A Father and Son Christmas
Published in Christian Courier, No.2555 , December 8, 1997)
Also published in Christian Educators Journal, Vol.38, No. 2 (December, 1998)
Dad and I were having coffee with our elderly neighbors, the Rutherfords, when the Hogemans drove past on their way to our farm. “There they are,” I announced. Dad nodded that he had seen the gleaming black Coupe deVille inching along the icy sideroad.
“Nice car,” George whistled. “Those your friends from Windsor? What’s their name, again?”
“Hogeman. Corrie and Adrian.”
“They’re from your home town in Holland, right?” Mrs. Rutherford asked.
“No, actually, Corrie is from Wilma’s village,” said Dad. “She and Wilma were friends as children. They don’t have any family in Canada so they always spend Christmas with us.” Dad sipped his coffee. Then he asked, “How were the roads when you went to your candlelight service last night?”
“Slippery, but we made it. It was a nice evening, wasn’t it, Emma?
Though I was now nineteen, I still couldn’t conceive of addressing the formidable Mrs. Rutherford as Emma. She plowed straighter than Dad and, at seventy-one, she still delivered calves with sturdy and steady hands.
“Oh, yes,” she agreed. She rose and went to the counter. “The tree was decorated beautifully. The Sunday school children trimmed it all in gold. When the candles were lit, it was just lovely.” She returned with the coffee pot poised. “More coffee, Albert? Or do you have to be going?”
Dad pushed his mug over to her. I felt it my duty to speak up.
“Dad, didn’t Mom say something about coming home before the Hogemans arrived?”
Dad pursed his lips and waved a placating hand at me. “We’ll head over in a minute. Mom will get them a coffee. I don’t want to run out on George and Emma with all of these Christmas goodies on the table. Emma, you must have been baking for weeks.”
Mrs. Rutherford’s face shone at this recognition. “How was your church service this morning?” she asked, refilling our cups. “I still can’t get used to you folks going to church on Christmas morning. Doesn’t seem right to me, somehow. Did you hand out your presents last night, like you always do?”
Dad smiled. They were good friends. Mrs. Rutherford’s blunt observations about the eccentricities of her Dutch neighbors were easily forgivable. To her, we were Dutch and would be Dutch forever, even though Dad and Mom had been in Canada for almost thirty years.
“Yup, all the kids were over last night for a couple of hours. Ken and Wilma and I got up a little extra early this morning because of the ice, but we got to church without a problem.” There was a slight pause. Dad concluded, “Well, whether you’re there on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning, it’s good to celebrate the real meaning of Christmas, isn’t it?” To punctuate that thought, Dad dipped a gingerbread man into his coffee.
I was getting fidgety. Mom would be casting anxious glances out the kitchen window to see whether we were on our way. Since the Hogemans always came on Christmas Day, there was no excuse not to be ready for them.
As a boy, I had dreaded their annual visits. Their only child, William, was my age, but he was bigger and meaner. He never failed to break whatever gift I treasured most. He broke my pellet gun when I was ten, and my hockey game when I was eleven. I would complain to Mom who would scold me for being petty. I was supposed to share. It was Christmas, after all.
Even then I had an inkling about why he was careless. He had so many toys, he just didn’t understand the value of my few special things. Fortunately, by the time he was fifteen or so, he no longer cared to join his parents for their Christmas visit to the farm, and I didn’t have to put up with him anymore.
When the last of the cookies had been complimented and consumed, Dad finally pushed back his chair. We said good-bye and drove home. Mom, already in her apron, met us at the kitchen door. “Albert. Ken. There you are. See, Corrie and Adrian are already here.”
Dad poked his head around her to greet them. “You made it, eh? We were just at the neighbors for a little Christmas cheer. Sorry we weren’t here sooner.” He hung up his coat in the mudroom and entered the kitchen with me behind him. “How are you, Adrian? Corrie? How was the drive from Windsor?” Everyone shook hands.
“I was hoping you’d be home for the holidays, Ken,” Mrs. Hogeman said. “You’re off to college now, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I’m at Calvin. I’m just taking a general program for now, till I know what I want to be when I grow up.” I chuckled at my own joke, but only half-heartedly because I really had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, and it bothered me.
While Mom bustled around setting the table, the rest of us sat down in the adjoining family room. “Well, young fella,” launched Mr. Hogeman, “I’m not convinced that there’s good value in getting an education these days. You take our William, for example. He already has a good job, straight out of high school, and he’s making good money. He’s in a position to get a promotion soon. Sells siding, you know. For AlCan. It’s the best on the market. With houses going up as fast as they are in Tecumseh, he’s set to do well for himself. He’s got a girlfriend, too, already. Pretty serious, I’d say. What do you think, Corrie? You think William and Nancy are going to get married?”
“Maybe. Who knows? They’re with Nancy’s family today.” Her spritely tone belied the clouded look in her eyes, I thought.
She gave me an inquiring look. “What about you, Ken? Have you met anyone special at Calvin?”
I squirmed inside. When it came to girls, I was way out in left field. “Nah,” I covered, “I’m too busy hitting the books to worry about that yet.”
Laughing, Mom came to my rescue. “Leave my baby alone, Corrie. I’m not ready to have him married off yet. Here, Ken, can you help me with this turkey?” I went over to the stove.
“There’s one thing that is worth studying, though,” Mr. Hogeman continued. “Economics. If you’re going to spend all that tuition, Ken, you should learn about the marketplace. Economics, that’s the thing.”
I grimaced to myself at the thought. I’d been leaning more towards history. Teaching, maybe.
Not waiting for a reply, he directed his attention to Dad. “How’s farming these days, Albert? Still rough as usual?”
