Blog

Our German Relative

Our German Relative

By Mitchell Toews

Whenever our family got together, it was inevitable that we would sit and tell stories. We would gather in my grandparents’ adjoining kitchen and living room, tjinja on the floor to make room on the couches and chairs for our elders. Here at the heart of their warm and crowded house, no one would be out of earshot. Yarns were unravelled and our feelings rose and fell. It was as if we were on a ship and the prairie around us was a rolling ocean – in all that sprawling snowy sea, my grandparents’ house was the safest harbour. And yet the stories often reminded us of the many dangers that exist in what seemed such a placid and familiar world.

At Christmas, Grandma always told the final story. That was our tradition. It was about my great-aunt Rosa when she was a child in Russia.

Enunciating with care in her precise English, Grandma Zehen told the story. Her narration was theatrical and thrilling, but still heartfelt and purely told. She would fill in detail and sentiment, adding dialogue to suit. But most engaging of all, she always told the story as if it was ours. This may not have been strictly so; it may have been cultural lore as much as family history. I never felt that it mattered – I just remember waiting for the story every Christmastime.

Lights were dimmed, candles lit. Out came the platters of Christmas cookies from the warmth of Grandma’s oven. Baked fresh this evening, we had been smelling them since the stories began, all of us waiting for them to arrive. I will never forget the candy taste of the pink icing, the buttery aroma with just a hint of vanilla. I can still see the warm glint of the crystal sugar in the candlelight. Best of all, dee tjinja got first pick from the overflowing trays!

Grandma began her special story once everyone had their cookies and we chewed as quietly as we could to listen.

#

Not too far from Odessa, on the shores of the Black Sea, there was once a place called Molotschna Colony – ‘Milk River’, you know, as Englanders say it. My mother’s sister, my Taunte Rosa, attended grade school in one of the villages there. By Soviet dictate, the lessons were taught in Russian. The teacher, however, was brought in from Germany for the school year. Naturally, she was fluent in Hoch Deutsch – the language the Molotschna Mennonites spoke in church. She spoke Russian too, but best of all, thisLehrerin was also able to get by in her Mennonite students’ native PlautdietschObah, for the tjinja, of course, Plautdietsch was like the difference between day-old rye bread and fresh raisin toast with butter!

After Russia’s Godless Revolution, another state dictate forbade all religions. It was illegal to come together in any kind of gathering, especially for groups with obvious proclivities towards worship. Why even our little get-together today would have been banned under these new laws! Ambitious and diligent, the government officials were particularly strict in overseeing the local Mennonites in everything they did: at work, at home, and in Taunte Rosa’s school.

But there were still some aspects of Christendom that refused to fade in Russia. In a practical sense, this referred to the calendar and the arrangement of holidays, most of which were based on old religious traditions too deeply ingrained in society to go away overnight. Christmas ceased to exist, but a single day of rest near the end of December was permitted in Taunte’s village. Despite this, officially, even the simplest Yuletide symbols were banned.

Can you imagine? We have not experienced oppression like this in Canada, but let me tell you, it was a profound stimulant to Christmas joy back then! There is a kind of enthusiasm for celebrations that only forbidding them can produce. Ha! Bibles came out of secret hiding places. Clandestine late-night services were held in barns and haylofts and carols were sung in whispered voices. Even the auf’jefollna cast aside their backsliding ways and rediscovered their fervour!

Now, kids, I’m sorry for all the big words and grown-up talk! What Grandma is saying to you is that Christmas was taken away. And not just Christmas, but Easter too and even going to Sunday School. It was a mixed-up time, joh? But you little ones shouldn’t worry – the next part of the story is really for you, most of all!

So, now…little Rosa was very excited and too young then to grasp the full extent of the ban. She felt that taking away Christmas was like a game the adults played – the government on one side, trying to catch you; the parents and kids on the other side, trying to be clever and feeling the dangerous exhilaration of outsmarting the apparatchiks and their stuffy No-Christmas rules.

Christmas baking was one of many pieces in this complex game. Most Mennonite families still made Christmas cookies and other festive treats, but these traditions were known to the officials and were part of the ban. Christmas cookies were kept secret and were hidden.

A few days before Christmas Day one year, Rosa joined the game. That day, her mother had baked a batch of these secret Christmas cookies, and young Rosa couldn’t stop herself. She took one of the best, one with pink icing and red and green sugar crystals on top – and snuck away. She wrapped it in oiled paper, then in a folded piece of cardboard and secured it snugly with a thin ribbon she had saved from her birthday. Her coat had an inside pocket and she placed it there, near her heart. This was her Christmas gift for her teacher, Fraulein Rosenfeld. Rosa was so fond of her pretty teacher, you see, and was always broken-hearted in the springtime when Fraulein packed her trunk and left on the train.

Imagine the winter sky, children, as big there and just as blue as it is here. Think of Taunte Rosa as she hummed ‘Stille Nacht’ ever so softly while she walked to the schoolhouse, her boots squeaking in rhythm on the hard-packed snow path. Rosa, you see, felt guilty for not telling her mother about the gift. But, you know just how she felt, joh? She wanted to give this gift so badly and feared if she had asked, the answer would be no.

After lunch at school that day, while the other children dressed to go out and play, Rosa walked shyly to Fraulein’s desk and placed the ribboned gift in front of her. Fraulein tilted her head, not used to gifts from children in her class. Desperately saving for passage to strange, distant destinations like Canada, America, and Mexico, the families of Molotschna had little left over. And, of course, no one in any of the Russian Mennonite Colonies gave gifts for Christmas.

“What’s this?” the teacher asked.

Rosa stood at the edge of the desk, her heavy parka over her arm. At first, she was terrified, sensing that her teacher was angry and that she had done something wrong. “A present, Lehrerin,” was her meek answer.

