Meadowvale (revised): Chapter Thirty-One

I’ve gone through the ‘Meadowvale’ story and done a rewrite; I’m posting the revised chapters here at the rate of about two a week. The originals are still on this site (go to ‘Meadowvale’ in the sidebar) in case you want to compare! Enjoy!

Some time in the winter or early spring of 1994, Kelly and I came to the gradual realization that, without any real intent on our part, our lives had become extremely busy.

My job, of course, had always been busy. I know a lot of people find that hard to believe; they hear that teachers get two months off in the summer, along with two weeks at Christmas and a week around Easter, and, like my father, they rack their brains to think of any other profession that gets that much holiday time. And they look at the number of teaching hours in a day – in my case, from nine o’clock in the morning to three fifteen in the afternoon, with forty-five minutes for lunch and some extra-curricular work after classes – and they think that our working day looks pretty short.

I had this conversation with my brother once, during our holiday in England in the summer of 1990. He and his family were over visiting us at Mum and Dad’s house on a Saturday afternoon, and he was ribbing me gently about how short my working day was compared to the sort of hours he put in as a lawyer. I was in a belligerent mood that day – it wasn’t very long after I’d had the same conversation with my father – and so, instead of letting it go as I usually did, I said, “How long do you think it takes me to mark my kids’ assignments, Rick?”

“Oh, a couple of hours, I expect”.

“You think? Your math isn’t very good, is it?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, let’s start with a number; how many students do you think I teach in a week?”

“I’ve got no idea, bro”.

“Amazing; you’re making assumptions about how short my work week is, and you don’t really know the most basic thing about my work: how many clients I have”.

“There’s no need to get touchy about it”.

“Let’s just say I’ve heard this line of argument a few too many times, and every now and again I decide not to take it lying down; today you drew the short straw, I guess. So, for your information, I teach about a hundred and fifty students a week. Also, for your information, I give each of them at least one assignment a week, which I then have to read and mark. How long do you think it would take me to mark their assignments?”

“Oh, I don’t know, Tom – ten minutes each?”

“You’re being generous; I wish I had time to take ten minutes with each of their assignments. If I gave them each ten minutes, that would be twenty-five hours of marking per week. No, some take longer than others, but I average about four minutes per assignment; that means ten hours a week in marking. That’s one of my extra-classroom commitments. Then there’s lesson preparation, including chasing up any visual aids or movies or stuff like that, and standing in line for the use of our photocopier. Add to that one-on-one tutoring with kids who need a little extra help, also conferences with parents, staff meetings, special events like Christmas concerts, school plays – did I mention that I run the drama department as well, and we try to put on a good play at least once a year?”

“Alright, you’ve made your point”.

“I haven’t quite finished making my point. I know I don’t work the sort of hours lawyers work, but then, I don’t make the sort of money lawyers make, either. But I do know that I leave for school at 7.45 every morning, and I get home at about 5.15. I also know that on two or three evenings during the week I put in about two hours of work at home after supper, and on Sunday afternoons I put in another four hours. So I’m not quite the lazy bum that you and Dad seem to think I am”.

“I was only joking, Tom”, he said.

“Don’t”, I replied; “I’m tired of the joke”.

I went into teaching with my eyes wide open; when I first mentioned to Owen’s dad that I was thinking about it, he said, “Don’t do it unless you’re prepared to work long hours”. When I asked him what sort of hours he was talking about, he described for me pretty much the sort of working week that I later outlined for my brother. “If you’re single”, he said to me, “You’ll have time for an absorbing hobby. If you get married and have a family, you won’t; you’ll have time to be a teacher, and to be a husband and father – that’s all”.

“But you spend lots of time with your children”, I replied.

“I do”, he said, “and then I get up every morning at five and put in two hours of schoolwork before the rest of the family gets going. Also, my wife has never worked outside the home, so she’s always done the lion’s share of the housework, and she’s been happy to fit our life together around my schedule. That gets a bit more difficult when you’ve got to fit another career in as well”.

My problem, of course, was that I already had an absorbing hobby – music – which was one of the things that had attracted Kelly to me in the first place. And, of course, she had a career of her own, one that consumed a lot of emotional energy, because she wasn’t the sort of nurse who turned off her feelings and just went through the motions of caring for people, especially when she was working at the Special Care Home. Most of the old people who came to live there were already known to her, because she was a long-time resident of Meadowvale herself. When they got sick – and, sooner or later, died – they weren’t just patients to her; they were people she knew and cared for. A death at the Special Care Home, for Kelly, meant at least one evening at home fighting back the tears; Emma and I learned to expect that, and to be gentle with her when she was going through it. As Emma said to me years later, “That’s what made Mom such a great nurse – it wasn’t just a job for her. She really cared for people”.

“You saw how hard that made it for her sometimes, didn’t you?” I replied.

“Yeah, I did”.

“Is that what you’re going to do?” I asked, knowing the answer before the words even left my mouth.

She looked at me steadily for a moment, and then nodded her head; “I learned from the best”, she said quietly.

I felt the lump in my throat, and I smiled and whispered, “You sure did”.

In the early years of our marriage, Kelly and I were able to ignore the reality of our busy schedules. For the first fourteen months, it was just the two of us; yes, we were both working full time, but I wasn’t gigging with Ellie, and we had no young child to care for. After Emma was born Kelly went on maternity leave, and before her leave was over she was diagnosed with cancer, which absorbed our full attention for the next nine months. During that time, of course, she didn’t work outside the home, and she continued to stay home until Emma was nearly two; she went back to work part-time in September 1987, but didn’t return to full-time until four years later. During that period of our lives Ellie and I had gotten involved in playing live music in Saskatoon and closer to home; also, Kelly and I had started attending the Wednesday night study group at the church, and before too long we had taken on the young people as well.

It was only gradually that we came to realize how little time we actually had for ourselves. Each morning I would get up at six-thirty, get dressed and go for a half hour walk. When I got home I would make tea, take a cup to each of my girls to wake them up, and make breakfast for everyone. Sally would arrive at our door at about seven-forty, and Kelly and I would head off to work five minutes later; I dropped Kelly off at the special care home and then drove myself to the high school. I would have liked to have walked to work – it was only a fifteen minute walk – but I didn’t want to get out of bed at six-fifteen instead of six thirty, and I needed to be at school by eight to be ready for my classes to start at nine. Sally sat with Emma for an hour after Kelly and I left, before driving her over to the elementary school in time for the morning bell at 8.55; later, she would meet her after school and take her back to her place until Kelly and I picked her up on our way home just after five o’clock.

Once I was at school in the morning, I grabbed a cup of coffee from the staff room, stuck my head around Will’s door to say hello, and then went straight to my classroom, where I spent the next fifty minutes in preparation work or marking, unless there was an early morning meeting, or a conference with a student or a parent. The first bell rang at eight fifty-five, my home room class came for registration, and at nine o’clock the teaching day started. Each period was fifty-five minutes long, with a five minute break in between them, except for double periods, of which I had several. I taught all the senior high English Language Arts classes – grades ten to twelve – as well as a couple of senior high journalism classes, and the drama program for the whole school. Two other teachers shared the junior high ELA classes, and by 1992 I was in overall charge of the English Language Arts department at our school, which gave me some administrative responsibilities as well. I had joked with Don Robinson about not being a good administrator, and I was well aware of my limitations in that area, but the fact was that I was the most experienced English teacher in the school, and thus the logical choice to be in charge of the department. “And”, Will said to me, “it also gives you the right to decide who teaches each class; I know you want to keep those senior high classes”.

“True enough”, I replied.

“Well, you’ve earned them”, he said quietly, “and you teach them well”.

My days were full, and for the most part I enjoyed them. Every year I had some students who persistently challenged my authority, and some students who needed extra attention just to keep up with the minimum requirements of the classes. But also, every year I had some students who absolutely loved English and made my classes a joy to teach, and many of them remained my friends after they graduated (and, in most cases, moved away from Meadowvale). Also, as time went by and I got a little older, I found more and more students coming to talk to me about personal issues. We had a counselling consultant on staff at our school, and there was also an unspoken understanding that Don Robinson was available if people needed a listening ear, but I gradually came to realize that students will decide who they’re going to trust, and when they place that trust in you, you have to take it seriously.

As time went by, I gradually learned to enjoy this role, which I saw as fitting into the grey area between ordinary helpfulness and professional counselling, but at first it was something of a surprise to me. I mentioned this to Kelly one evening, and she smiled at me and said, “You honestly didn’t expect it?”

“Not really, although when I think about it, I don’t know why”.

“Didn’t you have someone you went to talk to when you were in school – a teacher or a counsellor or someone like that?”

“Not really. I looked up to Owen’s dad, of course, and we talked about books a lot. And now and again when I was visiting at their place, he and I had some good general conversations about life. But to tell you the truth, I didn’t really have anyone who I approached in a counselling capacity – any adult, that is. Owen and I talked about stuff, of course, but that’s different”.

“No school counsellor at Wallingford School?”

“Not that I remember. Of course, I might not have noticed; I did tend to move in my own little world in those days!”

She came over to where I was standing by the sink, put her arm in mine, and said, “Well, my spies tell me you’re a very good person to talk to”.

“You have spies, do you?”

“Of course”, she replied with a mischievous grin; “I like to know what my husband’s up to!”

At the end of the working day, when we arrived home with Emma, Kelly would head straight for the stereo system to put on some music from the loud and lively end of her record collection. She enjoyed a number of classic rock bands like Fleetwood Mac, Queen, or the Steve Miller band, and she was also fond of some more recent artists, especially Billy Joel, Bruce Hornsby, Huey Lewis, and Bruce Springsteen, but her favourite bands for late-afternoon listening were the Police (including Sting’s more recent solo albums) and Dire Straits. This was not the sort of music that I was naturally inclined to be interested in, but over the years of listening to it while we were in the process of getting ready for supper I became quite fond of some of it, especially Dire Straits. Even today, when I hear a Dire Straits or Mark Knopfler song on the radio, it takes me straight back to those days, when one of us would be playing or reading with Emma in the living room while the other one got our supper ready.

We got better at the supper preparation business as time went by, planning our meals carefully so that we could re-use leftovers and cut down on the time it took to get the food on the table. We both enjoyed cooking, and we both enjoyed each other’s cooking, which made things a little easier for us. We usually had supper on the table by about six, and we both liked lingering for a while after the meal was over, making a pot of tea and talking about what our individual days at work had been like. If Emma was in the mood for staying at the table, the talk tended to focus on her, but if not, and if she wanted to go off and do something by herself, we tended to sit a little longer and talk more between the two of us.

There was a limit to the amount of time I could give to this, though; as I had said to my brother, for two or three nights a week, I needed to put in a couple of hours of marking or preparation time. Generally speaking, Kelly learned to expect this on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and sometimes Mondays as well. On those nights, I would spend an hour or so with Emma while Kelly cleared up from supper or puttered around doing odd jobs; sometimes she came and joined us and the three of us had family time together. If the weather was good Emma usually liked to be outside, and since Kelly and I enjoyed this too, that tended to be our default choice from April to October. But by eight o’clock, I was usually down in the basement at my desk, and I would work clear through until ten. By that time I was tired and ready for bed; Kelly was more of a night owl, and sometimes she liked to stay up later than me, but we made a habit of praying together at around ten while I was still awake. By ten-thirty I was invariably in bed; Kelly was usually with me, although sometimes she read for another hour by the dim light of her bedside lamp. Fortunately, the light didn’t usually keep me awake.

On Wednesdays, of course, this schedule varied, because we liked to go to the study group at the church. Gradually it had become the custom for Beth to eat with us on Wednesdays, and this was something we both looked forward to. Sometimes she and Kelly worked on supper together, or sometimes she brought a guitar over with her and she and I played some songs while Kelly got supper ready; Emma loved music and was always happy to listen while Beth and I were playing. When Beth turned sixteen, in April of 1994, her parents bought her a Seagull folk guitar, a lovely three-quarter size instrument with a solid cedar top, and she gradually got into the habit of bringing it over with her on Wednesday nights, because Emma was starting to get interested in playing music.

Emma had been picking up my old Martin from time to time and trying to play it, but of course she didn’t know any chords, even though I saw her sometimes trying to stretch her eight-year old fingers across the fretboard to form them. But one Wednesday evening in the Fall of 1994 Beth and I were playing a few tunes together before supper; we were sitting in the living room, and when we finished ‘John Barleycorn’ Emma came over, sat down on the couch beside me, and said, “Will you teach me to play guitar, Daddy, like you taught Beth?”

“Of course I will”, I replied with a smile; “We can start any time you like”.

“But I think your guitar’s still too big for me”, she said.

Beth smiled at her. “Come sit over here, Em”, she said, “and try my guitar; it’s a little smaller. It’s still big for you, but you might be able to get your hands around it”.

So Emma went and sat with her, and Beth put her guitar on her lap. She was right; even though it was still too big for my eight-year old daughter, it was a much better fit than my Martin. I watched as Beth crouched down in front of Emma and showed her how to form the G and C chords with her hands, moving the fingers for her until they were holding down the right strings. Emma got frustrated a couple of times, but Beth was patient with her and encouraged her, and after a few minutes Kelly came into the living room and stood with her hand on my shoulder, watching spellbound with me as our daughter took her first faltering steps as a guitarist.

Later that night, when I drove Beth home after Kelly and I returned from the study, I said, “You were amazing tonight, teaching Emma those chords; you were so patient with her”.

“She’s been curious for quite a while”, she replied; “I’m actually surprised it’s taken her this long to ask you”.

“I’m going to have to do something”, I said; “That Seagull of yours is a better fit for her than my Martin, but it’s still a little too big for her”.

“Aren’t there some child sized guitars you can get?”

“Yes, I think there are. I’ll talk to Kelly; I’ll have to see if we can get one for her”.

“She does have a birthday coming up”.

I grinned at her; “Yes, she does”, I replied.

I resolutely refused to do any schoolwork on Friday nights and Saturdays; I guarded those days jealously. Usually I was pretty tired Friday nights, so Kelly and I fell into the habit of having what we jokingly referred to as ‘in-house dates’. We took a little longer to fix supper, making something a little more elaborate than our usual weekday fare, and we often had wine with the meal as well, something we tended not to do during the week. We would clear up and wash the dishes together, and then we would play or read or do other things with Emma until it was time for her to go to bed. After that, we would take the bottle of wine and curl up on the couch to watch a movie. There were times, more often than I care to remember, when I would fall asleep before the movie ended, and Kelly would wake me up gently while the closing credits were rolling and ask me if I wouldn’t be a little more comfortable sleeping in bed. Sometimes, however, I wouldn’t be so tired, and then we would tiptoe down the hallway to our bedroom, close the door, and make love together, taking care to be quiet for fear of waking up our little girl in the next room.

Those were good nights. In the early years of our marriage, after Kelly had recovered from her cancer and before she went back to work full time, we had made love much more frequently, but as we got into our thirties and our working lives got busier, we found ourselves going from weekend to weekend without much in the way of sex at all. I think we were both a little sad about this; Kelly’s early-onset menopause had given us some challenges for a while, but gradually we had found ways to compensate for it, and we had both come to look forward to our times of making love together. But the truth was that with both of us working full time, especially in a demanding job like mine, we were just too busy, and too tired, and we didn’t really know what to do about it.

My musical hobby didn’t help the situation. Since Darren had joined Ellie and me, our gigging had gotten a lot busier; he was young and enthusiastic, and, of course, he was single. I’m sure he would have been happy to go down to Saskatoon every weekend, for three evenings if he could get away with it, taking advantage of every possible opportunity to play open stages and gigs of our own. And there was no doubt that he added a huge amount of energy to our band; his mandolin and banjo playing was bright and rhythmic, and he knew a lot of songs that really  augmented our repertoire. Ellie clearly loved playing with him, and before long the two of them were writing songs together – songs, of course, that they were eager to try out in live performance.

When the band was going down to play in Saskatoon on a Saturday night, we usually got together for a couple of hours late Saturday morning to practice, which, of course, was prime family time for the Masefields and the Reimers; the trouble was, there was just no other time that we could do it. By the Fall of 1994 we were going down to the city twice a month, once to an open stage and once to play a gig of our own; by then there were several coffee shops that were happy to have us play for a couple of hours on a Saturday night, and we were also getting to know other bluegrass players in the city, which gave us even more opportunities for playing. I drew the line at twice a month, but I knew in my heart that even that was too often. The trouble was, I was having fun; even though bluegrass wasn’t my native musical language, I loved the energy and electricity of being up on stage with Ellie and Darren.

Gigging in Saskatoon meant driving down late in the afternoon, having supper in the city, setting up our sound gear and playing from 7.30 to 10.00 or 8.00 to 10.30, and then clearing up and driving home. We usually found that we were getting into Meadowvale around 12.30, or later if the roads were bad and we had to drive more slowly. When Ellie and I had first started playing together, Kelly and Joe had sometimes taken it in turns to babysit for each other so that one of them could come down and listen to our music, but gradually, over the years, they had stopped doing that. Kelly was usually still awake when I got home, and sometimes she would make me a mug of hot chocolate and sit and talk with me for a few minutes, but she was keen to get to bed in order to be up for church on Sunday mornings, and by the time I got home, I was pretty tired anyway.

On Saturdays when I wasn’t gigging, we would shop and clean the house, do outings with Emma, visit with family members, and do all the other things that had once filled our lives when weekends were quieter and Kelly wasn’t working full time. If the weather was good we would often go up to Myers Lake and walk or canoe, or go snowshoeing in the winter. Or we might go up to Hugo and Millie’s and ride the horses; Emma had become quite an enthusiastic little rider, and I knew that Kelly often took her out there on Saturdays when I was busy with music.

Occasionally we would share a supper with Glenn and Karla and their family. In the summer of 1994 Karla gave birth to a baby boy, and to my surprise they named him Thomas. Becca, who was visiting with us at the time, immediately started calling him ‘Tommy’, and the name stuck. Glenn was forty-five when his son was born, and Karla was thirty-nine, and a couple of months later, on one of the rare occasions when I was able to make time to go for coffee with Glenn, he confirmed to me that with Molly and Tommy their family was now complete. “I don’t want to be going to my kids’ hockey games in my wheelchair!” he said with a grin.

Sundays, of course, we went to church, although on some Sunday mornings I was pretty sleepy after getting home late. Church was slightly less comfortable for us than it had been at one time; there was a small but influential group who had not gotten over the fact that Kelly and I had been supportive of Donny and Alan, and that we had even been known to have them over for coffee or a meal at our house from time to time. There had been occasional conversations on the subject at our Sunday night youth gatherings; we had been careful to follow Rob’s suggestion, clearly setting out the case for the various views, and then encouraging the kids to ask questions and share their opinions. Never at any time had we attempted to persuade them to adopt a particular viewpoint, but of course there were people in the church who could not believe that.

Chief among that group was John Redekopp. John was a local businessman and a lifelong resident of Meadowvale; he was now the moderator of our church and he had a lot of influence. The funny thing was that I actually liked John a lot; he had a quirky sense of humour and a fine bass singing voice, and on Sundays he usually sat a couple of rows back from Kelly and Emma and me. Sometimes when Emma was little she would turn and look at him while he was singing the deep bass notes in one of the hymns, and he would wink at her and make her laugh. He was a good reader, too, and Rob often asked him to read the scripture passage, which he did with obvious love and reverence. From time to time on Sundays we would have a discussion after church based on Rob’s sermon, and I always enjoyed John’s insights and the questions he would ask.

However, it was plain to see that John was troubled by the revelation of Donny’s homosexuality and the fact that some of us were not as sure as he was that Donny needed to repent, leave Alan, return to church and settle down with a nice girl. There were others who shared that opinion with him, including his wife Edna, John Janzen’s uncle Peter, and George and Elizabeth Penner. They were not confrontational, but I noticed that after church on Sundays they tended to group together, and they didn’t have much to say to people who disagreed with them.

Occasionally John would come over and ask me how ‘the youth group’ was going; I would patiently explain to him every time that it wasn’t actually a youth group, just a few kids who liked coming over to our house to drink hot chocolate and discuss their questions with us and each other, and he would smile and say, “Yes, of course, I understand that; what sort of questions do you talk about with them?” And I would reply in a general sort of way, telling him they tended to be questions about how following Jesus connected with ordinary daily life, and I would resolutely ignore his hints about going into more detail; the last thing either Kelly or I wanted was for the kids to get the idea that we were breaking confidentiality and talking about their discussions with members of the wider church community.

