Hanna’s sisters were full of excitement after their first day in the new school. Lizzy and Emily walked up ahead, chattering to each other, and Hanna kept pace with Sarah’s shorter legs, and listened to her describe her teacher and the friends she had made.
Their parents were still at work when they arrived home. Hanna unlocked the door, realizing, with some trepidation, that she was now babysitting. She hadn’t been terrible at it, but as an adult, she had looked back at these afternoons as a wasted opportunity.
The girls, predictably, left their shoes in the front porch, dropped their school bags in the living room, and made a beeline for the TV. Hanna looked at the mess they’d made, and wondered what to do about it. It seemed a small thing, almost inconsequential. And with a simple solution: tell the girls to clean it up. That’s what she had done before. They hadn’t liked it, of course. They’d grumbled, and procrastinated, and disliked her for it. But if they didn’t clean up before their mom came home, she’d be upset. Hanna had known, even at twelve, that that wasn’t fair. Their mom worked hard all day at a nursing home, and she didn’t deserve to come home to a dirty house. Especially when her kids were more than old enough to pick up after themselves.
But that left Hanna to be the nag. To ‘boss’ her little sisters, who had no desire to be ‘bossed’. To compete with Saved by the Bell and Home Improvement reruns. To cajole, and bargain, and threaten. And to be resented, especially by Lizzy.
She didn’t want that. But could she do any better?
It took a moment. Of resignation. Of experiencing the unhappiness that came with it. And then she realized, she was being an idiot.
She was a freaking high school teacher. She had dealt with spoiled-rotten rich kids – not your regular, everyday, North American rich kids, but stinking, filthy, middle-eastern oil, rich kids. She’d taught Physics to 20-year old, alcoholic, drug-addicted high school dropouts. She’d been sworn at by drunken parents. Had her tires slashed, her windshield shot at. Handled flipped desks and hallway brawls.
She hadn’t liked it, or done it well. Obviously. That’s why she was quitting. But she’d handled it. She could certainly handle her three little sisters, who’d been raised by two good, God-fearing parents, and brought up, to this point, in a prairie town full of Mennonites.
“We’re making a garden.”
Three pairs of eyes turned to Hanna in surprise. She squelched a triumphant smile, narrowed her eyes, and casually gave out orders, in a tone that expected obedience. “Put your backpacks in your rooms, and meet me outside,” she said, climbing the stairs to change into shorts. Behind her, she heard the TV turn off – a brief protest from Lizzy – and then the sounds of her instructions being followed. She’d whip these girls into shape in no time.
She’d always wished they could do something, besides sit in front of the TV, after school. But other than the occasional trip to the library, or one of the downtown stores if she had a few dollars to buy them candy, Hanna hadn’t had any idea how to lure them away from their shows. Trying to get them enthusiastic about cleaning the house had certainly never worked.
Now, she had enough ideas to keep them busy for years. And the audacity to go through with them. She’d never been sure what their parents would allow, always afraid she would do something wrong. Watching TV was safe. They only got five channels, and they knew which shows they weren’t allowed to watch. Digging a garden, by comparison, was definitely risky. Her sisters knew it, too, which was why they grabbed shovels and spades from the shed and followed Hanna around the yard while she tried to decide where to start. The danger made it all the more appealing – especially when they knew that the main part of any punishment wouldn’t fall on them, but on their older sister.
Hanna finally picked a spot beside the garage, where her parents would eventually plant a few tomatoes themselves.
“Are you allowed to dig a garden?” asked Emily, the only one remotely concerned about the possibility of Hanna getting into trouble.
“It’ll be a surprise,” Hanna said. “We’ll do such a good job that Mom and Dad won’t be able to be mad.”
“What are we going to plant in it?” Emily asked.
“Vegetables,” Hanna answered. “Tomatoes, peas, and beans,” she decided quickly. “Maybe a few carrots.”
“But we don’t have any seeds,” said Lizzy.
“It’s almost fall. We won’t be able to plant anything till spring.”
“Then why are we doing this now?” Lizzy grumbled.
“Because, it’s a lot of work to dig a garden,” said Hanna. “It’s better to do it now, when it’s warm, than in the spring, when it’s wet and cold. And we can do a lot of things to the soil now to make it better for plants to grow in, later.”
While they dug into the earth, she told them how they would make compost all winter from their kitchen scraps and the fall leaves. And how, in the spring, they would plant tiny tomato seeds in pots inside, and let them sprout on the window sills, before transplanting them outside in June. And then how they would build a trellis so the vines could climb up the side of the garage and reach more sunlight. And how they would plant basil in front of the tomatoes, to keep away the bugs that would otherwise eat them.
