The Mennonite Name Game

Old Colony Mennonites are a curious bunch in that they raise huge numbers of children while limiting themselves to a few select names to call them by. My Aunt Kathy and Uncle Bill had eleven sons: John, Willy, Pete, Abe, Dave, Isaac, Jake, Ben, Henry, Frank and Dan. As close as I can figure, they used up more than half of the names available to them – Corny, George, Aaron, Herman, Anton, Diedrich, Hans and Andy are all that’s left.

My friend was born Susanna Martens. When she was a teenager, she changed it to Suzen for fear of drowning in a sea of Susans, Susies Sues and Züssas, but she didn’t have it as bad as her four older brothers Jake and John. Their dad was a young widower and father to Jake, John and Liz when he met their mom, likewise widowed and mother to Helen, Jake and John, resulting in the overlap. Together, they happily grafted the braid with a Mary, Abe, Tina, Annie, Aggie, Susanna, and tied it neatly with a Martin.

This dearth of names makes it nearly impossible to distinguish one Pete or one Margaret from another Pete or johnny-automatic-coffee-and-pastryMargaret in conversation unless you add their last names. It’s easier if Pete marries Margaret because then you can say Pete ‘n’ Margaret and most people will know who you mean. Depending on the weather and availability of Manitoban knack sot (Low German for “sunflower seeds”) at any given social gathering, it’s unlikely you’ll encounter more than two Pete ‘n’ Margaret at the same faspa desch.

If you’re like Sarah Funk though, who wanted to marry Corny Wiebe but lost him to Eva Hildebrandt, people will always refer to you by first and last name to tell you apart from Sarah Reddecopp, Sarah Miller and Sarah Blatz who all work the same shift as you at the tomato cannery. You will be Sarah Funk everywhere other than your immediate family gathering, or worse, Funken Sush (The Funk’s daughter, Sarah), because if you can’t land a husband, you obviously haven’t matured into a separate entity from your parents and never will. This rule applies to everyone unmarried, male and female alike.

You’re title in society is no better. You’re not a single man or woman; you’re an “oola jung” (old boy) or “oola me’jal” (old girl), labels that carry subtle overtones of stunted maturity and social retardation. But since Eva was lucky enough to marry Corny, she gets “sche” appended to her new last name, which is pronounced shə, like the sound in “book”.  She is now Mumkje Knaltz Wiebsche (Mrs. Cornelius Wiebe), to the delight of the Hildebrandts if the Wiebes own a lucrative bucklejohn contract or cheese factory, and to the mortification of Funken Sush. After fifteen years of marriage, I still wrestle my pride at giving up my last name to become Mumkje Wallsche. Driedgers are rare as Mennonite surnames go, and when you find them, they’re mostly tall and good-looking. I preen a little when an old-timer at church or the frozen food aisle stops and hails me as Driedjasch Tien (The Driedger’s Tina). I can’t help it.  It’s hard to melt into obscurity with the Walls who number more than a hundred just in the Aylmer – Tillsonburg Canpages.

This shortage of names complicates other matters too. Announcing a death that’s occurred in the wider Mennonite community is never as simple as saying, “John Krahn died.” A hush falls as every head in the room turns to look at the speaker. “You mean my Schvoawa in Gnadenthal?” says Ben Guenther, rising from a game of Daum Brat.  “Or my Grootfoda in Tamaulipas??” cries Margaretha Zacharias nee Krahn, a borscht spoon frozen halfway to her lips. An inquest ensues to identify the deceased. This is achieved by tracing the lineage of every known John Krahn from his birthplace in Mexico to his migration from Saskatchewan, over the Russian steppes to the Chortitza River and clear back to Prussia. If Ben’s brother-in-souplaw and Margaretha’s grandpa prove exempt, shoulders slump in relief (presumably) and games and borscht resume.

Some people leave conservative churches to join more modern Mennonite sects while their family is still growing. The children’s names start out strong: Abrahams, Helenas and Johans march out into the world in quick succession before petering out in Tims and Rosies. Still other second-generation Canadians modify their own names in an effort to assimilate; Agathas become Angies, Cornys are Cors and tousled, barefoot Johnnys evolve overnight into coiffed and pretty Jons.