Dad’s forehead furrowed. “Yeah. Same old story. I sometimes think the government is doing its level best to make things difficult for us. Want to hear the latest? I have to register myself as a farmer and pay $150 for the privilege. Then, if I make a special written request, I can get the money back next year. What a lot of paper shuffling for nothing!”
Mr. Hogeman lit up a cigar. Circlets of smoke wafted up to the ceiling. “I’d have to disagree with you there, Albert. I’ve read about this in the paper. It gives people jobs, for one thing, and it’s a way to unite you farmers. You can lobby with one voice.”
Dad shook his head. “We’re an independent bunch. And, besides, what’s good for chicken and dairy farmers is not always good for hog farmers. It’s just like that free trade thing a few years ago. I still can’t see how that was good for our country. How can I compete with farmers down south who don’t have to heat barns?”
Mr. Hogeman was shaking his head, too, more emphatically. His ruddy complexion deepened. “No, Albert, I can assure you that free trade was good for Canada. It sparked the business world. You know I’ve been in retail ever since I came to this country, and it was the best thing for us! You’ve always disliked the Conservatives, that’s all.” He jabbed his cigar meaningfully in the air.
“Well, I know where their loyalties lie. It’s not with the little guy, let me tell you that.” Dad’s voice was getting edgy.
Corrie rose abruptly to help Mom. There was a palpable urgency in the kitchen to have Christmas dinner underway. Soon all was ready. Dad asked for a blessing on the meal and gave thanks for the birth of the Savior.
The conversation drifted from the outstanding quality of Mom’s cooking to the Hogemans’ recent trip to The Netherlands. The best part of the dinner was the dessert, Mom’s traditional Dutch almond pastry. Afterwards, Dad read the first chapter of Luke. I thought it was an odd choice until he got to verse 51: “He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty”. Then I knew why. I peered surreptitiously at Mr. Hogeman, but his expression was bland. Obviously, he had not caught on to Dad’s subtle one-upmanship.
Almost immediately after dinner, Dad excused himself to do chores in the barn. I looked up from the Time magazine I was leafing through, surprised. He usually didn’t go out so early.
Mom and Mrs. Hogeman were cleaning up the dishes and chatting earnestly about Corrie’s sister Gertie in Holland who had not been well. Mr. Hogeman lit another cigar and ruminated for a time. Then he fixed a purposeful eye on me.
“You know, Ken, no matter what your dad says, free trade is a good thing for this nation. You take my company, for example. We increased our profit margin by three percent the first year it went into effect.” Hogeman owned a franchised lumberyard. Probably how William got his lucrative siding job, I groused to myself. He puffed a few times, and then leaned towards me.
I got up. It seemed like a good time to escape. “Would you like to look at this magazine, Mr. Hogeman? I really should give Dad some help in the barn.” Mom turned slightly from the sink, shooting me a curious glance. It was rare for me to offer to help with chores.
I had just remembered, however, that Dad had brought home a trunk of books from a farm auction sale in the fall. He had stored it in the hayloft because Mom wouldn’t let him bring any more old books into the house. Maybe there’s something I can use at school, I told myself. It was worth a check.
I threw on a coat, walked the short distance to the main barn and entered the feed room. Through the open door opposite I could make out indistinctly the crates of the sow barn. Everything was quiet and dim. Dad hadn’t started the chores, then.
I climbed the short ladder to the hayloft. There was Dad. He was on his knees in front of the trunk, his back towards me, sorting books. There were a couple of piles on either side of him. It was cold, and his vaporized breath hung about his head. He rubbed his hands briskly, and then dug in for another book. As I hoisted myself over the edge, he spun around.
“Oh, Ken! It’s you. You gave me a start! What’s up?”
“I thought I’d have a look to see if there were any books here I could use next semester.” I grinned at him slyly. “You should have seen the look on your face, Dad. Like a preacher meeting an elder at a bar.”
He smiled and shrugged sheepishly. “Well, one thing I can always count on, son. Adrian never volunteers to come into the barn. Too smelly for him, I guess.”
He closed the trunk lid. “Nothing in here but old Reader’s Digest Condensed Books and Farmer’s Almanacs. Nothing you would want to take back to Calvin. Except this, maybe.” He bent down to pick up the book at his feet. “Look at this Bible I found. It’s pretty old, I think.”
The title, “Hurlbut’s Story of the Bible”, was inscribed in gold on the dark green cover. On the inside leaf, in red and black lettering, was written: “God’s Word, Told in the Simple Language of Today for Young and Old.” It was definitely old, published in 1904. We paged through it, examining the old-fashioned illustrations. The flight into Egypt was a detailed color plate, while the manger scene was merely a small black and white sketch. Apart from a rugged post in the center of the picture, it was hardly even stable-like. “Look, Dad,” I said. “Not a lamb or cow to be seen. No shepherds, or wisemen. Just angels.”
We climbed down the ladder with our antique treasure and stood for a minute in the feed room, listening to the contented snuffling and snorting of the sows. “Funny to think that the Son of God was born in a barn, eh, Dad?” I mused. “Though you never see any pigs in a nativity scene, do you.”
“No, you don’t. Maybe because pigs were unclean, I guess. Good thing pork is OK now, or we’d be out of business!” He laughed, and went over to the open door leading to the pens. He stood for a brief moment staring down the aisle. Then he turned back to me. “It’s humbling, isn’t it? God’s Son in a place like this. Not too proud for a poor man’s barn. Willing to put up with the stench and far worse.”
Dad’s mood was improving. He slapped me on the back and gave me a wink. “Come on, Ken. We can’t be standing here all Christmas day. We’ve got guests!”
He latched the feed room door behind us, and we hurried to the house, eager to share our find with the others.