I have been looking for any excuse to get out of town after being held hostage by winter. I especially wanted to see my friends Ron and Sharon in Watson, Saskatchewan. Also, I didn’t trust winter to stay gone, so it would be a comfort to have a friend along to share the eight hour drive north. Steve, a good friend from Silverdale, Wash., arrived for a visit on the Empire Builder last Tuesday. I jumped at my opportunity.
“Steve, did you bring your passport? Good, let’s go to Canada.”
I wanted to surprise my friends, but I wanted it to be a pleasant surprise. So I emailed Sharon: “Do you like surprises?” Sharon replied: “I love surprises.” That’s all I needed to know.
So early Thursday morning we quickly pack our bags and leave. Ten miles out of Harlem, we hit the snow fields. Not fields of snow: snow fields. There is a difference. In the valley, the snow has melted into the thirsty earth. In the hills, snow is deep and creeks run swift through the coulees. Our day is sunshine bright and our spirits run as high as the creeks, out of their banks with excitement.
After crossing the border at Turner/Climax we stop for a farm-style breakfast in Shaunavon, one of my favorite towns, continue north to Gull Lake, east on Highway 1 to Regina, through the beautiful city and north on Highway 6 to Watson. Snow and high water, geese and deer, hawks, coyotes and a wolf flank our journey. We pull into the parking lot at the Quick Stop Diner at 5:30 p.m.
Sharon flies across the parking lot and grabs me in a hug. “I knew you were here. One of our customers saw you drive in and said, ‘I see your friend from Montana is here.’” I introduce Steve, and we hustle inside. I sneak back to the kitchen and surprise Ron with a big hug. Lilia, the other member of the Quick Stop team, spots me and rushes over to wrap me in her arms. In the diner I recognize several customers, all of whom grin and wave or nod to me. “You’re back, eh?” “How long are you staying?” “Good to see you.” I planned a surprise, but I am surprised in turn by how warmly I am received.
“We’ve come to help,” I announce. “And to celebrate my birthday. I brought our own aprons and Quick Stop T-shirts. I’ll bus tables.” “And I’ll do dishes,” Steve said. And so we do.
Friday, the little diner bustles with customers all day long. Everybody is responding to a sunshine day with easy-going talk and laughter. Sharon, Ron and Lilia incorporate us into their little operation. I deliver orders from the kitchen, pour coffee and clear tables. Steve helps both on the floor and in the kitchen.
For me, the highlight of the day comes when a woman arrives with a 3-year-old daughter and her two sons about 14 and 16. The little bright-eyed charmer watches me come and go, smiles at me and gives me little waves, so I make a point to stop by their table frequently with a word or two. Finally the toddler motions me over and announces loudly, “You are funny. Are you a witch? I think you are a witch.”
“Why, thank you. I do believe I am.” I laugh, pleased. I recognize praise when I hear it.
Her mother, however, is mortified. I can tell Mom wants to crawl under the table, hopefully to disappear through a hole in the floor. “No, no, no, she gave me a compliment,” I assure Mom. “Your little girl knows happy magic when she sees it, like that of the good witch, Glenda, from the ‘Wizard of Oz.’” The boys grin and nod their agreement. I cherish that compliment all day.
As the last customers wave good-bye, Sharon locks the door. She, Steve, Lilia and I finish the closing chores. In the kitchen, Ron grills lamb chops with all the trimmings. We sit down to the feast, tired and hungry. We bask in the satisfaction of a good day, well worked, with good friends and the magic of hearts at ease. And then another surprise appears, a birthday cake with candles flickering. Ron had baked it for me first thing that morning. My friends urge me to make a wish. I close my eyes and wish the love and the joy that surround us this moment be with us every day all year long. I blow out the candles and cut the cake. It is a magical birthday, the best birthday I ever had.
(Sondra Ashton graduated from Harlem High in 1963 and left for good. She finds, after recently returning, things now look a bit different. Join her in a discussion of her column at http://montanatumbleweed.blogspot.com.)