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About A Week: An Empty Place At The Table

Christmas Day - and Open Writing editor Peter Hinchliffe refuses to be downcast.

I remember a Christmas...

1962. I was a stranger in a strange land, an Englishman working as a reporter for a daily newspaper in North Texas.

Someone once said that England and America are two countries divided by the same language. I had to learn new words, a different spelling system.

Then there was the food. I ordered meals in restaurants without knowing what would arrive.

And finally, the working hours. Arrive in the newsroom at 7.30 every morning. Head for home at 4 pm, home being a Spartan downtown apartment.

I was feeling forlorn and homesick when the city editor delivered the straw which broke this camel’s back. The Wichita Falls Times published on Christmas Day.

On the day of days I was in the office as usual at 7.30. There was not much to report. A few road accidents, a minor house fire...

As a concession we were allowed to go home at 11.30 am.

“So where are you having Christmas dinner Peter?’’ said my colleague, reporter Gene Meazell as we left the office.

“Oh I’m just popping round the corner Gene,’’ said I, trying not to look glum. “There’s a Toddle House near the Tenth Street Apartments. I’ll get something to eat there.’’

“You mean nobody’s invited you home to dinner?’’

I didn’t have to nod. My bleak expression gave reply.

“Wait here,’’ said Gene, then shot back up to the newsroom.

He returned within a couple of minutes. “You’re coming with me,’’ he said. “There’s an extra place at the table and it’s almost time to carve the turkey.’’

“But Gene...’’

Before I could think of a good excuse we were in his car, heading out of town to a small ranch.

There was turkey. Christmas pudding. Welcoming family warmth.

A carefully-wrapped present was waiting by my plate.

As the afternoon edged down to dusk Gene got out his guitar and we sang together. White Christmas, Home On The Range...

Around 6 pm I phoned my new girlfriend Joyce Ann who was spending Christmas with her sister’s family.

“Whereabouts are you?’’ Joyce asked. “The family want to meet you.’’

I told her.

“I’ll collect you in an hour,’’ she said.

And she did.

I met the family. Things went well. “Maybe this is the girl I will marry,’’ thought I.

And six months later I did.

That was the start of 45 years of happy, happy, happy wedded years to Joyce Ann.

In every day of that time I told Joyce “I love you.’’ There was not a day in which she did not say that she loved me.

Why should I have been so lucky? I don’t know the answer to that question.

What I do know is that luck, like life, does not last for ever.

Joyce, the 68-eight-year-old lass who began each day with thirty minutes of brisk exercise on a stepper board, collapsed and died 65 days ago. A sudden and totally unexpected brain haemorrhage.

One minute she was sitting at the wheel of a Honda Jazz in a multi-storey car park, preparing to drive, chatting to a friend.

“Have you fastened your seatbelt Sheila?’’ she asked.

“Yes, I’m strapped in,’’ said Sheila.

Joyce started the engine. Then she half-turned and said “Sheila I do feel....’’

And those were the last words she was ever to say.

Today I will be dining with one of my sons. There will be an empty chair at the table.

There will be an empty chair at the table of my friend Vera Sanderson, who wrote the poem which appears in today’s Open Writing. Her husband Alan has also died. They were married for 56 years.

“We argued each and every day,’’ says Vera “and we adored each other.’’

Yes, Christmas is a time for remembering. And a time to be thankful.

Despite the cataclysmic event which occurred in the mundane setting of a car park on October 20th, I find plenty of reasons to be thankful.

Thankful to have shared the greater part of my life with the best girl in the world.

Thankful to have two wonderful sons willing to share a joke and a tear.

Thankful to be a member of a caring congregation at a village church.

Thankful to have good friends and neighbours.

And thankful to edit Open Writing Web magazine – five years old on January 2nd – which keeps me in touch with good folk on every continent.

HAPPY CHRISTMAS TO YOU ALL.

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