Nicknames are another means of telling one Friesen from another but you have to be careful to hear them correctly. I’d long heard tales about Stäla Friesen (a “stäla” is a thief or robber). I figured it marked him as a petty thief among his neighbours. Only a month ago did I learn that he was in fact Steila Friesen (“steil” means steep or upright), so named because his house in Mexico featured a steeply pitched roof in a neighborhood of flat roofs. I’ve never known what his real name was.

My Grandma Fehr always called my Grandpa “Heeya” (say it like you’re executing a karate chop with the accent on the first syllable), which means “Dear” or “Darling” but is only proper to say to your spouse. You don’t snuggle your favourite niece or nephew and call them Heeya…do not do it.

Other older couples call each other “Oola” (pronounced Owlah), which means “old one” but sounds affectionate when they say it, like, “You’re an old fart but I love you anyway.”

The scary ones are those who never call each other anything at all, except “mien Maun” or “miene Frü” (my man or my wife) when they’re obliged to mention them to other people. But this indicates a universal problem rather than anything inherently Mennonite.  Because we love and fret and dream and balk instead trusting God just like everybody does. Every John, Dick and Mary of us.


Tale of a Broody Hen

Some of my hens turned broody in the spring. I don’t keep a rooster in the flock to fertilize their eggs or give them any hope of motherhood but still they sat, staring ahead as if sheer will and concentration could turn those blanks into babies. They only came down from the nest once a day, heads low and plumage fanned out like visiting royalty as theycartoon-chicken-on-nest steered an imaginary brood of chicks to feed and water.   Most of them gave up after a couple of months. Chicken eggs only take twenty-one days to hatch. Every day after that further dissolved the illusion in their little minds that it was ever going to happen for them. They abandoned the nest and the cluck-clucking sound distinctive to broody hens, drew in their feathers and resumed their place in the pecking order with admirable stoicism.

One chicken, whom I’ve affectionately come to know as Millicent, refused to give up her dream of a family. Every day I took away the eggs she sat on, so until the other hens laid more the next day, she had to imagine the eggs as well as the chicks, and still she sat, week after week, month after weary month. She began to be distressed and confused, abandoning one group of eggs by midmorning to sit on another, desperately hoping for one of them, any of them, to hatch.

cartoon-chicken-on-nest-02I finally took pity on her in August and ordered a flock of day-old chicks for her from Frey’s Hatchery in St. Jacobs. I could have ordered fertile eggs for her to hatch out herself but they only sell fertile eggs in lots of a single breed and I wanted an assortment of yellow, black and brown chicks scuttling about the barnyard with the hen, just like my mother had when I was small. Albert and his mother said it wouldn’t work – no self-respecting hen would deign to rear a chick she hadn’t hatched herself, but then neither of them had probed those flickering, broody eyes, seen the desperation tinged with madness there…you’ve got to know your chicken.

On September 8, I set out for St. Jacobs, a good hour and a half from home. The day was an unseasonably warm 84°Farenheit but air conditioning kept me comfortable on the way. The drive home was another story. At one day old, chicks are unable to regulate their own body temperature so their environment must be 95°Farenheit. Free of drafts. Or any other relief that an open window might have afforded me that sweltering afternoon. The scenic route lost all appeal; I gripped the wheel and sped up the inside lane of the 401 for home, my cargo cheep-cheeping in chorus from the passenger seat and sweat pouring from my hair down my neck and back. Clearly, I’d underestimated the merits of unicolour chicks. I cracked the windows before I got halfway home; I couldn’t help it. By that time it must’ve been closer to 200° in there anyway.

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On being introduced to Millicent, the chicks cheep-cheeped their raucous and unanimous vote: she would do very well for an adoptive mother, even though they had no other prospective mom to compare her to. Until the day before, they had incubated in a sterile, noisy mechanical mother devoid of softness, gentle clucking sounds and every other comfort a hen provides except heat, yet they instinctively ducked under Millicent’s feathers and she automatically stood up a little to allow them even though her brain struggled to make sense of this new development. Her first contact with her chicks should have been a stirring under her feathers as they began to peck their way out of shells accompanied by peeping, twittery progress reports whenever they stopped to rest, and she keenly felt the omission. It took a moment for her to decide that adopted chicks were better than no chicks at all but once she was sure, she commenced to cluck and wing her noisy brood of children into obedience and order.

