After an afternoon of lawn darts, frisbee, lounging in lawn chairs and drinking cold drinks, 31 members of the Hanson family and another 42 assorted friends and neighbours were sitting around borrowed tables on the Hansons’ lawn, digging into their buffet dinner of steak, baked potatoes, homemade buns, 11 different salads and hot dogs for the kids.
“Maybe we should have the toasts before dessert,” Donna said quietly to her daughter-in-law, Elaine, while they stood by the food table, covering plates and bowls of leftover food to keep the flies and kids out. “I don’t like the looks of that cloud in the west.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” Elaine said, taking another sip of wine. “You’ve been here a lot longer than me!”
Donna had been on the Hanson farm with her husband Dale for exactly 40 years, and everyone was gathered to celebrate their anniversary.
Elaine and her husband Jeff had originally planned a small dinner party for the occasion.
“Just us, your sister and her boyfriend, and your grandfather and Helen,” Elaine had said. “It will be a nice, relaxing, after-seeding break.”
But one thing had led to another.
“Your sister says she’s flying home in mid-June,” Jeff’s aunt Margaret said accusingly when she phoned from Ontario. “You’d better not be having an anniversary party without inviting me.”
With Dale’s sister and her partner on the guest list, Elaine and Jeff thought they’d better invite Donna’s family from Yorkton. “No use leaving out Mom’s cousins.”
Then, when Jeff and Elaine went out for dinner and a movie to celebrate a successful seeding season, their kids told the babysitter about the party. The next morning the babysitter’s mother phoned Elaine. “I heard you’re having a party for Jeff’s parents. I assume it’s a potluck. What can we bring?”
Since there was obviously no stopping a party with this much momentum, Jeff phoned the Rec to book the folding tables and chairs. and Elaine drove to Regina to stock up on food, drinks and paper plates.
Of course, Dale and Donna knew all about the party long before Jeff came home with two coolers filled with steak. The woman behind the counter at the post office had mentioned it casually when she handed Donna a parcel.
“Should we tell the kids we know?” Donna asked Dale.
“Nah,” Dale kidded. “They’ll make us help.”
Donna had given Dale a light smack with the rolled up Western Producer in protest, but she decided not to say anything, on the grounds that, “people like a surprise.”
It wasn’t easy for them to keep up the pretense, especially when Donna caught Elaine baking six saskatoon pies, or when Dale found seven large folding tables under a tarp in the shop. It was even harder when Elaine and Jeff’s three-year-old daughter Jenny skipped across the yard singing, “I know a secret about a party.”
They finally stopped pretending when Dale’s sister Margaret and her partner turned up in the yard in a rental car.
“It’s nice being back on the farm,” Margaret said. “But I wish you wouldn’t keep changing things. It’s so different. It almost doesn’t seem like home.”
Dale bit his tongue to keep from pointing out that Margaret hadn’t lived on the farm for almost 45 years, but Donna saved the situation by taking Margaret on a tour of Jeff and Elaine’s new house.
Next, Dale and Donna’s daughter, Trina, arrived. She had a week off from her job with an ag chemical company in North Carolina. She’d brought her new boyfriend, Tom, a southerner from Georgia, home to meet the family. Donna was so happy to see Trina happy that she hugged them both hard, and Tom blushed politely.
By late afternoon, there were so many neighbours’ and relatives’ cars parked in the yard that one man driving by in a farm truck stopped to make sure he wasn’t missing an auction sale.
The steaks were good and the guests were hungry, but Donna was right about the clouds. Jeff kept one eye on the sky and one on the crowd as he introduced himself as the MC, then handed the floor, “or, I guess, the grass,” over to his sister Trina to give the first toast.
Before Margaret was halfway through the second toast, which was a little longer than anyone thought necessary, the wind had picked up. The guests stacked empty plastic cups and kept one hand on their paper plates.
“Can I fly my kite?” six-year-old Connor asked his father while Margaret droned on.
“I think it’s too windy,” Jeff whispered back. “You’d better help me gather up the garbage.”
Margaret still wasn’t finished toasting when the wind gusts strengthened. Ruffling tablecloths almost drowned out her speech.
Jeff got everyone’s attention. “We’re going to move to Plan B,” he said. “I moved the machinery out of the shed yesterday, just in case.”
In an impressive show of efficiency, the Hanson family moved 73 people and chairs, seven tables, eight coolers, a box of anniversary presents and 21 desserts into the shed in less than 10 minutes. Soon Margaret was back at the front of the crowd, midway through her toast again when a cat came in the shed door.
Jenny saw it first. “Greyso can hunt!” she shouted and pointed. Margaret lost her audience when everyone in the shed turned to see the headless mouse in the cat’s teeth.
“Oh, no!” Elaine shouted, setting down her wine to chase the cat out of the shed.
When Margaret finally finished, Dale’s father Ed went up to the front. Nobody was quite sure what sort of jokes and sarcasm Ed might think were appropriate, but he surprised everyone with a sincere, warm tribute to his daughter-in-law who had given so much to the farm for 40 years, and even tolerated him. “Which wasn’t always easy,” he said, drawing a bigger laugh than the cat.
“I’ve got a toast,” Elaine whispered loudly to Jeff.
“Are you sure?” he said, glancing down at the wine glass she’d refilled, again.
She hiccupped loudly, then reconsidered. “Maybe not.”
Eventually it was Dale and Donna’s turn to stand up and close out the night.
“I’m glad all of you could be here today to celebrate with us,” Dale started off.
“Hooray, Grandpa,” Connor cheered from where he was standing on his chair.
“When Donna married me, she promised to stick with me through good times and bad. We’ve had lots of both,” he went on. “She took on a lot, agreeing to marry a farmer and spend her life out here. Not everyone would do that, and no one could do it as well as Donna. We’re both glad you could be here to celebrate with us today.” Then the crowd shouted and jeered until they kissed.
“Too bad about the wind,” Margaret said, from where she was sitting with her feet up on a box, anxiously eyeing the floor for more stray mice.
“We’re used to having to move on to Plan B,” Donna said, smiling happily.
“Or sometimes Plan C,” Dale said.
Then Donna finished with a special thank you for Elaine and Jeff. “This was a great surprise.”