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The old gray chair

Contributed by Bonnie Dodge Published on 11 December 2021
Old gray chair

A flurry buffeted Jim’s back as he latched the barn door. The snow was thicker than fog, making it hard to see. But Jim didn’t need to see to find his way to the house.

He’d walked this path hundreds of times, often in his sleep. Even with arthritic legs and a blustery snowstorm, he was able to reach the back door in a matter of minutes.

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He left his boots by the door and shook off his wet coat. Chores were chores and needed attending to even in bad weather. If he had learned anything from living on a farm, he had learned that. Land was the master, no matter what the weather.

He lit a fire in the old wood stove and turned on the tea kettle. He didn’t drink tea but, at his doctor’s insistence, had changed from regular coffee to decaf. It had taken time to get used to the watery brew, but if he put enough cream and honey into the cup, it wasn’t awful.

With a groan, he sank into his threadbare recliner. Old Gray, Cassie used to tease about the chair. He could still hear her nag, “When are you going to get rid of that thing? It’s disgusting.” One year, she even went so far as to order a new recliner online and have it delivered, only to have Jim refuse it.

“There’s been a mistake,” he told the delivery driver. “We didn’t order that.”

“Fine,” Cassie had said as the driver drove away with the chair. “When you’re sitting on the ground, don’t tell me you need a new chair.”

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They’d been married long enough to know this was just a little thing, a disagreement that didn’t count compared to all the real things that mattered while running a farm. Like taking care of animals, fixing machinery, growing crops and earning enough money to raise a family.

Jim didn’t have to worry about any of that now. His twin daughters, Stacey and Tracey, were settled in comfortable jobs, Tracey in Seattle working as a legal assistant and Stacey in Portland teaching science at a community college. They had loved growing up on the farm but couldn’t wait to live in a big city. In that respect, they were their mother’s daughters.

Jim sighed. In the beginning Cassie used to ask him if all the hard work was worth it. Was giving up their jobs in Seattle a smart move? Was it fair to their children? But after a while Cassie began to see the magic in living on a farm. Her children grew up self-sufficient, strong and not afraid of hard work. They were healthy and had a good sense of humor, like his beloved Cassie, dead now these last 10 years after a courageous battle with breast cancer.

Jim shuffled back into the kitchen and dumped what was left of his coffee down the drain. He rubbed his back and looked at the calendar. December 20, just days before Christmas, but you wouldn’t know it looking at his house. No tree, no ornaments, no cookies baking in the oven. As far as he was concerned, Christmas was just another day, nothing to get riled about. More so this year because the twins weren’t coming home, and he had refused to leave the farm. “There’s work to do,” he said, using his old excuse when they begged him to join one of them for the holidays. “I’ll be fine,” he assured them. “Please, don’t worry about me.”

Since Cassie died and the twins moved away, Jim wasn’t into celebrating holidays. He’d rather putter with the tractor than spend all day cooking and fussing with things indoors. He especially dreaded Christmas, which happened to be the holiday Cassie loved the most. She’d start decorating immediately after Thanksgiving.

He looked at the calendar again. By now they would have driven into the foothills to pick out a tree. It didn’t have to be big; it didn’t have to be perfect. It just had to smell like Christmas. Cassie made a big deal out of the trip, an annual family outing with hot chocolate, peanut butter sandwiches and a bag of Cheetos. She wouldn’t let them eat until they found the perfect tree. Once they did, they’d sit on the truck’s tailgate and talk about previous trips and trees, laughing as they reminisced.

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As soon as they got home, Cassie would push all the furniture against the walls and put the tree in the middle of the room. If it was a small tree, she would put it on a table. If it was a large tree, she would brace it to the ceiling with wire to keep it from tipping over. For weeks, she and the girls made paper garlands, angels and stars to hang on the tree. They even talked Jim into stringing cranberries and popcorn. A traditional family-decorated tree was Cassie’s biggest wish, and he did his best to make all of her wishes come true.

Jim choked on the memory and rubbed his rheumy eyes. The reflection felt like a long time ago, a whole other lifetime.

Lately, the girls had been on him to sell the farm and move closer to one of them in their respective cities. At one time, he had easily navigated the streets in Seattle, but it had been years since he’d been there. The last time was when Cassie’s mother died. And he didn’t care for Portland, it was too liberal. He’d long ago given up being a city slicker, but now as a man afflicted with arthritis and failing eyesight, he knew his days on the farm were numbered. All of his animals were gone, the machinery sold and the land rented out. He did most of his farming reminiscing from his old gray chair.

His eyes slowly canvassed the faded and lonely room. Who knew how many more Christmases he would spend there.

