Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: childhood

Bunny blues

rabbit-2414359_640.jpgIt was time to go back to school after the Easter vacation. I had put away my parka and winter boots. There wasn’t but a tiny bit of green here and there, but the snow was gone, the road was dry.

I crossed the highway and David came bouncing with excitement from the narrow pathway through the trees that hid his grandmother’s house from the road.

“The Easter Bunny brought me a whole bunch of eggs, red and yellow and blue, some chocolate, some filled with marshmallow and a chocolate bunny and . . . ”

He stopped and looked at me, “What did the Easter Bunny bring you?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing? Why didn’t he bring you anything?”

I had enough sense to know I shouldn’t tell this strangely immature eight year old that  there was no Easter Bunny. Just then an opportunity presented itself to say what seemed in my eleven year old mind to be the next best thing. We had come to the railroad tracks and there in the ditch lay a dead jackrabbit. I pointed to it and said “It looks like the Easter Bunny didn’t make it as far as our place.”

Well, I guess that was about the worst thing I could have done. David gasped, his eyes grew wide and his lips quivered. “But, but, who is going to bring me Easter eggs next year?”

What now? I didn’t want to be responsible for a red-faced sobbing boy appearing at school. A thought came to me. “You know David, I bet that there’s always another bunny ready to fill in if something happens to the Easter Bunny.”

David stopped beating the air with his fists and gasping for breath. Pretty soon we were talking about other things and all was well by the time we got to school.

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Chapter 6 – Learning about church

School was a half mile walk across the edge of town. We were 25 to 30 in two grades in each classroom, about the same number as for eight grades in the Bishopric school. I settled in, got to know my classmates and continued to get good marks without much effort.

The big change in our life was that we were now attending church. Of the three churches in town two were deemed unsuitable by my Dad, the United and Catholic, so more or less by default we became Anglicans. It didn’t take long to become at home with the rhythm of the services in the Book of Common Prayer. They were saturated with readings from the Bible and passages from the Bible that were spoken in unison or as responsive readings, one line by the minister, the next by the congregation. There were prayers for every situation, old written prayers that were very eloquent and meaningful if one was paying attention. Our lives began to be centred around church and its activities.

The congregation was small, but included a number of children from my class in school. My cousin Ron, 21 years older than me, owned the Red and White grocery store in Craik. Ron and Rose and their son Garry started attending around the same time we did. Mrs. Rutherford, the owner of Craik Realty and Insurance, was always the last person to arrive in church. A short, round lady,, she would march up to the third row from the front, the keys on her belt jangling for all to hear, take her seat, and then the service could begin. Alf Soper, a bachelor and jack of all trades, was another regular. Some folks had concerns about his lifestyle; I was little and didn’t know if the concerns were warranted or not. But he could sing. His deep voice was heard by all and he was always on tune.

The next summer I went to Anglican summer camp on the shore of Mission Lake between Fort Qu’Appelle and Lebret, in the Qu’Appelle Valley. We slept in bunk houses, spent our days learning Pilgrim’s Progress, swimming in the lake and hiking through the hills; in the evenings we all gathered around a campfire for singing and stories and an evening prayer.

I first took note of Norman when the camp leaders led us on a hike to Lebret. He was a quiet boy, walking with us, yet alone. He seemed like the rest of us, except that he could not hold his head up straight. It tilted towards his right shoulder, almost resting on the shoulder. Some of the other boys called him Leadhead.

I didn’t like to hear the other boys making fun of Norman and calling him Leadhead. By the third day I overcame my scruples began to call him that myself.

The morning of the fourth day, I woke up with pain in my neck and shoulder. The pain became excruciating if I tried to straighten my head — overnight, I had become Leadhead II! I went through that day with my head in the same position as Norman’s and got the same unkind remarks from the other boys. Late in the day my muscles began to loosen up and the next morning I could hold my head up with no discomfort.

One would think that such a dramatic lesson in the Golden Rule would be unforgettable. I have found that there is a difference between remembering the lesson and learning the lesson.

The next winter the minister announced he would teach catechism classes for those who wanted to be confirmed. I had no idea what that meant, but my father enrolled me and four other fathers enrolled their sons. Once a week, we five boys walked to the minister’s house after school and studied the Anglican catechism, writing the answers to the questions in a notebook. Sort of a crash course in systematic theology for eleven year old boys. Some of it stuck.

A rock of refuge

In 1951 the doctor told Dad he had an ulcer and needed to eat a very bland diet and find a less stressful lifestyle. Thus it happened that in October of that year we loaded all our possessions and left the land of hills and sloughs for a new home in a land of ravines and coulees.

