what comes of reading tom sawyer and huckleberry finn – then and now

Persons who have never read about the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn may find the following article confusing and irrelevant.  Other persons within the same lamentable class may be inspired to seek out and read about the rollicking and hilarious adventures of these two boys for themselves.  The former may dismiss these literary treasures and never know what they’re missing.  The latter are in for a treat.

Running away from civilization to glorious adventure inside a perpetual summer with Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn was one of my fondest daydreams when I was a kid.  I had most details worked out, where we’d hide, how we’d procure food, firewood and Springsteen cassettes.  Then the dilemma of whether I’d go steady with and eventually marry Tom or Huck reared up and cast a shadow over our exploits.  I felt sad and the dream was over for a time.

Tom and Huck

Last week, I pulled both Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and its sequel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from my bookshelf and read them for the first time in about twenty-five years.  I learned a few things.

1.  Both books are almost as good as when I was a kid, and would as good if age and disillusionment didn’t dissipate a bit of colour and bigness and wonder reserved for little readers.  I wasn’t sure how absorbing they would be now that I’m grown up but Twain’s own preface to Tom Sawyer gave me confidence.

preface

He wasn’t fooling.  Both books are still funny and thought-provoking now and will be again if I get to pull them from the shelf in another quarter of a century.

2.  You can’t dive into both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in only one week without your grammar got soaked like Tom’s one-eyed cat stumbling over a wash basin.

I can’t say nothing now without double negatives creeping into my speech and word endings may or may not make it past my lips before another linguistic embarrassment rolls off my tongue.    Following a commotion coming from the chicken coop Tuesday night I turned to Albert and asked him what on earth was ailin’ ‘nem hens.  Worst of all, when I try to correct myself, I can’t remember every time how to say things proper.

I’ve got no choice but to steer clear of every person I can reasonably avoid whose grammar I’ve ever corrected until this verbal malady wears off.  Pride and Prejudice next week will likely speed the process but to my shame, a week of cave exploring, Mississippi river rafting and black slave abolitionin’ makes fancy dress balls and English manners seem fearsome dull by comparison.

3.  Reading these books no longer makes me want to run off with Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.  I’m unnerved by the relief I feel at this discovery, if you can unravel that.  No, my renewed interest in all things Twainian will be satisfied in a journey, travelled by nothing more rustic nor romantical than a 2013 Toyota Corolla with fully functioning AC for warm weather and heated seats for cool, to Hannibal, Missouri, Mark Twain’s hometown and inspiration for St. Petersburg and everything and everybody in it.

Well, that and a fanatical search for a hardcover copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  Published in New York by Macmillan in 1962, illustrated by John Philip Falter.  Because he’s the only artist who’s captured Twain’s characters the way anyone who’s imagined them properly could.  Since we’re disclosing.

But I know now why I got sad as a little girl when I thought about choosing Tom or Huck.  It’s because marrying would require the boys to grow up, and that would be a tragedy.  One could imagine Tom as an adult (but why would you?) but a grown up Huck calls to mind a pitiful image of Muff Potter: harmless, kind even, to the village children, but aimless and ill-equipped to function in the real world.

Others have written about the pointlessness of a grownup Tom and Huck (Twain actually considered bringing geriatric Tom and Huck back to St. Petersburg for one last book) but it’s possible that the distinction of having arrived at this conclusion through soul-wrenching ambivalence about which fictional character to choose for a life partner may be mine exclusively.

A grown-up Tom and Huck are as difficult to imagine as a scallop-edged bone china teacup perched aloft the pinky finger of Injun Joe.  It’s just not right.  And so I won’t try no more.

notice

 

 

The War of the Warts

Albert grew warts on his hands ten years ago.  Big, ugly growths that challenged even the most well-bred among his acquaintances to look into his eyes during conversation instead of down at his hands in fascinated revulsion.  Worse still, small children recoiled when the otherwise beloved Mr. Wall reached down to tousle their hair.

This picture shows Albert’s hands about three years ago when the warts were quite small compared with how they looked six months ago.

Albert's warts

A friend advised him to bandage the warts in duct tape to get rid of them.  Albert readily complied; duct tape as a fix-all is habitual with him and a redneck naturally inclines to a redneck solution to his problems.  It didn’t work.  The warts remained and left me wondering whether the homeopathic principle of applying like to like holds any merit at all.duct tape

Next, Albert underwent cryotherapy in his doctor’s office.  The treatment is aptly named – liquid nitrogen pressed to flesh to freeze it to death can reduce anyone to tears.  He endured twelve treatments over a six month stretch and each time, the freezing produced huge, angry blisters that rendered every task involving his hands an excruciating ordeal.  I would not have considered such pain worth smooth, blemish-free hands even if it had worked but to watch Albert endure such agony to no avail seemed even crueler.  The warts crawled out from under the carnage as though nothing had gone off to interrupt tactical proceedings of Operation Ugly.

