trying to manufacture a religious emotion. I can see that it would be easy to do this, so that religious experience became some sort of wish-fulfilment. I wouldn’t want to delude myself about this. I can’t help hoping, though, that at some point God does – well – that he lets me know that he’s there, you know!

Actually, come to think of it, I did have something happen while I was praying a few days ago. But I need to back up and tell you that I had a letter from my dad last week; apparently Mum had been trying to get him to write to me. I wish he hadn’t bothered; his letter was just a rehash of all the arguments we’ve ever had – how he thinks I made a big mistake by not going into the Law, but even if I was going to be a teacher, I should have stayed in England and tried for a job at a public school rather than working in the state system, etc. etc. And of course, he’s still furious that I didn’t tell them I was leaving for Canada until two weeks before I made the move, and that I lied to them about having a job in Reading (you were right, by the way – I should have been open with them right from the start, even though I know he would have tried to stop me. If I’d followed your advice I wouldn’t have messed things up with Becca the way I have). He finished off by telling me that I was ‘a foolish romantic’, that I had showed no gratitude at all to him for all the money he put into my education, and that he was very disappointed in me, particularly because I had deceived him.

Well, by the time I was finished reading the letter I was just as angry and upset as I was the day I last saw him. I was going to send him a nasty reply, but then I thought, no, I’ll just ignore him, at least for now. If he thinks that’s what ‘building bridges’ looks like, there isn’t much hope for us, but then, there never has been, has there? And since then I’ve – well, I’ve mentioned the letter a couple of times when I’ve been out walking and praying – maybe even ranted about it a bit – and even though God hasn’t talked to me or anything, I felt a bit better afterwards, or at least, not so bad. Sort of like what you said when you mentioned that sometimes you felt a sense of peace after you prayed. I don’t think I quite got as far as peace, but I caught a whiff of it, anyway, and it smelled pretty good, I have to say.

As for the Bible – well, I don’t really feel confident enough to read it right now. Maybe when Kelly comes home for Christmas I’ll ask her about it, or maybe I’ll talk to Joe at some point.

Have you seen my mum lately? She writes to me once a week, and I always try to give her a page or two back. I write to Becca too, but of course I hear nothing from her, or from Rick.

Well, I’d better finish, as the deli is getting busy and I’ve got a letter from Mum to answer as well. Hope you’re doing well and that things are ‘proceeding satisfactorily’ with Lorraine.

Cheers,

Tom

Link to Chapter 6

Meadowvale (2016 revision) Chapter 4

Back to Chapter 3

Kelly appeared on the doorstep of my house the next morning at about eleven o’clock, dressed in jeans and a sweater, her hair pulled back in a long braid. She greeted me with a warm smile when I opened the door. “Are you ready?” she asked.

“Come in for a minute; I’m just making a thermos of coffee”.

“Okay”.

She kicked off her shoes and followed me through the back porch and into the kitchen. By now I had my spare bedroom set up as an office, but the work tended to spill over to my kitchen table as well. “Go on through to the living room if you like”, I said apologetically; “It’s a bit tidier than this”.

“Okay”.

The drip machine was already beginning to beep, and so while she wandered into the living room I poured black coffee into my thermos flask and packed it in my backpack. By then she was bent over in front of the stereo system looking through my record collection. “See anything you know?” I asked as I went through to join her.

“Not much. I know some of these classical titles, but that’s about it”.

“Most of the rest is traditional folk music”.

She straightened up and grinned at me; “Dad told me you were into that stuff; that’s really interesting. Maybe when we come back from the lake you can pick a favourite album and play it for me, or even play me some stuff yourself?”

“I could do that. What sort of music do you like?”

“Pretty well everything except for opera, and whiney country stuff”.

I laughed; “You’d hear a lot of that around here – the whiney country stuff, I mean!”

“Yeah; my parents’generation were all country fans, and the kids I went to school with were pretty well all into classic rock”.

“Including you?”

“Some; I like the Beatles, but I’m not such a big Stones fan. I like some of the newer stuff, too – Billy Joel, Talking Heads, the Police, Dire Straits, that sort of thing”.

“I know of them, but I can’t say I’ve really listened to them very much”.

“No way! Have you honestly spent your entire life in a traditional folk music bubble?”

“No, not at all. My mum’s a classically-trained pianist and there was classical music playing in my house all the time when I was growing up. And when my friend Owen and I started playing guitar, we spent our first couple of years trying really hard to sound like Simon and Garfunkel”.

“I like them, too. How long have you been playing?”

“Since I was thirteen”.

“How old are you now?”

“You really haven’t got a shy bone in your body, have you?”

She gave me a sheepish grin. “Sorry – I don’t know how not to be up front!”

“That’s alright; it’s refreshing, actually”.

“Well, that’s okay, then! And I’m twenty-four, in case you were wondering”.

“I’m twenty-four too”.

“So you’ve been playing for eleven years?”

“Yes”.

She glanced at my crowded bookshelves with a smile; “You obviously like to read”.

“I do; how about you?”

“Oh yeah”. She scanned the shelves for a moment; “You like Victorian novels, eh?”

“Yes, although I’m also a big Jane Austen fan, and she’s pre-Victorian”.

“Do you have a favourite?”

“I like a lot of them, but if I had to pick three, I’d go for Austen, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy – especially Hardy, even though he can be depressing at times. I like his poetry, too”.

“I think the only thing I’ve read of his is Far from the Madding Crowd”.

“That’s one of the few that have a happy ending”.

“What about Dickens?”

“I’ve read a lot of his stuff; I think he’s brilliant, but I can’t say I really enjoy his books like Austen or Hardy. I don’t mind David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities, but I don’t really care for the others”.

“Do you like any modern writers?”

“I’m a big Tolkien fan, though I’m not really that interested in his imitators. How about you; what do you like?”

“A lot of poetry, actually”.

“Me too”.

She glanced at my bookshelves again; “I see that. I’m a little old fashioned about poetry, though – I like poems with rhyme and metre. My favourite is Robert Frost – do you know him?”

“I like him a lot”.

“Which of his poems do you like best?”

I thought for a moment, and then said, “‘Birches’, probably, and ‘Mending Wall’, and maybe ‘The Road Not Taken’”.

She looked up at me eagerly; “I love that one! I really like the part in the middle – you know,

‘Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet, knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back’.

It seems so true to life – every time we make a choice we rule out a whole bunch of other choices, and maybe we think we’re leaving our options open and we might come back one day, but we probably won’t”.

I smiled at her; “You really love this stuff, don’t you?”

“Of course; don’t you?”

“I do, although I’m probably not as expressive about it as you are”.

“Tom Masefield, are you mocking me?”

“No, not at all”.

She glanced at the framed photograph of Becca on the wall. “That’s obviously your sister”.

“Yes”.

“What’s her name?”

“Rebecca, but she goes by Becca”.

“She’s twelve, you said?”

“She turned twelve in August”.

She pointed at another photograph. “Well, that’s you, but who are the other two?”

“My former musical partners; that’s Owen Foster on the left, and Wendy Howard on the right”.

“She’s a real beauty”.

“Yeah; Owen and I met her at an open stage two years ago, and she started singing with us not long after that. She’s got a really lovely voice”.

Her eyes searched mine; “Anything going on there?”

I shook my head; “No, the three of us were just good friends, that’s all. Shall we get going, then?”

“Sure. Do you want to ride in my truck?”

“Okay”.

 

We spent a couple of hours walking the trails at Myers Lake Recreation Area. As Kelly had said, it was a wide lake surrounded by thick woodland: aspens, poplars, and spruce. We saw chickadees and nuthatches, and for one brief moment I saw the red flash of a pileated woodpecker before it flew away between the trees. Kelly, I discovered, was not talkative at all when she was out walking in the woods; she was completely focussed on what she could see and hear, and she noticed details that passed me by altogether. She was also much more knowledgeable about trees and plant life than I was, and she could readily identify different species without any hesitation at all.

After a couple of hours of rambling we sat down at a picnic table beside the lake. I poured her a cup of coffee from my thermos flask, and she accepted it from me with a smile; “Thank you”, she said.

I poured a cup for myself. “You’re welcome. And thank you; this is really lovely. It was nice of you to spend time bringing me out here when you could have been with your family”.

“Krista went back to Edmonton after breakfast this morning, but that was okay – she and Joe and I sat up talking until about two-thirty anyway”.

“You must be tired”.

“A little, but I’ll be fine”.

“You’re pretty close to them, then?”

“I’m probably closest to Joe, but that doesn’t mean Krista and I aren’t good friends too”.

“You and Krista are more outgoing; Joe’s a little less…”

“Noisy?”

I laughed; “I was going to say ‘boisterous’, but ‘noisy’works too!”

“You’re right, though; Krista and I are extroverts, like my dad, but Joe’s an introvert, more like my mom. And you? I have a hunch you’re an introvert, too”.

“People toss those words around a lot, but I’m not sure I know what they really mean”.

“I make friends easily, and I have lots of them. Joe takes a lot longer to make a friend than I do, but I think his friendships are probably deeper than mine”.

“I think I’m probably more like him”.

“Not too many friends?”

“I’m friendly with a lot of people, but I only really have one or two close friends”.

“Owen?”

“Yes”.

“How did you meet?”

“We were both eleven. I was born in north Oxford, but my dad bought a house in the village of Northwood and we moved out there during the Christmas holidays in 1969. I started at the village school in January 1970, and on my first day, during what you would call ‘recess’, three other boys ganged up on me and started to beat me up. Owen came to help me, and we held them off until the teacher intervened. That was how it started”.

“And you’ve been friends ever since?”

“Yes. He was raised in Northwood and he knew the countryside really well, so he took me out and showed me things; that summer of 1970 we went out exploring on our bikes pretty well every day from morning ’til night. And when we went up to high school together, his dad was my English teacher, and eventually he was the one who got me interested in the idea of teaching English”.

“Were you always a reader?”

“Yes, but Mr. Foster introduced me to books and authors I’d never heard of before; actually, I might have felt intimidated by them if he hadn’t showed me how to enjoy them”.

“You didn’t get that from your family?”

I was quiet for a long time, trying to decide how to answer that question. Eventually she said, “Sorry, that’s obviously not something you want to talk about right now”.

“Do you mind if we don’t? I’m sorry…”

“No, I’m the one who should be sorry – I can be really pushy without thinking about it”.

“That’s all right. What about you? What made you decide you wanted to be a nurse?”

“I was always interested in biology, and how the human body works. And I guess I’ve always wanted to help people. I thought of becoming a doctor at one time, but I really didn’t want to spend that long in school. And nurses get to spend more time with their patients; that’s what I wanted”.

“You ended up moving a long way from home to work”.

“I guess so. I was lucky to get the job in Jasper, because I’ve always enjoyed visiting there. We used to go camping up there when I was a kid, and now I can spend a lot of time exploring the back country trails, which is great. But you’re right, I’m a long way away from my old friends – although I’ve made some new friends, too”.

“That’s the extrovert thing, I suppose”.

“I guess so”.

“Who are your close friends?”

“Mainly family; Joe and Krista are my closest friends, and then some of my cousins. You’ve met my Uncle Hugo and Auntie Millie; their daughter Brenda and I are very close”.

“Where does she live?”

