One Night Only

There’s a good chance this will be the last winter Roy and Ruth Bartlett will spend on their family farm. Or is there some magic swirling amongst the snowflakes when family, friends and barnyard animals come together on Christmas Eve?

Roy brushed snow off his coat as he stepped in the back door of the century farmhouse. “Supper sure smells good!” The warmth radiating from the woodstove felt like a welcome hug in contrast to the unexpected squall outside. “It’s ham and scalloped potatoes. One of your favourites.”

He turned away as he spoke, concealing his grin. “And,” he deliberately paused, “is there pineapple too?” Ruth placed her hands on her hips and replied, “Roy Emerson Bartlett – in the past fifty-six years, have I ever not baked pineapple with ham?”

“No, my darlin’, you haven’t. But now that you’re old, you may forget someday.” He smiled, pulled up a chair and sat down at the weathered pine table. How many meals had they shared in this kitchen? The table had been the focal point of countless discussions over the years. He’d been contemplating how long they would stay on the farm, now that the herd was sold and there wasn’t milking to do twice a day. There were still the heifers and chickens, and of course the cats – their resident mouse patrol – but it wasn’t the same without milk cows.

The locals were saying it was the oddest combination of rural entertainment they’d ever seen – far-fetched yet outstanding!

During supper they talked about events that were starting up again. The past few years had taken a toll on community spirit. It was heartbreaking not to see folks on a regular basis, but their church was holding services again, and the local federation of agriculture had recently held a gathering at the community centre, the first in-person meeting after almost two years of Zoom.

“You’re quiet tonight. What’s on your mind?” Ruth asked. She knew her husband well. Something was up.

“I’ve been thinking about our family and the farm. And our future. I’m glad everyone will be here Christmas Day. Thank goodness they’re planning to bring the meals and give you a break. But I keep thinking I’d like this year to be … different. Special!” “Christmas is always special. Heck, with Wayne, Debra, Troy and Emma all married and five grandchildren, how could it not be? I have a hunch they all want to be here.” Ruth paused, took a breath, then continued, “In case it’s our last year here on the farm. There’s a good chance it will be.”

Roy nodded. “I was thinking the same thing. Deep down, I wish one of them had been keen to take on farming, but they’ve chosen their own paths and are doing well.”

“So, something special.” Ruth offered a half-smile. “Did you have anything particular in mind, you old coot?”

The corners of Roy’s mouth curled upwards. His cornflower blue eyes sparkled. “As a matter of fact, I do.”

He sat absent-mindedly watching the falling snow through the kitchen window.

“Would you be so kind as to share?”

Roy gathered his thoughts. “I’m thinking a last hurrah. A shindig of sorts. Something about community and being thankful for all our friends and for all the years we’ve had here. It would be a celebration for everyone. We’ve got a whole string of barns and sheds, so I was thinking we could host a live Christmas pageant complete with all the animals. And we would invite the public.” Roy continued gazing out the window as if watching it happen. “People would drive up our laneway, where there would be a few winter scenes set up, and continue on past the barns to see the animals and a manger scene. We know enough people that would give a hand and loan extra livestock. And it would only be for one night.”

Roy paused and turned. He couldn’t read the look on Ruth’s face. “What do you think, missus?” “I think you’ve lost it. Totally lost it. Are you forgetting we are seventy-six years old? You want to host a community drive-through Christmas pageant?!” She shook her head in disbelief. “Now I’ve heard everything.”

“But wouldn’t it be wonderful? And what a way to celebrate … well … everything! The community really needs this. Can you imagine how excited the grandchildren would be?”

Ruth eased herself up from her chair. “I’m going to bed now, darlin’. Hopefully by morning, you’ll have come to your senses.” And she kissed him goodnight and headed up the stairs.

The old farmer sat by the stove for a long time. He added more wood. He watched fat snowflakes fall and thought a lot. Crazy as it sounded, he knew his plan would work.

Roy was out to the barn early the next morning. In addition to daily chores, there was snow to shovel, a task that took longer nowadays. When he stepped back into the house, he smelled bacon frying. This was a good sign.

Breakfast was eaten in silence (not such a good sign). But Roy was confident he could alleviate his wife’s skepticism. As Ruth was removing their plates, he cleared his throat. “So, ah, did you have any more thoughts about my idea?”

Ruth rolled her eyes. “As a matter of fact, I’ve thought of nothing else. You do know you’re a fool! But then so am I. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have stuck it out with you all these years.” She wiped her hands on her apron and continued. “I suppose,” she paused, “it could work…” and before she got another word out, Roy was up from the table, grabbed her by the waist and started to sing, “I was dancing, with my darlin’, to the Tennessee Waltz…” his favourite song; whether it was Easter or Thanksgiving or any other occasion, Roy sang the “Tennessee Waltz.” That morning, Roy and Ruth drove over to the farm next door. Harold and Mabel Cathcart were in their early fifties, and they milked over a hundred Holsteins in partnership with their son Gary and his wife Sandra. Like Roy and Ruth, they were heavily involved in the community. Their farm would be essential to Roy’s plan of action.

