Friday, September 15, 2006

"A Long Line of Nüscht": Vocation, Identity, Heredity

“That should keep you busy!” So said the Post Office Lady, as she handed me my latest Amazon order. I laughed, and went on my way. I know what’s going on. There are quite a few “welfare dads” in our town; you could characterize their lifestyle as indolent, if not idyllic. The implication being made is that my own lifestyle differs chiefly in the latter quality.

Always with the Post Office Lady. Someday I’ll puff myself up and make a big, maudlin deal about the outrageous implications behind her jibes. Or maybe not. It’s fun to just wink and make like she doesn’t know the half of just how deliriously luxurious my lot in life has been. Which is true, as far as it goes.

At this point it is tempting for me to construct a line of distinction between me and the welfare dads, but honestly: there but for the Grace of God go I. And I don’t mind the local ribbing. I’d like to think my presence in this town is a pleasant bit of mischief. The Post Office Lady takes note of all the Amazon packages. The local women see me tending to my daughters, or hanging wash on the line, and nudge their hubbies in the ribs. The hubbies snort, and mutter, “He’s gotta be gay.” I give everyone a cheerful wave. They wave back. It’s all good.

The locals I can handle. My ancestors, on the other hand, are among the Great Cloud of Witnesses. And there are days when I could swear I feel them breathing down my neck.

My mother’s father was a pastor. He made a point of telling us grandchildren he had once been a very successful farmer, but he’d left all that behind when he answered The Call. My mother tells us, with unmistakable displeasure, that he habitually followed that “call” and dragged the family with him into one sorry parsonage after another. He was a skillful carpenter, though, and my impression from my mother is that he and my grandmother would make a good go of the parsonage they were in. He was also an understated people person, and once everything (including the congregation) had more or less settled into an attractive spot, he’d swap situations with a pastor who was struggling in the woods, further afield. My mother was the oldest in the family, and has a keen recall of some of the marital strife this brought on.

John Prine’s carpenter-Grampa “built houses, stores and banks”; mine built houses, churches and apartment buildings. Those apartment buildings were important to him  he was a landlord, too. More than once I overheard him tell my father those buildings stood as proof to the businessmen in our community that he wasn’t “just” a preacher. My father didn’t think the businessmen were in need of any such persuasion, but then it might not have occurred to him that my grandfather was probably fishing for a little affirmation  from my father’s father.

My other grandfather was a banker. More accurately, he was a Credit Union manager, and he lived to see it become among the most successful banks on the continent. He came from a farming family, but as with most men of his era, he had a total disdain for blue-jeans. His gardening pants were dress pants that had seen better days, but didn’t look too wehrklempt.

He had a sunny smile and a wicked sense of humor  one I recall as being very Mennonite, taking enormous pleasure whenever some big-talker got put in his place. One anecdote he trotted out during the ritual family dinners regarded a pushy little loudmouth who was in the habit of bossing around his fellow workers, declaring that next to the boss-man, he was second-in-command. When the boss caught wind of this, he drove up and let the guy have it, declaring, “After me comes a long line of nüescht. Dann chemst du.” (A long line of nothing  then comes you.)

My siblings and I were the only grandchildren in the family, and he took us fishing (a high privilege, but I'll be happy if I never eat jackfish again). My last picture of him was taken on Boxing Day; he's with me and my brother, smiling and playing billiards in his basement. One hand is holding the cue, the other is uncharacteristically stuffed in his pocket. He had only partial use of that hand that day. He thought he might have suffered a stroke the night before. In fact, a tumor had grown in his brain, and he wasn’t going to live to see the summer.

I had thought the world of him before, but he was such a beautiful man those last months of his life. He loved giving stuff away, and signing cheques. The fields he owned he sold for a song to the farmer that was renting them. He was told of my plans to ride a motorcycle around the continent that summer, and let everyone know what a grand idea he thought this was. I dream of him every spring, when the snow thaws and the water runs off the fields into the ditch.

But, man: A long line of nüscht  dann chemst du.

There remains in me the deep impulse to prove myself to others that I’m not just … what? … the stay-at-home parent, the scribbler, the “kept man” who does a little housework, but otherwise fiddles and blogs. And there is an impulse on my father’s side of the family to locate and appreciate, albeit ironically, those members of the family tree whose earthly achievements are suspect. An overwhelming “work ethic” dogs this family. So does depression.

Unlike my mother’s father, I am not a carpenter. I once accepted a friend’s invitation to help him finish his basement. When everything was done, my friend clapped me on the shoulder and informed me that God had blessed me with two left hands.

I am not a farmer. When I was in my teens, my parents arranged for me to summer at my aunt and uncle’s farm. I hope I helped out a bit, but the older I grew, the more I realized just how hopelessly out-of-sync my thinking was with even the most casual farmer.
Protected prairie grasslands: all that arable soil, going to waste.
I am not a banker or a businessman  I don’t have the flint for it. We’ve got a neighbor using our shed for storage. I should be charging him rent, but I can’t bring myself to do it  he’s fallen on hard times. He’s also amazing with drywall and plaster, and has done some terrific work in our house. He’d like to think we’re pretty much square, but anyone with the slightest business-sense would vehemently beg to differ.

