Tuesday, October 27, 2015

My first (and last) Halloween outing

Halloween is a holiday whose significance for the masses escapes me.  What’s with all the yards of make-believe cobwebs, gravestones, skeletons, ghosts and goblins?  My neighbor has a five-foot skeleton standing outside his door as if to enter. It periodically tumbles and he has to prop it up again.  My puzzlement about masquerading as somebody other than myself and going door to door begging for treats  stems back to my childhood.

My parents were immigrants from Ukraine after a particularly difficult time during the Revolution and anarchy that followed.  At the time, the poor people, sometimes including children, actually went door to door begging for food. The alternative was starving.  In one hand they carried a stick to ward off dogs and, in the other, a gunny sack slung over the shoulder. Into it they tossed whatever a housewife could give. Therefore, Mother and Dad had no understanding of the strange custom of trick or treating at Halloween in their adopted land.

After we children were old enough to realize we were being shut out of a windfall of candy each fall, we pleaded to go out with our friends trick or treating, Mother’s answer was a firm “no” and Dad’s even firmer. Go out begging? Unthinkable.  No child of the highly respected Jake Funk would beg for candy from his customers and friends. He would  bring home candy from the store. We accepted the ultimatum for several years, though we were bug-eyed with jealousy when school friends came to the classroom the next morning burdened with candy kisses, gum, and apples, while we each cradled a few suckers in one palm.

One year, after first talking it over with Dad in the little upstairs bedroom, Mother agreed to let me go with my friend Mona for “a little while.”  I found an old sheet, cut holes in it for eyes, and joined Mona and the other girls under the corner light post, a paper shopping bag under my arm. At last. I had made the break. I was one of the gang hollering ‘Trick or treat!” at door after door. Up one street and down another we went. We each collected a weighty bag of candy, gum, apples, and cookies. The butcher gave us each a wiener. The druggist handed out samples of toothpaste.

My “little while” was nearly used up when we knocked at a small white house, dimly lit, on a  side street. I was shivering from the cold already and knew it was time to quit, but we wanted to finish off the last few houses before we went home to show off our loot to younger brothers and sisters.

I banged on the door of a small house with new-found bravado. I was doing it like the others, a real Canadian, shouting “Trick of treat!” We never soaped anyone’s windows if the people didn’t give us treats, but that was what the other children said, so I said it too. “Trick or treat!” we shouted as we waited for someone to answer our knock.

A graying, thinnish woman with deep lines in her forehead, dressed in a limp, gingham house dress, opened the door. Brusquely she said, “No treats here tonight …. a man is dying in here.” She swung the door shut in my face.

My feet refused to move. Dying? How often had she said those words that evening? A man was dying behind the wooden door of the house with the low porch and broken step. Was it her husband? Was he lying on the bed or sitting?  What did people do when they knew they were dying? What did they talk about?  What they might  hand out for Halloween treats this year?  Mona and I turned and went home, never saying a word.

I never went trick or treating again. And I lost my enthusiasm for the custom ever after.  I didn’t need trick or treating,  cobwebs, tombstones, or a  skeleton at my door to remind me of my mortality. I carried my humanity with me daily.

[This story appeared in a slightly different form in my book The Storekeeper’s Daughter: A Memoir.]

Monday, October 5, 2015

"Teacher, how many words do I need for tomorrow's essay?"

I used to be an English teacher. I asked students to work with words, or, in other words, to write their thoughts down on paper. Invariably a student would raise a hand, “Mrs. Wiebe, how long does this paper have to be?”  In other words, how many words do I need to complete the essay?

He was asking me when he could quit, when he had churned out enough words to make me happy. Word-making did not make him happy.

I looked at the student, knowing the others were listening. He was just the spokesman for them. He was asking: “When can I quit making words? When is the assignment done?” 

If I said as many words as necessary to do the assignment you have set yourself, I heard groans.  If I said, two or three typewritten pages, double-spaced, about 500 words, I heard sighs of relief.

I waited for the papers to come in.  I sorted first:  Typewritten papers landed at the top of the pile, but some came with three-inch margins, triple-spaced.   Handwritten papers were next.  I put the decorated papers with cutesy drawings in fancy folders at the bottom. Some papers were stained with popcorn oil or coffee. Maybe tears.

A few papers always showed evidence of counting – little pencil marks along the margin – “100,” “200,” until, finally, near the end “495.”  This was before computers did the counting.  Sometimes I wrote a little “hurrah” to praise the writer. He had made it.

Students counted words to get an assignment done, pulling the words out one by one. They did not write to say something.

I asked myself if I should judge the student when I myself probably was involved in the same game, especially towards the end of the school year. Then I counted class periods, papers to grade, tests to make out, books to re-file, references to write, committee meetings to attend.  And groaned.

Word-counting set in for me when I had  no more enthusiasm for another breakfast meeting, when my skin turned cold at the thought of English 102 students handing in term papers when some didn’t even know where the card catalog was in the library. Or when I refused to check my mailbox, hoping all memos, notices would self-destruct or turn moldy if I left them. Or when I planned to jump out of my office window if another starry-eyed 18-year-old reformer came into my office with a new idea to keep all blue-eyed freshmen from drinking anything stronger than sun tea. . . .

