Link back to Chapter 29
This is a work of fiction; I haven’t yet finished it, and it will probably get revised after it’s finished. It tells the story of Tom and Kelly’s marriage; readers of A Time to Mend will know that it will have a sad ending, but hopefully it will be a good story.
Hugo and Will were born three years apart: Hugo in 1928, Will in 1931. Both of them married good women: Hugo married Millie Friesen in 1952, and Will married Sally Weins in 1954. Both couples made good marriages, and both raised their families with love and patience, encouragement and wisdom. I know this for a fact; I know Will’s family intimately, of course, because I married into it, but Joe, Kelly and Krista were very close to their cousins Erika, Corey, Brenda and Don, and over the years I saw a lot of them too. Don was in my English classes for the first couple of years I lived in Meadowvale, and I saw a lot of Erika and Brenda as well, especially Brenda, who was Kelly’s closest friend after her brother and sister.
All of that being the case, it was remarkable how Hugo and Millie’s kids seemed to be ‘born to trouble as the sparks fly upward’, as the Book of Proverbs says. In Will and Sally’s family, Joe, Kelly and Krista all did well in post-secondary education and enjoyed a lot of success and satisfaction in their careers, although Kelly and Krista both chose to take long breaks from working while their children were small. They all made good, lasting marriages, and so far (I write in 2014) the children of those marriages are also doing well. It is true, as I will recount in due course, that Will and Sally lost one of their children, just as Hugo and Millie did, and that the pain of that loss stayed with them until the end of their lives. But on balance, as Wilf Collins said long ago, Will was ‘damn lucky in his kids’.
Hugo and Millie’s children, on the other hand, tended to struggle. Erika’s marriage to John Rempel was always difficult; not that Erika complained about it or even hinted to anyone that there was trouble, but it was obvious to most people that she had married a man who would never be satisfied, a man who would always be pushing himself and his children to work harder, longer, and faster. Of course, he had his redeeming qualities, too; he was not a malicious man, he could be generous to a fault, and as his father-in-law got older he was always ready to help out when help was needed. But it seemed to me, as the years went by, that John and Erika were living increasingly separate lives. John worked all day, every day, from daylight to dark and beyond, while Erika worked part time at the town library, raised her children, drove them to hockey games and figure skating competitions and friends’ birthday parties and sleepovers, and, in the little spare time that was left to her, visited with her parents and kept in touch with her younger brother. She and Brenda were not close; Kelly told me once that they were very different temperamentally and had always clashed, ever since they were little girls. However, Erika had a special fondness for her baby brother, who was twelve years her junior, and when he was going through his own struggles she was the one in the family who tried hardest to keep up her contact with him.
Corey, of course, had died tragically during my first year in Meadowvale, and I knew that Hugo and Millie still kept that hurt buried somewhere deep inside them. I very rarely heard them talk about him, and neither of them ever mentioned him in conversation with me, but each year when the anniversary of his death came around I noticed that they were especially gentle with each other, even more so than normal. Something else that I knew, because Leanne Collins told me about it, was that for several years Millie sent Wilf and Mabel a little handwritten note on that date, assuring them of her thoughts and prayers. Mabel kept those notes, and after she died Leanne kept them in her turn, and years later she showed them to me. By then Leanne had trained as a teacher and come back to Meadowvale to work; she had her own demons to deal with, of course, but she became a very good teacher, one of a number of younger teachers who I was happy to call my friends in my later years in Canada.
As for Brenda, when she was a teenager she couldn’t wait to leave Meadowvale. As a young child she had loved life on the farm, but later she began to dream of bigger and better things, and she married a man who shared those kind of dreams. She and Gary Nikkel got married when they were both twenty; like her, Gary had been raised in a churchgoing Mennonite family, but he had a good head for business on his shoulders, like his brother-in-law Corey, and his definition of success in life included a healthy chunk of financial prosperity. They had already moved to Saskatoon two years before they got married, where Gary studied for his Bachelor of Commerce degree and Brenda supported them by working at a local Tim Horton’s, rising in four years to become its assistant manager. In 1982 they bought their own Tim Horton’s franchise, and from that point on it became the centre of their lives.
Like Kelly, Brenda had always wanted to have children, but she and Gary had not thought clearly about how this would fit into being co-owners of a business which demanded long working hours from them both. They eventually had two children, Ryan in 1983 and Jessica in 1988, and in both cases Brenda took as much time off as she could after the babies were born, so that she could give them her full attention. It was while the children were young that she was gradually reconciled to her farm upbringing; naturally, she brought them home regularly to spend time with their grandparents, and something about bringing them back to the farm seemed to awaken old feelings in Brenda. She began to imagine a life in which she and her family lived in Meadowvale again and ran a business there, a life in which her children could spend a lot of time on the farm where she herself had been raised. But she did not share those thoughts with her husband, because Gary was totally committed to the business he already had. He loved Brenda, of course, and he loved his children, but running a coffee shop is demanding, and it can so easily suck in all the time an owner can give it, and more besides. And so Gary and Brenda, who had wanted the same things when they first got together, gradually realized that they were seeing the road ahead differently from each other.
As for Don, or Donny as he was known in the family, he never quite seemed to fit into the world around him. He never complained and was always ready and willing to help his dad with the farm chores, and in fact he became quite good at that sort of thing, but his heart was never really in it. He was an excellent student in my English classes, and it was obvious to me that he had the literary temperament in a big way; he loved reading novels and poetry, and his tastes were eclectic and wide-ranging. I thought I was a dedicated reader, but sometimes when I talked to Donny I was astounded at the number of books he could get through in a week. He was socially awkward and never seemed particularly interested in girls, but he could lose himself for hours in the world of an absorbing novel, whether it was a classic by Charles Dickens or a contemporary story by Hermann Wouk.
