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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.

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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.

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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.

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]
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“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.
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“Ha-ha. Yeah – uhh, Heineken beer, Dijon ketchup, Swiss chocolate – or, you know, one of those giant bars, ahh,”
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“TOBLERONE, TOBLERONE!” she shouted out, filling in the missing name.
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“AS if,” she added, suddenly serious…
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[snip]
.
(about 2,400 words)   Copyright Mitchell Toews ©2017.

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

allfornow – Mitch

Jessica Lake Idyll

Last summer a good friend visited. We drank cold Belgian lager beside a warm Manitoba lake. It was idyllic and pleasant. To add to the enjoyment, Irene told us a story from her past—her mom is my aunt’s sister and that family is famously as full of life and spontaneity as a sizzling firecracker.

I confessed to our friend Irene that the story was terrific and that, guiltily, I was tempted to steal it. She said I could steal with her permission—so, a theft, but legally pre-excused.

Over the next few months, I wrote it first as a short essay, then changed it to be used as the first segment of a more complicated three-part story.

It was, I believed, a truly Canadian story and more so a Canadian Mennonite tale, even though my friend’s mom is not, by origin, a Mennonite. (But she sure as heck lived with Mennonites, as did her sister—my aunt.) I sent it out for consideration by several literary journals, hoping for the best.

Ultimately, I decided to withdraw the story. I had grown dissatisfied with it and a few readers—other writers whose opinion I trusted—felt it was convoluted and disjointed, even if they didn’t say it exactly that way…

Schiet.

But, one of the markets spoke up. Like several of my writer friends, they said the first segment of the story was worth keeping and would I care to rewrite it as a solo piece? “Sure,” says I, happy for the lifeline.

So I rewrote and resubmitted. I felt positive, partly because of the resurrection and also sensing that the reduction from that longer piece was now more purely refined; “Un sirop nappant,” as, René, a spontaneous Jessica Lake neighbour and skilled cook, might have said.

Happily, the editors agreed and come July, “The Grittiness of Mango Chiffon” will appear in Agnes and True, an exceptional Canadian publication.

Agnes and True is a Canadian online literary journal.

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Our journal was founded on the belief that there are many writers whose work has not yet had the chance to be appreciated and many stories that have not yet found their literary home.

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As our name suggests, Agnes and True celebrates the achievement of women, though not exclusively. We are particularly interested in discovering and publishing the work of emerging older writers (both female and male).

My thanks to the editorial team at Agnes and True, home to more than a few sizzling firecrackers, I am sure.

Agnes and True is brought to you by The Trojan Horse Press, Inc. 

 

 

 

 

Mak’n Sparks

Janice and I spent a month over Christmas and New Year visiting family and dog-sitting in BC. The majority of the time had us in Victoria. While we were there I contacted the Victoria Writers’ Society to see if they had any events or functions taking place during our stay.

They did: the Society’s Annual General Meeting was on the slate and the Secretary, Ms. Sheila Martindale, invited me to sign-up for their Open Mic, which, she assured me was the main activity of the evening.

So I did: reading a sightly abridged version of “Sweet Caporal at Dawn”. It was fun and Jan & I really enjoyed the various readings. Lots of grab-ya-by-the-throat poetry and some fine essay and memoir pieces.

A reading I found particularly entertaining—and relatable—was Ron Stefik’s bright, funny ramble, “Mak’n Sparks”. I’ve received Ron’s permission to share it here.

Like Conrad led us upriver into a world of winding darkness and deception, so—conversely—Ron takes us downstream, away from lives filled with confusion and dilemma.

We are brought into the quiet of the workshop: the place of washer-filled Cheeze-Whiz jars suspended by their lids from the underside of a shelf… the land of pegboard and felt pen outlines on the wall… the sanctuary of our favourite tools—their double-insulated smells, their familiarity, their loyalty, their simple ways.

But also the power tool’s growling capacity for raw, emergency room-feeding might!

“I don’t like work—no man does—but I like what is in the work—the chance to find yourself.”—Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

 

Mak’n Sparks

by Ron Stefik

I enthusiastically read the latest Canadian Tire advertising flyer that had arrived in the mail.  These are basically glossy hardware porn. The centrefold display caught my attention, the item between the stepladder with open legs and the set of socket wrenches. Angle grinders were on sale.

