Blog

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

Advertisements

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.

 

“Died Rich” Coming to Fabula Argentea

My heartfelt tale of a neophyte basketball player—slash—jung Reiba ☠️ will be included in the May 2019 edition of the American literary magazine Fabula Argentea

https://duotrope.com/listing/8261/fabula-argentea

Thanks to Editor Rick Taubold for accepting my work. This is a “silver story” of both friendship and hardship that comes from personal experiences and a buddy who left too soon.

Active since 2012, Fabula Argentea receives over 500 submissions per year and from that produces three issues of about 8-12 stories each. Here’s an interview with Editor Taubold that succinctly describes the magazine’s approach:

https://duotrope.com/interview/editor/8261/fabula-argentea

allfornow,
Mitchell

☠️

jung Reiba is Plautdietsch (Low German) for “young pirate”.

 

The Peacemongers

Have you, as a child or in your youth or adulthood, asked yourself the question, “Would I go to war?”

The Baby Boomer generation in Canada has walked between the raindrops when it comes to war. Prior generations—in particular—and those who followed have fought for their country. In fact, WW2 Lee-Enfields are proudly slung on the branches of my own Manitoba family tree.

Part of a unique cohort, many Canadian Mennonites of military age during the war years were subject to the rigours of the Conscientious Objector process. For Mennonite children who watched John Wayne on Saturday and shared faspa with former CO relatives on Sunday, this was a confusing set of “truths” to discern. A moral minefield. Throw in our German language, a biased and reluctant postponements Judge, and more recent revelations concerning the relationship between Nazism and Mennonites for a virtual singularity of perplexity.

Did Canada’s initial mandate on September 10, 1939—to help defend the British Isles and Hong Kong—give permission for an individual committed to peace to abrogate their personal vows? To set aside their faith? If so, was there reason enough to make a case to Dee Oola at the pearly gates? Enough to quell a wretched conscience?

Or, on the other hand, was it right to act in utter defiance and effectively abandon the country that took them in and saved them or their family members from violence, and in many cases, military conscription elsewhere? Did Mennonites hide behind their promised freedom from conscription in the face of a world crisis of evil?

How could a twenty-something boy from the farm or a village on the prairies, likely without reliable access to world news, make these choices?

I’m sure of only one thing: I’m relieved and fortunate that I did not have to make the choice to fight or refuse. Or to flee. Nor have my children, nor—I hope—will my grandchildren be forced to bear arms or decide between equally unbearable acts.

#

I took a look at this through the lens of fiction in my story, “The Peacemongers”, published in The MOON Magazine, June 2017. My short story appeared in the “Swords into plowshares: Transitioning to a world without war,” issue.

I’m pleased to announce that Publisher/Editor Leslee Goodman has chosen, “The Peacemongers” to be included in an upcoming anthology from The MOON Magazine titled “Out of this World: The Best Short Stories from The MOON, Volume 1”.

I’ll provide more information on this publication here and on Facebook, Goodreads, and Twitter, once details and availability are determined.

My thanks and appreciation to Ms. Goodman for all she does and for giving my words a small part in it!

The MOON magazine

Support intimate storytelling for as little as $5/month: https://www.patreon.com/LesleeGoodman

The Fifty Dollar Sewing Machine by Mitchell Toews

A 1934 rerun, in a way, kinda like a print version of Turner Classic Movies. “The Fifty Dollar Sewing Machine”. See it here, along with an entertaining recommendation from author Leila Allison, a frequent contributor to Literally Stories and many other lit mags:

http://bit.ly/Allison_FiftyDollar_LS_Rerun

literally stories

typewriterMy Grandma often told us about an adventure that she and Grandpa had in Winnipeg soon after my dad was born.

View original post 2,511 more words

See Change

“Can a sixty-three-year-old aufjefollna Mennonite living next to a lake in the boreal be part of change in the worldwide artistic landscape?”

Sure. In a small way, why the Mitchell not?

I’m quite sure some of the change champions featured in this article would agree:

12 Leaders Who Are Shaping the Next Generation of Artists

http://time.com/longform/art-leaders-next-generation/

I found this piece inspiring, even for a schnuddanäse like me.

I’m four years into a smashmouth experiment — my longtime dream to write fiction. To be published and to leave something good behind. To ask some interesting questions. All that stuff that sounds like a lot of fluff and horseshit, but is in fact, as tough it comes.

Chris Jackson

Publisher and editor in chief of One World, a Penguin Random House imprint

“But his goal is not to acquire any book by a writer from a marginalized background for diversity’s sake alone. ‘The idea that the imprint is committed to diversity is kind of absurd,’ Jackson says. ‘We want to reflect the world we live in.’ The imprint allows writers to tell subversive stories in an authentic way, without what he calls ‘white filtering,’ or couching stories in ways that feel comfortable or familiar to white readers.”