When he graduated from high school in 1984 he went straight down to Saskatoon to take a degree in English, and of course he did very well at it. But the rest of his life was not going so well. He was a loner and did not find it easy to make new friends in the student world, and as time went by he discovered the pleasures of solitary drinking to ease his sense of isolation. An evening at home reading a book or working on an essay gradually came to include of necessity a bottle of wine, and when he could afford it Donny would gladly drink the whole bottle in an evening. Since his second year he had been working as an editor at the Sheaf, the University of Saskatchewan student newspaper; after he graduated, he went to work there full time, but by then he was a serious drinker, and a major part of his income each month was being spent to support his habit. Gradually, the family noticed that they were not hearing from him very often; he had not given them a home address, preferring that they contact him at the Sheaf, and he rarely answered phone calls and letters from them. Erika suspected that something was going on, but it wasn’t until several years after his graduation from university that the rest of the family learned the full story of the struggles Donny was going through.
People in rural Saskatchewan love family reunions. I’m not sure why it took me so long to clue in to this; they were happening long before I arrived in Meadowvale, and they continued to happen year after year, with ever-increasing frequency, especially after modern communications technology made it easier to get in touch with far-flung family members. Perhaps the fact that Kelly and I often went away on holiday in the summer time made it easier for me to miss what was going on; also, it took a while for the Weins and Reimer families to get with the program and start organizing things. But early in 1993 some people in the Reimer family decided that it would be good to have a family reunion, and when Will heard about this, he immediately volunteered to organize it. He enlisted Kelly’s help, and all through the spring they were busy tracking people down and sending out emails and letters to invite everyone they could think of who was descended from the original three Reimer siblings who arrived in Meadowvale in 1924 – Dieter and his brothers Helmut and Werner – or who had married into the family. The third weekend in July was chosen for the event; local family members who could offer accommodation volunteered bedrooms, or spaces in their yards or on their farms where RVs could be parked, and reservations were also made at the local motel and the town campground.
“How many people are we talking about?” I asked Kelly one day.
“Well, with our branch of the family – descendants of my grandpa and grandma Reimer – we’ve invited a hundred and four people”.
“A hundred and four? That’s unbelievable!”
“Don’t forget that Oma and Opa had eight children, all of whom married, all of whom had children, and their children married and had more children, and so on”.
“I suppose so”.
“And then Helmut and Werner had big families too, so – well, depending on how many people actually come, we could have around three hundred people”.
“Where are we going to put everyone?”
“Don’t forget that a good number of them already live around here, or close at hand anyway”.
“And Krista and Steve and the kids are staying at Steve’s mom and dad’s, and Brenda and Gary and their bunch are staying here”.
“Right, that’s eight out of three hundred”.
“You want to take some more?”
I laughed; “Probably not”.
“Becca’s welcome, too, of course”.
“I’m sure she’ll be glad to hear it!”
Kelly grinned; “Do you think she’ll know what’s hit her?”
“Actually, she’s rather fascinated by our enormous family; I think she’ll find it quite intriguing. What are these three hundred people going to be doing all this time, by the way, and where are they going to be doing it?”
“Well, for a start we’ve rented the community hall, and we’re going to have a huge genealogical tree on one wall, and as many photos as we can gather. There’ll be lots of food and drink, and a couple of formal meals, and probably some dancing and storytelling, and some people are organizing a softball tournament at the ball diamond, and I expect some folks will want to go to church on Sunday morning, since we are Mennonites after all”.
“And some of you are still Christian, too!”
“Yes, some of us are! And talking of dancing and music, I was wondering if you and Ellie…?”
I laughed; “I could have seen that one coming!”
“But you’ll do it, right?”
I leaned forward and kissed the end of her nose. “You know I’ll do anything for you, Kelly Ruth”, I said softly.
“Aw, you still say the nicest things!” she replied, kissing me back.
The following Friday, when I came home from work in the late afternoon, she said to me, “I’ve got something very exciting to tell you about”.
“Oh yes?” I came into the kitchen and bent down to give Emma a hug. “How was your day, Em?” I asked.
“Good! And tonight Jake and Jenna are coming for a sleepover!”
“Are they? Do you plan to do any sleeping?”
“If we get tired!”
I straightened up, grinned at Kelly and gave her a kiss; “What’s this very exciting thing?” I asked.
“Well, Dad and I wrote to a couple of people in Russia to let them know about this family reunion, and today Dad got a letter back from Justina Wiebe”.
“Now remind me – who is Justina Wiebe?”
“Her grandfather was Cornelius, who was Opa Reimer’s older brother – he was born in 1885, and he was killed in the First World War. His wife and most of his children died of starvation in the famines in the early twenties”.
“Right, I remember now; there was one survivor from that family, right?”
“Yes – Justina’s father Abraham; he was taken in by his uncle Johann and his wife Lena. Their family was sent to Siberia for a while, and Abraham went with them; when they got out they settled in Omsk, which is where Justina grew up”.
“And where is Omsk again?”
“North of Kazakhstan, in central Russia. It’s actually further away from Chortitza than we are from Toronto, if you want some perspective”.
“They did some travelling, then”.
“I get the sense that they were always trying to stay one step ahead of the GRU”.
“So have you read the letter?”
“Not yet; my German’s not really up to it, and Dad says that Justina’s isn’t all that good either; I get the idea that they don’t use Low German very much any more”.
“You were hoping someone would come from Russia, right?”
“Well, in my wildest dreams, yes, but it was never more than a faint hope; I don’t think any of them are especially wealthy. But Dad’s going to translate the letter so we can read it out at the reunion, and he says Justina’s sent some pictures, too, so we can make them into slides and include them in the slide presentation”.
I could see the elation in her eyes, and I smiled at her and said, “You’re not excited about this, by any chance, are you?”
“Smart ass! You know I am!”
I kissed her again, and then I put my arms around her and said, “And so you should be. And who knows – one of these days you might get to meet some of these people”.