“Saskatoon; she runs a coffee shop there. She got married two years ago to a guy called Gary Nikkel. And you know my cousin Don”.

“Don Robinson?”

“Yeah; I get on pretty well with him, too, although he’s a few years older than me”.

“I get the sense that the Robinsons aren’t keen churchgoing Mennonites like the rest of your family”.

“No – Aunt Rachel married a guy who wasn’t really a churchgoer. I guess Uncle Mike was raised Anglican, but he’s never really practiced it. Nice guy, though”.

“I’m not a churchgoer either, and I like to think that I’m a nice guy!”

She laughed and punched my arm lightly; “Of course you are!”

“Thanks”.

“Actually”, she said with a sudden faraway look in her eyes, “I’ve been on a break from churchgoing myself for a while”.

“Oh?”

“Yeah, I suppose I’ve had my little teenage rebellion”.

“Against your mum and dad?”

She shook her head vigorously; “No, not at all. Seriously, what’s to rebel against? It’s not that we never fight, but I really think I have the best parents of anyone I know”.

“I’d have to agree”.

She frowned thoughtfully. “When I got into my teens I started to struggle a little with some of the things I read in the Bible – you know, the wars and bloodshed, and the times when God commands the Israelites to slaughter whole populations, including children and babies. And of course, I started to notice that people in the church weren’t always consistent about how they lived their lives, and sometimes that bothered me, because I was a pretty idealistic teenager. And then I got into science, and I learned about evolution, and DNA and how it works, and all my textbooks assumed that the human body was a totally natural organism that you could explain completely without making any reference to God at all. Nobody at church was talking about that; it seemed to me that they were just carrying on talking about the Bible as if modern science didn’t even exist. So I guess I had my little flirtation with doubt”.

“Is that a bad thing?”

“Well I don’t think it is, but I’m beginning to see the limitations of it. I think I might be on my way back in, although I still don’t go to church very much”.

“What’s bringing you back?”

She grinned; “Are you really interested, or are you just indulging me?”

“I’m interested; I’ve had conversations like this on and off with Owen during the past few years”.

“Okay”. She drained her coffee cup and set it down again on the picnic table. “T.S. Eliot has a quote in one of his poems about the end of all our exploring being to come back to the place we started from, and knowing it for the first time”.

I nodded; “Little Gidding”.

“Yeah, that’s right – it’s a great poem, even if it doesn’t have rhyme and metre”.

“So it makes sense to you?”

“It totally does. I think it’s been good for me to be away from the church and Christianity for a while; it’s given me more of an objective view. I’m less distracted by the peculiarities of individual churchgoers, and I can focus more on the central ideas of Christianity”.

“What do you think of as the central ideas of Christianity?”

“Well, Jesus – it’s really all about him, isn’t it?”

“Is it?”

“I think so. One of the things I couldn’t get my head around as a teenager was the idea that Jesus was somehow unique. The old Mennonites I grew up with all assumed that every other religion on earth had got it spectacularly wrong, but the one that we belong to, by an amazing coincidence, just happened to be the right one. That seemed more than a little arrogant to me”.

“I agree”.

“It’s all tied up with the idea that Jesus is the Son of God, not just a great religious teacher. The idea of God becoming a human being and living as one of us seemed really weird to me. Like, if God was Jesus, then what was happening to the rest of the universe when he was a baby? And that’s when Christians would bring up the doctrine of the Trinity, which I never really understood”.

“Me neither”.

“No”. She was quiet for a moment, and then she frowned and said, “I never succeeded in persuading myself to stop believing in God, though”.

“No?”

“No – even though all the science books I was reading assumed that the universe was totally explainable without the God hypothesis, that never really rang true for me, despite all my questions about science and the Bible. I’ve spent days hiking the mountain trails in Jasper and looking at the majesty of creation all around me. And I’ve stood in the middle of an open field here in Saskatchewan and looked up at the huge prairie sky, and felt really small and insignificant, kind of like an ant, I guess. And I’ve always felt, in an intuitive kind of way, that there had to be a Creator. It’s not something I came at from rational argument; it’s just something I felt in my bones. I didn’t have to be able to explain God or figure him out; I was just always pretty sure that God was there. And sometimes, especially in the mountains, I had a sense I was getting close to him”.

“You’re sure that wasn’t just natural awe at what you were seeing around you?”

She shrugged; “Maybe; I guess I can’t be sure about that. But that’s okay; there are lots of things I’m not sure about”. She smiled at me; “Is there any more coffee in that thermos?”

“Of course”. I poured her another cup, and topped up my own mug at the same time. “So you think you’re on the way back into Christianity, then?”

“Maybe. Jesus is fascinating, isn’t he?”

“Is he?”

“He is to me. I’m not starting with any assumptions about him being the Son of God or anything like that; I’m just reading the gospels from time to time and trying to figure him out”.

“What do you find fascinating about him?”

“Well, for one thing, the shrewd things he says. Like when he says that a man’s life doesn’t consist in the abundance of his possessions. I mean, there’s a whole modern advertising industry dedicated to proving him wrong, isn’t there? But you just know instinctively that they’re wrong and he’s right: you are you and I am me, and none of the really important things about our lives are defined by what we own”.

“That’s true”.

“And then I think about all the wars in human history that grew out of revenge and tit for tat – ‘You hit me, I’ll hit you back harder, you burned down my village, I’ll burn down ten of yours’- and Jesus comes along and nips it all in the bud”.

“ ‘Turn the other cheek’, you mean?”

“Yeah”.

“But isn’t that a bit impractical?”

“I guess, but how’s the alternative working for us? Wasn’t World War Two basically Hitler working out his rage that the Allies had won World War One? And wasn’t all that fuelled by the Treaty of Versailles, and the determination of the French to punish the Germans? Turning the other cheek may be impractical, but it seems to me that anger and revenge have caused millions of deaths, too”.

“I never thought of it that way”.

“I guess that’s the sort of thing that impresses me about Jesus. And then I love the way that he’s just his own guy, you know? He doesn’t bow and scrape to the establishment, and he ignores barriers that other people won’t cross. He talks to women, which apparently you weren’t supposed to do as a Jewish man in those days, and even though he’s very religious he hangs out with prostitutes and treats them like decent human beings. I’m not sure he would have made a very good Mennonite pastor!”

We both laughed, and I took another sip of my coffee. “You’re saying that Christianity might not have got Jesus right all the time?”

She shook her head with a frown; “I don’t know. Like I said, I went through a phase in my late teens when I was a little disillusioned with organized religion, but now that I’ve reached the ripe old age of twenty-four, I’ve got a little more patience for it. Yes, it often misses the mark, but then, so do I”.

“I suppose we all do at some point. So are you going to rejoin the church, then?”

“I’m not there yet; I’ve still got lots of questions. Joe would like me to, of course”.

“Is he a believer?”

“Yeah, he was baptized when he was sixteen, and he’s never really looked back”.

“I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who’s been baptized as a teenager before. All the Christians I knew were Church of England, so they were christened as babies. Me too, I guess”.

“You were christened as a baby? I thought your parents didn’t go to church?”

“No, but you don’t have to be a regular churchgoer to get your baby christened”.

“You don’t? That’s weird!”

“Why is it weird?”

She shrugged; “Well, I guess it depends on what you think baptism means, and it’s possible that Mennonites have a different take on that. We think that baptism is a commitment you make to Jesus and the church. That’s why we don’t baptize babies; we think you have to be old enough to understand what you’re doing before you make that commitment”.

I grinned; “I notice you said ‘we’ ”.

She shrugged apologetically; “I can’t remove myself from my Mennonite heritage, I guess”.

“So you’ve never been baptized?”

“No, although Joe and Krista both have”.

“What would it take for you to get baptized?”

“I wouldn’t want to do it unless I was reasonably sure of the central truths of Christianity, and willing to commit myself to living as a Christian”.

“And you’re not there yet?”

“No”. She hesitated, and then said, “To be absolutely honest, I know I’d like to be there. I mean, I admire my mom and dad, and in some ways my brother is my hero, but I don’t want to let that influence my thinking”.

“Why not?”

“Well, then it’s not objective thinking, is it?”

“No, but surely the fact that Christianity has produced people who you admire and look up to is an argument in its favour, isn’t it? After all, if all it produced was hypocrites, you wouldn’t give it a second thought, even if its ideas were attractive to you”.

“True enough; but then, I can’t deny that Christianity has produced some hypocrites too”.

“I suppose that’s true”. I was quiet for a moment, drinking my coffee and remembering conversations I’d had with Owen over the years. Eventually I said, “It must have been different, growing up in a Christian home and then having a teenage rebellion against Christianity. For me, it worked the other way around: having conversations about Christianity with my best friend had a bit of teenage rebellion attached to it. I suspect that made it a bit more attractive to me”.

She looked at me in silence for a minute, and then she said, “I’m getting the sense that things aren’t all that easy between you and your parents”.

I shook my head, avoiding her gaze.

“I’m also getting the sense that you don’t want to talk about it”.

“Not really”.

“Okay”. She drained her coffee and said, “Well, shall we head back to town? You promised to play me some traditional folk music, and I’m looking forward to it”.

“So I did. Alright – give me half a minute to finish my coffee here, and we can be on our way”.

Meadowvale (2016 revision) Chapter 3

Back to Chapter 2

On the Friday of Thanksgiving weekend I stayed in my classroom a little later than usual so that I could finish up some marking. It was a ground floor room, with large windows the full length of the outside wall and individual desks in rows facing the front. I was gradually working my way through a pile of student assignments with a cup of lukewarm coffee at my elbow; I had lost track of time, and when Will slipped into the room I looked up from my work and was surprised to discover from the clock on the wall that it was after five-thirty. Will perched on a student desk in front of me; “You’re working late tonight”, he said.

“I didn’t realize what time it was; I’m nearly finished”.

“I’m just about to leave, so you’re the last one here; do you want to lock up when you go?”

“Of course”.

He put his hands in his pockets. “Listen, are you doing anything special this weekend?”

“Not really”.

“You’re not going out for Thanksgiving supper with friends or anything like that?”

I shook my head; “This whole Thanksgiving thing is new to me”.

“No Thanksgiving in the old country?”

“Harvest festivals in churches, but not family gatherings or turkey dinners”.

“Would you like to come over to our place Sunday night to experience your first Thanksgiving dinner?”

“Will, you and Sally have been really kind to me, but please don’t feel you have to invite me over again”.

“We don’t feel that; we enjoy your company, and Sally told me this morning to be sure to ask you. Of course”, he continued with a smile, “it might be a little overwhelming for you”.

“How do you mean?”

“Well, it’ll be a little bigger than usual. More people, I mean”.

“How many?”

He frowned thoughtfully, obviously going over the guest list in his head. “Well, let’s see: Sally and me, and Joe and Ellie, and Kelly came home for the weekend from Jasper today, and Krista will be coming from Edmonton tomorrow. Then I think Sally’s brother David and his wife Anna are coming – they don’t have any kids of their own to cook for – and Sally’s parents, and my mother…”He smiled and nodded at me; “I think that’s everyone. How many is that? Eleven? Twelve?”

I laughed; “I hope you’ve got a stretchable dining table!”

“We’ll be fine; would you like to come?”

“I don’t want to intrude on your family gathering”.

“Don’t be silly; we’d love to have you over. And you’d finally get to meet Joe, too”.

