Echoes of Christmas Past
THE WINDSHIELD WIPERS could barely keep up with the snow as she drove north. New winter tires had been a necessity this year despite the significant blow inflicted upon her budget, but she was glad of them today as she passed several cars in a ditch, the first about to be towed as the parka-clad driver stood watching and yammered into his cell phone. She smirked and chuckled and shook her head as she drove slowly over and past the icy spot that had been his undoing: Anyone who went out in this weather without hat or gloves or even boots likely still had summer tires on his vehicle. Foreign, maybe. Or just a dumbass from the city.
Not everyone who landed in a ditch was negligent, she knew. She had found herself swerving out of control and unable to right a skid a time or two over the years. But those had been freak accidents, not poor driving or improper gear. However, in her estimation, the majority of people who slammed into a pole or ended up ass over teakettle by the side of the road simply did not take weather and road conditions seriously.
She would have pulled over and offered help did she not see another tow-truck approaching from behind and all the drivers and passengers safely out of their cars or trucks. So, she just kept on and turned off at the next junction to take the 89 over to Shelburne and then north once more on the 10, all the while using the need to concentrate on the road as an excuse to avoid the conflicting feelings she harboured about this Christmas holiday. She would be glad to spend time at home and to reunite with her family, of course. But she dreaded the very thought of seeing again the man who had made last Christmas Eve the best night of her life and the following night the worst of her life.
Beyond Markdale, she bore east and then north around the curve until she came to the long driveway that led to her father’s farm.
As expected, the lane had been ploughed—probably two or three times already. Max Drummond was not a man to shirk his chores. Indeed, his daughter could see him before the long face of the unpainted, grey-sided board-and-batten garage warming up the pickup for another run. She pulled up alongside and rolled down her window.
“Hi, Da,” she called. “Can I just park inside?”
“Yup,” he said, and he turned back to tinker with the plough affixed to the front end of his truck.
She snorted a chuckle as she inched along to the end of the drive shed. Just like Da, she thought: a man of few words, as they say. She stopped, set the parking break, and hopped out of her boxy red Kia to open the last door. When she had thrown it wide, she darted back to her vehicle, slid into her seat, and drove into the safe harbour that would keep her car out of the weather. Finally, she hoicked her luggage out of the back, leaving behind only her dress boots and coat and the gifts to be brought in later; slung her purse over her shoulder; slammed the trunk; and hauled her belongings to the porch while her father climbed into his Ford and cleared the path to the road.
“Mom!” she exclaimed her greeting as Irma Drummond stepped out of the yellow clapboard house wiping her hands on her heavy muslin apron.
“Taylor!” her mother cried with a joyful smile, flinging her arms wide to gather her only daughter into her embrace.
Taylor dropped her bags and returned the bear hug of the plump matron whose salt-and-pepper hair drawn up in a bun at her crown, clear blue eyes, and rosy cheeks never seemed to change. An extended moment later, the two separated and Irma clasped her daughter’s equally pink cheeks. “I’m so glad you could make it, dear. With this storm, we weren’t sure you’d manage all the way from Toronto.”
“No way am I going to miss your turkey, Mom!” Taylor replied with a toothy grin. “Not even for a category-ten ice storm!”
“Is it a category ten?” Irma asked, her tone and face suddenly anxious.
Taylor assured her, “It’s a joke, Mom. I don’t think they rank them.”
“Well, not yet, maybe,” Irma muttered. “Though, God knows, they might start with all this strange weather we’ve been having the last few years.”
“What’s strange about a squall off the lake?” said Taylor. Then, with another quick hug, she added, “Don’t worry, Mom. Everybody will be here.”
Her mother forced a smile that did not hide her apprehension, but Taylor made no further attempt to assuage Irma Drummond’s fears that her sons and their families would not arrive. Although generally unflappable, Irma had always been a worrywart about weather and there was no talking her out of her angst.
“Let’s get into the warmth, shall we?”
“Yes, yes,” Irma agreed. She reached to pick up one of the suitcases, but Taylor lightly swatted her hand.
