Betty Jane Hegerat

April 4, 2014

Forgiveness yet again. And another story.

Filed under: Random Musings on many things,Stories — bettyjanehegerat @ 2:46 pm

Forgiveness seems to have become a recurring theme in my posts here, and I’m beginning to accept that it’s part of the journey. I’m getting better at forgiving those who’ve wounded me, whether by intent or simply because of my perception of their acts or words. It’s hard work, but I don’t want to schlepp any of this burden to my grave. At a Holden Evening Prayer Service last night, our wise Pastor Laura gave us these words to take away and they have been on my mind throughout this day:

“What if we don’t have to carry burdens and hurts around with us?
What if we don’t have to keep score of the wrongs done to us?

What if forgiveness is not a gift we give to others, nor an action we have to practice?

What if forgiveness is a place we stand?
What if forgiveness is an orientation to life and all that happens to us?
What if forgiveness is a lens through which we see the world?”    –Pastor Laura Holck


“Water From the Well,” a story from my collection of stories, A Crack in the Wall  is a story about forgiveness.  I took a painful incident from my mother’s childhood and asked  “what-if?”. What if my grandmother had found herself confined to a room in a nursing home with the woman who had shouted her hatred at my mom and her siblings and chased them away with a broom in hand? Perhaps Oma did forgive even without coming face-to-face with her neighbor-enemy. I like to think so — Oma was a kindhearted woman with a strong faith, and I think she would have known what God wanted her to do. But what if… in order to do so, she too had to scale all the barriers we erect around forgiveness?
A Crack in the Wall is a book close to my heart because so many of the stories began with bits and pieces stolen from the life of my family and friends. It is still available, and I hope it will live on.

And here is “Water From the Well” (reproduced with the kind of permission of Oolichan Books)

Water from the Well

Soon Marta will be here to slide the pins from the coiled braid at the nape of my neck. Her fingers will fan the pleated grey waves across my back. “Mutti!” she will say. How long since they washed your hair?”

Ilsa was marooned, perched on a green vinyl chair that sucked at her thighs where her dress was hitched crooked beneath her. She’d awakened with Marta on her mind. She whispered her daughter’s name to the stiff-fingered rhythm of the knitting needles. The names of all her children: Marta, Walter, Annaliese, Bruno. The living and the dead. Not sure if she chanted them aloud, or in her thoughts, until the Filipino nursing aide poked her head into the room and asked, “You calling for me, Ilsa? Or is Bernice making all that racket?”

Before she could answer that it was the one in the other bed moaning and carrying on as though she was dying, someone else stepped through the door.

“What are you knitting now, Oma? Slippers or scarf?” The tall girl brushed snow off her shoulders.

“Jeannie.” Ilsa tried to blink the sticky webs from her brain. “I thought you were coming in the morning.”

“It is still morning, but you’ve probably been up since dawn. Did you have a good sleep?”

“With that one jabbering?” She pointed over her shoulder with the free knitting needle, stabbing into the air on the other side of the room. “Since she came, who can sleep?”

“Water, please.” The voice from the bed sounded like fingernails on a screen.

“See what I put up with? Always complaining about something.” She frowned at a dropped stitch many rows back, and put the wool aside. “No school today?”

The girl pressed a cold cheek to hers. “School? Oma, don’t make me a little girl again. I’m on my way to work. At the bank, remember?”

Now the voice from the other bed commenced a low keening. The old woman lay scattered in the bed like the broken limbs of a tree, her hair sprouting from her skull in tufts that looked as though they would blow away with a puff of breeze.

“Be quiet!” Ilsa shouted.

Her granddaughter shushed her. “What is it with you and Mrs. Ridley? You know, you talk just as much as she does.”

“I?” Steadying herself with a hand on the night table, she stood up tall in her stout black shoes. They tried to make her wear bedroom slippers in this place. As though she had nowhere to go. “I mind my own business,” she said. “I’m a quiet woman waiting here patiently to die.” She tugged at the back of her skirt, pulling the wrinkled fabric free of her damp skin.

Someone has stolen my garter belt and stockings again. Marta will have to go to the Army and Navy store.

While her granddaughter unwound a scarf as bright as buttercups, Ilsa stooped to hoist a water jug from the floor. Shuffling the few steps to the mahogany dresser — her only piece of home — she tested the soil in the pots of African violets, then tipped the pitcher to each, careful to avoid drips on the hairy leaves. She shoved the pitcher out of sight between the chair and the nightstand where two more jugs stood.

“Should you be doing that?” Jeannie asked. “Walking on your own?”

“Am I on my own? I thought you were here?” The effort of easing back into the chair, of concealing her pain, squeezed the breath from her chest.

Mrs. Ridley flicked open a milky eye. “I need a drink, please. A drink of water.” The claw that reached over the blue blanket plucked at the air as though clutching at feathers.

Jeannie took a step toward Mrs. Ridley, her gaze swinging from one surface to the next and then finally descending to the hiding spot. “Oma!” She swooped toward the stainless steel water jugs.

“No!” Ilsa’s arm blocked her, but before they could resolve the standoff, the door whooshed open.

“Good morning, ladies.” Here was the fat nurse, the one who looked, Marta always said, like she’d been sucking on a radish. “Bernice? Let’s go listen to some lovely carols.” No answer from the lump in the next bed. Her eyes had fallen shut again. Only the twitch of fingers at the hem of her sweater gave her away. Mrs. Ridley. Bernice, in this place.

It puzzled Ilsa still to have her own name tossed around like a child’s toy. Ilsa, Ilsa. Like the bounce of a bright red ball. Good morning, Ilsa. Time for bed, Ilsa. Nice chicken for lunch today, Ilsa. For eighty-eight years she’d owned that name, but could count on her fingers the people who’d used it in her adult life. Even to her friends, she was Mrs Gartner. Mrs. Rolf Gartner, so there would be no mistake.

The first time Marta heard, she’d stormed to the nurse’s desk. Her voice so loud it carried down the hall and back into the room. “My mother’s name is Mrs. Gartner.” She’d come back to the room with a roll of tape, covered “Ilsa” on the name plate at the end of her bed and printed MRS GARTNER in big black letters. But still, she was Ilsa in this place. And did it really matter?

Mrs. Ridley — Bernice — was carted off moaning to listen to the Sunday school children sing. Poor little ones never knew what to do, where to look, when the moaners sang along.

Jeannie held aloft the bag she’d carried in. “I brought you something new.” Shaking the wrinkles from a pink shirt, and then pants, she draped them over her grandmother’s knees.

“What is this? Pyjamas?”

“No, for daytime. Fleece pants and a top. Very cosy and they won’t get wrecked in the laundry like your good dresses.”

Marta washes my dresses. Folds them every Sunday into a bag and brings them back on hangers on Wednesday. And my underthings, hand washed in Ivory soap, not thrown in a boiling machine with the smelly garments of strangers.

“Your mother takes my clothes.”
Jeannie knelt in front of her, crossing the arms of the shirt, tucking the cuffs one inside the other, and then finally looking up into her eyes. “Oma, Mom’s been gone for six months. I can’t do your laundry.”

“Who said you should? Just tell them to put my name in this new suit. Every day since that one came,” she jerked her chin at Mrs.Ridley, “I have to go into her closet and find the clothes she steals.”

“I talked with the nurses last week. They said your clothes are in your own closet. They say you’re the one who’s been snitching things.”

“I?” She sniffed, but let Jeannie take her hand. “What do they know?”

“Are they treating you well, Oma?” She sounded so sad, little Jeannie, but at the same time she sounded like her mother. She would stand up to the sour-faced nurse when the need arose.

“They do their job.” Ilsa shook her head. What could she say about living among strangers? “They come and go and when they’re here they worry about what’s happening at home. You should hear Marcella, the little Filipino girl, how she talks about her family.” Yesterday when she’d changed the sheets, Marcella had cried about her sister back home dying of cancer and no one to take her babies. She would have to go back to the Philippines herself, she said. “Likely even the fat one has troubles. How can we know what goes on in other people’s lives?”

Jeannie poked a wrist free of the heavy cuff on her jacket and looked at her watch. “I’m sorry to be in such a hurry, but I have to be at work at ten o’clock. Uncle Walter said he’d pop in this afternoon. Shall I take you to the lounge before I leave?”

Ilsa patted the fleecy pile on the bed. “I should maybe wear my lounging suit to go there?” Peering over the top of the wire frames, she let her glasses slide down her nose and looked up at the girl, coaxing a grin that reminded her more of the boys, of Walter and Bruno, than of Marta. Never before had she seen the old man in Jeannie’s eyes, but there he was smiling at her over his basket of apples where they stood together on the dock waiting for the big ships.

“Oma?” The hand covered hers like a shy glove. Ilsa Reinhold. Someday we’ll sail,  Rolf said. And so we did, but he landed me on a poor prairie farm with no well. Nor an apple nor an ocean in sight.

