Unto A Thousand Generations

by W.J. Ottenbreit

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This past December we put up the first-ever Christmas tree of our still young family. Rachel helped us place a few ornaments as best impatience and her little hands would allow. Teresa crawled to whatever promised her some entertainment. Every few days, since putting it up, their mother and I had to adjust the tree so as not to wake up one morning and find it resting on the floor. There was more work to this undertaking than I realized as a child. The girls seemed to enjoy the presence of this little piece of nature. For me, sitting in the front room with the smell of pine drifting over, other thoughts occured.

It was my gramma's 82nd birthday. My thoughts are drawn to her and my other three grandparents even more lately. This was also the first Christmas season that we would not spend "back home." It meant several months between seeing family. Even when we do visit the time seems so fragile and ill-used. My grandparents are important to the life of our little family but I show that reality poorly under the time pressures of each trip home.

Most early memories of my grandparents centre on their farms and the visits there each holiday. Time stood still and school was a distant memory. So many opportunities existed to satisfy active children. Both farms provided locations for new forts among the trees and sloughs. In winter with help from our uncles we could build snow tunnels in drifts of biblical proportions. When the snow was absent our constant quest as we walked the railroad tracks was to gather stones for collections that grew each year. Sometimes an aunt or uncle would take us swimming in a dugout or Grampa would push us in the swing reciting a poem I only later learned was not his own. I am certain that my interest in and knowledge of nature was bred then. By listening carefully to a grandmother, with a knowledge from I know not what source, today I am often surprised at being able to identify plants, birds, and animals. Nature for me is not simply a recognition of creation. It is also a remembrance of days more simple and carefree.

Too often worry grips me like the cold of a prairie winter, bringing weariness that sleep cannot lift. On that day a cutting wind drove clouds across the sky like a reluctant herd. With less than thirty years under my belt such emotional weight is beyond my might. But Gramma and Grampa's is always a place of rest. Often during my visits there I sit in front of the fireplace to watch the flames. The warmth nudges up against me and welcomes me to visit.

A quiet almost holy peace lives in the new house but it isn't like the farm. In that home the personality was thick and tangible. Memories hung from the ceiling, rested on the couches, lay on the floor, and roamed through the yard. The peace was there too but the memories were so vibrant that they pushed upwards to the front of the mind and swallowed the peace in a kind of obscurity. A lifetime was spent there for me, an existence I long to share with my family but it has long past from my hands. Sometimes though my fingertips still tingle from either the sorrow of its loss or the joy of fleeting desire.

I've been to the farmhouse since it was sold. The new owners are nice enough but their arrival signaled the banishment of that special peace. The memories still lurk there but they are mostly moving on now. Some have died. Most have gone to rest the remainder of their lives in the secluded corners of the minds and hearts of those who once lived in that place. Still the peace of their new house allows my burdened adult mind to rest, for a time, and play with those memories who have chosen to dwell with me.

Some days the weather or mood prompted us to stay indoors. At those times the grandchildren might take turns at the piano, where many of us learned to read music. Playing "When Song is Sweet" feels like a necessary part of my visits there even today. Another favourite indoor activity was climbing the built-in shelves in the basement to go through the old Catholic Digests, Reader's Digests, and Treasure Chests that filled them. Many we had read countless times before though some had been forgotten. Reading could transport us to places or provide us with insight to the hows and whys of life. We learned that life made sense and was worthwhile.

When meal time came around we would tear ourselves from the shelves. In both homes the food was a welcome constant, whether homemade buns, sausage, or those special candies that only Grampa had. I don't think it too much to suggest that by this means we came to trust and appreciate providence.

At night, when all the aunts and uncles were home at the same time there was card playing until the small hours. Grandchildren were sent off to bed making less fuss than one might suppose. We, the cousins, possessed the knowledge that our beds in the remote reaches of the house allowed us quiet conversations till sleep overtook us. We were also bathed in the security that our parents and the others we loved were deeply happy. Their laughter rocked the house as old memories were brought back and new ones were made. We gained a conviction that life is joyous.

Some nights card playing was put off for time with the grandchildren. We played hide-and-seek in the dark amongst the evergreens or laid on our backs looking at the stars, competing to find satellites make their slow trek across the sky or watching the Northern Lights dance. In this we learned that we were valuable enough for the adults to be with. At the same time our cousins gave us friendships that could last beyond the fickle emotions of childhood. With them we could play and fight and still be friends, as we learned who we were and could be.

Each holy day we would drive the short distance to church. We admired the faith that inspired and sustained such buildings and which bred such communities. Each night we would kneel for the evening Rosary. From watching the adults that we loved and respected we learned that religion mattered enough to be taken seriously when we were older. I am certain too that over the years my grandparents' righteous prayers have helped lessen the pains that my poor choices have invited.

My grandfathers show strength of character. The industry of these farmers said that life is not always easy but it is always worthwhile. By their actions I have come to see that men can love beyond personal comfort. In them is the original of which modern liberal thought is the antithesis; there is a profound dignity in home and family. The woman who cares for these is worthy of an honour not understood by the world. The love for their children has accepted pain when it would be easier to give up. When my grandfathers tell stories of their youth or our ancestry I learn how much they care about family and heritage. And if these men care then the stories must be important. I know better what family is because I have been given such wonderful models. There are too few of these today. This is the legacy of my grandparents.

"Wir sollen lieben hat, dann, weil er uns zuerst geliebt."

W.J. Ottenbreit can be reached at ottenbreit@canada.com

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