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Grandmother, Laughing

Grandmother, Laughing

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Grandmother, Laughing

5/5 (1 rating)
231 pages
3 hours
Sep 11, 2017


Until she met Obrum Kehler, serious Sarah Sudermann had never laughed. Her mother said she always reached for the black things first. As a young girl, she was haunted by a vision of her grandmother bolt upright in her black trough coffin, laughing so hard her bonnet slipped off to the side and hung from one ear. But then Obrum looked at her with his Robin’s egg eyes and red paint on his nose.

And then there was the lawnswing . . . and the piano. Not practical. Not necessary. Especially for a young couple struggling through the Great Depression. When Beethoven Blatz enters to tune their piano everything is in place for the Kehler family to make great music together.

Full of love, longing, and tenderness, Grandmother Laughing is a story about unconventional families and the lengths we will go to find fulfillment for ourselves and the ones we cherish.

Sep 11, 2017

About the author

Armin Wiebe is the recipient of the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction and the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award. He has five published novels, one play, and his short stories have appeared in numerous books and anthologies. A teacher for many years, Armin Wiebe is now retired and lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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Grandmother, Laughing - Armin Wiebe

Grandmother, Laughing

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Grandmother, Laughing

Armin Wiebe

Grandmother, Laughing

copyright © Armin Wiebe 2017

Turnstone Press

Artspace Building

206-100 Arthur Street

Winnipeg, MB

R3B 1H3 Canada


All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or ­transmitted in any form or by any means—graphic, electronic or ­mechanical—without the prior ­written permission of the ­publisher. Any request to photocopy any part of this book shall be directed in writing to Access Copyright, Toronto.

Turnstone Press gratefully acknowledges the assistance of the Canada Council for the Arts, the Manitoba Arts Council, the Government of Canada, and the Province of Manitoba through the Book Publishing Tax Credit and the Book Publisher Marketing Assistance Program.

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Wiebe, Armin, author

Grandmother, laughing / Armin Wiebe.

Issued in print and electronic formats.

ISBN 978-0-88801-617-1 (softcover).--ISBN 978-0-88801-618-8 (EPUB).--

ISBN 978-0-88801-619-5 (Kindle).--ISBN 978-0-88801-620-1 (PDF)

I. Title.

PS8595.I3573G73 2017 C813’.54 C2017-904364-1


For Jenny, and Lynne

Grandmother, Laughing



The Schpikja House

You don’t have to be crazy, but it helps—if you’re a Kehler. Who except a Kehler goes chasing a wild goose because his ninety-year-old grossmamuh has asked him to bury her inside a piano that is supposed to be still in a tumbledown house made of two granaries side by side on land that doesn’t exist? At least, the Land Titles Office doesn’t have a record of it, and it doesn’t show up on the tax rolls of the two municipalities it lies between. The RCMP map doesn’t have it, and it doesn’t show up on Google Earth. I checked these things because I wanted to be sure who owns the place now, before I go snooping around for something that likely has vanished along with most of the landmarks from the countryside of my childhood. Still, it would be good to tell her that it can be done.

After I turn off the pavement, occasional clumps of trees and sagging barns remind me of people from my past, but so much of the scrub oak has been cleared from the banks of Mary’s Creek that as I cross various bridges over the winding, nearly dry stream, I feel like I am crossing a man-made ditch rather than an ancient creek draining the tallgrass prairie into the Red River. On both sides of the road, midsummer crops thrive—yellow canola, blue flax, green wheat, whiskered durum, six-foot-high clover waiting to be ploughed down into the soil—but no sugar beets. The sugar beetfields where I learned all I needed to know about the world. Well, maybe not all, but plenty.

I slow the Toyota to cross the hump of another bridge. More of the bush remains here, and the slope rising from the creek remains a pasture. Up near the top of the rise, a tall post still stands upright; a second post sags against a mesh of chicken wire; a third lies fallen in the grass. For a second I hear the crack of a bat hitting a ball.

Once past the trees, I turn down a narrower road, less gravelled, winding alongside the bends in the creek. Corn rows of varying lengths connect the road with the brush and scrub oak that hide the creek bank. Heading barley stretches northward on the left side of the road, beyond which the white blades of the St. Joseph wind farm rotate slowly in the midsummer sunlight. On the creek side, a single strand of wire runs between hydro poles splayed like green oats trampled by a heavy rain.