“Oma? Shall I wheel you to the lounge?”

“Lounge? Who has time to lounge?” Run to the garden and bring an onion and parsley for the soup. Her eyes were drawn to the window, to coloured bulbs strung on the juniper bushes. Christmas already? We should roll the springerle today.

Marta is holding both hands now, squeezing, forgetting that my knobbled bones are held together by sharp pins.

Ilsa winced and pulled away. “Oh, I’m sorry, Oma. I forgot about your poor hands. Look, I have to go but I’ll see you tomorrow. Christmas Eve, remember? The Handi-bus is bringing you to Walter and Lydia’s. I’ll make sure you get on, then follow you over.”

Marta is making Weihnnachten. Not Lydia!

Ilsa pushed away the hand on her arm. She felt the gentle kiss on her cheek, the rush of air when the door opened and closed, then she was alone. The shake of her head drip-dropped tears onto her wrists.


When she stirred, her neck was stiff from the lopsided sleep in the ugly chair. Mrs. Ridley was back. From across the room she heard snoring. Who brought that one here? Let her into the house?

“Ilsa? What are you doing, sleeping in the middle of the morning?” Marcella bent to her chair, eyes bright like a sparrow’s. “Time for lunch.”

The fat one came through the door. “Take Bernice,” she said. “I’ll bring Mrs. Gartner.” She pulled the curtain that divided the room, manoeuvred the wheelchair round and offered an arm as strong as any man’s. When Ilsa was seated, the nurse eased her own big bottom onto the green chair. “Your granddaughter says you’re unhappy. That you want a different roommate.”
From the other side of the curtain, Mrs. Ridley’s moans and Marcella’s encouraging chirps carolled the move from bed to chair and then out the door. A tide of voices in the hall rolled toward the smell of lunch, toward cream soup that hung from the spoon like wallpaper paste. “What is it about Mrs. Ridley that’s bothering you? You shared so nicely before with poor Mary …”

Snowflakes as big as fists clumped down outside the window. Or maybe just her glasses needed cleaning. She pulled them off with a shaky hand, one temple catching in her hair. When she reached up to free it from behind her ear her fingers puzzled at the bristly fringe on her neck. Mary? What is this woman talking about? There is no Mary here.

“So there’s nowhere to move you. You understand that, don’t you? These little problems between you and Mrs. Ridley will work out in the end.”

Oh, yes. Mrs. Ridley. She was to share her room with Mrs. Herbert Ridley. She slid her glasses onto her nose and stared into the pale eyes of the nurse. “In the end?” she said. “You mean when one of us dies?” Then she folded her arms, planted her feet on the rests of the wheelchair and waited for the fat one to take her to her lunch.

In the afternoon there were more visitors. Little girls trooping through the halls with flowers. This time both she and Mrs. Ridley had been shuttled from the dining room to the lounge, part of the sea of shipwrecked grey faces bobbing in their wheelchairs. In the drab room, the children were like bright cut-outs pasted onto a yellowed old photo.

When they were wheeled back to their room to nap, there was a poinsettia on Mrs. Ridley’s bedside table. Marcella held up a handmade card and waved it in front of Mrs. Ridley’s nose. “See, a nice present for you, Bernice. Merry Christmas from the 203 Brownie pack.” She picked a paper thimble of pills off the tray she’d carried in, then frowning, looked from the night table to the dresser. “Jesus in the garden! Your water’s gone again.”

Ilsa steered her chair to the window. The snow had stopped and on the street a long line of cars inched toward the traffic light at the corner.

The old man won’t drive to the city. He scarcely leaves his bedroom now. The only way I can visit with Marta or Walter is to catch a ride with a neighbour.

This morning she’d left her Bible on the window ledge, and she reached for it now.

“Ilsa, did you hide the water again?”

She absent-mindedly fingered the skein of wool in the pocket on the side of her wheelchair, ignoring the nurse rummaging around the room. If I double the yarn it will make warm mittens for Bruno.

There was a metallic clink behind her. “Bernice can’t hardly get out of bed never mind play hide-and-seek when she’s thirsty. Now you stop this, you hear?” Marcella’s footsteps moved round the bed, and she began to cajole Mrs. Ridley to swallow. Then the scolding tone warmed. “Look, Ilsa, here’s your son.”

“Hi, Mom.” The man crouched in front of her chair. He tapped the Bible that lay open on her lap. “A bit of evening devotion?” She blinked through the snow in front of her eyes. Here was Walter with a gift-wrapped package. “I brought chocolates for the nurses,” he said. He set the box on the floor and dug in the pocket of his overcoat. “For you, some peppermints.You can suck them while you pray.”

“I’m praying for patience to put up with that one. Listen to her yammering again about water.” She tapped the cover of the Bible. “Someone asked today how long since my husband’s gone, so I’m looking. I wrote it in the Bible.” When Walter leaned close to slip the roll of candy in beside her knitting, his jacket brushed her cheek. “Is it snowing?” she asked. “You smell of snow.”

Rocking back on his heels, he shook his head, tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “Why the hell they couldn’t leave your braid… heads would roll if Marta was here.”

Ilsa pursed her lips to keep from telling him. Why make trouble even though she knows it was Walter’s Lydia who told that woman to cut her hair, when all she wanted was a washing. I heat water from the rain barrel for rinsing our hair. Mine and the two girls. The water from the well is too hard, so much iron that Annaliese’s blonde curls are streaked with rust.
Ilsa’s hand tugged at the stiff fan of hair over her ear. “Lydia,” she muttered.

“What?” Walter’s eyes behind the thick glasses were grey as the winter sky. When did Walter get glasses? On my side, everyone has good eyes. Only poor little Bruno with his lazy eye needs glasses for school.
Ilsa shook her head and turned the worn pages of the Bible. Bruno likes the coloured pictures in the middle. Elijah in his chariot of fire. I imagine myself aboard that chariot, the mane of the white horse streaming against crimson clouds, my best navy dress billowing in the wind, my hand raised in farewell.

“Mutti?” Walter slid the Bible from her knee and held it with his thumb marking her place. He leaned closer and spoke softly. “Jeannie phoned me this morning. She said you and the new lady don’t get along.”

Ilsa’s glance flew furtively to the other side of the room. She cupped a hand around his ear. “Old Lady Ridley,” she whispered. “From the home place.”

Walter looked toward Mrs. Ridley who sat swaying on the edge of her bed, mumbling. He shook his head. “Not. Those Ridleys must have passed away years ago.”

“It is!” she hissed. “Bernice Ridley. You look at the card at the end of the bed.”

“She was called Bernice? I only remember his name. Herbert Ridley, the old son-of-a-bitch.” He took one more look at Mrs. Ridley, shook his head again. “I don’t think so. And if it were, what does it matter now? They moved away when we were all still kids.” Then he paged through the Bible with his stout thumb. “14 Oktober, 1982. Rolf Freidrich Gartner ist gestorben.” He wrinkled his nose. “Is that right? I thought ’83.”

She rubbed her eyes. Who was it wanted to know? One of the nurses? Maybe the woman who sat beside her when the little girls in their brown dresses were singing. Always people asked where she was from, how many children, is there a husband.

Mrs. Ridley had managed to reach across the void between her bed and the table and drag the poinsettia onto her lap. She cradled it in her arms and poked at the dirt. “Dry as a bone,” she croaked. “Somebody bring me water! I need water.” Just as she toppled sideways, Marcella rushed back into the room. “Bernice! You’re squashing that pretty flower.” She held up a handful of red petal. “Oh, now look!”

The first summer on the farm at Bruderfeldt, I sowed seeds I brought from the old country and the scarlet tissue paper petals of the poppies danced in the wind. When two months passed without rain, Rolf hauled buckets of water from the slough to the vegetable patch, and I watched him from the window, him pouring the last of the pails around the poppies. A few days later, before I could harvest the seed, a hailstorm pounded the garden to a pulp and stripped the trees. But only our farm. The hail cut a swath the width of our land. Old Man Ridley had a fine crop of barley in the neighbouring field.

Ilsa shifted in her chair, trying to ease the ache in her bad hip. She’d been dozing again. If only it would stop, this sleep that crept up in the middle of business. What were they talking about, she and Walter? Oh yes. “Mrs. Ridley?” she called. Her neighbour was belted into the wheelchair, still clutching the potted plant. Marcella had left the room, but was not far away, her cheerful voice singing from the room across the hall. “Mrs. Ridley!” Ilsa called again. This time the woman looked up, her eyes a startling forget-me-not blue. “How long is your husband dead?”

The answer seemed to come from far away, but clear as a chime. “Why, he died in ’76. Dropped dead in the field. Found by Richard Fyffe, come to help with combining.”

