What I really wanted for Christmas was to go skiing and have someone else cook dinner. Considering the size of our family, it was rare when someone suggested, "How would the nine of you like to come for the holiday?"
Living on a farm, in a roomy house to accommodate all the folks, fidos and felines, we were the natural magnet for the rest of the relatives to spend holidays, especially Christmas. Our tradition was to open gifts, enjoy the annual Yuletide hunt for a few hours, and return home to feed however many people lingered in our living room.
This year, for once, I was determined to change tradition. We'd get up early, have breakfast and open gifts. And then, with the children, head for the slopes two hours away for a few days of skiing and room service. I'd already mentioned this to most of the horde who made us their holiday habitat.
I had neglected, however, to mention it to Aunt Louise, who sat with me one afternoon in early December, sharing lunch and Christmas wishes. Aunt Louise was a tiny, quiet woman who had long been a widow, living in the midst of the city, far from two rather disinterested, grown children. She worked in a bookstore several days a week, and her passion was visiting our farm.
She loved all the animals, and they loved her back just as fiercely. When we gathered for the holidays, while Aunt Louise was usually overwhelmed by the rest of our boisterous Irish clan, the animals went to her first. They knew she carried treats in her pocket and loved to scratch them behind the ears. The dogs slobbered on her, the cats curled contentedly in her lap, and the horses nickered eagerly when she passed down the barn aisle.
Aunt Louise never missed the chance to go car-following during the Christmas hunt, and she quietly cleaned up while others were entertaining each other.
Just before I announced our change in Christmas plans, Aunt Louise dropped her bombshell. "You know what I want more than anything in the world for Christmas?" she asked. Before I could guess a new wok or aloe vera bath oil, she said, "I want to go hunting with you."
"You've always gone car-following, Aunt Louise," I answered.
"No, dear. I mean I want to go foxhunting this year on a horse."
Had Aunt Louise told me she wanted to learn to ride a Harley Hog and go riding with the Hell's Angels, I couldn't have been more dumbfounded.
"You've always been the only one to know how much I love horses," Aunt Louise whispered.
I was, momentarily and uncharacteristically, speechless. Had I missed the signs she was a genuine horse lover? Perhaps she donned disguises and rode in point-to-points on Saturdays when she was supposedly delivering Meals on Wheels. Perhaps she was a closet hot-walker at the racetrack.
"Aunt Louise," I said, "you can go for a hack with me in the woods anytime, but you can't just get on a horse and go hunting!" I lied, conveniently forgetting that's exactly what I had done years before, when I thought a coop was a military maneuver.
"I rode quite a lot when I was ... young," Aunt Louise admitted with uncustomary candor, "and I was pretty good, too! But I've never been foxhunting in all my life. And those years I've followed in the car I've always dreamed about how it would be to sit on one of those beautiful hills on a horse and watch the fox close up. That would be the most wonderful Christmas present in the world."
I wanted to say I'd take her hunting after she'd practiced riding for about six months. But sorry, this Christmas I would be going skiing and not fixing dinner for anybody, and I'll see you at Easter. What I said, looking at her shining blue eyes, was, "I think we'd have a grand time. I'd love to take you. But you'll have to ride old Dilly, and we won't, stay out long. Hunting's very tiring, you know,"
"I'll come and ride as many days a week as you want me to," Aunt Louise chirped, clapping her hands in glee.
I told the children and my husband our skiing trip would be postponed one day and that we were going hunting and feeding the family, again. They were pleased, really, wanting to be home for Christmas dinner with their beloved cousins anyway.
But, like the Grinch, I lamented the change of plans, pitying poor little me for having to fix dinner for a zillion and having to worry about frail Aunt Louise on a horse in the midst of a hunt on a freezing day. Bah, Humbug!!