“Well, that would be good; it seems a bit weird that I still haven’t run into him”.

“He’s been going down to the city a lot to spend time with Ellie, and he has to be on call some weekends too”.

“Of course”.

“So we’ll expect you, then? We’ll eat at six, but come a little earlier – about four-thirty or so”.

“All right –thank you very much. Is there anything I can bring?”

“No – just bring yourself”. He glanced at his watch; “Well, I should be heading for home. See you Sunday, then”.

“Right; thanks, Will”.

“No problem. Don’t forget to lock up when you leave”.

“I’ll remember”.

 

There was a light rain falling late Sunday afternoon as I parked my car on the side of the road in front of Will and Sally’s house; there were already three vehicles in the driveway, two of them half-ton trucks. The living room curtains were open, and I could see Will standing behind the window; he saw me walking up the driveway and greeted me with a cheery wave. I followed the cracked stone pathway around the side of the house into the back yard; the back door opened as I approached, but to my surprise it was not Will standing there, but a young man of about my own age, with blond hair and a crooked nose, dressed comfortably in jeans and a faded green sweatshirt. I recognized him immediately from the family photographs on Will and Sally’s living room wall.

“You must be Tom”, he said in a quiet voice; “I’m Joe”.

“I’ve heard a lot about you”, I replied as we shook hands; “It’s good to finally meet you”.

“You too; come on in”.

I followed him into the house, kicking off my shoes in the stairwell and climbing the three steps into the kitchen. I could smell the turkey cooking in the oven, and as I entered the room Sally turned from the sink, wiped her hand on a towel and said, “Come on in, Tom; you’ve already met my son Joe?”

“He just introduced himself”.

“Good. Coffee?”

“Yes, please”.

She poured coffee from the carafe into a glass mug and handed it to me with a smile; “There you go”.

“Thanks, Sally”.

Will came wandering into the kitchen area. “Come on through, Tom”, he said; “I’ll introduce you to the others. Not everyone’s here yet”.

I followed him into the dining area, where he introduced me to his mother and Sally’s parents, who were sitting at the table drinking coffee together. Will’s mother, Erika Reimer, was lean and wiry like her son Hugo, and her eyes twinkled as she smiled and shook hands with me. Will had told me that she was eighty-two, but she looked at least ten years younger, and in her jeans and check shirt she was as far removed as possible from my image of the traditional Mennonite grandmother. When she spoke to me, I immediately recognized a slight German accent in her voice. “How long have you been in Canada?”she asked.

“About ten weeks”.

“I’ve got a few years on you, then; I’ve been here since 1924. Is your principal looking after you well enough?”

“He’s been very helpful, actually”.

“That’s the way it should be. Are you a good cook?”

I shrugged; “I don’t mind my own cooking, but I wouldn’t claim to be a gourmet chef”.

“Well, if you ever feel like a good home-cooked dinner, you come over to my place, okay?”

Will put his hand on my shoulder. “She means it, and she’s a superb cook. Come on down and meet the youngsters, Tom”.

I followed him down a couple of steps into the sunken living room; it had a big picture window on one side, and was furnished with a couple of large chesterfields, some easy chairs, and a coffee table in the centre. There was a large TV on a stand in one corner, and on the inside wall there were framed photographs of Will and Sally and various other family members. Two young women were sitting in one corner of the room, talking to each other; Will introduced them to me as “My daughter Krista, and my future daughter-in-law Ellie”. Krista, who had long blonde hair and a mischievous grin, shook my hand and said, “So you’re the famous Tom Masefield”.

“I’m Tom Masefield, but I didn’t know I was famous”.

“Well, you know what my dad’s like!”

“Yes, I think I do!”

Joe had followed us into the living room. “My other sister Kelly’s just having a shower”, he explained; “She was out walking this afternoon and she wanted to get cleaned up before supper”.

“How long is she here for?”

“A few days, actually”, said Will as he sat down in one of the easy chairs. “She arrived on Friday and she’s not going back until Wednesday”.

“That’s a nice break”.

“Yeah, she set it up somehow by combining stat holidays and days off. Have a seat, Tom”.

“Thanks”. I sat down on one of the chesterfields beside Ellie; she had dark hair pulled back into a thick braid, and she was dressed comfortably in jeans and tee-shirt. “I hear you’re a guitarist”, she said with a smile.

“I am”.

“Ellie plays the fiddle”, said Joe, glancing at her affectionately.

“I think I heard that”, I replied, turning to her; “What sort of music do you like to play?”

“Bluegrass and old time country music, actually; how about you?”
“Traditional folk songs”.

“Oh yeah? We probably have a few songs in common”.

“You think? I haven’t come across anyone around here yet who knows many of my songs”.

“Some of the old bluegrass tunes go back to the old country, although they’ve probably changed quite a lot in transit”.

“We’ll have to get together and play a few tunes. You’re still living in Saskatoon, right?”

“Yes, but I may be getting a job here at the dental clinic in the New Year, so if things work out, I’ll be moving up”.

I glanced at Joe; “I don’t remember whether you two have set a date yet”.

“We have”, Ellie replied with a shy smile; “May 21st”.

“Congratulations”.

“Thank you”.

Krista grinned at me again; “That’s quite the accent”, she said. “We’re not used to hearing classy English accents around here”.

“I’ve noticed there aren’t too many of us”.

“Well, there is old Joanna Robinson; have you met her yet?”

“No; who is she?”

“She’s a relative of ours by marriage; she’s lived around here for a long time. I think she came over in the 1930s, but she still has a really strong English accent; she sounds like she just got here yesterday”.

Will nodded. “Sally’s sister Rachel is married to Joanna’s son Mike”, he explained to me.

“So Joanna would be Don Robinson’s grandmother, then?”

“That’s right”.

I heard the sound of a door opening in the hallway, and a moment later a young woman who was obviously Krista’s older sister appeared in the entrance to the living room. As I got to my feet she said, “No, don’t bother to get up; I’m Kelly”.

We shook hands formally; “Tom Masefield”, I replied.

“Masefield? Isn’t there a poet…?”

“John Masefield”.

“Is he the guy who wrote ‘I must go down to the sea again…’?”

“‘…to the lonely sea and the sky’ ”.

“Are you related to him?”

“Not that I know of, but it’s a long time since anyone’s asked me that!”

“Well, I like his poems”.

She was seriously lovely, with blue-grey eyes and long blond hair still wet from the shower, dressed in faded jeans and a simple white sweater. She was short, like her father, but she had the sort of face and figure that no man ignores easily, and I found it hard to take my eyes off her as she sat down on the floor opposite me with her back against the other chesterfield. Her brother was sitting behind her; she looked up at him with a grin and said, “Get me some coffee, will you, Joe?”

“Right away!”he replied with a grin, getting to his feet; “Would you like some caviar too?”

Everyone laughed, and then as Joe disappeared around the corner into the kitchen Kelly smiled at me and said, “Dad’s been telling us all about you. Oxford University; that’s kind of classy for a place like Meadowvale”.

I shrugged; “I was born there, so I didn’t think about it very much”.

“It must be an amazing place – all those old buildings and history. Was it a tough university to get into?”

“I suppose so. I’d always hoped to be able to study there, so I was lucky”.

“I’m sure luck had nothing to do with it”, she replied as her brother came back into the living room, carrying a cup of coffee for her; “You must have been a good student”.

I shrugged my shoulders again, feeling a little embarrassed; “I suppose so”.

She took the mug from Joe’s outstretched hand with a smile, and moved over a little to make room for him to sit down on the chesterfield behind her. “Does your family still live there?”

“My parents live in a village about ten miles south of Oxford”.

“Do you have brothers and sisters?”

“One brother in university, and a little sister who still lives at home with my parents; she’s twelve”.

“What made you decide to move to Canada?”

“I met someone from Canada in my college; he told me about it, and it sounded interesting. And with the economic situation in England right now, jobs here were a lot easier to come by”.

“I suppose, but I still find it hard to understand why someone would move from an incredible place like that to come to little old Meadowvale, Saskatchewan”. She smiled and glanced around at her family; “Well, we like it here, of course, but it isn’t normally considered one of the most popular destinations for immigrants from Oxford!”

“Kelly, give the man a break!”Joe exclaimed; “He’s only just met you, and you’re already questioning him like it was some sort of inquisition in here!”

She smiled apologetically at me. “You’ll have to forgive me; I tend to be a little direct”.

“Just a little”, Joe added with a mocking grin.

Everyone laughed, and Kelly turned and took a playful swipe at her brother. He dodged her blow and caught her wrist with his hand. “Now don’t try this again; you know you’ve never won”.

“Children, children”, Will said reproachfully; “Not in front of the company, please!”

“And not with a cup of coffee in your hand, either”, Joe added, wagging his finger at Kelly. “You’ll spill it on the rug, you know!”

Kelly glanced at me; “Is your brother as annoying as mine?”

“Well, I’m the oldest, so he probably thinks I’m the annoying one”.

“Is he studying at Oxford too?”

“I’m afraid so; he’s at Balliol though. I went to Lincoln; I don’t know if you know anything about the Oxford colleges?”

“Not really; they all sound kind of magical to me”.

I shrugged; “They have their magic, I suppose. When we lived there, we sort of took them for granted”.

Krista grinned at her sister; “Kind of like the way you take the mountains for granted”.

Kelly shook her head; “No – I really don’t”.

“Well, you don’t exactly go crazy over them the way you used to”.

Kelly shrugged; “I suppose not, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love them just as much”.

Krista smiled at me. “I get to see Kelly’s mountains from time to time; I’m studying in Edmonton at the U of A”.

“Wildlife biology, right?”

“Yeah; I’m working on my masters’ thesis”.

“What’s it about?”

“Caribou. There are four small herds of woodland caribou in Jasper National Park; there have been warnings for a couple of years now that the populations are in danger, so I’m doing a study to investigate whether or not that’s true”.

“What do you think?”

She smiled sheepishly; “Are you asking Krista the scientist or Krista the lover of wild animals?”

“Does it make a difference?”

Joe laughed; “Krista the scientist will tell you that she doesn’t have enough evidence yet to decide one way or the other. Krista the lover of wild animals will tell you that introducing human beings onto the earth was one of God’s more questionable decisions, and that whenever humans and wild animals come into contact, wild animals suffer for it”.

“Which is usually true”, she replied defiantly.

“Do you know why the populations are at risk?” I asked.

She shook her head; “I’ve got hunches, but at the moment that’s all they are”.

“So you’re not just writing a thesis for its own sake, then?”

“What would be the point?”

“Some would say, to get a master’s degree”.

“I suppose. But if I can make a difference while I’m doing it…”

Kelly gave me a grin; “As you can see, we’re a family of idealists”, she said.

“I’m definitely starting to get that impression”.

 

Sally called us to the supper table around six; by then her brother David and his wife Anna had arrived, and as I had not met them before I had to answer the same questions about how long I had been in Canada and where I had lived in England. I found myself sitting between Joe and Kelly, and when we had all taken our places Will, who had an enormous turkey on a platter in front of him, asked us to join hands. “Shall we sing something, since we’re all here?”

“How about ‘We thank thee Lord, for this our food?’”Sally suggested.

“Wonderful”. He glanced at me; “We’ll sing it through a couple of times, Tom, and you’ll soon catch on”.

