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The McGregors

It was August of 1923. The morning sun had risen out of the haze in the east and it peered now over the elm by the grain elevator, shining through the chinks in the morning-glory vine that shaded Black Jim McGregor as he sat on the side porch of his house. The village was coming awake. Emil Weber was already hoeing in his onion patch, back bent, head down. The dew was drying and warm August smells spread through the air: the odour of ripening tomatoes in the garden, the heady perfume of milkweed from across the street, and just a hint of Emil's onions. Black Jim sat uneasily, feeling that he should be somewhere - driving a team or wielding a pitchfork. Yesterday's evening paper lay unheeded beside his chair. He had put it aside to think of his own affairs, of the thing that had come upon him secretly, sneaking up like a thief in the night. Old age, the intruder, the visitor repulsed so many times, had at last come to stay. Never admitted before, it had come at last, the end of his usefulness. And there was nothing for him to do now, nothing that really mattered. Oh, he could hoe the garden, or feed the chickens, the last survivors of the farm days, but any woman could do it as well, perhaps better. More than that, he was no longer Black Jim, but Grey Jim now. Once his hair had been as black as any crow. In that Highland Scottish community there had been many McGregors, some related distantly, some closely, and some with whom there was no known connection. There had also been many Jim McGregors, because their stubborn Scottish forebears clung to the same Christian names. In later years some had broken away from tradition and chosen names like Elmer, Wilbur. Vernon, or Floyd, odd sounding absurdities, not even good Sassenach names. Jim thought about this, turning it over in his mind; it was all part of the frightening changes taking place in the world and crowding out familiar things.

All this had come to pass since he had left the place to young John - Black Jim's John he was called, to distinguish him from Curly Jim's John - and retired to the village. Of course there was nothing else that could have been done. The move had been forced on them by Janet's weak heart. And when Elspeth had come to live with them, things had gone well enough for a time. Janet had recovered some of her strength, and Elspeth seemed happy in her silent way. He had worked with John a great deal, and they were better friends then than they had ever been, though even now they did not talk much except about the work that was being done. And Janet had tried to be content, though sometimes she burst out angrily.

"I don't see why I have to be so useless, Jim. I do little enough. I know I shouldn't complain, when there are so many worse off than I am. It's just that all these years of work - now I'm just a bystander, and I begin to wonder why we did all those things that seemed so necessary at the time. Where are the dreams we had? The dreams I had as a young girl?"

Jim, concerned by the distress on her face, tried to tease her.

"Did you dream of a prince on a white charger and all you got was a plain man with an axe?"

"The plain man was my prince, don't ever doubt that. It's just that the dreams got lost along the way."

Janet discovered the new village library, a good one, established by donations from the estate of a hard-bitten Scotsman expiating the greed of a lifetime by benevolence after death. She had read little since girlhood, and now, to pass the time, she began with old favourites, only to find them sugary, insipid. Searching for something, not even sure what it was, she progressed through books on history and some of the classics to philosophy. There she was stopped by something she could not quite follow. Fascinated, she tried to comprehend the workings of these brilliant minds and came to know at last that even these great men in their wisdom had no agreement among themselves. It seemed they knew little more than she did of the whys and the wherefores. The knowledge brought peace of a sort. 

As the years in the village went by, they accepted the easy life with better grace. There were, after all, things to do, visits with other retired people and noisy card games in the Town Hall. They drove to the farm to see John and Katie and the little boy, Rory. They looked at the flower beds and wandered through the stable and back to see how the cherry grove was doing. They sat on the creek bank and watched what seemed to them to be the very same waters they had seen gurgling down the little rapids.

"It's beautiful, Jim, a lovely place, and we made it so, didn't we? Remember the old cabin and all the stumps. Oh we worked, how we worked, but it was worth it. I can feel happy about it now. We made something out of nothing."

Janet did not live long after this. Jim woke one morning to hear her gasping for breath.

"Oh the pain, Jim, the pain again."

The doctor came and gave her a needle. The pain left and she went to sleep. But Dr. Wilson was not as cheerful as usual. "I think we should have a nurse, Jim. I'll see if I can get Mrs. Gordon. All we can do is keep her in bed and change her medication. But she needs a good nurse. I don't like the sound of her heart at all."

The nurse never got there. Jim was beside her bed when Janet woke again. He saw the grief in her eyes. "I have to leave you Jim. I have to go. I know it now; I have done what I could. Oh my dear, my dear, take care of yourself."

Before the doctor could come again she was gone.

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