TOOPOABEIDE*, or “working together” is the Plautdietsch word for collaborate. And, thanks to the generosity and skill of one of my hometown heroes, that is what I am able to do in an upcoming story.
I clearly remember sitting cross-legged on the floor in John Henry Friesen’s Steinbach sign-painting shop in the sixties, watching with unflagging attention as he lettered signs and trucks. I attended, usually along with my dad, while “John Henry” built, sculpted, painted or otherwise, “hucked stuff together”. He is a wonderful artist, a creative wonder-worker, and a local institution.
John and I have connected on the internet a few times and not long ago I showed him a draft of a story that I wanted to send out for consideration by literary magazines. A while later he came back with the drawing shown above. In the meantime, my story was accepted by the Canadian publication Pulp Literatureand — with JHF’s permission — I sent them a copy of his fanciful artwork.
Editor Jennifer Landels replied in the affirmative and John’s art will grace the title page of my short story, “Away Game”. I am pleased as I am sure John is too. (“Cool.”) I can only imagine my late father, who has an inspirational role in both the story and the art, is happy about our prose-ink collaboration. Dad was a great fan of John’s and, if my story is at all accurate, still is.
I’ll post the publication details as soon as they are available.
Please feel free to share this post! I welcome all comments.
Whenever our family got together, it was inevitable that we would sit and tell stories. We would gather in my grandparents’ adjoining kitchen and living room, tjinja on the floor to make room on the couches and chairs for our elders. Here at the heart of their warm and crowded house, no one would be out of earshot. Yarns were unravelled and our feelings rose and fell. It was as if we were on a ship and the prairie around us was a rolling ocean – in all that sprawling snowy sea, my grandparents’ house was the safest harbour. And yet the stories often reminded us of the many dangers that exist in what seemed such a placid and familiar world.
At Christmas, Grandma always told the final story. That was our tradition. It was about my great-aunt Rosa when she was a child in Russia.
Enunciating with care in her precise English, Grandma Zehen told the story. Her narration was theatrical and thrilling, but still heartfelt and purely told. She would fill in detail and sentiment, adding dialogue to suit. But most engaging of all, she always told the story as if it was ours. This may not have been strictly so; it may have been cultural lore as much as family history. I never felt that it mattered – I just remember waiting for the story every Christmastime.
Lights were dimmed, candles lit. Out came the platters of Christmas cookies from the warmth of Grandma’s oven. Baked fresh this evening, we had been smelling them since the stories began, all of us waiting for them to arrive. I will never forget the candy taste of the pink icing, the buttery aroma with just a hint of vanilla. I can still see the warm glint of the crystal sugar in the candlelight. Best of all, dee tjinja got first pick from the overflowing trays!
Grandma began her special story once everyone had their cookies and we chewed as quietly as we could to listen.
Not too far from Odessa, on the shores of the Black Sea, there was once a place called Molotschna Colony – ‘Milk River’, you know, as Englanders say it. My mother’s sister, my Taunte Rosa, attended grade school in one of the villages there. By Soviet dictate, the lessons were taught in Russian. The teacher, however, was brought in from Germany for the school year. Naturally, she was fluent in Hoch Deutsch – the language the Molotschna Mennonites spoke in church. She spoke Russian too, but best of all, thisLehrerin was also able to get by in her Mennonite students’ native 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 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.”
Rosasquirmed, 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’slittle 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.
You see, Fraulein Rosenfeld was much revered by the officials who ran the school. They saw her presence as a special concession to the Mennonites. On the other hand, the local teachers felt it was a slight to them and they treated her with cool disdain. For Fraulein, from a remote dairy farm in southern Germany, this teaching position was Godsent. It combined her gift for language and her love of children. To her, some minor social distance was a small price to pay. But ask any oma or opa whose children have since begun their own lives and families, and they will tell you, it’s easier to feel lonely at Christmas than at any other time of the year.
Fraulein gazed with fondness at the tiny girl, she saw the brightness in her eyes and touched her braided blonde hair.
Just then, the first of Rosa’s red-cheeked classmates huffed into the cloakroom stomping snow off their boots and unwinding scarfs, their yarn-strung mittens wet and dangling. They looked at the two at the front of the classroom. Rosa’s friend Tina called out that they missed her for the game of fox and geese they had played, running in the fresh snow. Before Rosa could reply, the bell rang and the children returned to their seats.
