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A story of how kindness makes its own rewards

Christmas memories that lodge in the heart can be born in unusual places. This one came to life in a little country cemetery one cold december day shortly before the onset of the yuletide season.

As the minister began to read Abner’s eulogy, a cold, grey mist drifted in off the bay to add to the gloom of the bitterly cold winter afternoon. It gave the whole of the little country cemetery an air of bleakness. I thought of the man in the casket before me. The hastily purchased dark suit, white shirt and navy tie he wore had made him a stranger to me.

“Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the resurrection into eternal life,” the clergyman recited the time-worn words.

I stood beside the open grave and remembered Abner as I’d known him. Dressed in too-large woollen work pants held up by a pair of frayed braces and a faded plaid flannel shirt. The top of his long johns peeked out at the neck and sleeves, and an ancient salt and pepper driving cap covered his head. He’d always seemed small and bent, his weathered face permanently crinkled from too many good-natured grins.

He’d never gone to school long enough to learn to read or write, but he’d managed to survive for 70-plus years without that knowledge. Daybreak, sunset and autumn were among his favourite things.

He’d never held a nine-to-five job or gotten a regular paycheque, but then he’d never had a mortgage or an ulcer, either. He’d definitely never collected welfare, unemployment benefits or any other kind of government handout.

Abner had been a farmer of sorts most of his life. Neighbours laughed and poked fun at his easy-going lifestyle. They shook their heads over his weather-bitten house and barn and at the chickens that ate pet-like from his hand on the front porch.

And when his boar, through some mysterious illness, lost all his teeth and Abner refused to have him put down, another farmer couldn’t resist nudging him about it.

“Does it bother old Samson, not havin’ any choppers?” he asked one day as the pair leaned against the pigpen watching the big animal root in his milk-filled trough.

“Only when he smiles,” Abner replied stony-faced.

Abner never owned a car. He was often seen walking along the dusty roads near his farm, limping a little when his lumbago acted up, accompanied by Bob, his pet crow. Bob was lame, too. Abner had rescued the bird from being stoned to death by a group of small boys, taken him home, and nursed him back to health. But Bob’s leg would never be the same again.

When neighbours encountered Abner and Bob limping toward home, they’d pull over and offer a ride. Abner gratefully accepted but not before telling Bob to, “Fly on home. I’ll meet you there directly.”

Bob was only one of many permanent and semi-permanent guests at the farm. Abner had a way of collecting injured and deserted wild creatures from the fields and river to swell the livestock population of his homestead. I remember him nursing a raccoon named Joseph back to health after an encounter with a trap had crippled the animal’s hind leg.

Then there was George, the Canada goose that lingered too long on the pond below Abner’s house one autumn and had to be cut, half-starved, from the ice. George spent the winter safe and warm in Abner’s barn. In the spring, when migrating flocks returned, George rejoined his friends.

Most poignantly I remember the winter Abner kept the snowy owl. He’d found the bird stunned on the boundary of his property and brought it home. With food and care it recovered quickly. By Christmas week it was almost well enough to leave.

Three days before Christmas a trophy collector arrived at the farm. He wanted the owl—dead and stuffed—for his den.

“They’re a rare species around here,” he explained. “I’ll meet any reasonable price you ask.”

Abner glanced over at his three children. There weren’t many gifts that year. But, then, there never were. The kids could use new boots. Abner’s wife, Anna, hovered at his elbow while her husband rubbed his stubbly chin.

“Rare, eh?” He squinted into the owl’s cage as a ray of winter sunshine turned the bird’s plumage to purest white, its eyes to glowing orbs.

Slowly he stooped forward and released the catch on the door. Startled, Anna and the collector ran for the safety of the back porch.

The great bird hesitated, then it blinked¬, shook itself and stretched its magnificent wings. Seconds later it floated silently past the pair on the veranda and up into the clear blue sky. Abner raised a hand in farewell salute.

“Goodbye, Santa Claws,” he said.

The next morning a green grocer, desperate for vegetables to fill holiday orders, arrived at the farm. Abner’s root cellar was full of carrots, turnips, beets and potatoes.

The kids got their boots.

That was many Christmases ago. Now Abner’s children are grown. All three have left the farm and distinguished themselves. Jack, his eldest, has become a biologist intent on wildlife conservation. Janet, his only daughter, is a doctor. Robert, his second boy, attended agricultural college and is developing new methods of growing organic crops. I looked across the coffin at their sad faces and know they loved and respected the unique man who was their father.

The sun broke through the fog and turned the mist into a glistening silver veil, the bare-limbed birches into diamond-studded webs. From the shimmering pines on the edge of the cemetery, a robin burst into song. Foolish bird, I thought. You should have gone south by now.

I glanced up into the golden white sky and remembered a magnificent snowy owl rising silently into Christmas sunshine. I thought about a goose named George and a raccoon named Joseph and a crow named Bob and a robin lingering to sing at a funeral.

The minister finished speaking and closed his Bible. I had my last glimpse of the simple, brown coffin as it was lowered into the waiting earth. Then, turning from the grave, I took the arm of the woman standing by my side.

“Come on, Aunt Anna. It’s time to go home. I have a story to write about the man who named an owl Santa Claws.”

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