Aganetha’s provocative comment escapes in the loud theatrical voice she usually saves for reciting long narrative poems in High German to appreciative audiences of fellow seniors at the Resthaven Home. All the women stop chattering to stare at her. Seated up and down the long table under the atrium skylight, they whisper, “Did Oma really say what I think I heard?”
“It’s about time they paid attention to me,” Aganetha sniffs in an uncharacteristically selfish way as she fingers the pearl necklace she’s bought herself as a present. It is her ninety-seventh birthday party after all, and while her daughters Wilma and Elizabeth have been visiting with her at the head of the table where she has the seat of honour, the rest of her daughters, granddaughters, and great-granddaughters hardly seem to notice she is there as they create a din of conversation about books, concerts, travel plans, and movies.
Today for some reason she’s a little jealous of them all. She usually revels in the fact that their lives are busy and interesting, and most times when they get together she is delighted to just sit back and watch as these bold girls of hers share their opinions and passions. She wishes she had learned to speak English better so she could be more involved, although every once in a while she manages to throw in a funny oneliner or a shrewd observation that makes them all take notice, perhaps even chuckle.
When her six daughters were teenagers, the only time she expressed her opinions was after the Sunday morning church service. As they hurried to prepare the noon meal she’d give a quick, sharp critique of the sermon. “Don’t let Minister Unruh scare you with talk of hell,” she would say to her girls. “I’ve been there and I survived. During the famine in Ukraine I was always hungry. My father made us share our bread with the starving orphan children, their big eyes staring at us through the windows. Even so, we would sometimes find them dead in our barn in the morning.” Aganetha admonished her daughters, “Forget about hell and be as happy as you can in this life.”
One of the girls would be keeping watch at the window to let them know when their father Wilhelm had finished conferring with the other deacons at the village church down the road and started walking home. Then Aganetha would turn her talk to the beauty of the pink roses in her flower garden or how many eggs the chickens had laid yesterday.
Today she can’t blame a faulty hearing aid for her not participating more in the women’s restaurant conversation. Just after Wilhelm died two years ago she bought a brand-new one. He would have said it was far too expensive. Despite her new hearing aid this city café isn’t the best place to hear what everyone is saying. Voices seem to echo off the brick walls and stone floors.
She looks down the white tablecloth at her bevy of bright girls. She ticks off their university degrees in her mind with sinless pride—art, education, music, religion, nursing, home economics, communications, speech therapy, women’s studies, dental hygiene, and literature. She often recites these English words as a kind of litany of gratitude when she says her evening prayers.
Aganetha had cried herself to sleep for weeks when she turned twelve and her mother said she must work at home and could no longer attend the village school. The thought that her daughters and granddaughters have all graduated from university makes her want to giggle, but if she did that they might really believe she is going crazy. They are still all looking at her expectantly, their mouths slightly agape, waiting for her to explain her brash declaration.
The waiter, coming to take their orders, saves her. He is a good-looking young man with finely shaped ears and nice white teeth. Wilhelm had been handsome too at their wedding, in the suit he had ordered tailor-made in Vienna while he waited there for his visa to join her in Canada.
“What would you like, ma’am?” the polite waiter asks, bending his curly head down so she can feel his warm breath on her cheek. Aganetha gives him her sweetest smile. “I’ll have the chicken sandwich and coffee,” she says. As the rest of the women scan the menus, ordering exotic things like wraps and glasses of cabernet, she thinks about what led to her passionate observation that momentarily silenced them all.
Three of her granddaughters had been having an animated conversation. Aganetha wasn’t sure she’d heard right because they were sitting halfway down the table, but Andrea Jane was saying “It’s like waterskiing” to her cousins Marie and Stephanie.
All Aganetha’s granddaughters were taught to water-ski and swim at the family cottage her husband Wilhelm built at Antler Lake. Who’d have thought he would do such a thing? Too expensive! But the Mennonite church had wanted to start a Bible camp at Antler Lake and the government wouldn’t construct a road to the site till every cottage lot along the way had been sold. Wilhelm had seen it as his Christian duty to buy a lot and build a cabin, a cabin where their family has gathered every summer since.
In the village of Rudnerfeld where she grew up, only the boys had gone swimming on Saturdays when they took the horses into the lake to give them a bath. How Aganetha had longed to join them, but her mother had been so horrified when she suggested it that for a whole week she had tied the red kerchief around her head every morning. The kerchief had been mother’s way to let the family know she was suffering from one of her bad headaches and they’d better give her a wide berth.
Aganetha turns her mind back to what Andrea Jane said to her cousins. “It’s just like going waterskiing in the evening. The lake is cold and you know the boat will stretch your arm muscles till they hurt as you are pulled out of the water. But once you’re up it’s exhilarating to ride the waves at sunset.”
Aganetha had been confused. What was her granddaughter comparing to water-skiing? She asked her daughter Wilma. “Sex, Mom,” Wilma said, her voice blunt. “Andrea Jane is describing what sex is like.” That’s when Aganetha blurted it out. “Sex! Phooey! Phooey! Phooey!”
She rarely sees Andrea Jane now, a television reporter living three hundred miles away with a husband and two teenaged daughters. But when she was a little girl Andrea Jane had often come to visit. Wilhelm would need to drive into the city to pick up parts for the combine or tractor and would bring his granddaughter back to the village in the truck with him. Wilhelm was as affectionate with his grandchildren as he had been demanding and distant with his own daughters.