They started to sing, and I suddenly realized that this was not your average family singalong, with half the members barely able to hold a tune; these people sang in four-part harmony, and they were obviously well-practiced:

“We thank thee, Lord, for this our food;
God is love, God is love.
But most of all for Jesus’light;
God is love, God is love.
These mercies bless, and grant that we
may live in peace and reign with thee.
May live in peace and reign with thee;
God is love, God is love”.

The tune was a simple one, and the second time around I was already humming along to it, following Joe as he sang the tenor part. When the song ended Will smiled; “Amen”, he said, picking up a carving knife. “Who wants some turkey?”

“That was beautiful”, I said as he began to slice into the bird. “Is that a sort of family tradition?”

“It’s a Mennonite grace”, Sally explained.

“Of course”.

Sitting at my right, Kelly gave me a playful grin; “I assume you’ve heard that we’re a hot-bed of religious fanatics in black clothes who drive horses and buggies?”

“So I’ve been told, although I haven’t seen the horses and buggies yet”.

They laughed, and Will’s mother said, “Hey, it’s not so very long ago that we used to get around all winter with horse and cutter”.

“I remember those days, all right”, said Will, “and going out to milk the cows at forty below in the winter, and cutting wood”. He winked at me; “It was a tough life”.

“Oh yeah”, said Kelly, “walking for miles every day to a one-room schoolhouse”.

“Uphill, both ways”, Joe added with a grin.

“You know very well that I didn’t walk”, Will replied; “I rode a horse”.

“I was up there”, I said, “but I didn’t see any hills”.

“Just the banks of the creek”, said Kelly.

“Have you been up to Spruce Creek?”Will’s mother asked me.

“A couple of weeks ago; we went to help Hugo with the harvesting”.

“That was where we settled when we first came from Russia; that was our homestead”.

“I remember Hugo telling me that”. I looked around the table; “Well, since I have a whole family of Mennonites here tonight, there’s a question I’ve been meaning to ask ever since Will told me about the history of this town”.

“What’s that?” said Will.

“What brought the Mennonites here in the first place? I know they came from Russia, but why did they come here?”

Will turned to his mother; “You want to tell him the story?”

“Sure”. She smiled at me; “Yes, we came from Russia, after the First World War. It was a hard time for our people. The Bolsheviks didn’t like Mennonites, or Christians of any kind for that matter, and they persecuted us. Thousands of people disappeared. Anyone who could get out, got out. My husband and I were lucky; we had relatives in Canada, so we came over here in 1924. But we didn’t go to Waterloo where most of our relatives lived, because the government was giving land away for free out here, so we came to Saskatchewan and homesteaded. All you had to do was settle on the land, clear a few acres and plant a crop, and within a couple of years they gave you the title to it”.

“Was there anyone living here back then?”

“My cousin Hermann Paetkau was here two years before us. He was the one who sent us word about this place; he was already homesteading when we got here. And there were some English and French people, too; they’d been here for about ten years. But they settled around Meadowvale, and we stayed in Spruce Creek. We didn’t speak any English at first, but my husband and I made sure to learn”.

“What language did you speak?”

“Low German for every day, and High German in church on Sundays”.

“Right – Will told me the Mennonites originally came from Germany and the Netherlands. That’s quite something, though, to keep a language alive in a foreign country like that”.

“Well, we wanted to keep our faith. We lived simple and peaceful lives, far away from the world, speaking our own language and following our own customs. That’s what most Mennonites did in those days”.

“What about you, Tom?” Joe asked quietly; “Were you raised in any sort of religious faith?”

I shook my head; “Not really; my dad’s a strong atheist, and we were never encouraged to go to church. My best friend’s a Christian, though, and he and I have talked about it from time to time. But I don’t really know much about Mennonites, except the whole horse and buggy and black clothes image Kelly was talking about, and since I’ve met your mum and dad, I’ve realized that may not be an accurate stereotype”.

“Different groups of Mennonites have taken different approaches”, said Sally; “Our group doesn’t put such a strong emphasis on outward signs like clothing and language”.

“You guys are definitely going to scare Tom off”, Kelly said with a grin; “All this stuff about Mennonite culture and history!”

“Hey, I’m the one that asked the question”,I replied, smiling gratefully at Will as he passed me a plate of turkey. “It’s true that my dad’s an atheist, but I don’t necessarily share his views on that particular subject. My dad and I disagree about a lot of things, actually”.

Joe grinned at Will. “Fathers and sons!”

“Yeah; you send them to university, and they grow up to stick their hands up the rear ends of cows”.

Will’s mother laughed; “I seem to remember you doing your fair share of that when you were younger, Will Reimer!”

“Yes, but Joe does it by choice!” said Kelly, smiling playfully at her brother.

“Some people like math, some people like cows”, he replied.

“This is a fine conversation to be having with the turkey!”Sally exclaimed.

“Sorry, Mom”, Joe replied, “although Dad was the one who started it!”

“I haven’t seen a lot of cows around here”, I said to him; “Are there many?”

“There are quite a few actually; we do a lot of work with cows and horses, but we have plenty of small animal work, too”.

“Are you busy?”

“Oh yeah; I could easily work seven days a week if I wanted to. There’s a lot of travelling involved, of course, because, funnily enough, most people would rather not load their cows into trailers and bring them in to the vet’s office – at least, not if they can help it!”

I laughed; “I never thought about that”.

 

Supper was huge; the main course was big enough, and everyone had second helpings, but then after a break of about half an hour Sally brought out pies: pumpkin, apple, and Saskatoon berry. “Anyone ready for some dessert?”

“Oh, I couldn’t possibly!”her brother David replied with a grin, holding his stomach.

“But you will!”his wife said, smiling at him affectionately.

“Who made all these pies?”I asked.

“Mom and I made most of them”, Sally replied, “and then Kelly brought a couple with her from Jasper”.

Fresh coffee and tea were served, the pies were carved up and shared, and the conversation continued at the table until after nine o’clock. I was content to sit on the edge of the family circle and listen, enjoying the sense of warmth, and the knowledge that they were entirely happy to have me there.

Eventually Sally and her mother got up and cleared the table; the older folks moved into the living room, but the younger Reimers stayed at the dining table. “Do you play Scrabble?”Kelly asked me.

“I do, actually”.

“Excellent. Are you ready to be massacred, Joey?”

“Comingright up”. Joe bent over beside a cupboard, opened a drawer and took out a Scrabble set.

“Is this another family tradition?”I asked.

“This is serious business”, Krista replied with a grin.

“Too serious for me”, Ellie added apologetically; “I let them persuade me to play once, a couple of years ago, and they totally wiped me out, so I’m really glad you like Scrabble, Tom!”

“Clear the decks”, Joe said, taking the Scrabble board out of the box; “This is my year; I can feel it coming”.

Will was coming around the corner with an empty coffee cup in his hand; “Let not him that girds on his armour boast himself as he that puts it off”, he said.

“What the heck is that, Dad?”Kelly asked.

“A quote from the Bible, of course! Don’t let me interrupt the slaughter, though; I’m just on my way through to fill up my coffee cup”.

The three Reimer siblings were definitely serious Scrabble players, and they were good at it, too; they didn’t use any words that I didn’t know, but they certainly used words I’d never seen in a Scrabble game before. It quickly became obvious that the real competition was between Joe and Kelly; Krista and I held our own, but we were not up to their level. The score was close right to the end, but eventually, after about forty minutes of intense play, Joe won by using all the remaining letters in his hand to form the word ‘dyslexic’ and go out.

“Unbelievable!”Kelly snorted; “How long have you had the ‘x’and the ‘y’?”

“About half the game; I had a hunch they might come in useful”.

“How about a rematch?”

Joe grinned at her; “Not competitive, now, are we?”

“Me? Surely not!”

He laughed. “Last time we played we only had one game, and you totally annihilated me, so tonight I think I’m just going to cut my losses and savour my brilliant victory!”

Joe and Krista got up and went into the living room to join the others; I was just beginning to think that I should be on my way as well when Kelly gave me a smile and asked, “Are you enjoying yourself?”

“I really am. Your mum and dad have told me a lot about you all, so it’s really good to finally meet you”.

“Dad’s mentioned a few things about you, too”.

“You keep in touch, then?”

“We do. You’ve probably noticed already that my dad’s kind of gregarious, and Mom and I are pretty close, too”.

“I can see that”. I shifted a little in my chair. “Tell me about Jasper”.

She smiled, and I saw a faraway look in her eyes. “It’s a wonderful place; it’s in a pass through the mountains, where the Athabasca and Miette rivers meet. When I stand on the balcony of my apartment in town, I can see mountains wherever I look. There are beautiful green lakes, and deep gorges and waterfalls, and lots of different hiking trails. It’s a great place to see wildlife, too – caribou, moose, bears, elk, wolves…”.

“Are any of those animals dangerous?”

“Bears are dangerous, so when you’re hiking you have to keep a sharp lookout for them. And if you go far enough off the beaten track there’s a chance you might see a cougar, but I never have. Moose are usually okay as long as you keep your distance and don’t startle them. I’ve never run into a moose on a hiking trail, although I have seen them on the sides of a lake when I’ve been canoeing. It’s a great place for canoeing, and trail riding, and skiing as well. Do you ski?”

“No – I’ve had the opportunity a couple of times, but I’ve never been brave enough to try it”.

“I was a cross country skier before I moved there, but now I’ve started downhill skiing as well”.

“I like walking a lot; we had great footpaths back home, but there doesn’t seem to be anything like that here”.

“No – Saskatchewan’s pretty much a car and truck culture. I like walking and hiking, but I’m in a minority. Are you a hiker?”

“I suppose so; I’m not really sure where exactly walking turns to hiking. When we were teenagers, my best friend Owen and I would often spend the whole of Saturday walking out in the country, and we kept that up when we were in university. Sometimes we went further afield; Owen’s family used to go camping in the Lake District – that’s a mountainous area in northwest England – and I often went with them. The views there are pretty spectacular, although probably not by your standards”.

“Show me some pictures some time”.

“Alright, but fair’s fair – I’d like to see some of yours, too”.

“Next time I come home I’ll bring some. But now it’s your turn; tell me all about Oxford”.

“What do you already know about it?”

“Well, I’ve read some of Colin Dexter’s novels, and a little C.S. Lewis, and Brideshead Revisited of course. It’s quite old, isn’t it?”

“The college I went to was founded in 1427”.

She grinned; “Right – pretty old, then!”

“There are some colleges that go back to the 1300s; one of the differences between Oxford and a lot of other university towns is that the individual colleges are older than the university. Tutors and lecturers are attached to the colleges, but the university oversees the whole thing and sets the exams and runs the science labs and all that. Not that I know a lot about science labs; my degree’s in English Literature”.

“You didn’t do a teaching degree?”

“I did a BA in English and a postgraduate certificate in education”.

“Right. And Dad said you were also playing folk music in a band”.

“Yes; my friend Owen and I had been playing guitar together since our early teens, and a couple of years ago we met a girl with a fantastic voice who joined us”.

“Are you famous?”she asked playfully.

“Hardly! We had lots of fun, though”.

“What’s the teaching like at Oxford; are the classes big?”

“The lectures are big, but the tutorials are small”.

“What are tutorials?”