Ilsa let her feet drop off the foot rests and walked her chair to the dividing line between the two halves of the room. “What was his name?”

The moment of calm was past, the tremor returning to shake Mrs. Ridley like a faded flower in the wind. Her hands fluttered and tangled in the leaves of the poinsettia. “Go away!” she wailed. “Leave me be! I’m dying!”

“Herbert was his name!” Ilsa shouted. “Herbert Ridley, who wouldn’t give a thirsty child a pail of water!” She looked frantically for Walter, to tell him it was so. She was locked here with Mrs. Herbert Ridley.

Fourteen days on the ship, all four children sick with measles and still so weak by the time we docked we were afraid we’d be kept behind, quarantined. But a kind doctor from the Red Cross convinced the immigration officer that we should be allowed to go on to the relatives who awaited us. Five days on the train, a month crowded into the tiny home of Rolf’s brother and then finally we had our own land. The well still to be dug, but the Englishman from whom we bought the farm — leaving after only a month because his wife and new baby died — told us that the neighbour, Ridley, welcomed him to draw as much water as he needed. Just a half mile down the road to his gate, an easy walk for the children, certainly for the three eldest. How was the Englishman to know that the gate opened only for the right names? That Ridley was still fighting the Battle of the Somme.

“His name was Herbert Ridley!” Ilsa shouted again.

Mrs. Ridley covered her eyes, shreds of peat soil clinging to her nails. “I don’t know you!”

When Walter and the mean-faced nurse ran into the room, Ilsa was at the window again, staring into the dusk.


Supper was ham, mashed potatoes and peas. Mrs. Ridley was not at the same table anymore but parked on the other side of the dining room. “See?” the afternoon nurse clucked when she steered Ilsa to her place. “We had to move poor Bernice because your son made a fuss. Just when she was starting to talk, and feel at home. Shame on you. You with your lovely family and she with nobody.”

Ilsa spooned the last of her rice pudding. Miserable stuff, but she had a sweet tooth, so she ate. She had her own teeth and a good appetite, not like some of these poor people who hung over the plates until someone came to mash a few peas past their lips. On each table was a tiny Christmas tree. Lydia would roast a goose for Christmas Eve, Walter said. Ilsa smacked her lips at the taste of memory. I will make the prune stuffing. None of the girls, not even Annaliese, can do it right. Lazy little Marta will try to hide in the barn with the kittens. And Walter wanting to go to Lydia’s after church instead of coming home to open the presents. That Lydia…

“Ilsa. Ilsa?” Someone was shaking her arm, talking about Lydia. Back in her room now, in the cold chair and the light so dim she could barely make out the shadow calling her name.

“Marcella?” Her voice sounded thick in her own ears.

“No, Marcella went home long time ago.” One of the night girls she didn’t know draped an afghan over her knees. “You’re so cold you’re shaking. I’ll be back in a minute and help you to bed. Your daughter-in-law phoned. Lydia. She said she made you an appointment in the morning with the hairdresser. How nice you’re going to look with your hair curled for Christmas. And so lucky to spend it with your family.”
My sisters all have curls. But my hair is white-blonde, strong and straight as the tail of a horse. Hair down to my hips. Each morning I fix it in a braid as thick as my wrist, then coil and pin it at the nape of my neck. Both Marta and Bruno are dark like Rolf. Walter and Annaliese are fair like me.
She licked her lips. The ham had left her with a terrible thirst, but she hadn’t the strength to drag the pitcher from the floor. Fumbling with the paper sleeve, she unwrapped her roll of peppermints and pressed one past her dry lips. The curtain between the beds was drawn.

Ilsa closed her eyes again, the blanket warming her legs, the Christmas lights outside the window bleeding the walls pink, and the taste of the candy sweet and fresh. From down the hall, there was a surge of music and then it grew faint. More Christmas carols, this time from the radio the nurses kept at the desk. Silent night… Heilige Nacht. She hummed, letting the sound swell in the room.

There was a stirring on the other side of the drape, the smacking click of dentures, a dry swallow, then a rising moan.

“Go to sleep, you mean old woman!” Alles schläft, einsam wacht… Ilsa’s voice was still strong, still a rich soprano.

“I need water! The pails are too heavy to carry. They’ll bring on the baby again.” Mrs. Ridley wailed like a lost child. “Too soon, too soon!”

“What do you know of babies? You chased my children away with the broom. Like chickens or stray dogs. All they wanted was a few pails of water from your well. Chased them like dogs!” Ilsa sat up and yanked open the drawer in her bedside table.”Four miles they had to walk. Little children. Walter carried Marta on his shoulders the last mile. His hands were raw from the wire on the pail.”

“All my babies dead before they were alive.” The curtain dividing them billowed as though a wind had entered the room. “And him, the mean old bastard, always stinking of manure and always on me.” The voice grew stronger, the room colder. “Wait a few months, the doctor said. Your wife needs to rest. But did he listen?”

Ilsa shuffled through hairpins and handkerchiefs. “Be still! How can I think with this racket going on? Where is my apron? I need to light the oven for the goose. Walter is coming home and Marta… Be quiet you old woman! Too mean to give children a pail of water!”

“On me every night like an animal!”

“Bernice! Ilsa!” The nurse swept the curtain aside, and stood between the beds. “Let me get you both settled or you’ll have everyone else in an uproar.” Frowning, she retrieved the water jug from the hiding place and filled their two glasses. She handed Ilsa the paper cup of pills, and the water. Mrs. Ridley had fallen back onto the pillow, her jaw slack. The nurse dumped the tablets into the yawning mouth, sloshed in water, then hoisted the woman to sitting just long enough to watch her swallow.

Within minutes, Ilsa’s dress was whisked over her head, the worn nightgown pulled on in its place, one last trip to the toilet and the light was dimmed. She lay breathless under the thin blanket, wishing only that Marta would remember one day to bring the featherbed from the farm. Down the hall the carols played on… Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh’, Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh’. And from the other bed she heard weeping.
“Oh sleep now, Mrs. Ridley,” she whispered. “Just sleep.”

They must look, Ilsa thought, like bookends the way they sat in their matching chairs. Mrs. Ridley in a fluffy blue robe, her hair brushed into a frizzy halo. Ilsa herself, like a traveller waiting for a bus, with her handbag in her lap, her good black coat bunched around her shoulders. She’d folded a triangle of grey wool over the fussy cap of curls, and knotted it under her chin to form a soft hood. She hoped Lydia would be satisfied when she saw this hair. How stupid she looked. She was sweating from the extra layer under her best silk dress. She could feel the ribbing on the sweatshirt bunched around her neck. When she lifted her foot onto the metal rest on the wheelchair, a pink cuff peeked out between the hem of her coat and the furry top of her winter boot.

“Good grief, Oma! How long have you been bundled up waiting?” Jeannie breezed into the room, slim and smart in a belted red wool coat.

“Jeannie!” Ilsa felt tears sharp as pinpricks. “Your Mutti, too, always looked so pretty in red.”

“Of course she did. She looked pretty in everything.” She touched the edge of her grandmother’s scarf. “And did you know you look like a wise little owl hiding in there. The Handi-bus is here, and I got your pills from the nurse.”

“When she was a girl, I made her a red coat. She and Bruno both so beautiful, so rosy-cheeked in red.”

Jeannie crouched in front of her and gently lifted her hands. “Oma, please don’t start on Bruno. You know Bruno died long ago. Long before I was born.”

Ilsa looked into the dark eyes of her granddaughter, eyes just like the two boys. “Of course I know this. I’m his mother. I was talking about his mittens. I knitted him a red scarf and mittens. Stop looking at me so serious.” She let her glasses slide down her nose. “I wore the suit you brought me.” When she looked down at her coat, she could see that the buttons were wrong. She’d missed the bottom two. This was why one side of the collar caught on her scarf each time she moved her head. She fumbled with stiff fingers.

Jeannie leaned over and began to undo the buttons. “I see that. Did you know that people wear those suits without anything over top?”

Ilsa shook her head. “Not on Christmas Eve.”

Jeannie tugged the collar smooth. “The only bad news is that Aunty Annaliese probably won’t get here tonight. Big snowstorm in Toronto and the airport’s closed, maybe until tomorrow. Bad timing for the holiday travellers.”

There was a sigh from Mrs. Ridley’s chair.

“Oma,” Jeannie whispered. “Isn’t Mrs. Ridley going anywhere for Christmas?”

She shook her head again, a finger to her lips. “No family. She lost so many babies. It broke her heart.”

Jeannie stared at her. “How do you know that?”

Ilsa flipped her wrist at Mrs. Ridley, struggling with the other hand to help Jeannie with the last button. “She told me.”

“SHE told you?”

“Well of course. She tells everything. Talks all day and all night too, you should know by now.”

Mrs. Ridley’s head drooped. She snored softly.

“See how tired she is. She has to sleep all day because she talks all night.”