Sometime later, an elderly Tante from church telephoned with a new solution to Albert’s problem.  She instructed him to count the warts and then call her back with the number.  She would then cut a length of string into the same number of pieces, tie a knot in each one and bury them in the garden after nightfall.  This, she assured him, had purged many a warty one back in the Mexican Darpa when she was a girl.  She felt certain it would do the same for Albert.

Matthew makes no mention of Jesus tying bits of string into knots when he healed the centurion’s servant and so Albert gently let her know that if this method of distance healing was actually effective, it was owing to Hakjse’rie (witchcraft).  This took the unwitting sorceress by surprise.  It hadn’t occurred to her to wonder how or why her wooly bit of wisdom might work.  On hearing Albert’s position though, she promptly abandoned the scheme.  There was apt to be a cure out there that was every bit as efficient as Hakjse’rie, she reckoned, for we’d none of us better mess with that.

The medical route had proved a dismal failure.  Folklore monkeyshines were out of the question.  Albert turned again to a more homegrown approach, one that, were it to fail, would not be for lack of sheer brutality.

Henry Froese had once offered to boil the warts out with battery acid.  He had successfully rid himself of warts this way, he said, so the prognosis for Albert was very good.  Albert now agreed to the idea, leaving me in no doubt that cryotherapy freezes more than just warts.

First, Henry applied an electric grinder to the warts.  He must cut away the tough outer layer, he explained, to allow the acid to penetrate the roots.  His theory made sense except that after ten minutes, the grinder had achieved no more than buff the warts to a high shine.  Albert’s hands took on a freakishly dapper look, as though groomed to audition as a hand double in some science fiction movie.  James Bond, Molefinger.

Henry attacked again, this time with a pair of shears, and the warts gave way.  His exultant grin widened with each one that capitulated and fell screaming in the blood which pooled in the grass below Albert’s mutilated hands.  A twig lay handy near his feet so he used it to administer battery acid to the amputated warts.  When the bright red blood sizzled, turned black and congealed, Henry declared the operation a success.

shears

And it was a success, depending on how you looked at it.  Battery acid had the effect of Miracle-Gro on a prize-winning rose bush.  The warts, pruned and fertilized, grew back bigger, gnarlier and more obnoxious-looking than the ones pictured above.

Albert’s not one to admit defeat to anything, but I think he gave up on them then.  At least, he stopped trying to do anything about them.  They hurt and bled as he worked the farm but he said little about it.  The warts continued to sprout and spread, eventually threatening to take over his hands.

In January, his little brother Matthew, a mechanic, happened to cure his own warts quite by accident.    The constant exposure of his hands to gasoline, Varsol and the frigid winter air dried and chapped his hands painfully so he turned to Mother Wall for help.  She gave him the remains of a bottle of moisturizer which he sniffed before declaring, “It smells girly.  But I don’t mind” and proceeded to bathe his hands in it every day.

Not only did his wiry hands take on velvety suppleness and the exotic fragrance of cocoa butter, his warts disappeared within a couple of months.002

His testimony was enough to revive hope in Albert one last time.  He examined the bottle, turned it upside down and squeezed about half a cup into his right hand.   No dime-sized pat for him; he slathered more lotion on himself than I’d known human skin could absorb but I underestimated Albert.  He steadily worked it into his hands and as he worked, Mother Wall’s kitchen flooded with the warm, heady scent of cocoa plantations and renewed determination.

Mother Wall studied his single-minded chafing for a while.  “Here,” she said, “take the bottle home with you.”

And he did.  Shortly after, I accompanied Albert to Sally Beauty Supply in St. Thomas.  It’s not the sort of shop he was wont to patronize but his daily embalming ceremony had quickly drained the remains of Mother Wall’s container.  His only hope for expelling those warts resided in a fresh bottle of Queen Helene cocoa butter hand and body lotion, no matter where he had to go to get it.