Not that she’d let herself be cheated of any more birthing rites of passage if she could help it. Fertile eggs almost never all hatch no matter how devotedly the hen cares for them, or if they do, they don’t all come out at the same time so after most have hatched, the hen continues to sit on the remaining eggs for a day or so, just in case. So did Millicent. Her mail-order children darted to feed, to water and back to her, repeated the circuit, then mixed it up for interest’s sake but she remained resolutely parked atop her imaginary eggs for another thirty-six hours. I’d taken every egg out from under her when I brought her the chicks but to her mind, this was no reason not to give them a fighting chance.

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I moved the little family to a small pen for a week, a sort of chicken nursery where they’d be safe from jealous hens and other predators. Then I pulled up a lawn chair and sat down to watch them. Some people look at fish aquariums in order to relax and unwind…I look at chickens. Presently, Sniper the German Shepherd shuffled in to join me. Looking at her look at the chicks is an amusement in itself. Something in me resonates with the expression flickering across her face when she gazes on the tiny, defenseless chicks. I’ve felt the same emotion when I look at a plate of cream puffs. Thankfully, she’s an obedient dog who respects her boundaries as well as any dog can.

The chicks are a delight to touch, too. At one day old, each downy ball is so light, you almost can’t feel it when you pick it up. There’s a barely discernible skittering as it explores the palm of your hand, like a spider if spiders didn’t ignite irrational fits of terror in otherwise serene and sensible middle-aged women. Three of the chicks are roosters, so we’ll have to see if they’re as sweet-tempered when they’re fully grown as they are now. I’m a little nervous when I think that within a few months, they could morph into brawny, spiky thugs who mug me whenever I cross their terrain but if they do, I reckon they’ll rehabilitate well enough in the soup pot. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

The Glamper

The concept of taking a tiny, outdated and rundown camping trailer and refurbishing it into something not only functional but perfect in every nostalgia-inducing aspect first came to me one hot Indian summer day at the 2013 Country Living fair in Columbus, Ohio. Not that any one part of it inspired me to come up with the idea myself; rather, the realized creation rose up before me beyond stalls piled high with antiques, jewelry, furniture, amputated doll arms and other vintage ephemera.

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I stopped, floored by the ingenuity and thought, My goodness. Someone’s taken a tiny, outdated and rundown camping trailer and refurbished it into something not only functional but perfect in every nostalgia-inducing aspect.

This isn’t the one at the fair but it’s gone through the same process.

photo credit: Eighth Lake via photopin (license)

photo credit: Eighth Lake via photopin (license)

I Googled this phenomenon when I got home and discovered that I am a latecomer to it – people all over the continent, mostly women, are buying up tiny old camping trailers (the tinier and older, the sweeter the finished product) and converting each one into what amounts to a play fort for neurotic romantics. They labeled the movement with a suitably clever portmanteau: glamping, which in its broadest sense means camping enjoyed with the amenities and luxuries of home (this can happen in a tent) but often refers specifically to camping in these trailers, and then they organized rallies in every state and province so that they can admire each other’s glampers and show off their own. The rule for converting these trailers is that no rules exist beyond what personal style and taste dictate. Contemporary browns and stodgy grays have no dominion over the glamper; they’re turned out in every colour imaginable: lemon yellow, cherry red, calming turquoise and combinations of all three and more. Interiors are limited only to the imagination, from frilly to minimal, monochromatic pinks, 50s diner, fairy tale, each trailer is its owner’s happy place realized. I was captivated.

Albert responded to my latest whim the way he does to all of them: amused smiles and eye-rolling set to indistinct rumblings of, “impracticle”…”never use it”…”too much work”, words that mean little to anyone afflicted with the fever of new discovery and ambition, if they hear them at all.