Thankfully, tension and suspicion were not the whole story of our church life. I still enjoyed the Sunday services and found the sermons as thoughtful and challenging as ever. It had never been the Mennonite tradition to rely exclusively on the pastor for sermons; Rob did about two thirds of the preaching, but two or three others took their turn as well, and lately Joe had been one of that group, which I particularly appreciated. I enjoyed leading music with Will and Ellie, although we didn’t get as much time for practising as I would have liked. I enjoyed sitting with Kelly and Emma, with Joe and Ellie and their kids beside us, and across the aisle John and Ruth and their family sitting with Rachel and Beth. Our church seemed to be growing slightly; our Sunday attendance hovered around a hundred and fifty, with a good number of younger families with small children. A significant number of people were involved in Habitat for Humanity in Saskatoon; John Janzen was the one who had gotten people interested in this, and he was still spreading the word and encouraging people to go down and volunteer on the building sites, or find other ways to help out. Kelly and I continued to spend a week every summer working alongside John and Ruth on Habitat builds, and lately John had even talked his father-in-law Mike Robinson into joining in.

On Sundays after church we would often have lunch with Will and Sally, then go home and take it easy for a while. Sometimes I would take a nap, or I might call my mother or Becca in England, or Owen and Lorraine. In the summer of 1994 Lorraine gave birth to another child, Katherine Anne, who we all called ‘Katie’. When I asked Owen how long he was going to keep us waiting before they brought her for a visit, he chuckled and said, “You’re getting confused about the natural order of things, mate; it’s your turn to come to visit us. You haven’t been here for four years, and we were there two summers ago”.

Becca also was dropping hints, and from time to time she would be more direct about it. “Is it going to be six years between your visits again?” she asked me on the phone one day. “You know I love Meadowvale and I’ll always come over to see you, Tommy, but it’s been a long time since Mum’s seen her granddaughter”.

She could always come and see us”, I replied.

“Now don’t start that again; you know that it’s difficult for Mum”.

“Well, it’s not exactly easy to visit at that house either, walking on eggshells all the time and waiting for Dad to get all bent out of shape about something”.

“Tommy, you should stop making excuses and just come”, she said.

“And you should stop bossing your big brother around, Small One”.

“Way to change the subject, big brother!”

Kelly raised the issue with me one night. “Why don’t you want to go back?” she asked; “It’s been four years since your mom has seen Emma”.

I shook my head slowly; “Well, there’s the obvious issue of Dad”, I replied. “I still can’t find a way to get past all that with him. But it’s not just that”.

“What is it, then?”

We were sitting up in bed, having just finished our prayer and Bible reading time, and I put my hand on hers and said, “Honestly, Kelly, I get so tired through the year, and by the time summer rolls around I’m just exhausted. I really look forward to our restful summers here; I like the times when you’re still at work and I get to spend the whole day doing things with Emma, and then I like the times when we go on our trips to the mountains and Waskesiu and the Edmonton Folk Festival and Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan, and I like our weeks with Becca and the way she’s become such a part of the Meadowvale community. We’ve got a nice, restful summer routine, without much in the way of emotional drama. Going to England, on the other hand, always involves tension and melodrama sooner or later; I enjoy visiting with Mum and Becca and Owen and Lorraine, but overall, I find the whole thing so draining”.

She laid her head on my shoulder then; for a moment she didn’t reply, and when she finally spoke, I was surprised to hear the emotion in her voice. “Oh, Tom”, she said; “I know exactly how you feel. All year long I look forward to the summer, when we can slow down and do things together as a family. You’ve no idea how much I look forward to it”. She lifted her head and looked at me, and I saw that there were tears in her eyes. “Everything we do in the winter is good, and we enjoy it, but I sometimes feel like the weeks flash by so fast, and we hardly get to talk to each other at all. I’m so glad when summer comes”.

I lifted my hand and wiped a tear from her cheek. “Are you okay?” I asked; “I didn’t realize you were upset”.

She shook her head; “Not upset”, she replied, “but maybe a little sad sometimes”.

“Sad about what?”

“Well, I married you because I loved you, and I wanted to spend the rest of my life with you”.

“That’s why I married you, too”.

“But sometimes in the winter I feel like we’re not spending our lives together; I feel like we eat together and sleep together, and occasionally if we’re feeling energetic enough we make love together, but there are huge blocks of time when we hardly connect at all”.

“Well, we both have jobs, and mine is very busy”.

“I know, and of course, I went into that with my eyes wide open; I knew from growing up in a teacher’s house how busy a teacher’s life can be. But I miss you sometimes, Tom”. I saw another tear running down her face, and she whispered, “I miss you a lot, actually”.

“Is there anything I can do to make things better?” I asked.

“I know you can’t do anything about your working hours, and sometimes I’m amazed at how much time you do manage to get free from that. But maybe at some point we can have a conversation about the rest of our schedule”.

“Alright”, I agreed; “Let’s do that”.

Sunday evenings were one part of our schedule that we all enjoyed. Beth usually let us know by Friday night if the kids were planning on coming over; if they weren’t, I would call Joe, and our two families would get together for supper, either at their place or ours. By the summer of 1994 Jake was nine, Emma was eight, and Jenna was seven. All five members of ‘The Pack’, including Steve and Krista’s children Mike and Rachel, were close to each other, but it was natural that Jake, Emma and Jenna would be closer, as they all lived in Meadowvale, went to school together, and saw each other many times during the week. Jake had always been the acknowledged leader of the Pack, and Emma in particular looked up to him and followed his lead in almost everything; he was also the most outgoing of the three, while Jenna and Emma tended to be quieter and more reserved. But they were never at a loss to find things to do together; Joe and Ellie and their kids would arrive at our place, and immediately the three children would gather and go to Emma’s room, or go downstairs, or outside into the back yard. Sometimes we got them all together with us for family board games and things, but at other times we let them run and do what they wanted to do while the four of us sat at the table, drank coffee, and talked: long, deep, satisfying conversation. By now Ellie was almost as close a friend to me as Joe, and there was very little that the four of us would not say to each other.

By the summer of 1994 Joe and Shauna had another vet working for them at the clinic, and Karla Pickering was job sharing with another administrator, who would be moving to full-time while Karla stayed home for the next year with Tommy. “We’ll miss her”, Joe said to me, “but she’s trained Marissa well. I’m glad they’re job sharing; it takes the stress out of Karla’s life a little, and it makes it easier for us when she’s away”.

“Sometimes I wish I could find someone to job share with”, Kelly said wistfully.

“Yeah?” Joe looked at his sister’s face for a minute, and then said, “Are you getting stressed too?”

“Just busy, like everyone else”, she replied, glancing at me with a guilty look on her face. “One of these days Tom and I are going to have a conversation about our schedule”.

On Sundays when the kids were coming around, Kelly would bake cookies in the afternoon while I was working on my school prep for the week. We would have a light supper – often a thick vegetable soup and biscuits – and then when the kids arrived we would make hot chocolate, go into the living room, and talk. The core group had not changed, but the kids had gotten older of course; Beth had turned sixteen in April 1994, and her friends Katie Thiessen and Jenny Ratzlaff were the same age, with Jenny’s brother Ricky, Megan Neufeld and Dan Rempel a year older. In June, after a couple of years of thinking and praying about it, Beth and Megan had been baptized together, and I knew that Jenny and Katie were close to making that decision as well. Dan liked to joke that he was the ‘resident pagan’ in the group, although I knew him well enough by now to know that there was still a spark of faith deep down in him. Nonetheless, he was the one who raised the hard questions and pushed us when he thought we were giving pat answers, and he was the one who kept his emotional cards closest to his chest.

Emma would usually sit with us for the first half of the evening, unless we thought that the issue we were talking about was a little too grown up for her, in which case I would excuse myself and take her off downstairs for a while until it was time for her to go to bed. Emma didn’t like those times at all; she liked the kids in the group and enjoyed the fact that they came to her house, and of course she was especially close to Beth, who would occasionally spell me out with her. At first Kelly and I had felt a little awkward about having Emma there with the group, but gradually we came to realize that this was part of our witness to them, and in fact, years later, Jenny Ratzlaff said to me, “When I became a mom myself, I knew I wanted to be the same kind of mom as Kelly. She showed us the way, you know – in all kinds of ways, including mothering”. And then she grinned and said, “We knew she was mothering us too, of course!”

“Yeah”, I replied; “She knew you guys weren’t really her kids, but she enjoyed spoiling you and then sending you home so your parents could deal with the consequences”.

“A little like grandparents, eh?”

“Yeah – that was the way her dad described it, anyway”.

The kids would sit with us until about nine or nine-fifteen, and then their parents would come and collect them. Kelly and I would give them hugs – except for Dan, that is; he would accept a hug from Kelly, but a handshake from me was as far as he would go – and then we would stand at the door and watch them as they got into the cars and drove off, or, in Beth’s case, walked the fifteen minutes back to her home. When they were all gone we would go back inside, wash up the dishes and tidy up the living room, talk about how the evening had gone, and then usually head toward our own bedroom for an early night, knowing that the week ahead was going to be as busy as the one that had just passed.

From time to time, in the early Fall of 1994, Kelly would remind me that we needed to sit down and have a conversation about our schedule, and I would agree with her and apologize for putting it off. “When we get an hour we can call our own, some night after Emma’s gone to bed, let’s make a point of doing it”, I said. But, of course, that never happened; two or three nights a week after Emma had gone to bed I was hard at work on marking and lesson preparation, and Wednesday nights we had the study group, and some Friday nights we had singarounds, and two Saturdays a month Ellie and Darren and I were gigging again, and Sunday nights we had supper with Joe and Ellie and the family or had the kids over to our place, and so things went on as usual, at the same old insane pace.

Eventually Kelly gave up reminding me, but of course she resented the fact that I had not kept my promise to talk about our schedule, and for the first time since the dark days of 1986, she began to withdraw from me. She was not unkind or inconsiderate, and with other people she was as warm and friendly as ever, but gradually I noticed that she was less inclined to have the sort of open and honest conversations we had always enjoyed, even when she was desperately ill. Later on, of course, I realized what had been going on; she had given up and accepted the fact that I was not prepared to do anything about the insane pace of my life. We still ate and slept and prayed together, and we even had enjoyable conversations from time to time, but there was a sadness in her now, and she would not let me anywhere near it.

Leanne Collins had been teaching at our school for just over a year now, and she and I had become good friends, a friendship based on past acquaintance with her and her grandparents, and cemented by enjoyable conversations in the staff room and a lot of mutual respect for each other as teachers. She was still living at her grandparents’ farm about eight miles north of town; Wilf and Mabel were doing a little better health-wise, although I knew that Wilf was in a lot of pain from arthritis, but they were very happy to have Leanne with them. “Of course, she’s good company for me and Mabel”, Wilf said to me one day when I bumped into him in the Co-op, “but she’s a big help for me with the farm chores, too. I’d forgotten what a good little farmer she is; she’s more use around that place than any of my sons ever were”.

Neither Kelly nor I ever heard a word of complaint from Leanne, but between ourselves, we sometimes speculated about what sort of life she had. “She’s twenty-seven years old”, Kelly said to me one day, “but she spends all her free time helping Wilf and Mabel. I don’t think she’s had a date since she moved here, and I’m sure she doesn’t have much of a social life. I mean, I know how busy you are preparing for classes and marking and so on; she does all that, and works as an unpaid farm hand for Wilf, too. It’s not much of a life for a girl her age”.

I had asked Leanne once where she found the time to do as much work as she did around the farm; she gave me a rueful grin and said, “I teach, I farm, I sleep”. She and I had talked about the subject a few times since then, and she had admitted to me that she was probably enabling Wilf and Mabel to stay longer on the old farm than they should have done. “Grandpa’s seventy-four now”, she said, “and he’s in a lot of pain from arthritis, and Grandma’s getting very forgetful. It’s not that we never talk about them giving up the farm, but I have to be tactful, Tom; Grandpa’s poured his whole life into that place, and none of his sons was even remotely interested in carrying on after him. I can’t even begin to imagine how that must feel”.

“I know”, I replied; “I sometimes think about that, too. His generation are connected to the land in a way that our generation never will be; when your grandpa and grandma were kids, literally everything they ate was grown or raised on the soil they could see outside their windows”.

“I know. They’re still pretty self-sufficient, but it’s not as extreme as it was years ago”.

One of the things I remembered about Leanne from when she was one of my students was that she liked live theatre. She had been in pretty well every play we had put on – and we tried to do at least one, and sometimes two, every year – from 1982, when I arrived in Meadowvale, to her graduation in June of 1985. During her first year as a teacher she had not been involved in the drama department, but early in September of 1994 I asked her if she would like to help out with our Christmas play – we were planning to put on an adaptation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol – and to my delight, she agreed.

We started work in earnest at the beginning of November; I produced the play and ran the rehearsals, and Leanne helped me coach the actors as well as organizing the costumes and makeup. She got her grandmother involved in making some of the costumes too, something that Mabel enjoyed, and from time to time I drove out to their place on the weekend to consult with Leanne and see how things were coming along. At least once, and sometimes twice a week we had an after-school rehearsal which went on quite late, and so on those days Kelly would drive me to work in the morning, take our car to the Special Care Home, and pick Emma up and drive her home after work, while Leanne would give me a ride home in her truck at about 5.45 when we had finished cleaning up after the rehearsals.

From time to time, on those drives home, she would talk to me about her struggles with her grandparents, and as the weeks went by she began to be more open with me about her own frustration with the situation. Now that the snow had returned Wilf was in a lot more pain with his arthritis, and Mabel was getting even more forgetful. “I guess I’m going to have to accept the fact that it’s dementia”, she said to me one day as she pulled the truck into the driveway behind my house.

“Is she safe to be home by herself when Wilf’s out doing farm chores?” I asked.

“I don’t know, Tom; I wish I knew. And I wish the rest of the family were closer. Auntie Brenda’s good; she calls every day, and she comes up to visit once a month. But of course, she and Uncle Dennis are living in Estevan, and that’s a long way. And as for Uncle Jim and Uncle Wally, we hardly hear from them at all”.

She pulled up behind our car, put the transmission in neutral, and said, “It’s like they just don’t care, you know? As far as they’re concerned, I live at the farm and I look after Grandma and Grandpa, so everything’s okay and there’s nothing they need to do. I even get that from Auntie Brenda sometimes. Just last week she said to me, ‘It’s such a comfort to me that you’re living there, Leanne’. Honestly, Tom, I was so angry with her; when is it my turn to get some comfort?”

“Do you ever say anything about that to her?”

“I’ve tried to raise the issue a couple of times when she’s been visiting, but she doesn’t even want to talk about it; she just mouths platitudes about me being such a godsend to Grandma and Grandpa, and then she changes the subject”.

“Have you guys ever had a family conversation about Wilf and Mabel moving to town?”

“To be honest, I think we’ve gotten past the point where they can move into a place of their own in town. Especially Grandma; I think she’s going to need someone to keep a close eye on her all the time, and I don’t think Grandpa can do that”.

“So you think they’ll need to move into the Special Care Home?”

“I suspect they will. But of course, they aren’t going to like that”.

“I guess not. It’s going to be tough for you, too”.

She nodded; “Yes, it is”.

“How old were you when you first went to live with them?”

“I was ten. Mom and Dad broke up, and neither of them really wanted to look after me, so Grandma and Grandpa told me to come and live with them, and for the first time ever, I discovered what a stable home life was like”.

“You must love them a lot”.

She looked at me for a moment, and then she said, “I really do; I’ll be grateful to them for the rest of my life. And that’s why I get so frustrated with my aunt and uncles; I don’t want to be put into a position where I come to resent having to look after Grandma and Grandpa. I don’t mind looking after them; I want to do it, it’s just that I’d like to have some help from time to time. And you know what teaching’s like, Tom – it’s hard enough to make time for everything we have to do in our jobs, without having farm chores and home care to look after too”.

“Yeah, I know how you feel; there are days when Kelly and I look at each other at ten o’clock at night and wonder what we’ve been doing all day”.

“You guys must be really busy, eh – with you both working full time, and then Emma, and your music and everything?”

“The days are pretty full”, I admitted; “Sometimes you have to wonder if this is the sort of life you really signed up for”.

She looked at me for a moment, a little frown on her face. “Are you okay, Tom?” she asked.

I smiled at her; “Oh yeah; just the usual late-November blues. This is such a busy time of year”. I released my seat belt, opened the passenger door and grinned at her; “Thanks for the ride home. Say hi to Wilf and Mabel for me”.

“I will, Tom; see you tomorrow”.

The following week we had another after-school rehearsal; the play was coming together nicely now, and the students were starting to get a feel for their parts. They left at about five -thirty, and Leanne and I worked together for a few minutes to clean up my classroom, where we had been having the rehearsal.

“Have you guys decided yet whether you’re going to England for Christmas?” she asked me.

“We have, actually; we’re leaving the day after school finishes”.

“This will be the first time you’ve been home for Christmas since you moved here, right?”

I grinned at her; “What do I have to do to convince you that this is my home?”

“Right – I should know that by now! Let me try that one again: this will be the first time you’ve been back to England for Christmas since you moved here, right?”

“Right – first time in thirteen years I’ll have had Christmas at my parents’ place, and the first time Kelly and Emma will ever have been away from the Reimers for Christmas”.

“That’ll be different”.

“Yeah, but we need to do it; it’s been four and a half years since we were there, and Becca’s getting annoyed with me”.

“Well, she comes to visit you every year”.

“Yes, she does, and she really loves Emma”.

“They’ll be glad to see each other, then”.

“I think so”.

“What about Kelly; does she like it over there?”

“She gets on well with my mum and Becca, but I’m not really sure this year whether she’s looking forward to it or not”.

She glanced at me with a slight frown on her face. “Is she okay?” she asked.

I shrugged as I moved a couple of desks back into place. “We’re just busy, that’s all,” I said; “We’re both pretty tired”.

“You have a lot on your plate”.

“Yeah, and I’m not always very smart about my schedule. Sometimes that causes trouble”.

I saw the concern on her face, and something else as well, something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. “Trouble?” she asked.

“It’s like we were saying the other night; sometimes the days seem to fly by, and before you know it, it’s ten o’clock at night and you haven’t really had a meaningful conversation with each other all day long”. I shook my head slowly; “It’s actually kind of ironic”, I continued. “I’ve criticized my dad and my brother in the past for getting too busy with their jobs and neglecting their families, and now here am I doing exactly the same thing, except it’s not just my work, it’s all the other stuff going on in my life as well”.

She was standing as still as a statue, looking at me, and after a moment she said, “Are you and Kelly okay, Tom?”

I gave a heavy sigh; “Sometimes I don’t know”, I replied. Then, shaking my head, I said, “You know what, I’m probably making something out of nothing. We’re a bit frayed around the edges right now, but I expect we’ll be fine in the long run”.

She hesitated, and then came across to where I was standing, put her hand on my arm, and looked up at me. “Is there anything I can do to help?” she asked softly.

I looked at her for a moment without speaking. Leanne had grown into a beautiful young woman, with her long dark hair and deep brown eyes, and it was impossible to mistake the message that those eyes were giving me as she stood there, her fingers still touching my arm. I was startled, suddenly realizing that something had been going on in front of me for some time now without me really noticing it. I caught the intoxicating scent of danger, and for one brief moment I was tempted, but then I caught myself, and I was suddenly terrified of what I had almost done.

I backed away slightly, so that she was no longer touching me. “I’m okay”, I said; “Every marriage goes through stress from time to time, and Kelly and I are no exception, but we’ll be okay”.

I saw in her eyes that she understood what I was telling her. For a moment she hesitated, and I could see that she was embarrassed, but I knew that I could not allow myself the luxury of feeling sympathy for her. I turned away, pushed the last of the desks into place, and then spoke with my back still turned to her. “You know, it looks like a nice winter evening out there”, I said; “I think I’ll walk home tonight”.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. I’ll see you tomorrow, Leanne”.