Its luxuriously smoothing properties exhibited themselves about a month later when Albert attended a viewing at Kebbel funeral home.  He stood in a group of mourners conversing in subdued tones when his buddy Michael walked in.  He and Albert are too close for something so formal as a handshake to feel anything other than awkward but since Michael exchanged the ritual with everyone else in the circle, there was nothing for Albert to do but stick out his hand.

Michael took it.  “I always figured you’d have a working man’s hands.” he remarked in a tone mildly surprised yet loud enough for the corpse to hear.  “They’re soft as a baby’s bum!”

I don’t know what Albert said out loud.  He chose not to say what was in his head.  But even this mortification couldn’t sway his zealous devotion to the queen of cocoa butter and soon, she rewarded his loyalty.  The warts began to disappear.  Not fall off, just shrink and…disappear.  She waved her creamy scepter over blemishes which nitrogen, power tools and battery acid had failed to cast out and banished them without so much as a wince of pain or a drop of blood from her subject.

002

It was my turn to eye the bottle with interest.  It was disconcerting to think that such power resided in an ordinary bottle of hand lotion retailing at $6 on the shelves at Sally Beauty but Albert didn’t share my concern.  I guess if you let Henry Froese dip a dirty stick in battery acid and stuff it into your bloody knuckles, you don’t much care what’s inside a harmless-looking plastic container so long as it cures what ails you.  So it doesn’t bother me either.  Albert’s hands, Albert’s toil worn, battle-scarred, beautiful hands are healed of the lumpy, painful growths that plagued them for over ten years.  And that’s good enough for both of us.

 

Mr. Penner’s Predicament

Mr. Penner was a catechism teacher in Sunday school when I was a little girl.  His wife never bore him children and he compensated with unsolicited concern for the way other people raised theirs, much to their irritation.

You might think the absence of tiny feet pitter-pattering the Penner halls afforded Frau Penner an easy, if empty life but you would be wrong.  Mr. Penner didn’t do anything for himself that Frau Penner could just as easily do for him, whether laying out his clothes or fetching a glass of ice water and in this way, he occupied her with more demands than ten Penner progeny could have supplied.  Some even say he made her tuck him into bed at night before she herself was allowed to retire.  I’d need a better source than a conflagration of flowered dresses fanning flames of petty tittle-tattle Tuesday mornings at the Aylmer Sales Arena before I’d credit such absurdity to poor Mr. Penner.  Still, others might say a fellow gaining notoriety among his Old Colony Mennonite contemporaries as a male chauvinist is its own testimony.  Mr. Penner 

He would gladly have died before she did in order never to be without his beloved Frau Penner but the usually accommodating woman ignored this final behest.  She passed quietly away just before Christmas last year, leaving Mr. Penner inexorably and unbearably, alone.

**************************

One morning two weeks ago, I dropped in on Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Klassen, an elderly couple I often visit near Aylmer.  Mr. Klassen sat sprawled on the living room sofa.  He looked tired but I knew he wouldn’t nap.  He wore white sport socks under black dress pants and shiny black shoes which only meant that he was going somewhere, and it wasn’t to the grocery store.  His face looked dour though, as though he would have preferred Price Chopper to his destination.

“Are you going somewhere?” I asked politely.

“Not me.” said Mrs. Klassen quickly, darting a glance at her husband from her arm chair.  He only frowned and stared at the picture window.

“He’s taking Mr. Penner to visit Mrs. Hildebrandt.” she explained when it became clear that Mr. Klassen would not.

I must have looked confused.    

“Mr. Penner wants to court her.”   she looked as if she dearly wished Mr. Klassen would do his own explaining.   

I turned my gaze back to Mr. Klassen.  I’d seen him wear many hats in his life: husband, father, farmer and factory worker, but match-maker was a new one to me.  I don’t think he liked it much.

“It’ll never work.” he said grimly.  “Penner wants a woman who’ll make sure that he doesn’t have to raise a finger to help himself.  Trouble is, Mrs. Hildebrandt wants the same kind of man.”

“Doesn’t he know that?” I asked.

“He’s never seen her!” he exclaimed.  “He knows that we drove her to the doctor once.  That was good enough for him.  He’s hired Hän Hiebert to drive him over here so that I can show them over there.” 

A peal of laughter escaped my lips but I drew it up short.  A very little more provocation would have left Mrs. Klassen to finish the story. 

Mr. Klassen drew himself up on the sofa.

“When Penner sees her there in that sitting room full of dusty gimcracks and her biiig –“ his arms drew a wide arc over his stomach to give a picture of the widow Hildebrandt’s ample proportions – “he’ll know that she won’t do for him.”

