I haven’t picked up the pen except for doodling for quite some time. Not writers’ block — which I think is simply a misnomer for many of the reasons the ink stops flowing — but a succession of events that finally wore me down. I’ve been resting, and healing with the help of my beautiful family, friends, a good family physician, a therapist, and a church that has given me a soft place to fall. That’s enough said, because the good news is that in December I wrote a short story. One that came together at the request of a friend and three words she provided.
“Ebenezer” became part of an amazing year-long gift Juleta Severson-Baker planned for her dad, and I am honoured to have been asked to contribute. The story is dedicated to David Severson, and I am oh, so grateful to Juleta Severson-Baker for challenging me to make something of “orchid”, “limpet”, and “Lutheran.”
by Betty Jane Hegerat
Oren is ignoring the doorbell. He only answers the door when he’s expecting someone, which is almost never. Astrid has her own key to the house. Forty years old and the girl still carries a key to the little bungalow where she grew up.
Four ding-dongs now. The Jehovahs, the Mormons, the guy who wants to tell Oren the shingles on his roof are curled and he could fix that in a jiff, his Ace Roofing truck out front at the ready. None of these people are that persistent. And if Astrid has left her key at home, she’s got a phone in her pocket and would be ringing his other bells to tell him to let her in.
Karen Ludwig is on Oren’s doorstep. She’d slip her card in the mailbox and follow up later to ask if she can visit, but when Astrid came to the church, the concern about her dad spilled out in such a rush that Karen thought for a moment the woman would grab her arm, pull her outside and propel her down the street to the grey stucco house on the corner. What would a depressed man, a non-believer his daughter described him, do with a calling card from the church? Straight into recycling with the wallop of junk mail that looks as though it’s been accumulating for a week.
She is cradling this orchid in her arms and the crackling plastic sleeve around it is no match for the cold. She punches the doorbell with her mittened hand. Last try.
Five rings? Oren takes a deep breath, exhales a mighty sigh, bookmarks his page, pushes out of the chair and walks just far enough so that he can see the front step from the window without being seen himself. Jesus Henry Campbell! Now what? There’s a woman in a red coat on his doorstep, stamping her feet to keep warm, and trying to shelter a gangly potted plant in her arms. Christmas is past, this plant is no poinsettia, and if it’s a floral delivery, someone in their circle of friends has forgotten that Ruth hasn’t lived here over two years. Purely out of curiosity as to who would be stupid enough to transport a plant in a useless plastic wrapping on a day with wind-chill factor minus thirty, he opens the door just far enough to tell this visitor that she’s ringing the wrong bell
The red-coated, rosy-cheeked woman gives the door a good push with her foot, thrusts the plant into the warmth and steps in. “Mr Berg?” Then, without a pause for him to reply, “I hope I’m not intruding.” She sets the plant on the floor, slips off a mitten and holds out her hand. “I’m Pastor Karen, Karen Ludwig from the church down the street?”
And you are here …. why? He takes back the hand that extended automatically to meet her cold fingers. Still silent, he folds his arms, and is reminded by the cuffs of his grey sweatshirt that he’s still wearing pyjama pants as well. It must be after noon by now, but he wasn’t expecting company.
Karen is no stranger to lukewarm reactions when she makes a visit without calling first. “Astrid asked me to stop by. Do you mind if I come in and chat for a few minutes?” Mr. Berg’s arms drop to his sides, a good enough sign that she unties her boots and puts them on the plastic tray beside the door. She unbuttons her coat but leaves it on, not wanting to give the impression that she plans to stay for the afternoon. He steps aside and gestures toward the living room. She’s on her way to the wide-armed rocking chair he’s pointed out when she remembers to go back for the orchid. “I brought a … a plant. I popped into the grocery store on my way to my work this morning, and couldn’t resist. How could I leave the only orchid on a clearance table of plants to sit there, orphaned?