“You meet once a week in groups of two or three students with your tutor; one of the students will have been assigned an essay, which they read, and then the tutor critiques the essay and encourages everyone else to chime in”.

“No kidding? I’ve never heard of anything like that before”.

“Well, it works alright with arts and humanities, but I don’t think they use it so much in the science courses”.

“I guess not”.

Joe wandered back into the dining area and sat down with us; “Is she still interrogating you?”he asked me with a smile.

“I don’t mind”.

“How are you finding Meadowvale, Tom?”

“It’s good; it’s different from what I’m used to, of course”.

“A little challenging to get into for an outsider?”

“A bit, but most people have been really welcoming. Sometimes people just forget that there are lots of things I don’t know about. I know they don’t mean to be unkind, though”.

“No; people are just used to each other, and it takes them a while to get comfortable with a newcomer”.

“Your dad and mum have been great; I’ve had supper here at least once a week since I arrived, and when I was setting my house up they couldn’t have been more helpful”.

“Where do you live?”asked Kelly.

“In a little rented place over toward the highway”.

“Ron Ratzlaff’s house?”

“That’s the one”.

“I know where you live, then. Maybe I’ll come over tomorrow and take you out for coffee”.

Joe grinned; “She’s really shy, my sister!”

“That would be fine”, I said; “I’d enjoy that”.

“Actually”, she added, “have you discovered Myers Lake yet?”

“No – what’s that?”

She grinned; “It’s a lake!”

We all laughed; “Sorry”, she said, “but I couldn’t resist that!”

“No need to apologize; I walked right into it!”

“It’s actually a regional park about seven miles north-east of here. The lake is a great place to see waterfowl in the summer, but what I like are the walking trails. There are several miles of them; they run along the shore and off into the bush. Of course, the poplars and willows are bare by now, but there are some spruce as well. And once the snow comes you can go cross-country skiing or snowshoeing”.

“I’d like to see that”.

“Well, tomorrow’s a holiday; why don’t I take you up there?”

“I’d like that”.

“Good”, she said with a smile; “Sounds like a plan!”

Link to Chapter 4

Meadowvale (2016 revision): Chapter 2

Link back to Chapter 1

There was a lot to do if I was going to be settled in and ready to start work at the end of the month.

I signed a one-year lease on the house with Ron Ratzlaff, and Will kept his promise to drive me into Saskatoon, where we went to the second-hand stores and picked up a few pieces of furniture. We also looked around the car dealerships and used car lots, and eventually I bought a 1979 Chevrolet Nova – a little more car than I had been looking for, but Will immediately gave his approval; “I know it’s not a Honda or a Toyota”, he said, “but it’ll stand up pretty well to winter driving around here, especially if you do any travelling on the back roads”.

Over the next four weeks I did some driving, taking advantage of the fine summer weather to explore the country around Meadowvale. But I also spent a lot of time walking the streets of my new home town. I had always enjoyed walking, and in my teenage years and on into my university days I had been accustomed to going for long walks in the Oxfordshire countryside. I quickly realized, however, that rural Saskatchewan in the early 1980s was not set up for that kind of country walking; there were no real footpaths, and if you walked along a gravel highway you got choked with dust every time a truck went by. So I took to walking around town every morning, learning to find my way around the streets, locating the grocery stores, the bank and the post office, and the coffee shops (one at the ‘greasy spoon’ on the highway, the other in the back of the Co-op store).

I liked exploring, and at least a couple of times a week I took a road map and a thermos of coffee and just went out for a few hours. I went to the nearby towns – Wakaw and Rosthern to the west, Birch Hills and Kinistino to the north, Melfort and St. Brieux to the east – and now and again I turned off the hard top and went down a gravel road for a while, with the fields of green, yellow and blue on either side, the farmhouses every few miles with the trees around them and the grain bins shining silver in the afternoon sunlight. I got lost a few times – the grid roads ran straight, but didn’t always meet where I thought they would, and once I ran into a creek that didn’t have a bridge over it, although I could see the road disappearing into the distance on the other side. In those situations I learned to painstakingly retrace my route until I found a familiar landmark – a wooded hill, or a distinctive farmhouse off to one side of the road – to help me get started again. And sometimes I just stopped my car out in the middle of nowhere and got out to lead against the warm hood, drink a cup of coffee and enjoy the stillness and the silence. I was used to narrow English country roads, with small fields, little villages only a couple of miles apart, and a nearby horizon; the wide landscapes of Saskatchewan were intimidating by comparison, with the vast sky above filled sometimes with enormous billowing clouds, and the fields stretching off into the distance. There was a hugeness about this country that could be felt, and at times I felt it bearing down on me, on hot afternoons out in the country with the lines of trees few and far between and nothing to shelter me from the grandeur of the big sky overhead.

 

I got Will to sit down with me and run through the curriculum materials I would be teaching in my classes. Most of the set books were already familiar to me, but there was some Canadian content that I didn’t know at all, and so most nights I sat up late, reading and catching up. When I felt comfortable enough with the curriculum and the materials, I began to make some plans and construct some lesson outlines. I was actually feeling quite nervous about the beginning of classes; it was true that I had worked as a student teacher in three different schools in the Oxford area, but this was my first real teaching job, working in a foreign country with a culture completely different from the one I had been raised in. Of course, I kept my apprehension to myself; I wanted to give an impression of confidence and competence when I was with Will.

Most of the other teachers were still away on holiday, but during my first week Will introduced me to a couple who were relatives of his: Sally’s nephew Don Robinson, who taught social studies at the high school, and his wife Lynda, who was an elementary school teacher. “Don’s mom Rachel is my older sister”, Sally explained to me; “We’re both Wiens’ by birth. Don’s her oldest boy. He and Lynda taught in the Arctic for five years after they finished university, but they’ve been back in Meadowvale for three years now”.

“Someone else who came back to Meadowvale?” I replied with a grin.

“Yeah, there are a few of us!”

 

One evening after another barbecue on the deck, Will and I got out our guitars and jammed together for a while, getting used to each other’s styles. As he had said, he was a basic meat-and-potatoes strummer, comfortable with songs with a simple chord structure, and he also had a fine singing voice. His country repertoire was entirely new to me, but I could see right away that he got a lot of pleasure out of the songs. I had been playing guitar since my early teens, and I had been strongly influenced by some of the best fingerstyle players in the English folk revival. He listened as I played a couple of songs, and then he said, “You’re probably a better guitarist than anyone else in Meadowvale. Do you play any Simon and Garfunkel?”

“I started out with their stuff, actually. My best friend Owen Foster learned to play at the same time as me, and their songs were the first ones we tried to learn. We tried really hard to sound like them”.

“So how did you get interested in traditional folk music?”

“The link was ‘Scarborough Fair’; we both really liked it. Owen found out that Simon had learned it from Martin Carthy, so we bought some of Carthy’s records, and he always had good liner notes explaining where the songs came from. After that, it didn’t take long before we started tracking them down and learning a few of them”.

“Did you guys play in a band or something?”

“We were a band, I suppose – or a duo, anyway”.

“Did you do concerts?”

“We played at open stages, and later on we got a few gigs at cafés and pubs and little folk clubs”.

“I’m impressed. Do you still like some of that old Simon and Garfunkel stuff?”

“I do”.

“I know a few of their songs; would you like to try some?”

“Absolutely”.

 

Labour Day came and the school year began, and I was immediately plunged into the busyness of being a first-year teacher in a foreign country. When I had gone to school back home we had all worn formal uniforms with jackets and ties, but here the standard uniform seemed to be old jeans and tee-shirts. This was one of the aspects of the Canadian system that I quickly came to enjoy; I had always preferred dressing informally, and was relieved that there was no requirement that male teachers wear ties in Meadowvale School. “Although you can if you want”, Will told me, “and we don’t want you wearing jeans on the job”. He himself seemed to specialize in check shirts and baggy sweaters, although occasionally he exerted himself and put on a tie.

The kids in my classes, especially in the higher grades, were not much younger than me, and it was sometimes a challenge to exert discipline. In the first few weeks I often felt at a loss to know how to control them, but gradually I found my way, starting to relax a little and participate in the give and take of classroom banter. I had originally decided to become a teacher because of my admiration for George Foster, my friend Owen’s father. George had been my high school English teacher, and he was the one who had first helped me fall in love with great writers of the English language. He had a masterful way of controlling a class of teenagers, but of course he had the advantage of being many years older than me. Nevertheless, I often found myself thinking about the way he had conducted himself, and modelling my own behaviour on his. I was still in touch with him, and I wrote to him a couple of times to tell him how things were going and ask for his advice on specific subjects. He always wrote back promptly, and his letters were full of encouragement.

 

All through the late summer and early Fall, Will and Sally invited me for supper at their house at least once a week. I protested half-heartedly that they didn’t need to spoil me, but the truth was that Sally was an excellent cook and I enjoyed their company. I was getting to know them a little better now, and the more time I spent with them, the more I admired them. I was a mild introvert myself, but Will was a gregarious extrovert and was always introducing me to new people when we were out around town. He was especially glad to introduce me to relatives, of which he seemed to have an inexhaustible supply, most of them with Mennonite names like Wiens and Thiessen, Toews and Janzen, and many, many Reimers. Sally was less outgoing, but she was just as happy to have company in their home. Will told me that she worked part time as a bookkeeper for several local businesses; “She’s pretty good with accounts and that kind of stuff”, he said with a grin, “which is lucky, because I’m not!”

They were not just cultural Mennonites; they were believers too. I had noticed from the beginning that they always said grace at mealtimes, and from time to time they alluded to the fact that they had been to church on Sunday. I had been raised in a non-churchgoing home, and my father was vocal about his atheism. However, my friend Owen was a Christian, and he and I had sometimes had conversations on the subject, especially in the last couple of years as I had gradually come to realize that I was finding atheism a completely unsatisfying philosophy of life. I was far from being a Christian, but I was curious, and I had to admit that I found Will and Sally’s Mennonite faith interesting, although I never asked them about it.

 

And so the warm Saskatchewan summer turned to Fall, the leaves turned from green to yellow, and the farmers were frantically busy in the fields getting the crops in. One Saturday in late September Will asked me if I would like to go out with him to his older brother Hugo’s farm; they were working on the harvest and could always use an extra pair of hands. Actually I realized very quickly that this was just another example of Will’s gregarious spirit, because he was driving the grain truck, and all I did all day long was sit beside him in the cab and listen to his stories.

Hugo’s farm was about fifteen miles north of Meadowvale, just north of the narrow Spruce Creek. The farmhouse was a spacious two-story building with red siding, and barns and other sheds behind it. Hugo was taller and more wiry than Will, but he had the same curly hair and grey beard; his son Corey was helping with the harvest too, but I saw immediately that although he had his father’s looks, he did not have his big farmer’s hands. “He’s not really a farmer any more”, Hugo told me with a mischievous grin; “He’s an accountant. Still, he likes coming out here and getting his hands dirty from time to time!”

Corey smiled and said, “Speaking of amateur farmers, where’s Joe, Uncle Will? He told me he was going to be out here today”.

“I guess he had a surgery of some kind come up at the last minute”.

“Any excuse to avoid some real work, eh?”

“Spoken by the guy who sits in front of a calculator all day long!”

“Dad’s finances would be in bad shape if I didn’t!”