 The widow Hildebrandt was not a fastidiousness housekeeper, but she’d cleared a path for her wheelchair through the bric-a-brac to the front door where with beaming, upturned countenance she greeted callers and preceded them, single file back into the recesses of her fusty, crowded quarters.  If she needed to reach a book or knitted Kleenex box beyond the constraints of her wheelchair, she blithely got up, retrieved the object and resumed her seat and role of invalid as though nothing were in the least out of the ordinary. kleenex box     

Still, I thought, allowances might be made for shoddy housekeeping and an expanding waistline if she had other attributes to make up for them.  Especially since Mr. Penner with his squat figure and nasally twang was no Adonis himself, nor likely ever had been.  I asked,

“Is she generally a happy person?”

“She laughs a lot.” Mrs. Klassen conceded doubtfully, “But I don’t know if she’ll laugh today.”

A blue minivan pulled up and Mr. Penner’s knee-high rubber galoshes emerged from the passenger side.  Mr. Klassen let him into the kitchen and turned to gather up his coat.

“When you don’t know how to get where you want to go, you’ve got to take on someone who does.” said Mr. Penner half-apologetically.

“Yes.” said Mr. Klassen and put his hat on.

“Of course, I don’t know if this is going to work out.”

“No.” said Mr. Klassen.  The door closed behind them.

While we waited for the men to return, Mrs. Klassen and I set about light housework and lunch preparations.  I stirred a pot of stew and speculated on Mr. Penner’s chances of securing the widow Hildebrandt to be his lawful wedded wait staff.   Mrs. Klassen set dinner plates and looked as though she wasn’t sure I should joke about it. 

Lunch was ready and the table set but the men did not come.

“It’s a good sign,” I assured Mrs. Klassen.  “It means they’ve found lots to talk about.”

We had no way of knowing how long the widow Hildebrandt might detain them with the gaiety  and effervescent laughter which were even now trimming inches from her figure in the eyes of her captivated paramour so we sat down to eat.  When we were almost finished the blue minivan drove up the lane and Mr. Klassen entered the house, alone. 

My curiosity was almost at its peak; I could not have remained silent for five minutes but I busied myself with rearranging the table and held my tongue.  Mrs. Klassen couldn’t be bothered. 

“Well?” she said.

Mr. Klassen emitted something between a harrumph and a snort.  “It’s like I said,” said he, as he ladled stew into his plate.  “He looked at her and knew she wouldn’t do for what he wanted.  She looked at him and told him she’d turned a share of fellows away in her time and she might have to do it again.”

 We may never know exactly what about Mr. Penner put the widow off.  Maybe something in his mien and aspect tipped her off to his motives for seeking a wife or maybe it was the galoshes.  Whatever the reason, it formed her resolve: she was having none of him.  As if to soften the blow as he took his leave, she told him she would send word by Mr. Klassen by the second of March whether or not he should call again.  She needn’t have troubled herself.  Mr. Penner was no keener about the prospect of any future confab with the widow than she with him.

“Then where’d you stay so long?” asked Mrs. Klassen.

While he ate, Mr. Klassen filled in the details of a morning which could not have been more unlike the romantic tryst I’d envisioned between the widow and Mr. Penner.

His wife had died less than three months before but the widow Hildebrandt was not Mr. Penner’s first conquest in that time.  The long-suffering Frau Penner was barely cool to the touch when Mr. Penner set about finding a new one among his peoples’ widows and “old girls”, the community’s diplomatic term for “spinster” (not that “spinster” beats it by much) but they were no more eager to succeed her than Dame Hildebrandt had been, maybe less.blue minivan2 

This last disappointment tallied a predetermined number of attempts in his mind.  His fortitude could not endure another.  Upon quitting the widow’s house in Tillsonburg, the blue minivan with the obliging Hän Hiebert at the wheel sped westward to neighboring Aylmer, whizzing past Mr. Klassen’s turnoff, and pulled up to Chateau Gardens, the town’s old folks home where Mr. Penner signed his name to the establishment’s waiting list and resigned his career as aspiring Casanova for good.  

It’s for the best, I think.  The staff and nurses there will feed him, monitor his pills and keep him in clean shirts.  He won’t need to romance any but the pretty ones and if a tender attachment should take root between him and another tenant, it will discover a much more verdant and tranquil garden to grow in than the parched and stony plot  he had to offer the widow Hildebrandt.  Not that she would have taken him even if he did know how to open a can of tuna.  She’s a plucky old girl for all her careering about on that enigma of a wheelchair and she’s turned away her share of fellows before.  I reckon she’ll do it again. 