This is a helpful communication for me.

I am a grizzled old white guy, writing about real life in small towns, times bygone and present day, the northern forest, basketball and baseball, bruised knuckles, and Mennonite themes. While I personally have not benefitted directly from the near past’s traditional preponderance of white men in literary fiction, I undoubtedly benefitted in many ways in other parts of my life in Canadian and American society. I have a legacy of privilege. So, I don’t feel I can or should complain—at all—about other cohorts like minorities or women who, these days, might get a small advantage for not being a white guy.

Jackson’s clear call to, “…reflect the world we live in,” explains what has been a difficult and highly coded part of lit fic for me. I take this editor’s message to mean that I am not to be excluded, I just have to share. Proportionately, or even a little less, and accept the new status quo with some grace.

I believe I can do that, in fact, that’s just what I want to do. Thank you, Chris Jackson.

I also find clarity in his comment about “white filtering”. I know this too well. While I don’t “white filter”, per se, I sure as H-E-double-hockey-sticks know how to structure a story to appeal to conservatives, especially my Mennonite brethren. I also know how to pimp up a story to fit more liberal (my own true bearing) perspectives. Horses for courses, but not for literary honesty.

To engage in this posturing is specious at worst, unnecessary at best. My charge as an artist is to invest my work with honesty and courage, not to try to predict the audience reaction and pander my story. No filtering, of any colour or creed.

Sounds easy, but it ain’t. We writers want to be liked. But, again, Mr. Jackson’s leadership is helpful to me. Maybe I’ll be liked as one of the new age of subversive Mennonite authors writing, “in an authentic way” and without parsing readers by pew, rank, and political or social geist.

* * *

I hope you enjoy the article, I sure as hell did!

 

Place and Time

foc flannery place and time quote only

Ah, eternity.

My stories—and everyone else’s—spring from life. Life lived, life observed, life imagined. Life reconstructed.

A vital part of each story—and each life—is place and time. Truths from one era or one location or one moment in a given journey alter and define the future.

Driven by my own curiosity, here is a roll-call of Place, Time, and basic protagonist context from my stories:

i — “Encountered on the Shore” A university student makes an unsettling discovery in downtown Winnipeg, in the fall of 1973.

ii — “A Vile Insinuation” During the summer following, the main character from “Encountered on the Shore” considers fate and blessings at a baseball tournament in Vita, Manitoba, near the US border.

iii — “Without Reason” Now retired, the MC from “Encountered” and “Vile”, is diagnosed with cancer and he considers his plight and that of others like him. Set in his small Mennonite prairie hometown, current day.

i — “Zero to Sixty” A retired man is attacked, near Christmas in Chilliwack, BC, current day.

ii — “The Margin of the River” and the audio except, “Wide Winter River” The MC from “Zero to Sixty” considers what happened the day before and sees first hand the inequity and sorrow that is built into life. All life.

“The Rothmans Job” An odd couple set out on a dubious nighttime caper during a fierce winter blizzard in Winnipeg, during the 1970s.

“South of Oromocto Depths” A teenage boy gets into a foolish skirmish with his father on the Victoria Day long weekend in 1971 New Brunswick.

 “Nothing to Lose” A former hockey player looks back on his life and his regrets in rural Manitoba during the dusty heat of summer, in the Sixties.

“Heavy Artillery” A young baseball fan in 1962 becomes embroiled in adult suspicion and prejudice in a small prairie town — predominantly Mennonite. (The imaginary, recurrent town of “Hartplatz, Manitoba”.)

“A Fisherman’s Story” In 1970, on the Mexican Pacific coast, an elderly woman and her young daughter are dealt an unfair hand. (P.S. — the prequel and the sequel to this story appear in the trilogy “The Bottom of the Sky”. See link below.)

“Winter Eve in Walker Creek Park” A trio of females on a wintery night in St. Catherines, Ontario, near Christmastime, current day.

“Breezy and the Six-Pack Sneaker” A rainy, beery night in Hartplatz in the Sixties is the scene for a tangled yarn of deception.

“The Fifty Dollar Sewing Machine” A straight-laced Mennonite husband and wife take on danger in a dark Winnipeg alley in 1934. (Rerun on Literally Stories, Feb 17.)

“Frozen Tag” A man encounters a strange reprise from his past (at the Minneapolis Athletic Club in 1980) in the Chilliwack Leisure Centre, current day.

“The Business of Saving Souls”  A youth pastor in the fictitious city of Tribune, in the northern US Midwest meets challenges in the sanctuary of a gleaming megachurch, current day.