“True enough”, Hugo agreed; “I’ve never been able to make those numbers do what I want them to do”.

At noon we all went back to the farmhouse for a soup and sandwich lunch prepared for us by Hugo’s wife Millie. I noticed that there were some horses out in the paddock behind the house. Will saw me looking at them; “Are you a rider?” he asked.

“No, never had the chance. I suppose you are, though?”

“I don’t ride very often these days, but when I was a kid I rode a horse to school, on account of our farm being about four miles from the schoolhouse”.

“You must have learned when you were very young, then”.

“I don’t really remember a time when I couldn’t ride. My kids like it too, especially Joe and Kelly. One of those horses over there is actually Kelly’s horse; she’ll likely spend some time out here when she comes home for Thanksgiving”.

“Does Hugo have other children too?”

“He’s got four, but his daughter Brenda lives down in Saskatoon; she and Kelly are pretty close. Donny’s the youngest – you know him from school, of course”.

“Yes, he’s in one of my English classes”.

“That’s right. The oldest is Erika; she’s married to John Rempel. Their farm’s about four miles from here; I’m guessing they’re busy with the harvest today too”.

“What about Corey; does he live in Meadowvale?”

“Yeah, he started his own business in town a year or two ago; Sally helps him out from time to time. He and Joe are cousins, but really they’re more like brothers; they’ve been best friends since they were little boys”.

“Are they the same age, then?”

“Joe’s six months older than Corey, but they were in the same year through high school, and they shared an apartment when they were in university too”.

 

“So what do you think of it so far?” Owen asked when we were talking on the phone.

“It’s all strange, but I like it”.

Owen and I had been friends since my family had moved to the village of Northwood when I was eleven; he had been raised in the village, and he knew all the countryside around like the back of his hand. Our friendship started out as the friendship of two boys who liked going for bike rides and rambles out in the country; later on it also became a musical friendship, as we learned to play guitar together. In our late teens we began to perform together, first at our school and later in other places, and this continued when we went up to university in 1977. He was more outgoing than me, and he was the one who first suggested that we go out to a pub to play at an open stage night. I was dubious, but he was determined, and so we took the first step into the folk music community of Oxford. Before long we had a name, ‘Lincoln Green’, and much later we were joined by a third member, Wendy Howard, another traditional folk singer with a soaring voice that audiences loved.

Owen and I had been calling each other once a week since I arrived in Meadowvale; we also wrote regularly, and I had sent him some photographs of my new home town.

“Any snow yet?” he asked.

“No, in fact it’s been quite mild, although Fall is definitely progressing. Will and Sally keep warning me that one day the snow’s coming, though. How about you; what have you been up to this week?”

“Well, I met a girl I rather like, actually”.

“A girl?”

“Yes. Her name’s Lorraine Hutchinson and she’s an artist”.

“An artist?”

He laughed; “Stuck in repetition mode this week, are we?”

“Sorry! Where did you meet her?”

“At church last Sunday; she was new and she ended up accidentally sitting beside me. We got talking and I asked her out for lunch afterwards. I’ve seen her a couple of times since then; she only lives a five minute walk from here”.

“What’s she like?”

“Pretty, and talented. She’s spent the last three years at art school in London, and now she’s moved to Oxford to live with her sister. She’s trying to make a living as a water colour artist, and meanwhile she’s working at a coffee bar in the city centre”.

“Does she like walking?”

“Yes, and music, too, although she doesn’t play”.

“Sounds like she’s got the potential to become a definite distraction, mister medical student”.

“Don’t worry, I’m not getting seriously distracted”.

“Have you heard from Wendy?”

There was silence for a moment, and then he said, “Haven’t you?”

“No”.

“Really?”

“Yes. What have you heard?”

“She’s moved to London; she and Mickey are back together”.

“You must be joking!”

“I’m not”.

“Did you hear that from her?”

“No, I haven’t been in touch with her since you left. I got it from Sue Morris”.

“Well, she would know”.

“I’m really surprised you haven’t heard from her”.

“I wrote to her, but she hasn’t replied. But you know how things were between us”.

“Yeah”.

“But London – that doesn’t make sense! She was all set to start studying for her doctorate at Merton”.

“I know”.

“What else did Sue say?”

“Not much, actually; I bumped into her on the High one day, but we only talked for a couple of minutes”.

“Is she still in Oxford?”

“No, she was just back in town for a couple of days”.

“Where’s she living now?”

“London”.

“Right; I think I remember her saying she was going to do her doctorate at King’s”.

“That’s what she told me”.

  “I can’t believe Wendy and Mickey are back together – not after all that happened between them”.

“I know; I was surprised too”.

 

The next day, a Monday, I stopped at the post office on the way home from school and found two letters in my box. When I got back to my house I made myself a cup of coffee, took it into the living room, and sat down to read.

The first letter was from my mother.

Northwood, Oxfordshire

September 27th 1982

Dear Tom:

Thank you for your letter of September 19th that I received yesterday. Letters seem to be taking about a week to get here; I assume it’s the same in the other direction as well?

I’m glad that school is going well and that you’re enjoying the new friends you’re making. I was glad to hear your stories about the Reimers, and it really does seem as if you’ve been very lucky to have such a supportive principal. I was also very glad to receive the photographs you sent; they give me something to visualize about your new life.

You asked after Becca; well, what can I say? She’s still very, very hurt, Tom; hurt that you planned this move for so long without telling her, when she looked up to you so much and loved you so very dearly. Of course, your dad and I are still hurting from that as well, but it’s worse for Becca. Yes, she has received your letters, but she hasn’t read them; she tore them up and threw them away. I know it will be painful for you to hear this, because, unlike your dad, I don’t believe you did all this specifically to hurt us, and I know you well enough to be sure that your little sister is still very special to you. But you need to know how things stand. By all means continue to write to her, and I’ll pass on your news as well, but don’t expect to hear back from her, at least, not in the short term.

As for your dad, he’s still very angry, and he hasn’t mentioned you at all since the day you left, although he has read your letters. I know that what he did to you the last time you saw each other will make it very, very difficult for either of you ever to be reconciled to each other. This is very hard for me to watch, because I love you both. He knows I’m writing to you, and I think that secretly he’s glad to have news of you. But I don’t think you’ll hear from him yourself.

Rick is fine and very busy; the new term at Oxford has just started and it looks like he’ll have a lot to do. He moved back into college last week, and he stayed in town last weekend to get some work done. As far as I know he’s still seeing Alyson, but she hasn’t been out here with him for a few weeks.

I bumped into Owen in town last week and he was kind enough to invite me out for a cup of coffee. He told me that he hears from you and that you talk on the phone regularly. I was very glad to see him and I’m glad that the two of you are keeping in touch – not that I didn’t think you would, of course. I’m sure you know how lucky you are to have such a friend.

Well, I’m writing this in the kitchen and your dad will be home from work soon, so I’d better close and start getting the dinner ready. God bless you, my dear son, and keep you safe in that faraway land. Write soon, please, and tell me everything that’s going on.

With love,

Mum.

I put the letter down on the coffee table beside me, took a sip of my coffee, and then got up from my seat and went over to the far wall, where I had hung a couple of framed photographs. One of them was of my sister Becca, twelve years younger than me, who was just starting high school. She had long dark hair and blue eyes, and she had a cheeky grin on her face as she looked up at the camera. I had taken the photograph myself a few months ago, before I had broken the news to the family that I was moving to Canada.

I looked at the photograph for a minute, and then went back to my chair, sat down again, and opened the second letter; it was from Wendy Howard.

Camden Town, London

September 26th 1982

Dear Tom:

Your letter has been forwarded to my new address here in London. I know you’ll be surprised to hear that I’m back at University College. I’d been planning to study for my doctorate at Merton, as you know, but a couple of circumstances intruded, and I made the decision to change my plans and come back here.

You’ll be even more surprised to hear that I’m back with Mickey and we’re living together. I know, you’ll want to give me a lecture about how he’s an addict and I should steer clear of him. But he’s changed, Tom; he’s not using drugs any more, and he’s really cut back on his drinking. He’s got a good job as a photographer with the Daily Telegraph, and he’s playing music a couple of nights a week as well. The long and the short of it is, I still love him, and I’m glad we’ve worked things out.

But that means I need to apologize to you; you were so kind to me when Mickey and I broke up, and I think I may have led you on a little. I don’t know whether or not you were feeling anything for me, but if I misled you, I’m truly sorry. I’ll always be glad that we were friends.

I’m glad Canada is working out well for you; it sounds very exciting.

Love and best wishes from your friend,

Wendy

I read the letter through again, then folded it and put it down on the coffee table. I sat there in silence for a long time, sipping my coffee and remembering the many long conversations Wendy and I had enjoyed in my flat in Oxford back in the spring, as well as the eighteen months when we had made music together, with Owen and I playing guitar, Wendy singing the lead, and the two of us harmonizing for her. I glanced across at the photographs on the wall again; there was one of the three of us, taken after an open stage at the ‘Plough and Lantern’ pub, where Owen and I had first met her almost exactly two years ago.

Eventually I got up, crossed the room to the shelf where I kept my LPs, took out a record from my collection, and put it on my player. It was one of Wendy’s favourite records, the first solo album by Anne Briggs, and as her clear unaccompanied voice began to sing, I wandered out to the kitchen, took some food from the fridge and began slowly preparing supper for myself.

Link to Chapter 3

Happy 450th birthday, Will Shakspear

During his lifetime William Shakespeare spelled his last name in a variety of ways; I’m rather fond of ‘Shakspear’ myself.

Will Shakspear was born 450 years ago this year. He was baptized on April 26th 1564; the actual date of his birth is not known, but baptism at the age of three days would have been a fair assumption, hence the convention of celebrating his birthday on April 23rd (which, 52 years later, was the date of his death).

Personally I would have no problem calling Shakspear the greatest writer in the English language. His plays, of course, were meant to be seen, not read, and I’m sure millions of English schoolchildren, like me, have struggled with them as printed texts but been thrilled by them as they are brought alive on the stage. One of the things I’m proud of is that we gave our children the chance to see Shakspear live before they read him. It appears to have worked; they all seem to enjoy him.

Will Shakspear does not need my praise. I’m reminded of the story of a man who was walking through an art gallery making disparaging comments about the paintings. Finally the exasperated curator said, “Sir, the paintings are not on trial – you are!” By all the standards we possess, Shakspear was at least ‘a’ great writer – I would say, ‘the’ great writer, the one who formed our language, captured our imagination, and gave us a compelling vision, not of humanity as it should be, but of humanity as it actually is, in all its nobility and wickedness. And he did it with that deliciously outrageous sense of humour that has given us not only tragic characters like Lear and Macbeth, or villains like Richard III, or pedants like Polonius and Jaques, but also wonderful comic figures like Sir Toby Belch, or Sir John Falstaff, or Robin Goodfellow (otherwise known as Puck), or Nick Bottom with his donkey’s head.

