So Are They All by Mitchell Toews   

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Rosa Amelia Zilkie, the eldest of eleven children, was born in Canada in 1903. Her father was born in Poland, her mother in Romania. She married Cornelius F. Toews, in 1920 (at the age of 17) and took on his three young sons – he being recently widowed. Grandma raised his children and added seven of her own. Once her children were grown and out of the house, she took in disadvantaged boarders – Down’s Syndrome, polio victims, the elderly and infirm, and transient relatives – of which there was a plentitude!  Grandma passed away in 1985.

This story was inspired by Rosa Amelia Zilkie

****

My friend Leonard Gerbrandt was wiry and tall for his age and he had big dimples and a giant Adam’s apple. His mom worked for my parents at our little bakery and she was an elegant beauty reminiscent of the movie star, Hedy Lamarr. She was dark haired and slender with high, rouged cheekbones and large brown eyes. I was just a little kid, but I felt weak when she was near; the scent of her perfume confusing me through a kind of permeating intoxication, although I would never reveal it. Especially to Lenny, who was as tough and unyielding as a Manitoba March storm.

The Gerbrandts were made of stern stuff. Lenny’s older brother was gaunt and menacing – his unblinking stare was like a violent shove. Their dad was an ex-cop. Mr Gerbrandt had been a good baseball player and was a big rugged guy, like a young Robert Mitchum. Mitchum married Lamarr and they begat sons and daughters, including Lenny, who, in later years, taught me how to roll a corn silk cigarette and do a catwalk on my bike. Lenny’s dad was the town cop but then joined the army and when he came back, he was not the same anymore. He had run out of whatever it was that made him Robert Mitchum, the big raw-boned cop who got Hedy Lamarr. Instead, he sat alone in the Hartplatz men-only beer parlour and got quietly loaded every day.

Luckily, Em was as smart and as tireless as she was pretty. She worked eight hours at the bakery making doughnuts and jambusters and raisin tarts and she made the kids’ lunches for school, paid the bills, did the laundry, mended clothes, made dinner for them all and much more. She kept the family together, mastering her fate in so doing.

Lenny and Erd had chips on their shoulders. They knew their parents were special and that their dad had been changed unkindly. They knew their mom was pushed beyond what was right and that things could have – should have – been different.

Every year or so they would move; carrying wagonloads of belongings down the street to the next rental house. Mr Gerbrandt made a pension, but he mostly drank it up and Mrs Gerbrandt could not keep up payments. So, they rented houses and sometimes fell behind. Lenny wore Erdman’s hand-me-downs and my mom often would send home a roast or a pot of soup with Em, citing exceptional circumstances like, “I was defrosting the freezer and the food all thawed!”

I figured if I had a crush on Em, Lenny felt similarly about my mom. Like JFK and Khrushchev however; we had mutual assurance and we spoke not of this.

Early that fall, there was a day when Lenny was going to miss school for an important dentist appointment. Lenny was a sucker for candy and his sweet tooth – many of them in fact – were rotten. He confided that he was going to the dentist to have several teeth removed, some cavities filled and some other serious work done. Lenny said he would miss one day for the dental work and one day of convalescence. He was embarrassed and swore me to secrecy.

Second only to the Hedy Lamarr beauty of Em Gerbrandt was the beguiling feminine charm of the Gidget-like Ms Froese, our teacher. Of course, Ms did not exist then, only Misses and she was one. Around five feet tall, bobbed blonde hair, saddle shoes, cashmere sweaters and rocket bras. I am sure I had no distinct thought then of that conically constrained part of her anatomy, only that it was soft and pleasing when she leaned over to help you with a problem and happened to make a fuzzy impact with your head or shoulder.

Miss Froese was sweet-natured and young and I remember the utter sadness I felt when, later that same school year, on November 22, she ran crying from the room after telling us that school would be cancelled for the day because of what had happened in a place called Dallas, Texas.

The next day we returned to school and added, “America the Beautiful” right after our normal singing of “God Save the Queen”. A big box of Kleenex sat on her desk and was empty before science that afternoon. Baseball and the Kennedys were things about the United States that our well-traveled neighbour, Mr Vogel, had made certain that I appreciated so I felt a special kinship with Miss Froese that desperate day in November.