It was mid-afternoon when we got to our new home just outside the town of Craik. I was just in the way when the trucks were being unloaded and I went to look around the yard. I checked out the barn, the chicken house and the garage for our truck. As I walked away from these buildings where all the activity was going on I discovered a ravine north of our house. It began with a large culvert under the road on the west side of the yard and seemed to get deeper as it went east. It was dry now but water must come through that culvert in spring. Soon I was called for supper and after supper it was dark and I was tired.

After breakfast the next morning I decided to see where that ravine would lead me. I hadn’t gone far when the ravine widened and I found myself in a coulee coming from the south. There was a cliff on the opposite bank that I imagined to be a buffalo jump where buffalo had been driven over and killed where they fell at the bottom. When I climbed up the bank beside the cliff and looked around I saw circles in the grass and was sure there had once been tents standing where those circles were.

At the old farm the pasture was a long way from the house, had lots of beef cattle and a few big horses. I had walked it a few times with my Dad and with my older cousins when they came for a visit, but I was a little boy with no permission to explore it alone. Here I was a big boy, nine years old already, and there was a new world to explore at my doorstep. The only cattle were a few tame shorthorns.

I walked further along the coulee. It curved to the east, back west and then north again. The bank inside that last curve was the highest in our pasture. There was a hollow depression halfway up that bank and that was where I discovered the most wonderful place in that whole pasture. There stood a giant rectangular block of pink granite with a step halfway along the top. One could imagine a giant doorstep or recliner. It was a buffalo rubbing stone, rubbed smooth by buffalo rubbing their itches for thousands of years.

The best part was that when I was beside this stone I could not see a fence, a road or a power line and could hear no sound from the roads or the town. I was back in the days before the settlers came and almost expected to see buffalo come along the coulee. This spot beside the big stone became a haven for me as I was growing up. I could walk away from the tension and anger that often existed in our house and find rest and quietness beside my rock of refuge.

There were many other wonders in the coulee. In one spot along the bottom there was a burial site marked by stones. There were wild roses, buffalo berry bushes (my father called them buck brush), Saskatoon berry bushes, tiny red flowers that I later learned were scarlet mallow. Not far from my rock was the spot where the first crocuses bloomed in spring. There were pools of water along the bottom where the cattle drank and frogs croaked. There were gophers and Swainson’s hawks that hunted them.

One time, just as I entered the coulee, a hummingbird flew up to me, stopped so close that I could have reached out and touched him, looked me in the eye for a moment, then zipped aside to let me pass. It seemed an invitation to enter the coulee where the atmosphere would spread a healing balm over me whenever I was troubled.

Chapter 1 – Why couldn’t I be the healthy one?

My cousin Dennis has often been a friend in time of need, knowing just when to show up. He came over the morning after my father’s funeral and we sat around a table with my mother, reliving bygone days with the help of her old photographs. There were photos of my father breaking land, of my father when he attended auto mechanics school in Tennessee, of my mother in her younger years, of me as a baby, of my cousins.

Then we came to a photo from when I was in Grade 2, all the students and the teacher grouped in front of our one-room school. There were two little boys in the front row, one bright-eyed, smiling and healthy-looking, the other wearing a heavy sweater and making a feeble attempt at a smile. Impulsively, I pointed at the healthy looking boy and said “That was me!” Dennis glanced up, his brow furrowed, and said, “No, that was David Harlton.” Then pointing to the sickly-looking boy he said, “This is you over here.”

He said no more about my mistake, just carried on talking about school days. I carried on too, hoping the pain inside me was not visible to others. I knew he was right, but why couldn’t I believe for just one moment that I was the healthy one? I guess a true friend helps keep you real.

I had frequent bouts of colds and flu as a child and was well-acquainted with Buckley’s White Rub and other home remedies. I am a genuine phlegmatic; it’s not often that I don’t have some nasal congestion and a frog in my throat. This affects my inner ear, causing vertigo and a poor sense of balance. When I was four my parents took me to the fair and put me on a merry-go-round, expecting I would be thrilled at the ride. My head began to whirl, my stomach to churn and I cried to be rescued.

I had frequent outbreaks of hives as a child. Eventually we figured out that they always happened when I had oatmeal porridge for breakfast two days in a row. Later in life I realized that the cold and flu symptoms were usually allergic reactions to dust, pollens and other stuff in the air. These reactions often led into sinus infections and recovery times were a matter of several weeks.