She grins. Not that sad smile he gets from people who hear that he’s retired now as well as divorced. All alone in his house. That look makes Oren feel he too is on a clearance table. No, this Pastor Karen flashes an honest to God grin. Her blonde hair is pinned behind her ears with doodads of some sort, and one of her brown eyes is slightly smaller than the other, giving her face a slightly off-kilter look. She’s lifted the plant out of its plastic sleeve and sets it down on the coffee table.. Clearance table or not, this is an extravagant gift from a stranger just dropping in to say hello to a stranger
“Very nice,” he says. Once she’s seated in his reading chair, he takes his TV watching place on the sofa. The orchid has two flower stalks; on one a waxy blossom is fully open and there are four more that will open soon; the buds on the other stalk are still closed tight. If the time on the doorstep hasn’t shocked it, this plant will bloom for many months. “But isn’t there someone in your flock who needs this more than I do?”
She shrugs. “I think everyone should have something beautiful to rest their eyes on, don’t you? I decided that this plant was meant for the next person I visited and that just happened to be you.”
She’s lying. the orchid wasn’t on sale. She bought it yesterday at the end of a day full of sadness. One of those days when she’d felt as if all the sorrows of all her parishioners and all the people in all the world had filled her office and overflowed into the sanctuary where she’d gone to pray because it was all she could do. She wanted to pound her fist on the altar rail and shout to get His attention, but instead she whispered her prayers, and then sat down at the piano and played until she was alone in the dusk. The orchid, when she spotted it on a table next to a display of pineapples at the grocery store, was one of many, but this creamy-coloured one seemed to be beckoning, calling her to remember the beauty in the world. To set it on her table as a reminder of from where her help springs. An Ebenezer; the word leaps to mind and ta-da! She has the key to the sermon she’ll preach on Sunday. Old Testament sermons are always her greatest challenge. An Ebenezer —that will work in beautifully.
But this morning, rested, grateful that she had a quiet day ahead – so far – she decided that she’d take more pleasure in giving the plant away than in letting it suffer the fate of other plants she’s been given over the years. Her thumbs are the wrong colour. They’d do better, she thinks, buttoning the coats of small children.
“So, Astrid sent you. Did she have a special mission in mind? Told you I was alone, depressed, never left the house?” He gestures toward the frost-etched windows.” I get all the fresh air I need just shovelling the walks. Best thing about retirement is that I don’t have to leave the house, especially on a day like this. ”
She asks the obvious question. What did he do for a living before he retired? “I’m a plumber,” he told her. “All my working life I’ve been a plumber, that’s about forty-five years now. Wouldn’t you say I’ve put in enough honest labour?” He doesn’t tell her he owned the shop, inherited from his dad who was also a plumber for forty-five years. He lets the pastor imagine him climbing into cupboards under kitchen sinks, instead of answering the phone and sending his guys out to do the work. Although, he’s tempted to tell that he and four of the boys from work have a poker night once a month, here at his house. But it’s not quite true. They’ve had one poker night and said they’d do it again some time soon, but no has called to suggest the next date, and neither has Oren felt motivated to drag out the calendar.
Karen’s trying to take in details of the room and what she can see of the kitchen beyond with being too obviously snoopy. This is a clean home, tidy, and with small touches that suggest that Mr. Berg is neither oblivious to where he lives, nor too depressed to care. There’s a lovely water colour of a wheat field on the wall behind the sofa. The candy dish on the coffee table is full of wrapped candies, and on the table beside her, a shiny blue bowl holds a collection of sea shells. No dust, no clutter.
Mr. Berg is clean-shaven, dressed in the kind of comfortable clothing Karen would be wearing if she were home on this frigid day. At a loss for conversation about plumbing, she asks about interests he plans to pursue now that he’s retired. Will he travel? He shakes his head, says he and his wife never were much interested in globe-trotting, and he’s even less interested now. But when Astrid was growing up, they did make regular trips to Prince Edward Island to visit Ruth’s family. Those were good times.
Oren doesn’t mention they would have been better times without the in-laws. Ruth’s parents were both university professors, strident atheists, and had higher hopes for their daughter than marriage to a plumber. One who’d grown up in a small town in Saskatchewan in a tribe of Lutheran “folk.” The pastor wants to know more about those times, and although he was about to offer coffee, Oren changes his mind, concerned that if she gets too comfortable, she’s going to want the whole damn family history.