“I know she talks, Oma, but I didn’t think you listened. You told Uncle Walter she’s someone you knew from the farm. Why didn’t you tell me?”

Ilsa set the brakes on her wheelchair and inched forward on the seat. “Maybe she isn’t who I thought.” When she rose out of the chair, Jeannie offered an arm, but she leaned on it only a moment before she took the few steps to the window sill. There was still one hidden pitcher, this one tucked days ago behind the drapes. She bore it across the room in both hands, taking steps like a child just learning to walk, breath ragged by the time she reached Mrs. Ridley’s bedside table. She set the jug next to the poinsettia, then grasped the edge of the table with one hand, the arm of Mrs. Ridley’s chair with the other. Bernice Ridley opened her blue eyes. Ilsa released the hand on the table letting her weight lean on her good hip so that she could stand straight. She felt so tall, so heavy beside this ghost of a woman. Jeannie was behind her now with the wheelchair.

When she felt the gentle nudge of the chair on the back of her knees, she let the girl guide her into the seat. Then she leaned forward, her palm outstretched.

Frohe Weihnnachten, Frau Ridley.”

A thin white hand rose to meet hers. “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Gartner.”


March 21, 2014

Why Launch This Book in a Church?

Filed under: News and events,Uncategorized — bettyjanehegerat @ 2:52 pm

Book Launch

a family by any other name: EXPLORING QUEER RELATIONSHIPS

 Saturday April 26th 2:00 PM

Lutheran Church of the Cross

10620 Elbow Dr. S.W.  Calgary


I think, in fact I know, from several comments I’ve received, that the venue for this book launch is a bit of a puzzle to many who’ve seen the promotion or received invitations. Why hold this celebration at a mainstream Protestant church when so many Lutheran congregations are still rejecting, or conflicted over the Human Sexuality Resolutions passed by the National Church of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada in 2011?

Why on earth include a statement of welcome on the invitation that says:  Come as you are, with an open mind and heart. God will stretch and renew us, for we already know storytelling transforms us.

Has the shunning and the pain inflicted by churches – in the name of God – on the LGBT community not been enough to render such an invitation and the venue offensive?

In fact, that welcoming statement is part of the invitation Church of the Cross has extended to all the other Lutheran Churches in the city (none of which are affirming,) other churches within our southwest community, and to affirming Anglican and United churches in Calgary.

But again, back to — why the church? The short answer (the long answer is in my essay) is that my story ends in this place.  A selfish motive, and a suggestion that was initially questioned by my friend and reading partner for this launch, Dale Lee Kwong.  But Dale, gracious and accepting woman that she is, handed this over to me and I am grateful both to her, and to Touchwood Press and Bruce Gillespie who, if they had reservations held them back.

The open arms with which Pastors Laura and Phil Holck responded to my request to hold the launch in the sanctuary at our/my church sealed my conviction that this was the place we needed to be.

I contemplated removing the mention of God’s renewal on the promotion that will go out to other communities for fear of offending potential audience members who are atheists, agnostics, non-Christians.  But then I remembered that the secular world is far ahead of the Christian church on many issues of acceptance and inclusiveness.  Respect, do not judge, accept one another as we are, are some of the basic tenets that keep my faith alive.

The readings and the Q&A moderated by Jonathan Brower will be held in the sanctuary and I am praying for a Saturday when the stained glass windows are streaming with light.  There will be refreshments – basic requirements of both launches and all Lutheran events. There will be books for sale. An anonymous donor has offered to contribute $2 for every book sold to the church’s Families in Need fund or whatever other cause our pastors can suggest that speaks to inclusiveness.

I feel so honoured to have my story, a mother’s story, included in this anthology that at times I’ve felt that I should just be grateful and quiet. Quiet does not come naturally to me. And I have been reminded by the wise and comforting Dale, that the acronym is frequently LGBTA, the A standing for allies.  I am an ally and so is my church. We will welcome you with open arms.

I suggested to Dale that maybe opening with a prayer for peace and justice would be appropriate and maybe a song that I love on that same theme could close the event. Here, she finally asserted herself and in retrospect, I know she was right on this call.

But this is my own page, we are not in a church and I do want to share a verse from that hymn, “Light Dawns on a Weary World”: “The trees shall clap their hands/the dry lands, gush with springs/the hills and mountains shall break forth with singing/ We shall go out in joy/and be led forth in peace, as all the world in wonder echoes shalom.”


Betty Jane


March 7, 2014


Filed under: News and events,Random Musings on many things,Uncategorized — bettyjanehegerat @ 5:40 pm

I have avoided writing all but the occasional book review  for most of my writing life, and writing a theatre review has truly never crossed my mind. But after seeing “Oblivion” workshopped at the U of C yesterday, I’m going to set aside my reluctance to do a review for which I have no credentials at all, and give you my play-goer’s reaction.  Unfortunately, today was the last performance of Oblivion, but I have no doubt at all that there will other opportunities to see this play, so I’m urging you to remember the play and the playwright — Oblivion by Jonathan Brower.  Store it in one of the accessible files in your brain even if all you can recall when you hear it mentioned again is that it was highly recommended.

I attended the play primarily because the playwright, Jonathan Brower, will be moderating the Calgary launch of A Family by Any Other Name; Exploring Queer Relationships, at which Dale Kwong and I will be reading, and which my home church will be hosting.

Oblivion: A Workshop Production, introduces Tim, a gay man raised in the evangelical church who is struggling with the inner conflict between his faith and his sexuality while contemplating a radical vaccine that would eliminate his ‘religious gene.’

For a more lengthy description of the play and playwright visit the Gauntlet’s website:

But here’s the story from the perspective of this member of yesterday’s audience:

Tim, the young gay man portrayed in the play is torn — in fact, his church and his friends in the secular world, are pulling so hard in opposite directions that I believed so completely in the character that I could feel those arms grabbing/pulling/insisting.

There is the religious world, an evangelical pastor, Quinn, who runs a program to restore people like Tim (who is on the “Path to Perversity”) to heterosexuality, insisting that this is the only way that he will remain acceptable in God’s eyes. Quinn admits that Tim’s attraction to other males will never go away, but he will simply have to suppress it either through celibacy or in a relationship with a woman.

The secular world, embodied in Tim’s friend, Simone, insists that the only thing standing in his way to becoming the person he’s meant to be, is the hurt that his church has inflicted on him, and the faith that he continues  to cling to.  She has found the answer for him; an experimental vaccine that will rid him of his “religious gene.”

The play brings remarkable authenticity to the disparate influences in Tim’s life.  It also sensitively portrays Tim’s relationship with Morgan, the one person who understands what’s tearing Tim apart and whose love for Tim is stronger than either of the two sides working so fiercely to claim him.

The vacccine, of course, only heightens Tim’s suffering and confusion. Simone will not be pleased with Tim’s response, and Quinn, by the end of the play is on her knees weeping, pleading with God  Because I am a Christian, and I understand very well the struggles of the church in accepting and affirming, I appreciated and was touched by the anguish of Quinn’s prayers in the end, pleading with God to show her what’s she done wrong in failing to bring Tim back into the fold.

For me, this play was perfectly balanced.

As the mother of three children I love with all my heart, Tim’s struggle reminded me of our our daughter’s coming out and the deep well of courage she tapped into in doing so.

As a Christian, a member of a church that wrestled with acknowledging that sexual orientation is not a choice, with accepting the iblessing of same-sex marriages, and with affirming these beliefs by ordaining clergy without prejudice toward sexual orientation, I anguished with Quinn in her pleading with God to help her understand.

In Morgan’s steadfastness, I saw my daughter and her partner’s deep love for another and the commitment to their marriage.

I offer Jonathan congratulates and thanks for creating this important piece of theatre, and applaud the wonderful actors who brought it to life. Bravo.

Jonathan we will be blessed by your company on April 26th.

No matter more where you stand– gay or straight, believer or non-believer — I  urge you to read A Family by Any Other Name, and what better place to buy your copy than at the Calgary launch.  Don’t trust the files in your mind, write this one down:

Book Launch: A Family by Any Other Name   Saturday, April 26  2:00 PM at Lutheran Church of the Cross 10620 Elbow Dr. SW

Readings by Dale Lee Kwong and Betty Jane Hegerat.  Q&A moderated by Jonathan Brower who we hope will be an active contributor to the discussion.  Refreshments.  Book sales.  We expect the audience to include members of the LGBT community, members of the hosting church, and other affirming congregations as well those in churches who still struggle. As always, we expect members of the writing community, who support one other in inspiring ways. Imagine the opportunity for discussion. Come.

