The Hansons were close to the end of harvest on the Monday morning when Donna stopped in at her daughter-in-law’s house to drop off her empty lunch cooler and thermos from the evening before. “The canola on the Richards’ quarter is yielding way better than I thought it would,” Donna told her daughter-in-law, Elaine.
“Great,” Elaine said, not looking up from across the porch where she was putting her son Connor’s indoor shoes into his Spiderman backpack. Most of the Hansons’ crops had been turning out better than the below-average yields they’d expected earlier in the summer.
“That beef stew you sent out to the field last night was excellent,” Donna said. “Is that your mother’s recipe?”
“Yes,” Elaine said, adding a lunchkit to Connor’s backpack.
Nine-year-old Connor joined them in the porch, stomping angrily.
“Grandma, Mom says I have to go to school,” he complained.
“You can’t miss the first day!” Donna said. “Don’t you want to see your friends?”
“There’s too much to do here!” Connor said, hurt that his grandmother didn’t understand either. “If I go to Grade 3, who’s going to help Dad in the truck?”
“I can!” Connor’s younger sister Jenny shouted from the kitchen. Jenny’s kindergarten class was easing into the fall season, and wouldn’t start until Wednesday.
“It’s not fair,” Connor howled.
Seeing that Elaine could use some backup, Donna gave it a try. “Connor, you have to go to school so you’ll know enough about computers and science to help your dad run the farm.”
“He can show me!” Conner argued.
Then the school bus drove up. Elaine put the backpack on her pouting son’s shoulders, opened the door and pointed him outside, calling after him, “Have a good day!”
Elaine and Donna watched Connor drag his feet down the steps of the house and toward the bus. Then a boy sitting near the front waved at Connor from the bus window. Connor grinned, waved back, and raced up the bus steps. Elaine and Donna laughed.
“Jeff was just like that when the first day of school landed on a good combining day,” Donna said adding, “I’d better get out to the field.” She was one of the Hansons’ two main combine operators.
“Do you have a lunch, or can I make you something?” Elaine asked. “I have to run to town to pick up some parts for the auger, but I can make you something first.”
“I have my own lunch, and something for Dale,” Donna said, heading out to the truck she’d parked in front of the house. Elaine watched Donna make her way down the front steps. “She’s moving slower than Connor,” Elaine thought.
At the truck, Donna stepped onto the running board and pulled herself gingerly up to the seat, hoping Elaine wasn’t watching. Harvest had taken a lot out of her, but Donna was pretty sure the rest of the family hadn’t seen that she’d slowed down.
After climbing the stairs at Machu Picchu on a recent trip to Peru and skiing down a black diamond run on a trip to Banff a few years ago, Donna was definitely not ready to admit that she was having any health problems. She was not ready to become the “old” person on the farm. That was her father-in-law’s role.
But for the last few months, Donna hadn’t been able to keep ahead of the arthritis in her right hip. Through July, she’d taken enough pain relievers to keep her stomach upset, so she could manage the garden and yard work without anyone noticing a change. She’d gotten through harvest, so far, by smuggling her car-adapter-equipped heating pad into the combine cab, and drinking a little less coffee, to limit the number of times she’d have to climb up and down the ladder.
Of course Donna knew this wasn’t right, and she would have to do something about it. Probably a hip replacement, like her own mother 20 years ago. But actually phoning the doctor’s office to make an appointment? That was much harder than carrying the weed wacker around the yard. Was she really that old? Already?
“After harvest,” she promised herself. “As soon as I can get away without anyone wondering where I’m going.”
By the time Donna got to the field and was pulling herself up the ladder to the cab, Elaine had made Jenny’s toast and picked up the phone to call her husband Jeff, who was out in the same field in the Hansons’ other combine.
“Your mom’s limping more today,” Elaine said.
“I still don’t think ‘limping’ is the word for it. It’s only a little pause.”
“Limp. Pause. Call it what you like, but your mom’s arthritis is giving her pain and she doesn’t want us to know.”
“Why?” Jeff asked his wife.
“She’s like that. Stubborn. She doesn’t want us to think she’s getting old, and not as healthy as she used to be. Did you even know she had shingles last winter?”
“What? No.” Jeff wasn’t sure what shingles was, but he didn’t think it sounded fun.
“See, she doesn’t want us to know she’s in pain.”
“Well, okay,” Jeff said. “Maybe you’re right.”
“We can’t leave her in that combine all day,” Elaine said.
“Okay,” Jeff said. “But Dad and Mark are already running flat out to keep up with the canola hauling in this field. And there’s no way we can put Grandpa in the cab.”
“I can do it,” Elaine said. “If you take Jenny in your cab, and your dad times his loads so he picks up Connor off the school bus this afternoon, I can skip my meeting, and run one combine. Your mom could take her car to town for some auger parts, then put something in the slow cooker for supper. That way she’d have half the afternoon to get some rest.”
It sounded complicated, but it could work.
“But if Mom doesn’t want to feel old, won’t you hurt her feelings when you throw her out of the combine cab?” Jeff asked.
“Let me think about it,” Elaine said. An hour later she loaded Jenny into her carseat and drove to the field. After leaving Jenny with her dad, who was going to show Jenny how to run the unloading auger, Elaine flagged down Donna and joined her in the cab, pretending not to see Donna frantically jamming a heating pad into a backpack before Elaine noticed it.
“I’m at the end of my rope,” Elaine said. “I’ve got to get out of the house. Can we switch places for the day?”
“Well,” Donna said, wondering what Elaine was up to.
“You wouldn’t believe all the things I have to do,” Elaine said. “Go to town for parts. Make dinner for everyone. I could use a break.”
“Of course,” Donna said. Then she looked her daughter-in-law in the eye, nodded, and smiled.
That afternoon, with pulled pork in the slow cooker and a cup of coffee in hand, Donna stretched out on the couch. Then she picked up her cell phone and dialed the number for her doctor’s office. She wasn’t fooling anyone.