For our purposes I’m going to refer to myself as James Madison and Better Half is going to be his Vice President, Elbridge Gerry. This is a “War of 1812” reference (for Americans). I’m also using the terms “Thanksgiving” and “Columbus Day”, which might offend but I hope not.
“Elbridge, I just got the strangest letter. You know how my mother’s parents were Canadian? No? You never knew this? Well, they were, and the wife of a distant relative has invited us up to Canada to spend Thanksgiving with them.”
“Sure. Whatever you want James. But that’s not for another two months.”
“No, it’s our Columbus Day. So it’s less than a month. I’m supposed to call to RSVP. So we’re in? We’ll have to rent a car.”
“And I’ll drive. Is it very far?”
“It’s in the Maritimes, so yes. But let’s take a week off, say a Wednesday to Wednesday, and do a little Canadian tour.”
I called the wife of this distant relative and didn’t get much intel from her except for very detailed instructions about how to get to the house and that we should dress for it.
“What does that mean?”
“How the hell would I know? I’ve never heard of these people. Just bring a suit. I think that’s what she meant. If it’s black tie, well, we’re boorish Americans, so we’ll be excused.”
We found the place and it was suspiciously like Manderley in the movie “Rebecca.” Quite baronial.
“James, maybe someone died and mentioned you in a will!”
“I doubt it. This is all very strange, but let’s see where this takes us.”
I rang the doorbell and was met at the door by a man who was some kind of live-in major-domo for this family. We were ushered into a drawing room where the whole cast was assembled and enjoying drinks. We were greeted warmly by our host and his wife. Our host, to my surprise, had a very thick Scottish accent.
Introductions all around. Elbridge got taken up by our host and another guy who was about our age. I was at the bar ordering a stiff martini alongside a woman about my age.
“So you’re James. We don’t actually know many of the family on the American side but we know about you.”
“Can I ask why that is? Because I have never heard of any of you until I got that letter from your mother.”
[Let’s call the hostess/instigator Rebecca] “Rebecca’s not my mother. Daddy’s been married three times. I’m the child of wife number 2. Your friend is talking to my husband. Or I should say Daddy’s talking at both of them. What does your friend do, by the way, if I might ask?”
“He works for [big financial institution].”
“Oh that might explain it.”
“But how me though? I have siblings. I talked to them and they’ve never heard of you either.”
“Your mother, before she died, I’m very sorry, kept up a correspondence with your great-aunt X, before she died, and your mother mentioned to X that you had moved off to glamorous New York City. X told Daddy’s father about this, it’s a long, complicated story, but Rebecca somehow found your address and now here we are.”
“Is there a point to this?”
“Yes and no. You are related by blood or by marriage to everyone in this room. That man over there is my step-brother from Daddy’s first marriage. Those two young girls are Daddy’s daughters with Rebecca.”
“So your father—“
“He lives in the middle of nowhere and has a little money, as you may have noticed. For the eligible ladies it’s basically either him or some accountant or mid-level Provincial functionary or a cod fisherman. I wish I were joking but that’s closer to the truth than I wish it were.”
“So he’s from Scotland?”
“No, of course not. But his grandparents were and they basically raised him. It’s an annoying affectation. He has kilts, bagpipes, he even bought a place in Scotland. You should go over and visit him there. That’s when he’s in his true element.”
“But what is the point of me especially being here? I do live in ‘glamorous’ New York City—“
“The spirit of cross-border international friendship I suppose. Do me a favor, go to the bar and get us refills. Be quick though, because the food’s going to come out soon.”
Food was brought into the dining room so naturally I drifted over to find my place, because Rebecca had arranged place cards for us all.
“Wait, James, Elbridge, don’t move. Daddy is going to—here it comes.”
And Mr. De Winter played “God Save The Queen” while we stood at attention and sang along. Elbridge put his hand on his heart but I slapped it down and whispered, “This isn’t the ‘Pledge of Allegiance.’ Just do what everyone else is doing.”
“Who is the Queen of Canada?”
“I’ll explain later. Just mouth some words. I know this song so I’ll cover for you.”
At dinner I was seated to Rebecca’s right and the chatty very distant cousin was seated to my right. Elbridge was seated to the host’s right, I noticed. Someone did a little rearranging of the place cards, but for a party like this you break the couples up so everyone is forced to talk to everyone else. It also goes boy/girl/boy/girl, except the host gets to pick the guest of honor, which in this case was my very own Elbridge.
Our hostess, Rebecca, looked me in the eye and asked, “So tell me, James, do you get to Canada often?”
“I love Canada and I’ve been a few times, mostly to Montréal and other places in Québec.”
You could have heard a pin drop. I think someone dropped their fork.
“Montréal is the easiest drive from New York unless you live in Buffalo or near Niagara Falls, where I’ve never been, in which case Ontario is yours to explore close by. Of all of Canada Québec seems the most foreign to an American. Especially Québec City. Have you ever been?”
“No. No I haven’t.”
“You should go. It’s really fun. It’s like a small northwestern French city transplanted across the Atlantic.”
That distant martini-swilling cousin to my right added, “Why don’t you bring up the Plains of Abraham while you’re at it. I’m sure you’ve been.”
The rest of the dinner went well. After dinner we withdrew to card room, of course this pile had one, and played a card game I’d never played before: whist. This is a very old precursor to bridge. I was teamed with the chatty cousin and we won round after round. Card counting seemed to be in her very blood.
We all turned in early, all that food and liquor and wine. Rebecca, who again had never met us before, somehow knew that Elbridge and I were a couple so she gave us a guest bedroom (there were several) with a super-luxe king bed with sheets, a fluffy duvet, and pillows without number. It also had an en-suite bathroom, and someone had unpacked what we had brought with us.
As we settled into bed, Elbridge asked me, “So who is the Queen of Canada?”
“QEII. Now go to sleep. I don’t think I can talk anymore. BUT we will talk about all of this when we drive out of here.”