author: John Denison / illustrator: Bill Slavin
It was one of those beautiful February days that most Canadians love – bright blue sky, new snow, not too cold. Sure, summertime has its pleasures, but there is something magical about a landscape all dressed up in sparkling white. And for a kid, a wintry day like this was heaven.
Ethan certainly thought so. It was Saturday and he had the whole day in front of him, or at least what was left of it. He’d slept in till ten-thirty and only woke up because Old Larry, the yellow lab, had licked his face. Ethan got dressed and trundled downstairs. Everyone was gone but there was a note:
Trudy’s out with Jenny on Noelle. They’re going to Ashley’s. Dad’s helping cut wood at Stoddermeyer’s. I’m going shopping. Why don’t you visit Grandma – she seems blue. Love, Mom xox.
Ethan suddenly had a vision of his grandmother spraying herself blue. If any grandmother would do that, his would. She was crazy, and Ethan loved her that way.
Spirit, the big workhorse, was glad to see him. Spirit was probably wondering why he hadn’t got to go with his buddy Noelle, but the girls had left Spirit for Ethan. They’d want him to ride over to Ashley’s, but Ethan didn’t want to. Ashley was a pain in the butt – she never stopped talking and never said anything worth listening to. No, he’d visit Grandma as his mom had suggested. With any luck Grandma would make him lunch.
Ethan rode Spirit to the end of the driveway where Old Larry sat down. Larry couldn’t keep up like he used to, which made Ethan sad. “We’ll go tobogganing with the girls when we get back!” Larry’s hearing wasn’t very good, but he wagged his tail so Ethan figured he’d got the gist of it. Ethan cut into the conservation area and set Spirit galloping through the stands of reforested pine trees. Twenty minutes later they emerged on the outskirts of town. Ethan slid down and led Spirit up to Grandma’s house.
It was a little house, a wartime bungalow to older folks who knew such things. Ethan’s grandparents had moved there when Ethan’s mom and dad took over the farm. Now Grandpa wasn’t around and Grandma lived there by herself. Ethan rang the doorbell.
“Why Ethan, this is a pleasant surprise. And Spirit too. Such a sweet horse. Let me get him a carrot or something.”
Ethan could tell his grandmother had been crying. Her eyes were all red and watery. They were sitting in the kitchen. Ethan was on his third grilled cheese sandwich, his second glass of chocolate milk, and a large piece of carrot cake – with butter icing – was waiting in the wings.
“You don’t look happy, Grandma.”
Ethan’s grandmother stared at him, trying to decide what to say. She didn’t want to burden him with her troubles, but Ethan was a special boy. He’d been born with his heart in the right place.
“I left the iron on yesterday. I was ironing a blouse and then I got tired and laid down and your mom showed up and gave me what-for for leaving the iron on.”
Ethan knew this wasn’t the first time. His mom said Grandma was leaving the stove on too.
“Mom has one that turns off automatically.”
Ethan’s grandma got up and came back with a box with a new iron inside. “She gave me this too.” Grandma handed him a brochure. Greenvale Retirement Villa: Where Seniors Mingle.
“Do I look like the mingling sort to you?”
Before Ethan could answer, Grandma put her head down. Now he could see tears running down her cheeks, falling onto her lap. He got up and put his arms around her shoulders. Her hands came up and clutched him. But Ethan’s grandma wasn’t the kind to let her worries get the better of her. She gently pushed him away and jumped to her feet. In no time her eyes were wiped and her nose blown.
“All right Ethan, let’s go for a ride.”
“A ride?” Ethan knew what was coming next. He just couldn’t believe it.
“On Spirit. Unless you’ve got a helicopter. I always wanted to ride in one of those.”
Out they went. Grandma had her parka and fur hat on, maple leaf mitts and her purse. Ethan had never seen his grandmother without her purse. He thought they must be attached in some way like an umbilical cord. “What about your hip, Grandma?”
“Right as rain.
Without hesitation, Grandma took the reins and led Spirit down the road to Rutledge’s Home Hardware. Jimmy Rutledge came to the door to greet them.
“Nice horse, Mrs. Hopkins. What’s its name?”
“We had a Clydesdale when I was a kid. Like riding a sofa.”
“I remember that horse. What was its name?”
“Your dad would ride Dief into Gerrie’s pond and we’d use him as a diving platform. Now Jimmy, we need to borrow one of your stepladders.”
“Big enough to get me up on the horse.”
“I can’t wait to tell Dad,” Jimmy smirked.
Ethan rode in front, Grandma behind, her arms wrapped around her grandson. They were well out of town, which was a good thing because they’d almost caused multiple accidents on Main Street. Now Spirit was headed up Blind Line because Grandma had decided she wanted to visit her friend Thelma whom she hadn’t seen in ages.
“Kids had all kinds of funny names back then,” Grandma said, reminiscing. “Hardly hear any of them anymore. Boys were called Howard and Harold and Earl. Your granddad was Herbert Lester, but everybody called him Bert. Let’s see, the ushers at our wedding were Edgar, Ernest, Wilfred and Stanley. How’d you like to be Stanley?”
“I’m the only Ethan I know, except for Ethan Hawke, of course.”
“Who’s Ethan Hawke?”
“I stopped watching movies when Clark Gable died,” Grandma replied without missing a beat.
Grandma snorted and carried on.
“In my day, girls had names like Betty, May, Alma, Edna, Ethel, Wanda. My bridesmaids were Irene, Milly, Rose and Sadie.”
“Grandma, if you weren’t Marjorie, what would you want to be?”
“Louise. Never liked Marjorie and I hated Marge. My middle name is Lily, which is worse. Your grandpa only used my name when he was mad. ‘Marjorie! If you want to crumple something, use the newspaper, not the new car!’”