That night, Jim’s memories wouldn’t let him sleep. At 3 a.m., he got out of bed and shuffled into the storage room at the end of the hall. This was Cassie’s domain, not his, and the foreign piles were daunting. He searched through the boxes until he found what he was looking for, a medium-sized tote marked “Christmas.” He opened it slowly. Flashes of earlier Christmases flooded the room. Every ornament the girls ever made, a boxful of lifetimes. The pink star Tracey made in first grade to decorate the sagebrush tree at the library. The green and red candy cane Stacey colored to decorate the same tree. The large tattered brown paper bag painted yellow and made into a star that topped every tree he could remember. For a few minutes Jim felt dizzy, as if he was in a different house, a different lifetime.

All those years, where did they go?

He took the box into the living room and set it down on the floor. The cuckoo clock in the kitchen chimed out 4:30. If he still had livestock, he’d be headed out the door. Instead, he turned and climbed the stairs that were proving harder and harder to navigate. He rested at the top to catch his breath, then slipped under his down comforter and went back to sleep.

When he woke, the storm had passed, leaving everything wintery white. The outside temperature read 20 degrees, and the sky was a brilliant clear blue. Following a simple breakfast of toast and decaf coffee, Jim pulled on his fleece overalls, wool cap and gloves, and went out to the barn. He picked up an ax and the old hand saw. He put these in his truck along with a thermos of hot chocolate and a peanut butter sandwich and headed into the foothills. There hadn’t been a bag of Cheetos in his house since ... he couldn’t remember when.

He drove leisurely, noticing how different the terrain looked under the white blanket of snow. The frozen ground sparkled like glitter; the sky was crystal blue against the snowy trees. The air smelled like frozen pine.

Jim loved these hills, hunted them when he was younger and still carried a rifle. He’d spent hours hiking them with Cassie and the twins. Each season showed them something new – purple lupin in the spring, yellow mules’ ears in the summer and swirling aspen leaves in the fall. He never got tired of looking at the land. He loved it as much as he loved his family. Today, as he maneuvered the truck through the snow, he wondered how many more winters he would see this splendor, how long before he had to sell the farm.

The unplowed road was hard to navigate, but he didn’t need snow markers to keep him on track. Locked into four-wheel drive, he drove slowly and steadily until he reached the turnoff they used when they cut trees. He pulled on his hat and gloves, picked up the ax and saw, and began to walk.

“What are you doing, old fool?” he thought as he trudged through the snow. Maybe the twins were right. Maybe he really was losing his marbles.

How much farther, Stacey whined. Not much, just over that hill.

The walking made him sweat. If he got any warmer, he’d have to take off his coat.

“What do you think about this one?” Cassie asked. “Naw, that’s too little,” Tracey said. “What about this one?” Stacey said, standing next to a tree four feet taller than she was. Jim and Cassie laughed. “We would never get it through the front door,” he said.

Jim studied the scrubby trees around him. It was clear he wasn’t going to make it any farther up the hill where the bigger trees were, the ones the twins always preferred. But he didn’t need a big tree, not for a foolish old man trying to recreate the past.

When 2 p.m. came and he hadn’t settled on a tree, Jim returned to his truck and turned on the engine to thaw his fingers and toes. He sat inside the truck instead of on the tailgate and ate his lunch. The hot chocolate warmed his belly, and the peanut butter sandwich reminded him of happier days.

“Mom, can we decorate the tree tonight?” the girls asked. “We’ll see,” Cassie smiled at Jim over her cup of hot chocolate. “Maybe after the chores?” The twins groaned, and Jim and Cassie laughed.

Jim looked at his reflection in the rearview mirror. He wasn’t losing his mind. He was just lonely. The Christmas holiday felt empty. The girls weren’t coming home. He wasn’t planning on going out or to church. As far as he was concerned, God was all around him, in the trees, in the hills and the sky. Besides, the roads were always snowed shut in December. He’d have to depend on the county, and they had a full-time job keeping the highway open, let alone the lanes and county roads. His Christmas plans were to stay home, stoke the fire and sleep.

After finishing his lunch, Jim backed the truck out onto the road. He was headed home when he heard his wife’s voice.

“Look, Jim. What about that one?” The twins clapped their hands. “It’s PERFECT!”

The scrubby tree off to the side of the road was about three feet high. It had four or five branches, enough to decorate. He stopped the truck and picked up the saw. Three or four cuts would bring it down nicely.

“Look, Cassie,” he thought. “Perfect.”

By the time Jim got home, it was snowing again. He set the small tree by the back door and shuffled to the barn.

“There you are,” he said, actually surprised to find the old tree stand. It hadn’t been used in years, and he had been a little worried he had sold it at the farm sale. But there it was, pushed back against the wall under his work bench as if it was waiting for just this minute.