I have always felt a desire to own a portable angle grinder. Not an actual need, but a desire. When I had worked in the design office at Strathcona Steel in Edmonton, I would occasionally have reason to go down to the cavernous shop floor; to get a measurement, to get a progress update, or to get yelled at for not wearing safety boots. Metal shaping and welding stations were busy all around as I navigated across the factory, but those using angle grinders seemed to have the most satisfying tasks. Like Prometheus delivering fire, labourers cast long showers of fiery sparks to the howling accompaniment of their empowering device. Here be men!

Ownership of such a tool might lead to identification of a previously unrecognized daily need for such a thing, and would likely inspire a worthy addition to my story series, “The Joy of…”.  The Joy of Radial Arm Saws, The Joy of Hedge Trimmers…..The Joy of Angle Grinders…..intriguing titles like that.

Scanning the store shelves in my quest for self-worth, I suppressed a rising panic this item would be sold-out and unavailable to the remaining local angle grinding citizenry. Such disappointing ventures are reminiscent of potential dates that never show, an unfulfilled promise of a happily ever after future. Discovering my equivalent of the Golden Fleece craftily located on a lower shelf, with fevered anticipation and sweaty hands I made my selection from the inventory. I had briefly considered using some of my hoard of 5 and 10 cent Canadian Tire coupons to finance the investment, but wisely decided to maintain this bankroll for a future spending spree, such as the purchase of an electric lighting fixture to donate to an Amish charity. However, I did also acquire a 10-pack of grinding wheels. I was sure to identify many things around the house that could benefit from a good grinding. I could hardly wait to get home and start annoying the neighbours.

Alone in the privacy of my workshop, I savoured the moment of unveiling. The box included an instruction book sealed in a plastic bag. This would preserve it in pristine unopened condition for the benefit of future generations. It was tough plastic, and curiosity getting the better of me, I used the grinder to get it open. A thick booklet, it was printed in a multitude of languages, for the convenience of angle grinding Swahili bushmen and Bedouin travellers with long extension cords. Of the 32-page English section, the first thirty-one and a half pages were dedicated to safety advisories of the “never do this” variety. Such as using this power tool to open a plastic bag.

As it would happen, I had recently brought home from a neighbourhood free-pile a damaged air compressor. I did not see any need to compress air but had a vague idea of using the attached small pressure tank for a future inventive project. It was welded on. My first grinding task! Safety glasses and ear covers on, I attacked the task with suitable angle grinding élan and vigour. Electric motor whining at a satisfyingly high pitch, sparks flew as I spread destruction, Jedi warrior descendant upon a metallic foe. Within minutes I transformed a once useful piece of equipment into bits of scrap. This was progress!

Having satisfied my initial primal urge to cut through metal, I await the next necessity that will present itself to use this latest weapon in my home-improvement arsenal. That jam jar that has been getting a bit tough to open? Perhaps a bit of grinding to remove the lid is in order. Or perhaps a passerby on an electric shopping scooter will overturn in front of my home and require my rescue with a portable angle grinder to cut them free from the wreckage. One can only hope.

Publication-Interviews-Readings

The list is getting long enough to have its own dedicated page. I’ll keep this page more or less up to date and that is all I’m gonna say about that.

Last updated: January 22, 2020

PUBLISHED

Since June 2016:

