Tuesday, June 26, 2012

About Ruehrei and bigger things

Another of my friends died about two weeks ago. It made me sad. I think of my mother who at age 98 told me how alone she felt, for all her friends were dying, leaving her behind.

Her words reminded me of the time, years ago, when the curfew rang in the evening, how we children dropped whatever we were doing and rushed home, dirty, sweaty, tired, happy.  The day had been good.  Sometimes a child who hadn’t heard the bell peal across our little village needed a special holler to come home.

Mother was waiting for that special holler to head to her final home. Her friends had all heard the call and left.  She had been saying good-bye to life and hello to the new life ahead for some time.  At my age these are two daily tasks.
I say good-bye to things more easily than I once did.  Whatever sits on shelves and hangs on walls no longer means much to me.  I wonder about hoarders who keep piling it in.  What draws them to their stuff?  What makes it impossible for them to give it up. 

I say good-bye to activities more readily each year.  It feels good to stay at home and not keep rushing around  like my children. Son James flew to Washington, D.C. this weekend via New York City. Daughter Susan drove to Kansas City. Joanna visited Kansas a few weeks ago.  I am glad they can do this. I can’t.  This week I resigned from a board I had been on for 37 years. It was time to let go.

I find it fairly easy to say good-bye to those lumps and bumps  that cling to my thought life, particularly my theology.  They have hampered me long enough.  My need for certitude in minor areas has become less.  Dispensationalism, for example.  Many younger people don’t know what the word means or why it was of major importance to some of us at one time.  Or why people were dogmatic about each arrow and line in the large complicated diagram depicting the end-times.  The faith life isn’t about arrows and lines and complicated formulas.

I say good-bye, with regret, to the loss of skills like cooking and baking, which I once enjoyed immensely.  I have lost the touch, I tell myself. I no longer know what yeast dough should feel like before I put it in a large bowl to rise, so I don’t attempt a batch of sweet rolls any more. 

I get hungry for old foods like green bean soup or summer borscht but can  never find all the ingredients in supermarkets.  Summer savory?  What is that?  Without it green bean soup is just vegetable soup. So I make  Ruehrei for myself, and, as I look at the little pan of food, I wonder what it was like when I made this soul-food for six people. It must have been a mountain.

I keep saying hello to a deeper understanding of faith.  Paul wrote to the  Corinthian church that outwardly he was wasting away, yet inwardly he was being renewed day by day.  To keep growing inwardly is important to me, especially to hang onto joy and a deeper understanding of grace.

I keep saying hello to new insights into my family's story. Life review is important for all older people. I do it for several  reasons: (1) I want my children to know where they came from, the country of origin, and the values that shaped their ancestors, including mine. You don’t know who you are until you know where you came from.

 (2) I want them to know why our extended family, originating in rural life in the Ukraine in the former USSR,  never became farmers in Canada when they arrived here in 1923 though new immigrants were expected to become homesteaders.

(3) I want them to know about the generosity of my father’s uncle Abram D. Schellenberg, who came to Canada  a good decade earlier and established a business  in Saskatchewan. His foresight enabled him to sponsor my father’s extended family and other relatives looking to escape the political unrest and hardship in the former Soviet Union during Lenin’s rule. Such gracious giving needs to be remembered and emulated in some form.

 (4) I also want them to understand what happened to the other half of the family – my mother’s side, which  got caught in Stalinist Russia and spent eleven years in forced labor in Siberia following World War II.

As children we never stopped our play to wait for the curfew.   It always came as a surprise. Already time to go home?  But home we went.  That’s the way I feel about life.  While I am  aware there is a curfew ahead,  I want to be hard  “at play” at my pursuits when the bell rings, yet ready.     

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

What? Me a bag lady? No way!

This weekend two events happened that bothered me:  I lost a blog I had written. It was ready to post when it disappeared from my faithful computer like the morning mist.  Computer expert Joanna worked hard to find it using all search engines she could think of.  No luck.  I had to say good-bye to that masterpiece. 

Joanna was somewhat philosophical about it. Maybe I really shouldn’t have written it. It was about my strong reaction to an article about church men using their male energy in a day of wild behavior, demolishing and blowing up old cars “to the glory of God.”  “Aggression is the essence of manliness,” they were told.  Oh yeah? Not the way I see it in this day of war, violence, and domestic abuse. 

The other event? 

My children pushed me, once again, into more new electronic technology:  Facebook and a KindleFire device. 

Such  items begin as a gleam in the eye of one of the children, not mine, but I have to suffer the labor pains to bring them to life and nurture them thereafter. 

In the early 1980s son James insisted: “Mom, you can’t let yourself get much older without learning to use a computer.”