Fraulein answered with a hum and a slight frown. She was a prim woman, thin and neat and somewhat severe. Her eyebrows raised and her eyes flicked up to see if anyone else was in the room. It was empty; all the children were already on the playground. She picked up the light bundle and unwrapped it with long piano fingers, laying the shiny ribbon on the varnished desktop. She undid the folded oil-paper and looked down at the small Christmas cookie.

“Well, well,” she said, before taking a deep breath and sitting upright in her chair. “How nice, Rosa. But, tell me please: did your mother give you this, for me?” She left her steady gaze on the child but took care not to stare too hard.

Rosa looked down, her cheeks flushing. “Nay, Lehrerin. It was me,” she confessed.

Nicht Mutti?” replied the teacher in more formal High German; her tone firmer, a hint of accusation lingering.

Nein, Fraulein. Mother doesn’t know.”

Fraulein Rosenfeld nodded curtly. She rose and walked swiftly to the doorway, her heels like hammer blows on the oiled wood floor. Looking down the hall and then closing the door, she paused there, her hands clenching as she gathered her thoughts. Rosa waited, feeling ever smaller next to the tall desk. The door locked with a sharp snap.

Nah joh,” Fraulein Rosenfeld began. When she turned back to Rosa she was smiling. “This is so nice.”

Rosa squirmed, basking in the moment.

“It’s just so nice!” Fraulein repeated. “Can we have it now, Rosa?”

The little girl studied her teacher’s face. Then, eyes shining, she said, “Joh!

Fraulein Rosenfeld looked through the window to the playground. Then she returned to the desk and broke the cookie into smaller bits. She ate some of it, passing a small piece to Rosa.

They ate together, chewing busily like church mice, with the teacher standing between little Rosa and the door. Fraulein fretted from door to window and to the large white-faced clock on the wall behind her, above the lined blackboard, keeping watch all the while.

Soon the cookie was gone. The teacher took the wrapper and folded it over and over until it was a small square. She pushed it deep into her pocket, together with the curly ribbon. She moistened her fingertip and dabbed at the few remaining crumbs. Holding one finger upright in front of her pursed lips, she took Rosa’s little hands and squeezed them gently, leaning over to kiss her on the forehead in the silent classroom.

“Our secret, joh?” Fraulein said in a whisper.

Rosa nodded, elated to have a secret with Fraulein – an honour she did not fully grasp. But perhaps it was just what the Fraulein had been lacking in cold and distant Molotschna.

 

molotschna sm
Page 232, “Building on the Past”, Raduga Publications, Rudy P. Friesen

 

You see, Fraulein Rosenfeld was much revered by the officials who ran the school. They saw her presence as a special concession to the Mennonites. On the other hand, the local teachers felt it was a slight to them and they treated her with cool disdain. For Fraulein, from a remote dairy farm in southern Germany, this teaching position was Godsent. It combined her gift for language and her love of children. To her, some minor social distance was a small price to pay. But ask any oma or opa whose children have since begun their own lives and families, and they will tell you, it’s easier to feel lonely at Christmas than at any other time of the year.

Fraulein gazed with fondness at the tiny girl, she saw the brightness in her eyes and touched her braided blonde hair.

Just then, the first of Rosa’s red-cheeked classmates huffed into the cloakroom stomping snow off their boots and unwinding scarfs, their yarn-strung mittens wet and dangling. They looked at the two at the front of the classroom. Rosa’s friend Tina called out that they missed her for the game of fox and geese they had played, running in the fresh snow. Before Rosa could reply, the bell rang and the children returned to their seats.

Now tjinja, you might ask, how dangerous was that one innocent küak? Surely no great peril could come from something so small? But all it would have taken was for the wrong official to find out about the cookie – why what would have happened to them then? Those Russians, obliged by strict orders to find them, might have detained Rosa’s family. Maybe they would have been sent to a distant work camp or suffered some secret cruelty in Moscow, too horrible to name. Who knows?

And all because of a Christmas cookie.

#

Grandma folded her hands in her lap. The house fell still and silent until Grandpa prayed, his voice solemn and thick with emotion. When he finished, after, “Amen,” we sang, giving thanks for our deliverance, rattling the windows, billowing our hearts; “Praise God from whom all blessings flow…”

At last, late on Tjrist’owend, I would lie in my bed and retell myself Great-Aunt Rosa’s story. Fraulein Rosenfeld was like a relative we saw just once a year – a loyal and trusted member of our family there in the tiny house behind the bakery on Barkman Avenue. With this visitor, never distant though she came from far away and long ago, our Christmas was complete.

 

Reprints and re-blogs are welcome. A version of this fiction appeared on Red Fez Christmas, 2016.
Advertisements

The Business of Saving Souls on SickLit

Update: My prickly story about the conflation of business, big church and politics appears on SickLit Magazine today, May 15.

This is a reprint of the story which first appeared on another of my favourite literary journals, Literally Stories.

This is what SickLit Senior Editor Nicole Ford Thomas had to say about it:

“I really like “The Business of Saving Souls,” as it seems at first like a warm and fuzzy church parable about doing good, but down deep, it’s a lesson about standing up to corruption–all corruption–and fighting to take care of each other.”

SickLit recently ran a reprint of another of my stories, “The Rothmans Job”, which first appeared on the vibrant Canadian literature site, CommuterLit. I have a total of seven stories on CommuterLit and another five on Literally Stories. Thanks to the editors of all of these exceptional online literary journals!

I hope you enjoy the pieces and welcome your comments.

Special thanks to the editors at SickLit. They are awesome sauce. (Or, “hosanna!” as they’d read responsively at the NTCCF.)

Allfornow – Mitch

The Beefeater and the Donnybrook

 

Update: 4.11.17 – Hi, from a sunny day in April, beside the lake,

Janice and I have been travelling and have both been down with a cold lately. My blog activity has been limited, though I have been able to keep up with daily writing. Today I heard from editor and literary paragon, Charlie Fish, that another of my stories has been accepted for his award-winning site, Fiction on the Web.

Feedspot has named FotW a TOP 20 short story site on the internet!

