Tuna for Christmas

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December's installment of a urban family living on a farm on the top of the Allegheny Mountains in the early 1960s.

Suzie couldn’t believe all the plans we had in store for her. She cocked her ears back when we told her everything, but she didn’t move when we reached out to touch her, and she even let Jerry, Allison, and me pat her sides and rub her head.

Suzie was the newest member of our family and a complete surprise to all of us kids, including Charley and Holly, and Holly, being a teenager, knew everything. Suzie was even a surprise to Mother. In fact, Suzie was one more in a series of surprises that Daddy brought home for us to be a modern farm family.

Suzie appeared out of nowhere one crisp Saturday afternoon in mid-December.

We were in the dining room eating a lunch of sandwiches and tomato soup. My older brother Charley had just made the largest sandwich in the world from the cold cuts on the table and was showing me how he could get his mouth around the entire thing, when from the kitchen, Mother called out to Daddy.

“Chuck, are you expecting someone?”

She was watching a pickup slowly drive down our lane. The old truck, pulling a beat up horse trailer, stopped at the turnoff to our barn.

“Oh,” Daddy said, quickly finishing his sandwich. “Yes, absolutely. I asked a guy to stop by.” He stood up from the table and wiped his mouth on a paper napkin.

Holly, Charley, Allison, and I were wondering what was going on. Weren’t we going to the library in Somerset to return our books? Didn’t Mother have plans for us?

Daddy leaned toward us and lowered his voice, “Want to see what Santa brought for Christmas?”

“Santa?” Mother heard Daddy only too clearly. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

We kids all looked at each other wide-eyed with growing smiles.

A gift for Christmas! Holly and Charley started to get up from the table, but Daddy said, “Wait… Give me a minute. Christmas isn’t going anywhere.”

Christmas was thirteen days away. My sister Allison and I had been opening our Advent calendar Mother bought for us over Thanksgiving, and every morning we counted the closed windows. Christmas was still too far away for presents.

“Finish your sandwiches or your mother will kill me,” Daddy said.    

Mother came in from the kitchen. We could see she wasn’t happy about Christmas coming early on a Saturday afternoon out-of-the-blue.

“Chuck, what have you done?”

Her voice was rising. We knew he was in for it when her voice started to climb like that. “What’s that man bringing us?”

“Merry Christmas,” Daddy said to her, trying to kiss her on the cheek. “Santa brought us a new horse for Christmas!”

“A new horse!” Mother responded, pulling away from him. “What! Are you crazy? Who will take care of it? Harvey will be furious.”

“Oh, I think it’ll be all right,” Daddy said. “Besides, Harvey will find this horse much easier to handle than Ginger.”

He went into the kitchen, grabbed his coat, and opened the back door. “You kids, join me after you finish,” he said as he went outside to meet the farmer.

Another horse! We looked at each other and Mother. Were we getting another horse for Christmas?

Mother started clearing the soup bowls from the table. “I cannot believe this,” she said half to herself, half to my oldest sister, Holly.

Holly and Charley ate their sandwiches as fast as they could – Charley even put several layers of meat and cheese from his sandwich onto my plate and he never shares with me. Soon Holly was up and out the door, and then, Charley too.

“Wait for me,” he yelled to Holly, who never waited for him, ever.

Mother looked at Allison and me struggling with our sandwiches and my younger brother Jerry who had gobs of mayonnaise all over his chin. She said Allison and I could be excused once we finished our milk.

I stuffed the rest of my sandwich in my mouth, drank all of my milk, and, while still trying to swallow everything, was up from the table, in my coat, and out the back door. I even beat Allison, who is a year-and-a-half older than me, as we raced across the patio to the driveway.

Daddy was talking to the farmer at his truck. Holly and Charley were standing beside him listening to their conversation. Charley saw us coming and, with a half-hearted effort, started kicking stones at us from the driveway.  

Our black Labrador, George, came running to greet us. He was happy we were all outside in the cold with him.

We could hear the horse in the trailer behind the truck. To Allison and me, she sounded just as excited to meet us.

Santa was wonderful! We were getting our very own horse, a horse better than mean, old Ginger. Allison and I didn't like Ginger. He was really mean to us and not any fun to be around.

Holly was the only one allowed to ride Ginger. Daddy said he was too frisky for the rest of us, though Charley told me he could handle him anytime if he wanted, but a new horse meant we could have fun too.

Allison and I were jumping up and down, along with George, who was really happy for us, and clapping our hands.

Charley thought we were being stupid and told us to quit it.

This was going to be the best Christmas ever!

Soon the farmer and Daddy shook hands. As Daddy held us back, the farmer slowly drove the dirty gray trailer down the half-mile dirt lane to our barn.

Allison and I ran after him, not wanting to miss a minute of seeing our horse for the first time. Charley and Holly walked with Daddy, and George ran back and forth from us to Holly and Charley barking all the way.  

When we reached the corral, the farmer was already opening the back of the trailer.

“Her name is Suzie,” he said to us.

