As the interurban tram travelled along the base of Majuba Hill, Anne Wiebe smiled, and said to Janet Smith who was looking out the tram’s window, “That’s Yarrow below us now. That white building is the MB church, and the other white building to the east is the Public School.” Sitting side by side on the wooden seat, Anne’s raven black hair contrasted with Janet’s blonde ponytail.
Janet said, “Yarrow’s smaller than I thought, and all those green farms. Is that another church?”
“Yes. That’s the other Mennonite church on Eckert Road, the one we call the Cowboy Mennonite church. They are not as strict. Actually, they’re the United Mennonites, but not like your United Church of Canada. And the plant we’re passing right now is the Yarrow Growers Co-op berry cannery.”
“Isn’t that a funny name for a church, with two Mennonite churches in such a small town? How can the people afford two churches?”
“The two denominations separated in Russia about a hundred years ago. And over the years the prices for the farmers’ berries have been very good.” Anne resumed humming the top hit song for 1948, ‘I’m Looking over a Four Leaf Clover,’ she and Janet sang since the Huntingdon Station at the U.S.A. border. As the tram’s whistle blew, she said, “There’s Yarrow Station now! I hope Sammy is there to meet us. Look! They’re playing a game at Knox’s Ball Park.”
After the tram stopped and the conductor rang his bell, Janet and Anne stepped onto the rough wooden platform carrying their light train suitcases. Janet’s brown case had a red handle with red leather trim; Anne’s plain brown case was worn at the edges. They wore print summer dresses they created from a McCall’s pattern using the sewing machine of their landlady in Vancouver. Looking around, Anne said, “Let’s walk down Wilson Road to the game. Maybe Sammy is there.”
Along the Wilson Road fence in left field, Norman Steinbrunnen watched keenly as the Yarrow Growers’ pitcher threw the ball to the Chilliwack Monarch’s batters. “Give’m your riser, Crow,” he shouted, hoping to catch a fly ball. Beyond the batter, he saw the ball park’s new bleachers, and farther north, the cottonwood trees along the Vedder River. Expanding his peripheral vision, he saw the two young women scrutinizing him from the road.
Norman recognized the voice that called to him from beyond the fence, “Hey there, Norman, how’s it going?” Although three grades ahead, he had sometimes chatted with Anne on the school bus to High School in Chilliwack. His family attended a different church from Anne’s, and since he left school, he only saw her socially at a few interfaith youth gatherings. After graduation, Anne worked in Vancouver as a nanny, thwarting his plans to ask her for a date.
Distracted, Norman almost missed seeing the batter hit a towering fly ball towards him. After catching the ball for the third out and throwing it back to the infield, he casually came to the fence, and said, “Hey Anne, nice seeing you. Back in town?”
“Just for the weekend,” Anne said. “This is my friend Janet. We’re both attending university this fall.”
“Wow!” Norman said. “Hey. They’re showing the movie ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ at the school tonight. Want to go?” Before Anne answered, he said, “Got to go. We’re up-to-bats. Jacob and I will wait for you in front of D&D Hardware at seven,” and he turned to return to the team’s bench.
Janet said, “No need explaining. Did we just get asked out on a date? And who is Jacob?”
“Jacob is the dark-haired guy who was playing second base. It’s a date if we show up ... if we want,” Anne said. “Anyway, I hope you enjoy visiting with my family.” A red, Chevrolet pickup truck pulled up beside them. “Here’s my brother Sammy now. Let’s go.”
At their Saturday supper, the Wiebe family discussed the effects on Yarrow of the sudden slump in the berry market. Mr. Wiebe, a bookkeeper for a dozen of the town’s businesses, said, “People aren’t buying. The Co-op has yet to pay-out the farmers for last year’s berries. And this year the Co-op is preserving unsold berries in barrels. Some of my clients are ready to close shop.”
“Are those the stacks and stacks of barrels we saw from the train?” Janet asked.
“That’s right,” Sammy said. “The Co-op is going bankrupt, just when I am old enough to work there this summer. I am not picking raspberries again!”