My mother told me that I was raised with cow’s milk formula because my father thought that was more modern and sanitary than breast feeding. I had an allergic reaction at the beginning that caused my face to puff up until my eyes all but disappeared. The cure was to give me only water for awhile, then gradually reintroduce the milk. Perhaps that is where my allergies began. Or it may have happened at birth. Doctors today have linked birth by cesarean section to allergy problems in the child. The doctor had opted for cesarean when I was born because of my mother’s hip dysplasia. In the end it doesn’t matter, it won’t make me healthier to find someone to blame for my poor health.

When I was in my twenties I discovered antihistamines and they have helped me cope with life. A little pill once or twice a day, a corticosteroid puff in each nostril once a day, a saline nasal spray plus a decongestant when needed, keep me going – most of the time. But I can’t always escape those times when allergy symptoms leave me feeling wiped out. Those episodes can hit any time of the year but spring and fall seem the worst.

I have learned by experience that some occupations are best avoided. I’m just not the robust type who thrives on outdoor activities. It isn’t that I’m always sick, but when I do get sick it takes several weeks to recover to where I can breathe freely and my body doesn’t ache.

But maybe that’s alright. My frequent sicknesses kept me indoors more than most other children and facilitated my love for reading, and writing. Perhaps God has allowed these circumstances to steer me in the direction He wanted me to go. In any case, here I am, with all the things I have experienced, observed and learned in life, and I want to use them all to His honour.

[All comments and critiques are welcome. Please help me improve this writing.]

Cat or dog: which is smarter?

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I will confess my prejudice right off the bat – I think cats are smarter. I have met some well-trained dogs that gave every evidence of having a keen intelligence. Most dogs, though, if left to themselves, don’t seem to have a lot of smarts. They chase cars, defecate on the lawn and have really gross personal hygiene.

Nevertheless, I have fond memories of a dog that looked just like the one in the picture. He was just a land race collie of the type that was common on Saskatchewan farms years ago. He was my protector when I was a toddler. I clearly remember my frustration one day when I wanted to go to the barn. He knew I was too young to venture out there where the big animals were, so he simply stood in my way. I tried and tried to go around him, but he always stood in front of me and wouldn’t let me pass.

A cat won’t do that, but cats are more cuddly and they purr. They are fastidious about their personal hygiene. They are capable of a much wider range of vocalizations than a dog. Cats can rustle up their own food if needed. I once knew a 20year old arthritic cat that was still a successful hunter, bringing home mice and moles that he had caught.

Cats have a distinctive call when they have caught something and want to show it to you. Some years ago our cat came up to the house making that call. She had a toad in her mouth. She didn’t intend to eat it, she just wanted to show it to us. The toad wasn’t hurt at all and hopped away as soon as she let go of it.

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When we were first married we had a domestic long hair cat, not the same colour as the picture shown here, that we called Moochie. For a few days we also had a dog. At night we closed the door to the stairs, with the dog downstairs and the cat upstairs with us. The cat’s litter box was also downstairs, but we hoped she would be good till morning, or wake us up if she had to go. We slept peacefully through the night. I got up in the morning to get ready to go to work, and there was Moochie peeing down the bathtub drain. Show me a dog that has that kind of smarts!

A refuge from the storm

Abner slipped out of his bedroom and into the spare bedroom. Even there the angry voice of Papa Zedner disturbed his attempts to read. Abner knew that his father wasn’t angry with him, but he knew from experience it was best to avoid giving opportunity for it to be directed at him. Papa Zedner’s anger was like the prairie winds, all one could do was give it time to blow itself out.

The best thing would be to explore the new farm. Abner slipped out the door and walked to the barn and the gate to the corral. He was going to open the wooden gate, then saw that one side of the gate was fastened to a heavy post, leaving a gap between the post and the corner of the barn just big enough for an eleven-year-old boy to slip through if he turned sideways.

Abner walked through the corral and the open gate that led to the pasture. He hadn’t gone far when a tiny bird appeared in front of him; it’s wings a blur. Abner stopped; the bird stopped. For a moment they eyed each other, almost nose to nose, then the bird zipped away. The storm of the house vanished with the bird and Abner stepped forward to discover what wonders might lie before him.

He had been walking beside the ravine that ran through their yard and now that ravine merged with another that came from the town. Buffalo berry bushes grew on the hill sides of the ravines, with wild roses scattered among them. He walked across the bottom of the ravine and up the steep slope on the other side. The shrill whistle of a gopher alerted him to the gopher mounds at the top of the hill. The gophers were gone, warned by the whistle that an intruder was present.

A little farther along on the flat pasture land above the ravine he saw a group of circular depressions in the ground. Tipi rings! What else could they be? He had noticed that part of the ravine bank was almost vertical.  That hadn’t seemed significant before, but now it became a buffalo jump and scenes of the buffalo hunt appeared in his imagination.