“Encountered on the Shore”, CommuterLit (Ca), 2016

“A Vile Insinuation”, CommuterLit (Ca), 2016

“Without Reason”, CommuterLit (Ca), 2016

“Zero to Sixty”, CommuterLit (Ca), 2016

“The Margin of the River”, CommuterLit (Ca), 2016

“Nothing to Lose”, Fiction on the Web (UK), 2016

“Heavy Artillery”, Fiction on the Web (UK), 2016

“Breezy and the Six-Pack Sneaker”, Literally Stories (UK), 2016

“The Fifty Dollar Sewing Machine”, Literally Stories (UK), 2016

“South of Oromocto Depths”, Literally Stories (UK), 2016

“Frozen Tag”, Literally Stories (UK), 2016

“A Fisherman’s Story”, Rhubarb Magazine (Ca), Issue 39, 2016

“Our German Relative”, Red Fez (Ca), Issue 96, 2016

“Graperoo”, Fair Folk Journal (US), 2016

“So Are They All”, Voices (Ca), Volume 16, No. 2, 2016

“The Phage Match”, Broken Pencil (Ca), 2016

“The Rothmans Job”, CommuterLit (Ca), 2017

“Winter Eve in Walker Creek Park”, CommuterLit (Ca), 2017

“South of Oromocto Depths”, CommuterLit (Ca), 2017

“Encountered on the Shore”, CommuterLit (Ca), 2017

“The Preacher and His Wife”, Literally Stories (UK), 2017

“The Beefeater and the Donnybrook”, Literally Stories (UK), 2017

“The Light Pool”, Alsina Publishing LingoBites (UK – English and Spanish), 2017

“Nothing to Lose”, Digging Through the Fat (US), 2017 (Link)

“Heavy Artillery”, Digging Through the Fat (US), 2017 (Link)

“The Business of Saving Souls”, Literally Stories (UK), 2017

“So Are They All”, Literally Stories (UK), 2017

“The Rothmans Job”, Sick Lit Magazine (US), 2017

“The Business of Saving Souls”, Sick Lit Magazine (US), 2017

“I am Otter”, The Machinery – A Literary Collection (India), “Fauna” 2017

“The Log Boom”, Storgy.com (UK), 2017

“Encountered on the Shore”, Occulum (US), 2017

“The Peacemongers”, The MOON magazine (US), 2017

“The Margin of the River”, riverbabble (US), 2017

“The Seven Songs”, Fictive Dream (UK), 2017

“I am Otter”, CommuterLit (Ca) 2018

“Fall From Grace”, Literally Stories (UK), 2018

“Of a Forest Silent”, Alsina Publishing LingoBites (UK – English and Spanish), 2018

“City Lights”, Literally Stories (UK), 2018

“The Bottom of the Sky”, Fiction on the Web (UK), 2018

“In the Dim Light Beyond the Fence”, riverbabble (US), 2018

“Nothing to Lose”, riverbabble (US), 2018

“Shade Tree Haven”, Doorknobs & Bodypaint (US), 2018

“Sweet Caporal at Dawn”, Blank Spaces (Ca), 2018

“Sweet Caporal at Dawn”, “Just Words, Volume 2” (Ca), 2018

“Away Game”, Pulp Literature (Ca), 2018

“The Doeling”, Cabinet of Heed (Ireland), 2018

“Groota Pieter”, River Poets Journal, Special Themed Edition, “The Immigrants” (US),  2018

INTERVIEW, Mennotoba (Ca), 2018

“The Narrowing”, Scarlet Leaf Review (Ca), 2018

“Wide Winter River” podcast Not Ready for Prime Time (US), 2018

“The Fifty Dollar Sewing Machine”, Literally Stories (UK), 2019

“The Toboggan Run”, The MOON magazine (US), 2019

“Peacemongers”, The MOON magazine: “Out of This World” The Best Short Stories from the MOON (US), Volume 1, 2019

“Cave on a Cul-de-sac”, The Hayward Fault Line, Doorknobs & Bodypaint (US) Issue 93, 2019

“Din and the Wash Bear”, The Hayward Fault Line, Doorknobs & Bodypaint (US) Issue 95, 2019

“Died Rich”, Fabula Argentea (US), Issue #27, 2019

“I am Otter”, Short Tales – Flash Fiction Stories (Iran), 2019

“Away Game”, Short Tales – Flash Fiction Stories (Iran), 2019

INTERVIEW and EXCERPT from WIP novel, “Mulholland and Hardbar”, South Branch Scribbler (Ca), 2019

“Ifs and Butters”, TurnPike (US), 2019

“Concealment”, Me First Magazine (US), 2019

“Groota Pieter”, Pact Press (Australia), “We Refugees” anthology, 2019

“Fast and Steep”, Riddle Fence (Ca), Issue 34, 2019.