For a moment there was silence between us, until I turned and saw that she was still looking at me. She opened her mouth to speak, then closed it again, still standing there without moving. And then she did something I wasn’t expecting, something that dramatically increased the respect I already felt for her; she said, “Tom, I just did a really stupid thing. I know it, and I’m sorry. You’ve been such a good friend to me, and now I’ve destroyed all that”.

For a moment I didn’t reply. I realized that I was not angry with her, but I was furious with myself; I knew that somehow, without intending it, I must have given her the impression that this sort of an advance would be welcome to me. I shook my head; “You haven’t destroyed it”, I said, “but I may need to pull back for a while”.

“I understand. Again, it’s my fault; I’m very sorry”.

I nodded; “Apology accepted”.

“Are you going to tell Kelly?”

I didn’t hesitate. “I have to, Leanne; you must see that”.

It was her turn to nod; “Of course”. She paused, and then she spoke in a small voice, “She’s going to hate me, isn’t she?”

“She’ll be angry, for sure”.

She swallowed, and I saw the tears brimming in her eyes. “I think I’d better go”, she said.

“That would be good”.

I knew that Kelly had noticed how quiet I was during supper, and for the hour or so afterwards, while we were clearing up and doing things with Emma. I also saw that she was surprised that I didn’t go down to my den in the basement for my customary two hours of work. “Aren’t you doing schoolwork tonight?” she asked.

I shook my head. “There’s a promise I made to you that I need to keep”, I replied.

She looked at me for a moment, and I saw in her eyes that she understood immediately what I meant. “Okay”, she said; “I’ll make some peppermint tea after Emma goes to bed”.

She sat at the kitchen table with me, not saying a word while I described what had passed between Leanne and me earlier that evening. When I was finished, she was quiet for a few minutes, and then she said, “Have you told me everything?”


“You know, in a strange sort of way, I’m not really surprised. I’ve had a feeling for a long time that she was attracted to you”.

I stared at her; “How did you pick that up?”

“I’m a woman; we know these things”.

“But you never said anything to me”.

“What would have been the point? For all I knew, you might have welcomed her advances”.


She looked at me steadily. “Tom, you’ve been quietly pulling back from me for a year now”, she said.

I shook my head; “Kelly, I swear…”

“Don’t swear to what you know isn’t true. How long has it been since I told you I wanted to have a conversation about our schedules?”

“I don’t know, a couple of months, maybe?”

“Three months, actually”, she replied grimly; “For three months now you haven’t been able to make time for it, although you’ve had plenty of time to practice music with Ellie and Darren, and drive down to Saskatoon for gigs and open stages, and put in extra hours at school rehearsing for the Christmas play”.

“I know; I’m really torn, Kelly”.

Torn?” she exclaimed, and I saw the flash of anger in her eyes; “Why are you torn? What’s to be torn about?”

“You know I love you”, I said.

She got up from the table and went over to the sink, her back to me; I could see her reflection in the glass, and after a moment I saw her lip beginning to tremble. I got to my feet then, went over to her and put my hands on her shoulders, but she threw up her arms and cried, “Don’t touch me, please!”


“I can’t talk about this right now”, she said forcefully, and she turned around, avoiding my looks, and crossed the floor toward the basement steps. “I’m going downstairs for a while; I need to think”.

“Kelly, please…”

She turned and looked at me then, the tears running down her face. “I’m sorry”, she whispered; “I know you didn’t ask for this, but I can’t…”. Her voice trailed away, and she shook her head; “You need to give me some space”, she said.

I nodded reluctantly; “How long?”

“I don’t know”.

I had been in bed for a couple of hours when I heard her coming quietly into our room; I had not been asleep, and as she began to undress I said, “Are you okay?”

For a moment she didn’t reply; in the darkened room I could see her pulling her pyjama tee-shirt on over her head, and then she lifted the comforter and slipped into bed beside me. “Have you been sleeping?” she asked softly.


“I’m sorry; you’re going to be tired in the morning”.

“Kelly, are you okay?”

She was lying on her back beside me, and I saw her shake her head. “No”, she said, “I’m not. I’m angry with Leanne, and I’m angry with you, too”.

“I know, and I’m really, really sorry…”

She turned on her side to face me. “So you’ve said several times over the past year”, she said, “but so far nothing’s changed”.

“I don’t know what to say, Kelly; you’re right, of course. But before we get into that, please believe me when I say that this thing that happened with Leanne came as a total surprise to me; I had absolutely no idea she felt anything for me. Maybe I was stupid and naive, but I honestly didn’t see it coming”.

She nodded; “I do believe you about that. It’s brought everything to a head between us, but I’m not stupid; despite what I said earlier on, I know it was all on her side, not yours”. In the darkened room I saw her smile ruefully; “No”, she said, “I guess I’ve known all along that if there was ever anything I had to fear, it wasn’t another woman; it was your music”.

“But Kelly, it was you who encouraged me to start gigging with Ellie”.

“Yes”, she admitted; “I did, but I didn’t realize at the time how much of your life it was going to swallow up”.

“Well, that’s fair”, I replied; “I know that since Darren joined the band, we’ve been going down to the city a lot more often than we should”.

She didn’t reply, and after a moment I sat up in bed and put my hand on hers. “Shall I make us some herbal tea?” I asked.

“Tom, you’re going to be exhausted in the morning”.

“So are you, but I don’t think either of us is going to sleep until we talk this thing through”.

“No”, she admitted, “you’re probably right. But I don’t want to risk waking Emma”.

“Let’s make some tea and go down to my den in the basement; as long as we talk quietly, she won’t hear us down there”.

She thought for a moment, and then nodded; “Okay”, she said.

We sat across from each other in the two old easy chairs in my den; the room was lit by a single lamp on my desk. Kelly was wearing her bathrobe and moccasins, and I had pulled on a fleece top over my pyjamas.

“So talk to me”, I said quietly; “I’m listening”.

She shook her head slowly, her eyes down. “I’m so angry at Leanne that it scares me”, she whispered.

“It wasn’t all her fault”, I replied. “I shouldn’t have said anything to her about what we’ve been going through; if I hadn’t done that, she might never have said a word”.

She looked up at me then, her hands cupped around her mug. “She’s such a beautiful young woman”, she whispered, “and she’s still got that wonderful sense of mischief about her, despite all that she’s been going through with her grandparents. Any man with half a pulse would find her attractive. Honestly, if I was inclined to feel insecure…”

I shook my head vigorously; “No, Kelly”, I said, “there’s nothing, absolutely nothing. Please, I thought you believed me”.

“I do”, she replied, “at least, in my head I do. But she wanted it – she wanted you – even after all you and I have been through. I’m going to find it very, very hard to forgive her for that; I don’t think I could trust myself to talk to her right now”.

“We don’t have to go there”.

“No, except that the next time I pray the Lord’s Prayer, there’s going to be a problem”.

I nodded; “I understand”.

She sipped her tea, her eyes down again, and for a few minutes there was silence in the room. Eventually she looked up again and said, “Can we finally have a conversation about our schedule?”

“Of course; I know you’re angry with me, and you have every right to be”.

She shook her head; “I find it hard to understand it, Tom. I know you love music, and God knows that’s one of the reasons I fell in love with you, but…”

“I know”.

“We can’t go on like this”, she said; “Both of us working full-time Monday to Friday, and you doing school work two or three nights a week, and our study group Wednesday night, and the kids on Sunday nights once or twice a month, and then you going down to Saskatoon Saturday afternoon and evening twice a month, and practicing with Ellie and Darren Saturday mornings on those days too, and church Sunday mornings, and…” Her voice trailed away, and she looked across at me desperately; “How are we supposed to sustain a marriage and a family on a schedule like that?”

“We can’t”, I agreed; “That’s the issue I’ve been trying not to face for months now, but I know I can’t avoid it any longer”.

“Why have you been trying to avoid it? Why has this been so hard for you to see? Ever since I went back to work full time, and Darren got you guys onto this twice a month in Saskatoon schedule…”

“I know. I don’t have any excuses to offer, Kelly”.

She took another sip of her tea, frowned thoughtfully, and said, “The problem is, of course, that there’s nothing either of us does that we don’t enjoy. But we just don’t have room in our lives for all of it. Something has to go”.

“I know”.

She drank some of her tea, her hands still cupped around the mug. “So I guess it comes down to choices”, she said; “What are we willing to give up? I know what I’m going to do; I’m going to ask if I can job-share at work, so I can go down to half time. I love my work, and I love the people there, but I just don’t have time to love you and Emma and the Sunday night kids and everyone else in my life, and do most of the housework around here, and work full-time too. I know it will mean taking a hit financially, but I also know I have to do it. Is that okay with you?”

I nodded; “Yes, it is. We can tighten our belts; we’ve done it before”.

“It might mean we have to wait longer for our next trip to England after this Christmas”.

“I understand”.

“You know your dad will probably use that as ammunition against you, right?”

“You let me worry about my dad; he’s not your problem”.

She smiled ruefully; “Well, sometimes he is”, she said. “It’s kind of hard for you to keep him to yourself”.

I shrugged. “I suppose so; I’m sorry”.

“No need”. She looked up at me. “What about you? What are you willing to give up?”

“Well, I think the answer to that one’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?”

“I need to hear you say it, and I need to know you don’t grudge it”.

“Okay; I’m going to give up playing music in Saskatoon. Like you said about your work, I know I love it, but it’s just too far away to be possible on a regular basis. We’ll still do singarounds here, and maybe I’ll do the occasional summer fair if Ellie and Darren still want to play with me, but I’m done with the band”.

“How do you feel about that? Tell me the truth, Tom”.

I was quiet for a moment, and then I said, “I’ve been thinking about that for the past two hours while I’ve been lying awake in bed, because I knew this conversation was coming”. I looked across at her in the dim light of the desk lamp. “I think I’ve been foolish enough to think I could have everything”, I said, “but that’s impossible. No one can have everything; everyone has to make choices. When I lived in Oxford I had all kinds of opportunities to play live music, and I had the friendship of Owen and Wendy and all the good times we had together, and Becca and my mum were close at hand too. But I also had my dad’s constant interference in my life, and his determination to do all he could to make me into a lawyer, or at least a teacher in some of the right schools. Eventually his desire to control my life became so intolerable to me that it outweighed all the rest, so I left it all behind and came here. And before long I met you, and we fell in love, and I became a Christian, and then I married you and joined your family, which has been one of the most amazing blessings in my life”.

She reached across and took my hand. “But you gave up some things, too”, she said softly.

“And I gave them up willingly, Kelly, without any regrets. I came to love living in Meadowvale, and the whole rural Saskatchewan lifestyle, even though I was far away from any opportunity to play live music. The thought of that never even crossed my mind for years, not until the day Joe suggested Ellie and I should think about going down to Saskatoon and playing at open stages. But then we started doing that, and I knew right away that it was time-consuming, but I began to wonder if perhaps I could have everything after all. And then a few years later, along came Darren, and he was sure we could have it all, and I let him persuade me”.

I shook my head; “I was so stupid”, I whispered. “Haven’t I watched my dad and my brother get so busy with secondary stuff that they miss out on the things that really matter? And didn’t I nearly lose you eight years ago? How could I have missed this?” I shook my head again and looked across at her; “I’m so sorry, Kelly”, I said. “I wasn’t unfaithful to you with Leanne, but I know I’ve been unfaithful to you in all these decisions I’ve made about the way I’ve used my time”.

She squeezed my hand; “I could have made an issue of it earlier”, she replied softly.

“You shouldn’t have had to; it was my fault”.

“Not entirely; we agreed to commit ourselves to the study group together, and we took on the Sunday night kids too”.

“Those are things we do together; this is different”.

“Yeah, I guess it is”. She smiled at me; “I don’t hate your music, Tom”, she said. “There are very few things I love more than sitting in our living room listening to you playing and singing”.

“Thank you”.

We looked at each other in silence for a moment, and then I said, “I know this isn’t going to be fixed in a day or a week or even a month, but I want to start fixing it right now. Is there anything else you want me to do?”

She frowned; “Can we talk about Leanne again for a minute?”


“I know you two are good friends, but that’s going to be a problem for me”.

“I understand. I’ve enjoyed having her as a friend; I admire her as a person, she’s a great teacher, and she really puts herself out to look after Wilf and Mabel. But tonight, I realized how totally blind I’ve been to what’s going on. I’m not angry with her, but I’m furious with myself for letting something like this happen. As I said, I broke the privacy of our marriage; I absolutely should not have said anything to her that gave her the impression that you and I were having problems. I’m really sorry, Kelly”.

She nodded; “I need you to pull back from your friendship with her for a while”, she said. “I know you have to work with her, and I know you need her help to put the play on. But I need you to shut her out of your circle of close friends, at least for now. I think I have the right to ask that”.

“You do; I already knew I had to do that”.

“Promise me”.

“I promise you, Kelly, that I will shut her out. And I’ll talk to Ellie and Darren tomorrow”.

She nodded; “I don’t think Ellie will be surprised”.


“I have a confession to make; you’re not the only one who’s broken the privacy of our marriage”.

“You’ve been talking to Joe?”

“I have”.

“I’m not surprised; why wouldn’t you? He’s your best friend, and I haven’t been here for you”.

She smiled ruefully; “Those words have a vaguely familiar ring to them”, she said.

“I don’t have the excuse of cancer, though”.

She put her mug down on the arm of her chair and took both my hands in hers. “Let’s make a fresh start”, she said softly. “You’re right, this won’t be totally fixed in a day or a week or even a month, but let’s start moving in the right direction. I’ve been resentful toward you, and I’ve shut you out because of it. I shouldn’t have done that; I’m sorry”.

I shook my head, but she squeezed my hands and said, “No, Tom, please don’t dismiss it. I need you to forgive me”.

I looked at her in silence for a moment, and then I nodded and said, “I forgive you. But if we’re talking about forgiveness, I’m the one who needs to ask for it more than you. I’m sorry for all the bad decisions I’ve made about my schedule; I’m sorry for making you feel like you were less important to me than music and gigging and work and all the other things in my life. Like I said, I was foolish enough to think I could have it all, and now I know I can’t; I have to choose what I want the most and let some of the other stuff go. I’m sorry it took me so long to see that, Kelly”.

She raised one of my hands to her lips. “I forgive you”, she whispered, “and if I feel the resentment again tomorrow, I’ll forgive you then too, and I’ll concentrate on doing what I can to make things better”.

“So will I”, I said, and when I looked at her again I saw that her eyes were wet. I reached out my hand and wiped a single tear from her cheek; “I love you”, I said.

“I love you too”.

“Come over here”.

She got up from her chair, moved over and sat down again across my lap, and I put my arms around her and pulled her close, feeling her head come down on my shoulder. “Mmm”, she said; “I like this spot”.

“It’s yours whenever you want it”.

“Good to know”. She kissed me on the neck; “I’m tired”, she said, “and I’m going to be even more tired in a few hours when the alarm goes off, but do you think we could just sit here for a few minutes and hold each other?”

“We can sit here for as long as you like”, I replied.

When I saw Darren at school the next morning I asked him if he could meet us over at Joe and Ellie’s place that night; I had already asked Ellie on the phone if we could get together and talk about the future of our band. For a moment she didn’t reply, and then she said, “I know what this is about, Tom”.

“You’ve already had this conversation with Joe?”

“I have”.

“Are we okay?”

“We are”. She was quiet for a moment, and then she said, “We’ve been living in a fantasy, but it’s time for the fantasy to end”.

“Yes, I’m afraid it is. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it”.

“Me too”.

We sat in Joe and Ellie’s living room while the kids watched The Lion King in the basement. Ellie had made a pot of decaf coffee; she handed around the mugs, and then she broke the news to Darren. “Tom and I have to pull out of this musical partnership, Darren”, she said; “We’ve both realized over the past few days that we’ve been doing serious damage to our families by being away so much”.

“It’s not that we haven’t enjoyed it”, I added, “and it’s not that we haven’t enjoyed having you play with us”.

He nodded; “Actually, I’ve been expecting this”, he said.

“You have?” Ellie replied.

“Yeah. I knew in my heart that it wasn’t sustainable. And to be honest, it wasn’t really what I had in mind when I came here, either”.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I didn’t move to Meadowvale so that I could spend time in Saskatoon; I came here because I wanted to live in a small town and get in touch with my roots”.

“So you’re okay with this?”

“I am, Tom. And I have to apologize for kicking up the pace the way I did. We can still get together and play music from time to time, right?”

I looked at Kelly, and she nodded; “Singarounds, jams, even the occasional summer fair”, she said to Darren. “I’m just tired of spending so many Saturday nights as a music widow in my own home”.

“Understood. And again, my apologies”.

“Let’s all chalk one up to experience”, Joe said quietly, putting his hand on Ellie’s. “Darren, you’ve taken this one like a real gentleman. On behalf of my sister and me, thank you”.

“No”, Darren replied, “Thank you – for being honest, and for helping me see what’s important. This has been a good lesson for me”.

“It’s been a good lesson for all of us”, Ellie said.

“I need to talk to Leanne”, I said to Kelly that night, as we were lying in bed together, holding each other.

“Yeah, you do”, she replied.

“I’d thought I could just give her the cold shoulder and assume she would get the message, but I’ve been thinking about it, and I don’t think that’s the Christian way”.

“No, I think you’re right”.

“You’re okay with me having it out with her?”

“I am”. She was quiet for a moment, and then she kissed me and said, “Tom, the other night I said some really unkind things to you, about you welcoming Leanne’s advances, and about you pulling back from me. I shouldn’t have said those things. I was just scared – scared that I was losing you, and maybe just a little bit scared that you might secretly have been wishing that you had taken her up on what she was offering”.

“I understand, and it’s not your fault. I’m the one who messed things up, and I realize it’s going to take time for me to build it up again so that you feel secure”.

“You’re okay with that?”

“I wish it wasn’t necessary, but I know it’s the way it has to be”.

“Thank you”, she whispered.

I kissed her forehead and tightened my arms around her.

I sent Leanne an email asking her to stop by my classroom the next day at about ten to five, if she was free. I was marking Grade 12 essays when she came in; she pulled up a chair, sat down across my desk from me, and said, “Hi, Tom”.


“You wanted to see me?”

“Yes, I did”.

“I guess you talked to Kelly, did you?”

“I did. I thought at first that I should just do my best to avoid you and give you the cold shoulder, but it didn’t take me long to realize that wasn’t a good idea. We have to work together, and anyway, it’s not the right way to go about it”.

“I appreciate that”.

We were both quiet for a moment, avoiding each other’s gaze; I had been thinking all day about what exactly I should say to her, but now that the moment had arrived, I found that foresight had failed and I was still searching for the right words. Eventually I said, “Well, as I said the other night, I’m going to have to pull back from our friendship for a while”.

“I understand; I’m not surprised that Kelly was angry”.

I looked at her for a moment, and then I said, “You must understand that I’m not going to tell you anything about the things Kelly and I discussed”.

“Of course”. She looked away toward the windows, and again there was an awkward silence, until she said, “Do you want me to stop working on the play with you?”

“No, of course not. I don’t want to embarrass you in front of the staff and students, and I don’t want to do anything that would cause awkward questions to be asked”.

“Thank you”. She hesitated for a moment, and then said, “Are you going to say anything to Will?”


I could see that she was surprised; “You’re not?” she said.


“I appreciate that, Tom”.

“No need. As I said, I don’t want to embarrass you”.

“Thank you. And once again, I’m really sorry”.

“And as I said the other night, apology accepted”.

“Is there anything else?”


She got to her feet. “Okay; I’d best be going, then”. She turned and walked toward the door, but then she stopped and turned around again. “Please tell Kelly that I’m sorry”, she said in a small voice; “I hope some day she can forgive me”.

“I’ll tell her”, I replied, “but the forgiveness might take a while”.

“I understand”, she said softly, and then she turned and left my classroom.

Posted in Fiction, Meadowvale, Meadowvale (Revised) | Leave a comment

Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing (a sermon on Mark 7:1-23)

One of my favourite quotes from Stephen Covey is ‘The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing!’ It always pulls me up short, because I recognize that so many times in my life I’ve failed to do that. I’ve allowed myself to get distracted, and so I’ve ended up spending my time and energy on stuff that’s not really important.