Thank you, Master Shakspear. You did your job well, and we can all enjoy the benefits of it, if we want to. A very happy 450th birthday to you, sir.

image

‘All the important things have happened by surprise’

Jayber Crow, the barber of Port William, looks back on his life near the end of Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry:

‘And so I came to belong to this place on the river just as I had come to belong to Port William – as in a way, of course, I still do belong to Port William.  Being here satisfies me. I have no thought of going away. If I knew for sure that I would die here, I would be glad. And yet definite as all this is, it seems surrounded by the indefinite, like a boat in a fog. I can’t look back from where I am now and feel that I have been very much in charge of my life. Certainly I have lived on the edge of the Port William community, and I am farther than ever out on the edge of it now. But I feel that I have lived on the edge even of my own life. I have made plans enough, but I see now that I have never lived by plan. Any more than if I had been a bystander watching me live my life, I don’t feel that I have ever been quite sure what was going on. Nearly everything that has happened to me has happened by surprise. All the important things have happened by surprise. And whatever has been happening usually has already happened before I have had time to expect it. The world doesn’t stop because you are in love or in mourning or in need of time to think. And so when I have thought I was in my story or in charge of it, I really have been only on the edge of it, carried along. Is this because we are in an eternal story that is happening partly in time?’

I think Jayber Crow may just be the most enjoyable book I have ever read.

Tom and Kelly’s story.

Well, I think I can safely say that there is going to be a prequel to A Time to Mend.

The draft has now reached four hundred and thirty pages. It tells the story of Tom and Kelly’s marriage. Of course, readers of A Time to Mend will know that this story will have a sad ending. I hope, however, that it will be a good story. It probably won’t be up here for a while yet, though.

I also know that the story has surprised me a couple of times, in ways that will necessitate some further revisions to A Time to Mend. Oh well.

Chaim Potok on biblical criticism

chaim-potokI’m a big fan of the late Chaim Potok, one of the great Jewish writers of the 20th century, who died in 2002. His novels, including ‘The Chosen‘, ‘The Promise‘, ‘My Name is Asher Lev‘, and ‘The Book of Lights‘, all deal with Jewish people trying to find a way to be faithful to their religious tradition in the context of a secular culture. For instance, ‘The Chosen’ and ‘The Promise’ deal with the problems of textual criticism and modern psychology; ‘My Name is Asher Lev’ deals with art; ‘In the Beginning’ deals with biblical criticism. My personal favourite is ‘The Book of Lights’, which follows the journey of a young Jewish chaplain (and student of Kabbalah) in the U.S. Army in the Korean War. The Amazon.com site sums it up in this way:

Gershon Loran, a quiet rabinical student, is troubled by the dark reality around him. He sees hope in the study of Kabbalah, the Jewish book of mysticism and visions, truth and light. But to Gershon’s friend, Arthur, light means something else, the Atom bomb his father helped create. Both men seek different a refuge in a foreign place, hoping for the same thing….

In 1978 Chaim Potok gave an interview to Cheryl Forbes, which appeared in the evangelical magazine Christianity Today. Forbes didn’t pull any punches and at times comes across as aggressive and abrasive in expressing her evangelical point of view, but Potok gives as good as he gets as well, although at times he is surprisingly generous in his assessment of evangelical Christianity.

I particularly enjoyed the following exchange about biblical criticism (Forbes’ questions are in bold):

The battle of David Lurie with Bible criticism is somewhat akin to that faced by evangelicals today. What is the significance of this?

Bible criticism presents a particular problem to the Jewish tradition that isn’t faced by Christianity. Orthodox Jewish law is predicated on the assumption that the Pentateuchal text is fixed and divinely given. Once you touch the fixity of the Pentateuchal text the whole mountain of Jewish law begins to tremble.

That’s similar to the problem within Christianity. If you accept one portion of Scripture as culturally conditioned, say, who’s to decide where to draw the line?

Yes, if you say a text is spurious you might say it about a doctrine as well. That’s perfectly true. Essentially both fundamentalisms face the same problem. That’s why fundamentalists are afraid to confront Bible criticism. They don’t know how to handle it.

You don’t think that in confronting it faith will crumble?

Here’s the problem in Judaism: The tradition itself has Bible criticism in it. You can find it all through the medieval Jewish Bible commentaries. If the tradition were entirely devoid of Bible criticism, then a David Lurie might never have been attracted to the excitement of that discipline. First, David Lurie turns his back on the modern version of Bible criticism. Then he realizes that there are truths involved. How do you relate to the truths? You have to rethink your relationship to the tradition. You have to come to an understanding of how you relate to the tradition without basing yourself on a fundamentalist version of its sacred text. And that involves rethinking your relationship to the history of your people. Many people don’t want to do that and simply use Bible criticism as the most convenient excuse for the quickest way out of the Jewish tradition. They claim that Bible criticism proves the tradition to be infantile fables. Well, Bible criticism doesn’t prove that at all. Quite the contrary. We know today that the Bible is far more complex and sophisticated than we ever suspected; it is far more awesome as a creation of man than as a word-for-word revelation by God.

You can read the entire interview starting here.

P.S. Many thanks to Grandmère Mimi for reminding me of this interview with this very great man.

‘A Time to Mend’ Chapter Four

Link to Chapter Three

In my youth I was never a churchgoer. My father had no time for religion of any kind, and although I suspect that my mother would have liked to have gone occasionally, she would not defy my father’s will. The only exception to this was Christmas Eve, when our whole family attended the midnight service together. Apart from this annual event, my only other exposure to Christian worship before I moved to Canada was in school assemblies, which in my time customarily included the singing of a hymn, scripture reading, and prayer. These observances were conducted with varying degrees of conviction, depending on which of our teachers was the leader on any given day.

I had come to the habit of churchgoing in my years in Canada, and Kelly was the one who had led me to it. Her parents were devout Mennonite Christians, and Joe, Kelly and Krista had been raised in that tradition, but in her teens Kelly had rebelled, and had dropped out of churchgoing completely. However, at about the time we had met she had begun to search for a spiritual dimension to her life, and I had joined her in that quest. We had read and talked together about the issues, and gradually, as time went by, Christianity had come to make more and more sense to me. Kelly’s brother Joe was a strong and thoughtful Christian, and he and I had become very close friends. His words and his way of life had made a deep impression on me, building on my earlier encounters with Christian faith through my friendship with Owen.

Kelly and I had both been baptized as adults in September 1984, a month before we were married. Once Kelly returned to her childhood faith she never seemed to waiver in it, even in the last months of her life when her body was being ravaged by cancer. As for me, the sense of the reality of God was more of an occasional experience, although I had no doubt of the genuineness of Kelly’s faith. What I had definitely experienced, after her death, was the care of the members of our little church; it was only that, and the presence of my sister, which had made it possible for me to cope with the agony of bereavement. Our pastor, Dave Thiessen, had been my companion through my two years of life after Kelly, and under his guidance I had at last begun to feel that I was making some progress in my faith. As for Emma, she had been baptized a year ago at the age of sixteen, and I knew that her faith was very deep.

I was sure that if we went to church on our first Sunday in Northwood my father would have words to say about it; however, I also knew that if we were going to continue our habit of churchgoing, the only way was to start out as we meant to continue. So when we appeared at the breakfast table at about half past eight on that first Sunday morning, I decided to bring up the subject.

In the absence of company, breakfast and lunch at my parents’ home were usually eaten in the kitchen, a spacious room at the side of the house with a window looking out onto the courtyard and what had once been the stable buildings. Sunday breakfast was not a social occasion with my parents; my father usually read the ‘Sunday Times’, and my mother knew better than to interrupt him. On this particular morning I noticed that my father ate only half a slice of dry toast while scanning his newspaper. When we had finished our bacon and eggs and my mother was pouring the coffee, I cleared my throat and said “Emma and I will be leaving you for a while this morning; we’re going to church”.

My father lowered his newspaper to the table and looked at me scornfully; “Still participating in that rigmarole, are you?”

I glanced across the table at Emma; she had stopped eating her toast and was staring at him in surprise.

“It’s not a rigmarole to me, Dad” I replied. “It’s one of the ways I make sense of my life. So we’ll be heading along to church in a little while”.

He glanced at his granddaughter, looked back at me for a moment, and then shrugged his shoulders and reached for his newspaper again. “Please yourself”, he said; “Sunday dinner is at one”.

The sky that morning was a clear blue and the day was already pleasantly warm as Emma and I walked down to the village church together. I was noticing my six years away from Northwood; there was new construction all over the village, and a few of the old familiar buildings from my teenage years were gone. We passed the primary school that I had attended for one term after moving from Oxford, and the little corner newsagent’s shop where I had worked as a paperboy. We walked in silence for a few minutes, and then Emma said, “So Grandpa doesn’t believe in God?”

“No”.

“Did you go to church at all when you were a boy?”

“Only at Christmas time. Remember that I only started getting interested in Christianity when I started to date your Mom”.

“Right. So have you ever been to this church that we’re going to this morning?”

“A few times on Christmas Eve, but that’s all”.

“But you’ve never been to an ordinary Sunday service with your Mom and Dad?”

“No”.

She was quiet for a moment, and I felt her slip her hand into my arm. “And this is a Church of England church – that’s a little different from ours?”

“Yes, the service will have a written liturgy that the congregation and the pastor recite together. It’ll feel quite a lot like a Catholic service”.

“So why did you decide that we should go to this particular church today?”

“Well, it’s the village church, and I haven’t had time to find out if there’s a church like ours close at hand. But I wanted to set a pattern with your Grandpa the first Sunday we were here. If I put off going to church for a week until I could find exactly the kind of church I wanted, it would be harder to stand up for our family custom. He can be quite scornful about this sort of thing, as you’ve already seen”.

“I noticed that”.

The familiar bulk of the village church was looming ahead of us now, set in a spacious churchyard dotted here and there with old gravestones. We entered the church through a large pointed doorway; inside, the floor was polished stone, the walls were high and covered in off-white plaster, and there were thick pillars supporting the upper walls on either side of the nave. The altar seemed far distant, standing under the stained glass windows at the eastern end of the building.

The dark wooden pews were beginning to fill up, although I could see that there were many empty spaces. An elderly lady with a big smile greeted us and handed us our books, and we took our seats near the back, just across from the porch where we had come in. I looked around, noticing that most of the people assembling for the service were dressed more formally than we were; Emma was in jeans, and I was wearing cargo pants and a summer shirt.

Emma was looking up at the latticework on the ceiling. “This is amazing, Dad!” she whispered. “How old is this church?”

“If I remember correctly, a lot of it is fifteenth century”, I replied. “Most of the woodwork is Victorian, though”.

A few minutes later the service began. Some of the rituals were indeed strange to us, and occasionally we had to watch our neighbours for our cue as to what was expected of us. However, the minister preached a fine, practical sermon with plenty of food for thought, and I quickly found myself warming to him.  After the service ended there was a moment of quiet while people knelt for prayer; our church at home had a similar custom, and Emma always bowed her head for a long time at this point; I suspected that she was talking to God about Kelly, although I had never asked her about it. When the organist started to play the postlude, people began to rise gratefully from their knees and greet their friends and neighbours. A few people smiled at us, and at the door the minister shook our hands and greeted us cheerfully.

Outside, the sun was now riding high in the sky, and people were out enjoying it. Couples were walking with their children, and the road beside us was busy with cars and bicycles. I took a detour on the way back to my parents’ home so that we could walk beside the river; several boats were moving on the water, and I pointed out to Emma 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. “Owen’s got one”, I said, “and I won’t be surprised if Becca has too”.

“Didn’t you teach Becca canoeing when she was little?”