The gravel dissipates into dirt road, Sunday-suit grey. Weeds sprout between the wheeltracks, growing taller as the road narrows and flattens into a mere trail with no ditches. Heading brome and quack grass close in on both sides of the Toyota. The centre weeds brush the undercarriage. What was the name of that girl? I was seventeen, I think, and had dreams of a romantic drive through the summer fields when I picked her up in Sommerfeld. Instead, I spent much of the night underneath my father’s ‘55 Chev with a screwdriver, tearing away the weeds that had wrapped around the driveshaft until the car stalled.

No way that girl would sit close enough to allow me to slip my arm around her once we got moving again. Not only that, she blabbed about the evening to all her friends, and I became the laughingstock of the school hallways. Hey, Woody, wrap weeds around your shaft lately? The Woody came after those mouthy shuzzels from Altona village saw Woody Allen in What’s New, Pussycat? at the show hall in Neche. Just a guy’s luck to be blessed with his grosspapuh’s looks, but after I saw Woody Allen on TV I had to admit that my grosspapuh Obrum Kehler and I looked just like that schluhdenz movie star.

A wheel jolts over a gopher hole. The road vanishes. In its place, a dazzling yellow canola field stretches to the edges of the bush-lined creek where it curves to the bridge beside Mary’s Creek Hall. Before I can slam the brakes, the car dips, as if dropping down a thrill hill. The canola field withdraws in the distance and the road continues. Confused, I stop and back up slowly. The road appears level; there is no dip. When I have backed up far enough, the road again stops at the edge of the canola. I switch gears and roll forward. I feel no shift in altitude as again the canola field recedes from my car, leaving an expanse of wild prairie interrupted only by a rusty barbed-wire fence and vaguely familiar buildings jutting up from the tall grass ahead.

I stop the car at a three-strand barbed-wire gate. No Trespassing, painted in Gothic script on a weathered board, sags from the middle strand. I slip the upper loop of wire from the top of the gatepost, then lift the post from the bottom loop and drag the gate to the other side of the barely visible track.

I inch the car along the track curving toward the two-storey house Grosspapuh built. The top bricks have fallen from the chimney, exposing the flue. Further along, the sod barn, my grandparents’ first house, has fallen in on itself. I lift my foot from the accelerator, letting the car pull past the barn until it stalls before what we called the schpikja house. Not content with the sod house, Grosspapuh Obrum had dragged two small granaries together and joined them by adding a lean-to annex to create a three-room house to make do until he could build the new house.

Through the bug-splattered windshield, I recognize the two-by-sixes nailed across the door. Good thing I brought the gooseneck.

Wrecking bar in hand, I step out into the sweet aroma of a patch of blooming snowberries. Päpa struck, we called it. Pepper bushes. I wonder why, since there is nothing peppery about the smell of the flowers.

The two-by-sixes are full-sized rough planks, and, by the look of the nails and the cobwebs, I figure that no one has pulled them off since the day Beethoven Blatz was buried. I glance over my shoulder and see the two tombstones barely visible through a growth of heading grass. Later, I think, and jam the gooseneck under the lower two-by-six. The squawk of the defiant nails makes me hear again the rising notes the nails made as my father drove them through the planks into the doorframe with a fury that closed the subject for as long as my father lived. The upper plank requires a few sharp jerks before it tumbles to the ground at my feet. The rusty thumb latch moves surprisingly well, and I pull open the door, clear the cobwebs with the gooseneck, and step into the kitchen.

Grossmamuh Susch didn’t tell me that the schpikja house had never been entered after Beethoven Blatz died. Strange, that. After all, Grosspapuh Obrum Kehler lived on the yard for another ten years, and Grossmamuh Susch continued to live on this land for almost ten years after he died. Something was going on then that I never grasped, but now as I look at the cobwebbed cookstove, the table still set for one, brief scenes play in my mind—arguments between my father Isaac and Grosspapuh Obrum. Isaac wanting to burn the eyesore schpikja house down; Obrum saying firmly that it wouldn’t be touched. Isaac wanting Grosspapuh to cultivate his land and grow cash crops; Obrum determined to keep his land as wild prairie. Isaac trying to convince Grossmamuh Susch to sell the land because prices are high; Susch calmly saying, no, the land must not be sold, your father wants the land to remain unbroken, some things must stay the way God made them.

