Grandma had called for us to come the nine hour drive north. The double row of grandfather spruce lining the driveway greeted our burgundy Chrysler.
My Grandmother’s garden was a canvas of Prairie shades only three months before. Ash leaves had disappeared, but the stately evergreens swished in the bristly breeze.
Grand, grey sunflowers still towered over the collapsed raspberry bushes that edged the plowed vegetable garden. Buttery, fluffy ducklings splashed gaily last spring on that marshy pond beyond. Last summer, the yellowjackets whizzed and hummed in swarms, heading toward their home under the front veranda. Now, all were settled somewhere far away from this winter wonderland.
At the edge of the verandah, with another Germanic roll of her ‘r’s, Grandma belts out:
“Teresa, Teresa, Teresa”.
With outstretched arms and overcome heart, she greets me. And, “Vesley, Vesley, Vesley,” she roars as she grasps my younger brother.
With each bellow of our names, she pulls us into her pillowy bosom, snatches the breath out of our chests, and loves us into the front room: a rectangular farmhouse kitchen, with a table long enough to seat fifteen grown men.
Speckled black and white kneading bowls lined the left and right side of the table, each filled to the brim with packs of embroidered pillowcases, red and green-foiled chocolates, hand towels, baby bibs, and toys, borrowed from the Sears catalog till someone paid the credit. Brown bags with peanuts, Allsorts, and Coffee Crisp crowned each bowl. The bowls awaited eager, tiny, and grown-up fingers to open the next morning—Christmas morning.
Christmas morning with plait-Deutch speaking grandparents, thirty-one cousins, teenagers to toddlers to infants, nine tantes, nine oncles—a home buzzing with stories of Uncle John’s new tractor and Cousin Eva:
“No, not that Eva, Eva Friesen…no, not that Eva Friesen, Jake’s Eva…oh bah yo, you remember, she married Jake the same summer Linda and Corny married. Well, anyways, Eva’s mother isn’t doing well...”
Little girls smoothed their dresses flat after they’d come inside from the icy old tire hung from the oak by Grandpa’s old shed.
“You know that Grandma and Grandpa lived there in that shed when they first bought this land? Six of their kids lived in that wee shack, through a cold, cold winter. No insulation but the 2×4 slabs they found in the trees. No warmth but the wood in the fire.“
Big girls disappeared into the cow barn to talk about Kathy’s new bo.
“Kathy’s parents don’t know that she started dating someone in the Somerfelder congregation. Their two dads were a fightin’ fearsome when they were kids, fought over Aunt Nellie till Uncle Pete won her.
And the biggest girls, all grown up, wanted to turn back time and leave a few responsibilities to their idyllic childhood dreams, or even sit idly with the men in the green room, and wait impatiently for dinner.
The men chattered endlessly about Uncle John’s tractor:
“He’s got himself in too deep this time. Oh, he keeps up those farm vehicles nice enough. He’s got ‘em lined up like cattle headin’ to market, but he ain’t got time to use ‘em all. He’s not got that kind of land. Oh, he’s got more land than the rest of us, but he’s not got enough time.”
The sisters and aunts and sisters-in-law, and a few stray daughters looking for their mama’s attention would keep their hands busy during the chattering. They’d pump the water in the butler’s pantry next to the stove. They’d add another spoonful of salt, or a bit more anise, to that chicken stock.
“So where are those kielke? You got those Sarah?“
Tena would come in through the front door, black rubber boots sopping wet just checking on that pig that made herself a nest, near ready to farrow.
“No one knows how she got pregnant, and here it’s Christmas, and we got no time for her, but she’s right ready to have a few piglets on the eve of Christ’s birth!”
When the girls had set the table with the chipped tableware, a thatched ivory rim, and yellow daisy center that Grandma was given by her mother, the men were invited to eat.
Ernie walked through the kitchen door as he stuffed his untucked shirt back under the tub of his tummy.
“Susie, you get me those pills. I can’t but eat those vereneke without them now.”
Talking to no one in particular, but possibly everyone, he continues:
“They say I’m no good at eatin’ nothing from a cow. Where’d they get such a notion? I come from farm stock and no one eats more cheese an’ milk than us. But Doc Jones, that English doc from the south, he gave Susie somethin’ that sure seems to work. So I’ll just take them as I’s told. Susie, I’m awaiting!“
Uncle Frank carefully pulled his chair away from the table to accommodate Ernie’s belly.
When the last of the men had strolled back to the green room, nearly the entire table had been washed up.
The dishware was ready to be placed again for the ladies to sit at their leisure till the children complained loud enough to sit on their mama’s laps.
“Josie, you’ve got quite enough on your plate. I don’t know how’s you are gonna do to bring another little one into the world. Jakob has got you busy already, what with taking over the Co-op and even helping out at that Sunday fellowship, then there’s little Leah’s knee, and oh, Josie…“
“Well, what am I to do now?”
Josie throws up her hands above her head and settled them like brackets around her second-trimester belly.
“It’s a little far gone now. But really Nellie, what am I to say? I’m his wife. He wants a dozen of em, then he’ll have a dozen of em.“
“Oh ba, pass me the cream, Nellie”. Anne surprised her with her tone.
“Just pass the cream. And stop making a big fuss about someone else’s family. Not yours. It’s not yours to say.“
The kids would take the places of their mamas, use that clean knife that she didn’t need, and sometimes take a bite of sausage from their mother’s plate. Then they’d scurry back to the kickball game with the big cousins outside.
The mothers would rise when satisfied, check to see if the men needed a coffee, and a little more slowly than before dinner, take the tub of dirty wash water and chuck it over the edge of the verandah. A new tub of freshwater pumped and a second rinse tub accompanied a half dozen dish dryers like ladies-in-waiting.
Grandma, spent from the all-day activity, would sit, unnoticed in her relic of a rocking chair beside the black wood stove, pull her pins and handkerchief from her hair, smooth it with a comb and replace it again.
Her sky-grey orbs drank in the cream of this day. Her children all home. Her children’s children too.
I noticed her as I pushed in the table’s benches — I put my dishtowel on the table beside the etched heart ‘Nellie + Peter’. I’d go stand by her left arm, and feel the chair rock back and forth, and back and forth, and back and forth.
She’d say something I didn’t understand, ‘saty dowl’.
“Come sit”, she’d say with her eyes. “And come, let me hold you”, she’d pull me up against her big belly…”Ach Zie tou afraid“.
Just for this day, I’ll hold you and you’ll be mine. I’ll take in this day, with these special ones; my life’s work and the wish of my heart.