“You see, once folks drive through the pageant, they need an exit. Our laneway will take incoming traffic, but outgoing would be too much congestion.” Roy was explaining his detailed strategy. “So, if they turned left behind our last shed – the manger scene – they could take that laneway and drive over to your place and turn left onto the Seventh Line. Bob’s your uncle, they’re back where they started on Jenny Bartlett Road.” Roy loved the fact their road was named after his great-great-grandmother.

Harold scratched his head. His response was measured.

“This all sounds quite … well … quite grand Roy, but there’s a lot of logistics to this thing. Are you sure you two are up to this?”

“Of course they are Harold!” chimed Mabel without hesitation. “They’ve been doing stuff like this all their lives. This is just a variation on a theme, so to speak. I’ll contact the Women’s Institute. Timing is right.” Mabel was wound up. “We wouldn’t be charging admittance, but if the W.I. had a booth set up, people could give a donation to the food bank.”

“I’ll mention it to the church stewards after tomorrow morning’s service,” Harold interjected, jumping on board. “The Sunday School was kicking around the idea of doing something this year. This sounds like just the ticket. Plus, it’s outside and no close contact so it would satisfy anyone who is still reluctant to go out to public events.” Harold’s expertise had always been the role of ringmaster. Like others in the close-knit community, he’d felt a void with all the closures due to Covid.

Within the next few days, news of the pageant spread. The Catholic Women’s League and Men’s group wanted to participate. Not to be outdone, so did the Anglican Women’s Fellowship and the Men’s Society. Every equivalent denomination including Pentecostal, Evangelical and Baptist wanted to contribute. There would be an assortment of winter-themed scenes along the Bartletts’ long laneway, each set up by a different congregation. The Salvation Army offered their full band to play as folks left the Cathcart farm. All Harold had to do was relocate the implements and empty his drive-shed for the night. It offered a perfect amphitheatre for the pageant’s conclusion.

At one of the impromptu community meetings, Madeline Sayer announced they needed an event name. “It’s got to be snappy. The radio stations want a catchy name. So do the local papers and social media.” Spreading the word was her forte. “One Night Only has a nice ring to it, and it fits the occasion.” And so, One Night Only it was. The decision was not up for discussion because her proclamations (or “the gospel according to Madeline” as people liked to say) were known to be the final word.

By December 23, anyone driving on Jenny Bartlett Road could tell something big was about to happen. It was a marvel how everything was falling into place. The community had been deprived of events far too long. Everyone was embracing the idea and pulling out all the stops. Gary Cathcart and his wife Sandra were both tech savvy and were fielding phone calls, emails and texts. Gary was a bit younger than the Bartlett offspring, but growing up on the farm next door, he had always tagged along with their adventures.

Ruth and Roy were quiet at breakfast that day. Roy’s original idea had mushroomed into something much bigger than he originally imagined – he’d had no idea about the power of social media. “Are you still okay with all of this, old girl?”

Ruth sighed. “Yes. I am. It’s been a roller coaster this past month, but think of all the good being done. And think of all those children who are looking forward to our One Night Only.” She paused. “I can’t get over all the folks who want to be involved.” She sighed again. “I’m tired, but Roy, it’s a good tired. I’m actually pretty calm about this whole thing.”

Roy took his wife’s hand and gently kissed it. “You know, that’s exactly how I feel. We sure are blessed.” Activity started early on the Bartlett farm on December 24. Community groups were focused on setting up their displays. Jenny Bartlett Road was a beehive of activity. If there’s one thing folks from the country know how to do, it’s organize an event – and swarms of volunteers.

Shortly after 5 p.m., a lineup had started at the foot of their driveway for the 6 p.m. start time. The local “dancing tractors group” that had been formed during the last plowing match had decorated their eight vintage tractors and gathered to perform their own version of a square dance in the east half of the twenty-acre front hay field while folks waited in line. The field was level, but even with the addition of tire chains, there was slipping and sliding. A few kerfuffles and near collisions only added to the circus-like atmosphere.

The west half of the same field had been commandeered by the draft horse club. The Cuthberts’ team of Clydesdales that showed every year at the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto were hitched to their red show wagon. Next was the Strawberry Ridge team of Belgians and their red wagon. The ebony black wagon belonging to Merrill Farm Percherons was also decked out. James Merrill was in the driver’s seat, wedged between his father Gordon and son Justin, providing a Kodak moment to capture the three generations.

Each horse was fitted with a full set of belly-band jingle bells. All the show wagons donned white twinkle lights, and Justin’s twin sister Julie had wired battery-operated lights into her four-way braiding of the manes. She’d gotten the idea after watching a recent episode of Heartland. Julie had studied Film and TV Production at Loyalist College and had a flair for this sort of thing. “The lights complement the glimmering stars in the black velvet sky and add to the magical sight and sound!” Her father, a man of few words, agreed. “Yup.” Dozens of generators had appeared during the day, and volunteers rigged up lighting while Christmas music floated towards the lineup of spectators. The locals were saying it was the oddest combination of rural entertainment they’d ever seen – farfetched yet outstanding!