He backed Suzie out, and there she was: our horse. She was beautiful!

Suzie was not as tall as Ginger and she wasn’t reddish brown, like Ginger, but she was tall enough and spotted with brown and white splashes, and she had a shaggy tan mane which we decided, right then and there, we liked much better than Ginger’s stringy, coarse black hair.

In fact, Suzie was perfect, and, most importantly, she was ours.

“Holly isn’t allowed to ride Suzie, as Holly has her own horse,” Allison announced to Daddy, as they walked up behind us.

“Is Suzie her name?” he asked. “No, Sweet Pea, Suzie is for everyone. We all get to ride Suzie.”

But I agreed with Allison, “Holly has her own horse. She can’t ride Suzie too!”

Daddy said, “Let’s not worry about that now. Let’s welcome Suzie to her new home.”

The farmer led Suzie over to the corral and tied her to the fence. Suzie stood next to the corral looking tired.

Daddy was the first to pat her and said, “Hi Suzie, welcome to our farm!”  

He winked at Allison and me. “So, do you two think you can take care of her?”

“We’ll make Suzie’s bed every night,” I said, as I reached out and petted her smooth hair and warm belly. She smelled of straw and oats and her breath was hot in the cold air.

“--and we’ll brush her everyday and feed her apples.” Allison added, running her fingers along her side.

Harvey, our hired hand, came out of his mobile home next to the barn, putting on his hat and jacket. He slowly walked over to the corral, but didn’t say anything.

Harvey was an older man, older than Daddy, and not much fun to be around.

He was always telling us how hard it was to work the farm with Daddy driving to Pittsburgh every day.

“This isn’t worth it,” he would say to us when we were with him in the barn; he often complained to Mother up at the house, “You need to talk to Chuck about paying me more.”

Allison and I suggested to Mother that he could eat the extra eggs from our chickens if he wanted. Our chore was to collect their eggs every day, especially when we remembered. Allison and I decided we could leave a basket of eggs at the stoop in front of his mobile home. We told Mother our idea, but she said we were to stay away from his trailer. She said Harvey liked to drink once-in-a-while and was always thirsty. When he was in his trailer he needed time to rest.  

Now he was standing next to Daddy as the farmer brought out Suzie’s stuff.

“What do you think?” Daddy said to Harvey.

“About what?” Harvey responded, shrugging his shoulders to the cold.

“Seems gentle enough,” Daddy replied.

“She don’t eat much either,” the farmer said as he put Suzie’s saddle on the fence.

“With Suzie,” I told Harvey, “maybe Allison and I could help you gather the cows at night.” I knew he would like that.

“Don’t need no help,” Harvey replied. “You kids can help me clean the stalls.”

Harvey was not very nice. Pitching trampled-down cow poop into the manure spreader was the last thing I wanted to do – ever.

I decided I didn’t want to talk to him anymore.

Instead I told Charley, “Maybe Suzie could haul logs from our little woods and help us build a cabin, just like in Boys' Life at the Library, and, maybe even, Harvey could live there, and, maybe, he would like us.”

Charley frowned. He often did that when he thought I was stupid. He was studying Suzie and holding back George.

Harvey leaned on the fence, as Daddy had the farmer put Suzie in the corral.

“Daddy,” I said, “Suzie could help me search for wild bears, especially if Santa gives me a rifle for Christmas.”

“We’ll see,” Daddy responded. “I think you have run off all the wild bears already.”

But that wasn’t true. Allison and I knew wild bears and ferocious Indians were hiding in our big woods on the other side of our fields just waiting to scalp us.

Mother said she would scalp us if we went into the big woods by ourselves.

I spotted Mother coming down the lane; she was holding my two-year-old brother’s hand. Jerry was six years younger than me and was struggling to walk upright. But, when they reached us, even Jerry was excited at seeing Suzie; right away he wanted Mother to lift him onto the cross boards of the corral fence.

Allison said she would hitch Suzie to a bright yellow cart, just like the picture in her Bobbsey Twins book. Suzie could take us for a ride in the cart all around the farm. Allison would bring her Barbies, and we could drink tea from our tree house on the ground at the edge of our little woods next to our house. We could play family: she would be Mother and I could be Daddy.

Charley said he would be Daddy. I would be Harvey and I would have to do everything he wanted. But I didn’t want to be old Harvey. I wanted to be Erik the Red and raid villages on Lake Erie, which was a Great Lake and not an ocean, but where we went when we went to the beach on vacation.  

We were staring at Suzie standing off to the side in the corral. Mother was listening to us as well as to Daddy, Harvey, and the farmer too.  

Allison was being crazy, just like all the girls at school.

“We don’t own a yellow cart,” I reminded her.

“Suzie could pull our sleigh up in the barn,” Allison decided.  

No way could Suzie pull that huge monster.

“It would take Paul Bunyan and a team of oxes to get our sleigh out of the barn. Maybe even Wild Bill and a herd of buffalo.”