There was a welcome supper at the community hall on the Friday evening, although some of the people – especially the younger ones – were not arriving until the Saturday. The weather was warm and sunny during the day, but in the evening we could see the storm clouds starting to gather, and we knew that later that night we were going to get a classic prairie thunderstorm. Fortunately very few people were camping in tents, although there were a lot of RVs and fifth wheels parked in various driveways in Meadowvale and the farms around. Hugo had three RVs parked out at the farm; his guests included his youngest two siblings, Peter and Helena and their spouses, as well as a few of their children and grandchildren. No one had known for sure whether or not Donny would come for the event, but he showed up fairly early on the Friday night; apparently he had arranged at the last minute to stay at Erika’s house. Will’s oldest brother Karl had all his children home for the weekend, including his oldest son James and his family.
Will was the Master of Ceremonies Friday night, and he gave an official welcome to all the out of town guests, but apart from that there wasn’t much organized in the way of entertainment until Saturday. However, this was obviously not an issue; people sat around the tables long after they had eaten their fill, talking with relatives they hadn’t seen for years, and the young kids ran around outside until the thunderstorm drove them all back into the hall. I was glad to see John and Erika there; I hadn’t been quite sure whether or not John would come, but he wandered around the hall with his wife, greeting people he knew and allowing Erika to introduce him to those he was meeting for the first time. Their oldest son Dan had decided not to come, but their other three children were there with them; thirteen year old Jennifer and eleven-year old Katelyn were soon mixing with the other kids their own age, but the youngest, eight year old Dustin, stayed close to his parents all evening and eventually fell asleep on his mother’s lap while she was talking to one of her Uncle Karl’s daughters.
As I had expected, Becca had a great time. She had arrived from England three days earlier, and had been sticking pretty close to home while she got over her jet lag; Joe and Ellie had been over for coffee with her, but so far no one else from Meadowvale had seen much of her. Will and Sally gave her a warm welcome as always, and before long she was wandering the hall, chatting with people she knew; I saw her at one point sitting with Krista and Steve, and later in the evening Hugo and Millie were giving her a guided tour of the huge genealogical chart we had put up on one of the walls.
Donny Reimer had come into town with John and Erika that night; it was the first time I had ever seen him obviously drunk. I had noticed throughout the evening that he was making short work of the bottle of wine he had brought with him, and by the time the meal and the welcome speech were over he wasn’t feeling any pain at all. He wasn’t belligerent or rude, but his words were slurred and he kept bumping into people when he moved around the hall, and eventually he sat down on a chair in the corner and went to sleep. I noticed Hugo and Millie looking at him from time to time, and I could see from their faces that it was the first time they had seen him like this as well.
By the time we had cleared away the dishes and cleaned up the hall for the night it was after ten o’clock. Brenda had called earlier to tell us that she and her family would be late, and in fact it was just after eleven o’clock when they finally pulled into our driveway at home. To my surprise Gary was not with them; Brenda was driving their car, with ten year old Ryan in the front seat beside her and five year old Jessica asleep in the back. By then, of course, our Emma was fast asleep, and Becca had gone to bed too; we got Brenda’s children settled for the night, and then I went to bed myself, recognizing the signs that Kelly and Brenda were planning on a late night visit. When I kissed Kelly goodnight the two of them were sitting at the kitchen table with a pot of herbal tea between them; Brenda looked up at me apologetically, but I shook my head and told her not to worry, I had expected that they would be up talking for half the night. “Don’t forget about the pancake breakfast”, I said to Kelly.
“It lasts ’til eleven o’clock, right?”
I laughed softly; “Are you planning on getting there at five to eleven?” I asked,
“Well, maybe not quite that late”, she replied.
I drifted into wakefulness a couple of hours later; I was lying on my side in the bed, and I could feel the warmth of Kelly’s body behind me. I screwed my eyes up to focus on the numbers on the digital clock on the beside table; 2:05 a.m. After a moment I got up quietly and went down the darkened hallway to the bathroom. Brenda’s kids were using Emma’s bedroom, Emma was sleeping downstairs in the basement with Becca, and Brenda was in our spare room.
When I returned to bed Kelly rolled over to face me. “Are you sleeping okay?” she asked softly.
“Fine, but you obviously aren’t”.
“No”. She was quiet for a moment, and then she said, “Can we talk for a minute?”
“Is something wrong?”
I rolled onto my back and put my arm out for her, and she moved close to me and laid her head on my shoulder. “What is it?” I asked.
“Gary left Brenda and the kids this week”.
I was astounded; “He left them?” I exclaimed.
“Did you have any idea…?”
“I knew they’d had disagreements, but I didn’t realize how bad things were between them; Brenda’s been keeping a lot of things to herself. I guess she was trying to be loyal to her husband and not talk about their private business with other people, but I wish I’d known she was having such a rough time”.
“What’s it all about; did she tell you?”
“I think it started because she wants to spend less time at the shop, and more time at home with her kids”.
“I remember she took time off with them when they were newborn, like you did”.
“Yeah, she insisted on that – four or five months, for each of them. I didn’t realize, though – she never told me – that Gary wasn’t happy with her taking that long; it meant he had to hire people to do the things she normally does at work. The coffee shop business is pretty cut-throat; Gary seems to think that his profit margins are too thin”.
“I knew he was a little compulsive about work, but…”
“Brenda used to be, too, but she’s changed over the years”. She paused for a moment, and then she said, “She’s actually been wanting to sell up and move back to Meadowvale, maybe see if there’s a business they could run here. She says they’d make a huge profit if they sold the franchise, enough to give them a good start on something around here”.
“I’ve noticed that she’s been warming up to the place again over the past few years”.
“Yeah, but Gary hasn’t. Apparently they’ve had some fights over it”.
“Serious enough for him to leave her?”
“Well, that’s not the whole story”.
