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.”