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Our German Relative

Whenever our family got together, it was inevitable that we would sit and tell stories. We would gather in my grandparents’ adjoining kitchen and living room, tjinja on the floor to make room on the couches and chairs for our elders. Here at the heart of the festive and crowded house, no one would be out of earshot. Yarns were unravelled and our feelings rose and fell. It was as if we were on a ship and the prairie around us was an ocean and in all that rolling whiteness, my grandparents’ house was our safe harbour. The stories often reminded us of the many dangers that existed then and in the past in what seemed such a placid and familiar world.

At Christmas, Grandma always told the final story. That was our tradition. It was about my great-aunt Rosa when she was a child in Russia.

Enunciating with care in her precise English, Grandma Zehen told the story. Her narration was theatrical and thrilling, but still heartfelt and purely told. She would fill in detail and sentiment, adding dialogue to suit. But most engaging of all, she always told the story as if it were ours. This may not have been strictly so; it may have been cultural lore as much as family history. I never felt that it mattered — I just remember waiting for the story every Christmastime.

Lights were dimmed, candles lit. Out came the platters of Christmas cookies from the warmth of Grandma’s oven. Fresh baked, we had been smelling them since the stories began, all of us waiting for them to arrive. I will never forget the candy taste of the pink icing, the buttery aroma with just a hint of vanilla. I can still see the glint of the crystal sugar in the candlelight. Best of all, dee tjinja got first pick from the overflowing trays!

Grandma began her special story once everyone had their cookies and we chewed as quietly as we could to listen. The room hushed as Grandma rose and drew herself up tall, her back straight, to tell our favourite story.

* * *

Okay, if all the children are comfy, I’ll start… Not too far from the city of Odessa and the shores of a faraway place called the Black Sea, there was a region called Molotschna Colony — “Milk River,” you know, as Englanders sometimes say it. Molotschna was home to many Mennonite villages. My mother’s sister, my Taunte Rosa, attended grade school in one of the villages there. By state dictate, the lessons were taught in Russian. The teacher, however, was brought in from Germany for the school year. Naturally, she was fluent in Hoch Deutsch — the more formal German language many Molotschna Mennonites had grown up with in church. She spoke Russian too, a stiff and slow-moving version, but best of all, this Lehrerin was also able to fly along in her Mennonite students’ native Plautdietsch. You understand, yes? Low German. Obah, for the schoolkids of course, Plautdietsch was like the difference between stale rye bread and fresh, hot raisin toast with butter!

After Russia’s Godless Revolution, a rule strictly forbade all religion. It was illegal to come together in any kind of gathering for those who intended to pray or worship. Why, even our little get-together today would have been banned under these new laws! Ambitious and meticulous, the government officials were particularly diligent in overseeing the local Mennonites in everything they did: at work, at home, and in Taunte Rosa’s school.

Even so, there were still some aspects of Christianity that refused to fade. In practice, this referred to the calendar and the arrangement of holidays, most of which were based on old religious traditions too deeply ingrained to go away overnight. Christmas ceased to exist, but a single day of rest near the end of December was conditionally permitted in Taunte’s village. Despite this allowance, officially, even the most innocent Yuletide symbols were banned.

Can you imagine? We Mennonites have not experienced oppression like this in Canada — at least not exactly — but let me tell you, this was a definite stimulant to Christmas celebration back then! There is a kind of enthusiasm for things that only forbidding them can produce. Ha! Bibles came out of hiding places. Late-night services were held in barns and haylofts and carols were sung in whispered voices. Even the auf’jefollna cast aside their backsliding ways and rediscovered their fervour! (Grandma smiled and winked at the adults as she told this last part.)

Now kids, I’m sorry for all the big words and grown-up talk! What I am saying to you is that Christmas was taken away. And not just Christmas, but Easter too and even going to Sunday School. It was a mixed-up time, joh? But you little ones shouldn’t worry — the next part of the story is really for you, most of all!

One year, a few days before Christmas Day, Rosa’s mother baked a batch of Christmas cookies, and young Rosa couldn’t stop herself. When no one was looking, she took one of the best, one with thick icing and red and green sugar crystals on top and snuck away. She wrapped it in oiled paper and secured it snugly with a thin ribbon she had saved from her birthday. Her coat had an inside pocket and she placed it there, near her heart.

Imagine the winter sky, children, as big there and just as blue as it is here. Think of Taunte Rosa as she hummed ‘Stille Nacht’ ever so softly while she walked to the schoolhouse, her bootheels squeaking in rhythm on the hard-packed snow path. Rosa, you see, felt guilty for sneaking the cookie and for not telling her mother about her plan. But… you know just how she felt, yes? She wanted to have the cookie so badly and feared if she asked permission, the answer would have surely been no.

After lunch, while the other children dressed to go out and play, Rosa walked, taking tiny steps, to her teacher’s desk and placed the ribboned package in front of her. Fräulein Rosenfeld tilted her head.

“What’s this?”

Rosa stood meekly with her heavy parka hung on one arm. At first, she was terrified, sensing that her teacher was angry and that she had done something wrong. “A present for you, Lehrerin.”