In our Gospel for today Jesus is invited by the Pharisees to get involved in an argument about stuff that’s not really important. At least, that’s what Jesus thought of it, but of course, one of the things Christians often disagree about is how important our particular disagreements are! One person will say, “That’s a fairly minor thing, isn’t it?” and the other will be astonished and say, “Minor! What are you talking about? It’s fundamental!”

It’s amazing how many of the arguments in Christian congregations are about things that God apparently has no opinion about. Should we sing old hymns accompanied by organs, or rock songs accompanied by electric guitars? Should ministers lead services in robes, or in ordinary clothes? What’s the proper way to observe Lent, and is it possible that God might be offended if he hears the word ‘Alleluia’ during that season? And so it goes on. You hear of Christian congregations who are torn apart by arguments about what colour the new sanctuary carpet should be. I even heard of one church where the youth took the offering one day wearing ball caps, and when the smoke had cleared from that one, seven families had left the church.

So we should not be surprised, perhaps, that the issue the Pharisees presented to Jesus was about something that seems trivial to us: washing your hands. Let’s be clear that this wasn’t about hygiene; it was about religious ritual. Before a meal, according to tradition, a person should first of all pour water over their hands with the fingers pointing upwards, and then repeat the process with the fingers pointing down. It was a part of the proper ceremonial at the beginning of a meal, which of course including giving thanks to God, or ‘saying grace’ as we call it.

In the Old Testament, this sort of ritual washing was required only of priests, but in the years before the time of Jesus it had spread to lay people as well – something that God had not commanded – and practising Jews in Jesus’ day were very strict about it. As Mark tells us,

‘For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots and bronze kettles’ (Mark 7:3-4).

So what these very religious Jews had done was to take a ritual custom for priests and make it an essential part of life for anyone who wanted to follow God’s ways. Now the Pharisees were applying this standard to Jesus and his disciples. “You tell us you’ve come to teach us about the Kingdom of God”, they were saying. “Well, surely the Kingdom of God is about obeying God as our King, and over the years our people have developed wise traditions about how to do that. So how come you aren’t following them? It looks as if you’re not speaking on behalf of God after all; you’re setting people a bad example and leading them astray!”

There are two things we need to notice about Jesus’ reply here. The first one is the distinction he makes between the commands of God and human traditions. Let me illustrate that for you by considering another Old Testament commandment: keeping the sabbath. In the Ten Commandments, number four says, ‘Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work’ (Exodus 20:8-10). The command of God is clear: one day in seven is to be kept free from labour so that the people could remember their dependence on God, and give thanks to him.

But of course, we all know how difficult it is to obey that command, and biblical people found it just as hard as we do. What exactly constituted work, they asked? If you cooked your supper, was that work? If you went for a walk on the sabbath, was that work, and if not, how far could you go from home before it was considered work? And how would you define your ‘home’? If you took a pile of your possessions on the day before the Sabbath and dumped them two miles down the road, could you reset the meter at that point and start again?

And so the conversations went on. The intention was good; teachers and scribes were genuinely trying to help people think through the question of how you applied the Law of God to the details of daily life. But gradually, in the minds of ordinary people, these traditions were elevated to the same status as God’s original commandments. And eventually, some people saw them as more important. In other words, they forgot that ‘the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing’!

It would be tempting – and deceptively easy – for us to say, “Well, the difference is that anything in the Bible is God’s commandment and anything outside is a tradition of men”. But there are a couple of problems with that answer. First, if you read the Old Testament carefully you can see evidence that the process of adding traditional interpretations to the original commandments is already present in the scriptures. In the Pentateuch, the first five books, laws are often restated two or three different times in different forms, and they don’t always agree with each other. For instance, laws given in the context of a journey through the desert often needed rethinking when the people were living a settled life in the Promised Land, and we can see evidence of that rethinking in the pages of the Pentateuch.

But an even greater problem is what Mark says in verse 19: ‘Thus Jesus declared all foods clean’. In the Old Testament, all foods were definitely not clean. The Book of Leviticus goes into great detail about the difference between clean and unclean animals; the most famous example of course is the pig, and we all know that to this day religious Jews will not eat pork or anything else that comes from pigs. But pigs are only one item on the list; there are many others, including camels, rock badgers, hares, eagles, vultures, ospreys, lobsters and other shellfish, and most winged insects. Leviticus says that eating these animals is an offence against God’s holiness; God calls us to be holy, but these animals are unclean, so we should avoid them.

But now, says Mark, Jesus ‘declared all foods clean’ – and this only a few sentences after he had condemned the Pharisees and scribes for ‘rejecting the commandment of God’! It’s clear to me that Jesus can’t possibly have seen the food laws in Leviticus as being ‘commandments of God’ on the same level as the Ten Commandments. So it’s not just a simple matter of saying “Stuff that’s in the Bible is God’s command, and later stuff is the tradition of men”. We have to go further than that, and identify what the core teachings of the Bible are. And we need to be honest and admit that it’s not always easy to do this, and Christians don’t always come to the same conclusions.

Jesus gives a particular example of how people in his day ‘rejected the commandment of God in order to keep their tradition’; it seems very obscure to us today, but apparently it was a live issue in his own time. The Fifth Commandment tells us to honour our father and mother, and obviously Jesus believed that this included the duty of looking after them when they are unable to look after themselves. However, there was apparently a way that children who wanted to avoid this responsibility could do so. They simply declared their wealth to be ‘Corban’, which means, ‘dedicated to God’. Once it was dedicated in this way it couldn’t be given to anyone else, even one’s parents. But obviously the people in Jesus’ time had contrived some legal formula by which they could still use it themselves, even though ostensibly it belonged to God. So in this way a human tradition – the ‘Corban’ idea – was being used as a way of wriggling out of one’s obligations under the clear commandment of God.

We’ve said that we need to ‘keep the main thing the main thing’. Jesus is telling us that this includes never allowing a human tradition, however hallowed it might be, to take precedence over a command of God. This is tough for us; any organisation that’s lasted for two thousand years, as the Christian church has done, is going to develop all kinds of traditions along the way, and some of them we particularly enjoy! Examples of that would include the cycle of the Christian Year – Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent and Easter and Pentecost – and all the customs that have grown up about how we observe the various seasons and festivals. The scriptures have nothing to say about this, but most of us in the Anglican church enjoy it and find it helpful. Fasting during Lent, using an Advent wreath during Advent, using different coloured decorations in the different seasons and so on – these are all examples of the traditions that have evolved over the years.

And they’re fine in their place, as long as we ‘keep the main thing the main thing’! The purpose of these traditions is to help us lead the Gospel life – loving God and our neighbour, seeking first the Kingdom of God, avoiding greed and excessive wealth, caring for the poor and needy, loving our enemies and forgiving those who hate us, and so on. When our traditions help us do that, they are a blessing to us. But when they take on a life of their own – when they become ‘a thing’ in their own right – when they loom larger in our minds than spreading the gospel and caring for the poor – then they become a trap. And we need to be very careful about this.

But before we finish, I need to point out one other issue Jesus mentions in this reading: the issue of clean and unclean. It relates to the Pharisees’ original question: how come he and his disciples weren’t performing the hand washing rituals? How come, according to Jewish tradition, they were eating with ‘unclean’ hands?

To religious Jews, as I’ve said, this wasn’t just about hand washing; it extended to what you ate as well. The Old Testament has lists of foods that were considered ‘unclean’. It wasn’t just that they were unhygienic; there was something about them that made them unholy, so that a person who ate them had to go through elaborate cleansing rituals before they could go into the sanctuary to pray to God.

But this is not just about food; it’s much bigger than that. Judaism in the time of Jesus tended to see evil as something ‘out there’; religious people had to be careful to avoid it, or they might get infected. This even extended to human beings; you should stay away from sinners, because they might infect you. Sharing meals with prostitutes and tax collectors, as Jesus was doing, was a dangerous thing; bad company spoils good morals.

But Jesus had an entirely different attitude. Evil isn’t something that comes at me from ‘out there’; rather, evil comes from within. Look at verses 20-23:

And (Jesus) said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person”.

In other words, evil is not out there – it’s in here. The problem isn’t that I’m being infected by poison from outside; the problem is that I’ve got a poisoned well inside me that needs to be made clean.

This is what Christianity means by the doctrine of ‘original sin’. That doctrine often gets a bum wrap today, and perhaps ‘original sin’ isn’t the best way to describe it. Some people think it means that the original sin was sex; other people think it means that God holds the entire human race to blame for the original sin of taking fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But what it actually means is that since the first human beings chose to disobey God, evil and sin have infected all of us. It’s like a DNA fault – our coding has been damaged, and we all find ourselves behaving in ways we’re ashamed of. It’s as if sin has become natural to us, and holiness is very, very hard.

So how is that damaged coding going to be fixed?

It is the universal testimony of Christians down through the centuries that will-power alone can’t change fix it. You know what I mean. You say to yourself “Right! I know what my problem is! I need to forget about changing others and start changing myself! So I’m going to make some resolutions and keep them, and make myself into a different person”. That’s where the problem starts. It’s much easier to make resolutions than to keep them!

Jesus gives us a list of evils here: ‘fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly’. But there’s another list, that Saint Paul gives us in his letter to the Galatians. He says, ‘Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh’ (v.16). A bit later on in the same chapter he says ‘The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control’ (vv.22-23).

I like this list a lot better! I think if we were all growing in these qualities, the world would be a very different place! But notice that Paul calls them ‘the fruit of the Spirit’. In other words, they aren’t just a result of turning over a new leaf or trying our best to be good; rather, they come as we pray each day for the Holy Spirit to fill us and help us to do what we can’t do by ourselves. It’s not that we do nothing, of course; it’s just that we don’t try to do it by ourselves. Transformation of character is something that we need God’s help with, and God is ready and willing to give us that help.

The other thing about ‘fruit’, of course, is that it doesn’t grow instantly. I can’t give you three infallible keys to holiness that will produce results by next Friday. Fruit takes time to grow and ripen, and it’s the same with the fruit of the Spirit. Transformation of character is the work of a lifetime; we’re never going to get done with it until we see God face to face.

I started out by saying that ‘the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing’. What is the main thing? Jesus taught that the main thing is the Kingdom of God, and the Kingdom spreads one heart at a time, as human beings come to God in faith, and as they ask him to heal them of evil and sin and help them live lives of love and compassion, of mercy and justice.

The problem is not out there; rather, the problem is in me. Leo Tolstoy once said ‘Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no-one thinks of changing himself’. Let us ask God to help us to change from the inside out, by a daily infilling of his Holy Spirit. Then instead of the world’s evil coming into us and polluting us, God’s goodness will spread out through us to change the world. And that, I’m quite sure, is ‘the main thing’.

Posted in Bible, Christian living, Following Jesus, Jesus, Sermons | Leave a comment

Meadowvale (revised): Chapter Thirty

I’ve gone through the ‘Meadowvale’ story and done a rewrite; I’m posting the revised chapters here at the rate of about two a week. The originals are still on this site (go to ‘Meadowvale’ in the sidebar) in case you want to compare! Enjoy!

“People are talking”, Will said to me.

He and I were sitting out on his back deck in the cool of a late August evening, drinking iced tea and watching Sally and Kelly picking raspberries with Emma in the garden patch at the back of the yard. Sally had called me mid-morning with the usual invitation; “Will’s barbecuing tonight”, she said, “and he says he needs you to help him finish off the three beers in the fridge!” So we had wandered over to their house late in the afternoon after Kelly got home from work; it had been a very hot day, and we were all dressed in shorts and tee-shirts, but now in the evening the mosquitos were coming out, and Sally had found long-sleeved shirts for the raspberry pickers to wear. There was a citronella candle burning on the deck, but Will and I still found ourselves swatting at the occasional mosquito.

“Talking about Donny, you mean?” I asked.

“Yeah – and Brenda and Gary, of course”. Brenda and her children had moved up to Meadowvale the week before, and for the time being they were staying out at Hugo and Millie’s farm while Brenda looked for work.

I sipped at my iced tea; “Small towns can be cruel sometimes”, I said.

“They don’t mean to be. Well, maybe they do when it comes to Donny”.

“I don’t imagine he’ll ever move back here”.

“I wouldn’t think so”.

I glanced across at him; “Were you talking about people in general, or a specific group of people?” I asked.

“Church people”.

I nodded; “I had heard something about that, but I’m not really connected to the older crowd, at least, not since your mum died”.

“It’s not just the older crowd. And I don’t think they’d talk to you about it; there’s a general feeling in the church that you and Kelly are supportive of Donny”.

I stared at him; “Are we dividing up over this, Will?” I asked.

“I sure hope not”.

“Me too. I’ve learned a lot about Christlikeness from the people in our church; I’d hate to think that was going to change after all these years”.

He sighed, and sat back a little in his chair. “They’re just people, Tom. They’ve been reading the Bible all their lives, and they’ve always thought this is wrong, and of course they don’t really understand it either, and they’re scared of it”.

For a moment I didn’t reply; I was watching Emma holding an empty ice-cream pail in her hand and dropping raspberries into it as she picked them. Eventually I said, “What do you think? You’ve never told me”.

“I think that I love my brother and I love my nephew”.

“I’ve never doubted that”.

“I’m not happy that people are getting all bent out of shape about this, but do I think it’s okay for Donny to be living with a gay partner? Probably not. I think the Bible’s pretty clear about it, and I don’t think I can find a way to wiggle out of it, although I sometimes wish I could”. He looked at me; “What about you? What do you think?”

“I don’t know what to think. I’m a relatively new Christian compared to you guys, and I wasn’t raised on all these Bible passages. When I was a boy in school we never heard about homosexuality, and when we did, it was all derogatory – I hope to God there weren’t any closeted gay kids in my class, because if there were, they would have heard some pretty nasty comments. At university it was a little different, but still, I think a lot of people were uncomfortable with it”.

“Did you and Owen talk about it when you were in university? You guys had all kinds of discussions”.

“Yeah, but not about that. Of course, in the past couple of months we’ve had conversations about it”.

“What does he think?”

“Well, he goes to a strong evangelical Anglican church; they take the Bible pretty much at face value, as far as I can tell. Not that I’m against the Bible; Kelly and I read it together every night, and we’ve both been doing some extra reading lately, too”.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah”. I frowned; “This whole thing with Donny has made me realize that there’s a lot I don’t know about the Bible, even though I’ve read it all the way through two or three times since I became a Christian. So I’ve been doing a lot of reading in the Old Testament over the past few weeks. Rob’s lent me a couple of his commentaries; they’re pretty heavy going, but I’m getting a lot out of them. It’s slow reading, though. And Kelly’s been reading the Bible like crazy ever since the kids started coming round to our house on Sunday nights”.

“I’ll bet they raise some tough issues”.

“Sometimes they do, but it’s all good, Will; those kids are one of the best things that ever happened to Kelly and me”.

“I hear Dan really likes that group”.

“That’s what he says, although it still surprises me; he’s almost the last kid I would have thought would want to be part of anything like that. But he keeps on coming back, and he brings more questions with him every time”.

“Might be something to do with the fact that you two love those kids, and they all know it”, he replied.

“Well, I guess that’s true, Kelly especially”, I said, watching my wife with her hair tied back under her ball cap, her arms and legs brown from a summer spent outdoors, laughing with Emma as they picked raspberries together. I shook my head; “It’s still kind of amazing to me, the way that group just came at us out of left field, when we weren’t really looking for anything like that”.

“Kind of like an answer to prayer, though”.

I nodded; “It really is”.

“Kelly gets to be the clan mother”.

“Yeah, and it’s not like she’s trying to make herself believe that they’re really her kids or anything; she knows they’re not”.

“I know. It’s like being a grandparent”, he said with a grin; “You’ve got all this love inside you, and you get to pour it out on them and spoil them rotten, and then send them home again so their parents can deal with the consequences!”

I chuckled and said, “Yeah, I guess that’s true with that group, although Beth’s over at our place a lot more often than the others”.

“She’s a sweet kid”.

“She really is. I think if Don and Lynda put her up for sale, Kelly would pay top dollar for her”.

He laughed again; “I don’t think that’s going to happen. Much as Bethie loves you two, she’s pretty devoted to her mom and dad”.

“And her grandma”.

“Yeah, it’s funny, isn’t it? Rachel can be a little severe sometimes, but Bethie doesn’t seem to bring out that side of her”.

We were quiet for a moment, each thinking our own thoughts. I sipped at my iced tea, held the glass in my lap, and said, “Eleven years since I moved here, and I still get overwhelmed sometimes by the size of the family I married into”.

“Your dad’s family’s on the big side, too, isn’t it? Doesn’t he have three siblings”.

“Yeah, and I have six cousins, or rather, I had six, but one died of crib death when she was a baby, so now there are five, plus Rick and Becca and me. But our families were never close; well, even my own brother and I aren’t very close! But here, Kelly’s close to aunts and uncles and cousins and second cousins and so on, on both sides of the family; sometimes it feels like I’ve got at least twenty brothers and sisters-in-law!”

“You seem to enjoy it”.

“I do, to the point that when I go back to England it feels strange to be so isolated. I guess I’ve become a Reimer at heart”.

“Don’t tell Becca that”.

“She knows it; in fact, she’s the one that first pointed it out to me. Not that that means anything to her and me”.

“Yeah, you guys are kind of like Erika and Donny; they’ve always had that older sister and little brother thing going”.

“I thought about that earlier in the summer”. I frowned; “You know, it’s not that we’ve ever ignored Erika, but she and Kelly weren’t really close”.

“Not like with Brenda”.

“No, but over the past few weeks that’s changed. Kelly says it’s kind of like she’s seeing for the first time what an outstanding person Erika really is”.

“Erika never makes a fuss, but she always does what needs to be done. She’s been like that every since she was a kid”.

“Yeah, I can see that. She and Kelly have been spending a lot more time together since the family reunion. Not that Kelly’s neglecting Bren or anything”.

“Does Brenda know what she’s going to do yet?”

“She’s been asking around at various businesses in town; she’s got a good head on her shoulders for that kind of thing. I think she’s been talking to Blaine at the Co-op, actually”.

“About the Deli?”

“I don’t know”.

“I sure hope she finds something”.

“She’s going to need an income; divorce doesn’t come cheap”.


“Mind you, Glenn’s going to represent her and I’m sure he’s not charging her his full rate”.

“I don’t know if he ever does; that man’s too honest to be a rich lawyer”.

“Yeah”. I paused, and then said, “How are Hugo and Millie doing, Will?”

“It’s been a tough summer for them”.


He was quiet for a moment, and then he said, “When Hugo and I were growing up, I don’t think we knew a single divorced person. I’m sure there were unhappy marriages, but you never talked about that stuff; you kept it in the privacy of your own home. And, of course, we never heard about homosexuality, and we certainly didn’t know any gay or lesbian people, or at least, if we did, we didn’t know they were gay or lesbian. Now, of course, times are changing, and Mennonites divorce a lot more often. Still, I sometimes wonder whether my brother feels like Job”.

“Charlie used to say, ‘Troubles come in tribes’”.

He laughed softly; “That’s right, he did say that. I miss that old geezer”.

“Me too”.

“But getting back to Hugo and Millie, it’s ten years this past May since Corey died, and I don’t think they’ve really ever gotten over that. And now, in short order, a marriage breakup, and a son who’s a gay man”. He looked across at me; “Hugo’s walking like he’s carrying a fifty pound weight on his shoulders”.

“I’ve noticed that”.

“Although”, he added, “I have to say, he and Millie are really glad Donny’s talking to them again. Much as they struggle with this homosexuality thing, they’re relieved to be in regular contact with him”.

“I can imagine”. I was quiet for a moment, and then I said, “It’s strange, isn’t it? Just a few verses from the Bible causing so much grief to people”.

“Some people would say it’s more than a few verses; it’s all the teaching about marriage and family too”.

“Yeah, I know; I’ve had this conversation with Rob”.

“You and Rob have talked about this?”


“How did that go?”

“Okay, I think. He doesn’t want this to become a big issue, but he thinks it might be difficult to stop it. I find that curious, personally, given that Donny’s not even a member of our church”.

“No, but he used to be, and all his family are”.