He walked further along the top of the ravine, seeing how it turned first one way and then the other. Just ahead of him the ravine turned again and the hill on the inside of the turn was the highest point in the pasture. Then he saw the rock. Halfway down the hillside there was a hollow in the side of the hill and at the bottom of this hollow was a huge rock.

As Abner ran to get a closer look, he felt as though this rock was the reason he had come out to the pasture. He knew it was a buffalo rubbing stone, even if he had never seen one before. Worn smooth by thousands, no millions, of buffalo rubbing their itching sides on it, the ground around it eroded by the hooves of the buffalo, it had once served to remove their winter coats. There were still brown hairs caught in the crevices of the rock. Abner knew they must be cattle hairs, the buffalo had been gone too long. But still . . .

The rock was oblong, the sides and corners almost squared off, with a step up about halfway along the top, like giant steps, or a chair for a giant. Abner tried sitting on it, but it felt best to sit on the ground beside it. When he did so, he looked around and there were no fences, power lines, roads or buildings to be seen. There were not even any sounds to betray the impression that he was back in the time before the settlers came. Perhaps even now the hunters were camping not far away, preparing the buffalo hides and pemmican from their hunt.

The rock had stood here for ages, a friend to the buffalo, perhaps a landmark for the hunters. It has survived summer heat and winter cold, prairie fires, droughts, floods. And for a young boy it had now become a refuge from the storms at home. It was time for Abner to go, but he felt peaceful now and knew he would return.

Precious memories

My mother died seven years ago today, December 31, 2006 at 9:00 p.m.  If she had lived another 18 days, she would have been 99.

Not that I would have wished another 18 days for her just so she could reach that landmark.  She began to show signs of dementia in her early nineties and her last couple of years were difficult.  Then she caught a norovirus that was going round the nursing home where she lived.  She recovered from that, but it left her so weakened that she only lived a few more days.

She lived with us until she needed more care than we could provide at home.  Then we placed her in the Mennonite Nursing Home at Rosthern, Saskatchewan.  This was a wonderful place.  It helped Mom that in her confused state she decided this was the house her Uncle Pete had built.  Uncle Pete’s house must have been much smaller than this sprawling nursing home complex, and it was hundreds of miles away.  Never mind, it made Mom feel like she was not in a totally unfamiliar place.

Mom did not want to get dressed in the morning, because the clothes the staff wanted here to put on were not her clothes.  The trouble was that the only clothes she would have recognized by this time were the clothes that she had worn 75 years ago.  The staff people were patient with her and eventually coaxed her to let them help her get dressed anyway.

She fought when they tried to give her a bath and the staff asked for permission to sedate her at those times.  We gave our permission, but they never did use a sedative, finding ways to get her bathed without too much stress.

When our daughter was expecting her first child, almost five years earlier, Grandma was the first person she told and Grandma rejoiced with her.  Later, Grandma had a dim understanding that Michelle had a second child.  Now, in Grandma’s very last days, Michelle brought her third child, four months old, and showed her to Grandma.  The smile that Grandma gave was a little glimmer of light in that dark time.  We weren’t sure by then if Mom even knew who we were anymore, but the sight of the baby must have brought some happy thoughts.

The funeral was in Moose Jaw, where Mom had lived for many years.  We were touched by all the family and friends who came to show that they cared.  There were a few more details to look after and then we were left with our memories.

The memories of the difficult lady my mother became in her last years have faded and I am left with sixty years of memories of the wonderful, sweet lady that my mother really was.  She was born with congenital hip dysplasia and in later years told me that she had never walked without pain.  Yet she went on walks with me when I was little, even ran foot races with me.  She was a hard-working farm wife, cooking, baking, canning, and all the other tasks of making a home.  I remember her singing hymns in the vehicle whenever we drove any distance.  She loved to read and was my first and best teacher.

When I married, she accepted my wife as a daughter and they became very close.  She was delighted when a new generation began with the birth of our daughter.  When we moved to Eastern Canada she came and spent a couple of weeks with us each year.  We tried to get back to Moose Jaw every second year.  When Michelle was nine years old and my wife was going through weekly chemotherapy after cancer surgery, Mom came and spent several months with us, keeping the home running smoothly while Chris sometimes felt so tired.  Just having Mom there made this time easier for us all.

It doesn’t lessen the pain of parting to know a loved one is near death.  When the earthly ties that bind us together are cut, there will be pain.  Healing comes from in facing that pain and going through a proper funeral, sharing memories with friends and family, and accepting that this person who has been part of one’s life forever is not here anymore.  When the pain of parting has healed, the good memories come flooding back.

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