Holy Days of Obligation

Holy Days of Obligation



About the book

The oldest of nine children in a working-class Catholic family in industrial Ontario, Bertie relates the stories of her siblings and parents through the years, many of which are very lean. Achingly real, these rich, tough, stories uncover the hidden secrets and the mysterious bonds that hold families together.

About the author

Zettell, Susan

Born and raised in Kitchener, Ontario, Susan Zettell has lived in Cambridge, Vancouver, Halifax, Ottawa and Whitehorse. She now lives in Cape Breton with her husband, Andy Watt.

Susan is the author of the novel The Checkout Girl, as well as two short story collections, Night Watch and Holy Days of Obligation. Her stories have been anthologized in Quintet, Spider Women, The Day the Men Went to Town and The Company We Keep. She edited, along with Frances Itani, the posthumous story collection One of the Chosen by Danuta Gleed.


"I was just thinking about polishing shoes," I told my father as I took off my coat. His breakfast tray was waiting on the table. My father's face reminded me of photographs of just released prisoners-of-war: skeletal and grey, covered with a rash and stubble and on the edge of some expression if only there was enough energy. Most of his hair was gone, found in wads on his pillow one morning during a second round of chemotherapy after more tumours were found. There were a few wisps, which looked like bits of dried grass poking through the smoothness of the first winter snow.

"I'm not hungry," he said. He sat up and lifted the plastic cover off his oatmeal. He put the lid back but left his hand there covering the bowl. "Sometimes I just think of food and it makes me sick. Still I can't get it off my mind. I did eat supper last night and it stayed down." He did not look at me as he spoke, but at his hand which was bruised from the ritual blood lettings for tests. "I think I'm still full from last night." These were the things we talked about, the ways in which we measured hope.

"Shoes were Sunday," my father said to me. He looked up and right into my eyes. "But what about Holy Days of Obligation?"


Their favourite Holy Day is Good Friday, when they have take-out fish and chips from The Stones of Rockway Restaurant. The best in town, Frank maintains, and his family agrees. After the zealous piety of Lent—the extra masses, The Stations of the Cross, the giving up of sweets and treats—Good Friday services peak in an extreme of lengthy prayers and devotions, a long fast, a weariness at keeping vigil with Christ's suffering and death: the reception of the cross, the first fall, the meeting with His mother, Simon of Cyrene carries the cross. But combined with the feeling of hardship is the feeling of coming to the end. And Frank's yearly decision to order fish and chips fills his family with a feeling of delighted, rising happiness. Frank takes a sheet of paper and asks each of his nine children how many pieces of fish they want, and whether they can eat a whole order of fries. "Remember how big the orders are... Michael didn't eat all of his last year, if you recall," he reminds them. There is no malice in his voice. He will order exactly what he is told. Frank's children tell him what they want and eye him warily, as though at any moment he will change back into the father they know.

Frank calls the restaurant with the order and asks how long before it will be ready. They sit and wait and wonder out loud if this is a good time to leave because if the traffic is heavy it will take fifteen minutes, but if there is no traffic (a miracle, they say) it won't take so long, and really, the waitress said it would be ready in half an hour so they may as well wait a little longer at home. And isn't it awful when they get there too soon and have to wait in line. One year, the year Richard broke his leg, remember, the line went all the way out the door and around the side of the building. Imagine that, someone says. This year, it's Margaret's and Sandy's turn to go with Frank; get your coats on, the wind is cold, their mother tells them. Frank slips on his jacket.

While Frank is gone they get out the paper plates, napkins, ketchup, salt and vinegar. Catherine stations herself at the window and calls, "Here comes a car," and "Nope, it's not Dad," and "Nothing yet," and "He's coming! They're here!" Richard hits Michael, who howls. Simon wakes up from his nap and begins to cry. Elizabeth yells to them all to settle down and get to the table. They push and shove at the chairs; everyone wants to sit beside Frank or Sandy or Margaret who will tell them about the line-up, where they had to park, who they knew and talked to while they were waiting for the fish and chips.