“Guilt by association? That’s a little harsh, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, it is. Mennonites have their darker side, Tom. Have you ever heard of the ban, or shunning?”


“It goes back to the sixteenth century; it was all part of the Anabaptist desire to have a church that really practiced holiness. Of course, discipleship and sin were always seen in community terms in our tradition; we’ve never really been into minding our own business, you know! The ban was something that happened when someone in a congregation fell into some notorious sin and refused to repent; they would be excommunicated, and the whole congregation would be told to avoid them and have no contact with them. In some traditions, that even included requiring the family members of the person to stay away from them”.

I stared at him; “That’s unbelievable”.

“Still, it’s based on passages in the gospels. ‘If he will not listen to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector’”.

“I suppose, but I still find it hard to believe that Jesus…”

“I know, and for the record, I agree with you. The point I’m making is that we Mennonites have always had our dark side; we’re flawed and imperfect human beings, like anyone else”.

“I guess I haven’t seen much of that since I’ve been going to the church”.

“Well, I’m glad to hear that”.

“So you’re asking me to cut them some slack?”

“Maybe”. He frowned thoughtfully; “The thing is, Tom, I know that Donny needs all the help he can get, and so does Erika. And I know that much as Hugo and Millie struggle with Donny being gay, it really hurts them when church members are talking about it behind their backs. So please don’t get the impression that I’m saying you and Kelly shouldn’t stand beside them on this; I’m not. Sally and I are standing beside them too, and we’d be disappointed if you weren’t with us”.

“We’re with you”, I said quietly.

“I know. I’m just saying, don’t be surprised if this gets messy, and if some hurtful things are said. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and that includes members of Meadowvale Mennonite Church. And it just might be that you and Kelly are about to get some practice in loving those who despitefully use you”.

“Point taken”, I replied.

“And maybe, just maybe, all of us are a little bit right and a little bit wrong on this issue, and we all need to be open to learning more – and, more importantly, to loving more”.

I looked at him for a moment, and then I said, “I don’t often say this, but you are a wise man, Will”.

“Now you’re giving me a big head”.

“No, I don’t think so”.

At that moment Emma ran up the steps to the deck, came over to me and showed me her ice cream pail, full to the brim. “Look how many I picked!” she said with a grin.

“Wow; there’s enough there for all of us!”

“That’s the plan”, Kelly replied, coming up the steps behind Emma; “We’re going to take them in and run them under the tap, and then serve up raspberries and ice cream. Think you can handle that?”

“If I’m pushed”, I replied with a smile.

She leaned over and kissed me gently on the forehead. “Big enough push?” she asked.


She bent and kissed me on the lips; “How about that?”


Will laughed; “Will you guys please get a room?” he said.

Kelly straightened and grinned at him; “What’s the matter, Dad – are you seriously trying to tell me that you and Mom never shared the occasional passionate embrace in front of your kids?”

“Oh yeah!” Sally exclaimed on her way through the door into the house. “Come on, let’s get these raspberries washed up!”

That September, Darren Peterson moved to Meadowvale. He had earned a good degree from Yale and spent a year teaching at a high school not far from New Haven, but he had always known that eventually he would want to move to a small town, and something about his visit to Meadowvale for his grandfather’s funeral had awakened in him a desire to explore his family roots in Saskatchewan. Also, as he said to me a few weeks later with a smile, he had never forgotten how much he enjoyed the singaround at our house.

Pat Bellamy, who had taught chemistry and biology at our school for over twenty years, had retired at the end of June and moved to Vancouver Island, where her husband had wanted to move ever since he retired as our bank manager two years before. “It’s not that Pat’s not a good teacher”, Don Robinson said to me once, “It’s just that she has an incredible talent for seeing the cloud that’s attached to every silver lining”. We had all contributed to a retirement gift for her, and some of us had prayed fervently that we might find someone to take her place who would make the science labs a more cheerful environment for learning.

Will had told me early in the summer that Darren had got the position, so I was not surprised to see him at the school on the first working day of the year. I had arrived a little earlier than usual and had stopped by Don Robinson’s room for a few minutes for a chat before heading into the staff room to get a cup of coffee. There were already a few teachers gathering there, and I noticed Darren immediately; he was sporting a new goatee, and his curly hair was cut a little shorter than I remembered. He gave me an easy smile when he saw me; we shook hands, and I said, “Somehow I wasn’t surprised to hear that you’d applied for Pat’s job”.

“No, I think I knew when I left after Grandpa’s funeral that I’d be back”.

“Just bio and chemistry, though – not music”.

“Well, I’ll see what I can do informally. I know there’s already a music teacher on staff, but I can always help out”.

“How are your mum and dad?”

He shrugged; “Okay, I guess”.

“Not too happy about your move?”

He shook his head; “We had some tense conversations”.


He looked down; “I guess this was never really in their plan for me”, he said quietly.

“So they had a plan for you?”

“Oh yeah”.

“Maybe it didn’t really involve being a high school teacher in the first place?” I said quietly.

“No, I think they’d have been happier if I’d got a master’s and a doctorate and joined them at Yale or some other Ivy League school”.

“And I imagine your mum has a hard time figuring out why you wanted to move back to the small town she spent so much time wanting to leave”.

He frowned, looked at me and said, “Tom, was my granddad really that bad?”

I thought for a moment, and then, choosing my words carefully, I said, “I think that everything your mum has ever told you about Charlie was probably true, but it wasn’t the whole story. He knew he’d failed her, and in his better moments he wished he could fix that, but when you’ve been digging yourself into the same rut for over half a century, sometimes it’s hard to get out of it”.

“You liked him, didn’t you?”

“I really did. I miss him a lot”.

“I wish I’d known him better; I kick myself now that I didn’t just take the initiative and come out here to visit him”.

“Darren, you made a real difference to the last few weeks of his life”.

“Did I?”

“Yes, you did. I wish you could have seen the look on his face when he showed us your letter and told us about talking to you on the phone. You’ve no idea how much it meant to him that you’d gotten back to him”.

He looked at me for a moment, and then he said, “Thank you, Tom”.

At that moment I saw another familiar face entering the staff room. “Let me introduce you to another old friend of mine”, I said as the newcomer came over to us. “This is Leanne Collins; she’s going to be our new senior high Math teacher”.

Leanne had let her curly hair grow long since I had last seen her; she and Darren shook hands, and then she turned to me with a broad grin on her face and said, “I’m going to have a hard time not calling you ‘Mr. Masefield’!”

We gave each other a warm hug, and then I said, “I can’t tell you how pleased I was to hear that you’d got the Math position; I’d always suspected that you’d come back here eventually”.

“You two have known each other for a while, then?” Darren asked.

“I’m from Meadowvale”, Leanne said; “Tom was my senior high English teacher”.

“Ah – have you been teaching somewhere else?”

“Yeah; after I got my degree I taught in North Battleford for four years, but I’ve wanted to come back here for a while. How about you; where are you from?”

“New Haven, Connecticut, but my mom was born right here; Charlie Blackie was my grandfather”.

“No kidding! I don’t think I knew Charlie had any kids”.

“My mom left Meadowvale years ago, and we weren’t back very often”.

“Are you staying at Wilf and Mabel’s?” I asked Leanne.

She nodded; “For now anyway; I was thinking of getting a house of my own, but they’re both slowing down a lot, and Grandma needs some help around the place”.

“Do you think they’ll be able to keep the farm much longer?”

“That’s the big question”, she replied; “Grandpa doesn’t want to discuss it at the moment, but of course, it can’t be put off forever. My Grandpa’s seventy-three”, she explained to Darren; “He’s been a farmer all his life, but his arthritis is really bad now, and he’s having a hard time keeping up with the place”.

“He doesn’t have any kids waiting to take it over?” Darren asked.

“Unfortunately no, so leaving would mean selling the place, which he’s reluctant to do”.

“Do your parents live around here?”

Leanne hesitated for the briefest of moments, and then said, “My dad died ten years ago; he and I were living with my grandparents at the time. My mom lives out in Alberta”.

“I’m sorry”, he replied awkwardly; “I really shouldn’t have…”

“Don’t worry about it”, she said; “My story’s no secret in this town”.

“I hear you’re renting Ron Ratzlaff’s place, Darren”, I said.

“Yeah, I am. Will’s been really kind to me; he found me that place to rent, and put a few pieces of furniture in it, although I’ve got some of my own too, of course”.

I grinned; “This sounds exactly like the story of my arrival in Meadowvale eleven years ago; I rented that place, too, and Will and Sally took me under their wing and helped me out”.

I noticed Don Robinson slipping into the room; “Staff meeting starts in five minutes, folks”, he said in a loud voice, “So grab your coffee and come on down”.

“Have you met our Vice-Principal yet?” I asked Darren.

“No, I don’t think I have”.

I waved Don over to where we were standing. “I call him the Heir Apparent”, I said with a grin; “Don, this is Darren Peterson, our new Chemistry and Biology teacher. Darren, Don Robinson, who teaches Social Studies and also moonlights as our Vice-Principal. He’s been here as long as the grass has grown and the rivers have run”.

“You’re getting a little long in the tooth yourself, Tom Masefield!” Don replied as he shook hands with Darren. “Good to meet you, Darren; you’re the Yale grad, right?”

“Yeah, that would be me. Do I dare ask why Tom calls you the ‘Heir Apparent’?”

“Because he’s the only one around here who thinks it’s a done deal that I’ll become the principal when Will retires”.

“Is Will retiring soon?”

“Well, he just turned sixty-two; in theory he could retire at any time, but he’s made it generally known that he plans to go on until he’s sixty-five. By which time there will be at least one other credible candidate around here, a guy from Oxford by the name of Masefield”.

I laughed; “I’m a lousy administrator and you know it! Anyone who’d appoint me principal of this school would have to be more than a little crazy!”

“Ah, but things can change in three years, as I keep saying”. He turned to Leanne with a smile; “Well, here’s a familiar face!” he said.

“Nice to see you again, Don!” she replied; “Like I said to Tom, I’m going to have a hard time to remember not to call you ‘Mr. Robinson’!”

“Well, if I really was the Heir Apparent, I would of course encourage fear and trembling in my presence, but since I’m just the Social Studies teacher and part-time Vice-Principal, I’ll encourage you to call me ‘Don’!”

“I’ll try to remember that!”

  “Okay, folks”, he said; “let’s grab our coffee and head on down”.

Years later, when she was a teenager, Emma had Darren Peterson as her biology and chemistry teacher. “The thing that makes him such a great teacher”, she said to me one day in her grade 12 year, “is that he really, really loves science. When you’re doing chemistry experiments in his class, it’s like he’s seeing the results for the first time, even though he’s probably seen them hundreds of times before. And when he’s explaining things to you in bio, he sounds like he was Charles Darwin on the voyage of the ‘Beagle’, you know, making all these amazing discoveries about how life works and then coming back to share them with the class!”

Emma knew by the time she was eleven or twelve that she wanted to be a nurse, like her mother, and at that age it was certainly Kelly’s influence that was attracting her to the idea, but I know that it was due to Darren’s excitement about his subject that she came to be fascinated with the human body and how it works, and that fascination stayed with her. When I asked her years later about Darren’s influence on her choice of careers, she nodded and said, “He was certainly one of the best teachers I had in high school. Well, after you, of course!”

“Are you sure he came after me? You did become a nurse, not a writer or a poet or an English teacher!”

“True enough, but you did succeed in making a guitarist out of me”.

I shook my head; “That was your initiative, not mine. You’d been watching me pretty closely since you were two or three, and you weren’t even nine years old when you first came to me and asked me to teach you to play”.
“I remember that. That was when you bought me that kid-sized guitar”.

“You were pretty excited about that”.

“Yeah, I can still remember you helping me make the chord shapes with my hands. You and Beth”.

“She taught you quite a bit”.

“You were both good teachers, Dad”.

“You didn’t seem to need much teaching; you had a pretty good idea of what you wanted to play, and after a while, I just got out of the way”.

Darren’s arrival in Meadowvale introduced a new element into the music that Ellie and I were making. We had been playing together as a two-person band for five years now, and our repertoire was a good blend of Ellie’s bluegrass songs and my traditional English and Irish folk music. The two of us had both grown as musicians; we had come to appreciate and enjoy each other’s styles, Ellie had become much more confident as a singer, and for several years now she had been writing songs of her own, which we including regularly in our repertoire. We had also become good friends, a friendship cemented on the car rides between Meadowvale and Saskatoon when we were going down to play at open stages or gigs. During the summer we usually played at several agricultural fairs and country gospel gatherings around our area, and we had become quite well known.

Ellie was very excited about Darren’s arrival in Meadowvale; she remembered his mandolin playing at the singaround at our house two summers ago, and a couple of Saturdays after school started the three of us got together at Joe and Ellie’s house to have a jam. Kelly and Joe watched the kids in various places in the house and the yard while Ellie and Darren and I sat together in the living room for a couple of hours, drinking coffee and playing songs together.

“You’ve got an amazing repertoire”, Ellie said to him when we were packing up the instruments. “How old did you say you were?”

He laughed; “Twenty-four”.

She smiled at me; “The same age you were when you moved here”.

“Yeah, and he’s living in my old house, too”.

We laughed, and she said, “Seriously, Darren, you’ve been playing mandolin and banjo for what, four years, now? Don’t tell me you tried to play bluegrass songs on the piano before that?”

“I did, actually”, he replied with a sheepish grin, “but they didn’t sound as good as my Bach or Mozart stuff, so I decided to buy a mandolin”.

“Pretty nice mandolin”.

“Yeah, I was lucky there. At the time my parents didn’t know it would lead me to the Appallachians and away from their master plan for my future, so they were happy to help me buy it”.

There was an awkward silence for a moment, and then Kelly, who had slipped into the living room to listen to the last couple of songs we played, said, “Something else you and Tom have in common”.


“Tom’s parents helped him buy that guitar he’s playing”.

“That’s right”, I replied; “I got it second hand from a guy I knew in a folk club in Oxford, but still, it’s a Martin, and I wouldn’t have been able to afford it if Mum and Dad hadn’t helped me with the money. Well, Mum mainly, though I suspect she extracted a little money from Dad to help”.

“Are you guys going to play together some more?” Kelly asked.

Darren looked at us hesitantly; “I don’t want to push my way into the thing you guys have going”, he said. “You’re an established act, and…”

Ellie and I looked at each other, and I saw in her face that she was excited by the thought. “Why don’t you join us for a couple of gigs and open stages”, I suggested to Darren, “and we’ll see how it goes?”

“Well, if you’re sure”.

“As I said, let’s give it a try”.

Kelly and I went out for a quiet supper for our ninth wedding anniversary in the middle of the week before Thanksgiving. True to form, Will and Sally invited Darren to join them for Thanksgiving dinner on the Sunday night, “Unless you’re doing something with the Blackies, of course”, Will added.

Darren shook his head; “They’re still a little awkward around me. They don’t quite know what to do with the fact that I don’t drink”.


“Yeah, I’m a teetotaller”.

“That’s not something you hear very often”.

“Well, it’s the way I was raised, I guess. I think Mom got put off years ago when Grandpa was still drinking, and she just had a real phobia around it, so we never had alcohol in the house. I tried it a few times when I was a teenager, of course, and I even got drunk with the guys once, but it never really did anything for me, so in the end I decided I was quite happy without it”.

“Fair enough”.

There was certainly no alcohol served with Thanksgiving dinner at Hugo and Millie’s house that year; Donny had spent September in a thirty-day treatment program, and in the ten days since he got out he had attended three or four A.A. meetings. Hugo and Millie had invited him to bring Alan up for Thanksgiving dinner; it would be the first time Alan had visited Meadowvale or met any of Donny’s family except for Erika, and Erika told us ahead of time that there was a certain amount of apprehension on both sides. “It’s a stretch for Mom and Dad, of course”, she said, “but they love Donny, and they’re really trying hard to understand him. And it’s a stretch for Donny and Alan, as a gay couple going out into the wilds of conservative rural Saskatchewan – conservative Mennonite rural Saskatchewan, that is”.

“How about you and John?” Kelly asked gently.

Erika shook her head; “Do you mind if we don’t go there, Kelly?”

“Of course not. Do you mind me asking, are Donny and Alan staying over?”

“No, they’re driving back to the city. There isn’t really room at Mom and Dad’s, with Brenda and the kids still being there, and…”

“And I expect it would be even more of a stretch for your mom and dad to give them a room, with a double bed”.

“Yeah, I think so”.

Kelly and I glanced at each other, and then I said, “You don’t talk about it specifically, Erika, but it’s obvious that it would be problematic for them to stay at your place too. Another time, let them know that they’re welcome to stay with us”.

“Are you sure?” she asked softly. “You know there might be trouble in the church if it gets around, right?”

“Not with everyone”, Kelly replied; “There are a few people who are getting bent out of shape about it, and some others who are struggling, and then there are people who think the law of love overrides all that”.

Erika was quiet for a moment, and then she stepped forward impulsively, kissed Kelly on the cheek, and gave her a hug. “I appreciate this”, she said, “but I want you to think very, very carefully about it. Tom, you’re involved in music ministry in the church, and the two of you do an amazing job with those young people, including my son. You need to think very carefully about whether you want to put all of that at risk. Donny and Alan aren’t asking for a place to stay; it’s only an hour and fifteen minutes to Saskatoon, and it’s no problem for them to drive home after a visit here. They know you’ve been supportive, and they appreciate it, but I don’t think they’d want you to be on the receiving end of any sort of nastiness as a result of something like this”.

“You’re really worried about this, aren’t you?” Kelly said.

“I honestly am. I’m the one in the church who’s most identified with Donny right now, and there have been things said – mainly behind my back, but a couple of times to my face. I don’t regret anything I’ve done, and I’m not about to leave the church over it, but it’s not a comfortable place to be. You two do a lot of good in our church, and I want to see it carry on”.

Kelly was quiet for a moment, and then she said, “Well, we’ll think about it, as you say. But meanwhile, do you think Donny and Alan would come up a little early on Sunday and come over for afternoon coffee with us?”

“I’m sure they’d love to do that. Shall I give you Donny’s email address?”

“That would be great”.

And so it was that Donny and Alan sat with us around our kitchen table on a rainy Thanksgiving Sunday afternoon; Erika came too, and she brought her two youngest children, eleven year old Katelynn and eight year old Dustin, who both disappeared in the general direction of Emma’s room as soon as they got in the door. We heard lots of laughter and the occasional bang or crash, but when Alan looked at me quizzically I said, “Experience would seem to indicate that if one of them gets hurt, one of the others will run out here pretty quickly and let us know about it, and if they don’t, it’s better to leave them to it!”

“Ah, right!” he replied with a grin; “The voice of the seasoned parent, I see!”

Alan was tall and thin, with longish blonde hair and glasses and a quiet demeanour. “It’s a pleasure to meet you”, he had said to Kelly and me when they first arrived; “I’ve heard so much about you”.

“All good, I hope?” I replied with a grin.

“Of course!”

We sat around the table drinking coffee for an hour; Kelly took the lead in asking questions, and as I watched her, I found myself reflecting that she had become much more gentle and tactful about it than she had been when we first met. We discovered that the two of them had gotten to know each other when Donny, or ‘Don’ as Alan called him, first came to work at the Sheaf, and things had slowly gone on from there.

“I’d already been working there for a couple of years”, Alan said. “Like Don, I started out part-time while I was still in university, and I was lucky that a full-time position opened up just as I was graduating. I’d always been interested in the graphics end of it, so that’s where I ended up”.

“Where are you from?” Kelly asked.

“Saskatoon; my parents have lived there for most of their married life. My father teaches political science at the university, and my mother’s the chief curator at the Mendel Gallery”.

“Pretty high profile”, I said.

“I suppose some people would see it that way; of course, I had nothing to compare it with”.

“Do you have brothers or sisters?” Kelly asked.

“I have an older sister who lives in Regina – she’s a social worker – and a younger brother who’s serving with the Canadian Armed Forces”. He gave her a rueful grin; “He’s the rebel in the family”.

“It does seem a little out of keeping with the prevailing ethos”.

“You could say that, but funnily enough, he and I get along fine with each other”.

“Is he serving in Canada?” I asked.

“No, he’s with the UN mission in Rwanda right now”.