“Holthacka’s Quandary”, Lunate Fiction (UK), 2019

“Shade Tree Haven”, (mac)ro(mic) (US), 2019

“My Writing Day”, my (small press) writing day (Ca), 2019

“The Log Boom”, River Poets Journal, Special Themed Edition, “A Fork in the Road” (US),  Date TBA, 2020

“The Business of Saving Souls”, Literally Stories (UK), January 26, 2020

“Encampment”, Tiny Seed Literary Journal (US), February 8, 2020

“The Grittiness of Mango Chiffon”, Agnes and True (Ca), Date TBA (July 2020)

CONTESTS & AWARDS

“So Are They All”, Second Place in the Adult Fiction category of the Write on the Lake (Ca) contest, 2016

“Fall from Grace”, Honourable Mention in The Writers’ Workshop of Asheville (US) Memoirs Contest, 2016

“The Phage Match”, Finalist in Broken Pencil’s (Ca) annual “Deathmatch contest, 2016

“Cave on a Cul-de-sac”, Winner in The Hayward Fault LineDoorknobs & Bodypaint (US) Issue 93 Triannual Themed Flash contest, 2018

“I am Otter”, CommuterLit (Ca), Runner-up in for Flash Fiction Feature, 2018

“Sweet Caporal at Dawn”, Nominated by Blank Spaces (Ca) for a PUSHCART PRIZE, 2018

READINGS

Voices Launch, McNally Robinson, Winnipeg, MB, 2016

Pulp Literature Issue Launch, Vancouver, BC, 2017

Manitoba Writers’ Guild, Artspace, Winnipeg, MB, 2019

Prosetry, Jessica Lake, MB, 2019

Driedger Readings, Winnipeg, MB, 2019

Victoria Writers’ Society AGM, Victoria Central Library, Open Mic, Jan 8, 2020

Jake Epp Public Library, Steinbach, MB, 2020 (date TBA)

A Mennonite Imposter’s Discursive Rhapsody

Three Problems with Christianity: Souldierism, Heaven, and Receipts. (And possibly some of the reasons why the author maunders along in so many stories, searching out weak actors like a Red Rock Bible Camp Councillor hunting for Playboys between the mattresses.)

Problem One: Onward Christian “Soul-diers”

  • Mennonite religion (voted *Best Guilt* at Reformerpalooza) is obsessively and unabashedly built upon an army mentality.
  • Follow orders or else. It’s just that simple.
  • Those who ask questions based on some external code or sense of moral dissatisfaction are often eliminated. Shunned, excommunicated, kicked out, shit-canned… The church is governed by court-martial law, coercively presided and prosecuted by high-ranking church officials who are put in place by you-know-who (Die Owlah! An unimpeachable authority.) Just like the armed services, to disobey is to risk extreme penalties and disgrace.

So why is an organization dedicated to peace governed by the same laws, ordinances, and traditions that are used by the world’s militaries; the same rules that were in place for the fearsome armies of the Old Testament?

  • Also like the military, most Christian conventions change, but they are grindingly slow to do so. Examples of past changes I’ve seen in my own adult lifetime: Divorce (with the caveat that it is still far rougher on women then it is for men), Tight Jeans, and Rock n’ Roll. No? Just take a look around at church this Sunday, is there not at least one divorced person in your pew? Are you and others not wearing jeans that would have drawn a hair-afire rebuke in 1970? That musical menagerie: drum kit, synthesizer, and stable full of guitars up on the (ahem) stage is at the ready and is not out of place, in fact, they are the instruments of salvation and worship.

“Last one in the mosh pit is a demon!” 

  • And yet the church, just like the military, battle on in their efforts to resist LGBTQ (see below), to sustain their sadly obvious misogynistic roots, and to disavow the nativism that the church’s unholy co-combatants—far-right conservative politicians—seek to uphold.
  • In 2012, Steinbach, Manitoba’s Southland Church led opposition to a provincial law that sought to provide protection for LGBTQ students suffering from bullying. The church took the position that the Bill would promote “wrong lifestyle choices.” A petite-but-confident and charismatic high school student (not yet voting age at the time) serenely and handily took on the Steinbach Town Council, several adult congregants, a group of not-so-petite (but plenty-surly) adult members of the local ministerial association who carried NOT ON MY WATCH! placards. This latter crew had to be gavelled into silence and was threatened with expulsion from council chambers. Despite being less disruptive than the placardists, a phalanx of spear-wielding ancient Roman soldiers was prevented from entering the chambers.
    • “We want them to change it (the Bill) to say independent faith-based schools do not have to have groups that are in conflict with their beliefs,” Coun. Susan Penner told CBC News on Thursday. —https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/anti-bullying-bill-like-persecution-in-steinbach-1.1340156 (The soldiers could be heard grunting and clacking their spears in noisy agreement outside of the meeting room.)
    • At Steinbach’s Southland Church, pastor Ray Duerksen told parishioners during a (“worship”) service on Feb. 24 that God will judge those who don’t oppose the anti-bullying bill.—https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/anti-bullying-bill-like-persecution-in-steinbach-1.1340156
  • My QUESTIONS for Coun. Penner and Pastor Duerksen include: “Is it still your watch? An elected or appointed position? Both, you say?” And, “At the point when the church and the town finally change their puny positions on LGBTQ issues, what REDRESS can be expected for your irresponsible and discriminatory actions in 2012? Will this redress be financial? A public apology? Resignation? Stoning?
  • I have no questions for the placard-waving chuckleheads or the Roman soldiers. (These two represent the same fertilizer; in different piles.)
  • It is my prediction that the petite young high school student who—armed with only five smooth stones—stood up to colossal hatred in 2012. I believe she will one day be a legislator who will debate on a level battlefield. I expect she will defeat the doctrine-wielding and the spear-wielding, alike. I suspect her “watch” will be empathetic and egalitarian.