Lenny’s dental reckoning was months before the events of Dealey Plaza, but I already had a crush on Miss Froese by then. I was happy to clean chalk brushes after school, run to ask the janitor to open sticky classroom windows on hot afternoons, or agree to appear in the class play. If she had a need, I agreed. So, it was not surprising that when she asked where Lenny was on the second day of his absence, I raised my hand, eager to share with Miss Froese the solemn news. Though under oath to keep this quiet, how could it harm to tell HER? She was, like me, only concerned with Lenny’s well-being.

“Yes, Mattheus?” she asked, seeing my upraised hand. “Do you know why Leonard is not here again today?”

“Yes, ma’am. He is at the dentist. His teeth are all black from too much candy and he is getting them fixed. He is brave and he probably won’t even cry,” I reported in detail.

That day was Friday. On Saturday afternoon, as I collected interesting rocks from the driveway between Grandma’s house and the back of the bakery, Lenny pedalled up to me. He let his bicycle fall clattering as he jumped off.

“Zehen!” he shouted, through a clenched jaw still tender from the dentist.

“Hi, Lenny,” I said, standing, “How are your teeth?”

“Why don’t you ask Eleanor?” he said, scoffing, “or Ruby, or the Kehler twins or…”

“Wait,” I yelled, putting my hand up to stop his rushing words.

He stopped, straightened and then slowly reached over and pushed my shoulder, staring hard at me all the while.

“You,” he paused, leaning back as he took a breath, his eyes never leaving mine, “you told on me.”

“Did not!” I said immediately – I would never tell on someone, particularly not Lenny.

“It’s just like telling,” he replied.

“Is not.”

“Is too.”

I stopped. He was right. I looked away to the back of the bakery, where a tall baker bent over a burnt bun pan, scraping loudly with a wire brush to clean the surface. Gummy black residue fell into the tall grass and dandelions, and some on his shoes.

I had no intention to embarrass Lenny, but that is just what I had done. Now that I thought about it a bit more carefully, rotten teeth were not a thing to be proud of, nor something you announced to the whole class. And not to Miss Froese. Especially not Miss Froese.

Lenny reached over deliberately and pushed again, his gaze still intent on me, like a lion watching a zebra colt. I resisted a bit, a hard look on my face, hiding fear. He saw this and smiled, then rolled up his sleeves like Cowboys did in old-time movies. His sleeves pushed back, he posed awkwardly in front of me, leaning forward – almost tipping over – and pointing to the tip of his chin.

“Hit me,” Leonard Gerbrandt said, in a mocking tone.

I stood with my hands hanging loosely at my sides. I shook my head and looked at Reggie Kroeker who had wandered over to us and was our shared witness and presumably, our mutual second. Reggie shrugged in my direction, meaning Don’t ask me!

“C’mon,” Lenny urged. “Give me your best lick. I ain’t scared.”

“Who said you were scared?”

“You’re scared,” he replied, nodding slowly. Reggie nodded in cadence.

“C’mon, c’mon, scaredy-cat. Scared to hurt your hand?”

At this, Reggie smirked and I stood more rigidly, turning a bit sideways and spreading my feet.

Lenny touched his chin with a thin finger, bobbing his head slightly and chanting softly, “Scare-dy, scare-dy, scare-dy,” in rhythm to the bobbing. Reggie giggled and picked up the chant.

I bent my knees and made fists. Reggie stopped singing and Lenny quieted, stepping back before catching himself and – with a forced casualness – leaned forward again, tendering a jutted jaw.

I supposed he would hit back and supposed he would hit hard, but the chanting and Reggie’s oily laughter had been too much. Lenny should hit me first. He should hit first because I was wrong – I hurt him and he should hurt me back. But now I wanted to take a swing because I was mad from the scaredy-cat chant and my anger overcame the ignoble shame of striking first.

I folded my thumb on top of, not beneath, my fingers, the way my dad had shown me. Then I cocked my arm and hit him square on the cleft of his pointed chin just as he glanced at Reggie.

“Ugnnn!” he grunted, his head snapping sideways and his knees giving way. He staggered back, confused, and fell in a puff of raspberry patch dirt just as my grandma came churning headlong out of the house, all ahead full.

No, no, no, nooo! No fighting, boys. Mattheus James Zehen! You stop right now.” She bore down on us through the raspberry bushes, her apron snagging as she ran down the narrow row. There was white flour on her forearms and her glasses were pushed up on her red forehead.