“You must be worried”, Kelly said softly.

“Yeah, it’s a pretty volatile situation over there”.

“So you and Don met at the Sheaf”, Kelly said; “Do you mind me asking how that happened?”

Alan glanced at Donny and smiled. “Well, we got talking in the coffee room one day”.

“I had a book in my hand”, Donny said, “and he asked me what I was reading. It was by Jonathan Swift, and Alan knew who he was”.

“Everyone’s read Gulliver’s Travels, haven’t they?” Alan asked with a mischievous grin.

I laughed softly; “As a high school English teacher, I can assure you they haven’t!”

“We started talking about books”, Donny said, “and it kind of went on from there”.

Kelly glanced at Donny; “Do you mind me asking a very personal question?” she said.

“Go ahead”.

“How did you find out that you were both gay?”

“He told me”, Donny replied, “on about our third or fourth coffee conversation. I can’t even really remember how it came up, but I remember being impressed with how open he was about it”.

“Well, I’d been out for a lot longer than you”, Alan said.

“Yeah, I know that now, but I didn’t then”.

Alan smiled at Kelly and me. “What about you two?” he asked; “How did you meet?”

“Well, you know that I teach English at Meadowvale High School”, I said.

“So I’ve been told”.

“Well, Kelly’s Dad’s the principal, and he’s rather gregarious”.

Kelly laughed; “That’s putting it mildly!” she added.

“Anyway, he and his wife invited me over to their place for more meals than I can count when I first got here from England eleven years ago. One of those meals was Thanksgiving. Kelly was home from Jasper, where she was nursing at the time, so that’s when we met – October 10th 1982, eleven years ago yesterday. We got married two years later on the same weekend, so we just celebrated our ninth anniversary on Wednesday”.

“Congratulations”, Alan said.

“Thank you”.

“You’ve gotten quite involved in the Mennonite church here, Don tells me”.

“Yeah, I have. I suppose you’d call me an adult convert”.

“That’s not very common, is it? These days the stories you hear are mostly about people leaving churches, and churches shutting down”.

I shrugged; “I’m not enough of a culture watcher to be able to comment on that. I wasn’t raised in a churchgoing family, but I had a very good friend from high school who was a Christian, and he and I had some good discussions in our school and university years. And then when I met Kelly, I discovered she was on a spiritual journey too”.

“Yeah, I’d left the church for a few years”, Kelly said, “mainly because of questions about science and faith, but I wasn’t finding life without God particularly satisfying; I was hungry for some sort of spiritual element to my life, I guess”.

“So we kind of made that journey together”, I said, “and it ended up with both of us getting baptized early in 1984”.

“Did you find that spiritual element?” Alan asked Kelly.

“Yeah, I did – or rather, I rediscovered it. I’d often had a sense of God’s presence in nature when I was younger, and I’d never really stopped believing in God”.

“It was a little different for me”, I said; “My dad’s an atheist, and he and I had a difficult relationship when I was in my teens and early twenties. Well, I suppose I should be honest and say that we still do. But I think that in my high school and university years, having conversations about Christianity with my best friend was an act of rebelliousness on my part!”

We all laughed, and then Kelly said, “Why do you ask, Alan?”

“Curiosity, I guess. I suppose I’d call myself ‘spiritual, but not religious’; I believe in God, but I’m a little vague about what I mean by that word, and I certainly wouldn’t claim to have ever had any sort of experience of God. Don, of course, was raised in church”.

“Although I haven’t been for quite a while”, Donny said. “People like us don’t exactly get the welcome mat put out for us when we try to go to church”.

“Have you actually been turned away?” Kelly asked softly.

“To be honest, I haven’t really tried”, Donny admitted; “There’s so much noise made in Christian circles about homosexuality being an abomination that I really don’t feel like taking the risk. I have to admit that I miss it, though”.

“Yeah?” Kelly asked.

“Yeah; it’s nice to have a community that supports you in that kind of thing. Of course, when you start experiencing some dissonance between the community’s values and your own, that’s when it gets more complicated”.

A couple of weeks later I was talking with Rob Neufeld after our evening study group at the church, and the topic of Donny and Alan came up. A few people had already left to go home, and a couple of others were clearing up the room where we held the study; Rob and I were in the kitchen washing the dishes and the coffee pot.

“I hear Donny and Alan were in town”, he said to me.

“Yeah, they had Thanksgiving dinner at Hugo and Millie’s, and they were over to our place for coffee for an hour or so in the afternoon”.

“How was it?”

“It was good; Alan seems like a nice enough guy, and they were easy to talk to”. I was washing out the glass carafe of the coffee maker; I rinsed it off and put it on the drying rack, and said, “I don’t hear very much about what’s being said; is it causing trouble?”

“There are people who aren’t happy. John Rempel is definitely one of them, but he’s not really part of the congregation right now. Old Peter Janzen isn’t happy, and neither are George and Elizabeth Penner and John Redekopp”.

“John’s pretty influential in the church”.

“Yes, he is”.

“What exactly is bothering them, Rob? I mean, Donny’s not a member of the church, and all that’s happened so far is that Erika’s kept up her relationship with her brother, and he’s been visiting at Hugo and Millie’s, and once at our place. What are they worried about?”

“I guess they worry that our church is going to compromise its position that homosexual acts are sinful”.

“Is that our position?”

“Well, historically, that’s the view Mennonites have taken. I suspect that not everyone agrees with that, but nothing’s been changed, and if anyone tries to change it, I can’t see anything but trouble ahead. We’re not a tradition that handles diversity of opinion well, Tom; it’s the Achilles heel of the Anabaptist movement. In the past, we’ve tended to make an idol out of the quest for the pure church, and of course, too often ‘the pure church’ becomes ‘the church that agrees with all my opinions on morality and ethics’”.

“But what exactly would constitute ‘compromising our position’? Being kind to people who are different from us?”

He dried the carafe with a towel and replaced it on the coffee maker. “I think some people would have issues with that, yes”, he replied. “They would point to scripture passages about avoiding every appearance of evil, and ‘come out from among them, and be ye separate’, and so on”.

“Are we talking about the ban, or shunning?”

He gave me an intense look; “You’ve been reading about Mennonite history, have you?”

“Will was telling me about it”.

“General Conference Mennonites haven’t practiced the ban or shunning for a long time. Still, there’s a cultural memory of it, but I don’t think anyone in our church has a taste for that sort of thing”.

“I’m glad to hear it”, I replied, dropping a handful of wet teaspoons into the drying tray.

He picked up one of the spoons and began to dry it. “Look, Tom”, he said, “I don’t want this to become an issue between you and me. When it comes to my view on homosexuality, I accept the traditional position that homosexual acts are sinful; that seems to me to be the plain meaning of the biblical texts, and I can’t find a way to wiggle around that. But I fully believe that there is such a thing as a homosexual orientation, and that there are people who live with that, through no choice of their own”.

“How do you square that with the idea that homosexual acts are sinful; is God just being mean to those people?”

“No, of course not, any more than he’s being mean to people who have congenital illnesses. This is a broken and imperfect world, and we can’t read God’s original creation intention out of what we see around us. But what I really want to say, Tom, is that I’m with you and Kelly in wanting to be welcoming and supportive of Donny and Alan, and personally, I think everything that you and Kelly and Erika have done – and Hugo and Millie, too, of course – is right and good”.

“Thanks; I’m really glad to hear you say that”.

“But there is going to be trouble. I’m sure that sooner or later someone’s going to raise the issue of what you and Kelly are teaching in the youth group”.

“The youth group that’s not a youth group, you mean?”

“Yeah, I know where you’re going with that, and I take your point, but not everyone will see it that way”.

“I understand”.

“I just want you to know that I’m going to do everything in my power to hold this church together, while at the same time not compromising my own convictions on both sides of this subject. But it may not be possible for me to hold it together; I’m just one person, and in our Mennonite church polity I don’t have the power to dictate what’s going to happen about this”.


I was pouring out the dishwater now, and he was drying the last of the coffee cups. “Can I ask you something?” he said.

“Of course”.

“Where do you stand on this now?”

I ran some water into the sink, rinsing out the soapsuds. “I’m sitting firmly on the fence”, I said. “Like I said to Kelly and Erika when it first came up, I’ve read the Bible through two or three times since I became a Christian, and I know what it says about gay and lesbian sex. But I have questions, too; I’m not sure whether or not the writers knew that there are some people who are born that way, and I don’t get the sense from the texts that they were talking about committed monogamous relationships. And I also notice that the Bible writers don’t seem that interested in the subject; it doesn’t exactly come up very often. Much less often that lending money at interest, or caring for the poor and needy”.

“Point well taken, and I think I agree with you on that. How does Kelly feel?”

“I think she’s on the same page as me”.

“Forgive me for asking this, Tom – it’s going to seem like I’m prying my way into something that’s none of my business – but have you discussed this issue with the kids that come over to your place?”

“No; it hasn’t come up”.

“And if they raise it, what do you plan to say?”

“Well, as you know, we don’t tend to be in the habit of making pronouncements with that group; we have discussions, and of course Kelly and I share our own opinions, but they get discussed just like everyone else’s”.

“I’m sure they respect your opinions, though”.

“Yes, they do”. I frowned; “How do you want me to answer that question, Rob?”

“Well, I’m certainly not asking you to pretend you’re certain about something you’re not certain about, especially in a group that’s entirely your own, and has no official connection with our church”.

“But a lot of people see it as the church youth group – we know that”.

“They do. I guess I’d expect that if you were asked, you would state your own views, but I’d like it if you would also put the case for the church’s traditional view, and do it in a respectful way”.

I thought for a moment, and then I said, “That would mean that you would have to spend a little more time with me explaining the church’s traditional view”.

“I’d be glad to do that, Tom”.


Posted in Fiction, Meadowvale, Meadowvale (Revised) | Leave a comment

What exactly is ‘Grace’?

If you go to, you will find ‘grace’ defined variously as (among other things) ‘elegance or beauty of form, manner, motion, or action’, ‘a pleasing or attractive quality or endowment’, ‘favor or goodwill’, or ‘mercy; clemency; pardon’.

When we say someone is ‘graceful’, it’s usually ‘elegance or beauty of form, manner, motion or action’ that we have in mind. On the other hand, if we were to say, “It’s only through the dean’s grace that John wasn’t expelled from the program”, it would be ‘mercy, clemency, pardon’ that we were talking about.

I suspect that, although we’re aware of the other meanings and use them from time to time, it’s usually the first that we fall back on: elegance, beauty of form, manner or action. I know this, because when I start talking to people about the Christian idea of ‘grace’, I almost always have to start by saying “I’m not talking about ‘gracefulness’ or ‘elegance’ or anything like that”.

In the Bible, grace is first and foremost the love of God freely poured out on all who need it. We don’t have to earn it or deserve it; it simply comes to us as a free gift from God, because God is love. Jesus told us that God pours out his sun and rain on the righteous and the unrighteous; that’s the kind of God he is.

This morning when I was reading Joe Walker’s old blog ‘Felix Hominum‘ I came across this  section in one of the very first posts he wrote:

Jesus told a simple story about a shepherd who had a hundred sheep. Ninety-nine of them were safe and one got lost. The shepherd set out to look for the lost sheep. Simple story, simple point. The shepherd started looking for the sheep long before the sheep started looking for the shepherd, perhaps even long before the sheep realized it was lost. God starts looking for us long before we start looking for God – that is the beginning of what we mean by grace.

God loves us long before we ever love God. God comes looking for us long before we ever think of looking for God. God is working in our lives long before we’re aware of it. And it’s all a gift, a gift of love, because God is love. For us Christians, that’s what ‘the grace of God’ is all about.

Posted in Core Convictions, God, Gospel, Grace | 2 Comments

Meadowvale (revised): Chapter Twenty-Nine

I’ve gone through the ‘Meadowvale’ story and done a rewrite; I’m posting the revised chapters here at the rate of about two a week. The originals are still on this site (go to ‘Meadowvale’ in the sidebar) in case you want to compare! Enjoy!

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 doing reasonably 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, 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 kinds 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 did not have a shared vision of the road ahead.

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”.

“True enough”.

“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. Actually”, she said with a smile, “we were kind of hoping you would…”

I grinned; “My German’s a little rusty too”, I said.

“It sounded pretty good when you were talking to Jana Schuster and her father last time we were in England”.

“But as she said, Austrian German’s a little different from Low German”.

“Still, you and Dad together…”

I nodded; “I’d be glad to help, although I’m sure your dad’s German is way better than mine. But listen, why don’t you work with us?”

She shook her head; “I really only know a few words, Tom – you know that”.

“All this time you’ve been learning about your ancestors; aren’t you just a little curious about the language they spoke?”

“Well, of course, but…”

“So sit with your dad and I while we’re working on the letter, and if you write back to Justina, sit with us while we translate. You might pick up a little more that way, and who knows what that might lead to?”

She looked at me for a moment, and then she nodded and said, “Okay, I’ll do it. I think I’d enjoy it, actually”.

“Good”. I grinned at her; “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 hopefully when the letter’s been translated we can read it out at the reunion, and she’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 bedside 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 Bren and the kids this week”.

I was astounded; “He left them?” I exclaimed.



“I know”.

“Did you have any idea…?”

“I knew they’d had disagreements, but I didn’t realize how bad things were between them; Bren’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…”

“Bren 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; Bren’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 Bren 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 Bren. 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 Bren 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; Bren 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”.

“Thank you”.

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; “Bren, 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 and Sally 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 my husband Tom have translated it into English for us. 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 almost always use 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!”

“I know”.

“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 her dad and I translated 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 boy. It’s got some differences from the language most Germans speak today”.

“Which is what you speak, is it?”

“I learned modern German in high school, but what I spoke with the Schusters was Austrian German, which is slightly different again. And, you know, ‘A’-level German isn’t necessarily the equivalent of spoken fluency. I don’t think Will really needed my help all that badly; I think actually he wanted to help me with some of the differences between the different forms of the language, so that I can gradually take over doing the translation for Kelly”.

“Right, that makes sense”.

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?”

“They do”.

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?”


“Oh, Erika”.

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 dearly 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 burden 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. “Bren’s right, you know”, she said softly; “You are an awesome sister”.

“Thank you”.

Kelly shook her head, her hand still on Erika’s. “You know that Bren’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 love him so much”.

“I know you do”, Kelly replied; “Why wouldn’t you?”

Posted in Meadowvale, Meadowvale (Revised) | Leave a comment

It’s Not Always As Simple As We Wish (a sermon on John 6:60-71)

If I had a notebook full of ‘things I hear on a regular basis’, one of the sayings at the top of the list would be this one: ‘Jesus preached a simple message about love and brotherhood, and then the Church came along and made it complicated’. And I can understand why people would like to think this is true. After all, a simple Galilean carpenter who went around preaching peace and joy and flower power would be so much less demanding than the Son of God who says things we puzzle over and makes demands we have to come to terms with.

The problem is that the Jesus we read about in the gospels is not as simple as we might think. He says things that cause people to scratch their heads in confusion; he rarely gives a straight answer to a straight question, and when he does speak directly, his words are so challenging that people have been trying for two thousand years to find sophisticated ways of avoiding their obvious meaning. The fact is that Jesus is a challenge – he’s a challenge to understand, and he’s a challenge to follow – and people who are looking for a simple faith that makes few demands on them probably aren’t going to find Jesus very satisfying.

We can see this in our gospel for today, which comes right at the end of John chapter 6. In verse 60, some of Jesus’ disciples comment on what they’ve heard earlier in the chapter: ‘This teaching is difficult’, they say; ‘who can accept it?’ And a few verses later we read that ‘many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him’. The reason is clear: they found his teaching hard to understand, and when they did understand it, they found it so offensive that they didn’t want anything more to do with him.

Let’s take a quick look back at John chapter six, which we’ve been slowly making our way through these past few weeks. The chapter begins with two miracle stories: Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand, and his walking on the water. John tells both of these stories in such a way as to give us a clue about Jesus’ identity. In the Old Testament God fed his people in the wilderness by giving them manna from heaven every day; now Jesus was out in the wilderness with his people, and he fed them in a supernatural way, multiplying the loaves and fishes so that everyone had enough. Later on that night, when he was walking on the water to met his disciples, he said to them, ‘It is I; don’t be afraid’. ‘It is I’ is literally in Greek ‘I am’, which is the name of God in Hebrew – ‘Yahweh’. So by these two miraculous signs John is pointing to Jesus’ identity: he isn’t just a rabbi or a carpenter, but in him the God of Israel has come to visit his people. The two miracles are meant to be signs pointing to this truth.

But the crowd don’t get it; they follow Jesus around the lake because they want a repeat performance of the feeding of the five thousand. They want to take Jesus and make him their king so that he can give them free bread every day. In other words, instead of coming to Jesus and asking him to show them God’s will, they want Jesus to do their will. But Jesus refuses, and he spends the next forty verses or so trying to explain to them the real meaning of the miracle of the loaves: that he himself is the bread of life, and that everyone who comes to him and believes in him will have their spiritual hunger and thirst satisfied.

Jesus then goes on to make it even more complicated and offensive: he says that he is the living bread that came down from heaven, that whoever eats of this bread will live forever, and that the bread he will give for the life of the world is his flesh. When the crowd demands to know how he can possibly give them his flesh to eat, Jesus responds that unless they eat his flesh and drink his blood they cannot have eternal life, but if they do eat and drink as he suggests, they will live forever, and he will make his home in them, and they in him.

It’s not hard for us to see all the ways in which the words of Jesus in this chapter would have been offensive to a first century Jewish crowd. First, we have the audacity of his using the name of God for himself, which would have been blasphemous and idolatrous to them. Second, we have the fact that he would not fit in with their agenda and do something really useful, like giving them bread every day. Third, we have his claim that the bread he would give them was better than the bread that Moses, the great father of the Jewish people, had given to their ancestors; they might well ask of Jesus, ‘Who do you think you are? Do you think you’re greater than Moses?’ Fourth, we have his claim that if people believe in him they will receive eternal life – which sounds fairly innocuous until you think how it would sound if I said it – ‘Hey, all you people of St. Margaret’s, if you believe in me I will give you eternal life’! Fifth and finally, we have the revolting sayings about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, which sound far more like cannibalism than the sort of sober godliness of the Torah and the Ten Commandments.

So this is the real Jesus of the Gospels; his teaching is not simple, but complicated and challenging. It’s not just about how God is our Father and so we’re all brothers and sisters and let’s love one another right now! It’s true that he does say these things, but they are consequences of the central truths he’s trying to get across. In the first three gospels those truths are about the coming of the Kingdom of God, and the truth is that he believed the Kingdom had arrived because he had arrived; in other words, he was God’s anointed king who was bringing in the Kingdom. In John’s Gospel this central place of Jesus in his own message is even clearer, as John has structured his whole gospel around the so called ‘I am’ sayings of Jesus – I am the bread of life, I am the resurrection and the life, and so on.

So becoming a Christian isn’t just about ‘loving thy neighbour as thyself’, as people so often say. That’s a vital part of our response to the Christian message, but it doesn’t come first. Becoming a Christian is first and foremost about how we see Jesus: is he just a human being, a wise religious teacher, or is he something more than that? Is he, in fact, the one in whom God has come to live with us? In the first chapter of his gospel John tells us that Jesus is the Word of God, and that in the beginning ‘the word was with God, and the word was God’. He goes on to tell us that ‘the Word became flesh and lived for a while among us’. Now in this chapter the Word speaks of giving his flesh for the life of the world. If we don’t eat his flesh and drink his blood we won’t have eternal life – we won’t be able to do the things God wants us to do because we’ll be spiritually dead – but if we come to him and believe in him, if we eat his flesh and drink his blood, he will make his home in us and we will have eternal life.

To me it’s totally understandable that this is more than some people can stomach. Some pretty well known names throughout human history have indicated that they couldn’t accept it. Gandhi, for instance, said that he could accept Jesus as a wise religious leader but not as the Son of God. A friend of mine here in Edmonton says that Jesus makes much more sense to him as a man than as the Son of God.