“I did – she was eight years old the first time I took her out on the river”.

“She told me about that once. How come you guys didn’t go punting or rowing – aren’t they the Oxford things to do?”

“I’ve been punting, but I don’t like it as much. I’ve never rowed; it was always more of a competitive sport, and I was never really into that. I liked exploring, so a canoe felt just right”.

“And very Canadian, too!”

“Yeah – that was a happy coincidence”.

I was curious about her reaction to the service we had just attended. “What did you think of church this morning?” I asked.

“Like you said, it felt a lot like a Catholic service. If I’d been more used to it, I’m sure it wouldn’t have felt so awkward. But there were some things I missed”.

“Like what?”

“Well, I like it in our church when people get to share about what’s happening in their lives and bring prayer requests. And I like that there isn’t just one person leading; it feels more like a community when people are getting up from the congregation to lead parts of the service. I didn’t get the sense that the folks this morning were really all that interested in each other. And then I also wondered about the ornate building, you know, and the things Jesus says about not storing up treasures on earth and all that. Still, it wasn’t bad; I liked the minister’s sermon”.

“So did I”.

“I don’t know if I want to go there all the time, though”.

“No – after we get a place of our own we’ll have a look around and see if we can find something a little more like our church back home”.

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, but to my surprise he suggested we take a walk around the garden. The afternoon was warm and muggy; he was wearing a white shirt and a pair of old grey trousers, and I had changed after dinner into shorts, tee shirt and sandals.

Gardening was my father’s only real relaxation. Growing flowers has never held any real attraction for me, although I quite enjoy vegetable gardening. Nevertheless, I strolled along beside him and listened as he pointed out the various plants in their beds and described the processes by which they had been raised to their present state of maturity. I knew from long experience that he was rarely happier than when he could talk about his plants.

After taking a turn around the garden, 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”.

“So, you’re having chemotherapy once a week?” I asked hesitantly.

He shot me a suspicious glance, put his glasses back on, and said, “That’s what’s supposed to be happening, but it doesn’t always work out; the damn doctors can’t seem to get things right”.

“Your white blood cells don’t build back up the way they should?”

Again he gave me that sideways glance. “Yes, I suppose you know about all that stuff. Did your wife have chemotherapy too?”

“Chemo, and radiation – not that either of them did her a lot of good in the end”.

“Well, I’m not going to let this thing lick me”, he asserted. “I’m sure I’ll be fine once the doctors get my treatment right”.

“What exactly are they saying?”

He looked up at me sharply; “What’s your sister been telling you?”

“She says they gave you two years at the most”.

“Then why are you asking me? I know you and Becca are as thick as thieves. I suppose you’re looking forward to a nice fat inheritance; that’s why you’ve come scurrying back after all these years”.

I stared at him; “You think?”

“Well, it seems quite a coincidence that after staying away for all these years, you’d decide to come back just when you think I’m dying!”

I was quiet for a few minutes, hoping that my silence would ease the confrontational tone the conversation had taken. But he had another issue he wanted to raise with me, and after a moment he said, “I’m surprised that an educated man like you still carries on with churchgoing; I know your wife introduced you to religion, but I had hoped that by now you’d have been able to see through all of that”.

I paused, suppressing my initial gut reaction. “I just see things a little differently, that’s all. As I said this morning, it isn’t just a rigmarole to me; it’s how I make sense of my life”.

“So you actually believe all that stuff?”

I sat silently for a few moments, dreading the continuation of this conversation. I knew very well the form it would take; I would trot out my reasons for believing in God, he would demolish them with faultless courtroom logic, and then be absolutely unable to understand why I refused to abandon my beliefs because of his arguments. He would get more and more worked up about it, I would retreat more and more into my shell, and the controversy would end with him losing his temper and storming off in a rage.

“I’m not quite sure why you feel the need to have this conversation”, I said.

“What’s the matter – are you afraid I’ll talk you out of your faith?”

“I didn’t come to my faith through arguments; I came to it through a sense of need”.

“That’s pure wish-fulfilment, and you know it. You’ve adopted religion as a crutch for your weakness”.

“Well, sometimes when you’ve got a broken leg, a crutch is a good thing”.

“So you admit that you’ve only adopted religion out of weakness?”

“Would it make you feel any 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”.

“Can we just accept that I believe in God and you don’t, and leave it at that?”

“You’ve allowed sentiment to twist your logic again, just like you did when you decided to become a teacher because of your sentimental attachment to George Foster. Sentiment is all very well, Tom, but you need reason and common sense if you’re going to be able to deal with the real world, not some make-believe fantasy”.

“Make-believe fantasy? That’s the life I shared with Kelly, is it?”

“Now, there’s no need to take it personally; that’s another weakness of yours”.

“Thanks, Dad”, I responded icily; “I really need you to point out my weaknesses!”

“There you go again! There’s no need to get so upset about it!”

I got to my feet and turned to face him. “Dad, I really don’t want to continue this conversation. I don’t 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. I’m going to go find Emma and see what she’s doing”.

As I went into the house I was mentally kicking myself for losing my temper with him and for allowing him to intimidate me with his barrister’s logic. What sort of a believer was I, when I couldn’t even assemble a rational argument for the existence of God that would be convincing to my father? Was my faith so feeble that I was afraid of even entering into a discussion with him?

No, I decided, it wasn’t. The problem was that, with my father, it would not be a discussion. It would be a courtroom debate, and for forty years his livelihood had depended on winning such debates. I had once had the opportunity to watch him in action in a courtroom. His logic had been flawless, his rhetoric persuasive, his command of the English language masterful. I could see immediately why he had made such a success of his profession as a barrister.

One thing he had never been good at, however, was a genuine discussion; the one consideration that would never enter his mind was that he might be wrong. I knew that if I was ever going to persuade him that there might be some validity to faith in God, it was unlikely to happen by the avenue of logic, because by that avenue he could wipe the floor with me every time. I had experienced that unpleasant sensation too many times in my childhood to relish the thought of its repetition now that I was in my forties.

My body had still not adjusted to the time difference between Saskatchewan and England, and later in the afternoon I went up to my room to have a nap. 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 her cousin Eric sitting on easy chairs across the empty fireplace from each other, playing their guitars. Eric was a pale young man with short dark hair, and this afternoon he was wearing jeans and a plain black tee-shirt. I could see immediately that he was a lot less accomplished as a guitarist than Emma, but I assumed that, being a little younger than her, he had not been playing as long. They were playing a song together that was unknown to me; Emma was singing, and also picking out a nice fingerstyle accompaniment. I stood at the door listening until they were finished, then applauded quietly as I slipped into the room and sat down opposite them.

“How long have you been standing there?” Emma asked with a smile.

“Just since the beginning of the song. How long have you been playing, Eric?”

“A year. I’m not very good yet; Emma’s a lot better than me”.

“And my Dad’s the best of all”, Emma added. “Do you want to play, Dad?”

“No, I’m quite happy to listen. Are you here by yourself, Eric?”

“No; the others are out behind the house having lemonade”.

“Play something else; I’m not really awake yet, so I’ll just sit here and wake up while you play”.

Emma laughed; “Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around? Aren’t we supposed to play you to sleep?”

“What else can you play?” Eric asked her. “Do you know any newer stuff?”

They compared musical notes for a minute, agreed on another tune I had never heard of, and started to play again. This time they both sang together; Eric had a fine voice, but I noticed again that his playing was not as smooth as Emma’s. When the song ended, he apologized to her for fumbling some of the chords, but she smiled reassuringly and told him it had sounded fine.

He gestured toward her guitar; “What sort of guitar is that?” he asked.

“It’s a Seagull; it’s a Canadian make, from Quebec. Dad got it for me; you should see his guitar, if you want to see a really nice one. It’s a Larrivée”.

“Mine’s just a cheap guitar”, Eric observed with a shrug. “Perhaps one day…”

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”, I said. “Keep it up; I’m going to 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 which at one time had probably 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; there was no sign of Rick’s two younger children. 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; 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. Where’s Rick?”

“Unfortunately he had to go in to work for a while this afternoon”.

“Does he often work on Sundays?”

She shrugged; “I’m afraid so”.

“Are Sarah and Anna here?”

“They’re swimming in the lake”, my mother said. “Did you pass the musicians on your way out?”

“I did”.

“Emma plays very well”, Alyson said.

“She’s been at it for about four years now”.

“Did you teach her?”

“Well, it started out that way, but she had a pretty good idea of what she wanted to learn, and after a while I just got out of the way and let her learn it”.

“What sort of thing does she like to play?”

“She’s picked up some of my taste for folk music, but she also likes some light rock. She and her cousin Jake play bluegrass and country music, too, so her tastes are actually quite eclectic”.

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 Emma’s plans?” he asked me.

“She’s planning to look for work once the summer’s over. If she can’t find paying employment, she’s quite happy to volunteer in a seniors’ home; she’s done that sort of thing before. But I think she’s hoping we get to do a bit of travelling before the summer’s out. I’d like that too, if the house hunting goes well. Emma likes history, so I’d like to show her around a bit”.

“You’re going to look for a house, are you?” Alyson asked.

“Yes; I’d prefer to be in walking distance of the school if I could be”, I replied, “although I know that might not be possible”.

My father shook his head; “Headington’s expensive”, he said; “You won’t find much in your price range”.

“Are you going to buy or rent?” Alyson asked.

“Either would be fine”.

“Buying is always a better idea”, my father said; “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 changed the subject; “Have you got any definite ideas about places you’d like to go on your holiday?”

“Nothing definite yet. Becca’s been talking about a trip to York, perhaps by way of Lincoln. She’s hoping to get a week off some time in August, I think. If it’s later in the month, Becca and Emma will go by themselves; if it’s earlier, I’ll go with them”. I leaned forward and poured myself a glass of lemonade. “Are your kids doing anything for the summer?” I asked Alyson.

“We’ve got no concrete plans either”, Alyson replied. “We’ll probably do some day trips. Eric’s just started working at a greenhouse 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, I’m afraid”, my father said.

“It makes family holidays a bit difficult, though”, Alyson said. “I get a month off in the summer, but we rarely manage to get away for more than a week together. Do you and Emma take family holidays together, Tom?”

“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 several weeks each summer. Emma and I still like to do that”.

At that moment Emma and Eric appeared in the doorway; I noticed that she had put her hair into a ponytail and had donned a baseball cap to shade her face. I smiled at her; “Come to join the old folks?” I asked.

“We’re getting thirsty”, she replied.

“Come and sit down”, my mother said; “The lemonade’s almost finished, but I can easily go in and make some more”.

“I’ll do that, Mum”, I said, getting to my feet and reaching for the pitcher; “You stay right where you are”.

“Are you sure? Do you know where to find the mix?”

“Oh yeah; I’ll be back in a minute”. I gave my mother a smile, then turned, slipped into the house and made my way back to the kitchen.

Link to Chapter 5.

‘A Time to Mend’ Chapter Three

Link to Chapter Two

Chapter Three

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.

“Stiff?”

“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?”

“No”.

“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”.

“Okay”.

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.

“Yeah”.

“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?”

“No”.

“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?”

“That’s right”.

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”.

“But…!”

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?”

“It’s me”.

“Come in”.

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”.

“I know”.

“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”.

Link to Chapter Four