February 23, 2014

Poste Restante

Filed under: Uncategorized — bettyjanehegerat @ 10:50 am

The flotsam and jetsom  of life wash ashore and sometimes compel us to act upon them, even 30  years later.  Last week I ordered a stone for the foot of my mother’s grave — something my sister and I have talked about doing for years. I had a strong aversion, an avoidance of cemeteries, for many years and it took me more than a dozen years to visit my parents’ graves.  And when I did, I stood there stunned to see that the woman in the grave next to my dad’s, the Martha we knew, had a headstone with the surname of her second husband. They were married for 8 years. She and my dad had 35 years together before he died. My sister and I vowed that we would make this right  some day.  Neither of us wanted to broach the subject with the second husband with whom we had no more contact than a card or phone call at Christmas. Our relationship had always been strained.  I think we were waiting for his death. Unfortunately, my sister died first, and after her death my brother-in-law reminded that Sharon and I had vowed we’d have that stone in place before summer came again.

That bit of story has provoked a number of people to tell me that I must write this story.  Personal essay.  Short story, fiction. No, I said, this is barely an anecdote. It has a beginning and an ending  and I do not want to re-open the baggage packed into the middle.  But I have written  snippet of it in this short piece, “Poste Restante”,  published in Freefall Volume XXI Number 2 Fall 2011.  Thanks again, Freefall.

Poste Restante   

  Salzburg Oct. 19, 1977

 At a sidewalk café, butterscotch light spilling across cobblestones, me with coffee and strudel, you with pretzels and a mug of dark beer, we open mail from home. A whiff of my mother’s hand lotion rises from the page.

Hope you kids are having a grand time. Remember to look up those names I gave you, I’m sure my cousin Ilsa is still alive even though nobody’s heard from her in years. And that little restaurant Daddy and I found in Frieberg in 1963. The man’s name was Otto. He’ll remember us because his wife had a sister over here and living in Red Deer no less.

Now my news. Henry and I are buying a house. We’ll get married eventually, but for now I think it’s best if we just live together. Your sister’s not talking to me. When did you say you were coming home?

 My nieces have decorated my sister’s letter with rainbows and hearts.

 I wish we could afford to take three months like you, but with the kids, a week in the tent trailer at Sylvan Lake is all I can count on. Mom doesn’t have time to babysit these days. She’s living with Henry. Not even two years since Dad died.

 The pages of the letters crackle as I fold them into the envelope.

 “Anything new at home?” you ask.

 “Nope.” I fork up a bite of strudel. “Where’s out next poste restante?”


 A month away.

February 7, 2014

Remembering the Gentle Men in My Life

Filed under: Uncategorized — bettyjanehegerat @ 2:02 pm

 I’ve had a hard time reading fiction for some time now, because I’m finding violence, anger, tragedy are not the prescriptions I need.  Perhaps it was ever so, but it does seem to me that there is a trend in literature – both books and literary magazines – toward the edgy, toward stories that disturb and unsettle.  And in my recent samplings, particularly stories that portray men as violent and brutish toward women and children.

 Yes, I do live in the real world, and I spent enough of my social work years working in child welfare services to know there is truth in the stories I’m reading. And I did come of age in the late 60s, and dove into the second wave of feminism, the gospel of Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, and the struggle for gender equality.  But the lense through which I viewed feminism was not one coloured by hatred of men, but one that saw and railed against gender inequities in our patriarchal society.

Most significantly though, and it’s taken me many years to acknowledge, I never perceived individual men as the enemy, but rather as victims as well in a society in which they were expected to be as stereotypically “male” as women were expected to be “ladies” and know their place.

I won’t claim that I was “lucky” to grow up in an extended family of kind and encouraging men, because I think every child deserves those parents, and uncles and aunts. But nevertheless I am grateful for them. Probably more grateful than I’ve been at any point in my life because of the deaths in 2013 of the last two of my eight uncles on my dad’s side of the family. (Fortunately, the one sister in that family, my Aunt Bonnie, continues to be a loving presence although I haven’t seen her in many years)

 These men were first generation Canadians, the children of German immigrants but none of them the stereotypical cold, strict, unyielding German Mann. Neither was my grandfather, who died when I was only five years old, but who I remember as having the same warm presences as his sons.

 My uncles were hardworking, honest men, involved with their families, and full of laughter and kindness.  My dad was a gentle, loving father who never hesitated to show his pride in his daughters’ achievements Ironically, my mother, although we never doubted her love, was more stern, and like many mothers of her generation believed that to compliment a child would, God forbid, create a swelled head, a conceited child.  Her two brothers were also caring men, although one was tormented by a mental illness that sadly was not diagnosed until he was well into his 70s and whose anger and frustration were born by his family.

 I married a man who, though in many ways quite unlike my dad, has the same gentleness, the kindness, and aversion to violence.  I am proud, and never hesitant to say that the three children we raised have grown into a young woman and two young men with those characteristics that I cherish.  Nature or nurture? Some of both.  While there are some men in my own fiction who are  unfaithful, cruel, “broken”, they are not main characters, and I struggle in every store to find redemption. And I continue to look for stories with a grain of hope.

So to the men in my life:  uncles, beloved husband, my precious sons, I will say that I think not only literature but societal attitudes often give you the short end of the stick.  Stay gentle and loving.  You are the men that all of us strive to raise.

 To my Uncle Bill and my Uncle Cyril whose loss I’ve felt deeply this past year, you remain in my heart with all of your brothers.


 My dad, the eldest son, is seated to the right of my grandfather. My Uncle Alvin next to my grandmother. In the back row, R to L

Uncle Wes, Uncle Milton, Uncle Bill, Aunt Bonnie, Uncle Lorne, Uncle Clem, Uncle Cyril.

November 27, 2013

However did I come to have so many wise friends?

Filed under: Random Musings on many things — bettyjanehegerat @ 4:36 pm

Please don’t read this post and think that I’m calling up to you from the basement of Despair.  It’s all about seeking and I hope there will never cease to be mysteries, puzzles, or simply questions.  That I will never believe that I have found all that I need to know. And while it all sounds rather glum, these wise words that resonate for me are almost always part of an encounter filled with joy and laughter and gratitude for the countless blessings for which I give thanks.

I am blessed with a circle of many wise friends, and have gleaned so many simple bits of advice from them and various other sources that  apply to life in general, and some to life more immediate.  hey pop into mind at times when I need to be reminded, so I decided that I would keep a list, and I decided because my webpage hasn’t has any random musings in … oh, at least a week, that I would share them with you.

It has been pointed out to me by a very wise woman I was fortunate enough to find when I first realized that I was suddenly in a dark and frightening place, that I seem to have been “gifted” with a walloping  measure of compassion. Our brains, she said, are like big sponges.  They can absorb a whole lot of both the big and the small sorrows we experience, or for which feel empathy our friends, or sometimes for people we’ve never even met, just heard about, or read about.  I have no doubt that herein lay my motivation for choosing social work as a career.  And herein is also  one of the roots of a period of anxiety and depression over which I feel I’m finally gaining some control. Or as much as I need.  That need to be in control … what a curse.

So to keep it simple, so many words that have helped:

Grief is like a  Russian matryoshka doll.  You open the fresh grief, and nestled inside is another and another and another.  (from my wise friend, Catherine Fuller)

 Put on your own oxygen mask first.  (another of Catherine’s)

Anxiety is a feeling looking for a home. (I can’t find the original source, but cautionary advice from someone who has helped to keep me on my feet)

Grief is normal, natural and necessary.  And so are tears. (this one from several wise ones)

Remember that healing in grief is heart-based, not head-based.  (from the same wise woman who cautioned about anxiety’s home-seeking)

To those who tell you to “get over it, we all have bad times” or “it’s been months now, surely you’re not still weeping” use whatever expletive feels best in telling them to get lost.   Advice to myself from experience and giving myself permission to say exactly what I feel.

From my aunt, who I watched move graciously around the room after my mother’s funeral, consoling, and urging everyone to eat – the answer in my family to a lot of problems—when I asked her how she learned to do this so well.  “It’s just through experience, sweetheart, and I’ve had a lot of experience. You will too.”

It seems to me that at least part of this life is learning to let the anguish, grief, horror, and sorrow  of life wash over us — or maybe through us — without letting it claim us. …I’m sure the ebb and flow of these days is part of a deep river of mercy….and that all will be well. (from Pastor Laura who is there to help me find the peaceful place in my heart when I so often need to go there)

 “I do not understand the mystery of grace — only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.”  ― Anne Lamott from Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith

And finally, from Robert, and each of my three wonderful children who regularly ask, How are you doing, Mom? And who really do want to know.