“Now Astrid, she seems to have been bit by the travel bug.” He’s trying to steer the conversation away from himself. “She’s off to some new destination every year. She has a girlfriend she travels with.” Maybe “girlfriend” wasn’t the best choice of word. Will the pastor think Astrid is a lesbian? He wonders where the Lutheran church stands on the whole gay question. He’ll have to ask his brother.
There’s a neat stack of library books on the table next to this chair Karen is sitting in. She tips her head slightly to read down the row of spines: Grey Mountain by John Grisham on top has a book mark protruding; A Brief History of Beer in Canada; Mr Hockey by Gordie Howe. She glances up. “I’m sorry, Mr. Berg. I’m snooping. I’m always curious about what people read.”
“Please call me Oren,” he says. “The only people who call me Mr. Berg are people who are trying to sell me something.” Just to make it clear that he’s not buying if she has any notion of drawing him back into the fold. She carefully picks a shell from the bowl on the table, the last remains of the sea glass and shells that Astrid brought home every summer when they made that trek to PEI.
By the time Astrid was a teenager, Oren stayed behind and let Ruth and Astrid go out alone. He’s sure his mother-in-law in particular was happier with just the two she felt belonged to her. He did miss those long walks on the beach with Astrid after the tide went out; the two of them crouched at a pool, Astrid wanting to dip her small hand into the water and pluck out everything she saw. “We don’t disturb the living creatures,” he’d told her there, and as they walked along the beach, Astrid wanting to collect everything that was her brand of pretty, and take it home in her plastic bucket. “We only take home the empty shells.”
“These must be souvenirs of your trips to the east coast,” Pastor Karen says, turning the shell between her fingertips. “Are they all limpets?” He nods, tells about Astrid’s fascination with limpets. They looked like little hats, was the only reason she gave. Astrid’s kept another bowl of shells and sea glass on her own table.
Karen looks up from the shell. Oren’s gaze seems fixed on the window. Is he wondering how much longer she plans to stay? Or remembering. “It’s good,” she says, “to hold onto remarkable little things that sing to us about what’s been important in our lives.” This time she says the word aloud, hoping she doesn’t sound like a preacher. “Ebenezers.” There is a moment, maybe two or three, of silence, and then Oren leans forward on the sofa. She smiles at him. “Not old Scrooge,” she says. “Biblically, Ebenezers are things that remind us of God’s presence or hope. In my life I’ve collected a lot of reminders, things that return me to moments when I’ve felt blessed.”
Then, to Oren’s astonishment, and obviously Pastor Karen’s as well, his mouth opens and out pours a hymn, or fragments of a hymn from some deep recess in his memory. Here I raise mine Ebenezer; hither by thy help I’m come. He’s pleased that he hasn’t lost the voice. Although he hated it when he was conscripted into the church choir when he was fourteen because they had a serious lack of male voices. In fact, that may have been what finally gave him the courage to put his pillow over his head on Sunday mornings and tell his mom he was old enough to choose for himself and he was not going to church.
Karen’s lips are parted. Another moment and she’s afraid she might have joined him in song. But she’s quite sure he isn’t raising his voice in praise. “Mr. Berg … Oren, Astrid told me that your family has no religious ties. She said she was asking me to visit you because she knew that was something pastors do, and because the church is so close by.” She doesn’t tell him that Astrid made it very clear that if Karen made any overture that came close to proselytizing; Oren would quickly and politely see her to the door. She’d been so adamant that Karen had almost declined, but the reason she didn’t was because Astrid was so adamant about her dad’s depression. So far, she sees no signs of depression. “How do you know that hymn?” she asks. “Come Now Font of Every Blessing isn’t exactly on the top ten list of popular sacred songs.”
Oren sighs. “Astrid must have stored some family history in a corner of her brain, same as I stored Come Thou Font. I grew up well-churched. In the Lutheran Church no less. Baptized, Sunday schooled, confirmed, very briefly a member of the choir, and then like a whole lot of other young people, I went away. But unlike some other people, I never came back.” Astrid knew that her uncle, Oren’s brother, attended church with his family in the same rural Saskatchewan church where Oren had sung his lungs out and held that Ebenezer high. Never knowing, though, what the heck it was he was holding. What Astrid didn’t know was that if Oren had married someone other than Ruth, he and that other wife may well have taken their children to church – baptized, Sunday school, confirmation, the full course meal. All Astrid knew of religion came from the curled lips of her mother and grandparents.