Human Trafficking

Until last week, I was pretty ignorant about human trafficking, and what little I knew, I didn’t believe.  I’d heard it defined, sort of, but figured it was probably an exaggerated description of prostitution.  A sad vocation for anyone for sure, demoralizing, and chosen maybe out of desperation and a sense of worthlessness, but in part, at least, a choice.  Because people in modern civilization don’t own other people, and if they did, they certainly wouldn’t try on such barbarity in London, Canada, only fifteen minutes away from where I live.

This mind-set came with me to the Sexual Violence and Human Trafficking course I attended this week at my interpreting agency.  I hid a smile the first morning when Lorrie, our instructor, asked each interpreter to describe what they had come hoping to learn this week.  Course attendance was a government mandate.  My hopes had little to do with it.

Fortunately, the London police officer, lawyer, nurse and various other presenters at the course who meet victims of human trafficking on a regular basis are neither ignorant of nor skeptical about the subject.  Their knowledge and experience is not limited to people who prostitute themselves to earn a living.  It reaches to girls and women who are literally owned by people who let other people, up to ten or twenty other people rape them every day for profit.  Girls and women who couldn’t dream up a life like this in their worst nightmares let alone choose it.

The horrific reality lived by victims of trafficking began to impress itself on my mind as I watched and listened.  Traffickers lure their victims by means as varied and ugly as the evil that drives them.  Smuggling is a big one.  Women regularly accept offers of help to enter a foreign country illegally in hopes of a better life.  Once over the border, they’re powerless in the hands of their supposed helpers who take away their identification, lock them up and rent them out for sex to anyone who has the money to pay up front.  Besides posting guards over them and beating them, they prevent victims from trying to escape by threatening the lives of their families.  The kinds of women who fall prey to traffickers defy many stereotypes but they are characteristically very thin from lack of food and from the horrendous conditions in which they end up.

I learned that people from impoverished backgrounds are most vulnerable to trafficking.  In Canada, aboriginal girls and girls from group homes make up the majority of victims.  Traffickers often pose as suitors who exploit the girls’ need for love and stability.  Once they’ve trapped their victim, they only use the boyfriend charade in public when they allow the victim out of the place where she’s kept.  It’s a charade that law enforcement finds difficult to disprove because the victim is usually too terrified of her captors to expose them.

This excerpt from the 2005 t.v. miniseries, Human Trafficking, depicts a couple of ways women get trapped.  It’s pretty graphic though, so use your discretion.

According to police, every motel in London, from the sleaziest dump in the east end to the fanciest place on the north side has been used for sexual encounters with trafficked women and girls.  Not (just) prostitutes.  Women who get carted around from city to city and peddled like wares.  Women, who, if they were to try to flee the motel would be beaten or worse.  When discovered by police, some victims don’t even know where they are.  They don’t know that they’re in London.

Our training uncovered another reason I found human trafficking so hard to believe: it’s because I didn’t know we could do this.  People, I mean.  I didn’t know that people with our God-given capacity for empathy could ignore the cries of a twelve-year-old girl while she’s beaten until she submits to anything the depraved mind of man can devise.  I didn’t know we can tattoo a woman’s neck or hip or backside to identify her to other pimps like a rancher branding Longhorns.  Except no respectable rancher would starve his animal, breed it ten, twelve, twenty times a day and then beat it when it tries to run away.  For most of my adult life, I’ve thought I was a cynical, worldly-wise person.  I thought this was one of the most negative and unattractive things about me.  Would that we could know without polluting our own ingenuousness just how many of our illusions have remained intact after all.

Until last week, I felt rather like I needed a bath when I drove down Dundas Street or Hamilton Road or other seedy districts in London.  Ajax and a bristle brush are still in order when I’m there now, but along with that come feelings of heaviness, sadness and anger.

They kind of showed up at home last night too, over a post by a German page I follow on Facebook.  This picture would not have elicited more than a derisive smirk from me last week.

ladyspeak

The title reads “The Language of Woman”.  According to the list, the second word, “Nein” (No), really means  “Ja” (Yes) in ladyspeak.  I know now why people abuse exclamation points.  It’s because they’re incapable of expressing their passion in clear, pointed language.  At least, that’s what happened when I pounded out the few German words I could put to my feelings,

“Stimmt nicht.  Nein ist nein!!! (Not true.  No is No).