She gave a little sigh; “Apparently there’s someone else”.
“You mean another woman?”
I shook my head; “I don’t know what to say”.
“There’s not much to say; Brenda’s really upset”.
“It’s amazing that she came up this weekend at all”.
“She’s going to be staying for a while, I think”.
“Do Hugo and Millie know?”
“She’s going to talk to them tomorrow; she’s going to ask them if she and the kids can stay out at the farm for a couple of weeks. She knows we’ve got Becca here and she doesn’t want to crowd our visit”.
“It’s too bad about the timing”.
“Yeah, but don’t feel bad about it, Tom; I can spend time with Brenda just as easily if she’s at the farm, and we can still make our trips with Becca”.
“Are you sure?”
I was quiet for a moment, thinking about the times over the years we had visited with Gary and Brenda, and the time at the hospital after Kelly’s surgery, when Brenda had come to sit with me, and how she had held me and comforted me when I was so upset about Kelly’s cancer.
Eventually Kelly spoke softly; “I remember when she and Gary started going out”, she said.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard that story; they must have been pretty young”.
“They were high school sweethearts; they got together in Grade Eleven, and right from the beginning they were dreaming of getting out of Meadowvale and moving to the city. She worked at a Tim Horton’s all through the time he was doing his degree – I’m sure she helped him pay for it. They got married really young, back in 1978, when they were both twenty; they bought their Tim Horton’s franchise in 1982, the summer before you and I met”.
“Sounds like they were pretty much on the same page in those days”.
“They were, but having kids changed Brenda. I don’t think it changed Gary very much, though”.
“How long has this affair of his been going on?”
“A few months, and I guess it’s more serious than an affair. Apparently he’s moved in with this girl”.
“Does Brenda know her?”
“She’s one of their employees”.
“This just keeps getting better, doesn’t it?”
“How are you doing?” I whispered.
“Not very good”.
“How long have you been in bed?”
“About half an hour; I don’t think I’ll be sleeping for a while, though”.
“Do you want me to get you a cup of herbal tea or something?”
“No thanks, Tom; Brenda and I drank a couple of pots of tea. I think I’d better leave it alone now; I’m sorry I woke you up”.
“No, don’t worry about it”. I thought for a moment, and then I asked, “Does she want Becca to know?”
“She’s fine with that; she knows it would be really awkward for us if we were all wandering around in the morning and Becca didn’t know what was going on”.
“I’ll wake her up with a cup of tea in the morning and fill her in”.
“Okay. Now you go back to sleep, and thanks for being here for me”.
I turned on my side to face her and kissed her on the forehead. “You know that I will never, ever betray you, right?” I said.
She kissed me gently on the lips; “I love you”, she said.
“I love you too, and I always will”.
I got up around six-thirty and went for a walk, feeling the weariness in my bones and knowing that I was going to be even more tired later in the day. The air smelled fresh and clean after the night’s rain; the mosquitos had enjoyed it as well, and I was glad of my long-sleeved shirt as I walked around the edge of the town. There were still some clouds hanging around, but the sky was clearing from the west, and I thought the chances of fine weather for the afternoon’s softball tournament looked pretty good.
When I got home I was surprised to see that Becca was already up, although she was still wearing her pyjamas; she was pouring boiling water into the teapot as I came into the kitchen. “You beat me to it”, I said; “I was going to bring you a cup in bed”.
“I think I’ve lost the ability to sleep in”, she replied, putting the lid on the teapot and taking two mugs down from the cupboard. “Call it a casualty of five years of university, and it’s going to get busier during my house officer training”. She grinned at me; “Anyway, I thought we might be able to snatch a few minutes together before the kids woke up; I knew Kelly wouldn’t be up for a while”.
“Em’s still asleep, is she?”
“She was when I got up, anyway”.
“Well, she was up quite late; maybe she’ll sleep in a little”.
“What’s it like outside?”
“The mosquitos liked that rain last night”.
“Tea in the kitchen, then?”
“I think so”. I held out my arms to her; “You want a hug, small one?” I said.
We held each other tight for a minute, and then she said, “Kelly and Brenda were up late last night”.
“Yes, I need to talk to you about that”.
She stepped back and looked at me quizzically; “Something wrong?”
“Let’s pour the tea, and I’ll tell you”.
She took a teaspoon and stirred the tea a little in the pot, then poured milk into the bottom of the mugs, filled them up with tea, and handed one to me. We sat down across from each other at the kitchen table, and she said, “What’s up?”
I told her what Kelly had told me during the night, and she listened without comment, although I saw the anger in her eyes and knew that she was remembering her own experience years ago and feeling an instinctive sympathy for Brenda. When I was finished, she shook her head slowly; “Bastard!” she said forcefully.
“Hugo and Millie’s family are going through some times, aren’t they?”
“You saw Donny last night, did you?”
“I did; I think John and Erika practically carried him out at the end of the evening. I don’t think I knew he had a drinking problem”.
“I’ve heard rumours about it, but this is the first time I’ve seen it”.
“I wonder what that’s all about?”
I frowned. “Donny’s never felt confident in social situations, and he’s always been a loner, but then, when I was his age, so was I”.
“Not really much point speculating, is there?” She took a sip of her tea and cradled the mug in her hands; “What do you want me to do, Tommy? Am I in the way here? Do you want me to move over to Joe and Ellie’s couch and give Brenda some space”.
I smiled at her; “You are the world’s best little sister, you know!”
“Thanks, but I don’t mind, if you think that would be best”.
“No; Kelly and Brenda already talked about that. Brenda’s going up to Hugo and Millie’s today and she’s going to ask about staying there for a week or two”.
“Have they got room? Sounded like their place was pretty full when I was talking to them last night”.
“They’ll find the room. Don’t worry about it, Becs; the last thing Brenda wants to do is to put you out”.