“Ginger could help. Maybe even, Harvey too,” Allison said. “We could wrap thick blankets around us and sing ‘Jingle Bells’ in the snow.”

“You and Allison leave that old flea-bitten sleigh alone,” Mother warned. “I don’t want to catch you on that sled.”

Mother would never catch us. She hated going into the barn. She said it got her clothes all dirty.

Daddy waved to Allison and me to come inside the corral.

He said he wanted us to ride Suzie. I didn’t want to, after my experience with Ginger, but Daddy insisted, and, in spite of my tantrum, lifted me up onto her saddle. I hated being back on a horse, but I could tell by Suzie’s slow walk, she wasn’t interested in running away while I was riding her.

“See, I told you, Jon-Jon, not all horses are like Ginger,” Daddy said. “You and Allison will love Suzie and she won’t take off on you.”

Charley said he thought Suzie couldn’t run if she wanted to. He even said he didn’t want Suzie as our Christmas present! He wanted a real horse.

“Suzie is one step away from the glue factory,” Charley said.

Daddy ignored Charley and had Holly get Ginger out of the barn and put him in the corral with Suzie. Ginger came out of the doors, prancing in the cold air. As soon as he spotted Suzie, he ran to her, pushing her around and sniffing her all over.

From what Allison and I could see, watching from the fence, it wouldn’t be long before the two of them would be the best of friends.

Ginger followed Suzie everywhere in the corral.

“Ginger really likes Suzie,” Daddy said to Harvey.

Harvey shrugged, but the farmer beside him agreed.

“Looks good,” he said and shook Daddy’s hand.

Harvey tipped his cap – the one with the earmuffs – as the farmer got into his truck and drove off with the trailer rattling behind him.

“So, I guess, we got ourselves another horse,” Harvey said to Daddy, as the farmer pulled out onto the highway.

“Yes, I guess so,” Daddy replied. “I hope she calms Ginger down and makes your life easier.”

“We’ll see,” Harvey said watching the two horses. “That Ginger’s a strange one. You never know what that horse will do next.”

Allison told me she thought Ginger had fallen in love with Suzie.

“Maybe they will get married,” she whispered to me.

“We could have a big wedding for Ginger and Suzie,” she said to Mother.

“No weddings,” Mother said. “You be careful around those two horses until they get used to each other.”

I asked Mother if Suzie and Ginger would have babies if they got married, but she said it was not possible. Ginger had been fixed and Suzie was too old.

“Suzie is probably a grandmother,” Mother said. “Her babies are all grown up and wonderful presents to other children all over the county.”

“Maybe they are wild, like Ginger,” I said, “or maybe, like the ponies on Assateague Island.” I was reading Misty of Chincoteague and knew all about the wild ponies that swam to the shore after Christopher Columbus discovered America.

Allison asked how Suzie’s babies could be on an island when Suzie was with us on top of a mountain?

I hadn’t thought of that.

I said, maybe, Suzie was originally on an island but, maybe, a fisherman kidnapped her to help him rob banks. Maybe he paid a bunch of old farmers to take her up into the mountains to hide out from the law, and, maybe, they had her help them hunt alligators and Grizzlies. 

“Maybe Suzie wants to go back to her island and eat oysters and clams with her babies,” Allison asked Mother.

“Maybe,” Mother said, pulling Jerry away from the fence, closing his coat collar and pushing his hat down. “Maybe we should let Holly and Harvey put Ginger and Suzie into the barn.”

“Maybe we should feed Suzie oysters and clams so she doesn’t want to run away,” Allison continued.

“Maybe, tuna.” I added. I liked canned tuna. I didn't like canned sardines. 

My friend Dennis told me about mountain oysters on the school bus, but I wasn't sure what they were or if you could get them in a can. I asked Charley and he said they were gross, no one liked them.

“Maybe Suzie will like tuna,” I repeated.

“Maybe Santa will put tuna in Suzie’s stocking,” Allison suggested to Mother. “Maybe Jon and I could write another letter to Santa for Suzie.”

“Until Santa sells Suzie,” Mother responded, looking directly at Daddy, “You two let Suzie be.”

“Come,” she said, turning her attention to us, “Let’s get your library books; it’s time to head to Somerset.”

But we didn’t want to spend the rest of the afternoon in the stupid Somerset Library. Not now, not with our Christmas present standing next to Ginger in the corral.

“We want to stay with Suzie,” we said.

“Daddy can stay with Suzie. I’m sure they’ll have a lot to discuss.”

“We’re leaving,” she said to Daddy. “Talk to Harvey.”

“Let’s go,” she said, picking up Jerry. “And, you two,” she added to Allison and me, “I don’t want to hear from Harvey, with everything he has to do, you were down here feeding Suzie tuna for Christmas.”

She nodded to Harvey, ignored Daddy, who was standing along the corral fence with Charley and Holly, and with Allison and me reluctantly walking up the lane in front of her, started back to the house.

"Your Mrs. is a strange one," Harvey said.

****

 

 

 

 

 

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