“They’d had lunch, and Donna Hanson was finishing her cup of coffee at the kitchen table, flipping through the latest mail and trying to decide what to do with her afternoon.
“I’m heading out to the shop,” her husband Dale called from the porch where he was playing a fierce game of tug-of-war with his German shepherd puppy, Flora, who was “helping” him put on his boots.
“Plans for the afternoon?” she asked.
“Jeff picked up that new WiFi extender at the post office this morning. We’re going to see if we can rig it up in the shop.”
“If you get WiFi out in the shop I might never see you again,” Donna said.
“We’re not ordering a TV set yet,” Dale said. When he opened the door, Flora shot out ahead, afraid of missing anything interesting.
“He forgot,” Donna mumbled to herself as Dale left. “He totally forgot.”
It wasn’t a special birthday with big round numbers or even a “5” at the end, but it was still Donna’s birthday. When Dale hadn’t mentioned anything in the morning, she’d considered telling him. But she thought he might remember later, and she thought it was only fair to give him a chance. She didn’t need or even expect any sort of expensive present. But it didn’t seem right to skip any chance at all to celebrate, not this year.
Of all the Hansons, the year of COVID-19 restrictions had hit Donna hardest.
Dale and his son Jeff went on with farm work as usual, spending time in the shop and yard and visiting outside with the customers who came to the farm to have their own seed cleaned or buy seed from the Hansons. With his new dog to train, Dale was even busier than usual.
Jeff’s wife Elaine was also having a busy winter. As well as running the farm’s finances and driving the kids to school every morning, now that Elaine had been elected to a provincial commodity board, she was spending hours every week on Zoom calls and had even made two trips to Saskatoon for in-person meetings.
Despite COVID-19, the kids had been in school all winter, so Connor and Jenny were still able to see their friends. Hockey and dance were cancelled, but they were hopeful that spring soccer would go on somehow.
But Donna was having trouble finding things to do.
Since she’d passed her duties as farm bookkeeper off to Elaine a few years ago, Donna had been spending her free time camping, biking and travelling with friends. Dale tagged along when he could, but if there was any work to do, he preferred to be on the farm. “I’ll go to Arizona for a month,” he’d finally agreed two years ago, “but I’m keeping the weather app on the phone tuned to Saskatchewan, and I’m setting up the bin monitors so they’ll text temperature changes straight to my phone.”
But this winter, Donna was mostly at home. Saskatchewan’s rules made it technically illegal for her friends to gather for coffee. She’d spent time with them anyway, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, but they all drew the line at weather colder than -20 C, which had made February long and dull.
“We could go somewhere, there’re still a few planes flying,” Donna had said to Dale, knowing what he’d say, but still giving it a try. As she’d expected, Dale wasn’t having it. He believed they should follow the rules to the letter. Donna knew he was right but she accused him of being boring anyway.
Donna organized regular cocktail hours over Zoom with her girlfriends. In January, she made Jeff move the combine out of the heated shop so she could set up a pickleball net and teach Connor and Jenny to play. Donna could easily beat either one of them, but if they played as a team they could often win.
When the snow melted, she took up walking like it was a job. One morning she’d looked at her phone and said, “I’ve walked almost 80 miles this month. If I’d gone in a straight line I could’ve gone to the U.S. border.”
“What would you do when you got there?” Dale asked, secretly jealous that, with his bad knee, he couldn’t keep up.
By the end of March, it was getting muddy for walking though not quite warm enough for kayaking and canoeing. Donna and Dale had already watched Yellowstone, The Crown and even The Walking Dead through to the end. She’d gone through the pile of books she’d been wanting to read, and even spent a week letting Connor teach her to play Minecraft. Now she’d completely hit the end of her list. On her birthday.
She decided to plan her own party. She could make dinner for Jeff and Elaine and the kids. She picked up her phone to call Elaine, but Elaine’s phone was busy. Donna started cooking anyway.
When she finally got through, Elaine sounded distracted. “I’ve pulled some steak out of the freezer, and I’m putting a chocolate cake in the oven.”
“We just can’t,” Elaine said. “I’ve got so many calls to make today and a video conference later.”
“Can you send the kids over?” Donna asked.
“Not tonight,” Elaine said. “Connor’s going to his friend Oscar’s house.”
Donna put most of the steak back in the freezer, then finished the cake, wondering how long it would take her and Dale to eat it.
In late afternoon, Dale spotted Donna carrying a plate to the barbeque.
“Can we save that steak?” he asked. “I was looking forward to finishing off that leftover stew.”
“Fine,” Donna said. “I suppose the steak can wait.” She trudged back into the house, trying not to feel sorry for herself.
Shortly before six, when Donna was getting ready to warm up the stew and wondering when Dale would come in, she spotted movement in the back yard. From the patio door, she could saw Jeff and Dale setting up lawn chairs around the firepit, in groups of two, safe distances apart. Elaine was setting out sticks, hot dogs, and bags full of what looked to Donna like pre-bagged condiments, buns and marshmallows.
“What’s going on?” Donna asked.
“You thought I forgot!” Dale called.
Then cars started driving into the yard. Within minutes, eight of Donna and Dale’s friends were gathered in chairs, roasting their hot dogs. Donna rushed to brush her hair, put on a clean jacket, and slide her fresh chocolate cake into small Tupperware containers so everyone could have a piece.
“How did Dale get you to make your own cake for a surprise party?” Her friend Glenda was laughing.
“This is the first shift,” Dale said to Donna, bending over in his chair. “They’ll leave in a couple of hours so eight more people can come. We can’t have more than 10 guests at once. I looked it up.”
“How did you put this together?” Donna asked.
“Elaine was on the phone all day, organizing the guests. Jeff gathered up firewood and hot dog sticks. The kids bagged the buns and marshmallows after school.”
“If I have to be locked down, I’m glad it’s with this family,” Donna said.