She arrived as Lenny scrambled up clumsily, reaching for his bike handlebar in case her arrival meant flight.

“Leonard Gerbrandt! Why are you fighting with Matty? You boys are such good friends. You are pals – not brutes!” she said loudly, using a word that was Greek to us. “Reggie. Go home. Now!” She commanded, looking up suddenly and pointing in the direction of the Kroeker bungalow a block north.

Lenny continued to pick up his bike, thinking he was to go also. She grabbed my arm hard, surprising me – but not really – with her grip made strong by the gummy resistance of a million zwieback buns pinched. Yanking me, she took hold of Lenny’s rhubarb stalk arm, but gently, and pulled him toward her.

“Put down that bike, Lenny,” she said. Then she asked, “Who hit first?” her head turning owlishly from Lenny to me and back. “Who?”

I looked down, as did Lenny. “Me, Grandma,” I confessed quietly after a too long pause, my eyes still down. Lenny immediately looked up at her and said evenly, “I told him to,” pointing to his red chin.

“How many times? How many punches?” she said urgently, looking at Lenny, imploring the truth.

“Just once, Mrs Zehen,” he offered, looking at me a little stink-eyed because he was starting to suspect that, because of Grandma’s apron-flying arrival, I was going to get away.

Lenny resented Grandma’s intrusion. In his mind, he was handling things just fine because his code of honour called for him to start the fight by inviting me to take “my best shot” and then – despite this obvious disadvantage – absorb the blow and subsequently put a beating on me, as he would say.

As much of a beating as those pipe-cleaner arms could give, that is. Tough and wiry though he was, his seventy-five pounds was thinly coated on an angular five-foot collection of sticks. He was destined to add more than a foot and 100 pounds by the time he could trade his bike for a car, but in 1963, he was as thin as picnic Kool-Aid.

“Mattheus,” she said, “is this so?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Don’t ma’am me, junge (young boy; lad). Is that true? One punch?”

“Jo, Grandma,” I said, nodding gravely.

“Nah-jo,” she said, pivoting sharply to spin her body behind me, planting her palms on my shoulders and clamping down with clothespin fingers to hold me still.

“You,” she demanded. “Lenny, you hit him back and then the fight is over.”

Lenny took a half step back, glancing first at me, then up at the square-jawed, flour-dusted preying mantis that held me immobile in her grip. His head oscillated in a slow-motion no. She continued decisively. “Matty hit you. You hit him. Fight over, shake hands and come in for a piece of Saskatoon pie.” Grandma too had a code.

Before he could say no, or move, she reached across and pulled him a little closer. Then she nudged me forward with her knees and pointed to my freckled chin. “Right here, Lenny. One good one.”

Lenny stroked his jaw (still hurting, I hoped with childish pride) in a pose that unconsciously copied his father’s deliberate way of pondering an issue. He, a miniature Mitchum, looked closely at me with Grandma’s sturdy Frisian finger targeting my chin.

“I won’t tell,” Grandma added; a sparkle in her eye that Lenny caught but could not process. Then finally, she concluded irresistibly, “Pie and ice cream.”

As Lenny pulled back to deliver his best Eddie Shack haymaker, Grandma released her hold on my shoulders and I could hear her breath as she sucked it keenly through her teeth.

I let my head turn and my legs buckle the way Dad had shown me and so the punch did little damage. Either that or Lenny had pulled it a little. Maybe some of both. I fell, landing a bit hard on the square toe of Grandma’s shoe and that hurt more than my chin. Getting back up, I saw that Lenny had a quizzical half-smile on his face as he looked first at me then at Grandma.

She marched off briskly ahead of us, laughing and scolding all at once, telling Lenny to bring his bike away from the street and for us to wash our hands in the lawn sprinkler before we came in. And take off our runners on the porch. And would Lenny like to stay for the night?

I said, “Sorry I told,” to Lenny. He nodded once emphatically and replied that he was sorry he had got so mad. We had Saskatoon berry pie; bettered only by sugary-sour glums (cottage cheese) pie, a dish bestowed only at Christmas, Easter, and funerals.

Later, Lenny felt my bicep and said, “You hit hard, Zehen.”

“You too, Gerbrandt,” I said back to him, feeling glad for him and my grandma there in the kitchen of the small house on Barkman Avenue.

 

Mitchell Toews.

Banner Image: Pixabay.com

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