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 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.


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.



Slow Goings

The strawberry patch we planted in the spring has grown lush, green and bushy.  Once the night temperatures fall to a regular four degrees Celcius, we’ll tuck every row under a straw blanket where they’ll convalesce until spring.  In April, they’ll wake up refreshed and raring to grow their first crop of luscious red strawberries.

strawberry imageIt’s a happy thought for me now but when I was a kid, the prospect of all those berries would have filled me with anxiety.  When you’re an Old Colony Mennonite kid whose family depends largely on the agricultural harvest to make a living, there is one standard by which to measure your value as a worker: speed.  That’s it.  Intellect and creativity fall under the tomato truck; what matters is how fast you can pick a flat of strawberries, a hamper of cucumbers or a bin of apples.  Some parents employ dubious tactics to spur their kids on to even greater speeds.   My friends’ Dad used to promise his children that the earnings from every flat of strawberries they filled after the tenth one were theirs to keep.  He knew they weren’t capable of filling more than eleven before the field was picked clean around noon but he also knew they would bust their little hineys in hopes of big money every time.

I fared about as well as a dachshund at the English greyhound derby in this environment.  By the time I picked four flats, the kid in the daschundnext row had picked six or seven.  When I filled one hamper of cucumbers, the kid next to me was toting three full hampers to the back of the machine to make room for empties.  I hated being slow but no matter how I willed my fingers to pick faster, I always fell behind.

There’s a Low German word for people like me: “langsomje”, pronounced long-some-yə, which means “slow one”.  It indicates someone who is slow to complete tasks, not someone with a mental disability as the term might be interpreted in English, but they suffer a lot of the same prejudice in their respective worlds.  No one wants the langsomje on their cucumber machine.

It wasn’t until I grew older that I understood that being fast wasn’t the most important part of every job.  God began to show me this through things I love to do.

Who would want to read an author who picked random words and ditched any effort at pleasing composition because her highest literary aspiration was to exceed her word count from the day before?

Or who would trust a translator who delivered the sentence, “The minister ruled against her but she pressed her case all the way to the Federal Court of Appeals” into the target language as, “She lost the case but she fought all the way to the top” because he earned his living by piece work and hey, at least his client was getting the gist of the story.

Translating the example above into something that non-English speaking Mennonites can make sense of is a fiddly business, by the way.  We’re not inclined to appeal much of anything.  We pack our things and move to a country where they let us do whatever we want.  But I digress.

The tasks above call for such unhurried behaviour as staring into space while one contemplates the effect of a single word on a wholestack of books paragraph.  They necessitate rummaging through dictionaries and thesauruses for the perfect word then repeating this action a hundred times for one document.  They require scouring the cupboard for chocolate when the perfect word goes AWOL and rewriting entire passages when it turns up.  They oblige one to bear an armload of dirty socks past the washing machine and into the deep freeze when the best story idea ever temporarily shorts out other cognitive functions of the cerebral cortex.

Happily, I have these character traits in abundance.  I can make anything take longer than it needs to.  Because God never created me to reign as queen of the 8 second pickle hamper and knowing this frees me to be kinder to myself.  I wouldn’t call myself a dachshund now but I’m still no greyhound… an arthritic beagle maybe…but I no longer see this as a birth defect.  I’ll be your langsomje, anywhere you need one.  Just leave me plenty of time to get there.


A Celebration

Henry and Margaret Froese, a couple in my and Albert’s Life group, threw a fortieth wedding anniversary bash last night.  The group commissioned me to record a few memories we’ve made with Henry and Margaret through the years so that we could present them as a reading at the celebration.  So I wrote it.  Then we nabbed Albert to read it.  We always make Albert do the scary stuff.

With Henry and Margaret’s permission, I’m sharing it here as well for the benefit of those who know this wonderful couple and to introduce them to those of you who don’t.


Hello, my name is Albert Wall.  I, together with my wife, Tina, Pete and MaryAnne Harms, Maria Froese, Jake and Nettie Thiessen, George and Hilda Peters and Dave and Esther Dyck make up Henry and Margaret’s life group.  The purpose of a life group is to get together about once a week to study, pray, fellowship and eat together.  And that’s what we do.  Some of those things aren’t always easy for all of us, like sharing the stuff we struggle with or praying out loud.  We’ve got the eating thing down pat.