“Do Norman and Jacob still have jobs there?” Anne said.
“Maybe not for much longer,” Mr. Wiebe said. “And the Yarrow Athletic Association is showing movies at the school to raise money for the ball team.”
“Norman asked us to the movie tonight,” Anne said.
“You know the church is very against that,” Mrs. Wiebe said. “Just yesterday, Reverend Harder asked if you’d be singing in the choir this year.”
“I saw ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ in Victoria two years ago when it came out,” Janet said. “It’s a beautiful, Christian movie.”
“Reverend Harder thinks all movies are sinful,” Anne said. “And Mom, I can only come home once in a while this year, with university and work.”
“Well,” Mrs. Wiebe said. “You’re old enough to make your own decisions. But please promise that you’ll go to church tomorrow.” She remembered how she had met her husband in Herbert, Saskatchewan after his family arrived from Russia in 1926. He was a Russlaender; she was a Kanadier. How different he was at first. How he struggled learning to speak English, and his flair for mathematics. When she was Anne’s age, she was already married.
As the girls walked downtown to meet Norman and Jacob, they passed raspberry fields edging the sidewalk along Central Road. In places, an open ditch stretched between the sidewalk and the road, eventually connecting to a pump station that drained the water into the Vedder Canal. This labyrinth of ditches with several long, winding sloughs kept the fertile fields from reverting to the lake it had been before the Mennonite settlers arrived.
“Your parents are very young,” Janet said. “Younger than mine. Your Mom is very smart.”
“Dad was twenty when he immigrated, and Mom was eighteen when they married. Nine months later, I was born,” Anne said. “Yeah, she’s smart. She’s a clerk at Valley Meat Market up the road … brains underutilized.”
“Had you thought of marrying Norman?”
“A little bit, but then no. He always seemed so much older than me. The best thing I did was to get out of town as soon as I graduated. I didn’t want to get stuck here … rotting my mind.”
“So why are we doing this? I sense the fourth leaf of clover. Am I right?
“Yeah,” Anne said. “Janet, give me two words that are opposites and rhyme.”
“I know. Adore and abhor. And that is why we’re going to be English majors this fall.”
“Abhor and adore. Can you have one without the other?” Anne said.
Anne waved to friends as she entered the basement auditorium of the Public School with Norman, Janet and Jacob. She introduced Janet to Katie, Esther and Mary. The ball team ushered movie patrons to their seats. Church members would be rebuked by the church elders for their presence tonight. Families with gaggles of children arrived, including the Wiensz family living on a rough farm on the Vedder River Flats, the eastern bush side of the railroad tracks. Mrs. Wiensz and the children wore home-made clothes like Hutterites, while Mr. Wiensz, a Kanadier like Anne’s mother, wore suits he bought at Eaton’s. Last spring, the MB Church excommunicated Mr. Wiensz for working at the Vedder Army Camp. Anne reminded herself of how hurtful gossip was in a small town, and tried to think of other things when she looked at them.
When the audience stood up to sing “God Save the King’ before the movie began, Anne remembered the assemblies Principal Wilson held every Monday morning. Wilson, who applied the strap liberally, was determined that his Elementary School students became good Canadian citizens. And good Canadian citizens spoke only English at school, even at recess. Most immigrant children knew only a few words of English when they started grade one. Even some Canadian born children with Russlaender parents spoke strictly German at home. Parents believed it was an answer to prayer if their children had a Mennonite, lady teacher who understood her students’ predicament. However, the School Board seemed to prefer hiring non-Mennonites to teach in places like Yarrow where most of the population was Mennonite.
Anne thought the events in “It’s a Wonderful Life” were similar to what was happening in Yarrow. The collapse of the Bedford Falls’ Building and Loan Association resembled the imminent failure of the Yarrow Co-op. In both situations, the townsfolk stood to lose their monetary savings and investments, with dire consequences for local employment. Such circumstances prevented James Stewart as George Bailey from travelling and going to college. She hoped she could realize her dream of university followed by a meaningful job. But if the Co-op went bankrupt, she would have to pay for her university tuition, books, and room and board from her savings and the money she earned working part time as a nanny. Janet was lucky, because her English parents could pay all of her university expenses.