The lineup along the sideroad had become a parade of sorts itself. Many had decorated their own vehicles. The MacPherson family towed a portable sign used during municipal elections that usually stated, “Vote for Carl – The Fighting MacPherson” (Carl had been a boxer back in the day) but now read “Season’s Greetings from The MacPherson Clan.”

Ruth and Roy were bundled up and snug in comfy sofa chairs in the back of Wayne’s pickup. The truck was tucked in beside their garage so they could wave to everyone. “Look at them!” exclaimed Emma. “Mom and Dad would be a perfect Norman Rockwell painting!”

Earlier in the day, a film crew had arrived. No one in the community would confess, but someone had suggested this would be a perfect “Moment” for CBC’s The National. Ruth and Roy were interviewed, looking a bit nervous. At the same time, several drone cameras videoed the whole shebang.

With so many moving parts, it was surprising there were no hiccups. Ted Saunders and Reggie Tucker had contacted their roster of fall fair volunteers from 2019 and everyone said yes to helping with traffic control. The volunteers did a head count. All told, 2,073 people attended One Night Only, and the donations brought in over $7,000 for the local food bank. Everything had worked like a well-oiled Massey Ferguson.

“It’s a miracle!” Ruth declared as she turned to her husband. She couldn’t say for sure if it was a tear or a snowflake on Roy’s cheek.

By the time everyone was gone it was late, and the Bartlett family gathered in the kitchen. “Well, that was quite an event, Mom and Dad. What do you think about it all?” asked Troy. The family was warming up with tea and hot chocolate by the woodstove.

Roy answered slowly. “I’m in awe how many folks came.”

“So many people,” commented Ruth. “And gosh, that CBC news team. Our farm will be on national television!” She yawned. “I’m tired, so I’m off to bed. What do you say, old timer?” Roy nodded in agreement.

Just before they headed up the stairs, the couple turned to their family as Wayne spoke. “Make sure you sleep in tomorrow. We’re all heading home shortly, but we’ll be here in the morning to do chores. And you know we’re bringing the food, so you can just relax the entire day. You’ve outdone yourselves Mom and Dad. We’re so proud of you.” “We’re the ones who are proud,” said Roy with a catch in his voice. “You’ve all been such a big support to us over the years. Even this outrageous idea. We love you more than you will ever know.” And they turned and climbed upstairs to bed.

The family arrived early the next morning for chores: Wayne, Debra, Troy and Emma felt like kids again, feeding heifers and gathering eggs. Their spouses were in the house, preparing meals and trying to keep the children as quiet as possible so the grandparents could sleep in.

They were all talking non-stop about last night’s event, their excitement almost overshadowing the fact that it was Christmas morning. Just as they were finishing up chores, Wayne called them to the front of the manger, where the heifers were munching on hay. “I need to talk to you.” He pulled up a hay bale and sat down. Looking apprehensive, Emma sat on the bale next to him. Tiger, the marmalade mother cat, jumped into her lap and settled in.

Not wanting to keep his siblings in suspense, Wayne spoke as Debra and Troy joined them. “Last night I was talking to Gary and Sandra Cathcart. They wanted to run an idea by me.”

“I saw you three deep in conversation,” noted Debra. “They want to expand their milking operation,” continued Wayne. “They’ve been hesitant to approach Mom and Dad, but they would like to buy this farm.” He paused to let his siblings take in the announcement. “I honestly don’t know why we didn’t think of this.”

No one spoke. The only sounds were the shifting bodies of the heifers and the odd moo in the background. “What do you think?” asked Wayne. His family were wide-eyed and absorbed in what he had told them.

“We’ve all been talking about the farm being too much for Mom and Dad.” Debra’s voice quavered. “I think this is the perfect answer.” Everyone was nodding in agreement.

“But there’s more,” added Wayne. “Gary and Sandra are quite comfortable in the hired-hands’ house on their farm and they don’t want to move. They are hoping Mom and Dad will continue to live here. They would like to see them live out their final years in their own home.”

“Is this our cue to sing ‘Joy to the World’?” Emma chimed in.

“Actually it is!” Wayne laughed, “because there’s one last thing. They want to continue One Night Only. They already have ideas about next year’s event!”

“Everyone is going to wonder what happened to us,” Troy said amongst the hugs and tears. “Let’s head inside to tell our news!”

As they were leaving the barn, Troy noticed Emma still sitting with the cat on her lap. “You coming, sis?”

“I’ll be a few minutes. You go ahead.” Emma leaned back on the manager and stroked Tiger. The cat’s purring sounded like a diesel engine. Emma was reminiscing about her childhood. She’d always loved to imagine the animals all talking at midnight on Christmas Eve.

“So Tiger, what did you chat about last night? Bet you talked about all the people who came to the farm. It was pretty special, eh?” Louder purring was the reply. “And, just in case you’re worried about having to move, it looks like you’re not going anywhere.” Tears fell freely on the feline, who looked into Emma’s eyes and meowed.

“You’re right. It’s time for breakfast.” She gently lifted Tiger onto the bale of hay.

Emma followed her family’s footprints in the freshly fallen snow, the smell of wood smoke assuring her that all was bright.

Story by:
Lynn C. Bilton

Illustration by:
Tim Zeltner

[Winter 2023/2024 features]