shop talk

When we moved here about eight years ago, I asked Albert to build me a little egg shop and he did it. He’s a sport, that Albert, because he knew I was much more interested in embellishing it than in keeping it stocked with eggs.  It’s as much a canvas I use to display and enjoy a few relics I’ve acquired from fifteen years of yard sale snooping, auction picking and thrift store rummaging than it is a business.  They range from semi-valuable to endearingly kitschy but each one is a treasure to me.

egg shop storefront

Still, I keep my end of the bargain by keeping a coop full of hens that turn out a basket full of eggs by noon every day for me to sell to the neighboring folk.  I count on them to do it.  Without them, my reason for keeping a sweet little egg shop would cease to exist.

egg shop eggs & goats

egg shop sink

In the farthest reaches of my memory stands a double-sink cement laundry tub in my mother’s laundry room against the north wall next to her wringer washing machine.  Before I was old enough to remember much more they were replaced by a white plastic tub and an automatic washer so when I found this one complete with raised cement ridges forming a built-in scrubbing board at a Shackleton’s auction, it was like a lost piece of my childhood dropped out of the sky and landed upright with a k-chunk before my very eyes.  I paid $10 for it, hauled it home and now it stands on the egg shop porch as a haven for garden gnomes, petunias and other trailing things.

egg shop gas pump

Albert and I went to see a man about a motorcycle last summer. We ended up buying it along with an old gas pump I found rusting in the weeds beside the garage that housed the more fortunate motorcycle.  I sandblasted as much of the rust as I could, covered the pump with the most joyful shade of red I could find and fitted it with a few choice accessories from a website called Gas Pump Heaven.

I’m not sure why it’s called that – is it where old gas pumps go when they die? Or does it describe the euphoria felt when vintage gas pump enthusiasts discover that not only are we not alone but that there areegg shop bell enough of us to merit a whole website dedicated to uniting lovers of these rusty shells of yesterjunk and supplying us with everything we need to restore them to their former glory?  Both are apt.  I haven’t spent as much time and money into my gas pump as some have but it stands a bright and cheery greeter to folks round about who buy eggs from my little store.  Albert never did take to that motorcycle.  He likens it to a Chevy Cavalier – it’ll get you where you need to go but the trip is pretty boring.  I like my gas pump very much.

This old bell hung from the exterior wall of the workshop at our first farm until just before we sold the place. I made Albert scramble up a ladder, remove the screws that held it fast and yank it from the wall hours before signing a contract that stated everything bolted, nailed or screwed down was to remain as property of the new owners.  It’s clanging can easily be heard from the barn and clear to the next farm.

Let’s go inside.

egg shop arborite table

It’s odd that my most precious childhood memories formed in my mother’s laundry room. Or maybe it’s mostly those that come back to me in the form of vintage treasures like this arborite table in classic chipped ice pattern.  My mom’s was grey and littered with homemade lye and beef tallow laundry soap and a bottle of Fleecy to cover the smell of the soap on Dad’s work clothes.  Mine provides a spot for customers to set their eggs and make change in the tin that collects their money.

The heavy slate chalkboard above the table comes from the farmhouse where I grew up. It’s only through providence (and a bit of shameless begging on my part) that it remains in the family today.  You can read that story here.  Now it’s a shop sign and medium for my best friend Suzy’s artistry.

egg shop fan  The fan and heater come from an old camper we bought years ago but I only ever use the heater. The fan comes from the time when a safe environment was forged less through built-in safety features than common sense: anyone who stuck their fingers in the fan blades whether accidentally or otherwise would almost certainly never do it again.  I can’t be sure all of my customers would agree with this reasoning though, so the fan serves only as an ornament.

From the north-facing wall, Heintje looks past us to an unseen plane of perpetual childhood joy and incorruptible innocence. There’s something wholesome and reassuring about vintage boys so I surround myself with them like a safety blanket.  Contemporary choirboys have the same effect.

egg shop heintje & candy machine

Next to him, Felix the kit-cat clock keeps near-perfect time with his rolling eyes and pendulum tail. I can’t tell whether those eyes convey lunacy or the most knowing smirk I’ve ever seen but they’re definitely benevolent.

A surprising number of children and teenagers accompany their parents into the shop. Anxious lest they be deprived of an equally satisfactory purchase as their elders, I brought in a new but classically appealing Beaver candy machine.  Parents leave the store with the best-tasting free-range brown eggs in the county, youngsters leave with handfuls of sugary sustenance and we’re all of us gladsome.

egg shop cartons

In another corner, customers drop off their empty cartons for me to reuse. Sometimes, it looks as though I’ve filled one carton with larger eggs than the next but I really haven’t.  It’s just that some cartons are designed like a Wonderbra – tiny compartments force their contents upward making them look bigger than they really are.

The old radio on top of the fridge is set to AM 980 news talk London, the only station it’s able to receive. Depending on the hour and the day, my customers can hear the news, learn to take a proactive approach to their health, weigh in on current affairs or take in a rousing gospel message.

egg shop radio

The Essex County milk bottle is a present from Bob, who lived next door to our first farm. Bob was a retired nurse from Hamilton with a yen to farm in his golden years.  His farm consisted of two goats, three pigs, a few hens and a dog on one acre of land.  It provided plenty of physical work for a man his age but little excitement for someone used to the diversions of urban life.  He became my laid-back, witty travel companion anywhere I decided to go on a whim, whether exploring flea markets or tramping through St. Patrick’s cemetery in two feet of snow the day I wanted to see the Donnelly gravestone.  Bob was also an invaluable fashion guru who was never afraid to proffer an opinion about my clothing, including a pretty pair of heels I could not make up my mind to buy in the shoe department one day.  “My dear”, he sighed, his impatience barely contained, “you cannot spend your entire life in rubber boots.”  My decision was egg shop curtainssuddenly simple.  Whether or not those heels see the light of day more than twice a year is another matter.  Some years later we moved away and Bob returned to the city.