“I’ve got this, Mom.”
Irma cocked a brow. She asked suspiciously, “Don’t want me to know how weighed down with junk your valises are?”
Taylor wrinkled her nose and pouted her mouth in mock annoyance. “I’ll have you know I packed light, this time. Not a single book.”
“Sure you did,” her mother replied dubiously as she held the door to let Taylor pass.
Her daughter wagged her head in mute, defiant response as she strode by. She had just set down her luggage again to doff her red-and-black plaid coat when her mother said, “Oh, there they are now!”
Taylor glanced to Irma, who peered out the glazing in the door of the mudroom, and she smiled as her mother once more ran outside to greet arriving children.
AS USUAL AT HOLIDAYS, the place was a madhouse. Bedlam reigned as the two-storey wood-sided home (four-storey, if one included the basement and attic), that had sheltered five generations of Drummonds and grown organically through the years to include two extra wings, rang with a cacophony of barking pups, screaming toddlers, bellowing fathers, chattering mothers, and laughing grandparents. Having put away her baggage in the garret that had been her refuge from the day her parents had given her a room of her own, Taylor descended the narrow stairs to the ground floor to greet her burly brothers with fond hugs.
“Hi, Matt,” she said as she squeezed the eldest and he squeezed back one-handed, a glass of beer in the other.
“Hi, Sis,” he replied. “How’s the job going?”
“Great!” she enthused with a broad smile. “I’ve got two contracts on the go and a third pending.”
“Wow!” Grant Drummond exclaimed as he pulled his little sister into his arms. “I knew you’d make a go of it.”
“Sure you did,” Taylor replied drily with one brow high. “Aren’t you the one who said I’d be coming home from the big city in a month with my tail between my legs?”
Reddening, her youngest brother snorted rueful acknowledgement of the inconvenient truth. “Well,” he said as he circled her neck with an arm, “I’ve been known to be wrong once or twice.” He leaned and gave her a rough kiss on her crown.
“Ye mean you’ve been known to be right once or twice,” his older sibling Malcolm retorted, tousling Grant’s hair.
Instantly, the younger shot a left jab to Malcolm’s shoulder and the latter put up his dukes.
Across the living room papered with sprays of faded poppies on a background yellowed with age, and peppered with occasional tables of old walnut, wing chairs upholstered in floral-patterned wool that had worn along the arms, and lance- and feather-leafed plants potted in ceramics that had lost neither their shine nor their vibrant hues of blue and red, the patriarch shouted, “Eh, there, you lot! Settle down and don’t be startin’ a tussle before ye’ve even parked your bags!”
“Okay, Da,” Matt called back. He gave each of his younger brothers a light swat to the head and admonished, “You heard Da. Behave yourselves.”
Having observed the interaction of the adults, a solidly built girl of three marched to a pair of her squabbling cousins and smacked them smartly. At the ensuing brouhaha, dogs yapped wildly, toddlers whined, babies howled, mothers scolded, fathers chortled, and grandparents shook their heads. Taylor giggled as she followed Irma into the kitchen to peel potatoes amid the scents of roasting beef and garlic, caramelizing onion and squash, and freshly baked bread.
BY THE NEXT MORNING, the snowstorm had passed to leave the world tranquil and glittering white. Dawn had barely broken when Taylor stretched and yawned and slid out of bed to pad barefoot to the tiny bathroom that had been installed when she was thirteen to give her privacy and to keep the main bathroom available for the boys. The use of the latter facility by four males had occasionally forced her mother to climb to the attic to share the upper toilet and tub. But, this morning, Taylor had the topmost level of the farmhouse to herself.
Her father, she knew, would already be in the barn, and her mother would surely be in the kitchen preparing breakfast for the brood that had descended for the holidays. She could not smell it yet, but the odour of bacon and onion and toast would soon waft throughout the house.