And the exclamation points.  Three of them flew out from under my fingers before I knew what I was about.

Right now I don’t know what to do with those feelings.  This is a start, I suppose.  Arranging them into words and setting them in black and white…in whatever language they decide to come out.

Volunteer Adventures

At a gathering of my church’s board and pastors this weekend, I asked one of the pastor’s wives how her mother-in-law was feeling because two days earlier, she had fainted in the hospital while visiting a friend and hurt herself badly when she fell.  The conversation led others to reflect on medical mishaps that happened to them or to others while visiting other people at the hospital.  They concurred that however badly it sucks to encounter a health problem, a hospital ain’t a bad place for it to happen.  I agree, except when being in the hospital is what brings it about in the first place.  I remember just such an incident.  It happened on my thirty-first birthday, May 23, 2006…

They’d warned me that Mrs. Goertzen was eccentric, a little crazy even, but the forty-minute drive from Terrace Lodge retirement home to her biopsy appointment at the hospital was uneventful.  She slept most of the way.  Upon stepping out of my car though, she said,

“I’m feeling a little dizzy.  May I hold on to you?”                              H.

I offered her my arm but instead of linking it in hers, the tiny woman stepped close, pressed every inch of her body to mine, strapped both arms around my waist and held on.  I gingerly placed an arm about her bony shoulder and in this fashion we commenced our ungainly three-legged crossing toward the hospital doors.  The thinness of those frail-looking arms was deceitful.  I had no hope of loosing myself from their iron grip without attracting even more attention from strangers in the parking lot who were beginning to stare at what they perceived to be my mother strapped like an over-sized leech to my side.

In the waiting room I carefully peeled her off, deposited her in a chair and went to the nurse’s station for her paperwork.  She now had nothing to do but answer questions on her chart which I recorded for her.

“Mrs. Goertzen, do you drink alcohol?”  She answered in the affirmative.

“Do you have a problem with alcohol abuse?”

“Oh yes”, she replied.

I looked up from the chart, wondering if she had misunderstood the question.  Her matter-of-fact blue eyes gazed calmly back at me.  I forced myself to read the next question.

“Um…how much alcohol do you consume in a day?”

“A good-sized bottle.”  She was as cool and unperturbed as before.  I was less experienced then, and not accustomed to intimate details from perfect strangers.  Astonishment at this admission from an elderly Mennonite woman must have been shown in my face because her own leathery visage cracked all over as she burst into gales of gleeful hilarity, sputtering, “I got you.   Ohh, I got you!”

People in the waiting room turned to see the commotion.  I turned Mrs. Goertzen back to her chart in fervent hope of getting her out of there, fast.

In hindsight, patience would have served me better.  With no mischief to occupy her thoughts, Mrs. Goertzen got tired of waiting.  Without warning, she lurched to her feet.  “I’m tired of this,” she declared, swaying precariously on her thick-soled orthopedics.  “I’m going home.”  The daily-bottle reference shot through my mind as I leapt to my feet to steady her.  With the help of a nurse, I half-coaxed, half-corralled her into a corner until a team of doctors was finally ready to begin the procedure.

syringe“Are you sure you want to watch this?” they asked me.

“Oh yes,” I said.  The thought of Mrs. Goertzen strapped to a bed with a knife in her back bothered me considerably less than it might have a few hours before.  I settled into a comfortable chair at the head of the bed and watched a big syringe shoot anesthetic into her spine.  Turning her twinkling blue eyes to me from the pillow, she began to depict amusing facial expressions the doctors hovering over her backside might exhibit were she to pass gas.   Having had all I was willing to take for one day, I admonished Mrs. Goertzen to hold her wind.

A shiny, steel-bladed instrument carved a tidy sphere out of her back.

“Are you alright Ma’am?”  They were talking to me.  “Yes”, I said, albeit less certainly than before.  I’d never attended a biopsy before.  There was a lot more blood than I expected.

Again the blade stabbed her back and quarried deeper, churning up more blood.  The smile vanished from Mrs. Goertzen’s face.  She winced and gasped from pain.  The sedative did not travel as far as the scalpel.

My head began to feel heavy and droop; I could no more lift it than hoist a refrigerator over my shoulders.   The room turned unbearably hot and the knife bore ever deeper into Mrs. Goertzen’s feeling flesh.  Sweat poured down my face and back and a lead weight pressed me down, leaving me unable to move a finger.  How very odd, I thought.  Should I say something?  I am in a room full of doctors.  But Mrs. Goertzen has a hole in her back.  Poor Mrs. Goertzen.  Someone else should have driven her today.