“The Preacher and His Wife” Palace intrigue, Harplatz style, throws a family into an untoward uproar in the 1960s.

“I am Otter” A shunned congregant discusses culture, power, and enfranchisement with a stranger near a lake in Manitoba, current day.

“The Beefeater and the Donnybrook”  A mild-mannered Halifax, NS tourist is mistaken and mistook in drizzly London, current day.

“The Log Boom” Poignant points of view — a father, son, and grandfather in the Lower Mainland of BC, current day.

“The Peacemongers” War, bullies and knuckle justice from the perspective of a boy in Hartplatz, circa 1965.

“Fairchild, McGowan and the Detective” Recalling employment, both the good and the bad in Hartplatz and Winnipeg, 1970-80.

“Graperoo” A piece of Graperoo bubblegum experiences the four seasons in rural Manitoba in the Sixties.

“So Are They All” It’s September 1961 and a young boy receives an education in loyalty and courage in his grandmother’s country raspberry patch.

“The Seven Songs” A middle-aged Canadian man meets a local contemporary at a resort in Mexico, current day.

“Fall From Grace” A boy gets stuck in a fraught adventure and learns about his father through it in the heat of a prairie summer in Hartplatz, 1963.

“Away Game” A 50-something man meets with an older family member at the side of a dreamy, summery lake in Manitoba’s boreal forest, current day.

“In the Dim Light Beyond the Fence” The reader travels back into Canadian small-town hardball with the MC, reliving a fateful doubleheader from the Fifties.

“The Doeling” A brother and sister’s lives entwine from an east coast Canadian city to Belize and back. The Sixties to current day, various seasons.

“City Lights” A small-town “up-and-comer” gets in over his head in Toronto, current day.

“Groota Pieter” Spring softball in small-town Mennonite Manitoba is described, from the Sixties to current day.

“Sweet Caporal at Dawn” On a moody Manitoba morning near a spring lake, a youngster and an older confederate fish for pickerel during the mid-Seventies.

“The Bottom of the Sky” A trilogy that follows a “pinche” cabin-boy and the ship’s captain on a fishing charter boat from 1955 Acapulco to the future in a fishing village in the Seventies. (P.S. – If you’re inclined, give this story a read and tell me if you think it could be adapted into a screenplay. I see it in flickering snatches of film in my head and just wonder if that occurs to anyone else. If you’re a screenwriter or in film, I’d love an opinion — tough love included. —mjt)

“Shade Tree Haven” An adult remembers more than he cares to as he thinks back to summers at a favourite swimming pool in the early 1960s.

“The Narrowing” A sensitive boy and his straight-ahead grandfather go through a harrowing experience in the Manitoba wilds, current day. An important secondary character in Abbotsford, BC is part of the story.

“The Phage Match” In a surreal radio broadcast from somewhere in Canada, current day, the evils of drug addiction are the backdrop for some strange characters.

“Died Rich” A high school freshman in a frigid southern Manitoba winter in 1961 struggles to endure.

“Concealment” A fledgling Manitoba business traveller gets more than he expects on a springtime trip to the Atlanta Zoo in the 1980s.

“Mulholland & Hardbar” (Novel WIP) A troubled youth experiences the four seasons in the Canadian Shield: love, friendship, deceit, and violence. 1972.

Drama: From the Greek, “to do” or “to act”

 

 

 

 

Smoking Jacket Mennonites

There’s a lively discussion current now on one of the Mennonite chat rooms online. It’s about the existence—like a newly discovered tribe of Yeti, I guess—of “Cultural Mennonites“.

Here follows a sizzling grenade I decided not to lob into that chat room (too much collateral damage) but, well, I wanted to share…

As Religious Mennonites will confirm, Mennonite is a religion. I feel it’s a good one, as these things go. The doctrine of peace & non-violence, above all, and the notable generosity and charity inherent in Mennonite churches are, indeed, “full of grace.” The Mennonite Disaster Service is the Gretzky of volunteer disaster relief in North America.

Many—myself included—feel Mennonitism also has a distinct, modern (awakened in the 1960s?) cultural derivative. It was during that turbulent period when the idea of being a Mennonite without baptism or a deep commitment to church life first began to gain acceptance. Around the same time that divorce, irrespective of the Sermon on the Mount, first started on the path to toleration within the plenary Mennonite church.

meat pudding
The basic argument against the existence of Cultural Mennonites

“Cultural”, btw, has interesting roots, for the etymologically inclined. “Tillage”, indicating to me that culture is tilled, or incorporated, into its subject – an individual, a gathering, a congregation, a population, a society. That root has a lot to do with why I believe I am part of the Cultural Mennonite phenomenon: I was born and raised—innocently so, but without my direct adult consent—in the cult of Mennonite. My childhood nuclear family did not attend church but in all other ways, my extended family and our community was as Menno as Dirk Willems.

