(For those reading this who were in my last parish: In order to protect the privacy of families there, I have obscured the location, names and some details. The passage is true, but don’t try too hard to ascribe all attributes to any one neighbour, as some of the details are compounded from more than one person.)
Marietta was a patient in the hospital where I was chaplain. Her Danish last name was common in my parish, but I did not recognize her. She was asleep when I went to her room, oxygen hissing into her nostrils. I didn’t wake her. She was suffering from pneumonia, not uncommon in sedentary seniors in the winter-clad mountains of eastern Canada. I said a prayer at bedside, then tracked down the chief of nursing. Marietta looked so frail. I checked the chart – she was just 70 years old, but her pale, sparse hair and delicate frame made her look both ancient and childlike.
I asked Penny, the head nurse, about the patient. “She’s listed as being in Father Nick’s parish, but I called him and he doesn’t know her.”
“Yes, he does. But he may not know her name.”
I waited. There was a story, and Penny would have to get to it in her own way.
“She’s really out of your parish, but she lives at Riverside Manor now.”
“That’s in Nick’s parish.”
“Yes, but you know her sons. Kyle and Kelvin.”
“Oh, yes. The Dall twins. I didn’t realize their mother was still living.”
“They don’t talk of her much. Marietta showed signs of dementia fairly young, I think. She’s perfectly sweet and harmless, but she got to wandering, so she needed supervised care. Did you look at her chart?”
“Just to check her address and age.”
“She is younger than she looks. She is a bit of a pet here, and at the Manor. She is very gentle. She doesn’t remember anyone individually anymore, but she still speaks, and seems to think everyone is a friend. She has five children.”
I tried to picture that tiny body younger and stronger, pregnant with twins. “I take it there is no husband now.”
“He died a few years ago. He was a big man, died of a heart attack. He was quite a bit older, too, if I remember. He’s buried in your cemetery.”
My cemetery had many burials, dating back more than one hundred years. I most certainly did not have the placement of every stone memorized. The Danish cemeteries in the mountains along the border were neat garden-like spots. This particular cemetery was my back lawn. I kept my sheep in the field at the back of the cemetery. They would occasionally break fence early in the morning, wandering through the misty stones like spirits.
A Danish cemetery is a happy, pleasant garden. Flowers, shrubbery, well-kept grass. Stones are leveled every spring, cleaned, and fussed about. Family meet there for picnics. I had a picnic table placed behind the church for that reason. The Shetland sheep loved to get visitors, and would gently call when people would walk down the little gravel road. They expected snacks.
I found the cemetery map back at the church, and paced down to old Viggo Dall’s grave. He had been some twenty years older than Marietta. By the dates on the stone, it looked as if they had married when she was seventeen. I stared pensively at the monument, trying to imagine what life would have been like for a Danish speaking child-bride in the mountains fifty or sixty years before. There was then no electricity in the outlying parts of the settlement, and very few telephones. Roads weren’t paved. Births were usually at home; houses were heated by wood-burning stoves that served for cooking and heating water as well. Everyone worked in the fields, planting and picking potatoes, scything and stooking barley, oats and wheat, binding hay and straw.
For most young women, especially those who spoke Danish as their first language, marriage was the only career choice, unless they were needed at home to care for younger siblings, an elderly grandparent, or to help a widowed parent. Those who had good English skills might go to work in a store, study office skills, or become a teacher. For the most part, though, the settlement was poor, agricultural, and Danish in language and culture.
I had grown up hearing Danish and Swedish spoken in the homes of friends, and my unique contribution to the Danish Anglican church was to hold bilingual services four times a year. We had a few copies of an Danish-language book of common prayer that dated to Victoria’s reign, translated from the 1662 prayer book by the SPCK, The Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge. I produced a parallel Danish-English service booklet. We sang Danish hymns, led by Elena, our Danish-speaking concertina player, and the lessons were read in Danish. The gospel and the sermon were in English. I would read the Danish prayers phonetically, and the parishioners told me I had a Copenhagen accent.
Once Marietta was discharged from the hospital, I visited her at the manor, a home-like place. She was sitting in a rocking chair, a pink fleece blanket over her knees, a pink headband holding back her spare white hair. She looked at me through thick, pink rimmed glasses. She was wearing a pink sweater over a pink print housecoat. She was holding a little book with a spiral binding.