True to her word, Aunt Louise arrived at least four days a week to ride. The old mare loved her, partially because she brought endless treats and partially because Aunt Louise pretty much left her alone to do her job, which the old mare had always known she could do best without human assistance. Aunt Louise's balance was better than I'd hoped, and she soon mastered posting to the trot and sitting to the canter without listing too dangerously in any direction.
She also asked me to help her choose some proper riding clothes. "So I don't embarrass you, dearie," she said. I offered to lend her mine, since I didn't think this would be a sport she'd take up seriously, but Aunt Louise took credit card in hand and bought herself a stunning habit.
Suddenly, it was Christmas morning. I'd been awake "what·iffing" since 3 a.m. What if Aunt Louise fell off? Would her frail little frame shatter in a million pieces? What if the old mare took off, bit in teeth, in the heat of the hunt and scared Aunt Louise into a stroke? Why hadn't I just listened to myself and gone skiing in the first place?
Aunt Louise appeared hours before we were scheduled to leave, laden with gifts for all and, with the grandest present for the Grinch, a promise that when we returned from the hunt, dinner would arrive via a caterer she knew.
The morning was brittle with a promise of snow. The horses looked splendid, even ancient Dilly was brushed and braided, doing credit to Aunt Louise and her finery. I wanted desperately to hook a leadshank to Dilly, but I knew Aunt Louise and the old mare would be humiliated. So I simply crossed my fingers, prayed to every religious icon I could think of, and mounted up.
The elderly mare was impeccably behaved as hounds scrambled off the truck and surrounding horses fretted. My mare, who had been hunting at least 25,000 times, bounced around as if she'd never seen any of it before. I planned to try and hang back a bit, out of the melee should hounds take off.
And take off they did, finding almost immediately and heading across a long meadow, through a wooded area and up the Big Hill. The old mare's ears perked, but she seemed content to canter along behind the thundering field. I glanced at Aunt Louise; I saw her smiling at the lovely view. We let the horses out a bit and finally reached the top of the long, big slope, where we paused. Aunt Louise looked a bit pale, and the field, now at the bottom of the Big Hill, had thankfully checked. Hounds, noses down to the ground, frantically attempted to find the lost scent.
Aunt Louise and I sat at the top of the hill watching the scene below us. It had started to snow lightly, so the grass and pine trees looked like a true holiday scene. Suddenly, silently, from the edge of the woods to the right, an enormous, dark red fox, white-tipped tail waving, trotted out of the copse. He came directly toward us, seemingly unafraid. Stopping briefly in front of Aunt Louise, the fox barked once sharply and then disappeared quietly into the far side of the wooded hill.
Aunt Louise's hand came up to her mouth and a single, crystal tear rolled down her cheek. "Oh my," she whispered. "That's just about the best present I've ever had. Thank you."
Mission accomplished, we headed back home. Our holiday dinner was a smashing success, with, for once, Aunt Louise taking center stage to describe her stunning hunt with great detail and enthusiasm. Suddenly, skiing and being pampered by chefs and wine stewards didn't seem SO awfully important.
Two months later Aunt Louise died. We knew she was ill. We never discussed it, though I was certain that was why she was so insistent to fulfill her dream of foxhunling that year. At the funeral her two children thanked me for taking their mother out with hounds.
"She told us you knew how much she'd always wanted to go," they said. "I guess we just weren't around enough lately to know how much she wanted that. Who would have thought she'd want to be buried in riding clothes?" her daughter said, puzzled.
"Mother was most thrilled about seeing the fox," she added. "In fact, she even told us he talked to her, but," the daughter winked, "I can't imagine what he said."
I can. I saw him too, and I'm sure she understood exactly what he said. "Merry Christmas, Aunt Louise."
Cooky McClung has been a favorite of Chronicle readers since her first article appeared in its pages in 1970. She has written more than 200 tales since then. She published her first book Horsefolk Are Different in 1987. "What We Both Really Wanted For Christmas" was printed in her second book, Horse Folk Are Still Different, in 1995.