Big Red

Big Red

From Chicken Soup for the Canadian Soul

Big Red

The first time we set eyes on “Big Red,” father, mother and I were trudging through the freshly fallen snow on our way to Hubble’s Hardware store on Main Street in Huntsville, Ontario. We planned to enter our name in the annual Christmas drawing for a chance to win a hamper filled with fancy tinned cookies, tea, fruit and candy. As we passed the Eaton’s department store’s window, we stopped as usual to gaze and do a bit of dreaming.

The gaily decorated window display held the best toys ever. I took an instant hankering for a huge green wagon. It was big enough to haul three armloads of firewood, two buckets of swill or a whole summer’s worth of pop bottles picked from along the highway. There were skates that would make Millar’s Pond well worth shovelling and dolls much too pretty to play with. And they were all nestled snugly beneath the breathtakingly flounced skirt of Big Red.

Mother’s eyes were glued to the massive flare of red shimmering satin, dotted with twinkling sequin-centred black velvet stars. “My goodness,” she managed to say in trancelike wonder. “Would you just look at that dress!” Then, totally out of character, mother twirled one spin of a waltz on the slippery sidewalk. Beneath the heavy, wooden-buttoned, grey wool coat she had worn every winter for as long as I could remember, mother lost her balance and tumbled. Father quickly caught her.

Her cheeks redder than usual, mother swatted dad for laughing. “Oh, stop that!” she ordered, shooing his fluttering hands as he swept the snow from her coat. “What a silly dress to be perched up there in the window of Eaton’s!” She shook her head in disgust. “Who on earth would want such a splashy dress?”

As we continued down the street, mother turned back for one more look. “My goodness! You’d think they’d display something a person could use!”

Christmas was nearing, and the red dress was soon forgotten. Mother, of all people, was not one to wish for, or spend money on, items that were not practical. “There are things we need more than this,” she’d always say, or, “There are things we need more than that.”

Father, on the other hand, liked to indulge whenever the budget allowed. Of course, he’d get a scolding for his occasional splurging, but it was all done with the best intention.

Like the time he brought home the electric range. In our old Muskoka farmhouse on Oxtongue Lake, Mother was still cooking year-round on a wood stove. In the summer, the kitchen would be so hot even the houseflies wouldn’t come inside. Yet, there would be Mother—roasting—right along with the pork and turnips.

One day, Dad surprised her with a fancy new electric range. She protested, of course, saying that the wood stove cooked just dandy, that the electric stove was too dear and that it would cost too much hydro to run it. All the while, however, she was polishing its already shiny chrome knobs. In spite of her objections, Dad and I knew that she cherished that new stove.

There were many other modern things that old farm needed, like indoor plumbing and a clothes dryer, but Mom insisted that those things would have to wait until we could afford them. Mom was forever doing chores— washing laundry by hand, tending the pigs and working in our huge garden—so she always wore mended, cotton-print housedresses and an apron to protect the front. She did have one or two “special” dresses saved for church on Sundays. And with everything else she did, she still managed to make almost all of our clothes. They weren’t fancy, but they did wear well.

That Christmas I bought Dad a handful of fishing lures from the Five to a Dollar store, and wrapped them individually in matchboxes so he’d have plenty of gifts to open from me. Choosing something for Mother was much harder. When Dad and I asked, she thought carefully then hinted modestly for some tea towels, face cloths or a new dishpan.

On our last trip to town before Christmas, we were driving up Main Street when Mother suddenly exclaimed in surprise: “Would you just look at that!” She pointed excitedly as Dad drove past Eaton’s.

“That big red dress is gone,” she said in disbelief. “It’s actually gone.”

“Well . . . I’ll be!” Dad chuckled. “By golly, it is!”

“Who’d be fool enough to buy such a frivolous dress?” Mother questioned, shaking her head. I quickly stole a glance at Dad. His blue eyes were twinkling as he nudged me with his elbow. Mother craned her neck for another glimpse out the rear window as we rode on up the street. “It’s gone . . .” she whispered. I was almost certain that I detected a trace of yearning in her voice.

I’ll never forget that Christmas morning. I watched as Mother peeled the tissue paper off a large box that read “Eaton’s Finest Enamel Dishpan” on its lid.

“Oh Frank,” she praised, “just what I wanted!” Dad was sitting in his rocker, a huge grin on his face.

“Only a fool wouldn’t give a priceless wife like mine exactly what she wants for Christmas,” he laughed. “Go ahead, open it up and make sure there are no chips.” Dad winked at me, confirming his secret, and my heart filled with more love for my father than I thought it could hold!

Mother opened the box to find a big white enamel dishpan— overflowing with crimson satin that spilled out across her lap. With trembling hands she touched the elegant material of Big Red.

“Oh my goodness!” she managed to utter, her eyes filled with tears. “Oh Frank . . .” Her face was as bright as the star that twinkled on our tree in the corner of the small room. “You shouldn’t have . . .” came her faint attempt at scolding.

“Oh now, never mind that!” Dad said. “Let’s see if it fits,” he laughed, helping her slip the marvellous dress over her shoulders. As the shimmering red satin fell around her, it gracefully hid the patched and faded floral housedress underneath.

I watched, my mouth agape, captivated by a radiance in my parents I had never noticed before. As they waltzed around the room, Big Red swirled its magic deep into my heart.

“You look beautiful,” my dad whispered to my mom— and she surely did!

Linda Gabris
Prince George, British Columbia

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