The doors to the two granary rooms stand ajar into the kitchen. In the shadows of the far room, I make out what looks like a bed. The nearer room is dark. I wonder if I have a flashlight in the car, but then remember a window Beethoven used to let in light. Feeling foolish about fearing the dark, I hesitate as I step up on the doorsill.

Pale light seeps through a gap beneath the dark roll-up blind. I tug gently on the sheathed strip of wood sewn into its hem. To my amazement, the blind rolls up smoothly. Sunlight splashes over a makeshift bed—and the piano. The keyboard is closed, and through the film of dust, worn gold lettering spells out the brand: New Scale Williams. A sheaf of papers curls down from its upper left corner on the music holder, and I step closer to see that a rusty bobby pin clips the upper right corner of the sheaf to the holder. I flatten the left corner to the stand and remember a bobby pin holding Peter Martens’s hair flat to his head. Funny that, how in the village school for a time it was fashionable for the boys to fix their hair with bobby pins. I remember finding the pin in my pocket where I had hidden it after my mother made me pull it from my hair before the family entered the church for Blatz’s funeral.

I pull the bobby pin from the holder and hold the sheaf up to the light. The pin has left a rust streak on the paper. I blow at the dust on the paper and then sneeze as my nostrils fill with the cloud that hovers in the sunbeams. It’s a good thing the blind was pulled down, I think. As it is, I can barely make out the hand-drawn staff and notes and the word Sonata in the title. Back then, the notes were freshly drawn in black ink. I glance back at the piano. An ink bottle rests on the ledge beside the music holder; a rusty straight pen lies next to it.

I remember now. Gingerly I brush dirt off the keyboard lid, raise it from broken, yellowed keys. I press a key. The pale note drifts through the room. I find middle C and play the scale with one finger. When I reach the fifth note, sol, even my untrained ear hears it is off key, and I rummage through my brain to determine whether the discord is sharp or flat. I complete the scale, and then play it backwards, hearing again the discordant sol. It appears again in the next octave and again in the next. I move down to the lowest key and climb the ladder of white keys from one end of the piano to the other. The notes of the keys sound normal up to the sol key in the middle C scale and then all the notes sound normal again except for the sol key in the next two octaves. Giving in to the addiction of mechanical motion, I begin again at the lower end of the keyboard, this time including the black keys, and all notes appear correct in sequence except for the errant sol keys.

What an amazing piano, I think, to remain in tune for forty-five years in an unheated building, and yet—why couldn’t Beethoven correct the discordant sol notes? I use both hands on the keys, trying combinations of sounds, pressing harder to raise the volume, and soon I am banging away, creating thunder and lightning and rain and hail, and then a hand grips my shoulder and in a thunderclap I am wrenched from the piano and propelled through the kitchen and outside into the light.

I see the metallic blue Ford, driver’s door open, my mother staring straight ahead. My father grips my shoulder again and shoves me toward the car, flips forward the driver’s seatback, and flings me into the back seat. My father slams the car door and stomps off.

Afraid to cry and afraid to ask Mom, I watch through the car windows as Isaac drags two planks to the schpikja house door. I feel each blow as the hammer pounds the nails with a fury that makes my earlier storm of piano noise seem like a lullaby. The door barricaded, Father strides back toward the car, ignoring distant voices calling at him. He slides under the steering wheel and slams the door. I turn in the back seat and look out the rear window as the car drives away, staring first at the barricaded schpikja house door and then, as the car turns, seeing Grossmamuh Susch and Tien waving from the lawnswing. I try to wave back but my father barks at me. I look out the back window and see Grosspapuh Obrum with a long-handled hoe mixing something in a tub. Beside him lies a wooden, tombstone-shaped mould. Grosspapuh pours the cement into the mould and trowels the surface. Susch and Schallemboych’s Tien get up from the lawnswing, pick pink flowers from a wild patch alongside the driveway, then carry them out to the field and lay them on the burial mound. Grosspapuh carefully scratches the name of Beethoven Blatz into the setting cement. Schallemboych’s Tien hugs Susch and takes her leave. Susch and Obrum are alone. Susch tells Obrum to write Klaviermensch on the stone. After he does, they embrace and Susch says, What now, Obrum Kehler?