“But my parents and their parents before them lived to a ripe old age without learning. Why do I have to?”  I had all the counter-arguments down pat.

“If you want a head start into old age, you’ve got to use a computer. Old age and computers are a compatible team.  Can’t you see yourself several decades down the road—you’re old, making doorstops out of catalogs—but with a computer you could have fun playing games – Mystery Writing, Adventures in Medications, Committee Strategy."

“I can see myself with a scrambled brain learning all these new commands.  Years ago my writing teacher talked only about curves, straight lines, and whether to write above or below the line. With a computer I’d have to learn about Word Wrap and Soft Hyphens and Booting the system. I’m too old.”  I was not quite sixty at the time. 

“Mom, I’ve heard about people of ninety-five sitting on front of a computer  mastering it in a few hours.  Nothing to it....”

“Then how come some of them are growing extra fingers in their desperation to find all the keys?”

“You’re exaggerating, Mom. You’ll be a wonderful example to your grandchildren.  They’ll admire you sitting at your personal computer, writing them letters, balancing your checkbook,  logging into daily financial reports from New York to find out how your investments are doing.” 

“But, James, I’m already drowning in information, and I haven’t got any investments.” 

“Well, think of other advantages.  You could track where you’re on a waiting list for admittance to an old folks’ home to see if you’re near the top.”

“I love you, son, but the thought of a computer in the house scares me witless. I could never deal with a computer talking back to me.  I’m sure I’d break down and cry.  I couldn’t sleep nights wondering if it was plotting against me for having told it to Change Logged Disk Drive when it wanted to Abandon File Without Saving.” 

 “Listen, you can take a computer to bed with you and it wouldn’t  hurt a bit.  They’re tame as a kitten, like a pet, in fact. Before long, you’ll find yourself saying a loving good-night to it every evening. It’ll become friend, adviser, source of information ---.”

“But I can’t afford one.” 
“Nonsense. If you haven’t got one before you hit sixty, Mom, I can see you becoming a bag lady on the streets of  Hillsboro.” 

Me, a bag lady?  Roaming the streets of that little community? 

No way. I bought. James  set me up with a big IBM computer and a tractor feed printer. I was in business. Now I wouldn’t give it, e-mail  and the Internet up for anything.

About the same time as this life-changing event I needed a new tape recorder. The store clerk advised electronics.  I refused.  I bought a reel-to-reel recorder, which I used only a few times. I was still thinking in the old mode.

Next I welcomed a microwave oven, mobile phone,  cell phone, CD player, HD TV.  Now,  this weekend,  I was unceremoniously enrolled on FaceBook and given a lesson on using  a Kindle reader and playing Scrabble on-line.   Now it’s up to me. And I want to shrink into a corner and whisper, “Enough already.”  

Monday,  after nearly everyone left after a family gathering,  Joanna and I looked at some old photos of my parents.  A series of pictures shows the evolution of my immigrant Mother from a dark, floor-length, Old Country-style dress to a snazzy dressmaker suit she had made for herself in a lovely green wool about ten to fifteen years later. How had she managed the changes in clothing while learning a new language and culture with such grace? 

Can I make this deeper plunge  into modern electronics as gracefully? I think of the 1940s when I worked as a legal secretary and  I had  to type documents with up to fifteen copies at one time on a manual typewriter.  Every mistake had to be erased carefully on each copy.   The finished product was carefully meticulously checked with the original with another secretary reading it, including punctuation and paragraphing.Would anyone want to return to that method?

Okay, so I lost a blog.  No big deal. Just a lot of words. Ideas are without number. Will I master all this new stuff?   Not today, maybe not even tomorrow,  but I can only try. 

Facebook, Kindle, Scrabble, here I come – slowly. If I drown, someone please help!.

Friday, June 1, 2012

At my husband's grave fifty years later: Walter W. Wiebe 1918-62

When I was a child in the tiny village of Blaine Lake in northern Saskatchewan, the sexton of  the Catholic church always rang  the church bell to announce a death in the parish. The chimes came slowly, once for every year the person had lived.  We children  stopped our play to count the peals. A few, a child; many, an old person.  Poet John Donne (1573-1631)writes in one of his sermons, “Therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

On Memorial Day my daughter Susan, son James,   wife Kathy and daughter Jennifer and I stood around my husband’s grave to remember his short life. The bell tolled  for him in  1962 in Kansas at age 44.

Walter and I met in 1945 when we were both attending Bible college in Winnipeg, I a na├»eve 22-year-old  and he a more mature 28-year-old , just released from 4½ years in alternative service.

He had two goals: to get an education and a wife.  We were married two years later, and he began chasing his dream: B.Th., B.A., M.A. all the while supporting the family as a public school teacher, finish carpenter, school teacher, pastor.