Brenda and her kids got up around nine; by then Emma was up, and Kelly emerged just before nine-thirty. We walked over together to the pancake breakfast at the community hall, with Emma and Becca walking out in front. Emma had turned seven the previous December; the older she got, the more people remarked on how much she looked like her mother, and now that her hair was long like Kelly’s, the resemblance was even more marked. She and Becca were walking hand in hand, chatting away with each other, and Brenda smiled at me and said, “I think someone’s glad to see her aunt again”.
“Yes, they’ve had this thing going for a few years now”.
“It’s nice to see”.
I glanced at her; “Brenda, I’m really sorry about this business”, I said quietly.
“Thanks; I’m sorry I dumped it all on you guys while you’re enjoying a visit with Becca”.
“No, no need to be sorry; she’s the last person in the world to worry about that”.
“I know, and I appreciate it”.
“What are you going to do?”
She glanced over her shoulder; Kelly was walking a few yards behind us with Ryan and Jessica, holding hands and laughing with them.
“I haven’t really thought that far ahead yet”, Brenda said; “We’ve got a house and a business, and the kids have got schools and friends. If it was just me, I’d move back up here and look for work, but I’ll have to really think about it. I told Gary I’d be gone for a couple of weeks and he’d need to figure something out at work; I guess we’re going to have to find a way of splitting that business, or he’s going to have to buy me out or something. We’ll be lucky to get away without lawyers, and that’s going to cost a mint, of course”.
“It’s over, then?”
She nodded, and I saw that she was hardening herself against the hurt she must be feeling. “He told me he’s done”, she replied; “I got the idea he’d made his mind up, and there was no going back”.
Kelly and I weren’t really softball players, but several of her cousins were, and so we sat in the bleachers for a couple of hours in the afternoon, watching teams from the various strands of the Reimer family compete against each other. Brenda had gone up to her parents’ farm for a while, and Becca and Emma had gone swimming at the outdoor pool. Kelly was enjoying the opportunity to visit with relatives she hadn’t seen for ages, and I was content to sit on the edge of the conversations, putting a word in here and there; I recognized some of the people, although there were many I was meeting for the first time.
There were over three hundred people in the community hall for the banquet that evening; we sat at a long table with some of Kelly’s cousins from Saskatoon, the children of Will’s younger brothers Frank and Peter, none of whom we saw very often. Kelly was the master of ceremonies for the evening, and so when the meal was over she got up behind the podium, tapped the microphone, and smiled at everyone as the conversation in the hall died down. She had put on a light summer dress for the occasion, and her hair was tied back behind her neck in concession to the heat in the hall.
“Good evening everyone!” she said; “For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Kelly Masefield, and I’m Will Reimer’s daughter. Many of you have had letters or emails from me, and it’s good to see so many faces here tonight. Dad and I have been working for months on trying to set this up, so it feels really good to stand up here and see you all. Are you having a good time?”
There were cheers and applause from everyone, and she grinned and said, “Great! Now, don’t worry, we aren’t going to bore you with long speeches tonight, because we know that the most important parts of any family reunion are eating and visiting! In a minute my dad’s going to get up here and we’re going to show you a slide presentation, and Dad’s going to do a very short family history in connection with the slides. Later on, when the food’s all done, we’re going to clear the tables and move them aside, and we’ve got some live musicians here to play for our dance. But before we do all that, I’ve got something very special to share with you”.
I saw her stoop down and pick up a paper from the shelf below the podium; she straightened up, smiled at everyone again, and said, “This is a message from my second cousin, Justina Wiebe. Justina lives about seven thousand miles from here, in Zaporizhia, in the Ukraine, which is the city that my grandparents knew as Alexandrovsk; in their day it was situated just across the Dnieper River from Chortitza, the Old Colony, but of course the city’s grown since then”.
She paused for a moment, and Karl’s son James, who was sitting at the front of the hall with his family, called out, “Are you going to tell us how she’s related to you, Kelly?”
“Thank you, James – yes, I will. She was born in 1938 in Omsk in central Russia. Her father, Abraham Reimer, was the only surviving member of the family of Cornelius and Anne Reimer; Cornelius was killed in the First World War in 1915, and his wife and most of his children died in the famines in the Ukraine in the early 1920s. Cornelius was my Opa Dieter Reimer’s older brother, so that’s how Justina is my second cousin. Here she is”.
Kelly pushed a button on her remote control, and a slide appeared on the screen behind her. It was a photograph of a woman who looked much older than fifty-five; her white hair was cut just above her shoulders, and she wore an old-fashioned print dress. She was standing beside a man with a thick grey beard, dressed in a dark suit and tie. “This is Justina and her husband Abram”, Kelly said. “Justina and my Oma Reimer used to write to each other from time to time, and so we wrote to her to tell her about this family reunion. She sent us a letter and asked us to read it to you; the letter was written in German, and my Dad and Uncle Karl have translated it into English. Here it is”.
Kelly looked down at the letter in front of her on the podium and read out loud:
“‘My dear cousins Will and Kelly:
“‘I was very touched to get your letter telling me about the Reimer family reunion in Meadowvale for the families of my great uncles Helmut, Werner, and Dieter. I am happy to send my greetings from far away Zaporizhia, only a few miles away from the place where they were born so many years ago.
“‘It may be that some people listening to this letter will not know the kind of life we have lived here, so I will try to tell you the story of my family. My grandfather was Cornelius Reimer, brother to Helmut, Werner, and Dieter; he served as an engineer in the Russian Army and was killed in battle in 1915 when my father Abraham was only two. After my grandfather’s death, my grandmother and her children were taken in by Cornelius’ parents, Peter and Anna Reimer, who had a good farm in Rosenthal. However, after the war ended there was anarchy, famine, and persecution, and many people died of starvation or were killed by bandits or arrested and taken away and never heard of again. The only survivor of the family was my father Abraham, who was taken in by his uncle and aunt, Johann and Lena Reimer. My father always said that Johann and Lena were like guardian angels to him; they had five children of their own, but they not only looked after him but also his cousin Thomas, the son of my grandfather’s sister Gertrude Konrad; he also had lost his whole family in those troubled times.