A mourning dove coos. I sneeze. The dust in the granary room hangs in the air like theatrical fog in the sunbeams slanting down to the square of light on the floor behind the piano bench. I wonder about the ending to the scene I have just remembered. How did I know what Grossmamuh Susch and Grosspapuh Obrum said and did after my father sped off with us in the metallic blue Ford that my mother always claimed was easier to wash than other cars? Did Grossmamuh Susch say something about that in one of our conversations?



Darpslied Elders Villa

Obrum Kehler liked to tell stories, and if my father and Preacher Funk sometimes complained that his stories weren’t altogether true, Obrum would get this schmuista look in his eyes, and he would say, But you wonder yourself over it anyway.

One Sunday Funk preached the people in Flat German not to talk through the flower so much. Derjch’e Bloom räde for sure! Obrum said as we were driving home. You should have heard Funk in boarding school. Fuschtje Funk, he was called. Joker. A person would need a square-mile section of flowers to sieve the jokes he told after the lights went out. The old ones sure knew what they were doing when they voted him to be the preacher. And to think that you were almost Fuschtje Funk’s wife!

I wouldn’t believe Obrum at first that this man with a graveyard face who came for dinner after church could have been a Fuschtje Funk that Obrum was talking about. He was pulling me by the big toe, I thought, and I didn’t even argue with him, I just let it go and let myself feel good that my father’s plan and Preacher Funk’s plan hadn’t worked out.

I still remember how it was. Even by our place where my father held that the dinner table was mostly for chewing and swallowing and reaching for more, it had never been quite so still as that Sunday, when, with even a black shirt under his long, black preacher coat, this young man sat at the table across from my father. From the before-eating prayer till the after-eating prayer, each bite and swallow rummeled through the kitchen like thunder on a summer night. Even my mother said nothing, and usually Mamuh tried to have some talking at the table, even if Papuh didn’t. To me, Mamuh was a tea kettle wanting to whistle and Papuh was a cold lid that couldn’t let the water boil. And with Preacher Funk yet at the table the air was so thick a person could hardly suck it up her nose.

In those days the men decided everything, even if many men would rather have been turtles who could hide their heads under their shells. My father was like that, I think, especially with visitors in the house and his whole family all around. He wasn’t like that outside. I have seen him neighbouring a long strip, a loud strip even, leaning against a buggy or a threshing machine, and when he was hitzing us to work harder breaking corn or picking up potatoes, he for sure wasn’t shy, but inside the house it was like the cat got his tongue.

Mamuh told me that I was born on the day they dug my grandmother under. She said my face looked like a cloudy sky and that I was three years old before I even frintled my face at her. She said that she never heard me laugh until Obrum Kehler schuckeled me on the lawnswing. For sure with all the laugh lines by my eyes now, that isn’t easy to believe.

Ganz gewiss, I can’t remember my grandmother’s funeral … but even now if I close my eyes, I can see her lying in the long, black coffin on two benches in the sitting room. I can see the deep wrinkles in her face. Her eyes are closed and she has on a black grandmotherly bonnet and a black dress, and I don’t know why I can see it so clearly in my head when I never even saw it. It must be because my mother told me about it so often. Maybe I never laughed much as a child because from the day I was born I had been given to see where living in this world was leading. My mother told me too that I always reached for black things first.

Suaruh Suschtje, the children called me in school. Sour Sarah Sudermann. I was nineteen already that Sunday, but Suaruh Suschtje I still was when I sat across the table corner from Preacher Funk. From so close he looked young for a preacher, hardly older than I was, and he seemed nervous. Liestje laughered herself behind her hand, and Mamuh looked like she was biting her tongue. I think Preacher Funk must have been waiting for my father to start neighbouring, and Papuh said nothing, just passed the meat plate to Pete and nodded his head in the preacher’s direction. I thought maybe Mamuh would at least ask him if he wanted more carrots or potatoes with peel, but she had decided to let the men play this game.

I, of course, was too frightened to talk, and I wished the eating would finish so the preacher could get up and go away. Still, out of the corner of my eye, I was watching Preacher Funk’s hands cutting up the meat

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