I have to say that if Jesus is just a man, he makes no sense to me at all – or, at least, it makes no sense to me that we’re following him today. A man who was just a man, and who said the things Jesus said, would not be looked on as a wise religious teacher and followed by millions of people. He’d be shut up in a mental hospital and given treatment to try to cure him of his delusions of grandeur. C.S. Lewis said this in a radio talk he gave on the BBC during the Second World War:

I am trying here to prevent anyone from saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God’. This is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with a man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at his feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come away with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

How do we respond to this? Some perhaps are confused and want to hear more by way of explanation. Some grumble that God had to make it so complicated. Some stand up in church on Sunday and say the Apostles’ Creed with their fingers crossed behind their backs. Some just can’t believe it and so turn away from following Jesus – an honest response, in my view. Some say, “Well, it doesn’t make sense to me yet but I’m going to keep on following Jesus anyway and pray that God will help me to understand it as I follow”. Some say, “It’s confusing, but the alternative is no better!” And some, like Jesus’ disciple Thomas, fall at Jesus’ feet and say, “My Lord and my God”.

We see the same range of reactions in today’s gospel. Verse 61 says in the NRSV, ‘Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you?”’. In Greek the word translated as ‘complaining’ is one of my favourite Greek words, ‘gonguzo’, which means ‘to grumble’. So we have grumbling, and a few verses later, in verse 64, we have disbelief: Jesus says, “But among you there are some who do not believe”. Then in verse 66 we have rejection: ‘Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him’. At the end of the chapter, we even have betrayal, as John mentions Judas Iscariot, who ‘though one of the twelve, was going to betray him’.

But I want to end by directing your attention to the words of Peter. Look at verse 67:
So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God”.

This is a remarkable response. We know from the gospels that Peter had as much difficulty understanding what Jesus was going on about as any of the disciples. And he’s not saying here, “No, Lord, of course we’re not going to leave you, because we understand exactly what you’re talking about!” What he actually seems to be saying is something like this: “Lord, it’s true that what you’re saying is very hard for us to understand and accept. But what’s the alternative? There’s nowhere else we can go to get the sort of thing you give us. Your words may be hard to understand, but we know that they are words of life, and we know that you’ve come from God. So the only thing we can do is stick with you and hope that things become clearer as we go along”.

I find this to be an amazing statement of faith. I think about people I know who have a lot of difficulty getting their head around what Jesus is talking about, but who still show up week by week in church and are the first to volunteer when work needs to be done. I think about Christian gay and lesbian people who have been told for years – rightly or wrongly, I make no comment on that – that their sexuality is offensive to God, but who still pray and read the scriptures and come to church because they’ve discovered something in Jesus that they can’t find anywhere else. I think about people who are very wealthy and who come to church week by week and hear the gospels read, with Jesus saying that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God – and yet they keep coming, because they know that even though Jesus’ words are challenging, they are true and life-giving words as well.

Can you make this statement of faith with Peter? Can you say with him, “Lord, I haven’t got it all figured out yet; I sometimes find your words hard to understand, and when I do understand them, I often find them deeply challenging. But I don’t want to leave, because I know I’ve grasped something wonderful here – something that is giving me life. In your words I think I’ve glimpsed a vision of the glory of God and the beauty of life the way God planned it. So I think I’ll hang around, if you don’t mind, and keep listening and trying to understand, because there is one thing I’m absolutely sure about: there’s nowhere else I’m going to find what I’ve found in you and your message”.

I think Jesus will honour a prayer like that. The only thing I would add to it is this: when you do come to understand the meaning of some aspect of the teaching of Jesus, pray for God’s help and then begin to put it into practice right away. My observation over the years as a pastor is that those who put Jesus’ words into practice usually grow in their understanding of what he is all about, but those who don’t practice what they hear tend to understand less and less as the years go by. After all, as Jesus said in the parable of the wise and foolish builders, it isn’t the ones who just hear his words whose houses will stand in the flood – but those who hear his words and put them into practice. May God help us to do just that. Amen.

Posted in Jesus, Sermons | 2 Comments

Meadowvale (revised): Chapter Twenty-Eight

I’ve gone through the ‘Meadowvale’ story and done a rewrite; I’m posting the revised chapters here at the rate of about two a week. The originals are still on this site (go to ‘Meadowvale’ in the sidebar) in case you want to compare! Enjoy!

As long as I can remember, I’ve always had a problem with intellectual certainty. Knowing, in a relational sense, is different; ever since my experience of the love of God at Myers Lake on New Years’ Day of 1984, I have ‘known’ that God is real and that Christ is alive. I have prayed to Jesus Christ as well as to God, and since prayer is something we address to God, I suppose I have lived on the assumption that Jesus is divine, and in fact I do believe that. The exact delineation of the doctrine of the Trinity, on the other hand, has always been a little elusive for me; although I have no quarrel with it, I tend to think that sometimes theologians like to lay down exact lines of demarcation, where the reality is hidden in a light so dazzling and glorious that we can’t see exactly what it is, given the fact that we have to screw up our eyes so tightly for fear of being blinded by it. One of Rob Neufeld’s favourite sayings was, “If you think you understand it, it’s probably not God”, and I always warmed to that idea.

One thing I’m fairly sure about is that prayer is a mystery. In the years since I became a Christian I have prayed for many things; some of them have been granted, many have not, and it’s not always easy to see the logic behind the results. In fact, I’m pretty sure that the concept of ‘results’ is not a helpful one when it comes to thinking about prayer. I sometimes hear well-meaning Christians say “Prayer is powerful”, but I don’t believe that. Most of my prayers are not powerful; they are feeble cries of desperation uttered in moments when I feel far too weak to deal with whatever it is that life is sending my way. I have no doubt that God is powerful, and that God is love, but prayer isn’t a mechanism to control God: it’s a request, nothing more, even though I’m assured that God is a loving parent and we are God’s children. When Emma was a little girl she made plenty of requests, some of which were so outrageous that I would never have dreamed in a million years of granting them. Those requests made sense in her mind, I guess, but responsible parenting demanded that I refuse them.

All this is to say that it’s not always easy to draw a straight line from prayer to answer. I prayed hard that Kelly would be healed when she had her bout with cancer in 1986; eventually prayer and medicine and the love of family and friends worked together, and she was declared cancer-free, and I was overwhelmed with gratitude. Nevertheless, as I said to her, it troubled me that so many cancer sufferers were not healed, and I couldn’t bring myself to believe that somehow we were inside the circle of God’s love and they were not. Nor could I find it in my heart to believe that my faith was stronger than theirs, or my prayers more worthy. It was simply a mystery; something huge and incomprehensible and yet kind and generous had touched our lives in a way that we had no right to demand, but every right to ask, and the result was what Joe Reimer had called ‘a miracle’. I preferred to use the word ‘gift’ myself, as ‘miracle’ conjures up the image of an event that requires no help from medical science at all, whereas in our case, medical science had been involved from start to finish.

Why am I musing on all this now, as I look back on those years when Emma started Grade One and Kelly struggled to deal with what her heart told her was a prematurely empty house? I suppose it’s because the prayer that we prayed together – the prayer that God would heal her of the deep sadness and emptiness that descended on her from time to time like a thick fog – that prayer was answered, although the answer was a gradual one. I know that when Kelly celebrated her thirty-third birthday, on September 16th 1991, she was still struggling occasionally with that darkness, but by the time she turned thirty-five, in 1993, she was pretty well free of it, and that journey of healing was completed during the Christmas holidays of 1994.

Of course, like prayer itself, the process was mysterious and many-facetted. But as I look back on the events of those years in the early nineteen-nineties, I realize that something else was going on as well. Ever since her recovery from cancer, Kelly’s attention had been focussed narrowly on her family and the people she loved. However, beginning in the Fall of 1991 I started to see the old extroverted Kelly emerging again. It wasn’t that she immediately went back to being talkative and bubbly like she had been when I first met her; she was still quieter and more reflective, and she still loved spending hours at home with Emma and me. But somehow along the way she began to recover her interest in a wider circle of people, and she began to look for ways to reach out to others again. And in a strange sort of way, it all began with Beth Robinson.

I got to know Beth’s grandmother Rachel Robinson quite well after I married Kelly, as she was Sally’s older sister and the two of them were quite close. She had waited for a few years after their marriage to see if Mike would show any signs of becoming a regular attender at his own church, and when it became clear to her that this was not going to happen, she had quietly begun attending Meadowvale Mennonite Church. She was a strong and determined woman; she was tall and thin and sat up ramrod-straight in her chair, and she was not averse to sharing her views and giving her advice freely to anyone who, in her opinion, was in need of it, whether they wanted it or not. In short, she was another of the Meadowvale ‘characters’, and even though from time to time she tried to lay the law down with me about things I was doing that didn’t meet with her approval, I forgave her for it and enjoyed her company immensely.

Rachel and her husband Mike had four children. Don, who was their oldest, was six years older than me, and of course he was my colleague throughout my whole teaching career at Meadowvale High School, eventually becoming the principal when Will retired in 1996. Don married Lynda Miller in 1974, and while they were living in the Arctic they had their two girls, Amy who was born in 1976, and Bethany, or Beth as we knew her, who was born in 1978. The little family moved back to Meadowvale in 1979, and Don and Lynda worked there for the rest of their teaching careers.

As they moved into their teens Amy and Beth were both in my high school English classes, but the two girls were very different. Amy was not really very interested in literature, but she was an excellent science student, and after graduating from high school she moved to Calgary to train as a pilot. Beth was also good at sciences, and in fact, partly through Kelly’s influence, she eventually became a nurse. But unlike her sister she had her artistic side as well; she loved reading, and her grandmother had taught her to love classical and choral music. She lapped up the set books in my English classes, and when she was babysitting for us she loved browsing our bookshelves. We often came home to find her engrossed in a novel; she would jump up apologetically and assure us that she had been giving Emma her full attention until she had gone to sleep, and I would laugh and tell her that I never doubted it, but I was glad for her to help herself to anything that interested her on the bookshelves too. And so in later years she raided our book collection with every bit as much enthusiasm as she had explored our records when she had first taken an interest in traditional folk music.

Beth was special to Kelly and me; I think I can honestly say that we came to love her as if she was our own daughter, and I know she loved us too. Not that this meant she loved her own parents any the less; she was devoted to Don and Lynda, and there was only one time in her life, which I will recount in due course, when there was anything like a rift between them. This was not the case with Amy; she was the life and soul of any party she attended, and she gave Don and Lynda more than their share of grey hairs when she was a teenager. Interestingly enough, despite the fact that they were so different from each other, the two sisters were fast friends, and although Amy would sometimes laugh at Beth’s conventional ways, and Beth would shake her head at Amy’s escapades, they were always fiercely loyal to each other.

Beth had a special fondness for her grandma Rachel; from an early age she was strongly influenced by her, and many years later she told me that her grandmother had been her best friend. When Don and Lynda moved back to Meadowvale when Beth was just a year old, they bought a house around the corner from Mike and Rachel’s place. Amy loved her grandparents too, of course, but over the years Beth developed a very special relationship with them. Mike had a small workshop out behind their house and Beth enjoyed puttering around in there with him, but she especially liked cooking and sewing and playing the piano with her grandma. Rachel began to take her to church on Sundays when she was five, not long after I started attending Meadowvale Mennonite Church, and before long the two of them were a fixture in the third pew from the front on the left hand side, where they sat beside John and Ruth Janzen and their growing family. I knew that Rachel prayed and read Bible stories with her granddaughter, and it was obvious as Beth got older that she was learning a genuine Christian faith from her grandma.

Don and I had become good friends over the years, a friendship cemented by numerous conversations in the staff room, and regular coffee visits between our families; Kelly had always been fond of her older cousin, and it was obvious to me that he returned her affection. Occasionally he would refer to the fact that his mother had succeeded in making a churchgoer of his younger daughter; “I guess Mom probably always wished us kids had taken to it, but Ruth was the only one that did. Not that I’m against it, of course, and Bethie sure seems to enjoy it”.

“You were never churchgoers when you were growing up?”

“Not as a family – just Mom. Of course, she’s Mennonite and Dad’s Anglican, and they’re kind of different”.

“How did they get together?”

He grinned; “They’ve never told us the whole story, but I get the idea that when Dad was still in his late teens he used to do some carpentry work for Grandpa and Grandma Wiens, and that’s when he and Mom met. They were pretty young when they got married, at least by today’s standards: Dad was twenty-two and Mom was twenty”.

“Are your siblings all pretty close in age?”

“Not especially; we’re spread over about eight years”.

“I wonder how your mum’s family felt about her marrying outside the Mennonite fold?”

“She hasn’t talked about it very much, but I get the sense there was some trouble about it when it first happened. That was 1950, you know; Mennonites were still keeping pretty much to themselves, and there was still some lingering resentment toward them in the community because of the war”.

“Because of their pacifism, you mean?”


“Does it bother you that Beth has taken to it?”

He shook his head; “My mom’s a good person, Tom, even if she can be a little overbearing at times. And the Mennonites have come out of their shell a lot since the fifties; look at Will and Sally, for instance – I’d have to be blind not to see that they’re good people. I just hope Bethie doesn’t take on some narrow-minded view of the world that sees everyone else as going to hell, but I don’t see any signs of it so far”.

Beth also became quite close to her Janzen cousins, Joel, Kathy and Rhonda, although they were a few years younger than her. Ruth Robinson was the only one of Rachel’s four children who attended Meadowvale Mennonite Church with her mother, and it was there that she met John Janzen, who would later become her father’s apprentice. Ruth and John were married in 1977; their son Joel was born in 1980, Kathy came along in 1983, and Rhonda completed their family in 1985. Joel eventually went to work in the oil industry, and by the time he was in his mid-twenties he was spending a lot of time in Dubai. Kathy followed Beth into nursing and eventually, like Kelly, she worked at the Special Care Home.

As I have already mentioned, Kelly and I got to know John very well when he helped us with renovations on our house, and through the years we kept up our connection with him and Ruth. He was the one who first got us involved with Habitat for Humanity when it started up in Saskatoon in the early 1990s, and before too long it had become a tradition for us to spend a week of our holidays every summer volunteering on a Habitat construction site down in the city.

Mike and Rachel’s other two children, Steve and Jean, were not so well known to me, since they had both left Meadowvale before I arrived. Steve went to Fort McMurray to work in the oil patch, and he stayed there through two marriages and the birth of three children. “At least he’s not a drinker”, Don said to me once when we were talking about his younger brother, “but his problem is he’s never seen a woman he doesn’t like. I really don’t know how much longer Janet’s going to put up with him”. And, in fact, it was not long before Steve’s first marriage broke up; his wife left him in 1997 and took their two children to live in Edmonton with her. It was not long, however, before he was living with another woman, Debbie Sinclair, who married him in 2000 and gave him another child the same year. “I wish I could believe he’s slowed down”, Don said to me, “but I don’t think he quite gets the concept of monogamy”.

As for the youngest of the four Robinson siblings, Jean, she was just starting law school when I moved to Meadowvale in 1982, and after being admitted to the bar she joined a practice in Saskatoon. In the early 1990s she had just started dating a Saskatoon realtor, Martin MacDonald, and within a few years they would be living together. Saskatoon, of course, was not far away from Meadowvale, but Jean was one of those people who could not wait to leave the small town, and she rarely came to visit, although she and her sister Ruth talked to each other on the phone regularly. “She’s kind of driven”, Ruth said to me one day; “She’s gotten used to billing clients by the hour, I guess, and she doesn’t seem to be able to turn that off”.

“I know a lawyer like that”, I replied.

In September of 1991 Kelly had gone back to work full time at the Meadowvale Special Care home, in the same position as before: registered nurse on staff, working Monday to Friday, eight ’til five. I was the morning person in the family, so every day I would get up early, go for my walk, and then make a pot of tea and wake up my girls. Kelly and I would leave for work at about ten to eight; Sally would come over and sit with Emma for a few minutes, and then take her to the elementary school at about 8.45. She would pick her up again in the afternoon, and either Kelly or I would drop by Will and Sally’s to get her on our way home. Kelly never worked in the evenings, but I often had schoolwork to get done, and when I did, my girls often went over to Joe and Ellie’s so that Emma could play with Jake and Jenna. On Wednesday nights Beth came over to babysit for Emma while Kelly and I attended the study group at church; our weekends we tried to keep free except for the service on Sunday morning. Generally by the end of Friday afternoon each week I was very tired, and I resolutely avoided doing any work on Friday night and Saturday. We tended to have our singarounds on Friday or Saturday nights, and if Ellie and I had a gig anywhere it tended to be on those nights too. By Sunday afternoon, however, my thoughts would be turning back toward my classes, and generally by the middle of the afternoon I would make a pot of coffee and settle down for a few hours of preparation for the week ahead.

Beth turned fourteen in April of 1992; she had shot up over the past two years and was now almost as tall as Kelly (“Not that that’s much of an achievement!” as Kelly said to me with a grin). We were invited to her fourteenth birthday party at Don and Lynda’s house; by then she had been babysitting for us for a year and a half, and even when she wasn’t babysitting she often dropped by our house to play with Emma and to explore my record collection, or to learn some new guitar chords from me. She had continued to attend our singarounds and by now was taking her turn sharing songs with everyone else, mainly traditional songs she had learned from her visits with us, although she liked some contemporary folk music as well. She had a relaxed and easy relationship with Kelly and me, a relationship that had begun to include conversations about Christianity. Fourteen was still a fairly young age to be thinking about baptism in our church, but I knew that Beth’s mind was turning in that direction, and it was obvious to me that the Christian faith she had picked up from her grandmother had become a very important part of her life.

I have no clear memory of when exactly Beth began to show up at our house on some Sunday evenings with her friends Katie Thiessen and Jenny Ratzlaff, although I know it was some time between Christmas 1991 and Beth’s fourteenth birthday in April. Usually after we ate supper on Sundays I would go back down to my den in the basement and do another couple of hours of preparation work for the week ahead while Kelly read or played games with Emma or took her out to visit her cousins. However, one Sunday evening I came up to refill my coffee cup at about eight-thirty to discover Kelly sitting in our living room with Beth, Katie and Jenny; Emma was in her pyjamas and Beth was kneeling at the coffee table with her drawing pictures, and Kelly had her Bible open on her lap as they were talking.

“Hello”, I said; “I didn’t know we had company”.

“Do we have a soundproof floor?” Kelly asked with a grin.

“Sorry – I was a bit focussed, I guess”.

“How’s it going down there?”

“Pretty good actually, I’m just about done”.

“Do you have time to take a break for a few minutes and put Em to bed?”

“Sure; what are you up to?”

“We’re discussing baptism”.

“Baptism?” I said in surprise.

“Yes, but I think the girls will have to go home before too long. You can join us in a few minutes if you want?”


I told Emma to say goodnight to everyone, and then I picked her up and took her back to her room; she was quite capable of walking, of course, but she still enjoyed being carried to her bedroom last thing at night. I tucked her into bed, read her a story and prayed with her. “Time to go to sleep now”, I said as I gave her a kiss; “It’s a school day tomorrow, so you need to get a good sleep”.

“Okay, Daddy”, she said.

“Goodnight, then”.



“What does Mommy do when she goes to work?”

I smiled; “You really want to have this talk now, do you?”


“Okay; I’ll tell you quickly, but you should really ask Mummy about it; she can give you a better answer”.


“Mummy’s a nurse, so she helps sick people get better. When she worked at the hospital, she helped the doctor look after sick people – giving them pills, and taking their temperatures, and answering their calls if they needed some special help. Now she does that at the Special Care Home with the old people; if they get sick, she tries to help them”.

“So that’s a pretty important job, then?”

“Yes, it is”.

“Okay. Thanks, Daddy!”

I grinned; “You’re welcome, small one. Now – it’s time for sleep”.


I gave her another kiss and then got up, turned out her light and slipped out into the hallway, pulling her door almost closed behind me. I went to the kitchen, poured myself a glass of water, and then went back to the living room and sat down in my chair in the corner. Kelly was talking quietly to the girls, and I realized that she was sharing the story of our baptisms with them.

“So it was when you knew you believed Jesus was the Son of God that you decided to get baptized?” Katie asked her.

“That was part of it, but that wasn’t all of it. It wasn’t just an intellectual belief; it was a commitment to do my best to obey Jesus’ teaching as well. Actually, for me that came first; I already thought he was one of the smartest men who’d ever lived, and I’d already been trying to put his teaching into practice for over a year”.