“‘Johann and his family, along with Abraham and Thomas, were arrested and sent to Siberia for five years 1927-32; in those days the Communists were very suspicious of any sort of contact with the west, and Mennonites were seen as enemies because of their religion, and because of their German language and German names. Even receiving a letter from a relative in the West could put your life in danger at that time. They spent five years in hard labour, but then in 1932 they were released and they moved to Omsk, where Johann found work as a hospital orderly. There my father Abraham met my mother Vera Oblonsky, and they were married in 1935; I was born in 1938, and my brother Vasily followed in 1940. My father was a factory worker all his life. He had abandoned any sort of Christian faith, mainly, I think, because he was afraid of what the Communists would do to him and his family.
“‘To make a long story short, Johann and Lena moved to Stalino, now called Donetsk, in 1938, and sadly were killed in the bombing there during the Second World War in 1943. As for me, I married my husband Abram Wiebe in 1959; he is a schoolteacher, and although his family background is Mennonite, we now attend a Baptist Church. We made the long move from Omsk to Zaporizhia in 1969; we had the sense that the local authorities were going to move against Abram because of his faith, and we wanted to get as far away as we could. God has blessed us with two sons, Adam who is twenty-seven and Aleksander who is twenty-four. Adam works as an engineer in Kyev, and Aleksander works in the oilfields in western Ukraine.
“‘My husband and I had to be very careful about expressing our Christian faith until very recently; over the years several of our pastors have been arrested and taken away by the police, and one of them has never been heard of since. It was also very difficult for us to get university education for our children because we are believers; sadly, both of our boys turned away from their faith in order to be able to get ahead in the world. Now, however, things are getting easier, as we have glasnost and perestroika, and there is more openness and freedom to practice our faith, for which we thank God.
“‘I should also tell you that I am in touch with the descendants of my father’s cousin Thomas Konrad, the son of Gertrude Reimer, who I mentioned before. Thomas had two sons, Alexander and Nikolai, both of whom are married, and there are four grandchildren, all of whom are doing well. Nikolai was a pilot in the Russian Air Force for many years and now flies commercial airliners for Aeroflot; he tells me that he sometimes flies to Toronto and Vancouver, although I see on the map that those cities are far away from Saskatchewan!
“‘Unfortunately it is not possible for us financially to visit you over there in Canada for your family reunion; we would however be very glad to hear from any of you. I apologize for my very poor German; we use almost always Russian now, and I rarely have a chance to speak the language my father learned as a boy. Also, if any of you ever wish to visit the land where your ancestors were born, you would be more than welcome to stay in our home.
“‘My husband Abram joins me in sending greetings to you all in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. And again, I thank my cousins Will and Kelly for keeping in contact with us. Our love to you all, dear family in Canada.
Kelly folded the letter, and for a moment there was silence in the hall, but then someone started clapping, and within seconds everyone had joined in. Kelly nodded and then stepped back from the podium; turning and looking up at the screen which still held the images of Justina and her husband, she raised her hands and joined in the applause. Becca, who was sitting beside me, leaned over and said, “That was an amazing letter!”
“Did you and Kelly know about all that history?”
“Most of it. Justina wrote to Oma Reimer from time to time, and after Oma died Karl made copies of the letters to give to Kelly. But they were all in German, of course, and Kelly only knows a little, so she had to get her dad to translate them for her”.
“Will speaks good German, then?”
“He speaks Low German, which is what Mennonites always used for everyday conversation; it was the spoken language in the house when he was a little boy. I’m told it’s got some significant differences from German as spoken in Germany today”.
The applause had died down now, and Kelly turned back toward the people in the hall. “Okay”, she said, “I’m going to ask my dad to come up here now and guide us through the slides. I’ll be back in a while, folks”.
One of Charlie Blackie’s old sayings was “Troubles come in tribes”, and I knew what he meant. I had not talked to Hugo and Millie since the beginning of the weekend, but I could only imagine what they must be feeling, with Donny’s drinking problem in full view on Friday night, and then on Saturday the news that Gary was having an affair and had left Brenda and the children. But the full tale of the weekend’s trouble was not yet complete.
Brenda and her kids were not in church the next morning, and I thought I could guess why; rumours were already spreading like wildfire through the family gathering, and I thought she probably wanted to avoid having to answer the same questions over and over again. John Rempel stayed home too, as did his son Dan, and I suspected that Donny was still in bed at their place as well, sleeping off another evening’s drinking. But Erika brought her three younger children to church, as she always did, sitting with her mum and dad in the pew behind John and Ruth Janzen and their children, and Beth and her grandma Rachel. Rob and his family were leaving on their holidays in a couple of days, but he preached a fine sermon as usual that morning, and the music and the prayers were inspiring as well. What with our usual churchgoers and the visitors from the family reunion, our church was full, and many people stayed for coffee in the hall afterwards.
During the coffee hour, when people were chatting together in little clusters, Kelly and I found ourselves standing beside Erika; Becca and Emma were over on the other side of the room with Joe and Ellie and their kids. Erika looked around, and then spoke to us in a quiet voice. “I need to talk to you guys about something”, she said; “Can I maybe come over for a while this afternoon? I know there’s still a lot going on with the reunion…”
Kelly shook her head. “Don’t worry about that”, she said; “Most people are going to start leaving after lunch, and anyway, Tom and I were thinking of having a quiet afternoon with Becca and Emma”.
“Oh, well, I don’t want to intrude, then”.
Kelly frowned and put her hand impulsively on her cousin’s arm; “What’s wrong, Erika?” she asked.
“I’d really rather not talk about it here, Kelly”.
