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.
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.
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.
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.