But that was then and this is now. I find people my age and older are also counting words in a different way.  “How many more days do I need to live to complete my life journey?” We’re waiting for someone to say “500 words” and give us a definite date.

The blind poet Milton asked, “Does God expect day labor, light denied?”   Older folks ask: “Does God still expect something of us  when we are no longer as mobile as we once were, our minds don’t  think as clearly. Especially when we sense society prefers  we withdraw to the corners of life when we can’t keep up, can’t attend meetings and keep doing?” Old people are a lot of work sometimes. 

I thought about this recently when about a dozen of us elders and some “youngsters” ate lunch together.  Roland, celebrating his 90th birthday, came in a motorized scooter.  Present also were those with a walker, canes, and stuttering steps as well as the strong and able. A number had hearing problems and other health issues. We celebrated together. Roland said the memorable thing about this birthday was the number of people who had remembered him. He had not been forgotten.

Then we went home, some to wonder how many days it would take to complete God’s assignment for their life journey at a time when the strong message rushes at us  to keep buying, keep filling closets and shelves, keep going, keep doing, keep rushing around.    

Milton ends his classic poem with the line: “They also serve who only stand and wait.”  He saw people rushing about but he could only wait.  

This deliberate act of waiting for God can destroy unless we older people  find the connection between serving God by waiting  in a world aggresively pushing people to keep doing. 

We forget life keeps on happening while waiting for it to happen.  A humble cobbler, Jean Lenoir by name, living in Paris, wrote in his diary for July 14, 1789: “Nothing of importance happened today.”  But an earth-shaking event took place.  A mob stormed the Bastille, beginning the French Revolution. 

Sometimes waiting, not knowing the future, is hard, painful. But if I refuse the opportunity to wait  I miss the opportunity to live. “Don’t waste the pain,” a Catholic religious told my daughter during an illness. Let the pain bring from you what needs to come out.  Milton was saying, “Don’t waste the waiting.” Let it make you aware that God is with you in this moment. 

Waiting is also serving.   I want to remember that.

I like the way Leonard Cohen says Milton’s words in contemporary language: “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering.  There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” 

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Mennonite soul food -- fit for the gods

In my childhood home food was always something more than nutrition.  It was the heart of our home. We began the day with breakfast.  Dad had left earlier to tend to the store so Mother read us children a short story from Egermeier’s German Bible storybook.  Then she prayed.  We children glitched over our table prayers, eager to get to the food, but she spoke slowly, deliberately, as if she was actually speaking to someone.

It took many years for me to realize that the war years in Russia followed by anarchy, famine, and flight to Canada were still vivid in her memory, less than decade behind her.  She had known real hunger, so food was something to be thankful for, always. Too many people did not have enough. You always prepared and ate food to avoid waste. Waste was wrong. 

Dinner, our noon meal, was the main meal of the day; Mother spent time preparing it.  It was a coming together. We children rushed home from school and Dad joined us, often with stories about what had happened in the store that morning. Sharing food and stories forged family ties.  This small group of people around the oilcloth-covered table belonged together. And eating together made the bonds strong.  I will never forget the joy of knowing a  large pot of chocolate pudding  made with whole milk was nestling in a snowbank until we were ready to eat it – with real whipped cream. 

Supper was always a simple affair, later on the responsibility of us girls:  fried potatoes with eggs, boiled eggs, peanut butter sandwiches and milk,  fresh vegetables from the garden in summer, leftovers from noon. Mother had done her share of food preparation for the noon meal. 

Factory-produced snacks were  few  because they were out of our budget. After school I rushed home to be the first to grab the leftovers of the morning’s porridge Mother set aside for me.  How can I explain how good these crusty scrapings of oatmeal tasted. In summer, if we were hungry between meals,  we pulled up new carrots in the garden, dusted them off on a shirt-sleeve and ate them. In the evening we found our way down the rickety steps into the dark cellar with its dirt floor to pick an apple from the box. Sometimes a between-meals snack was home-made bread and jam  while wishing it was store-bought sliced bread.

Meals changed with the days of the week, seasons of the year, and in time, with the culture in which they were a part of.   Wash-day we often had bean soup, easy to prepare. Saturdays, at noon, we had pancakes, which could be made one at a time as we girls ate and then went to the store to allow Dad to come home to eat. Food for Sunday, day of rest, was always prepared on Saturday. We learned to expect these rhythms to our food and meals and  to accept them as part of the natural flow of life.

Mother showed her love and expressed her creativity with her cooking and baking. A meal was always a gift to those who shared her table.  It was always her food (“They sure liked my crumb cake”). Women had little to do with the public world so she shone in this private one.  I recall my brother standing on the woodpile and shouting to the world, “My mother is a Royal cook,” both in reference to her use of Royal yeast and her skills as queen of Mennonite cuisine.  She relished seeing family and guests enjoy her wonderfully light rolls.  