“Okay, well, come on over in the middle of the afternoon, if you can”, Kelly said. “We’ll be in. If we don’t answer the door, knock louder; we might all be asleep!”
Erika was thirty-nine that year, and I realized that afternoon as she sat at our kitchen table that she had some lines around her eyes I hadn’t noticed before. I had turned thirty-five myself in April, and Kelly was going to catch up with me in September, and I reflected that in the eleven years since I had moved to Meadowvale we had all had a lot of growing up to do, and Erika not the least.
“Where’s Emma?” she asked as Kelly poured tea for us.
“Becca took her out swimming for a while”, Kelly replied; “She told us they’d be gone an hour”.
“Those two sure get along well, don’t they?”
Kelly took her seat at the table with us; I could see the tiredness in her face as she put her hands around her tea mug. “Are you okay?” she asked Erika.
“Yeah, I am”.
“Things are alright at home?”
“Yeah”. Erika was quiet for a moment, and then she looked at Kelly and said, “I want to talk to you guys about Donny”.
“He’s having a tough time”, Kelly replied.
“Yes, and I probably know more about it than anyone else in the family. Donny and I have kept in touch, you see. Oh, there was a time when I didn’t hear from him for a while, but then I went down to Saskatoon one weekend about a year ago, and I found him”.
“You two have always been close”.
“Yeah, especially when he was little”. She was quiet again, looking vacantly into empty space; Kelly waited patiently, sitting as still as a statue at the table, her eyes never leaving her cousin’s face. Eventually Erika looked across at us and said, “I’m going to need your help with this one, and Joe and Ellie’s too. You guys are steady, and you’re wise, and there’s really no one in my family like that”.
“I think you come pretty close”, Kelly replied softly.
“I try”, Erika said. She frowned; “The thing is, I know where Donny’s living in Saskatoon, and he’s not living alone. He’s living with his boyfriend”.
For a moment neither Kelly nor I said a word; I had the sense that a light had suddenly been turned on, and a lot of things I had seen but not noticed suddenly became clear to me. And then Kelly reached across and put her hand on Erika’s arm; “Donny’s gay?” she asked.
“How long have you known?”
“About a year”.
“Who else knows?”
“I told John last night”.
“You’ve kept this to yourself for a year?”
I saw the tears springing suddenly to Erika’s eyes, and she covered Kelly’s hand with her own. “Thank you”, she said, “for not going ballistic on me”.
“John had a harder time with it. Of course, he was angry with me for keeping it from him this long, but it wasn’t my secret to tell, you know?”
“No, of course not”. Kelly frowned; “Why have you decided to tell us about it today?” she asked.
“Because Donny wants Mom and Dad to know. He’s desperately lonely; he wants to be able to come home and be open about who he is. And he needs help, too, although he won’t admit it. His drinking has really gotten worse this year; he was drinking when I first visited him and Alan in Saskatoon, but not like he is now. He’s not ready to admit it yet, but Alan wants him to get help, and we really need the family on board with that”.
“What’s Alan like?” I asked.
“He’s a great guy, a couple of years older than Donny; he’s a graphics editor at the Sheaf, which is where they met, of course”.
“How long have they been together?” I asked.
“A couple of years”.
“How long has Donny known that he’s gay?”
“He says he knew it when he was fifteen, but of course he struggled against it, especially with us having such a strong Christian upbringing. We didn’t hear many positive sermons about homosexuality when we were growing up”.
“I don’t remember any sermons about homosexuality, actually”, Kelly said.
“There were a couple, after you stopped coming to church. Do you remember Pastor Henry?”
“Henry Block? The guy before Rob?”
“Yeah; he felt the need to preach on the subject a couple of times”.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone talk about it at the church since I’ve been going there”, I said.
“No”, Erika replied, “but that doesn’t mean they don’t have opinions on the subject. The older ones will be staunchly traditional, although they won’t all feel the need to condemn it in the old hellfire and brimstone manner. Some will take the ‘hate the sin and love the sinner’ line; I’m guessing that my mom and dad feel like that”.
“Mine too”, Kelly said softly; “They’ve talked about it occasionally”.
“What about Rob?” I asked.
“Rob doesn’t have a judgemental bone in his body”, Erika replied, “but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t take a traditional view. I’m guessing that Rob still thinks the Bible is pretty clear on the subject; he just thinks Jesus is in the business of saving people, not condemning them”.
“So what do you want us to do, Erika?” I asked.
“Donny’s absolutely terrified of telling Mom and Dad; he desperately wants them to know, but he can’t face the thought of being the one to break it to them. So I’m going to need to do that, and I’d really appreciate it if you guys would come with me”.
“What about John?”
She shook her head decisively; “It can’t be John. He can barely reconcile himself to the fact that there’s a gay man in his house right now”.
“It’s as bad as that?” I said.
“Yeah, I’m afraid so”.
“What do you think?” Kelly asked.
“About homosexuality, you mean?”
Erika gave a heavy sigh; “I wish I knew, Kelly. I’d always assumed that the traditional view was right, but then last year I found out about Donny, and I’ve been struggling with the whole thing ever since. I find some of the things the Bible says a little hard to take, I guess, but it’s the Bible, isn’t it, and aren’t we supposed to take it seriously?” I saw the tears in her eyes again; “Donny’s my little brother”, she said in a shaky voice, “I’ve loved him like crazy ever since he was a baby. I have to stand by him, Kelly; I really do”.
“Of course you do”, Kelly replied. She looked at me; “What do you think?” she asked.
My thoughts were spinning around in my head, but when Kelly’s eyes met mine, I had a sudden moment of clarity. “I’ve read the Bible through two or three times since I became a Christian”, I said, “and every time it mentions anything like homosexuality, it seems to be against it. On the other hand, I notice that it doesn’t seem to be describing monogamous relationships, and also that it doesn’t actually mention the subject very much – I’m guessing maybe six or seven times? Not as many times as lending money at interest, which we all seem to have reconciled ourselves to. So I suppose what I’m saying is, I honestly don’t know, but if I’m going to make a mistake, I’d rather make it on the side of love than of condemnation. So yes”, I added, reaching across for Erika’s free hand, “we’ll come with you when you talk to your mum and dad”.