A female voice said, “Ma’am, you look awfully warm.  Would you rather wait outside?”  When I didn’t answer, she began to peel off layers of sweat-soaked clothing.  I heard a strange, wheezing gasp, then realized it had come from me.  Knock it off, I said to myself, before they really think something’s wrong.  I could have carried it off, too, had my throat not constricted, leaving me the air capacity of a stir stick.  I was conscious but I couldn’t see anything.  Mrs. Goertzen, however, witnessed the entire scene and was raising a terrible fuss.  As they wheeled me from the room, I heard voices begging her to lie down and assuring her that I’d be okay.  It took the entire team of physicians to keep the old lady from flipping onto her back with the scalpel still lodged in her spine.

Once in my own hospital bed with a cold cloth on my head and a fan blowing my sweaty shirt cold on my skin, my breath and vision returned.  I felt and heard the heaviness dissipate in tiny particles that cascaded from the top of my head, sifted through my brain and disappeared.  A kindly nurse bearing juice and little crackers agreed to call Albert to come and collect me and the other patient.  By now I felt almost well, but not having foreseen my first episode, I feared another one on the expressway going home, an event which would have sealed the matter as to whether or not Mrs. Goertzen was better off with someone else’s charity.

Presently, the old dame in question tottered in, patched and disinfected, to settle into an armchair at my bedside.  Albert found me there, pale and prostrate, while the irrepressible old battle-ax whom I was supposed to be tending smiled gently down on me, looking for all the world like a beneficent angel sent to stroke my fevered brow and administer healing balm.  I half-suspect she favoured this reversal of fortunes.

Mrs. Goertzen and I fared better during subsequent outings.  Well, other than the time I almost dumped her over a curb because I’d neglected to buckle her into her wheelchair, but my right hand shot out in time to catch her from an impending face plant on the rutted side street.  The last time I saw her, she informed me that she has a new beau who wheelchairalso resides at the home.  If he shares even an inkling of her mischievous bent, I daresay the pair of them keep the staff hopping at Terrace Lodge.  My thirty-first birthday may not have been the happiest of my life but thanks to Mrs. Goertzen, I’ll never forget it.

Albert’s Favourite Cook

Albert wasn’t keen on my cooking when we got married.  To this day he maintains that he’s never eaten as many eggs as he did for the first few months of marital life – fried eggs, egg omelets, deviled eggs, scrambled eggs and egg breakfast casseroles. I guess I thought arhode island red farmer who tended a flock of Rhode Island Reds with as much care as he did would welcome the fruits of his labour on the dinner table.

That was thirteen years ago.  Albert says I’m a much better cook now.  I reply in a none-too subservient tone that the only difference between then and now is that I’ve given up preparing any but such delectable dainties as his discriminating palate will accept.  It’s kind of true though.  I like being my husband’s favourite cook and I’ve attained that status, too.  Almost.  There’s not a woman around who can make Albert’s mouth water when the aroma of slow-cooked pot roast floods his senses like I can.  My adversary is a man.

His name is Jacob but Albert calls him Wishbone because he perfectly personifies the cranky cook so named in Rawhide, Albert’s favourite old TV western.    Wishbone cooks for the men at Albert’s annual week-long hunting camp as I explained in an earlier post titled Of Moose and Men.

When Albert returns from camp I’m regaled with stories of savoury dishes and gourmet soups and stews served with soft, steaming tortillas prepared by the culinary marvel that is Wishbone. soup

“Isn’t that something,” I say, all rapt attention and admiration.  “You ate three bowls of his venison stew?  Wow.  He must really be something.”

Dinner hour finds me feverishly cranking a wooden spoon over a bubbling stockpot in an effort to recreate Wishbone’s magnificent dishes out of hints dropped during my husband’s glowing reminiscence and wondering how, from a community known for traditional roles and industrious housewives, my kitchen nemesis turned out to be a crotchety Old Colony Mennonite man.

My first clue that something was different this year came not from what Albert said during his first phone calls and text messages home but from what he didn’t say.  Usually so eager to tell me all about Wishbone’s latest kitchen creations, he seemed not to want to talk about food at all.  Throughout the week though, the disappointed details began to emerge.

For a man whose responsibility it was to feed nine hungry hunters, Wishbone had turned unaccountably stingy with the meat supply.  Meat barely appeared on the table at all.  It seemed to be replaced by an inordinate amount of eggs. uncooked roast

“Eggs?!” I tutted, all wifely concern.