Short-story_20_transparent_216pxHere’s what Charlie says about FICTION on the WEB: “It is a labour of love. Every single story on here is hand-picked and carefully edited by me. I don’t have a staff, and I don’t make any money. I do this because I want to give authors a chance to get their work out there, and I love sharing great stories with the world.

FICTION on the WEB has been online since 1996, which makes it the oldest short stories website on the Internet.”

Here are a few snippets from my latest story:

The Beefeater and the Donnybrook

By Mitchell Toews

Copyright Mitchell Toews ©2017

MICAH JAMES WAS shorter than average and had an interesting kind of face. His eyes were recessed and penetrating and his complexion had the weathered texture and ruddy colour of a mountain climber or a big game hunter. He was neither. Micah James was a quiet, middle-aged family man – an engineer working for the City of Halifax in Canada.

The Jameses were leaving together soon on a long-awaited trip to London. His wife, Marion, had planned the trip from the packing process through tipping and all conceivable forms of disaster planning.

[SNIP]

“Ok, I’m on it! Walk will do me good.” Micah said, giving Marion an assuring glance and summoning up some energy for the trip. It was fine – the kind of little blip he had been secretly hoping for.

[SNIP]

Twisting in his crouch, Micah was eyeball to kneecap with a pair of creased black pants, gold piping on the sides. His eyes followed the stripes up to a white satin tunic and topping that, a dapper red fez. Then the voice again, but softer, “Are you alright, mate?”

[SNIP]

He waited in line at the reception desk, listening to an instrumental version of a Bob Dylan song. It was piping out of a speaker in the tile ceiling above him and he laid his head back to peer at it. Thinking of his own rapid descent into hell, he picked detritus from his oily beard; bits of styrofoam and other rancid urban spod. His thinning hair hung in limp disarray and the belt of the raincoat had come loose and was dragging on the ground behind him like an obedient, filthy snake.

[SNIP]

See it on FotW on May 19: an ever-worsening yarn that plays out on the streets of central London. 

Other stories that have appeared on Fiction on the Web:

Nothing to Lose

July 8, 2016. A baker and former hockey player reminisces on his colourful history as he delivers buns in the dusty Manitoba sun.

Heavy Artillery

Oct. 30, 2016. The story of young Matty and his characterful neighbour encountering a travelling salesman in the sleepy Manitoba town of Hartplatz.

The Preacher and His Wife

 Jan. 23, 2017. In Hartplatz, rural Canada, a neighbourhood scandal brews when young Sarah reports that her grandmother’s engagement ring has gone missing.

The Rothmans Job

February 19, 2017 UPDATE

SickLitMagazine has advised that they will be publishing a reprint of “The Rothmans Job” which first appeared (see below) on CommuterLit.com.

The story will run in late March or early April.

sicklit

allfornow – Mitch

January 30, 2017 UPDATE

TODAY, this twisted Canadian yarn, born in absurd truth and transported on the wings of a fictional 1991 prairie storm, is published by CommuterLit – a Toronto based online purveyor of morning short stories, lox and bagels. (And they are all out of lox and bagels.) 

http://commuterlit.com/

If a Neo-Noir Xmas Tragicomedy sub-genre exists, then this story belongs there. If not, then maybe this story inspires it?

A snowy night. An unlocked warehouse. A characterful materfamilias.

The Rothmans Job – EXCERPTS
By Mitchell Toews
.
A STORM LIKE THIS was rare. Snowflakes blocked out sky and sun and moon and stars. The flakes – as big as baby fists – had been falling for three days. Light and dry, they flew, then settled, then flew again – whipped by a dodgy north wind. At night, the tops of buildings disappeared except for the occasional glimpse of a red tower beacon or a snapping row of flags, like those atop The Bay.
.
Through this otherworld trudged Waxman and Thunderella. Waxman led. He wore two snowmobile suits and his knees could not bend more than a few degrees. Lumbering and stiff, he plowed through drifts for his female accomplice, Ellen Thundermaker.
.
[snip]
.
“No way, Waxy. It’s gonna be all imported cheese and fancy wine. Crab meat. Vienna sausages…” she said, stopping to let him join in.
.
“Ha-ha. Yeah – uhh, Heineken beer, Dijon ketchup, Swiss chocolate – or, you know, one of those giant bars, ahh,”
.
“TOBLERONE, TOBLERONE!” she shouted out, filling in the missing name.
.
“AS if,” she added, suddenly serious…
.
[snip]
.
(about 2,400 words)   Copyright Mitchell Toews ©2017.

#

Waxman, Thunderella, Pegasus, Otto the inventor, the police, Pozzo, Roland, and (in absentia) Poland, all look forward to making your acquaintance.

allfornow – Mitch

We Refugees

My short story, “Groota Pieter” based on my experiences in Southeast Manitoba, is included in this thoughtful, important conversation on forced migration. In 1873, my great-great-grandfather, Cornelius Toews, was one of a group of 12 delegates to travel to North America to scout locations for a mass migration as Russia constricted around their Mennonite villages in the Molotschna region of Ukraine. This historical connection, plus my life in a Canadian diaspora community that now sees others arriving as they once did—scared, unfamiliar, poor, and without a choice—makes the story personal for me.

I’m pleased to be a part of the book and if you happen to be in Melbourne, September 16…

From: https://regalhouseinitiative.org/we-refugees/

We Refugees is now on the shelves in Readings bookshops across Melbourne, and it will be launched by Julian Burnside at Readings Hawthorn next Monday 16th September at 6.30pm.
Two contributors, Kirsty Anantharajah and Akuol Garang are able to be here for the launch, which is very exciting.
The launch details are available via the link below:

Now available in Australia… For release September 27, 2019 in the U.S.

The Regal House Initiative, together with Pact Press, is proud to bring you an anthology of writing by and about refugees, asylum seekers, and other forced migrants. We Refugees is intended to amplify the voices of displaced people and bring their experiences to the awareness of readers. The lead editor for this anthology is Dr. Emma Larking.