Some mornings Andrea Jane had begged Aganetha to let her brush her hair. First, though, they had to wash the breakfast dishes at the special low sink Wilhelm had installed to accommodate Aganetha’s short stature. Then take the slop pail out to the pig barn and sew a hundred stitches on the tea towels they were embroidering. And if they still had time before lunch, when Aganetha and Andrea Jane needed to deliver the liverwurst sandwiches and jar of cold coffee to Wilhelm in the field, she had obliged her granddaughter by giving her the brush and settling in the straight-backed chair in her bedroom.
While they listened to the funeral announcements on the radio Aganetha had let Andrea Jane take out the multitude of wire pins that held her waistlength hair in a tight knot at the back of her head, then comb it first with her fingers and gently brush it. Although since Wilhelm’s death Aganetha wears her hair short and gets a perm every three months, in those days she had still begged him for the money to have her hair cut, coloured, and curled the way her daughters and nieces did. “Your hair is fine the way it is!” he’d say. Much as Aganetha wanted to look younger and more modern she had liked having long hair for her granddaughter to brush and comb; her tiny fingers moved tenderly across Aganetha’s head in soothing arcs of pleasure. Remembering the intimacy of Andrea Jane’s touch makes Aganetha feel warm all over.
Such a different feeling than when Wilhelm touched her. She has never forgotten the terror of her wedding night. How Wilhelm grabbed her in the dark, pushed up her flannel nightgown, forced himself on her, grunted, and rolled over to snore himself to sleep. She wondered how he could possibly be the same man who had written her long romantic letters from Moscow when he was sent there to work on the military medical trains.
That night she had dreamt about her childhood, the time bandits had come to Rudnerfeld. The shouting men emptied the bottle of whisky her grandfather kept on the parlour table to enjoy with his newspaper and pipe. They dressed up in the suits, ties, and white shirts her brothers saved for Sundays. A little drunk, they tried to play the guitar, balalaika, and accordion Aganetha and her sisters used to accompany her mother and father when they sang duets. Then they held a gun to her father’s head, pushed her mother up against the wall, lifted her white apron, and dropped their muddy, stained pants; Aganetha and her sister held hands tight as they watched through the crack in the bedroom door.
When one of the men looked their way they raced on bare brave feet back to their bed, pulled the wedding-ring quilt over their chests and tried to draw normal, not panicked, breaths as they heard boots march across the floor of the room. They saw through eyes squeezed shut the aura of the kerosene lamp held up to check if they were sleeping. The bandit put the lamp down before he collapsed asleep across their legs on the bed and they dared not move till their older brother came to retrieve them in the morning. The sheets and blankets were burned. They were rife with lice.
Two months later, the midwife had moved from house to house in the village, carrying her brown leather bag. Aganetha’s mother went with the midwife into the back room and for two days they carried meals to her bed because she couldn’t get up. Mother had worn the red kerchief for a long time after that.
Later, in Canada, when Wilhelm brought the midwife to their house to help Aganetha deliver her babies, the sight of that brown leather bag had made her shiver. She would bury four of her ten babies, but it wasn’t the midwife’s fault. What would she have done without her? The first time, the afternoon Wilma, her oldest, was born, Aganetha had looked at all the blood soaking the sheets and staining the linoleum floor and wondered how she could still be alive.
It was after Wilma’s birth that Aganetha had begun to have a different nightmare almost every time she and Wilhelm had sex. It was always the same. Aganetha was pregnant and walking slowly through a field of waist-high wheat, and all these men were coming toward her riding horses at a full gallop, trampling the grain. The horses’ bodies were streaming streaming with sweat and the men were singing a hymn, “Are You Washed in the Blood?”
Wilhelm had shushed her fiercely when she woke screaming from the dream. He needed to get his sleep and she might scare the children in the adjoining room.
The conversation at the restaurant table is quieting down now as the waiter delivers second and third cups of coffee. Aganetha is tired. She is looking forward to getting back to her room at Resthaven to sit in the plum leather reclining chair she had had delivered the week after Wilhelm’s funeral. She’ll put on just a dab of the expensive perfume her daughter Gertrude gave her this afternoon and maybe read a chapter of the new romance novel her granddaughter Alexis bought at the German bookstore for her birthday. She’ll have a few of the chocolate macaroons she keeps in the cut-glass bowl on the table beside her chair. It will be her dessert. They have pie at the restaurant, but its crust is bound to be tough. Her pie crusts were always flaky and sweet. Wilhelm’s favourite had been her peach pie. She’d cut it into pieces on his plate for him and he’d put a little of the leftover gravy from the roast on it before he ate it in three big bites.
Aganetha is sure the women in her family haven’t forgotten her dramatic outburst, but maybe they won’t ask about it. One by one they come to say goodbye. Her youngest great-granddaughter Samantha dances around her chair. “You have so many nice presents, Oma.” Her granddaughters give her gentle hugs. “Happy birthday, Oma.” Andrea Jane caresses her hand. “I love you, Oma.” Her daughters plant fluttering kisses on her cheek. “We’ll come and see you this week, Mom.” She gives the handsome waiter a little smile and a tiny wave of the hand as her daughter Wilma rolls her wheelchair out the door into the soft warmth of the late spring afternoon.