I’m told one of my forebears (five generations down the line, I think) was widely regarded as a lost cause. He married a real go-getter, though, and she single-handedly kept their ever-growing family clothed and fed. The locals, and eventually his own children, referred to him as “Fühla” (take a wild guess what that might mean). He had no trade to speak of, but Mennonite historians love him. Apparently he walked around town, took note of what was going on, then went home and wrote it all down in his journal.

The current guess is he was depressive, but I wonder. He and his wife had an average of one child a year for twelve years  did the sun only shine for the two of them once a year? Did he not make his wife laugh? Is it possible the two of them recognized and chafed at the absurd “Dann chemst du” posturing of their peers? Or could it be the only thing he was confident of was his ineptitude?

His children became disdainful  of that I am painfully aware.

There is laundry to be done today, along with dusting and vacuuming. Throw in the after-school homework agenda, and supper (roasted chicken with wild rice and vegetables)  along with this posting  and I’ve just managed to fill my day.

But I’ll be wondering if it isn’t more important to prove myself to my children than it is to prove myself to myself  or others. For better and for worse, it will be my children who return the favor.


Cowtown Pattie said...


I've started this comment three times. Charmed for sure.

Be they male or female, the "stay-at-home" parent is always fighting a self-esteem battle because the lemmings of society and the gurus of marketing still deem the job as menial, non-intellectual, and relatively unimportant.

I say that because I faced the same feelings you have expressed when I was "just a housewife".

Raising children, if done right, is one of the hardest, but most rewarding jobs I have ever held. Yes, we could have had more wordly goods if I had worked outside of the home when the girls were young, but you know as well as I that "things" aren't what your kids remember about their youth.

Yours will surely remember a dad who was nurturing and giving, a dad who could be counted on to be there when they needed him, and a dad who was strong enough and brave enough to follow his heart.

What is the point of having kids if you don't enjoy them, spend real time with them, and ensure they have the best home you know how to provide?

You done good, kid. And, you will be a hard act for the future son-in-laws to follow...

Whisky Prajer said...

That pretty much nails it, CP - your words are very much appreciated.

dan said...

I don't know if your up for 'Jesus talk,' but I just read this in Shane Claiborne's "The Irresistible Revolution" (p.132), and it seemed to fit: "Jesus has called us to littleness and compares our revolution to the little mustard seed, to yeast making its way through dough, slowly infecting this dark world with love."

I don't mean to insinuate that what you do is "little", but sometimes it's the things that "seem" little that have the biggest impact. And maybe the reason there are so few worthwhile things that impact the world is because too many of us are trying to do "big" things instead of "slowly infecting this dark world with love."

Just a thought.

Whisky Prajer said...

PD - I'd be a poor one to reject 'Jesus talk', especially when it's from you! I do like Claiborne's take on these things - yours too. Thanks, man.

Joel Swagman said...

interesting about the historians and the journal. With all the blogs going around these days, one wonders if historians aren't going to be spoiled for information about our age. People like your forebearer may no longer be as valuable.
My friend has talked about keeping fake journals to throw off future historians

Whisky Prajer said...

I like the fake journal idea, but when it comes to this digital stuff, I kinda feel like we're skywriting. Unless it's on paper, it's just "temporary". At least, that's how it feels - I guess we shall see.

DarkoV said...

Sometimes "Wow" will have to suffice.

Like CP, I've been rewriting the same comment 3-4 times. The iron is cooling off rapidly, so let me ask if you'll be forewarning your readers as to the availability of your book on Lulu. Checked yesterday and the only author that comes up with the surname "Reimer" is some 15 yr old girl in California. You're not writing under a pseudonym, are you?

Scott said...


Every once in a while, you pour out something that seeps right into me.

Thanks for writing this. You may fret that raising children isn't 'enough' but, take that factor out of the equation, and you have what I wrestle with daily.

I feel bloody useless, impotent in the face of forces far more driven and (dare I say) evil than myself.

To Pastor Dan, "slowly infecting this dark world with love" is one of the warmest statements I've heard in a long while -- thank you -- but it's the "slowly" part that worries me. Can this world that spins faster and faster even be influence by this slow growth any more? I doubt.

I hear that voice that screams, "Do more! Do more! You're not good enough!" I see some people achieve great things, spurred on by that voice. I see many more ground down by it, weakly moaning, "But I'm doing the best I can." And I see a growing number rejecting it with depair, saying "Fuck you, I'm giving up."

I'm stuck in the second camp, straining for the first and fighting not to join the third.

Yes, little things matter. Your laundry matters because your children matter because your good example will help them change the world for the better. Probably in lovely, small ways. Maybe big.

The world spins.

Scott said...

"influnenced" and "despair" of course! I'm too fast for spelling! :)

Scott said...

Oh I give up. ;)

Whisky Prajer said...

dv and scott - a "wow" from either of you gentlemen is more than sufficient. Thank you very much. (As for you, Scott, don't give up!)