Our aim is to provide insights into the lives of the displaced, insights that are often ignored in contemporary media accounts of the global refugee crisis. Rather than present a vision of crisis, we would like to present a vision of hope and energy, to celebrate the resilience of people who have been forced to leave their homes and seek new ones. We sought contributions that may discomfort or challenge readers, presenting the experience of displacement in a manner at odds with more typical representations.

Proceeds from the publication of We Refugees

Editorial work will be provided free of charge by the Pact Press editorial team, lead by Dr. Emma Larking, and all net proceeds from the sale of the anthology will go to support the work of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC).

Based in Melbourne, Australia, the ASRC describes itself as:

…both a place and a movement. We are an independent not for profit organisation, whose programs support and empower people seeking asylum to maximise their own physical, mental and social wellbeing. As a movement, we mobilise and unite communities to create lasting social and policy change for people seeking asylum in Australia. We are proud to be owned and run by our community of volunteers and supporters.

Please visit the ASRC website for more information about its campaignsworkvision and values.

Interview with Artist Virginia Ryan, Contributor to our forthcoming Pact Press Anthology, We Refugees.

we refugees library

~ ~ ~

“Groota Pieter” is also a part of the 2018 Lilly Press publication (U.S.), “The Immigrants” by The River Poets Journal.

Din and the Wash Bear

My 450-word-or-less flash fiction, “Din and the Wash Bear” appears today on the flash portion of the Pandemonium Press family of literary sites, Doorknobs and Bodypaint Issue 95. This Berkeley-based online zine is a favourite of mine — especially because I’ve had success in Dorsals and riverbabble, with appearances in a half-dozen issues, or so.

For this month’s Dorsals section, I responded to a themed call that asked for short fiction pieces that included a classic noir feel and a femme fatale. I did so, allowing my immediate surroundings to influence my character selection.

I hope you enjoy it. If you do, just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you? You just put your lips together and blow.

http://www.iceflow.com/doorknobs/issue95/DO-95-TOEWS.HTML

allfornow,
Mitchell

 

Justina “Jesse” Toews, 1933-2019

http://bit.ly/JesseJustinaToews

This page is a memorial site for the life of Jesse Toews, of Steinbach, MB.

We’re stronger in the places where we’ve been broken,”—Ernest Hemingway

Celebration of Life

Jesse’s family is grateful for all the kind gestures of condolence. We are holding a celebration of Jesse’s life on Saturday, Sept 7 at 11 am in the Tamarack Room of the Qualico Family Centre in Assiniboine Park, Winnipeg. The site is near the Duck Pond (and ample parking) at 330 Assiniboine Park Drive.

Update: Sept. 9 Our gathering in the park was particularly uplifting and affirming. Thanks to all who attended and thanks to the staff at the venue for a wonderful setting and family event. Our sister, Mom, Aunt, etc. Marnie Fardoe is to be commended for her tireless work, both as Mom’s number one advocate in life and also her loyal steward in the difficult days we have just come through.

On Sunday, the family interned Jesse beside Dad in the grave in Steinbach, within sight of the plot of land on McKenzie, where she grew up and where years later her children and some of her grandchildren attended high school. It was a beautiful fall day and we read Psalms 23 and enjoyed a quiet last time together.

We’ll see her again in a few whiles.

http___www.hendersonnebraska.com_wp-content_uploads_2012_04_zwieback
🙂
~ ~ ~

The obituary follows below, but this page is intended to host much more. It has been posted and will be maintained as a gathering place for Jesse’s family and friends. Pictures, comments, anecdotes and other loving memories of our mom-grandma-oma may be found and enjoyed here and you may also wish to contribute to the collection.

mom

Please feel welcome. To contribute, send your material to mtoews55@gmail.com. I will receive it and share it with my sisters Char Toews and Marnie Fardoe. Share directly with them if you wish and have their contact information. We’ll contact you to confirm and then share your submission, with thanks and love.

Feel free to share the link with others who knew Jesse and may wish to visit the site.

http://bit.ly/JesseJustinaToews

~ ~ ~

wfp

Here is a link to the obituary in the Winnipeg Free Press: https://shar.es/aXqTKD

~ ~ ~

Justina “Jesse” Toews (nee Harder) July 17, 1933—August 10, 2019

Jesse Toews, age 86, formerly of Steinbach, MB, passed away peacefully at the Grace Hospital in Winnipeg on August 10, 2019.

The eighth of 10 children, Justina “Jesse” Harder was born on the family farm near Plum Coulee to parents Marie (nee Penner) and Diedrich Harder. When Jesse was nine-years-old, her family moved to a small homestead on Mackenzie Road in Steinbach. Here the family continued to grow their own food in their large garden, and father and sons were employed as house painters. A skilled painter herself, she liked to tell us, “Paint is in my blood!”

Jesse was a capable, bright kid with boundless energy. In her life, work was rewarding play. As a child she frequently helped with the care of young relatives. As a teen she had responsible jobs such as a pharmacy assistant and an aide at the Ninette TB Hospital. Jesse married Norman “Chuck” Toews in 1954. Always a quick study, she fulfilled her role and was instrumental in the family businesses, Steinbach Bakery and Grow Sir. She also curled, water-skied, cooked up many a storm, and cut grass—all with joy and zeal!

She was the last surviving sibling in her family. Predeceased by Norman in 1994, Jesse is survived by their three children: Mitchell (Janice, nee Kasper) of Jessica Lake, MB, Charlynn Toews (David Menzies) of Terrace, BC, Marnie Fardoe (Ken Fardoe) of Winnipeg, and five grandchildren: Megan Olynyk (Blair Olynyk) and their children Tyrus and Hazel, Tere Toews (Tom Halpin), Cameron Menzies, Emily Fardoe, and Maris Fardoe.