Problem Two: Heaven

  • You rent a house. The owner stresses that you—the renter—have full dominion over that house. It’s yours to use as you please. It’s almost as though the landlord told you, “I got awesome insurance so party on, DUDE!” Additionally, you rent this house knowing that you will be moving to a castle at some point in the future. You’ve taken all the necessary steps to assure your admittance to the castle. It’s a done deal.
  • My prediction, based on close personal contact with numerous rat bastards and almost as many sweet soulful brethren is that the renter is not gonna put a lot of leasehold improvements into that rental house. The renter is not gonna worry about a drywall dent here, or a busted tile there, or a swimming pool filled with empty Tim Horton cups. (Or rusted out Chevy Blazers, dirty syringes or radioactive waste, for that matter. It ain’t the renter’s problem.)
  • The renter’s carefree attitude is in high contrast when compared to their landlord-less heathen neighbours who own their abode and who intend to hand it down to their descendants… Those dumb suckers are tasked with the constant upkeep and care of their place, unlike the renter. Renters have the same rights to live in their home as the homeowners but, ‘cuz of the whole “I’m gonna move into a golden castle in the sky” thing, renters don’t really give a Norwegian rat turd about upkeep, cleanliness, sustainability or any other word ending in pollution or climate change or extinction or any words that are not “dominion over”.

Heaven appears to be an effective disincentive to take care of the earth. “DON’T BE GENTLE—IT’S A RENTAL!”

Problem Three: Receipts

Here’s a modern parable:

You run down to Anabaptist Appliances and buy a toaster. It’s fine, until one day you don’t smell burning toast. Hot under the collar, you hustle back to the store and ask to trade-in or return the toaster or to be given warranteed compensation.

“Sure, Mister Ishmael. Do you happen to have a copy of your receipt? I’m gonna need a scriptural confirmation to verify that everything you are telling me is gospel. Know what I’m sayin’?”

“Of course. But, can’t you just take my word? Have you no, uh, faith?”

“Oh bah jo! I believe everything you’ve told me—the trilogy: alternating|direct|ground… the death of the thermostat and its resurrection via the reset button… the four horsemen of the power surge… It’s just that my boss is a stickler and I really need a  proof of purchase.”

He seems insistent, this clerk. Now, you KNOW you bought the toaster—full retail price—at Anabaptist Appliances and you never abused it or changed anything or went outside of the commandments of the operator’s manual so even though you don’t have actual written proof, you say, “Look, bro. I don’t have the receipt, but my buddy James, on King Street, he can vouch for me. Will that do?”

“Sure. As long as it’s in print, on ancient, rotting scrolls, in an appropriate language not spoken on earth in centuries, and concerns only the toaster model later built in the precise triangular region delineated by i.) the old blood-letting clinic (Abe’s Arteries) on Queen up to ii.) Spadina and then back along Graffiti Alley to the location of iii.) the common pasture … we’ll accept that as gospel!”

“Sure, partner. Sounds like we have a deal. Is it okay if the written proof from James on King is filled with ambiguities about when and exactly how to prepare and eat toast, how a toaster should properly be prepared for sacrifice, the selling of a toaster into slavery, the rules governing the crucifixion of a  toaster, and the throwing of plugged-in toasters into the bathtubs of Hittite neighbours?”