The complex and often contradictory Mennonite culture was TILLED into me from birth and it continues to exert itself on me even as I cast aside the learned knowledge of others and depend more on my own experiences and my familiarity with the world.

My formative influences were different than those of my Religious Mennonite kin & kith but also far different from my non-Menno “import” friends.

I see the Cultural Mennonite emerging as a distinct sub-set because of their (my) “half-breed” existence, suspended between disparate worlds.

Those who disavow a stand-alone cultural variant often point instead to a kind of “Mennonite Imposter” creed. I and several of my antecedents are seen to be of this lowly pretender ilk. I tend to object, but maybe I should embrace this tag even if it is pejorative and imposed by others?

imposter
The Mennonite Imposter

I’ll propose a fourth iteration: “Smoking Jacket Mennonites“. Those who gather in a shadowy, virtual quorum and represent the interests of:

  • industry & commerce
  • finance
  • government
  • education

These subverters (a “den of thieves” according to one angry historical observer) are connected via interlocking directorate. They gather within the friendly, hallowed confines of the church’s tax-exempt status where they typically hold high rank or are able to exert influence by proxy.

smoking jacket mennonites

One SJM prerequisite is membership in the Religious Mennonite superstructure. Or just good’ol wealth and power. Ideally both.

Membership to SJM, the leadership elite, is by subtle invitation. Its congregation comprises fewer women than men. Likewise, there are not many “fringe” members: those financially challenged, POC, First Nations peoples, and LGBTQ are not strongly represented cohorts. By extension, those overtly tolerant of the non-mainstream or accused of “liberal extremist” social beliefs need not apply either.

These are not hard membership rules. But like the current U.S. Cabinet, it just tends to work out that way. Gender, race, wealth and social standing (or close association to wealth and power) are predictable. Good hair, a tan, and nice teeth are increasingly helpful for videos, podcasts, and evangelizing, but those attributes are furniture, not architecture, and in the hands of a deft PR shop, could be re-framed as a weakness. “He’s almost too pretty to be taken seriously.” 

Smoking Jacket Mennonites are not the first or the best at this specious, old-boyistic full meal deal of [wealth creation] & [worship of the divine], but are starting to really get the hang of reciprocal back-scratchery. I can see a Doug Ford getting a standing “O” in the right sanctuary, at the right time. Maybe he already has.

doug ford

Hmmm.

In conclusion, I don’t believe I am a “Non-Mennonite”. Nope, that just does not fit; that thread is too coarse. I definitely feel I am a “Mennonite“. In fact, I have an undeniable, unshameable set of Menno credentials and antecedents, but I am not a member of a Mennonite church so some would keep me on the büte with those who don’t know the difference between Ditsied and Jantsied.

Seeking a finer definition, you can go right ahead and call me a Religious Mennonite (if you’re willing to accept a highly non-conformist definition) or use the Cultural Mennonite tag, or brand me as a Mennonite Imposter – I’ll accept any of those labels without complaint.

As for the arm-waving megafellas of the Smoking Jacket Mennonite elite, I don’t qualify, I don’t have the price of admission, nor do I seek entry to the club. You guys go on without me.

~ ~ ~

Two stories that grab a root and dig at these themes:

“I am Otter” in The Machinery – A Literary Collection

Literally Stories presents a satiric peek at Big Church in, “The Business of Saving Souls” 

Our German Relative

A Molotschnan yarn
For fam’ly ’round Tannenbaum,
Prince of Peace, et al

Our German Relative 

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 great grass 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, a patchwork 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 and the shores of the Black Sea, there was 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 many Molotschna Mennonites spoke in church. She spoke Russian too, but best of all, this Lehrerin was also able to get by in her Mennonite students’ native Plautdietsch. Obah, 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 conditionally permitted in Taunte’s village. Despite this, officially, even the most innocent Yuletide symbols were banned.

Can you imagine? We Mennonites 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! (Grandma smiled and winked at the adults as she told this last part.)

Now, kids, I’m sorry for all the big words and grown-up talk! What I am 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!

One year, a few days before Christmas Day, Rosa’s mother baked a batch of 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 bootheels 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 permission, the answer would’ve been 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.

“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 footsteps 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 kept glancing at the large mantle clock on the shelf 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, far from her native home in Germany. Just 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 – what would have happened to them then? Those Russians, obliged by strict orders to investigate, 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 Tjristowend, 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. Without this visitor from far away and long ago, our Christmas could not be complete.