A celebration of Jesse’s life is being planned for September, details to be announced. For more information on the event and also to share pictures, memories and other fond expressions of our mom/grandma/oma, please visit this commemorative web page: http://bit.ly/JesseJustinaToews

In lieu of flowers, you may want to give to the charity of your choice and then get together and schputt with someone over a coffee, laughing until your stomach aches and your cheeks are sore from grinning. Jesse would like that.

jesse laugh
Aunt Dee, Uncle Earl, Jesse

jesse 54

http://moonmagazine.org/mitch-toews-toboggan-run-2019-08-03/

The link above is a short story inspired by women in general—and one with some similarities to Jesse in particular—and the human beings they create.

When Uncle Earl passed away, I was troubled by it for quite a while. A friend sent me this passage, often attributed to Victor Hugo from “Toilers of the Sea”. I found it soothing and a beautiful thought:

I am standing upon that foreshore. A ship at my side spreads her white sails in the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength and I stand and watch her until at length she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come down to mingle with each other. Then someone at my side says, “There! She’s gone!” “Gone where?” “Gone from my sight, that’s all.” She is just as large in mast and spar and hull as ever she was when she left my side; just as able to bear her load of living freight to the place of her destination. Her diminished size is in me, not in her. And just at that moment when someone at my side says, “There! She’s gone!” there are other eyes watching her coming and other voices ready to take up the glad shout, “Here she comes!”

aunty ros and jesse
Aunty Ros and Jesse at Sunrise Bay
bukowski fire
If Mom’s life was a book, perhaps this line of verse could be her coverline.

IMG_2085

fam jesse
Mitch, Jan, Char, Marnie, Maris, Mom/Grandma T
img_21012193569934077779850.jpg
Maris and Grandma T
candles
Make a wish…
Char, Jan, Tere, Grandma T/Mom, Mitch, Megan
Priceless
Meg, Maris, Tere, and Grandma T
Uncle Tony and Grandma Harder
Jesse and Norm
Jesse and Norm at Sunrise Bay

Mexico
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
“Verk!”

Mom on Sunrise Bay
img_21281917887888400812116.jpg
Mom, Charlynn, Mitchell
Mom did love a good HAT…
Char with a Halifax hello or goodbye…
Mom, Dave, Char
Mom, Dad, Ken
Mom and Marn
Char (in the shadow) Cam and Grandma
Emily, Grandma T, Murphy the literary Cat, and a literal cat on Sunrise Bay
One of my sisters doing a shocked Zul Brenner with Mom at Sunrise Bay
Me and Mom, at Grandma & Grandpa Toews (?)
romance
Rrrromance…
n&J wed
July 31, 1954
wedding party jess
The wedding party, with Earl and Mrs. Funk, her bridesman (for whom Mom was bridesmaid the week before… )
mom and mjt
Mom and me on Barkman Ave.
eat and recommend
“We eat and recommend Steinbach Bread!”
facebook_15667614975207533260584595788770.jpg
6-yr-old Hazel Abigail Olynyk, Jesse’s great-granddaughter at home in Maple Ridge.
11-yr-old Ty
Jesse’s 11-year-old great-grandson Tyrus James Olynky at a stop-over in Anola, Mb this August.

Each grandchild and child shared a recollection of Jesse. Here is my recounting of an event that stands proud in my memory of Mom and her ways:

Funerals, as my friend Hans says—he is a funeral expert, having been a lot of people’s favourite lawyer for just about half a century and attending many a closing arguement—“funerals are for the living,” Hans says. I believe this is so. I also know that Mom would have nodded approvingly and made a mental note to comment to you sometime about how nice it was that you came. Please consider yourself so acknowledged.

I’d like to share the retelling of a story that I experienced personally with my mom. The year was 1968. Our parents’ main business, Steinbach Bakery, had recently been reduced in size and it was less of a wholesale bakery selling to Winnipeg stores and more of a retail outlet with distribution locally.

Mom worked regularly in the bakery and I was there often after school and during summer vacation to grease bread pans, slice bread, bag buns, eat donuts and so on. I was working on the inclined bread slicer behind the counter one Saturday and the clerk, a high school girl named Yvonne, if memory serves, was cleaning the display case. Mom was in the back. It had been a busy day at the end of summer and we were all tired. We three were the last remaining employees that day and Mom was mostly waiting around to give me a ride home.

There were a few local customers in the store—people Yvonne and I recognized—and then a small group of strangers came in. It was normal on a Saturday to have out-of-town shoppers, but this group seemed slightly off to me and I kind of watched out of the corner of my eye as they began to buy things. There was a rather sizable, older lady, dressed outlandishly, and two younger men and a young female. The older woman was the main actor in this play.

Normally, if zweibach were sold six for a dollar, let’s say, then most people would buy multiples of three, to make it easy—3,6,9,12, etc. Easy-peasy. Not this lady. She wanted, “five of these and four, no make that 13 of those over there, and here’s a twenty-dollar bill—those are for my sister—and may I have the change in two-dollar bills, and what’s on special? Oh? Then put those back and give me the ones on sale instead… or, no! Just put HALF of them back. Say, may I have a donut now, just to nibble on? Also, sweetheart—it would be really good to sit down, because, well my heart is not what it used to be… Boy! Bring me a chair.”

It was a lot to manage.

Plus the others in the group were mimicking her and also ordering poor Yvonne around and making her spin in circles. She was an experienced clerk, but this was something else! Our regular customers left, their heads shaking as they went, wondering what kind of strange people these were!

I remember joining in to try and help Yvonne keep everything straight and bag their orders. The two men started arguing and calling each other names and this added to the overall confusion and raised the volume.

Later on, Ben Sobering, our Chief of Police and a friend of the family, told us this group were con artists, a flim-flam gang, and they had hit a number of stores in town that day, in much the same manner. Confusion, distraction, mayhem and mathematics.