When I was working on my book My Emigrant Father I  struggled how to  include this reverence and joy of Mennonite food into the book, for it played an important role in my parents’ early upbringing in Ukraine and mine in Canada. It became a major concern when famine conquered the land.  So I added  a recipe to each chapter  of some significant Low German  food I had mentioned and explained how it was used in early times, how it had changed with the culture, and, especially, how cooking in early homes was always eye-measured and taste-tasted.  Measuring cups and spoons and intricate recipes were not needed. You cooked with the heart, not the mind. This was Mennonite soul food, not a scientifically concocted dish.

In good times the Mennonites enjoyed  abundance,  especially foods made with grains,  eggs, cream and fruit from their orchards.  Many dishes were borrowed from the neighboring Russian people.  During the famine, people resorted to Water Soup, which was just that – water with whatever greens they could glean from gardens and fields. Sometimes there was very little.  Some  households made “beggar’s gravy”  with only cream or milk and onions when meat was unavailable. 

Later on, after Mother could read English and had mingled with neighbors,  her cooking repertoire enlarged to include such foods as a glorious Lord Baltimore cake and  lofty Angel Food cake. I don’t think she ever made a casserole.  Something in a combination of foods was beneath her.

I  hope that readers of  my father's story, My Emigrant Father (Kindred Productions),  will enjoy the glory of  Low German soul food  as I explain how it was  eaten in Russia, in my early home, and later on in my own home. Shipping is from Winnipeg or Kansas. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Thinking together with Methuselah on my 91st birthday

On September 15 I turned 91, almost astonishing myself.  I ponder at what I have learned since I set aside my teaching assignment. Methuselah’s thoughts on his 969th birthday were probably more profound, but here are a few of  mine: 

1.     Life insurance companies want nothing to do with anyone over age 85; in fact, they refuse to accept applications after that age. On the other hand, drug companies relish the thought that I may be living on and on, maybe longer than Methuselah. They want my business.

2.     By the time I am gone the younger generations will no longer know how to converse with one another.  Their hands are always busy with some electronic device but their tongues are mute.  I recall visiting with a family group about ten years ago. I had flown to the site to be with them, but they sat in the living room, each busy  their device. I wondered why I had come. And if, in the future, colleges will be offering courses in “Learning to converse.” I wonder also if cursive writing is really a thing of the past and people will scramble to find someone to read a handwritten letter as if it was a foreign language.  

3.     At my age you get thrown into one general category: old, yet my only resemblance to my-age people is that we have experienced more and have more physical problems than a younger group. We’re very different though we’re treated like a box of factory-cut soda crackers, same size, same shape, same taste. I want to rebel.

4.     We are encouraged to get out more, to enjoy our friends, yet most of our friends are gone. Many days when I check the obituaries, I find the name of another one.  Life gets thin when it comes to friends at this time of life and getting out becomes more difficult.

5.     Talk about death and dying is uncomfortable for many people, yet it is hard for me to dismiss that I have only limited years ahead. I’ve lived a long life, a good life.  Why? The Old Testament saints honored their fathers and mothers wanted a long life to have more years to worship God, their maker and redeemer. I’d like to talk more openly about death and dying but I get few takers. People discuss wills and estates, medical problems, and housing issues, but not death, a four-letter word with five letters. 

6.     Old people spend a lot of time waiting, waiting on God, waiting for someone to take us places we’d rather not go to and those we would. Little old ladies, in particular, because there’s more of them than old men, do a lot of waiting on benches, on chairs, on fancy walkers, alongside walls, in medical offices. But I find that’s the time for watching people. 

7.     Things that clutter my shelves and fill my closets have less importance at this time in life than they did when I was collecting them. It’s just stuff. It’s easier to give away.  Television programs seem more vapid. I get weary with advertisers’ attempts to persuade me to buy; organizations, including church bodies to give to attend. They use the same slick, glossy marketing  tactics. When they all begin  to look alike it is easy to disregard them. Call it overkill, maybe compassion fatigue. 

8.     I tell myself it is still important to have goals, even if only small ones, in order to hang onto life even though I am no longer  caught up in the mainstream of life, but standing on a mountaintop looking  back, as life as  a whole--the valleys,  steep climbs, hairpin turns, and wonderful green plateaus. And recognizing there is still a distance to climb. 

9.     I need to be reminded regularly that God is where I am, in my apartment, in my smaller circle of friends, in my narrower range of activities. Yet it is hard to find someone to share my spiritual discoveries about how God relates to us would-be Methuselahs, small as they may be.

10.  It takes courage to grow old, to be brave enough to accept a flawed world with its excessive violence, unrest, and loss of a moral compass, yet cling to ideals and hang onto an inner core of beliefs and values. It is important to hang onto faith, to trust, and not be afraid.

I am grateful to God for giving me a good long life, and though I ask, “Why grow old?” the alternative is not as inviting – not yet.  If I live many more years, I’ll appeal to Methuselah for advice.  He probably had more to say.  In a few years, I will also.  So I keep trucking.