Fräulein answered with a hum and a slight frown. She was a prim woman, thin and neat and somewhat severe. Her brow raised and her eyes flicked up to see if anyone else was in the room. It was empty, the children were all on the playground. Reaching out, she picked up the bundle and unwrapped it with long piano fingers. She placed the dainty ribbon on the desktop with care, its brightness reflected in the varnish. Slowly and with the same delicate touch, she undid the folded oil-paper and then looked down at the Christmas cookie revealed now in the palm of her hand.

“Well, well,” she said, before taking a deep breath and sitting upright in her chair. She paused, pulling her feet under her as if to rise but then changed her mind. “How nice, Rosa. But, tell me please: did your mother give you this, for me?” She left her steady gaze on the child but took care not to stare too hard.

Rosa looked down, cheeks flushing. “Nay, Lehrerin. It was me,” she confessed.

Nicht Mutti?” replied the teacher in more formal High German; her tone firmer, carrying the faintest taint of accusation.

Nein, Fräulein. Mother doesn’t know.”

Fräulein Rosenfeld nodded curtly. She stood and walked to the doorway, her swift footsteps like hammer blows on the wood floor. Looking down the hall and then closing the door, she paused there, hands clenching as she gathered her thoughts. Rosa waited, feeling ever smaller next to the tall desk. The door locked with a snap.

Nah joh,” Fräulein began. When she turned back to Rosa she was smiling, her face bright. “This is so nice.”

Rosa squirmed, basking in the moment.

“It’s just so nice!” Fräulein repeated. “Can we have it now, Rosa?”

The little girl studied her teacher’s face. Then, eyes shining, she said, “Joh!”

Fräulein Rosenfeld looked through the window to the playground. Then she returned to her desk and with eager hands broke the cookie into smaller bits. She ate some of it immediately, passing a piece to Rosa.

They ate together, nibbling busily like church mice. The teacher stood between Rosa and the door. Fräulein fretted from door to window and kept glancing at the large mantle clock on the shelf behind her, above the lined blackboard, keeping watch all the while.

Soon the cookie was gone. The teacher took the wrapper and folded it over and over until it was a small square. She pushed it far down into her pocket, together with the curly ribbon, which she had tied and retied until it was nothing more than a pink knot. She moistened her fingertip and dabbed at the few remaining crumbs. Holding one finger upright in front of her pursed lips, she then took Rosa’s little hands and squeezed them gently, leaning over to kiss her on the forehead in the silent classroom.

“Our secret, joh?” Fräulein said in a whisper.

Rosa nodded, elated to have a secret with her teacher — an honour she did not fully grasp. But perhaps it was just what the Fräulein had been lacking in cold and distant Molotschna, far from her native home in Germany. Just ask any oma or opa whose children have since begun their own lives and families, and they will tell you, it’s easier to feel lonely at Christmas than at any other time of the year.

Fräulein gazed with fondness at the tiny girl, she saw the joy in her eyes and touched her braided blonde hair.

Just then, the first of Rosa’s red-cheeked classmates huffed back into the cloakroom stomping snow off their boots and unwinding scarfs, their yarn-strung mittens wet and dangling. They stared at the two at the front of the classroom. Rosa’s friend Tina called out that they missed her for the game of fox and geese they had played, running in the fresh snow. Before Rosa could reply, the bell rang and she and the other children returned to their seats.

Now tjinja, you might ask, how dangerous was that one innocent küak? Surely no great peril could come from something so harmless? So childlike? But all it would have taken was for the wrong official to find out about the Christmas cookie. What would have happened to your great-aunt Rosa then? Those Russians, obliged by strict orders to investigate, might have gone back to Rosa’s family. Questioned them. Maybe some would have been sent by train to a distant work camp or forced into some hidden cruelty in Moscow. Unknown. Unspeakable. Who knows?

All because of a cookie.

Grandma sat and folded her hands in her lap. The house fell still and silent until Grandpa prayed, his voice solemn and laden with emotion. When he finished, after, “Amen,” we sang, giving thanks for our deliverance, rattling the windows, billowing our hearts; “Praise God from whom all blessings flow…”

* * *

At last, late on Christmas eve, I would lie in bed and retell myself Great-Aunt Rosa’s story. I could feel the packed snow of the path and hear the ticking of the mantle clock in the empty classroom.  I hear it still.

Fräulein Rosenfeld was like a relative we saw just once a year — a loyal and trusted member of our family there in the tiny house behind the bakery on Barkman Avenue. Without this visitor from an ocean away and long ago, our Christmas could not be complete.

End

An earlier version of this story appeared in the Canadian lit mag, Red Fez in December 2016.

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Mitchell Toews lives and writes lakeside in Manitoba. His writing appears in a variety of literary journals and anthologies. He has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Everyday heroes, the complicated lives of the quotidian, the beauty in life’s small kindnesses, and the cruelty that rolls off our fingers like pennies to a beggar — these are his preferred territories, often set on the prairies, or in the boreal, or in the hitch of a sigh.

Follow him on the trails, on the water, across the winter ice, or more conveniently at Mitchellaneous.com, Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter.

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