Anyway, Yvonne was losing it and just as things hit a crescendo, Mom entered the front, cool as a proverbial Jant Seid Gurtj. She knew nothing about flim-flam, but she had heard the cash register opening and closing, lots of yelling and one look at Yvonne’s harried face and Mom knew all was not right.

She checked with Yvonne, surveyed the situation, which had kind of drawn to a halt upon her entrance because, for a small planet, she had lots of gravitational pull.

When Mom was nervous and really concentrating, she would move slowly and kind of whistle noiselessly. That’s what she did then, eyeballing each of the crooks as she walked out from behind the counter. There were two entrances to the bakery: the main door into the front display area and a side door for deliveries. My slicer was next to the delivery entrance and as Mom sidled by me on her slow-steppin’ way to the main door, she whispered, “Lock the side door, when I lock the front.”

I winked yes and crept a little closer to the side door as she made her way, chatting now amicably with the flimmers and flammers until she reached the door. Quick as Denver Reimer, the Huskies goalie, she flipped the deadbolt with a loud “CLACK!” and then keyed the main lock shut. Seeing this I quickly engaged the deadbolt on my door and waited to see what would happen.

“That’s it!” Mom yelled, her face as grim as the Reaper’s. “Either all the baked goods stay here and you leave or I’m going to have my husband and the police here in five minutes! You just leave everything here and keep whatever money you have and GO, RIGHT NOW, and that’s the end of it!” She stared at them like a cat watching a bird and if she would have had a tail, it would have twitched.

The heavy-set lady, whom I had now studied in greater detail and had begun wondering pretty hard about exactly what kind of lady has a five o’clock shadow and she also had wingtip shoes peeking out from beneath her long skirt. Animal, mineral or just a tough old gal from the North End, the lady leader sniffed, regarded all wiry five foot three of Mom’s trembling fury and decided, for the betterment of all involved, to exit and live to fight another day.

Whistling silently the whole time, Mom’s eye shone dark and pierced the floury air of the still bakery. She jingled her keys and opened the door for them. When the last one was out, she yelled something about the police and, “I’d hurry if I was you!” and re-locked the door.

We all cheered and the best moment was at home when we told Dad the story and he laughed until he cried and then he laughed some more.

~ ~ ~

This story illustrates perfectly a side of my Mom’s character that I believe, in the first place, attracted our dad to her (and her to him) and ultimately was passed along to Norm and Jesse’s children and their grandchildren and even their great-grandchildren. Persistence. Guts. Standing up for the little guy — that was Mom.

I want to say something else too. Every high note has its bass companion. Even a bright white object casts a dark shadow. Mom’s strength could be her weakness too, when taken to extremes. Also, it’s important to know that she did struggle with her mental health, a condition that took greater hold in her later years. If in your experience with feisty Jesse, you found yourself on the receiving end, I’m here to say she was doing her best and while it might have felt bad at the time, she probably would simply have seen it as simply striving to protect herself or maybe someone else, someone she rightly or wrongly believed needed her jutting jaw and cold steely stare.

When I picture my mother’s life through a wide-angle lens, I am reminded of a complicated mosaic of pieces, all fitting together tightly and in some instances forced into place. If it is true, as Hemingway wrote, that, “We’re stronger in the places where we’ve been broken,” then that is how we should strive to see Jesse’s life and her challenges—and maybe our own too—and see things in their true perspective.

Jesse Toews was a complex person and had beautiful warmth, kindness, empathy, and humour. Her incredible energy kept us all hopping and her intelligence and fearless approach to life were all any of us needed to get through the rough spots. For this, for her love, for her struggles, I am indebted and I am proud to be her son.

P.S.–On Sunday, fittingly, after interning Mom’s ashes alongside Dad’s remains we went to the old GrowSir South and had Mennonite Sundaes. They were terrible beastly good.

Spinning Tops

I spin tales, mostly full of yarn. The following optimistic—if not quite upbeat—pieces are two of my top tjriesele; that is, they are not bad, maybe, sorta, kinda… I’m less than indifferent about them… etc.
1.) “DIED RICH”

This is the heartfelt tale of a neophyte basketball player—slash—jung Reiba ☠️and it was selected for the May 2019 Issue #27 edition of the American literary magazine Fabula Argentea. Find it HERE.

Editor Rick Taubold: “We don’t single out any pieces in an issue as being better than the others, but you might find it interesting to read and compare “Died Rich” and “Whence We Came, Whither We Go” because they both explore a similar theme, yet they are very different stories with different outcomes.”

fabula argentea.png

WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Died Rich”:

The title alone is compelling, even if it totally misleads the reader about the story’s content. After the first couple of paragraphs, the reader is hooked on the character and anxiously wondering where the story is headed. One mark of a great story is that opening hook and promise, and with his opening author Mitchell Toews promises a good story and does not disappoint with his different take on how to handle a bully, even if… (spoiler removed)

One thing we loved about this piece was Dr. Rempel’s story about the borderline cases in Hell. At the time, this seems like… (spoiler removed)

☠️ A jung Reiba is a boy pirate, according to the author’s less-than-perfect Plautdietsch.
2.) “THE TOBOGGAN RUN”

Ezra magazine: Cornellians at play, in winter's snow and ice

This simple love story is swooshing along in The MOON magazine‘s August Issue. The magazine for August is a stunner! Topical pieces, essays, fiction and poetry. A movable feast spread on your summer picnic blanket.