“Hittites, eh? They’re the worst. It can even be co-authored by several hundred of James’s best buddies (just not too many women, eh?) and you can come on down and revise it any time you feel like it.”

  • The main trouble with the good book is that it is the product of WRITERS and EDITORS. Untrustworthy louts, by and large. And the genre—is it literary fiction, is it reportage, is it non-fiction, is it science-fiction, is it fantasy, is it non-fiction? Astrological science?  History text-book or historical fiction? Maybe foodie lit? (What Whales Love to Eat: Old Guys with Long Beards… Superbowl Munchies? How to Feed a Crowd with Just Bread and Fish.)
  • Lots of authors. Lots of (Holy) ghostwriters. Distributors and agents gettin’ their Gideon on too and disenfranchising the Midianite Book Club. It’s quite the anthology!

The Bible is kinda like the Leity high rollers (from a long time ago) assuring all us lunchpail Leity types that a Deity won the big hand except the Deity does not want to show His cards. He wants us to take it on His word that He filled His holy straight. He understands our mortal doubts though, and instructs us to have faith. He gives His Leity pals a few tools to help with the convincing; some insider info to prove what He claims. The suite may be Clubs. (But it could be Diamonds.) He may have drawn the Ten or it may have been a pat hand. Sure, His betting pattern doesn’t support it, but… if you don’t believe the Allmighty, you just might be banished to the basement—with his relative, Diablo, who sells life insurance—for the rest of eternity, so… it’s up to you, but I know what I’d do.

~

Also, you cowboy philosophers and your John Prine mix-tapes (“Jesus Christ died for nuthin'” etc.) and your medical marijuana… you can just stop pointing out that whole, “Well, doesn’t the very presence of evil prove that an omnipotent God does not exist?” thing. The man with the long white robe and the gold throne is getting pretty tired of that whole logic spiel and if you don’t want those glaciers to start melting at TURBO speed, then—verily, I say unto you—just watch it!

Conclusion: Wherein the Author Wraps Up with a “Ha! Toro!” and a Swirl of His Fadadatj

“The Holy Fool”. Another parable, of sorts.

You know the story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, where supposedly only those with “a perfect sense of fashion” can actually see the King’s new duds. Those peasants without the chic fashion eye cannot even see the King’s new apparel. At least that’s what the King’s advisors tell the King and his court in order to keep their ruse alive. No one dares point out the folly—they all pretend to be able to see the clothes, including the King—and it goes on and on.

Until, a person in the court, a jester perhaps, the so-called “Holy Fool” steps up and says the obvious. “The King is naked.”

Gasps and outrage follow. Slowly, the truth seeps in and then with a surge, everyone is busy denying that they see anything and the truth wins out after much subterfuge.

I sometimes feel like this “Holy Fool”; one who has no investment in the bullshit, a person who is not a part of it—not even close—and who without anything more than average insight utters the obvious, uninfluenced by the need to fall in line.

I am that fool. I cannot be sanctioned because I live a life within, but apart.

A believer may say to me, with force and indignation, that because I am nothing but a Mennonite imposter—a secular Mennonite—that I cannot and do not speak for Mennonites.

And yet,

  • My G-G-GF was Delegate Toews, born in Fischau and sent with 11 brooda to find a new home.
  • My G-GF and G-GM Toews, John and Sarah—late of the Kleine Gemeinde—were shunned from the Holdeman camp—shoed away like a pair of impertinent crows picking at a roadside deer carcass before the eagles had their fill. John and Sarah took umbrage at their unfair ouster and sued the church. The lowly corvids sued the uppity raptors. That must have sent tail-feathers fluttering!

Interesting bonafides, wouldn’t you agree? Plus I grew up in Steinbach Bakery—the floury bullseye of Manitoba’s cultural Mennonite dartboard. Add to that my uncommonly good and well-loved community treasure GrandMother Toews, despite her German Baptist (non-Menno) baptismal certificate. Also, my full-fledged adult-dunked Menno wife and one dunked daughter. (So our little family is 50-50: two wet and two dry. )

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And now, at the end of this trail of breadcrumbs, I find myself standing in the court—not at the bench John and Sarah Toews stood before at the turn of the last century, but the aforementioned King’s court.