Back inside the house, Jim tried to push the furniture against the walls the way Cassie used to do. Huffing, he was surprised how heavy everything was. He had to take several breaks before he had everything where he wanted it.

He brewed a cup of decaf and sank into his chair. “Not too awful,” he thought as he observed the scrawny tree. With some decorations, it won’t look half bad. He fell asleep thinking about stringing popcorn and cranberries.

The next morning, Jim woke early, pulled on his clothes and heavy coat, and stumbled out the door to milk the cows. He passed the chicken coop and stopped to feed the chickens before remembering he gave up raising chickens years ago. There were no cows, there were no chickens – not even a tractor.

Mumbling to himself, Jim returned to the house and took off his coat. He was more than a little bit upset with himself and searched the cupboards wanting something stronger than decaf to help him feel better. If he was drunk, he wouldn’t know he was getting feeble-minded.

Settling for a cup of hot chocolate, Jim walked into the living room. “You’re ugly,” he yelled at the tree. His first thought was to take it outside and move the furniture back where it belonged. But at the moment he was too tired, so he slumped into his chair and drank his hot chocolate.

Once he was warm, he fell asleep. When he woke, he wasn’t as grumpy. He opened a can of chicken noodle soup and ate it at the kitchen table along with a handful of Saltine crackers. Feeling better, he returned to the living room, where he noticed the box of ornaments. He didn’t have any cranberries or popcorn to string, but the decorations his family had made over the years were enough to make the tree look festive. Feeling melancholy, he said, “Cass, what do you think?”

“Perfect,” he imagined her answer.

Perfect, he thought as he glanced around the room. It had been hard work, but his life on the farm had been perfect. He liked to think she’d felt that way too. He went to bed happy with plans to decorate the tree the next day.

The next morning, as he was adding wood to the stove, he heard the kitchen door creak. He wasn’t expecting anyone. The wind must have blown it open. When he turned to close it, he almost dropped his teeth.

“Hi Daddy.”

He blinked his eyes to see his daughter Stacey. No, he looked again. It was Tracey. With his failing eyesight, he had a hard time sometimes telling them apart.

“What’s this?” he asked, confused.

“Christmas,” Tracey said. “Oh, look, Stace. He must have known we were coming because he got a tree.”

“But, but,” Jim stuttered. “I thought you weren’t coming.”

“Ah, Daddy,” Tracey said, embracing her father. “We couldn’t leave you alone at Christmas.” Her hair smelled damp from the snow. If he was dreaming, it sure felt real.

Stacey clapped her hands the way she used to do when she was three. “Oh, Daddy, you even found the decorations.”

Jim closed his eyes and shook his head. When he opened his eyes again, his daughters were still there. He pulled on his coat and helped them carry in suitcases and boxes of food. Among the flour and sugar, there were also some bags of Cheetos.

That night was one Jim would always remember. The twins found a radio station playing Christmas carols. Stacey baked up a tray of peanut butter cookies and made a big kettle of hot chocolate. With Christmas music filling the house, they laughed, sang and acted silly as they decorated the little tree.

When they were finished, Jim said, “Your mother would think it was perfect.”

“Here’s to Mom,” Tracey said, and they all raised their cups in the toast.

That night, Jim was reluctant to go to bed. He was afraid he’d wake up and discover the day had all been a dream, a wish to relive the past. But the next morning, the girls were still there, chattering about what pies to bake and when to start the rolls. The house, which once felt cold and empty, felt alive again. He hadn’t realized just how much he had missed his girls and their energy. It was no fun living alone, even if this was the family homestead and he wanted to keep it in the family, to pass it on to one of his girls.

But maybe it was time to let go. Maybe it was time to work on other dreams.

“How long can you stay?” Jim cautiously asked.

“Until we’re done with Christmas,” Tracey smiled.

“But I thought you had to work.”

“Daddy, there’s this thing called vacation. And Stacey doesn’t have to go back to school until January.”

Jim relaxed. He spent the rest of the holiday playing cards, watching old Christmas movies on TV with his girls and building snowmen. Each night, he slept peacefully and woke excited for the new day.

That was Jim’s last Christmas on the farm. He was blessed to have it with his daughters who, despite their love for the city, always knew when it was time to come home.

The next spring, he leased the entire farm and moved back to Seattle near Tracey. A good bus system meant he didn’t have to drive. He let go of the past and sold everything except his old gray chair. As long as he had that, he would always hear Cassie say, “When are you going to get rid of that chair?” end mark

ILLUSTRATION: Illustration by Corey Lewis.

Bonnie Dodge lives and writes from her home near the Oregon Coast. Her award-winning fiction, poetry and nonfiction have appeared in several newspapers, magazines and anthologies in the Pacific Northwest. Find out more at Bonnie Dodge.

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