Slide over to Mitch’s joint, at the corner of Barkman and Creek Road: http://moonmagazine.org/mitch-toews-toboggan-run-2019-08-03/

And… because Druids and Christians alike appreciate things in groups of three, here is a third possibility, a variation on the theme with perhaps a slightly swarthier metric. Take it out for a couple of rotations, especially if you want to switch to a summer setting after the last two winter tales:
3.) “IFS AND BUTTERS”

Another in the continuing saga of life in Hartplatz, Manitoba in the Fifties and Sixties. The Vogels make an interesting cameo here and Pete Vogel is a repeat character familiar to readers of other stories from this Mennonite Twilight Zone. The exciting new lit mag, TurnPike from Ball State University is running the story. Read it HERE!

~~~

Aug 8 Addendum: Another recent story in quite a different setting, and far up the heat registehr in all respects is “Concealment” on the excellent lit journal, Me First Magazine. https://wp.me/pawMQk-2w

“OUT OF THIS WORLD”

I’m equal parts thrilled and honoured to be included in Leslee Goodman’s anthology of The MOON Magazine 2013-2019. As a contributor (“Peacemongers” June 2017) I find myself sharing the lunar night with a wide variety of heavenly minds and rising stars.

OUT OF THIS WORLD back MOON
The back cover of OUT OF THIS WORLD

Jessica Lake, Manitoba—Local author Mitchell Toews has a short story featured in the new anthology, Out of This World: The Best Short Stories from The MOON. His story, “Peacemongers,” tells of young boys wrestling with issues of non-violence, conscientious objection, and how to stand up to a bully in Hartplatz, Manitoba, against the backdrop of the Cuban missile crisis. The story is one of 23 works included in this anthology from The MOON magazine, a monthly journal of personal and universal reflections. (Full Press Release linked below.) “Peacemongers” is one of eight “Making Peace” selections in the book.

Curious and ready for a great summer read? Both Kindle and softcover versions of the anthology are available on Amazon at a great price! Take a brief exit from this world and its circular rancour, breaking news, rising water and record temperatures and find 23 new worlds to explore!

Preview a sampling of OUT OF THIS WORLD here: http://a.co/hL673Qd

Booksellers—US & Canada Retailers, Christian Retailers, International Retailers: https://www.ingramcontent.com/retailers/contact

Public and K-12 Libraries— https://www.ingramcontent.com/libraries

Press Release—Local author Mitch Toews featured in Out of This World anthology

Kits mitch zoom
Contributor Mitchell Toews of Jessica Lake, Manitoba

~ ~ ~

Invisible people | Addressing homelessness

The theme for the July 2019 issue of The MOON Magazine is Invisible People. It’s a multi-faceted look at homelessness. “If your brother becomes impoverished and his hand falters beside you, you shall strengthen him, whether he is a stranger or a native, so that he can live with you.” – Leviticus 25:35

 

Prosetry in the Park

Photo Caption: Here we are on July 20. Photo by Phil Hossack.

POSTED HERE EARLIER (Pre-event): Janice and I live in a 1950 cottage on the shore of a lake in the Whiteshell Provincial Park in Manitoba.

We try to live simply out here in the boreal–WiFi and Polish beer notwithstanding–but even the residents of Walden Pond gave in to the occasional venture back to the city for supplies and human contact. Us too.

On July 20 we will try to bring the city to the Park. We hope to be swamped by forest-thirsty urbanites, neighbours, and friendly randos here at our Walden. We will welcome these visitors to be our guests and, if they can, to bring a story, a poem, a song, a painting and share it with the gathering.

A night under the stars. Informal artistic expression and reflective appreciation. Come by boat, windsurfer, canoe. Swim, hike in, ride a bike or fill a vehicle–float plane, microbus, Red River cart, or a 1947 Lincoln Zephyr. . . whatevs–with your most convivial merry prankster friends.

[…] “twas in another lifetime,

one of toil and blood.

When blackness was a virtue, the road was full of mud.

I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form.

‘Come in,’ she said, ‘I’ll give you shelter from the storm.'”

~~~

prosetry sign 1

Let us, like Bob Dylan’s friend in his mystic lyric above, offer you an evening of shelter from the storm.

AND, if you can’t make it in person, we’d welcome your proxy–a snippet or an excerpt or a few lines of verse. We’ll present your work with reverence and hope. Then we’ll toast you and hope once more—that you join us next year.

Contact me here or on Facebook, twitter, email, Goodreads, phone, or drop in for details. mtoews55@gmail.com to learn about the point in time and space where reality meets infinity, borne on blintering starlight at the 50th latitude.

JULY 22 The Aftermath… see it all here: https://tale.code.blog/2019/07/23/prosetry-anthology/

 

 

 

What’s it all about, Alfie?

An outdated song-movie reference, but truly, what IS it all about?

Followers. Friends. Connections.

I have them, I value many… some not so much. I’ve made new friends via twitter and Facebook. It is a time-consumer, the internet is, that’s for sure but I’ll gladly put in the time if there is a pay-off.

And if the pay-off is simply getting to know a few more cool people on the planet? I’m in.

But…

What do the figures mean? What is helpful to a writer? What does an editor or a literary agent or a publisher really care about beyond the story?

Build your base, countless consultants with extremely white teeth and button-down collars proclaim.

I’d be glad to know about the Malcolm points that magically tip things in my favour and take my story from “promising” to “compelling” or from “not a good fit for us right now” to “we are goddamn-freaking-mind-blown to have you on board, you massive rock star in a blue plaid shirt!” Or words to that effect.

At the same time, I have my own disclaimers. I care about working with people who like me and whom I enjoy — I feel like I’ve earned that privilege and so my journey up & down the rocky, steep, and sometimes treacherous fiction trail is among friends and pleasant, fun people. Sure, they’re skilled and sharp and they gotta be smart. Hard-working and honest; of course, but they also must be just plain old nice. Share a deserted island with nice. Two-hole outhouse nice. (Okay — no one is that nice.)

Anyway, please tell me… what’s it all about?

Twitter = 4,484 followers @Mitchell_Toews (See my mapped follower results in the image above.)

Facebook = 234 friends https://www.facebook.com/mitch.toews

LinkedIn = 785 connections https://www.linkedin.com/in/mitchtoews/

Goodreads = 7 followers and 165 friends https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/18450919.Mitchell_Toews

Mitchellaneous.com blog = 148 subscribers https://mitchellaneous.com/

Reading

Manitoba writer Mitchell Toews will be among those doing readings of flash fiction & excerpts from longer work at ArtSpace May 25 Noon-2 PM on the fifth floor (up on the roof, weather permitting).

