Archive for the ‘Mennonites’ Category

Bilingual and Happy – Menno Style

Knowing how to speak both English and Low German is a wonderful thing. Perhaps you are newly immigrated to Canada from an Old Colony Mennonite Darp in Mexico and exploring the vast new world of English words open to you, like, “Large-says me dat hemberje.” Or like me, you have grown up in Canada speaking Low German, but your syntax and word choices are just awkward enough to make aunts and uncles smile behind their Schneppeldäka.* Either way, your possibilities for expression and meaningful conversation are double. There are just a few pitfalls to watch out for as you practice.

If you are new to Canada, complications can arise when neighbouring in English. Like anyone learning the language, you may use the wrong syntax and words that don’t translate your meaning perfectly into English. In comparing the ease of jcartier-dish-washer-300pxhousekeeping today with that of her childhood, Groossmama might say, “From the dishwasher had yet no one heard”, leading her grandchildren to think that the dishwasher was apt to shrug into a summer cardi and leave the house without telling anyone when it would be back.

Albert’s colleague Barry found himself in a similar conversation. Only a month ago, he moved from a busy city into the country. One day, Barry arrived home after a heavy snowfall to find that his Mennonite neighbour, Henry, had thoughtfully cleaned his driveway. When Barry offered to pay him, Henry refused, saying, “It’s free… I see you work out.” Someone less intuitive than Barry might have feared that Henry was making an inappropriate advance toward them. Fortunately, Barry realized that Henry was explaining that he observed that Barry’s job requires him to be away throughout the day, so he cleaned Barry’s driveway as an act of (platonic) friendship.

But you may run into trouble even when you have become fluently bilingual. Having choices means you will be prone to flip from one language to the other in search of the best words to express what you’re trying to say. Your listener may also be bilingual, but if you have led the conversation thus far in English, your conversation partner is listening in English. A sudden switch to Low German may leave them as confused as if they’ve just heard a completely foreign language. Observe the following conversation between Aggie and Margaretha.

Aggie: I totally need new makeup. This liquid powder mattifying foundation looks terrible on my face.

Margaretha: (nods sympathetically) My gecko’s skin is less flaky.

Aggie: What should I do?

Margaretha: Your Stella McCartney leggings will totally take the focus off your face. Just go for your run au naturel.

Aggie: I can’t. I just know I’ll run into Corny at the park. He’s just moved into the building and he is soooooo GQ.

Margaretha: Well, Sephora is having a sale today. You just have to spend a hundred dollars on lip liner and –

Aggie: JAUMA NOCH EENT!** (jumps to her feet and grabs her purse) Te’waut sädst mie daut nicht tom easchten plauts?***

Margaretha: What?

Aggie: Waut?

To complicate matters even more, the confusion around language isn’t limited to English or Low German-speaking people. It extends to their animals as well. One day, I saw a cat crossing our neighbour Bob’s yard. It was walking toward his chicken barn. I knew it didn’t belong to Bob and being fond of cats, I stopped to talk to it.

“Here kitty kitty kitty.” The cat didn’t stop, slow down or even indicate that it heard me. I called again, “Here kitty kitty kitty.” The cat didn’t even flick an ear; so strong was the lure of untapped mouse holes in Bob’s chicken barn. On a hunch I called out, “Miets miets miets miets.” Sure enough, the cat halted in its tracks and turned to give me its full attention. I had guessed right. The cat was German.

Still, it’s hard not to be miffed when someone has ignored you, even if they can explain it away with a language barrier. There was no one else I could have been talking to and the cat knew it. I lifted my chin and walked toward the house, satisfied with knowing that he was staring after me in wonderment. tabby-cat

I know the look well. I get it every time a Low German speaker with limited English hears me speak Low German for the first time. When they recover, they typically respond in English to show me how sophisticated they are. To which I answer in Low German with a broad smile and we’re both of us impressed, with ourselves at the very least.

The exception to this occurred one day when I pulled into a parking space by myself at McDonald’s in Aylmer. A moment later, a full-sized van pulled up beside me. A lady I’d never seen before rolled down the window and without hesitation, asked me in Low German where the Old Colony church was where a funeral was to be held that day. What could I do but tell her to head east and turn linjsch**** on Dingle Street? A smile, a “Dankscheen” and the van sped away with the last vestiges of my Canadian-born pride. Which leads me to one last point before sending you out to practice your English & Low German skills, and it’s true whether you’ve just arrived in Canada or you’ve lived here all your life: Store-bought clothes and Canadian airs might fool some people but you will never escape who you really are. It’s best not to try.

 

*handkerchiefs

**an exclamation which translated literally is, “Pity yet one”. This sounds nonsensical in English but when uttered in surprise or dismay, its meaning is unmistakable.

***”Why didn’t you tell me that in the first place?”

****left

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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.

johnny-automatic-5-8-bushel-basket

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.

flourish

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 padding the Penner halls afforded Frau Penner an easy, if empty life but you would be wrong.  Mr. Penner never did 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 she had to tuck him into bed at night before she herself was allowed to retire.  I’d need a better source than a flock 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, as though he would have preferred Price Chopper to where ever it was he was going.

“Are you going somewhere?” I asked, including Mrs. Klassen to be polite.

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

“He’s driving Mr. Penner to Mrs. Hildebrandt’s for a visit.” 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.  The 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 heard that I 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 somewhere beyond the constraints of her wheelchair, she stood up, clambered over furniture or piles of laundry to retrieve 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 lawfully 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 even now trimmed 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 more minutes but I busied myself with rearranging cutlery 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 might have to do it again.”

 We may never know exactly what about Mr. Penner put the widow off.  Maybe something in his attitude tipped her off to his motives for seeking a wife.  Maybe it was the galoshes.  Whatever the reason, it formed her resolve: she was having none of Mr. Penner.  As though to soften the blow when 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 was with him.

“Then what took you so long?” asked Mrs. Klassen.  While he ate, her husband relayed 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 since then.  The long-suffering Frau Penner was barely cool to the touch when Mr. Penner set about finding a stand-in from 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 was, maybe less.blue minivan2 

This last disappointment tallied a predetermined number of attempts in his mind.  His fortitude could not endure another.  On quitting the widow’s house in Tillsonburg, the blue minivan with the obliging Hän Hiebert at the wheel sped westward, past Mr. Klassen’s turnoff to neighboring Aylmer 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 kinder 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 wheeling about on that enigma of a wheelchair and she’s turned away her share of fellows before.  I reckon she’ll do it again. 

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.

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 green and lush.  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 throw off the covers, 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 or fill 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 a 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 physical 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 chose 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 I contemplate 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 me to scour the cupboard furiously for a piece of chocolate when the perfect word goes AWOL, then rewrite entire passages when it turns up.  They make me walk past the washing machine with an armload of dirty socks and dump it into the deep freeze when the best story idea ever temporarily shorts out every other thought in my brain.

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 anymore 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.

beagle

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