 Oh, I know there are books full of the obvious bits of wisdom that suddenly leap off the page at us as profound, but for now, this is what I feed on in that tradition of my family that for every trouble of sorrow, there is a casserole, an apple pie, or a loaf of bread to be delivered.  And as long as I show no signs of lack of appetite, please know that I’m “okay.’  :)

June 6, 2011

Taking The Boy home: Stettler Public Library June 14

Filed under: Uncategorized,Virtual Tour Stops — bettyjanehegerat @ 11:50 am

On Tuesday, June 14, I will be at the Stettler Public Library talking about and reading from The Boy, and I am thrilled to have this opportunity. Throughout the writing of The Boy I have been keenly aware that the real story, that of the Cook murders, and the Cook family themselves, belong to the community of Stettler. The library, the museum, various members and former residents of the community have generously shared information and memories. What an honour it will be to take the story home and take along my gratitude for the support I was shown in the writing.
Tuesday, June 14 at the library, from 6:00 – 8:00 PM.

March 21, 2011

The Boy — where it began

Filed under: Uncategorized — bettyjanehegerat @ 9:46 am

I am not savvy at all in matters of technology.  But on the other hand, when I have a creative idea– in this case, the notion that I wanted to post audio clips of readings from The Boy on my own webpage to coincide with some blog-hopping I’ll do later in April– I will doggedly persist.  To those who are techno-smart, this will seem like small change, but I’m thrilled to be able to post a wee preview here! 

February 28, 2014

Head vs. Heart

Filed under: Random Musings on many things,Stories,Uncategorized — bettyjanehegerat @ 2:30 pm

When I was in the throes of writing The Boy, I told my sister that this was a challenging book to write, not just because of the subject but because I’d been convinced that in order to tie the fiction and non-fiction together, I needed a third thread — memoir.  And I was terribly uncomfortable writing about myself.  She looked at me wisely, as older sisters are prone to do, and said that she had always had the feeling that I was hiding in the heart of all of my fiction, and how was this different.

In its own difficult  way, adding the personal to that hybrid has helped me to get past the boundaries I’d  built into my writing.  Personal essay, or simply “spilling my guts” (as I’ve described it to my family) in posts like this seems to demand to be written.

When I saw the call for submissions for A Family by Any Other Name, edited by Bruce Gillespie and forthcoming from Touchwood Books in April  I didn’t hesitate to write about my reaction to our daughter’s coming out, or the way in which it challenged my faith.  I sent the essay to Elisabeth before I submitted it and asked if she and Barb would be comfortable having this story out in the world.  Of course, she answered, but you know, you made me cry.  I believe she said the same thing when I asked for her reaction to a very short piece of “fiction” that I was hoping to include  in my collection of short stories, A Crack in the Wall.  When I look at both pieces now, I see myself perhaps even more clearly in the fiction, which sprang from my surprise that my heart had a different reaction to Elisabeth’s coming out than my head. The essay, writing as myself, from the heart, helped me follow the path to the point of “Finding My Grace.”

Simply because the book and the story have been a long time relegated to “back list” status, I think “Stitches” needs to come into the light one more time.  So here, with my thanks to Oolichan Books for permission to reprint is “Stitches.”




There is a knot in the thread. So close to the end of the hem, the woman pauses to tug each stitch through the fine cloth.

These are her mother’s hands, her grandmother’s hands. Always stitching.  Christening gown, plaid jumper for first day of school, red velvet Christmas frock, graduation dress, wedding gown, christening gown. Sewing the lives of daughters. 

          The girl on the floor squares her shoulders, braces palms on either side of blue-jeaned legs and drinks a deep breath. “I have to tell you something,” she says on the exhalation.

          The fabric puckers. “I wish I had a finer needle, and lighter thread,” the woman says. “I wish you’d asked me to do this when I got here yesterday instead of when I’m halfway out the door.”    

          “Mom! Will you just listen?”

           The daughter’s voice stumbles over words. The mother’s vision blurs. She crosses her knees to bring the work closer, head bent to the needle. Measures her stitches smaller, tighter.

 She wants to cover the soft lips with her palm, to say No telling is needed. While you were at your class this morning I did what visiting mothers do.  I tidied and snooped. But it seems she’s sewn her tongue to the roof of her mouth. 


A photo frame lay flat, folded, face down. It’s usual position, upright, drawn in clean lines on the dusty desk top. She’d picked it up and tilted the glass to the sweep of window in this twenty-second floor student apartment, sunlight turning the faces in the picture to spangles.

          A triptych of two girls. No. Two women. In the first frame both squint solemnly into the distance, in the second they smile their secret to the camera, and in the third unabashedly into one another’s eyes. Telling this mother what she already knew.


The girl is still again. So quiet the room, the sound of the last stitch piercing the cool skin of fabric is audible.

          How to keep the wrong words from exploding. Bouncing off the wall of light and ricocheting around the room.

How to say thank you for telling me.

          When she stands to gather her girl into her arms, the dress refuses to slide free, dances instead from where she’s stitched it to her lap.

          In a minute she will pick up the scissors. Snip her daughter free. Stitch by stitch.


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November 15, 2013

Forgiveness Again

Filed under: Stories — bettyjanehegerat @ 6:39 pm

My mind, these days, wants to keep to returning to memories, to regrets, to the hope that I was forgiven by…  well, pretty much everyone whom I have offended, ignored, shown a lack of compassion.  I realized today, that the only thing new about these unresolved transgressions is that I have addressed many of them in fiction and even bold been enough to venture into non-fiction.  I accept that I have been forgiven and I’m thankful for that grace, and I’m getting much better at forgiving myself.  Today, I was tidying the shelf in my bookcase that holds my own books and the magazines in which I’ve been published.  I came upon a story in Room 33.1, one that I’d long forgotten even though 33.1 goes back only to 2010.  My mother-in-law.  What a trying relationship I had with her, and how often I’ve regretted that I didn’t have the patience or the compassion that it’s become so clear to me that she deserved.  So to honour her, and by way of asking for and acknowledging her forgiveness, I’ve decided that it’s time to post a story.  I never was able to call her “Mom” because to me she was Helen and I wish that I had long ago asked her once again, for permission to use her name.  Here’s to you, Helen.

And here’s another story, just because our stories need to live on long after issue 33.1 of Room has gone to recycling.

Dressed for the Occasion

When my daughter calls, I’m dressing to go out for dinner, looking for some way to perk up a plain black skirt and sweater. I find myself holding my mother-in-law’s pearls. Not because of an affinity for the necklace, but because she’s ailing, and has been on my mind.

            Shortly after Robert and I were married, I asked his mother what she would like me to call her, and without hesitation she answered “Mom”. She would not like, she said, for me to address her as Helen even though that sort of informality seemed common these days. I stuck to “you”, or a clearing of the throat, an “ahem” when I wanted her attention and she wasn’t looking my way. “Mom” belonged to my mother.

            When we had children, I could speak through them.  Ask Grandma if she’d like tea, I would say, but never addressed her as “Grandma” myself. Now, with phone in hand, I tell Elisabeth, I am standing here looking at your Grandma’s pearls, wondering who on earth will ever wear them.  Maybe they should have gone to St. Vincent de Paul with the clothes.

Are they real pearls? she asks. I squint at the necklace. Does it matter? The knick-knackery we salvaged from my mother-in-law’s life was chosen out of sentiment rather than material value. She was a woman who lived through years of hard-scrabble, no extravagance or luxury. A woman who could part with nothing, and whose hoarding we met full on when it was time to close down her house and help her move to a nursing home. By then, she was so far-gone in her dementia that my husband, his youngest brother and I made the decisions about her belongings. She shouted at us to throw it all away, because that was what we wanted, wasn’t it?  To be rid of her?

We filled dozens of green bags with clothing none of us had ever seen her wear, and dumped dusty jars of home-canned peaches and grey pickled beans that had been on the basement shelf at least twenty years beyond their best-before date. At the end of that exhausting weekend, I showed her the pearls in their Birks box and a plastic baggie full of rhinestone costume jewelry. I would hold this in safe-keeping for her grandchildren, I promised. She nodded as though she understood and was pleased, but we knew she was likely to phone a week later and tell us that someone had crept into her room and stolen her jewels.

Elisabeth has called to talk about the wedding. She and her partner – I’ve settled on “partners” as the descriptor for these two young women even though I hate the business-like sound – are worried that Bill C-38, which became law eight months ago, might be short-lived. We have a new Conservative government rabidly opposed to civil marriage rights for same sex couples.

The partners have set a wedding date in August. They’ve been together for almost four years, three years since my daughter choked out the news that she was in love, and it was serious, and the object of her love was another woman.

Today, though, we’ve moved far beyond that tearful declaration and my own private weeping, my heart’s misalignment with my head, my embarrassment at discovering that all the intellectualizing in the world couldn’t change what I felt about having my child move out of the mainstream. I feared that the world would no longer treat her as gently as she deserved. Today we’re talking about wedding venues and menus:  a late afternoon affair with hors d’oeuvres and some bubbly wine? But what about their friends with huge appetities? Maybe better to have a full dinner reception: AAA Alberta beef, or cedar planked salmon?