He quickly rose to the top in whatever he did: Valedictorian and student president at college. He made friends easily. His ordination to the ministry in 1953 meant a great deal to him, a much-valued acknowledgment of his spiritual and leadership gifts.

He loved books. He loved learning new things.  A classmate wrote after Walter’s death about a college Zoology class both were taking in Waterloo, Ont. about 1960: “Walter had the habit of talking along to himself when the professor was lecturing. He had had some science before so this material was not entirely unfamiliar. He would say, ‘Yes, I see that.’  Or ‘So this would be this way’ or ‘Then it would go there’ .... always indicating he was following exactly what the prof was saying..... It didn’t take long and the prof was only lecturing to one person; the rest of the class was practically nonexistent.... I’ve never had that experience anywhere else. He was a real inspiration to me though it showed me up as a student.”

In 1958, Walter  became ill for the first time.  We didn’t think it was serious, but it was, and in 1962, after several surgeries, a  brief seven weeks after having moved to Hillsboro, Kansas, he died of what in lay terms is known as “jelly belly.”  I have written about his death and the life that followed for us as a family in my book Alone: A Widow’s Search for Joy (Tyndale, 1975).

At this simple memorial, I read a poem by daughter Christine, who died in 2000 at age 45, which she wrote about her father’s death at age  seven.

I clomp down the stairs in Daddy’s shoes.
Mother gives me some death words.
They don’t fit anyway.
Take them back, mother.

Relatives fly to our home like black birds.
Curled in uncle’s lap I watch.
“What did that mean?”
“We’re talking, German, Chrissie.”

At the back of the church: a long box
with a person in it.
I want to look inside
but I’m too far away.

Under the fir trees: a stone and a hole.
Is it really six feet?
Why is the lid shut?
May I move closer, mother?

Both James and Susan agreed with Christine that the memory she recorded in her poem “Letting go”  about  the last Christmas Walter was with us was memorable:

This is how it should be;
Christmas vacation, and I am six;
Daddy and I are driving outside the city
To a great hill with untouched snow.

Sun warms the car.
I climb up the tracks Daddy makes
hearing the crunch each time the first time.
We stand at the top, just Daddy and I, breathing,
And the sparrows laugh.
"I’m afraid,” I say.

But then we’re sailing
And  I’m safe on a narrow strip of wood
clinging to his broad back,
A solid thing in a swaying world,
And I’m laughing and wishing

We could fall like this forever
Into the sun sparkles and whipping wind
And the white snowdrift
Waiting to embrace us
Over and over and over.  

To read more of Christine’s poetry as well as an autobiographical sketch and  critical essays, go to Christine R. Wiebe, “Writing as Spiritual Journey, Creative Mennonite Writing, Vol. 2, No. 6,  Oct. 2010 and also JamesWiebe.blogspot.com  in which he writes a lengthy blog about what the loss of his father he barely knew meant to him at “Hasking  and Other Reflections on Fatherhood,” February 8, 2012.

Susan read an excerpt from daughter Joanna’s book Birth Mother, (Kindle ebook) about a time when she and Walter attended a revival meeting when she was a young girl and felt compelled by the powerful preaching to go forward at the altar call, yet didn’t think she needed to.  He told her she didn’t have to go. “Never let the crowd do the thinking for you. Always do the thinking for the crowd.”

I thought of words he often mentioned to me his father had given him: “It is better to spend fifty years struggling for the truth and making mistakes than to live for a short time according to tradition.” Like father, like son.

Around his gravestone I read from a few of Walter’s published and unpublished writings, including words written to himself: “Some people are born thirty years too soon. Their ideas are ahead of their time. Every invention is but a contravention of customs, every advance in science, political systems, etc. is ahead of its time.”

“Every man is made by his past experiences, advantages, heredity, environment – and by the future he entertains in his breast.”

In his article “Spiritual mountaineering,” about the Old Testament pioneer thinkers Caleb and Joshua,  he concluded with a story about a preacher  who asked at a service for the names of the two spies who believe God could give Israel the Promised Land. Over a hundred hands shot up, signifying they knew the answer. Then he offered a twenty-dollar bill to anyone who could, from memory, give the names of the other ten spies.  No one took up this offer. The ten spies are forgotten, but Caleb is remembered for his faith. “He wholly followed the Lord.”  All his life he had but one desire and that was to do God’s bidding.  This is what God asks of each one of us – to “die climbing,” Walter concluded.  Caleb died climbing.

The time we spent together before that simple gravestone was a good one, remembering,  cherishing, loving.   Never send  to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee – for some sooner, for some later. But it is important to keep remembering.