Taylor hurriedly washed her face and ears and donned her woollies, shivering in the winter chill that the furnace never fully dispelled despite insulation between the rafters and along the outer walls. She sat on the bed to pull socks over the lower hems of her longjohns and shove her feet into the bunny slippers she had left behind when she moved to Toronto. When she was fully dressed, she tiptoed down the two flights of stairs to the ground floor.
A peek into the kitchen revealed the ample bottom of her mother waving as Irma searched a lower cupboard for something. Taylor called softly, “I’m going out for a walk, Mom.”
Irma looked back over her shoulder and said, “Dress warm, honey.” With that, she turned again to her search, prompting a grin from her daughter.
The mudroom walls were now a multicoloured jumble of coats and hats and scarves hung on the wall hooks, their corresponding boots scattered on the linoleum floor and mitts of various sizes spread haphazardly on the long pine bench. Taylor lifted Grant’s navy parka out of the way to grab her own plaid coat. She had wisely stowed her black mittens in the pockets and her cherry scarf down one sleeve. Her red woollen hat with wool-wrapped visor perched on a narrow shelf above, left to dry overnight. Everything was cold, for the mudroom was heated only by what warmth escaped from the kitchen, and the long narrow space lost most of that when the outer door opened to admit or eject a family member.
Once her coat and boots were secured, she stepped out onto the porch, still pulling on her mittens. She breathed deeply of the clean, bracing air and surveyed the rolling waves of white that covered the dooryard and gardens and fields and cloaked tree branches, some bare and some needled. With a satisfied huff that blew a ghostly cloud around her face, she threw the ends of her muffler over her shoulders and marched down the steps and along the path toward the orchard beyond the drive shed and springhouse.
The wet snow squeaked underfoot as she broke trail among the apple and pear trees laden with snow that glistened in the growing light that cast blue shadows behind the boles. Here and there, she spotted the tracks of a hare or fox or deer. Few coyotes had been seen in the immediate area of late, but weasels were common in the section of land Max Drummond left to nature, and spoor revealed their hunting grounds. Taylor smiled to herself at memories of treks through the woods that, in her childhood, she had believed teemed with fairies and gnomes. Golden glints to her right, where snow caught the first rays of sunrise, sparked recollections of youthful fantasies and daydreams fed by cartoons and by storybooks, some of the latter passed through generations and yellowed with age.
So lost in her musings and reminiscences did she become that she failed to notice how far beyond the orchard she had hiked. Her first indication that she had ambled a long way was a grumbling in her stomach. The second was a realization how thirsty she had grown. And the third was belated recognition of the change in her environment from rows of bare-branch fruit trees to a forest of needle-leafed conifers sagging under the weight of the snow that mantled them.
“Crap!” she swore. She needed to pee, as well, and the idea of dropping her drawers in these frigid temperatures held no appeal whatsoever. With a heavy sigh, she tightened her nether region and hoped she could get home before her bladder began to leak.
She turned one hundred and eighty degrees and headed back, but stopped and looked about at a snapping noise nearby. She scanned quickly, alert to movement. But no further sound met her ears and no motion drew her eyes. After a minute or so, and a twinge in her abdomen, she whirled and stalked away, glad to have a trail to speed her passage.
TAYLOR BARELY MADE IT to the old outhouse near the east wall of the barn. There was frost on everything but the seat—Da had used it recently, she guessed—and there was no toilet paper, just torn bits of newspaper stuffed into a battered tin with a tight seal to keep the contents safe from rodents. But when the flood of relief relaxed her muscles, she did not care about the paucity of amenities in the facility that had already existed when new immigrant Patrick Drummond bought the established farm generations ago.
Once she had finished and clad her lower half again, she stepped out and rubbed her ink-stained hands with snow to clean and more-or-less sanitize them before jogging to the house. Grant brushed past her on his way out when she opened the door to the mudroom.
“We need another bathroom,” he muttered while, still in striped pyjamas drooping over his boots, he hastily shoved his left arm into his parka. As he ran to the outhouse, he shouted, “Maybe we need two or three more bathrooms!”
Watching after her brother and grinning, Taylor spied her father exiting the barn. Max Drummond called out, “Howsabout ye get off your arse an’ build another outhouse, instead!”