Erika looked at us for a moment, and I saw the emotion in her face. “You guys are the best”, she said, shaking her head slowly; “I was pretty sure you’d take it like this, but – oh God, Kelly, you have no idea how much of a relief it is to have told someone about this, and to have had this kind of response”. She squeezed our hands; “Thank you”, she said. “Thank you so much”.
“No need”, Kelly replied softly. “When do you want to do it?”
“Well, not this weekend, anyway. Dad and Mom have had so much loaded onto their plate since Friday…”
“Later this week, then? Tom and I are taking Becca and Emma to the mountains in a few days”.
“Let’s do it this week for sure, then. Donny’s going home to Saskatoon after supper tonight”.
“He’s driving himself?”
“No – I’m driving him. I went down to get him Friday night, too”.
And so, a couple of nights later, we left Emma with Becca and went out to Hugo and Millie’s after supper, having arranged with Erika that we would meet her there about eight o’clock. It was still daylight, of course, it being the middle of July, but Brenda was in the process of putting Jessica to bed, and Ryan had gone for a sleepover at a friend’s house. Hugo and Millie were a little surprised to see us, but Millie made a pot of coffee and we sat around their kitchen table, talking quietly until Brenda came back to join us. Then, looking down at her coffee cup, Erika said, “Actually, it’s not an accident that Kelly and Tom are here with me tonight; I asked them to come. There’s something I want to talk to you about, and I wanted them to be here for the conversation”.
Hugo frowned, and Millie gave Erika a quizzical look; “Is everything okay, honey?” she asked.
“I’m fine, Mom. This isn’t about me, it’s about Donny”.
“Yes”. Erika reached across and covered her mother’s hand with her own. “You remember that time when we didn’t have a home address for him – when we were writing to him at the Sheaf?”
“Well, I got suspicious about that; I knew there was something he was hiding from me, and it wasn’t just that he had a drinking problem. So I went down to the city one weekend last year and searched for him; I knew a few people he knew, of course, and I made some quiet inquiries until I found out where he was. So I went to his apartment, and that’s when I discovered that he wasn’t living alone”.
“You mean he’s living common-law with someone?” Millie asked.
“Yes”, Erika replied; “He’s living common-law with a guy called Alan Chambers. He’s Donny’s boyfriend”.
For a long moment there was absolute silence at the table; Millie put her hand to her mouth, and Hugo stared incredulously at Erika, his face pale. Eventually Brenda spoke up; “Donny’s gay?” she exclaimed.
“Yes, he is”, Erika replied.
“You’ve known about this for a year?”
“Did John know?”
“I told him Saturday”.
“You’ve carried this around by yourself for a year without even telling John?”
“It wasn’t my story to tell, Bren”.
“I suppose not, but it must have been an awful burden to have to keep it to yourself”.
I saw the tears spring to Erika’s eyes; “Yes”, she said, “it wasn’t easy, but I didn’t think I had a choice”.
“You’re awesome, you know”, Brenda said, shaking her head slowly; “I hope Donny knows how lucky he is to have a big sister like you”.
Erika smiled gratefully at her; “Thank you”, she whispered.
Hugo cleared his throat; “Are you telling us this on Donny’s behalf?” he asked.
“Yes. He wanted to tell you, Dad, but he was too scared”.
“How long has he been with this guy?”
“A couple of years”.
“And this is why he’s never wanted us to come to his apartment?”
“Is this why he’s been drinking so much?”
“I don’t know how to answer that one, Dad. I think it’s probably part of it, but that’s a bigger issue”.
Millie got up from the table and went over to the kitchen window, staring out into the yard. After a moment she turned around, and I saw that there were tears in her eyes too. “Erika, how long has he known this about himself?” she asked.
“He says he’s known it since he was fifteen, but of course he struggled against it for years”.
“Since he was fifteen?” Hugo asked incredulously. “He’s carried this around for twelve years, and he’s never told us about it?”
“Dad, he’s been terrified that you would reject him; surely you can understand that?”
I suddenly realized that Hugo was struggling to control his emotions. “Reject him?” he whispered, shaking his head; “For the first time in a long time, I feel I’m beginning to understand him”.
Erika got up, went around the table, knelt down beside her father, and put her arms around him. Millie came up behind her husband’s chair and put her hand on his shoulder, and then we were all quiet for a few minutes as we listened to a sound I had not heard since Corey’s funeral ten years ago: the sound of Hugo crying.
A couple of days later we went to the mountains, and so we were away the following weekend when Donny came up to visit his parents again. Erika was with them for part of the time, and after we got back she told us that Hugo and Millie had spent most of the time listening to Donny as he gradually found the courage to open up to them and tell them his story. “I know they’re struggling with it”, she said; “They’ve always taken those Bible texts at face value, and I don’t think that’s going to change any time soon. But the bottom line is that they love him, and at least he knows that”.
Kelly reached across our kitchen table and put her hand on Erika’s. “Brenda’s right, you know”, she said softly; “You are an awesome sister”.
Kelly shook her head, her hand still on Erika’s. “You know that Brenda’s always been my best friend, and I know you two haven’t always seen eye to eye”.
“Sister stuff”, Erika said; “It’s not that we don’t love each other, you know”.
“I know that, but I also know that I’ve realized these past few weeks what a brave and loving person you really are, Erika. And I’m not just talking about what you’ve done for Donny”.
I knew instinctively what she meant, and I saw that Erika did too.“I love John, you know”, she whispered.
“I know you do”, Kelly replied; “Why wouldn’t you?”
Link to Chapter 31