I pulled up a chair and sat beside her, “Marietta, do you remember me from the hospital?”
She smiled gently.
“I came to visit you.”
She smiled again, and reached over to hold my hand. I wondered if she didn’t remember English. I had seen it happen before in my elderly parishioners.
“Goddag,” I said. “Hvordan går det?”
She only smiled.
She held up the book. It was a notebook style calendar. “Cat,” she said. I wasn’t sure if she was speaking English or Danish; the word sounds the same. Kat, cat. The book was pictures of kittens.
“Kitten,” I said.
“Killing,” she said, the Danish word for kitten. Oh, then we were speaking Danish. And I had just about exhausted my vocabulary.
I turned the pages of the book, saying things like, “Oh, three cats. A yellow cat.” She would stroke the photos with a finger, as if she was petting the kittens. When we came to the end of the book, I asked if she wanted to say a prayer. I used the Lord’s Prayer in English, as I had not memorized it in Danish.
The next time I went to visit, I brought along the Lord’s Prayer in Danish, and home communion. “Does she undertsand about communion still?” I asked her caregiver.
“Yes, Father Nick gave her communion last month. She knows what to do.”
We looked at the kittens. We said the Lord’s Prayer, or rather, I read it in Danish and she whispered to herself.
Fader vor, du som er i himlene! Helliget blive dit navn, komme dit rige, ske din viljesom i himlen således også på jorden; giv os vort daglige brød,og forlad os vor skyld, som også vi forlader vore skyldnere, og led os ikke ind i fristelse,men fri os fra det onde. For dit er Riget og magten og æren i evighed. Amen.
I gave her communion, with the simplest words, “This is my body, take eat…”
As I was leaving, I asked the caregiver, “Is there anything she needs?”
“Oh. Pastor, I think she could use a new kitten book. She has worn that one to tissue paper. I’ve taped it three times.”
I found another kitten desk calendar on sale at Chapters; I coordinated communion and visits with Father Nick. Marietta’s family had fallen away in seeing her. I could sympathize. She never responded with more than a whispered “Cat.”
The frail body didn’t last much longer. She died quietly one night in December. Father Nick and I would co-preside at her funeral. Part of it would be in Danish. He and I would sing “How Great Thou Art” as a duet.
I sat in Elena’s kitchen and discussed which Danish hymns to use. “Ja,” Elena said. ” Inga will play these two hymns, and ja, I will play the others.”
“Your children would be the same age as the Dall children,” I said. “Did you know Marietta?”
Elena gave that peculiar Dansk shrug. “Ja, but she was young more than me. I knew her, she was just a child. Oh, and with the babies, all the time.”
“It must have been a lot of work for such a young woman.”
Elena put her head to one side and crossed her arms. I got quiet and waited a minute or so, knowing that a confidence was about to be given.
“She was never more than a child. Ja, the old pastor did not want her married. But what was to become of her when her parents were gone? She always had the dolls, even when her children were born. And pink. She liked the pink, pink everything.”
Elena shrugged again and frowned. “It were not right, but it would have been more wrong if someone had gotten to her…” I know that old expression. It meant that she might have suffered abuse or rape.
I sat at home with a glass of sherry that evening, writing the funeral sermon after the wake. The metal casket was pink. Marietta was laid out in a pink dress, with a pink bow in her hair. She held a pink toy cat. Pink roses stood at her head and foot. She was waked in the church, which saved her family the expense of the funeral parlor wake. I had closed the church doors after the funeral director had closed the casket. I was the last friend to see her peaceful face.
I struggled with the details of her quiet life. What had married life been like? Why had her husband waited until almost forty to marry a woman who could not be his equal? Had she been frightened by sex and childbirth? How had she managed to run a large household when her intellectual age had been no more than age eight?
Yet the community had not seen her as disabled, as anything but a different shade of normal. A family was raised, meals cooked, clothes sewn, floors washed. They got by. Marietta had lived out her life in an almost medieval Danish culture. She had never known anything different.
“Don’t judge,” the inner voice cautions, instilled in the mind by years of pastoral training. “Take it as it is. Help where you can, when it is needed, and as it is wanted.”
So I preached on angels and gentle souls, on simple pleasures and quiet days. I let the questions go.