Now tjinja, you might ask, how dangerous was that one innocent küak? Surely no great peril could come from something so small? But all it would have taken was for the wrong official to find out about the cookie – why what would have happened to them then? Those Russians, obliged by strict orders to find them, might have detained Rosa’s family. Maybe they would have been sent to a distant work camp or suffered some secret cruelty in Moscow, too horrible to name. Who knows?
And all because of a Christmas cookie.
Grandma folded her hands in her lap. The house fell still and silent until Grandpa prayed, his voice solemn and thick with emotion. When he finished, after, “Amen,” we sang, giving thanks for our deliverance, rattling the windows, billowing our hearts; “Praise God from whom all blessings flow…”
At last, late on Tjrist’owend, I would lie in my bed and retell myself Great-Aunt Rosa’s story. Fraulein Rosenfeld was like a relative we saw just once a year – a loyal and trusted member of our family there in the tiny house behind the bakery on Barkman Avenue. With this visitor, never distant though she came from far away and long ago, our Christmas was complete.
Reprints and re-blogs are welcome. A version of this fiction appeared on Red Fez Christmas, 2016.
Please feel free to share this post! I welcome all comments.
There are times when I can totally relate to Donald Trump’s compulsion to post on twitter, even if it’s a stupid-ass thing to do.
Humour needs expanded boundaries, is what I keep telling myself.
My dad would have got it. He would have had a sparkle in his eye and appreciated that I pressed send. Dad preferred – would have preferred – that I follow my natural inclinations and become an artist or a writer. Something in the creative layer of dirt. Instead, like so much of his discarded advice, I followed not what he said, but what he did. (Someone should make that into a memorable expression.) I became a guy with a family who showed up every morning for work and tried to eat my crap sandwich without too much moaning. Well, he and I both moaned a little.
Like Dad, what it got me was a happy life and a family I treasure. Not a bad deal. Pass the sandwiches, I’ll take another. Make it a double.
Anyway, cheers to my dad, a hale fellow well met of whom an observer both wise and kindred from Grunthal, Manitoba (home of the Red Wings) once said, “He could separate braggarts from their bullshit with a hip check.”
Here’s a story about him, posted a while back by Fiction on the Web editor @fishcharlie
I WROTE A SHORT STORY CALLED “So Are They All”. It is one of a collection of over fifty that I have created, many of them about the fictitious Mennonite village of Hartplatz. This story concerns acts of honour, violence, justice and redemption. I took cues from Julius Caesar where some of the same timeless themes may be found.
The story was entered in the Write on the Lake fiction contest held by the Lake Winnipeg Writers’ Group where it won second place and was published in their semi-annual journal, Voices. On Sunday, Nov 20, I attended the launch of Vol 16 Number 2 and read an excerpt from the story.
This is the twentieth consecutive publication of the Voices literary journal, so, as Leamington Dave would say, “this ain’t no disco”.
The President, Jeanne Gougeon; the editor, Maurice Guimond and the large turnout were all welcoming and I could feel them willing me to do well as I began my oration. I am no stranger to public speaking like this but, damn, I still hate it. I have died many a coward’s death the night before these kinds of events. One of my unfortunate involuntary affectations – brought on by nerves I suspect – is sniffing. (Yes, like Donald Trump in the US debates.) It’s as if my family-size nose, and its enthusiastic contribution to the nasal quality of my voice, becomes moistened by all the reverberation. An annoying drip results and the mic picks up each snuffling snort.
Snot issues aside, it went well, except that Jan – my wife and stalwart (but not a braggart) corner woman – was nowhere to be found! Her bright red jacket was not in the audience as I looked up during my reading. I searched for her reassuring nod and smile – but she was AWOL.
Turns out she was in the audience, just not this particular audience. McNally Robinson was holding two events that cold November Sunday on the frozen tundra of Grant Park Shopping Centre: the LWWG launch of Voices (2 PM, south reading room) and the launch of best selling author Romeo Dallaire, retired general and former senator, who was there to present “Waiting for 1st Light” a much anticipated memoir. (3 PM, north reading room.)
Although his and mine are both stories about noble intent, conflict, honour and the consequences therein, author/general (ret)/senator R. Dallaire’s talk was the more strongly attended. The place was BLOCKED! Jan and I had been separated when we entered the bookstore (potty break). When Jan saw the (north) lectern and noticed the available seating was filling up fast she grabbed a seat and saved one for me.
Alas, at about this same time I was just south of her accepting my humble accolades and sniffling my way through an excerpt of my story. With my phone turned off, I was oblivious to Jan; pinned down on the nearby Dallaire beachhead and requesting reinforcements.