Halfway through the movie, the lights were turned on so that the projectionist could rewind the first reel of film and set-up the second reel. The audience members stretched and chatted quietly as if they were in church. Several people looked around sheepishly; realizing that tomorrow Reverend Harder would know they were here watching a movie with dancing. Anne heard Mr. Nachtigal complain to his friend Mr. Giesbrecht that they were showing a Christmas film in the middle of summer. Sammy came over to Anne, and being a nuisance said, “You are sitting in the wrong order. If you and Janet switched seats, then your dark hair would match Jacob’s, and Janet’s blonde hair would match Norman’s.” Brothers!
After the movie, Norman and Jacob invited the girls for a ride in their black, 1940 Chevrolet coupe the two cousins bought last fall. They loved their car more than anything. Janet and Jacob climbed into the back seat; Anne slid into the front seat beside Norman. The guys tried to talk like James Stewart, quoting some of his lines from the movie.
In his German-Mexican accent, Jacob said, “This is a very interesting situation. Here I am in back seat with English girl.” Janet punched Jacob on the shoulder and snuggled next to him until Jacob put his arm around her. Jacob thought he was as lucky as a pre-Columbian Aztec. Three years ago his family moved from the city of Chihuahua, Mexico where his father worked as a construction labourer to Yarrow to live with his mother’s brother. Now he had a car, a job and his arm around a schmock, blond Enjelsche Me’jal.
In a falsetto voice Norman said, “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.” Soon everyone laughed and mimicked Norman. Then Norman asked Anne, “Does the MB Church preach that all angels are male? And is there sex in heaven?”
Anne thought this was a bit much, but gamely replied, “Maybe we should ask Reverend Harder tomorrow?” Since it was getting late, Anne suggested Norman drop them off at her home.
When the girls got out of the car on the Wiebe driveway, the girls looked at each other, laughed, extended their arms, and in Donna Reed’s voice said simultaneously, “You may kiss my hand.”
The next morning, Mrs. Wiebe led the girls into the MB Church sanctuary. When the usher, Mr. Martens, asked Anne if she attended church in Vancouver, Anne said she did even though she had only gone to church on one Sunday. During the service, Anne thought Reverend Harder would condemn last night’s movie at the Public School. But he had bigger problems to resolve. Apparently, the finances of the Christian High School operated by the church in Yarrow were deeply in the red, as deep as the Red Sea. Only Moses could lead the congregation to the promised land of financial security. Last year, Reverend Harder preached a special sermon on how God was blessing Yarrow. Now Yarrow was reaping the pestilence of its excessive pride and greedy expectations. Yarrow would have to change to survive. But Janet missed the church’s entire proceedings since they were held in German.
After a light lunch, called Faspa by Mennonites, Sammy drove Anne and Janet to Yarrow Station to catch the 1:30 pm tram to Vancouver. Norman and Jacob had noisily honked the car’s horn as they drove by the house on their way to the afternoon ball game in Chilliwack. Before the girls boarded the tram, Sammy asked Anne if she wanted him to give Norman their address in Vancouver. Anne didn’t reply. She knew her answer would not influence whatever Sammy chose to do. But Janet said, “Sammy, we would much rather that you visited us for the weekend sometime.”
Sitting with Janet on the wooden seat of the tram, Anne reflected on how much she had changed since she moved to Vancouver: an English roommate, going to church only occasionally, attending university instead of the teachers’ training college as planned, taking in a movie in Yarrow, riding around town in a car with boys and then blithely attending church the next day. Living with Janet was giving her the confidence to handle her transition to the larger, sophisticated, English society.
For a while they sat quietly looking out the window. Then Janet said, “I think your parents adore each other. Thanks for inviting me this weekend. Unfortunately, my parents abhor each other. You will see what I mean when you visit my home in Victoria.”
© Elmer Wiens