Ethan liked listening to his grandma’s stories. He usually learned something.
“Your grandpa and I used to go riding like this. Got us away from all the chaperones.”
“What’s a chaperone?”
“Used to be young men and women couldn’t be alone together. Might get up to no good. So parents usually hung around or, if it was a party, there’d be a few adults – chaperones – to keep their eyes on things.”
“So you’d go riding with Grandpa so you could get up to no good?”
“Something like that. You got a girlfriend, Ethan? What about that Jenny girl?”
“She’s my friend.”
“But not your girlfriend. I get that. You’ll have one soon enough. Then your IQ will drop thirty points.”
Ethan wasn’t sure what Grandma meant, but before he could ask she told him to turn into the next driveway. The house at the end was a good size – a big square box two storeys high made of orangey-red brick with white gingerbread trim and a big grey verandah that wrapped around three sides of the house.
A door opened at the end of the porch and a woman with short white hair came bustling out. She wasn’t wearing a coat, but the cold didn’t seem to bother her.
“Land sakes, is that you, Marjorie? Wait till I tell the girls at Country Curl about this!”
Grandma made Ethan manoeuvre Spirit over beside the verandah where she could slide off. Thelma gave her a big hug and Grandma introduced everybody.
“I bet I haven’t been on a horse in fifty years,” Thelma said.
“Not too late.”
“Oh no, I couldn’t.”
“What’s stopping you?”
“Well, look at me.”
Ethan was pretty sure Thelma had put on more than a few kilos since the last time she’d been on a horse. As his dad would say, there was as much of Thelma heading east and west as there was riding north and south.
But Ethan’s grandma was having none of it. “Spirit could carry the whole church choir and the organist without breaking wind.”
Thelma was torn in two. The impulse to be prudent – I might get hurt – was on one side, and the wish to be outrageous – you only live once! – on the other.
“You got any memories?” asked Grandma.
“Well sure,” Thelma said. “I’ve got lots.”
“How many of them are about being sensible?”
“I’ll get my coat.”
Ethan watched as Spirit and the two old ladies rode away. Grandma – without her purse! – was in front holding the reins and Thelma – with her purse – was latched on behind her. Thelma was laughing so hard Ethan could see his grandmother vibrating. They’d wanted him to ride too, but Ethan figured if he got on the front, Thelma would slide off the back.
Thelma told Ethan to go in her granny flat and make himself at home. “There’s TV and a computer and a plate of cookies.”
“We’ll be back in two shakes of a lamb’s tail,” said Grandma.
Ethan had never been in a granny flat before. It wasn’t very big, but it seemed to Ethan it had everything you’d need: a kitchen with a table and chairs, a living room with a reading chair, a basket full of wool and knitting needles, a bedroom, and a bathroom with those handlebars he and his dad had put up for Grandma.
Ethan was back in the kitchen eyeing the cookies when Grandma’s purse rang. He thought he’d better answer it in case it was Thelma calling from a snowbank. “Hello?”
It was his mom and she was already talking.
“I’m at Grandma’s. Where are you?”
“She and Thelma are out riding Spirit.”
At his mother’s insistence, Ethan headed out in search of Spirit, Grandma and Thelma. He stumbled through the first field. It was easy to follow Spirit’s hoof prints. The trouble was Ethan was wearing his running shoes instead of his winter boots. He hadn’t planned on chasing after two eighty-year-old women on horseback. His shoes were already waterlogged, his jeans were soaked to the knees, and the field was littered with stubby cornstalks that made running all but impossible.
But his mom’s words were still ringing in his ears: “Ethan, if your grandmother falls and breaks her hip – again – you are going to your room for the rest of your…”
Ethan finally reached the end of the cornfield where he clambered over a chest-high cedar rail fence. He half expected to find two old ladies lying in a heap on the other side, but no, Spirit had jumped the fence, no problem.
Now Ethan was racing along a laneway between fallen-down apple trees. Up ahead he could see a stone fence poking out of a snowdrift. The laneway turned right, but Spirit hadn’t. Spirit had soared over the stone fence. Once again Ethan expected bodies, but there was no sign of a mishap.
Down the hill Ethan churned, running into a stand of cedar trees where he followed a cow path so narrow Spirit must have been brushing both sides. The cedars ended. Ethan slammed on the brakes. No, no, no! He’d come to a partly-frozen river, as wide as a school bus is long, and on the other side he could see Spirit’s hoof prints as clear as day.
Off to the right, one of the cedars had fallen over, spanning the river. Ethan had watched Nik Wallenda walk the cable over Niagara Falls. He could do this…SPLASH!
Ethan’s pants now weighed as much as he did and his sneakers were making more noise than Britney Spears. Up the hill he laboured, sure he would finally see Spirit in the distance, but no. What he saw instead was the rim of an abandoned quarry. He crept forward, afraid to look over the edge and imagined the newspaper heading: Grannies Flattened in Bizarre Accident. Grandson to Blame.
Ethan trudged back to Thelma’s. Spirit was standing outside looking pleased with himself. The two grandmothers were inside laughing.
“Ethan, there you are. We were getting worried about you.”
His grandmother was sitting at Thelma’s kitchen table drinking hot chocolate. There was a cup for him and the plate of peanut butter cookies had been ravaged.
“Why are you all wet?”
That night at supper Ethan got to tell the story that became known as Thelma and Louise, the Sequel. When the laughter died down, Ethan pulled out the drawing he’d made of Thelma’s granny flat. Then he looked at his mom and dad and said, “You know the summer kitchen, the one full of junk we never use…”