Stella at Ninety: a John Dunn story

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Stella came to live at our place because of Mother’s accident.  The accident happened in the very week before Christmas.  Mother had set out after supper one evening to go down to church.  In the darkness she didn’t notice black ice just as she came to the bridge over the river.  She slipped, fell, and fractured an ankle.  At the time I was six years old.  Jim would have been seven, and Billy four.
 
The rescue team from the neighbours brought Mother back home, and my father made a cast for the ankle, wrapped the patient in a shawl to make her comfortable, and then turned his mind to the care and feeding of the young.
 
That’s when Stella came in from the country to help out at the doctor’s house.  The Kennedy family was larger than ours, because Leo, their youngest and I were the same age, six.  Stella was probably fifteen at the time of the accident.
 
And excitable.  She seemed to speak in italics.  Her tongue could leap the scale in one instant wherever she happened to be, except in the kitchen.  There, with the kitchen stove, the pots and pans and the pantry, she was entirely at home, fully at ease every moment, calm as the clock on the wall. She had a deft touch in her finger tips that enabled her to dust off the baking board and leave no prints — only a pan of magical, delicious, warm-reekin’ buns.  When I marveled at her magician’s hands, she was humility itself: “Oh pshaw, there’s nothing to that,” declared she.
 
In her eighties, after she decided it was time to give up the farm and looking after a dozen head of cattle, a flock of chickens, and a hundred acres of Huntley township adjoining the Long Swamp, a farm which her grandfather had saved from the awful forest fire of August, 1870, Stella came in to town to enjoy the ease and comfort of Fairview Manor.  It was there that our close acquaintance from years before budded afresh, and I didn’t need to remind Stella of the magic she brought into the doctor’s house at the time of Mother’s accident, and her hands that made buns appear out of nothing.
 
At Fairview Manor, Stella made many fast friends.  And there loomed on the horizon, and would not be denied, another birthday, her ninetieth.  Try as she would she couldn’t trivialize the four score years and ten, particularly as her multitude of friends determined to mark the occasion with a celebration.
 
The great day did come.  Stella turned ninety.  Great heavens, such a surprise it was to Stella, just to imagine reaching that great age.  Recollections flooded back in her memory one after another. She recalled the time when she had come to help out at our place during Mother’s convalescence from the fractured ankle, and of an interval, an occasion, a break in that period.
 
She was going back home to the farm for a weekend visit.  “Your father was taking me out to our place with the horse and buggy, and when we reached Meehan’s school, just a half-mile from our place, I said to him ‘Doctor, when are you going to take these tonsils of mine out?’”


 
“And he said ‘On Monday morning’.”
 
“And I was so surprised at how speedy he was with that answer, and he must have noticed it too, and as we were turning in to the driveway at our place he went on to say, ‘Tell your mother to bring you in Sunday evening.  We’ve already got three scheduled for Monday morning.  You’ll stay at our place, and when we’re ready for you at the hospital, I’ll phone and you can come right over.’
 
“And sure enough that’s what happened.  At eight-thirty the phone rang and your mother went to answer it.  And the message was ‘Stella can come over now.’  So I walked over to the hospital and went up the steps to the front door and went in.  A nurse took me upstairs. “
 
”And when it was all over they took me back to your house and I spent another week there recovering and getting strength back, and, at the end of that week your father got the horse and buggy ready again and drove me out home.”
 
“And when we came to Meehan’s school again, I said to your father. ‘Doctor, how much do I owe you for all that work you did for me?”
 
“And he kind of thought for a minute and then he said, ‘Twenty-five dollars’.”
 
“And do you know what?  That was exactly a month’s wages from working out at your place.  So I thanked him very much when we stopped the horse in the driveway, for I was beginning to feel the strength coming back in my wrists and hands entirely.  So there.”
 
Like steam from the kettle on the hob, Stella’s recollections rose in clouds.  She went on.
 
“And three years later I had to go in to see the specialist in the city.  Doctor…Something, about something in my throat your father wanted him to see.  And when he looked in my throat, he shone the light down, and he looked puzzled and he said ‘Miss Kennedy, who was it did the operation when you had your tonsils out?’”
 
“Why Doctor Dunn, of course.  At the hospital in Almonte.  Why?”
 
“Well, I have to tell you, I’ve never seen a neater job of stitching in my life.  The scar is covered completely.  It’s neat, with no ragged edges anywhere.  The finest job I’ve seen in many years.  And I was thinking, ‘Whoever did that tonsillectomy took great care to do it right.’”
 
“Well, thank you doctor, said I.  But I’m sure that should come as no surprise to anyone back home.  Now that’s as true as I’m sitting here right now in Fairview Manor.”
 
Stella looked out the window, as if glimpsing some scene seventy-five miles away, but when she spoke she and I both realized the distance in her look could be measured in years only. Seventy-five years!
 
“Yes, I mind it so well,” Stella reminisced.  “I was fifteen years old at that time, and glory be to God, I’m ninety today.  I never, never, never in my entire life, never once dreamed I’d ever reach the age of ninety.  I can hardly believe it’s real now.  But there it is: the good Lord must have some purpose for me still on this earth.”