By late afternoon on Christmas Day the festive holiday spirit had dwindled in all but two of the Hansons.
Seven-year-old Connor ran into his grandmother Donna’s kitchen, sliding the last few feet in his socks and ending with a dramatic stop. “Mom? Grandma? Aunty Margaret? Aunty Trina? Why does Santa have three gardens?”
Connor’s father Jeff had bought him a book of Christmas jokes as a stocking stuffer, and Connor was proud he could read it on his own.
“Yeah! Why?” yelled his younger sister Jenny, who had run in behind Connor and was pretending to read over his shoulder.
“I’d like to stuff that book inside this turkey,” Connor’s mother Elaine muttered, too softly for Connor to hear.
“Tell us Connor,” said the boy’s aunt, Trina, taking a break from peeling potatoes. Trina didn’t get home from South Carolina often, so she still had at least some enthusiasm for her nephew and his joke book.
“So he can Ho! Ho! Ho!”
Connor and Jenny collapsed in giggles and ran off to the living room, probably to tell the joke to their father, who had only heard it seven times.
Between the Christmas jokes, the minus 40 weather and Donna’s sister-in-law Margaret’s questions, the afternoon had dragged on for about 12 years.
Dale’s sister Margaret had grown up on the Hanson farm, but she rarely came home. “The air in our condo in Ottawa is so much better for Richard’s health,” she often said over the phone.
But now that she was back on the farm, Margaret had a lot of questions for the Hansons she’d left behind.
“I don’t suppose you’re growing lentils?” she’d asked in the car on the way home from the airport. “I’ve been eating them for years, and I’ve read that farmers can make money growing them.”
Rather than explain that the Hansons had been growing lentils since 1992, Dale just nodded and said he’d look into it. After that, he’d tried to stay out of her way.
In the kitchen, Margaret was frying onions and celery for the stuffing. And asking more questions. “Donna, what do you think about these genetically modified crops? I hope you’re not growing any.”
Donna was trying to find the best way to answer that question without getting Margaret started on the evils of Roundup when her daughter-in-law passed Margaret the oil for the pan. Margaret looked at the bottle and said, “Glad to see you’re using canola oil. They say it’s the healthiest.”
Donna was deciding whether or not to tell her sister-in-law about canola oil when Connor and Jenny came back to the kitchen with another instalment.
“Why was the snowman looking through the carrots in the fridge?” Connor asked.
“Why?” Trina answered.
Both the kids yelled the answer together, gleeful. “He was picking his nose!” They howled with laughter as they rushed off to the living room.
It was after Christmas dinner that Dale got the worst of Margaret’s questions. The two siblings had gone out together in the cold to drive their father Ed and his partner Helen back to their condo in Weyburn after everyone had finished eating raisin pie.
“Not a good sign, Dad letting me drive him,” Dale said to his sister while the two of them watched Ed and Helen slowly make their way up the three steps to the front door of the condo.
“I suppose not,” Margaret said. “That’s why I came home this Christmas. What if it’s Dad’s last?”
“Let’s not get morbid,” Dale said, pulling the car onto the street.
“He’s nowhere near as strong as he was before the stroke,” Margaret pointed out.
“None of us are getting younger,” Dale said.
“I was wondering…” Margaret left a long pause and Dale left town and headed out onto the highway. It was a cloudless night, and the stars seemed extra bright in the punishing cold.
Finally she went on. “Has Dad… you know… updated his affairs?”
“What’s that?” Dale asked, eyes on the road.
“We haven’t discussed his estate in a while,” she said. “And things have changed.”
“Changed? You mean Helen?” Dale asked. “Helen’s not in the will. She has her own assets.”
“No…” Margaret paused, awkward. Dale had almost never seen his sister tongue-tied. He braced himself. Finally she carried on with what she’d wanted to say.
“The land he owns. I know it’s gone up quite a bit. In value… you know… over the past few years. It’s gone up much more than the portfolio he set aside for me…” Margaret looked out the window. “I just wondered if he’d said anything about making sure things were… you know… fair.”
Dale’s mind swam. Margaret had barely been home in years. He’d spent his whole life on the farm. His wife, his son. They’d all put sweat equity into the land. All of the summers they’d spent working on the farm while Margaret had been mailing postcards home from downtown Europe. And the land values might have gone up, but that didn’t mean there was enough extra cash to pay out his sister. Not without some advance planning. Dale swallowed hard, both hands tightening on the wheel.
“Well…” Margaret went on, and Dale wished she’d just stop talking.
“Well…” She started again, and let the rest out in a rush. “I wanted to say that I hoped he didn’t make any changes. I don’t need more.”
Dale looked over at her. Now Margaret was the one looking out the window, not making eye contact.
“I didn’t have kids,” she said. “While you were putting in all that time building a business I was travelling the world,” she said. There was a minute or two of silence and Dale heard a crack in her voice when she spoke again. “I don’t feel at home here anymore. When I’m in Ottawa, I miss the open spaces. And the friends I used to have here. And things like the stars.” She nodded at the window. “And I suppose things would’ve been different if I’d stayed.
“But I just want you to know,” she said, still looking out the window. “If Dad has made any changes, then if… well, when something happens, we can just disregard it. I don’t want you and your family to have to worry about your future.”
Dale was completely and totally speechless. Neither of the siblings said anything for the next 10 minutes, until finally Margaret broke the silence. “I’ve been reading, and I have a few questions about that medication you’ve got Dad taking.”
Dale let out the breath he’d been holding, and smiled at his sister before he started in on the latest debate.
Donna opened the door for her husband and Margaret when they got back to the farm.
“Nice drive?” she asked her husband, one eyebrow arched, knowing that a car trip with Margaret could be a trial.
Dale smiled and nodded. “Great,” he said, leaving Donna puzzled.
Then Connor ran to the door, still holding his book. “Grandpa! Aunty Margaret!” he shouted. “How many presents can Santa fit into an empty sack?”
“How many?” Dale asked.
“Only one!” Connor grinned. “After that it’s not empty!”