“So why get baptized, then?” Jenny asked; “What difference did it make?”

“Well, part of it was obedience to Jesus”, Kelly replied. “Like it says in the verse we just read, Jesus told the apostles to make disciples, to baptize them, and to teach them to obey his commands. I couldn’t see how I could try to obey Jesus without obeying the command about baptism too. But for me, I also found it helpful because it made it definite”.

“What do you mean?” Beth asked.

“Well, you know, I could have carried on in a state of vague interest in Jesus, kind of like a boy and girl who say they love each other but aren’t prepared to make any commitments to each other. But baptism made it more definite; I stood up in front of the whole church and made promises to follow Jesus, and baptism was like my pledge to do that”. She looked over at me; “Have you got anything to add to this?” she asked.

“You’ll have to fill me in a bit”, I replied.

“I’ve been thinking about being baptized”, Beth said, “so I called Kelly after supper and asked if I could come and talk to her about it. Katie and Jenny were with me, so they came too”.

“Right”. I thought for a moment, and then said, “Well, I guess for me it was a bit different, since I wasn’t raised in Meadowvale Mennonite Church like you guys were. I’d attended the church since the summer of 1983, and I’d played music in the worship band, but I still sort of felt as if I was a guest there, or a permanent visitor, even though I was beginning to feel like it was my church. But after my baptism, I knew that it was my church”. I frowned; “No, that’s not quite right, because I wasn’t just baptized into this congregation – I was baptized into the whole church of Jesus Christ, so it was like gaining a worldwide family. That’s what Pastor Rob said after he baptized me: ‘Welcome to the family’. That’s stuck with me through the years”.

“Did you worry about being able to keep the commitment you were making?” Beth asked. “That’s one thing I worry about; making promises I can’t keep. I wonder if I should wait until I’m stronger in my faith”.

“No, I didn’t worry about that”, I replied. “To me it was sort of like getting married. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to be the perfect husband for Kelly when we got married, but I also knew that she wasn’t going to reject me if I was less than perfect. That didn’t mean I wouldn’t try, of course, but it also meant that I trusted her love for me, even when I was far from perfect. I felt the same way about baptism; I knew I wasn’t going to be able to keep my commitment to Christ perfectly, but I trusted God’s love for me”.

“Also, I don’t think it’s in keeping with the teaching of these verses to see baptism as something that comes after our faith has passed some sort of strength test”, Kelly added. “Jesus says, ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you’. Our Anabaptist ancestors were really strong on the order of things in this text: you become a disciple of Jesus, then you get baptized, then you learn to obey Jesus. In other words, the growing in faith comes after the baptism, not before”.

“Oh, I get it!” Beth replied with a grin; “So it’s kind of like being enrolled in a school of followers of Jesus”.

“That’s a good way of putting it”, said Kelly. At that moment the phone rang; she was sitting beside it, and she picked it up and said, “Tom and Kelly’s. Oh, hi Don; yeah, they’re here”. She listened for a moment, and then said, “Okay, I’ll tell them. Goodnight, Don”. She put the phone down, smiled at Beth, and said, “That was your dad”.

“Time to go?”

“I guess so”.


We all got to our feet, and Beth said, “Thanks, Kelly; this was really helpful”.

Kelly shook her head; “Any time, Bethie – you’re always welcome here”.

“Thanks”. They hugged each other, and Beth said, “Do you mind if I just go and say goodnight to Emma again? I don’t think she’ll be asleep yet”.

“Of course not; go ahead”.

And so it began. I think that by the time of her fourteenth birthday Beth and her friends had come over to our place three or four times, always on Sunday nights, with specific questions they wanted to discuss. By the third time, Jenny had begun to bring her older brother Ricky with her, and Megan Neufeld, Rob and Mandy’s fourteen-year-old daughter, had also joined the group. They never told Kelly what they wanted to talk about when they called; they just asked if they could come over, and Kelly would make them hot chocolate and sit down with them in the living room to discuss their questions. I would usually be working down in my den when they arrived, and at about eight-thirty I would come up, put Emma to bed, and then join them for a few minutes in the living room before the kids went home.

After the fourth time, as we watched them leave, Kelly said to me, “Do you think maybe you could start working a little earlier on Sunday afternoons?”

“You think this is becoming a regular thing, do you?”

“Yeah, and I could sure use your help; that was a tough question tonight, and I don’t think they’re going to get any easier”.

“War and nonviolence; it’s always going to be a difficult one. I think you did pretty well, though”.

“Thank you; it just felt a lot better at the end when you were there too”.

The Robinson house was full of friends and relatives on the night of Beth’s party, including her older sister Amy who was almost sixteen and was the life and soul of the event, as usual. Emma was playing with some of the younger ones, but Kelly and I found ourselves sitting in the living room beside Kelly’s Aunt Rachel. She was sitting up ramrod straight on a hard-backed chair with a cup of tea in her hand; she and Kelly chatted with each other for a while, and then Rachel turned to us both and said, “Actually, there’s something I want to ask you two about”.

“What’s that?” Kelly replied.

“Bethie. She’s a teenager now, of course, and so far she’s still a good Christian and quite happy to come to church with me. But she’s getting to the age where her friends are going to matter more to her than old people like me – she’s going to be more worried about what they think. She tells me that she’s been bringing Jenny and Katie over to your house sometimes to ask questions about Christianity. I think that’s really good; the three of them can help each other and you can give them a place to do that”.

“It’s nothing really organized, Aunt Rachel”, Kelly replied; “They just call me up when they’ve got something they want to talk about, and they come over. So far it’s always been on a Sunday evening, but there’s no plan for that or anything”.

“I wonder if there should be?” Rachel asked. “I wonder if it’s time for us to have a youth group at our church again?”

“I used to go to youth group when I was in my early teens”, Kelly said thoughtfully. “Of course, when I got a little older I left the church for a while; the youth group didn’t really help me deal with some of the tougher questions I was struggling with”.

“It could have made a difference, though”, Rachel replied, “with the right leadership. And I think you two might be the right leadership”.

“Us?” I exclaimed; “But I wasn’t even raised a Mennonite”.

“No, and that’s a good thing. I remember the day you two were baptized, and how you told us the story of your coming to faith together. It was such a moving thing! I remember even then thinking to myself how good it would be if you could help other young people who had doubts and struggles. And since then you’ve been through that fight with cancer, and you’ve made a good marriage together. And you’re a teacher, Tom, so you’re used to dealing with these teenagers. I think you two would make excellent youth group leaders. Why don’t you think about it?”

Kelly didn’t reply, but I could tell by the expression on her face that she was thinking hard. Rachel waited for a moment, but when neither of us said anything, she leaned forward and said, “I’m thinking of all the young people in the church, of course, but I’m thinking especially of Bethie. I know you two are both very fond of her, and I know she loves you both, too. You’re such a good influence in her life, and you could be the same sort of influence on the others as well. Promise me that you’ll pray about it?”

I looked at Kelly, and after a moment she nodded and said, “We will, Aunt Rachel. We’ll have to give it a lot of thought, though, especially with all the work Tom has to put into preparation for his classes; we don’t always seem to have a lot of time just for us. But you’re right; the kids in the church could probably benefit from a youth group, and Tom and I could probably do it. We’ll think about it, and pray about it”. She glanced at me; “If that’s okay with you?” she added.

“Yeah”. I grinned at her; “To be quite honest, even thinking about it scares me, but that doesn’t mean it might not be a good thing!”

Later on that night, after we had put Emma to bed, Kelly and I sat on the couch in the living room with our hot chocolate and talked about Rachel’s idea.

“What do you think?” Kelly asked, putting her hand in mine.

I shook my head; “I really don’t know what to think”.

“You’ve got a lot going on in your life”.

“I do – school work, and prep work lots of evenings. And then there’s the Wednesday night study group, and gigs and open stages with Ellie from time to time. Occasional informal gatherings with Beth and her friends seem like a much less demanding idea than a youth group meeting every week, with us as the official leaders”.

She squeezed my hand; “And then there’s us – you and me and Emma”.

“Yes, of course; you’re back to work full time now, and evenings can be quite busy with catchup work…”.

“So you don’t want to do it?”

“I’m not saying I don’t want to do it, or that it wouldn’t be a good thing. What do you think?”

She was quiet for a moment, and then she said, “I love those kids”.

“I know you do. I do too – especially Beth; she’s been such a blessing to us”.

“Yeah, she has. And they seem to be comfortable coming over to our place and talking about their stuff”.

“It’s kind of amazing when you think about it – that first night, how Beth just called you up out of the blue and asked if they could come over”.

“Yeah. And maybe that’s what makes it work – the fact that it’s not something we’re laying on; it’s something they’ve asked for themselves”.

I put my mug down on the table, leaned back on the couch, and said, “Okay, let’s think this through logically for a minute. Do you want to commit yourself to leading a youth group once a week, probably on a weekend night, since that’s what seems to work best for those sorts of gatherings?”

She shook her head; “No, I don’t. If I was going to commit to it, it would be less often than that – once or twice a month at the most”.

“I agree. But to go to the other end, are we so busy that we want to turn this thing down altogether, and keep our free time strictly for ourselves?”

“No – I think that the kids that are coming obviously trust us, and we can’t ignore that”.

“I agree. So then, what would be wrong with just carrying on the way it is?”

“Letting them set the pace, you mean?”

“That’s what I mean. If they start coming more often and we get to the point where we’re feeling our weekends are being crowded out, then we can just talk to them and ask if they can slacken off a bit. If it never becomes an issue, then we don’t need to raise it. And I can do as you suggested: I can start work a little earlier on Sunday afternoon so I’m free earlier in the evening, in case they want me involved in the conversation – although, to be quite honest, you seemed to be doing just fine, and you’re obviously the one they want to talk to”.

She shook her head; “If more guys start coming too, like Ricky has, then it would be good for both of us to be involved”. She smiled at me apologetically; “And, actually, I feel better with you around – I don’t feel like it’s all up to me if you’re there”.

I put my arm around her and kissed her on the top of her head. “I can be there”, I said.

So that’s what we did. We continued to open our home up on Sunday nights when the kids called us up and asked if they could come over. Usually Beth was the instigator, and the regular crowd included her, her friends Jenny and Katie, Jenny’s brother Ricky, Megan Neufeld, and Dan Rempel, the oldest son of John and Erika Rempel, who was also Hugo and Millie’s oldest grandson. When Dan started coming along in the middle of May the discussions became edgier; when he was a little boy he had idolized his Uncle Corey, and although he had only been five when Corey was killed, he had very clear memories of that day. I knew from having him in my classes at school that Dan was carrying a lot of anger inside, and not just regarding Corey’s death either. In many ways he was a typical Saskatchewan farm boy; he was good with his hands and he liked working on engines of any kind, he loved playing hockey in the winter and baseball in the summer, and he found the study of English boring and irrelevant. He had been pushing the boundaries in my classes ever since he had started at the high school three years ago, but gradually he and I had worked our way toward a truce: he wouldn’t disrupt my classes, and I wouldn’t make too much of an issue of his complete lack of interest in them.

At Hugo and Millie’s farm, Dan was a completely different character; I often saw him out there helping his grandfather with chores, and when he and I worked together with Hugo, we got along fine with each other. I did wonder why he spent so much time helping his grandfather, rather than his dad, and I asked Hugo about this one day while we were having coffee together. He shook his head; “John pushes that boy too much”, he said softly. “He wants to make another overachiever out of him, but all he’s doing is pushing him away. Dan’s a good steady worker, but he’s never going to work hard enough or fast enough to satisfy his dad”.

For a moment I didn’t reply, and then I said, “Hugo, are John and Erika okay? I don’t talk to them very much, but every now and again I hear things…”

He helped himself to a toothpick from the jar in the middle of the table and stuck it between his teeth. “I don’t know how to answer that one”, he said with a frown.

“Sorry; it’s not really any of my business…”

“Does Dan talk to you?”

“Well, he’s started coming over to our place Sunday nights sometimes with Beth’s group, and his questions are always more personal, you know – about family, and conflict – and death, of course”.

He nodded; “He’s never really gotten over Corey”.

“I know”.

He leaned back in his chair, moving the toothpick around in his mouth. “Between you and me, I think my daughter deserves a medal. Don’t get me wrong; I admire John’s capacity for hard work, but he drives himself and he drives everyone else in that family. But Erika will never give up on him; for some reason best known to her, she still loves that man, although I know he drives her to tears sometimes”.

“Does she talk to you?”

“Not about that. Very, very occasionally, she lets something come out when she’s talking to Millie. But she’s very loyal to her husband”. He shook his head again; “Sometimes I wish Kelly was close with her like she is with Brenda. She’s had her struggles too, but Kelly’s always been there for her”.

“Kelly feels the same way about Bren, especially when she was going through her cancer”.

“You guys must be busy now, with your music and that youth group too, and of course you’re both working full time, and Emma growing like a weed”.

“Yeah, we wonder sometimes where the days go. But the youth group isn’t really a thing, you know – it’s just a group that comes over to our place once or twice a month to talk about their questions. We don’t organize it; nobody really does, unless it’s Beth. I think that’s what makes it work so well; nobody has any expectations of it. I’d never announce it in church or anything like that; it’s really just a group of friends getting together at our place”.

“Except that it is at your place, and the kids all feel comfortable there with you and Kelly. Even Dan”.

“He told you that?”

“Yeah, he did. He told me that he really respected you, Tom – that you’d always been patient with him, even when he’d given you a rough time in school”.

“That’s nice to know; thanks, Hugo”.

“No, thank you. He’s my oldest grandchild, you know, and I worry about him a lot. You and Kelly are a good thing in his life, and I’m grateful”.

Rob Neufeld knew what we were doing, of course, but toward the middle of June we asked if he and Mandy would come over to our place one night so we could have a conversation with them about it. They were in their mid-forties by now, with two young teenagers of their own: Megan would be turning fifteen in late August, and Matthew had just turned thirteen. Rob had been the pastor of Meadowvale Mennonite Church for thirteen years, the longest pastorate in living memory for many members of the congregation, and from time to time most of us had probably found ourselves wondering how much longer we would be able to hang onto him. Most rural churches like ours thought themselves lucky if they could keep someone like Rob for five years; after that, many young pastors started to look toward bigger and better things in the city. Occasionally I had asked Rob about this – he and I had become close enough over the years that I felt comfortable asking him direct questions – and he had always replied that he knew better than to tempt God by making predictions about the future, but for now, he and Mandy and their family were well content with life in Meadowvale, and if they ever found themselves hankering after the good things the city had to offer, well, it wasn’t a very long drive into Saskatoon, and they could still come home and get a quiet sleep at night in Meadowvale.

We sat out on our back deck on a warm Friday evening in the middle of June, drinking iced tea and talking while our six-year old played with Beth in the house. I had the familiar end-of-the -school-year feeling of tiredness and anticipation; we were expecting our annual visit from Becca in a couple of weeks, and Owen and Lorraine were finally going to bring sixteen-month-old Andrew to meet us in early August. We were looking forward to some trips to the mountains, and we had also agreed to go down to Saskatoon with John and Ruth Janzen for a week to help out on a Habitat for Humanity building project; it would be our first time volunteering with Habitat, which was just getting going in Saskatoon, and we were excited about it.

Rob and Mandy listened while we told them about the group. “It’s never really been organized, of course”, Kelly said, “despite the fact that Aunt Rachel wanted us to organize it. But Tom and I didn’t feel we had the time or energy for that. We didn’t want to run a study group; we just wanted to be there for the kids when they had something they wanted to talk about”.

“Or not”, I added with a grin; “Last Sunday they just wanted to come over to our place and make pizza and play board games”.

“Although we did have some good discussion with the board games”, Kelly said.

“So far we haven’t initiated anything, though”, I said, “except that we’ve been thinking about asking if they’d like to go on a camping trip some time this summer – maybe go up to Prince Albert National Park for a few days”.

“Familiar ground for you guys”, Rob observed.

“Yeah, that’s right”, Kelly replied, “and Krista and Steve are close by at Christopher Lake, and if we gave them enough notice they could take some time off and help us out”.

“So I suppose what we really wanted to know”, I said, “is if this is okay? It really isn’t a church youth group, but we do get into some pretty heavy conversations sometimes, and I don’t mind admitting that sometimes they stretch us”.

Kelly nodded; “There have been a couple of times when we’ve just had to admit that we didn’t have any answers for the questions they were raising”, she said.

“I think it’s wonderful”, Mandy said with a smile, “and Megan loves it. She feels completely comfortable in your home, and whenever she comes back after one of your sessions she tells me how much she’s enjoyed it and how much it’s made her think”.

“But we keep wondering whether we should be initiating something”, I said; “You know, like a youth Bible study or something like that. It’s just that, whenever we think about that, we just feel so exhausted that we feel like giving up on the whole thing!”

“And that’s an important indicator to keep track of”, Rob replied; “Your energy level, I mean. You’re both busy people, and you’ve got a life outside of work and church as well. It would be wrong for you to commit yourself to something that wasn’t ultimately sustainable. And maybe you don’t do a Bible study, but I’m guessing that you open the Bible from time to time”.

“Yeah, we do”, Kelly said; “We seem to keep coming back to it”.

“Then I don’t see the problem. If the kids want a formal Bible study, they’ll ask you for it. Meanwhile, you’re talking about stuff that’s important to them, and you’re setting it in a biblical framework”.

“And we’re really grateful”, Mandy added; “Rob and me, I mean. I don’t think either of you have any idea how much this little group has meant to Megan. Even in the last two or three months, I’ve watched her become much more thoughtful about her faith. You guys have done that”.

I shook my head; “Not just us”, I replied. “They’re a good group, and they help each other”.

“But they feel comfortable doing it in your home, and that says a lot”.

Kelly and I glanced at each other, and she said, “Actually, Tom and I love it. At first we weren’t sure quite what was happening, but now we’ve started to really look forward to getting Beth’s phone call about the group coming over”.

I reached over and took her hand; “And it’s been good for Kelly, too”, I said.

Kelly nodded; “It has”, she agreed. “It’s my herd mother instinct, you know?”

“Your herd mother instinct?” Mandy said with a quizzical expression on her face.

I looked at Kelly again, and she gave me a little nod. I turned back to Rob and Mandy; “Kelly’s really struggled from time to time with the fact that she was never able to have any more children after her surgery”, I said. “We don’t really talk about it with anyone else, but it’s something that’s been really hard for her”.

“Most of the time I’m okay”, Kelly continued, “but every now and again it’s just like the darkness comes down on me. Usually it’s when someone has a new baby, or something happens that just drives home to me the fact that Emma’s my only child. And then it seems like there’s nothing anyone can do, and I just have to hang on there until the darkness lifts again”.

“Last September she had a bad time when Emma started grade one”, I said; “The house was empty all day, and it felt all wrong to her”.

“Emma was meant to be the oldest child, not the only child”, Kelly said; “At least, that’s how I felt. I know it wasn’t rational, but I felt it anyway”.

“That was when we decided to step up our prayers about it”, I said.

“So you’ve been doing that?” Rob asked.

“Pretty well every day”, Kelly replied.


“Well, things have been getting better, but this little group of Beth’s has helped a lot. Again, it’s not really rational, and it’s not like I’m pretending they’re my kids or anything, but…” She shrugged; “I can’t really explain it”, she said, “But I just know it’s helping”.

“So it’s good for you, and it’s good for the kids”, Rob said with a grin; “Remind me again what it was that you wanted to ask us about?”

We all laughed, and I said, “I suppose we just want to know that from time to time, if we need to, we can consult you two. Neither of us are really theologians or trained Bible study leaders or anything like that, and the way things are going in the group, I think the questions are going to get closer to home, so we may need help if we get out of our depth”.

“You can certainly call on us if you need to”, Rob replied, “but I don’t think we should be wading into it. It’s quite obvious that the kids trust you two, and if you get a question thrown at you that you can’t answer, I’d just tell them so, and tell them you’ll try to find an answer for it. Call on us any time to talk things through, but it’s better if you’re the ones who work with the group”.

“I agree”, Mandy said.

“That makes sense”, I said. “Thank you. Okay, that’s what we’ll do”.

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