“Pass me that bowl of popcorn before you eat it all,” Elaine demanded.
Her nine-year-old son Connor tried to answer, but it came out as a grunt, since he was busy jamming a fistful of popcorn into his mouth, spewing almost as many kernels onto the carpet as he ate.
“Can the next movie be in colour?” whined six-year-old Jenny.
Jeff shushed the room. “Everybody quiet. This is your grandpa’s favourite movie.”
Jeff’s father Dale looked sheepish. “I suppose a plotline about a run on a bank isn’t too interesting for kids.”
Then Dale broke into a real grin. “If my dad were here, he’d say something like, ‘It’s good for the kids to know what to do when there’s a run on the banks, the way the farm economy’s looking.’”
This first winter without Dale’s father, Ed, everyone in the family was thinking of him, and imagining what he might say in any situation. Elaine was starting to think they were hearing more from Ed now he was gone than when he was alive.
“I can’t believe I’ve never seen ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ before,” she said. “It’s good. And it won’t hurt the kids to watch a classic movie.”
Jeff and Elaine Hanson, their two kids and Jeff’s parents were having a quiet Christmas on the farm. This was the first year in a while that they hadn’t made plans. Last year, they’d travelled to Hawaii for Christmas and for Jeff’s sister Treena’s wedding. This year Treena and her new husband Tom were spending their first anniversary on a ski trip.
The year before, Dale’s sister Margaret and her boyfriend had flown from Ottawa to spend the holidays with the Hansons. But this year, Margaret had decided to take a warm vacation. “Cuba,” she’d said. “Somewhere with a warm sun and cold rum.”
Ed’s girlfriend Helen has headed west. Not just for the Christmas holiday, but for good. “I’ve enjoyed my time with all of you, but with Ed gone, I might as well get back to my own family in Alberta,” she’d said.
In early December when Elaine had asked her husband what he wanted to do for Christmas, Jeff said, “Between losing Grandpa, all this driving for Connor’s hockey practice and Jenny’s dance practice, and the worst harvest I’ve ever seen, I wouldn’t mind spending seven days sitting on the couch.”
It had been a truly awful harvest, lasting right through to the second day of November with plenty of mud, sprouted crop, breakdowns and working in the dark.
When they were still combining at the end of October, Jeff had offered helpful advice to his kids when they were deciding on their Halloween costumes. “Go as something truly terrifying,” he said. “I know what your Great-grandpa Ed would have said: ‘Dress up like a weather forecaster.’”
When harvest was finally over, Jeff, Dale and their employee Mark had spent November and December trying to clean some seed for next year, getting things ready for spring on the rare days when the weather co-operated. It was time for a break.
Elaine was happy to stay home for Christmas. Her sister was planning to take her 11-year-old twins to Disneyworld for Christmas. She’d asked Elaine to bring her family along, but all Elaine could imagine was long lineups, so she’d been happy to pass.
“We’ll have turkey here,” Elaine said to Jeff. “Just the four of us and your parents. Your mom will be happy. She loves cooking the turkey dinner. And it will be nice for the kids to get some sense of family Christmas traditions. It’s hard to build that when we celebrate Christmas differently every year.”
“Maybe their tradition can be ‘flexibility,’” Jeff said.
Elaine had called Donna to discuss the plan. “Great,” Donna said. “I have a new pie recipe I’ve been meaning to try.”
On the screen in the living room Jimmy Stewart had successfully quashed the bank run, but then gotten drunk, and was about to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge. “Maybe this movie isn’t so great for Connor and Jenny,” Elaine said. Luckily, a commotion at the door drew the kids away, to see if their Grandma Donna had finally come for supper. And more importantly, if she’d brought their Christmas presents.
She had. Donna was hauling a still-warm pie held in both hands, a large bag of presents slung over her shoulder. “Like Santa Claus’s sack,” Connor yelled.
Donna passed the pie to Elaine, and Connor and Jenny tore off to the living room with the sack of gifts. “We’ll just put them under the tree,” Jenny said. “We won’t shake them!”
“Did you bring the car?” Elaine asked.
“No,” Donna said. “It’s not too cold to walk across the yard.”
“Um… do you need to make another trip?”
“Another trip?” Donna repeated.
“I… uh… thought you were bringing a turkey?”
Donna’s mouth fell open. “You’re kidding, right?” she asked. Then she sniffed the air in the house and realized Elaine was not kidding. There was no turkey in the oven in Jeff and Elaine’s house.
“I said I’d bring pie,” Donna said, confused.
“I guess I assumed you’d bring the turkey, too. Jeff said you love cooking turkey.”
“I love eating turkey,” Donna said. “And it’s not that they’re hard to cook. I just assumed you were doing it, since we’re at your house.”
“Oh no,” Elaine said. “So much for a great traditional Christmas at home. All I have is mashed potatoes with no gravy and some roasted carrots!”
“I know what Ed would have said,” said Dale, coming into the kitchen to see what all the noise was about. “Lots of people in the world would be happy to have potatoes and carrots for Christmas supper.”
This put the situation in perspective, but Elaine and Donna were still embarrassed.
Jeff came to their rescue. “We’ll start a new tradition. We’ll go to town for supper.”
“Will anything be open?” Donna said.
“The new Chinese place is almost never closed,” Jeff said. “Get your coats on, kids. We’ll have to wait until next year to see if anyone pulls Jimmy Stewart out of that river.”
A half hour later, the Hansons were in Elaine’s SUV, parked in front of the dark, deserted Chinese restaurant.
“Guess it’s sometimes closed after all,” Jeff said. “Let’s try the Indian place.”
But that was closed too. And so was every other restaurant they drove by.
“I’m hungry,” Jenny piped up from the back row of the SUV.
“Now what?” Elaine asked, stomach rumbling, as they made one last pass through town.
“Look!” Connor yelled, pointing. “The 7-Eleven’s open.”
“We can’t have Christmas dinner from a gas station,” Elaine said.
“Yes we can! They have pizza!” Connor said.
Sure enough. The Hansons piled out of the SUV and back in, carrying pizza slices, chicken wings, and drinking icy-cold drinks.
“I can’t even guess what Grandpa Ed would have said about this,” Jeff said as he got in behind the wheel, eating a slice of pepperoni pizza with one hand.
“Let’s have 7-Eleven pizza every Christmas,” Connor said as he buckled his seat belt. “It can be our family tradition.”