What he did next though, was a surprise. While I perused vintage trailer websites and cheered myself with the hope of owning one someday before retirement, Albert secretly scoured the country side for a specimen to match what he’d gleaned from my rhapsodic depictions of the ideal glamper. He found it last summer, hunkered down in a man’s backyard on highway 3 between Aylmer and Tillsonburg.

When he drove up to the house to ask about it, the man came to the door and said the trailer was for sale but that it belonged to a younger brother whom he identified only as shithead junior, but he never said whether the boys’ namesake was their father or himself. All that remained for Albert was to call me up and mention, as cool and indifferent as you please, that he’d landed me the old trailer I’d been hankering after. I let out a gasp and some other high-pitched noises and fell to thanking and scolding him in turns and generally carrying on exactly the way he’d known I would to such news. It was what motivated him from the beginning.

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The trailer is a thirteen-foot 1965 Playmor, which, on researching alphabetical listings of travel trailer brands on the internet makes me grateful – it falls only two entries below Playboy and a page over from Gay Rover – names innocent enough fifty years ago, surely, but I couldn’t disclose the name of my trailer without a blush were it to carry connotations of a lecherous magazine mogul or character in a Bronski Beat song.


The glamper honeymoon ended when we got it home. Behind every fantasy spun from a vintage trailer with buttercream curtains and daisy decals is a load of work, and work of the most unromantic sort – wiping petrified mouse droppings from closets, plying layers of old linoleum from the floor one obstinate inch at a time and if you’re really unlucky, pulling back a wall panel to reveal wood rot in the trailer’s frame, and then you know that the renovation monster ruining your life has only begun to straighten up and look interested. It feeds on every discovery of further damage – Hello, rotting floor boards – and crows when it knows you’re in too far to turn back – Home Depot doesn’t refund Behr’s Effervescent Yellow in semi gloss because only a poor sap who fancies dilapidated camping trailers would buy it.

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We couldn’t keep the barn cats out and yet invariably, they just wanted to look at the barn from the inside of a trailer.

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But we prevailed. The damp wood was aired and repaired and then we replaced and painted walls and everything else that needed freshening up. We scarcely finished one day before we finally went camping with a group of friends at the end of July this year.

trailer outside

Even now, I haven’t done everything to it that I plan to but it’s still right. Besides, renovating can threaten the equilibrium in even the best of marriages if you don’t know when to stop.

I wish my pictures of the interior weren’t so dark.  The bench seat in the back pulls out into a twin-size bed. I underestimated the amount of curtain fabric needed to cover the window at the head of the bed but that’s another detail I’m willing to overlook for the sake of equilibrium.

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In the front, the table lowered and the four bench cushions laid flat provide another twin bed.

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The tiny three-burner stove and oven in classic Avocado Green is my favourite feature inside the trailer.

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It reminds me that there was a time near enough for me to remember yet so far removed from today’s jaded and contemptuous mindset that people considered this humble colour quite beautiful and suited to the Frigidaires and Hotpoints of the day. I know they must have been contemptuous of their parents’ things but I’m not sure each generation only matches the level of contempt of the one before it. I think maybe we get snobbier and more cynical all the time.

I kept the original linoleum in a few strategic places for my own private enjoyment.

old linoleum

Dark clouds moved in on the third night at camp. I crawled into the back bed and Albert into the front. He soon fell asleep but I left a light on and counted the plastic flowers that surround the screws in the ceiling and listened to the slow rain on the tin roof a few feet above us. I video-taped a little of it. I wanted to immortalize the perfectness of this tiny glowing sanctuary and the rain except the effect produced through my phone camera sounds more like AK-47 bullets hitting the roof than anything comforting. Still, you don’t forget what it’s like to inhabit those moments where you believe, however briefly, that drive test flower powerappointments, low platelet counts and hyper-Calvinists can never get in or make you come out. I guess this is what inspires every glampermaniac to tackle the grime and rotting wood and mouse poo and frustration in the first place. We’re not crazy. We just knew it could be like this.

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 flowered 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 purpose of adornment 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 watched other people pierce ears and so I trusted her expertise 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 and the ice cubes had impressed 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 me from a spirited exegesis of 1 Peter chapter 3.  As it turned out, 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 restriction 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 flattered 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 those away 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.



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