I stitched my seventies-inspired curtains from a piece of fabric left over from a skirt. If I’d known my waistline would expand six sizes in as many years I might not have spared material for curtains but that’s another story.

I’m not sure I’ll ever be completely finished outfitting the egg shop.  There’s too much wall space begging to be filled, too many yard sale and flea market treasures still pining for a second chance at life in dim and dusty corners of the barn and garage.

I’ll show them to you sometime.

egg shop ivy

the problem with piercings

A dress over polyester pants was one indication that I was a Mennonite kid.  Not wearing jewelry was another.  My Old Colony Mennonite parents likened ear-piercing to self-mutilation.  If God sanctioned holes in my head for the sole purpose of pride and vainglory, why, he would have saved me the trouble and put them there himself.  That was how they saw it.

All my little Mennonite contemporaries and I could do was gaze in wonder and envy at tiny matching butterflies, lustrous pearls and gold hoops adorning the ears of the English girls.  “Rubies are my birthstone,” Denise Hodges explained to the class at show and tell.  She turned to present her profile and used both hands to turn the sparkly red emblem in her ear.  Emeralds are my birthstone.  My bohemian mother sewed me a yellow dress emblazoned with green checks in which to parade my birthright.

I took links from old broken necklaces and bracelets and pressed them into my ear lobes – when my parents weren’t looking, of course.  I hid these trinkets in my room but when I wore them before the mirror, I was almost as beautiful and sophisticated as the English girls at school.

In the summer when I was fourteen I asked Ange Martens to pierce my ears because she was fifteen and knew all about it: she had seen other people pierce ears and so I trusted her ability without reservation.  I put ice cubes to my ears to freeze them while she sterilized the point of a safety-pin in the flame of a bic lighter.  When my ears were numb, she slowly worked the safety-pin through them and stopped the holes with a pair of cheap gold-coloured studs.  Pulling my hair back to view them before the mirror was the crowning moment of my short life.  Denise Hodges’ rubies turned a scuffed, pallid pink in comparison. diamond

My glory didn’t last long though.  I hid my ears from my parents behind my hair on even the hottest days but they turned red and painful to the touch.  They swelled up around the studs and oozed fluid no matter how carefully I cleaned them.  I held out for longer than was sensible – in the fall my parents had pulled me out of public school and enrolled me in the newly established Old Colony Mennonite private school and so rebellion became a matter of principle.  Eventually, trying to keep my hair over my ears while hopping double-dutch skip rope threatened to ruin recess and the pain overcame my convictions.  I took the earrings out.

When I was about twenty-two, I made an appointment to have them re-pierced at a chic little salon in town.  My experience with Ange had imbued in me the notion that even the humblest of estheticians provided their clients with an anesthetic, but now a swab across the ear with a smelly antiseptic, a shot of blunt force through my feeling flesh and I was stunned, done and dusted almost before I knew where I was.  Still, I thought as I left the salon with tingling ear and watery eye, I’d bettered my chances for success this time by having my ears professionally pierced.

ice cubeI was wrong again.  They became just as infected and painful as the first time.  I took the earrings out again, this time forever.

Removing them from my ears was the easy part.  But a diamond swaying from the lobe of a perfectly perforated gal pal was enough to make me lose my place in conversation.  A gold hoop grazing an elegant neck in the pew in front of me was enough distract my attention from a spirited exegesis of 1 Peter chapter 3.  Purging the earrings from my heart was another matter altogether.

Forever lasted seventeen years.  Assured that my problem could be solved by fitting my ears only with 14 karat gold, I had them pierced again in April this year.  They didn’t get infected, exactly.  They just got irritable and refused to heal.  But because they hurt less than previous times, it took me three tries to give them up.

At first, I bargained with myself.  I allowed myself two glorious hours to wear an exquisite pair of diamond drop earrings I’d laid away for the time when my ears would be healed.   Once the two hours expired, I said, I would take them out and commit my body to unadorned asceticism forever.  But the pleasant weight when they dangled from my ears only reeled me further in; the sensation against my neck when I tilted my head as intoxicating as I’d dreamed it would be and I could not give it up.

Clean exasperation fuelled the second try.  I pulled the studs from my ears, tossed them on the bathroom vanity and stepped into the shower unfettered and glad to be done with the troublesome business.  Less than ten minutes later I clambered out, groped for the studs and pushed them back through the holes, fearful lest they’d already begun to close.

They’re closed now though, for good this time (really).  I’ve finally accepted a bit of inadvertent truth in my parents’ puritanical prohibition against ear piercings: metal rods don’t belong in my flesh.  Woe betide me should I ever need a hip replacement.  I’m okay though.  I’ll always be a Mennonite girl and maybe this is how God heads me off when I subconsciously try to escape that.

Besides, it doesn’t mean I can never wear earrings.  I didn’t want to try clip-ons at first; I assumed the only style they complemented required shoulder pads and an androgynous haircut but they’re actually not that bad.  They deliver that deliciously dangly sensation when I tilt my head almost as perfectly as the diamond drops.  I’ve laid them away again until someone worthy enough to receive them comes along.


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.


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.




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.


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.


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 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.


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