I tell her any of those options sounds fine. I hold up the necklace, frown at my reflection in the mirror, think the pearls probably looked better on the oysters.

            There is a bubble of laughter in my girl’s voice when she says they can have a slightly more extravagant wedding because their Alberta Prosperity cheques have arrived. She says there’s pleasing poetic justice to funding her gay wedding with bonuses from the glut of oil and gas money in the provincial coffers. Our premier, Ralph Klein, strenuously opposed gay marriage. I suggest a thank you note to Mr. Klein, telling him he’s buying AAA Alberta beef for the celebration.

I coil the necklace back into the blue box. I came of age in the sixties, and went from mini-skirts to granny dresses, neither of which begged for a string of pearls as the finishing touch.

How is Grandma? Elisabeth asks.

The same, I tell her, or maybe worse.

She says she’s been wondering if the next time she’s in Edmonton she should visit, tell Grandma about the wedding. Or will her dad do that? Or will I? Or will we let it be?

            I answer without hesitation.  Her grandmother would forget the conversation within an hour, and if she did remember it would confuse and upset her. There is nothing to be gained, no coherent blessing to be given.

            Our daughter was the first grandchild.  Profoundly premature, she weighed just under 1200 grams, and I know that in her grandmother’s eyes she has always been a miracle.  But my mother-in-law’s actions and opinions are based on what the rest of the world would “think,” with no dispensations for favourite children.

Six weeks later, my mother-in-law slips away in her sleep.

            I expected to feel relief at her passing. Creeping infirmity had drained the joy from her life long ago.  For five years, she was dependent on the care of strangers, and in the absence of a daughter, dependent on me to shop for clothing and personal items.  I assumed the role of stand-in daughter grudgingly, bound more by duty than affection.  I am stunned by the sadness I feel at her dying.

            I was not on my Irish Catholic mother-in-law’s wish list. If her eldest son was not going to fulfill her dream and become a priest, then her number two longing was that he would marry a good Catholic girl. I never told her that my mother was as aghast at my marrying a Catholic, and that the priest who took our vows wryly told my husband that he was doing so only because I seemed to be a far better Lutheran than Robert was a Catholic, so perhaps there would be hope for him in this union. We moved to Calgary, in retrospect probably one of the best decisions we made in our marriage. My mother-in-law did not visit often, but each time her anxiety, fussing and oddly off-track conversation wore me down within hours. If I left the kitchen in the midst of preparing dinner I would come back to find that she had scurried to the sink and was frantically peeling potatoes. Because she noticed, she’d say, that I hadn’t done them and like all the Irish, her sons loved their potatoes with every meal. With spaghetti carbonara and Caesar salad?

By the time we had children, I thought she might take comfort in knowing that I was a good homemaker and mother. She was glad, she once told me, that I was not the sort of woman who left her children home alone and went out to the beer parlour. Well no, I wanted to reply, and I did not grind glass into her son’s meals, or hers which might be tempting, nor had I held up a convenience store recently. But there were other things I did do that might be noted.  She told me as well, that she was glad that none of her sons had taken up with a girl of another colour. That would have been much too hard for the children. It was a waste of breath to tell her that it was never the children who made such things difficult.

My children were far more patient and cheerful than I. They never saw their grandmother as anyone but the frail, nervous woman who loved them fiercely.  When she asked them to get on their knees and pray with her, they would glibly tell her, Maybe later, Grandma. I’m going to watch Inspector Gadget now. I kept my ear tuned to her conversations with them, because if I could not change her religious, racial and ethnic prejudices, I could at least do damage control when she spilled them over my children.

We never left our children alone with my mother-in-law. I, because I was only half-joking when I said I was sure she would call a cab and rush them to the nearest Catholic church for baptizing, and Robert because he remembered a mother who had nothing but a stout stick for dealing with her anger when the dithering patience failed. He had found the grace to acknowledge that like so many other parents who fall short of the ideal, she did the best she could with what she had. We hope, he and I, that our children will be able to say the same of us.

Funeral arrangements for someone whose life has been guided by the rules of church and society as she understood them are relatively easy. At the mortuary, the cemetery, and finally the church, we let “what she would have wanted” be our guide. As the only non-Catholic in the meeting with the priest, I try to keep my mouth shut. What do I know about the ritual of the Catholic funeral Mass?

The funeral will be at the church my brother-in-law and his family attend. The priest has never met the woman he will be burying. He refers to her as “Helen”. I have, I offer cautiously, written a few things about “Helen” if it would help him to know her better. Or perhaps someone in the family could read it? He answers quite sternly that there is no place in the Catholic funeral Mass for eulogies. When the question of music comes up, and I can’t help remembering the songs my mother-in-law sang while she peeled the wretched potatoes, he shakes his head again. No matter how much Helen loved Don Messer’s Jubilee and Marg and Charlie’s rendering of ”Abide With Me” it is a Protestant hymn, and it will not do for her funeral. It strikes me, as the plans are made, that it’s as difficult to die a traditional Catholic as it is to live as one.

At the beginning of the Mass, before the casket is brought to the front of the church, someone will drape it with a pure white cloth. I volunteer my daughter, holding my breath in case the priest asks, Is she Catholic?  No, I will tell him. But in our family album there is a snapshot of a little girl, barely a year old, in a flower-sprigged dress. Alone in the photo, she is taking a wobbly first step, but the hand she is clutching belongs to the grandma just outside the frame.

On the drive from Calgary to Edmonton, we shared our relief at being done with the nursing home smells of adult diapers, steamed food, the choking overlay of cleaners used to mask the stink. One more visit required this evening, one last clean-up.

Unlike the emptying of the house five years ago, this job is easy. But wrenchingly sad.  On the end of the bed, there is a faded afghan. One of dozens knit by my husband’s grandmother. The afghan, a few photos, and my mother-in-law’s rosary go into a small suitcase. Clothing goes to the Catholic charity, St. Vincent de Paul.  The only garment I set aside is a silky, long-sleeved dress the colour of raspberry ice cream that she saved for special occasions. A closed casket, we told the funeral director, but still, she would have wanted to look her best.

            The handful of fabric I’m holding feels as cold and lonely as this room with the stripped bed, barren bulletin board, and mound of green garbage bags at the door.  My mother-in-law was always huddled into herself for warmth. Even in mid-summer, she kept the windows shut tight, the rest of us rolling our eyes, fanning ourselves with magazines. At our house, she begged an extra sweater, a pair of warm socks as soon as she arrived. The thought of her thin body in nothing but this icy breath of a dress is too much.

            I grab Robert’s arm.  What time is it?


We need to go shopping.

For what?

 I dance the dress in front of him. A warm sweater, I say.  With only a breath of a pause, he nods, grabs the little suitcase, and we race to the car.

            We reach Wal-Mart fifteen minutes before closing time, dress in hand.  Pick our way through racks of sweaters, me muttering: too flimsy, too slithery, too tacky, too pink. I sound like Dr. Seuss. Robert takes my arm finally. This isn’t working. He glances at his watch. What about the afghan?

            I let go of the sleeve of a hot pink cardigan. Imagine a satin-lined casket, a silk dress.  A shabby blanket?  No. She’d be mortified at what the people at the funeral home would think.

            And what about undergarments, stockings? How could I have imagined her laid to rest in nothing but a dress? I wish we had asked the undertaker what clothes they need, but surely that choice should be ours. Hers. I scoop up a slip, cotton, slightly more substantial than the dress, panty hose, cotton briefs. There were none of these in the dresser drawers at the nursing home. Nothing in her wardrobe but pyjamas, boxes of Depends, and the fleece pants and sweatshirts I bought at Cotton Ginny as endlessly as the harsh laundering at the facility wore them down.

A cheery voice announces that the store is closing.

            Robert points across the aisle at another rack of sweaters. He takes the dress from me, strides away, randomly pulls out a hanger. Does this match?

            Perfectly. A shade darker than the dress, a delicate lacy pattern and soft as a kitten. I hold the sweater to my cheek, and then to his. She’d love it.

In the car, I put my head back and close my eyes. Now I can envision Helen in her gleaming mahogany casket. Mom, Grandma, Sister, Aunty, Sister-in-law. She was none of those to me, and yet we were intimately connected for thirty-five years. Therein lies the seed of my grief, and therein this small gift of grace. In strict adherence to “what she would have wanted,” we have dressed her up. In exchange, I will tell Elisabeth that Grandma is wearing the dress she would have chosen to wear to the wedding. For the wedding, she would have worn the pearls.

October 11, 2013

Seeking Guenther’s Forgiveness

Filed under: Random Musings on many things — bettyjanehegerat @ 5:32 pm

We all know that as we age, short term memory becomes more difficult, but long term memory often surprisingly clear. What I was never warned of – among several other things about growing older—was that the long term memories might turn up unfinished business, regrets, sometimes even shame as well of memories of joyful occasions, and people we love.