Frank comes in and frowns at the noise, but doesn't comment. "Let's eat," he says as he empties the brown paper bags with dark markings where the grease has seeped through. The food has a slightly papery odour and Frank says, "Mother, you serve." She opens the boxes and oh, this one has golden brown pieces of steaming fish, and so does this one. Bertha says she hopes the numbers are right because she's starved and the next box has french fries and sure enough there is plenty to go around. "There never looks to be enough," someone laughs, and "go get the salt from the back of the stove," and "please pass the ketchup." Somehow the first mouthful goes in, the taste of fries with their quickly uncrisping texture—but no one complains—and their earthy potato tang and the spice of the ketchup, the saltiness, the zing of vinegar and they're really too hot but that doesn't stop anyone.

They eat faster and faster because the food tastes so good, and there might be second helpings, and because it's special. The fish is pure white inside its golden coat of batter, a marvel to look at. And it tastes sweet, not at all fishy. The batter has a doughnutty flavour, delicious, but suddenly there isn't room for another mouthful. Everyone slows down, begins to pick at their fries. "Just two more," Robert says and groans. There's lots left over, was never any need to eat so fast, and the smell begins to change. It is heavier, thick with grease and vinegar and fish. The bags are slippery as Bertha and Elizabeth fill them with garbage. "Who's going to Vigil tomorrow?" Elizabeth asks. "I'm stuffed" is all the answer she gets.


I rubbed the skin around my eyes with my fists, pressed it hard onto the bone. The heat and dry air in the hospital made my sinuses feel as if they would explode. Dr. Zuber came in to visit my father. He came every weekday, and even on the weekend if he was checking on an emergency patient, or attending someone who was dying. We looked forward to seeing him. When his visit was over I would leave to go to work.

He was short, with wavy mounds of unruly greying hair. Several wild thick grey hairs jutted from his eyebrows, and one or two from his ears, as well. That day we were waiting for the results of the CAT scan that would tell us how successful the chemotherapy had been.

"Sinuses sore?" he asked me, and I was not surprised that he knew what was bothering me. When he visited he leaned his hip into the foot of my father's high bed. He looked at him and asked the exact right questions: "A little pain today, Frank?" when my father had a bad night. Or "Do you need any cream for your rash?" when my father had just discovered a rash on his arm the afternoon before. Dr. Zuber told us of the latest drugs, the laser surgery a colleague had just performed on a tumour, a success with deep radiation, what could be done with machines. Every time he visited there was something new, something to make us feel optimistic.

After he asked about my sinuses, he moved to the window. He looked out and didn't turn to face us. It was a raw day, he told us. His car battery had died. It had never done that in November before. The wind was out of the north, that must be why. He had a finger that got frost bite when he was a child and it turned white on cold days.

"See," he said, and he turned and walked over to the bed to show us. "I'll be in again tomorrow," he told my father in a voice that had begun to sound as flat and hard as ice. My father didn't answer, but looked at the place where Dr. Zuber had stood by the window.

Dr. Zuber left. I watched him go and wondered about what he hadn't told us. When I turned to ask my father what he thought, I saw that he was crying. It was not like the time he cried for Robert. This time his crying had no sound. He held it in a place inside himself. "Call your mother," he told me. "I'm going home."


What a welcome addition to the literature of our country. Susan Zettell has a passion for careful, sensuous detail. Her mature and skilful handling of story convinces us that illusion is truth. She writes about trust and anger and perplexity… >>

— Frances Itani

In Holy Days of Obligation author Susan Zettell weaves the past and present together with a skilled hand. Zettell imbues her stories with sensuous commonplace details that illuminate the bonds that hold a family together. >>

Prairie Fire

In Holy Days of Obligation, Susan Zettell brings memory to instant life with writing that connects to all the senses. >>

The Dalhousie Review

Moments of gorgeous writing abound in Holy Days of Obligation, and there are just as many bracing moments of realization on the common ground of families and feelings. >>

Uptown Magazine

There are times when Susan Zettell's short story collection reads like lyrics from a Bruce Springsteen ballad. Hard work in a factory town. Too many kids and not enough money. Setbacks and disappointments that can't be explained, only accepted. Holy… >>

Canadian Press

These stories pulsate and resonate with the intimacies and intricacies of family life. Sometimes, as is the case with great art, they touch the reader unexpectedly, reaching toward the deep centre of the human heart. >>

— Alistair MacLeod

The 15 linked stories of Susan Zettell's debut collection read like an intimate memoir, and indeed move with the deep emotional currents of personal memory.... Life events that inspire the hackneyed in art are here crafted almost invariably with a… >>

The Globe & Mail

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