It’s part of the Doors Open event and he has volunteered on behalf of the Manitoba Writers’ Guild 425-100 Arthur Street, Wpg.

Each building tour, on the half-hour, will stop for a brief reading: Seven-minute excursions into the boreal, towards the dim light, to the bottom of the sky, and screwed to the sticking spot, all for free in the 119-year-old Gault Building, now home to ARTSPACE.

Readings may include selections from:

  • “I am Otter”
  • “Sweet Caporals at Dawn”
  • “A Plum of a Night” (for groups with lots of little kids)
  • “Operation Night Bandit” (for groups with lots of exhausted young moms)
  • “Pinching Zwichack”
  • “In the Dim Light Beyond the Fence” (for groups with more than one Blue Jays cap in evidence)
  • The opening sequence of  “The Fisherman’s Story”, Part Two in a trilogy.
  • “Wide Winter River”, an excerpt from the short story, “The Margin of the River”
“I try to write about everyday people and events, but to see the drama in these lives. Regardless of whether the story takes a turn towards humour, or sorrow, or action, or even fantasy, I often come at it from an underlying perspective of hope, often with a good dose of emotion and courage in the mix.”—Mitchell Toews

Happy Mother’s Day Bio

Just sent this bio out. It’s of the long-form variety and I have shorter ones (much) that I use most often. I thought it was kinda fun and less inhibited than some I’ve tried in the past. You tell me?

Bio

After university in Victoria, B.C. and Winnipeg, MB, where Mitchell chose not to take his dad’s advice and follow his creative inclinations, he jumped into adult life. Married at 21, a couple of kids soon after, the couple opened a manufacturing company and commenced to work like hell. After 16 years of busted knuckles, lit & fig, Mitchell and Janice sold their company and he went to work for other hewers and makers of wood products in Canada. Mitch became “the creative guy” for a couple of large manufacturers, working on advertising and marketing communication. He added a degree in marcom to his education and worked in this stream of the creative economy until 2015 when he retired. (It was as soon as they dared!)

Now, Janice and he find themselves living a simple life in their 1950 lakeside cabin in Manitoba. Cold as blue steel in the winter and summers are kinda buggy but they have no real complaints—they left those behind—and they drink drunkenly of nature every day. The only blackfly in the boreal ointment is that they are half a continent removed from their grandkids. “That sucks but whatchergonnado?”

Mitchell’s daily beat, when not fixing or renovating the old girl—their cabin, that is—is to write short fiction and submit to lit mags in Canada, the U.K. and the U.S. He has over fifty stories published, a short list of anthology contributions, and one Pushcart Prize nomination. Please see the author’s blog for the full catalogue. https://mitchellaneous.com/write-clicks/

In print, Mitch has made contributions to these available-to-purchase titles: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/18450919.Mitchell_Toews Two more are underway but are not yet published.

Mitchell has also written:
✒️ a sci-fi-fantasy novella about an insidious mutant swarm of giant kakkerlaks and a group of stranded teenagers. It awaits the TLC that will allow it to seek self-actualization in the outside world of readers and reviewers.
✒️ A short story trilogy set on the Mexican Pacific coast for which he maintains a bothersome notion that someone could adapt it into a great screenplay; and,
✒️ a noir debut literary novel that is in its first full edit. He is about a year-and-a-half into it. Mitch has connected with a Brit editor to help get this WIP tale of Mennonite mayhem set in the wilds of Manitoba to the query stage.

Mitchell was recently accepted as a “New/Early Career Artist” by the Canada Council for the Arts and this allows him to apply for funding to help finance his second act. He is actively considering opportunities for grant application.

#

Last, FYI, here is an unsolicited list of the folks I’d most like to share a beer with, around the campfire here at Jessica Lake:

First, in recognition of Mother’s Day, my great-grandma Sarah Toews who, in 1917 (!) sued her Mennonite Church (run entirely by men) for shunning her. Next, novelist Phillip Roth who first made it “normal” to insert lots of Yiddish into his books and opened up a rich and fascinating way of incorporating culture and setting. I try to follow his lead. In my case, it’s Low German or *Plautdietsch*. One of my true author heroes, Miriam Toews, would also get an invite. She comes from the same little town as me and she, a bit like Roth did for the American Jewish community, opened things up in the conservative Mennonite community.

She comes from the same little town as me and she, a bit like Roth did for the American Jewish community, opened things up in the conservative Mennonite community. Both Ms. Toews and Mr. Roth enlarged the tolerance for dissent from within, especially when offered in a comical or satirical way, despite the serious subject matter.

Both Ms. Toews and Mr. Roth enlarged the tolerance for dissent from within, especially when offered in a comical or satirical way, despite the serious subject matter. She followed the lead of a renowned writer named Rudy Wiebe, who would also have a lawn chair at the fire. CNF novelist, journalist, speaker, socialist and all-around shit-disturber Chris Hedges would be asked to keep things lively—him with a Doctor of Divinity and a Pulitzer and all. Finally, Moonlight Graham, from W.P. Kinsella’s “Shoeless Joe”, because I love baseball and he seems like a pretty good guy.

P.S. – the Mother’s Day tag would come out under normal, non-Mother’s Day situations. 🙂

Cheers,
Mitchell Toews
Jessica Lake, Manitoba
https://www.facebook.com/mitch.toews
@mitchell_toews
https://www.pw.org/directory/writers/mitchell_toews

Otter Redux

My short and furry flash fiction, “I am Otter” is up on the new site: Short Tales – Flash Fiction Stories. The online site, which is aimed at international readers, features stories of no more than 1500 words. https://tale.code.blog/ Editor: @samkandej

I am Otter was first published by The Machinery in August 2017.

Mitchell lives and writes lakeside in Manitoba. He enjoys those splendid opportunities to fire in a one-hopper from deep in fiction’s left field, where ideas go to get green-stained and bedevilled.