As the years go by, we find ourselves spending more and more time together.  One evening a week is rarely enough for all the things we want to do.  This shows itself when an odd assembly of motorcycles with everything from Goldwings to sport bikes to CAN AM Spyders in it go tearing up #3 highway on Sunday afternoon, or when a few hurried text messages exchanged at seven on Friday can round up the group for ice cream at Studers by eight.  Outings like this, along with stories we exchange throughout the week which turn into inside jokes give us lots of precious and funny moments with Henry and Margaret along the way.  We’d like to share a few with you.

Henry Froese

Dr. Froese

We all know that Henry’s a truck driver, but not many would guess that he moonlights as a cosmetic surgeon when he’s not on the road.  In the morning after breakfast on our last camping trip, he proposed a treatment for the warts on my hands, which, he assured me, would fix the warts for good.  I agreed, so Henry disappeared into his motor home, then reappeared wielding an electric grinder that he’d borrowed from Abe Froese for this very purpose.

He applied the grinder to the warts and bore down.  The grinder screeched and groaned; Tina looked as though she might pass out, but the warts refused to budge.  He laid the grinder aside and went to them with a pair of shears.  Once blood gushed freely from my fingers and pooled in the grass below, they were ready for Henry’s special ointment.

For this, he ushered me round to the side of Pete and Maryanne’s motor home and removed the panel to the battery compartment.  Then he poked a twig into the battery acid and applied it to my sawed-off warts.  Once they bubbled and turned black, Henry declared the operation a success.

Had Henry been a licensed physician, Tina might have been tempted to sue him – the warts grew back bigger and tougher than ever before.  Fortunately, she knows that Henry performed his unorthodox surgery with the best of intentions, even if he enjoyed it just a little too much.

Hilda feels a special connection to Margaret.  They share gentle, peace-loving personalities, but they’ve also experienced something that you and I may not have: that baffled feeling you get when the lawn mower is running and the wheels are turning, but no grass comes out.

Margaret Froese

Margaret Froese

This happened most recently to Margaret.  She set out to mow the grass like any other day.  As the tractor rumbled along, however, she noticed a strange difference.  The lawn was of a good length to be cut, yet only a few blades of grass blew out from under the deck.  She drove on, considering this.  She turned to look behind the tractor.  She turned again to look in front.  There was no discernible difference between the lawn she had cut and the lawn she had not!  She bobbed along, pondering the dilemma this presented.  To keep driving when almost nothing seemed to happen seemed unreasonable, but where to stop?  What if the mower had shaved just enough grass to make the yard look patchy if she stopped?  By the time she made up her mind, she had driven over almost every square foot of lawn.  Then she glanced down at her gears and noticed a subtle difference from the way they looked when she normally mowed:  the mower, although fully engaged, had never been lowered to meet the grass.

She thought about starting all over again, then decided against it.  She drove the tractor to the shop, parked it and chalked the whole shemozzle up to old age.

George claims that he and Henry also have something unusual in common: they’ve both dined on cuisine that most people wouldn’t dream of putting in their mouths – knowingly at least.

Henry came indoors one day, looking for something to eat.  Margaret happened to be in the middle of a project, so she told Henry to take some food she had prepared for him out of the fridge for his lunch.  Henry obliged and began to eat.  He chewed thoughtfully for a while, then asked,

“Why does this food taste funny?”

“Hush”, said Margaret, absorbed in her work.  “Just eat it.”

Henry, rarely one to let food go to waste, obeyed his wife and continued to eat.

Margaret happened to glanced over at Henry’s plate.  Her work forgotten, she jumped up, crying, “Don’t eat that!”

“Why not?” asked Henry.

“Oba Mensch”, said Margaret, “you’re eating dog food.”



We’ve laughed lots with Henry and Margaret through the years, but we’ve witnessed their hearts breaking, too.  When Ellie died five years ago, the group rallied around them.  We were helpless to carry out the thing we wanted most to do, that is, to take away their pain, but we wrapped them in as much love and care as we could.  Perhaps no one was better equipped to do this than Pete and MaryAnne, who also know firsthand the pain of losing a beloved daughter.

Henry and Margaret, we thank God for blessing you with forty precious, jam-packed, love-crazy years of marriage.  We thank you for allowing us to celebrate them with you.  May the Lord grant you many more as you walk with him.  May your love for him and for each other grow sweeter with each passing year, and may pet food in the fridge always be clearly labeled.

We love you.

Henry&Margaret riding


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