Breaking up sod wasn’t easy work, and when Emily seemed to be getting tired, Hanna sent her inside to get a jug of water, and Sarah, to help her bring out glasses. Emily thought to put ice cubes in the water, all on her own, and they sat on the side steps to drink their water, as happily as if it were a picnic.
Lizzy, who hadn’t complained once about the physical labour, started asking questions.
“Where’d you get the idea for a garden?”
“I’ve always wanted a garden,” Hanna said.
“But you never started one. Why now?”
Hanna shrugged. “It’s something to do.”
“How’d you know how to do it?” Lizzy persisted.
“I don’t know. I guess I read it somewhere.” That was true enough.
Sarah piped in. “Where will we get the seeds?”
“We’ll buy them from a store, in the spring.”
“What’ll they look like?”
Hanna kept answering questions while they finished the job. After a few more minutes’ labour, they had the little strip of soil dug up to Hanna’s satisfaction. Their tools were put away in the shed, and the girls were all gathered back around the TV when their mother got home, not even noticing her daughters’ handiwork in the yard.
Hanna didn’t mind them watching TV now. They’d earned it. But instead of joining them, she headed upstairs to her room.
If she was still going to be here tomorrow, she had some work to do. Starting with her wardrobe. She dragged out her second best pair of jeans, and rummaged around the room until she found the bag of scrap material that had come with her all the way from Manitoba.
Three hours later, even with an hour for supper and dishes, she had her first pair of wide-legged jeans. And they were fabulous.
Then she turned her attention to herself. She borrowed her mom’s tweezers, and made some small changes to her brow line – nothing dramatic, right away. They didn’t need too much grooming yet, and she didn’t want anyone noticing a difference.
Then, her hair. It was too long, with scraggly dead ends.
Lizzy found her in the washroom, cutting off a good three centimetres.
“You’re cutting your hair?” she asked in disbelief.
“Just a little.” Hanna expected Lizzy to tattle. But she surprised her.
“Can you cut mine?” she asked.
Hanna glanced at her, without halting her self-ministrations. The look on Lizzy’s face matched her tone of voice. She was actually admiring her.
“Sure,” Hanna said, with a bit of a grin. “How short do you want it?”
“Not short,” Lizzy said. “Just better.”
“I’m not a hairdresser,” Hanna warned her.
It didn’t turn out too bad. Lizzy’s hair was so outrageously thick, that with her shoulder length style, it needed significant thinning. Hanna had very little idea if she was doing it right, but Lizzy was thrilled with the results. It did look significantly improved, in the end.
Though it was early, they went to bed straight away. Without saying it, they both knew they didn’t want their mom to notice their haircuts – not tonight, anyway.
There was a book on the bedside table, beneath a white reading lamp. Hanna usually read for an hour or two before turning the light off – to Lizzy’s great annoyance. Well, for this one night, at least, she would be a better sister. It was easy enough to do, since there was no way she could focus on a novel tonight. She would just read her Bible for a few minutes. She had always been glad her father had inspired her to begin reading her Bible while she was young. She’d read bits and pieces of it back in Manitoba, but the year she was twelve she had read it through, cover to cover. She didn’t want to jeopardize that.
She made it through two chapters of Judges, then turned the lamp off. And stared, wide-eyed, into the blackness.
As soon as she fell asleep, it would be over. This dream, or vision, or whatever it was. It seemed unbelievably real, but it could only be an illusion. She couldn’t trust it. It had been fun, an escape from the depressing reality that was her life. But she would not get to wear her new jeans to school tomorrow, and she wouldn’t get in trouble for cutting Lizzy’s hair. She was 28 years old. She had a job. An apartment. A psychological condition.
Lizzy wasn’t ten years old. She was 26. She was married. She had more or less forgiven Hanna for all their old fights, and they were pretty good friends. She had a good husband, and a beautiful three year old girl, with blue eyes and blond ringlets.
“Lizzy?” Hanna whispered.
There was an answering groan from above.
“Am I a good sister?”
“You know I love you, right?”
“I hate you more than anything in this world. Can we go to sleep now?”
Hanna’s 12 year old self would have kicked at Lizzy’s bunk and left it at that. But time had meant little to her, then.
“We had fun today, didn’t we? With the garden and everything?”
Lizzy sighed. “Yeah, that was fun. Dad’s going to kill you tomorrow.”
“Maybe,” Hanna conceded. “But I think he’ll like it.”
Lizzy didn’t bother coming up with a response. Hanna listened to her breathing. To the hushed sound of the tape of lullabies playing in Sarah and Emily’s room.
This had been her life. Her childhood. She hadn’t appreciated it, of course. Not enough. She’d been too young to take advantage of it. But she was grateful for it. It had been a happy childhood. And this visit was more than she deserved. Beyond anything she had ever dreamed.
Going back was going to be very hard.
She was asleep before her dad got home from work. She slept soundly. And then, it was morning.