Here friends, countrymen and countrywomen is the excerpt I read:
Second only to the Hedy Lamarr beauty of Em Gerbrandt was the beguiling feminine charm of the Gidget-like Ms. Froese, our teacher. Of course, Ms. did not exist then, only Misses and she was one. Around five feet tall, bobbed blonde hair, saddle shoes, cashmere sweaters and rocket bras. I am sure I had no distinct thought then of the part of her anatomy contained therein, only that it was soft and pleasing when she leaned over to help you with a problem and she happened to make fuzzy impact with your head or shoulder. .
Miss Froese was sweet-natured and young and I remember the utter sadness I felt when, later that same school year, on November 22, she ran crying from the room after telling us that school would be cancelled for the day because of what had happened in a place called Dallas, Texas. .
The next day we returned to school and added, “America the Beautiful” right after our normal singing of “God Save the Queen”. A big box of Kleenex sat on her desk and was empty before science that afternoon. Baseball and the Kennedys were things about the United States that our well-traveled neighbour, Mr. Vogel, had made certain that I appreciated so I felt a special kinship with Miss Froese that desperate day in November. .
Lenny’s dental reckoning was months before the events of Dealey Plaza, but I already had a crush on Miss Froese by then. I was happy to clean chalk brushes after school, run to ask the janitor to open sticky classroom windows on hot afternoons, or agree to appear in the class play. If she had a need, I agreed. So, it was not surprising that when she asked where Lenny was on the second day of his absence, I raised my hand, eager to share with Miss Froese the solemn news. Though under oath to keep this quiet, how could it harm to tell HER? She was, like me, only concerned with Lenny’s well-being. .
“Yes, Mattheus?” she asked, seeing my upraised hand. “Do you know why Leonard is not here again today?” .
“Yes, ma’am. He is at the dentist. His teeth are all black from too much candy and he is getting them fixed. He is brave and he probably won’t even cry,” I reported in detail. .
That day was Friday. On Saturday afternoon, as I collected interesting rocks from the driveway between Grandma’s house and the back of the bakery, Lenny pedalled up to me. He let his bicycle fall clattering as he jumped off. .
“Zehen!” he shouted, through a clenched jaw still tender from the dentist. .
“Hi, Lenny,” I said, standing, “How are your teeth?” .
“Why don’t you ask Eleanor?” he said, scoffing, “or Ruby, or the Kehler twins or…” .
“Wait,” I yelled, putting my hand up to stop his rushing words
The Voices book is only $12 CAD and can be had here *or at McNally Robinson in Winnipeg. Besides finding out how Lenny and Matt sign the Barkman Avenue Peace Accord, you may also read a lot of other terrific prose and poetry. The Adult Fiction~First Place story, “The Rocking Horse Keeper” is a moving tale, with mythic aboriginal overtones and a lightness that makes it, well…rock!
*$34 CAD, for TWO copies of Voices (Vol 16, No. 2 and 3), including shipping and handling.
My short story, “Heavy Artillery”, runs today on Fiction on the Web. It is set in a place where lilacs grew, killdeers protected their young and in the summer, people played softball on the schoolyard after church.
I expect that it was not as comfortable a place for others as it is in my memory. Or my imagination.
Fiction on the Web, hosted and edited by Charlie Fish, is a wonderful webpage for readers and writers alike. Charlie encourages comments and it is interesting to read the discussions that typically arise.
Please check out, “Nothing to Lose” and feel welcome to make a comment or a suggestion! There’s lot more on the site and it is a great place to spend a fall evening.
Do you ever wonder, “What if?” We all do, and some regrets recur and can dominate if we let them.
As a high-functioning anonymist, I sent this note to two of my low-brow friends. OK, I am low-brow; they are actually quite cultured. I liked it and wanted to share it with other friends — any brow will do — and so, here it is.
Greetings from the most beautiful place on earth. Jan and I love life, BUT, we are old and we are working too hard. We are almost done — then we can revert to being lazy sloths!
Cheers to slothdom.
So…you two and various cousins and friends from the Stein (for whom I have no email addresses) are my imaginary audience when I write my shitty little stories. (Oh no — am I over-selling?) Anyway, I have a blog.
Highly writerly. Although there is little ennui. A definite lack of ennui. Some angst. A bit of introspection. But mostly Mennonite guys blowing stuff up and putting it on YouTube.
You, as my imaginary audience, should be my literal audience, I reckon. If you don’t like it, you can revert to the imaginary.
My Blog is called Flies in the Outhouse. NO, WAIT — that’s my soon-to-be-a-major-motion-picture life story.