Sure enough, the king is naked. In fact, he’s got a boil on his butt the size and texture of an overfilled jambuster and a belly that must be schmaundtfat cuz jelly don’t shake like that!

The dude is, as we used to say, nuck bak-ed!

You say, “I am allowed to do anything”—but not everything is good for you. And even though “I am allowed to do anything,” I must not become a slave to anything. I Corinthians 6:12 (NLT)

So, hear me when I say that I may be uniquely qualified to see it all—including the ignoble and the insincere and the hypocritical—with eagle eyes and a crow’s discernment. I am a slave to none. And with familiarity and empathy and kinship and knowledge of the waymarkers and the places to stumble and those places too, where Mennonites soar.

~

And if I’m a little bit annoying and more didactic than you’re prepared to accept from a everyday guy, an former class-clown, an ex-jock with a plentiful supply of demons and not near enough angels, well… too bad, because no one gave me this job, I just damn well took it.

“Poets are the unauthorized legislators of the universe.”—P. Shelley

Coming Up Soon

COMING UP:

LUNATE-logo-black-3

10.15.19—The VERY promising new UK literary journal market, Lunate Fiction has accepted Mitchell’s much-sweat-over story, “Holthacka’s Quandary.” It will appear in December, but don’t wait! Visit their site and see what’s on offer. It’s free so there’s no wrist.

Holthacka (Matt Zehen) interacts once again with the venerable Peter Vogel, one of the author’s favourite repeat characters. Here’s hoping these Hartplatzites can find a happy home in Lunate where favourites (like Damhnait Monaghan and Robert Boucheron and more) have taken up residence.

Riddle fence logo

10.13.19—One of Toews’ recent short stories has been graciously accepted by a special Canadian lit mag from a rock near a windrous and wondrous squiggly-edged place. Yes, it’s true, he has a short story called “Fast and Steep” in Newfoundland’s Riddle Fence: A Journal of Arts & Culture. Coming November 2019.

A winter’s tale from the flat, frozen front yard of Matt and Justy.

Peace, Brooda

Today is the UN’s International Day of Peace. So, even if you are a follower of the incandescent flaccid golf popsicle from south of the 49th—and are therefore ideologically opposed to the UN for some incomprehensible reason (draws deep breath) —you may want to meditate on peace for a few minutes.

Couldn’t hurt, right?

Here’s a squawk from the rearmost pew; a story called “The Peacemongers” which first appeared in The MOON magazine in June 2017. This story was also chosen to be included in the publication’s recent, beautiful anthology, “Out of This World” The Best Short Stories from The MOON Volume I (2013-2019).

out of this world pic sm

Peace. Conscientious Objectors. “Just War”. Leaders we are bound by the bible to follow, chosen by and given authority by God, we are told… even leaders with triangular moustaches.

My cousin Doug and I used to jump aboard the tractors lined up for sale on the Case dealership lot in Steinbach, Manitoba. We were, in those long-ago summers, U.S. fighter pilots shooting down Messerschmidt 109s in our P-51s. If a few things in our ancestry had gone differently, maybe we would have been in imaginary Luftwaffe cockpits instead of those of the USAF. A few more twists of fate and we might have had ancestors in the Russian infantry meat-grinder or the Polish resistance. Or maybe, had our forefathers stayed in Frisland, our Opas past would have considered a “MANNEN VON NEDERLAND!” recruiting poster and become real Flying Dutchmen.

flying dutchman

Had our great-great-grandpa Toews chosen Mountain Lake, MN instead of Manitoba’s East Reserve, Doug and I may well have found ourselves singing along to Country Joe and the Fish in Da-nang or some other place of less-than-righteous smiting. My fiction, “A Vile Insinuation” revisits this troubled time on the borderline.

Anyway, please find highlighted and hyperlinked above a couple of peace inclined short stories of mine. Give’em a read and afterwards, maybe give some waiter or waitress a twenty-buck tip to address the war on poverty. THAT’s a JUST war!

Also, here’s a link to Slaughterhouse-Five, a true book of peace for this day of peace. So it goes.

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.

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🙂
~ ~ ~

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

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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.

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fam jesse
Mitch, Jan, Char, Marnie, Maris, Mom/Grandma T
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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
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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!”
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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 Olynyk 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 argument—“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—like it or not—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.”

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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.) “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!

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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