The recent death of my sister has snagged me back to childhood, to the joys and sorrows of family, memories I recognize as soon as they land.  But it has also taken me back to school days, although I suspect some of those memories have floated up as detritus left over from research I did in the writing of The Boy, which centres on a grim story from 1959, the same year that I would have known Guenther. (We’ll call him that)

Until The Boy, I wrote only fiction.  And like other fiction writers, when I hear a bit of a true story that captures my imagination,  it will often lodge in my brain and refuse to leave until I’ve turned it inside out and sideways asking the question:  what if? What if the people involved had made different choices?  What if someone had intervened?

Guenther is not a character of fiction.  He was a real boy, and I hope that today is a strong man who has forgotten the incident that is haunting me and likely many other similar humiliations.

Grade four, or possibly five, but no later than that because I remember still being a “new girl” at school. I was painfully timid at that age, and yet accepted and included and made to feel part of that schoolyard gaggle of children.  I think, although I depend on memory in telling this story, that Guenther was also new to the school that year.  Guenther, too, was shy, barely lifted his eyes from his desk, and was not granted the same easy acceptance. Or perhaps he was, on the playground, in the company of other boys, but the incident I remember tells me this not likely.

Guenther was a large boy – no, obese is  a better description.  I know he was a farm boy, and I wonder how he came to attend school in our small city rather than at a country school.  He wore men’s overalls that looked hard-worn, shortened significantly to accommodate the height of a boy, and always a flannel shirt.  He had thick black hair, home-cut I’m sure, and red cheeks whether from chronic embarrassment or the work of the wind and sun. I think, (although again I am pulling from memory and may only feel this detail completes the picture) that he often smelled faintly of barns, manure.  Why do I remember so clearly this boy who was gone by the next school year when I doubt that I paid more than passing attention to him while he sat two rows away from me in grade four? Or five.

Around Valentine’s Day, our teacher of that year decided that would have a “special” kind of party.  We could give Valentine cards to our friends outside of the classroom if we wished, but our party would be a box social. None of us had ever heard of such an event, but apparently it required the young ladies to prepare a lunch for two, wrap it in a fancy package and bring it to school.  Now, this was not exactly traditional, teacher told us, because in the days of such events, young men bid on the boxes, and the highest bidder had the pleasure of the company of the young woman who had packed the box and the sharing of the food therein.

Perhaps anticipating how painful it would be for those whose boxes were not bid upon – it was well-known by the time they were spread out on the long counter below the windows, to whom each belonged—our teacher elected instead of put all of the boys’ names in a hat, and he would invite the teacher from the next classroom to pull out the name of the lucky recipient of each box. And there would be no trading.

I’m quite sure the good-looking popular boy who was paired with me and the lunch my mother had painstakingly put together — when I told her about the event she had proclaimed it “stupid” but had too much pride to put aside her competitiveness when it came to cooking and food—would far rather have traded for the company of a vivacious girl.

The girl (we’ll call her Karen) whose box was presented to Guenther, broke into tears, put her head on her desk, and several of her friends – as girls that age are prone to do— rushed to comfort her. As for Guenther, I can only imagine that his head dropped even lower and he ignored the offering on his desk. That his cheeks burned, and in that moment he would have wished himself anywhere but that school.

The rest of the class?  I don’t remember anyone else’s reaction, I don’t remember our teacher’s reaction, how he dealt with the weeping girl or Guenther and whether or not he put the two of them to the same desk to carry out his plan without any bending of the rules. But I do remember the feeling of shame that is as strong in my heart as I write this as it was at the time.

What did I do? Nothing. If I were writing this as fiction, what would the character portraying Betty Jane have done? She would have startled the entire classroom, walked to the desk of the crying girl with her own lunch box in her hands, and said, “Here Karen, I know you’re friends with Philip and he’d probably eat with you anyway, so why don’t we trade.  I’ll eat with Guenther.”  When I went home after school and my mother asked who had eaten “our” lunch, I mentioned “poor Karen” who had to eat with Guenther.   My mother’s eyes blazed. “Shame on her! And shame on you for feeling sorry for her!”

If I could find Guenther, I would ask his forgiveness, although I hope that the humiliation of that box social is long gone from his memory.  I’ve prayed many a prayer asking God’s forgiveness for all those I’ve wronged, and my faith rests on the belief that it is graciously given.  But the one person I can’t forgive?  The one I believe it is always most the difficult to forgive—myself.

I haven’t tried to find Guenther, nor asked anyone from those school years if they remember him, remember the Valentine’s Day party, know what became of that boy.  But wherever he is, I ask his forgiveness.

September 6, 2013

The books that will never be culled from my bookcases

Filed under: Random Musings on many things — bettyjanehegerat @ 9:25 am

 I have been in a down-sizing mood for the past year, ruthlessly working my way through the house and discarding anything for which we have no need and I know with certainty we never will, those things I’ve saved to pass on to my children which they tell me they will never want – how many sets of china, crystal and silverware can a family continue to accumulate?  That fine china never breaks like the “everyday” dishes, because it’s only brought out for use on special occasions.  I find the notion that the tea cups in my china cabinet are bound for a longer life than I am rather creepy. So they have now been moved to the kitchen cupboards for everyday use, and the everyday dishes have either to the bin, or moved on to the a thrift shop.

With clothing, household items, the task has been easy. I have an egg slicer that came to me in a box of kitchen castoffs from a friend of my mother’s when I was setting up an apartment for my first social work job in Lethbridge in 1969.  Yes, it still works.  No, I can’t remember the last time I felt compelled to create perfect egg slices.

 But the hardest of all has been the culling of books. For a very long time, I held the book as a sacred object.  Once I owned it, I had a lifelong responsibility to care for it even if I didn’t like the book. Some were easy to pass along to friends, some I took to my writing classes and put them out on a “take away whatever intrigues you” table.

But to throw a book in a recycling bin?  What disrespect for the months, years I imagined the author labouring over his work. Still, I gritted my teeth. Some were easy; the university sociology texts, a text used in a 200 level course in Logic. I’m still baffling over why I chose to take that course.  Modus ponens and modus tolens notwithstanding, I doubt that I’ve ever applied those principle of logic to my live.  And the musty old paperbacks that threaten to crumble in my hands when I opened them?  Into the bin.

 I am now down to three bookcases that passed the simple test—can I imagine myself or someone in my family reading these books?  The answer is yes, for some a more resounding yes, but both of my sons, when they come home, are often on the prowl for books to read. To my delight, they seem to share my tastes in literature and have even asked to keep some of these books for their own bookcases. My librarian daughter has not only a whole system to draw from but a library in her own home.  It is to her that I am able to recycle newer books that can either be accepted as donations or go into the library book sale bin.

 What brought on this frenzy of de-cluttering?  A need to open up space around me and let the light in. I’ve come through a difficult two years of being unable to focus on much more than physical tasks. A time when even reading anything with a dark undertone  filled me with an overwhelming sense of foreboding. A time when I’ve skipped through most of the morning paper to Life and Arts, and a time when I’ve forsaken Peter Mansbridge, and automatically turn off the car radio when disaster, atrocities, suffering make up the news.

 In a long and round about way, I’ve reached the point of this post — even my writing skills are rusty from lack of use.  Unable to face any book that would take me into the darkness, and even those that I suspect might catch me unaware, I’ve returned to the books on my shelves that I love and that I hope I will be re-reading for years to come.

What have I been reading?  Many books by well known authors who never fail to delight,no matter how many times I go back to them.  But also, and more importantly, the books of friends and acquaintances that have ended up in dusty corners after the typically short life of most of the fiction published in this country.  I will leave you to your own selections from the work of Carol Shields, Margaret Laurence, Alice Munro et al.

Among the books to which I returned this summer, here are some by authors you may not know. I urge you to seek them out. Beautiful books that deserve be hunted down and read by new audiences:

Limbo by Jacqueline Honnet (Turnstone Press, 2005)

Sightlines by Leona Theis (Coteau Books, 2000)

I’m Frankie Sterne by Dave Margoshes (Coteau Books, 2000)

In the Misleading Absence of Light by Joanne Gerber (Coteau Books 1998)

The Quick by Barbara Scott (Cormorant Books 1999)

They Shouldn’t Make You Promise That by Lois Simmie (Greystone Books, Douglas and McIntyre, 1987)

Nothing Sacred by Lori Hahnel )Thistledown Press 2009)

Into This Room poetry by Sharon Drummond (Blackmoss Press, 2001)

 I was tempted to give a capsule description of what I love about each of these books, but decided you don’t need that.   Just trustme , and you will be rewarded. And these books will get the attention they so richly deserve.  Of course there are others, and my apologies to my friends whose books are not listed here, but you’re likely still my in “to re-read pile”.

So perhaps I’ll conclude with “to be continued”.  

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