THE SECOND STORY in the Red River Valley Trilogy takes place within a year of the first. It is set in Manitoba in the early Seventies.
A Vile Insinuation At a bordertown baseball tournament, several young Canadians meet a ballplayer from the States. The issue of the Vietnam war and the draft comes up. The boys, from Hartplatz, a largely Mennonite village not far from the border, speculate on how life could have changed had their forefathers chosen to re-settle in the USA instead of Canada.
“So, it’s a low draft number. I’m going to Vietnam, unless the war ends, ya know,” Marty finished the thought, and his beer. “They are already in the eighties now. I’ll be called up almost right away after my birthday. You betcha’.”
We were quiet for a minute. “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple drifted across the beer garden from a boom box near the bar.
“What song is that?” said Marty.
“You said your Mom was a Menno from Winkler, right?” Cornie asked, ignoring Marty’s question.
The last installment of the Red River Valley Trilogy takes place in the present. The characters from the ball tournament have aged. (Or, they may have aged.) One of them is facing a situation he had hoped to avoid.
In Without Reason, the concepts explored in the preceding stories are tested and re-evaluated.
He loved that old truck. Dietrich had it just the way he wanted it. His one prideful excess – Lord knows he could afford it – was the retro Cragar chrome mags. There were two other customizations: he had one handle from a favourite pair of ski poles as the knob on the stick shift lever. Also, the kids had given him a Reggie Jackson autographed number 44 Louisville Slugger bat. He had mounted a gun rack in the rear window for the lovely wood bat to reside, riding shotgun with him on the still streets of Hartplatz.
I hope you enjoy these stories and I would love to hear your thoughts. Your perspective may be entirely different than mine and there may be things about the incidents that you can refocus. I welcome critical comment. (Honest!)
Even if these stories are not your bowl of borscht, CommuterLit is a wonderful – free – resource for readers. Give it a try!
In the future, if my stories pass this ezine’s strict editorial scrutiny, I hope to have more work published on CommuterLit! For a linked list of my published pieces: http://en.gravatar.com/mitchtoews
My story, “The Fifty Dollar Sewing Machine” appears today (Sept 19, 2016) on Literally Stories.
The story is an imagined adventure. It takes disparate ingredients like my Toews Grandparents’ personalities and my knowledge of downtown Winnipeg and combines them; setting the elements loose in a stressful situation.
Allowing this hybridization of fact and fiction is why (I think) authors talk about characters taking on a life of their own. The overall direction of the story is plotted but the step-by-step pathway is extemporaneous. Storylines jump off course and pinball through obstacles and perceptions that are themselves fluid and may not have been fully realized when the story began.
At least, for me they do. That could be part of the reason why I have to re-write so much as I collect disintegrated bits that are flying off into space in a most Kryptonian way.
This story, originally titled Complex Pacifism, came into being when I saw a faded yellow sign painted on weather worn bricks. I saw the Crown Zellerbach sign from my comfy chair in Chilliwack. Google Images transported me back to Winnipeg, as I researched a different story online.
The Zellerbach name leapt out at me – it was familiar from countless cardboard boxes of supplies in Steinbach Bakery, a place in which I grew up and where I had my first job. The bakery is a receptacle for many honey-glazed memories.
Grandpa’s quiet stoicism and subtle humour together with Grandma’s Annie Oakley style of directness came together in the exchange district of Winnipeg. The area was my territory as a “cub reporter” with Dun & Bradstreet in the late Seventies and I spent many hours in my little Datsun, trying to find businesses in the hodge-podge of mossy brick and decrepit alleyways.
Bakery ingredients; the feel of a late fall evening in Winnipeg; how to throw a punch — these are things I experienced but I never imagined that they could be combined to create a story.
My Grandma Rose Toews (nee Zilkie) was a Steinbach institution and she lives large in my memories. A favourite story is told by my out-of-town, female cousins who boarded with her while going to school in Steinbach. Grandma, strict and direct, might ask the pretty girls upon their late-night return from a date, “Did you let?”
Years later, when Grandma remarried in her eighties following Grandpa’s passing a decade before, one of her Grand-daughters pulled her aside at the Sunday after-wedding faspa,the day following the octogenarian wedding.
“Grandma,” my cousin – then in her thirties – whispered conspiratorially, “did you LET?”
Literally Stories is an outstanding online journal — it is a great site for writer and readers alike. Try it when you want a quick story to read – there are some gems here on this UK-based site! The header image above is from the LS website where the story is posted.
I hope you enjoy The Fifty Dollar Sewing Machine and invite you to share your comments below or on the Literally Stories website!