Normally, this might be the time a pastor compared Oren’s Lutheran childhood with her own. They would laugh over memories of some of the worst Christmas concerts ever, and the misery of squirming through sermons without end.
But Karen’s early years were nothing like Oren’s. Karen’s early religious experience was limited to the CGIT meetings she attended with a friend at a United Church. Unfortunately, nothing much of Canadian Girls in Training stayed with her. Her friend’s mother slapped her face when Karen said she wasn’t interested in going to CGIT anymore. Rudely, boldly, totally out of character for timid little Karen Ludwig, she’d told the woman that she’d decided to go the church of Rock and Roll. She cringes even now when thinks of that declaration. And yet, she believes that the drinking, the drugs, the bad boyfriends, and the abortion that turned things around, were a necessary part of the journey.
Karen’s mom had wailed and railed against the path she was traveling . But oddly, she was aghast when Karen told her she’d fallen as far as she could fall and a hand had reached down to pull her up. Surely, her mother had said, she could pull up her own self without imagining the hand of Jesus. Through university, sobriety, seminary, dear Mom had just shaken her head. At Karen’s ordination, she’d finally said the words “proud” and “good for you.”
Karen has wandered so far in memory, she shakes her head to bring herself back to Oren Berg’s living room.
Oren has drifted into pondering where a life of church-going, a life of faith in practice might have taken him. But he knows the right response. What is, is. The pastor too, looks as though she’s left the room. When she looks at him, a shake of her head quivers through her body like a tremor. Given the new information that Oren has Lutheran citizenship, is she preparing to embark on that real pastoral visit he anticipated as soon as he let the orchid through the door? Sorry, Karen Ludwig. Not going to happen. Probably time for a signal that the chat has gone as far – farther even – than he was prepared to go. And yet oddly, he’s not anxious for her to leave.
Karen holds the limpet shell in the palm of her hand and imagines the lapping of waves, a beach swept clean by the tide. There is an analogy here, not quite clear to her yet, that she will use in a sermon on one of those Sundays when she finds herself sharing bits of her personal life. She carefully stirs the shells in the bowl with her finger, and as she is about to return the one in her hand to the collection, Oren rises up off the sofa. “Wait,” he says. He goes out to the kitchen, and returns with a wide-mouthed empty prescription vial. “Let me give you some of these in exchange for the orchid,” and he carefully slides a half dozen shells into the bottle. Karen snaps the lid onto the vial and cups it in her hands. This visit will not end in a spoken prayer, but she can tell from Oren’s eyes that he can read her silence. And she knows it is time for her to go.
The pastor stands and buttons her red coat, slips the gift of shells into her pocket, and stretches out her hand. When Oren’s fingers meet hers, they are warm, and the handshake is firm. She pauses next to the coffee table, puts a finger tip to one of the buds on the newest stalk, and nods.
In the kitchen, Oren watches her pull on her boots and turn up the collar on her coat. Their words tangle in a “Thank you” spoken at the same time. Then Oren adds, “God bless.” He wants her to know that her visit was not a lost cause. He won’t be going down to the church on the corner on Sunday morning, but even so, he wants her to know that he does believe. Perhaps he’ll talk with Astrid later this afternoon. He’ll tell her to please not solicit any other callers for him. And sometime soon, he may also tell her what he believes. Karen Ludwig exits in a whoosh of cold wind, turns toward him one more time on the step, and smiles.
Oren is surprised when he looks at the clock. She’s been here for almost two hours. Whatever the limpet shells will mean to her, they never were an “Ebenezer” to him. But that orchid. He’s good with plants, and he knows he can keep it alive.
Back in her office at the church, Karen empties the vial of sea shells into a small dish that also holds small smooth stones—one of her own collections. The label on the prescription bottle has not escaped her notice. As sure she as she is that she will never see Oren in the pews at one of her worship services, she is sure that she will not be able to stop herself from dropping by to see him again. But not too soon.