There were grumblings in the camp.  A man who had joined only this year was heard to mutter that the missus need not fret that he wouldn’t return home to her cooking if these be the victuals Jacob was famous for.  Albert eyed an uncooked beef roast that languished in the fridge all week, hoping that today was the day when Wishbone would serve it up, steaming and delicious and ladled over with rich beef gravy.  He tired of the provision Wishbone strangely seemed to consider a fair substitute for meat – cold baloney.  “Baloney!?” I cried in righteous horror.  Wishbone was clearly off his game.

As the men broke camp and headed home late Saturday morning, Albert and I continued our steady stream of text messages.

text 001

And we did.  Tender, slow-roasted beef, fluffy mashed potatoes, corn and carrots smothered in savoury gravy devoured by the trail-weary, ravenous hunter.  The mistress of the house in her spotless apron sat by, a pie server at her right hand with which to dish out cream-filled pastry for dessert the moment he should wish it.  The serene countenance and beatific smile with which she presided over her table almost (but not quite) concealed the glint of triumph in her eye.

Wishbone may recover his culinary prowess; I’m not saying he won’t.  I wish it for him, poor fellow.  But for one year at least, I aim to relish every bit of the prize I’ve waited for so long to claim.  I am Albert’s favourite cook.

 

 

The Cancer Centre

As an interpreter, my biggest fear is the prospect of delivering bad news.  I would rather have my mental glossary go blank at a legal assignment than confirm a patient’s worst fears with faultless clarity at the doctor’s office.  I might bask in my own munificence except that I know it’s mostly cowardice that holds me in dread of such an appointment.  I was able to avoid it, too, for five years.  This providence ran out on Friday.

My first clue came on Monday when I got the assignment to go to the cancer centre in London on Friday but I wasn’t given any details about the patient, only her name.  Gloom wrapped me like a clammy blanket the moment I stepped into the building.  I hadn’t been there since my brother Abe’s chemotherapy appointments two years ago but that same sense of despair, of feebly railing against the monster that hurtled him headlong toward death washed over me again.  It wasn’t coming from outside me.  The patients in the waiting area looked calm.  The staff was calm too, cheerful even, as if we were at a garage getting an oil change on our lunch break.  I smiled back and willed it all to be over soon.

When I dread something, I assure myself that things rarely turn out as bad as I imagined they would.  I hope that the very act of anticipating the worst will make me immune to its fulfillment.  I did that on Friday.  I expect the patient did it a hundredfold.  But when the doctor ushered us into his office and began to speak, I knew it wasn’t working.  He was too painstaking in his explaining of cancer to this newly diagnosed patient, too determined to make her understand just how unknowable and uncontainable this monster is to be preparing her for any but the worst of news.  He was so thorough that the words that came next couldn’t have been a complete shock to her, yet I don’t know if it lessened the horror.

”incurable”…”affected organs”…”months to a year”.

I performed okay.  My mental glossary never faltered.  My brain dutifully rolled everything the doctor said into Low German except for three small words, “… will kill you.” uttered with no change, no lowering or perceptible gentleness in his tone.  I didn’t deliver him a contemptuous glare.  It might have added to his patient’s distress.  I deliberated, then said,

“it will take your life.”

We’re strictly taught to interpret everything we hear without diluting its message no matter how emotionally difficult it might be but I’m not sorry.  It didn’t matter much anyway.  I know that she knew what he said before I said anything.

The place was suddenly a hive of activity.  The doctor dispatched plans for the patient’s care and a swarm of nurses bustled cheerfully about to do his bidding…“We’ve included a free tire rotation with your oil change ma’am.  Do you collect air miles?”  I made my way to the patient’s side and whispered, “Do you have a pastor you trust to talk to where you live?”  Her eyes didn’t move but she nodded once.

Cold, wet wind blew my hair over my face when I left the hospital.  Cars lined up at the stoplight a block away and across the road, people pushed shopping carts in and out of the Metro grocery store.  It was altogether ordinary, benign and completely undependable.  As is proper, I know.  It’s good that this disease stricken, grief laden life is not all there is.  There’s a new one for the quietude, the elation, the sinking-to-our-knees-in-relief respite of every follower of Jesus Christ.  I know all that.  But I don’t think I’ll accept assignment to the cancer centre next time if it’s all the same to Albert and the agency.  Not for a while, maybe.

 

 

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