She giggled under her breath at the mumbled curses and deprecations she imagined the old man was tacking onto that statement, knowing any building would be done by himself. The boys had lives and homes of their own and none showed any interest in taking over the farm. Her face fell. It would be a shame if the place ended up on the auction block when Da became too old to work the land. Or when he passed. She shoved away that thought, closed the door, and stripped off her outerwear to go and help her mother with whatever chores remained.
As it happened, Irma had not yet set the long kitchen table flanked on two sides by simple benches. While Taylor fetched plates, Lana, Malcolm’s wife, brought the old wooden highchair from the attic storage room and placed it at one end of the pine board, next to Irma’s armchair. Nancy, Matt’s better half, lugged to the far end the modern metal-and-plastic one Malcolm had hauled by trailer from Owen Sound to deposit it with a muted clunk on the linoleum. Both young mothers turned to hurry away but stopped, eyes round, when they saw little Arianna, all of three years old and maybe twenty-five pounds soaking wet, carrying her baby brother Davie, barely one year old and almost his sister’s size, into the kitchen. Their mother Lana gasped audibly and clasped a hand to her heart.
“Let her be,” Irma commanded. “She got ’im this far; she’ll be fine.”
Forcing a smile, Lana rushed forward and swept the boy into her arms, saying with an attempt to sound calm, “Thank you, Arianna. Mommy was just going to get you.”
“I smell bacon,” Arianna piped up.
“Of course you do,” Nancy replied for her sister-in-law, who looked as though she might pass out. “Why don’t you go fetch your special seat so you can reach the table?”
“Okay,” Arianna said eagerly and whirled to run to the living room where odds and ends had been temporarily deposited upon the younger families’ arrival.
Nancy patted Lana’s shoulder, for the less experienced mother had all but fallen onto the nearest end of the bench while holding the wide-eyed Davie tightly, both her arms around him. “You’ll get used to it,” the older woman assured. “Kids can surprise the hell out of you.”
With that, Nancy trotted off to find what her own children had got up to.
Taylor exchanged a high-browed grimace with her mother. Then, at Irma’s gesture toward the percolating graniteware on the cast-iron stove, Taylor pulled a mug from the cupboard, dropped a spoonful of honey into it, poured in steaming coffee, added a dash of milk, stirred, and took the drink to her brother’s wife.
“Here,” she said as she put the red mug on the red-and-white checked gingham that covered the table. Then, she grasped the baby and gently eased him from his mother’s arms to plop him into the highchair, strap him in (no easy task with his squirming to ogle everything around him), and secure the tray that would soon hold his dish.
Lana’s hands gradually stopped trembling as she sipped the drink that would normally be stimulating rather than soothing. She glanced to her daughter as the child lumbered past with the booster seat, plonked it atop the bench beside her mother, and then proceeded to clamber up into it to watch her grandmother and wait expectantly to be fed.
Several minutes later, with much banging of doors, stamping of feet, and calling of greetings, the men and women and children of the Drummond clan gathered for their breakfast of eggs, bacon, toast, stewed greens, potatoes and onions fried in butter, and honey-sweetened oatmeal swimming in raw milk. Meals were always a raucous affair, with weather reports, farm reports, fish tales, the latest jokes, and much laughter. However, one face bore a sullen scowl this morning, and Taylor glanced frequently to her nephew Sean, Matt’s eldest at ten, and several years older than his siblings. He pushed food around yet ate little, and she wondered what ailed the lad. But questions and jibes directed to her soon captured her attention and she joined in the general merriment around the table.
Not long after, as the sedative effect of full stomachs gradually quieted the crowd, Taylor sat back to wash her meal down with coffee and discreetly unbuttoned the top of her slacks. She had not eaten this much at one sitting since she left home. She decided she needed another hike to walk off the calories. A glimpse of her nephew making a hasty getaway to the living room served as a reminder that she wanted to get the boy alone and talk to him. She would have to watch for an opportunity.