Staying Plain

Revived my old blog. I have things to say!

My Life and the History of the World

Plain as Prophecy

It seems a double handful of friends in various places have decided they are no longer plain. When I ask why the answers range from “My husband/family didn’t like it” to “I was tired of telling people I’m not Amish.” The most honest answer was probably “It was a mistake, I wasn’t meant for this.” I won’t question people’s motives, but I can’t see it myself. Plain is so easy – so low-key – so cheap!

A long time ago I got tired of the mirror. I didn’t want to be the person checking her hair, checking her clothes, checking her make-up. I wasn’t fashion obsessed, but I had the idea that as an artist, my body was a canvas, and I would show the world who I was by what I displayed on it. But instead of having a number of “costumes” that went on easily, so as to…

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Noon Prayer

My latest blog posts – prayers for simple occasions.

For Each Day

vincent van gogh street with womenLord God, I am so often lost in the daily drudgery and concerns of work. I am too often focused on the world. I am afraid of the threat of trouble and disharmony. Lift my eyes to heaven, dear Lord, and help me to focus on the perfect peace of Christ. Give me His spirit of love for the fallen world.

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A Cheerful Heart

For Each Day

vincent van gogh olive groveDear God, Help me to keep a cheerful heart. I sometimes let circumstances and trials overcome my emotions. I let stress dictate my responses and I act in less than a loving way to people around me. Lord, give me patience and a happy spirit when I prefer my temper. Keep me from indulging my sense of injury. I thank You for those whose own cheerful hearts uplift me and give me perspective. Lord, forgive me for considering myself more important than others.

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The Death of a Church

Church Kuolemajärvi_church_ruins

Rural Anglican parishes in Canada are often comprised of several small churches. Many priests have been surprised with the presentation of another tiny building tucked into the folds of a back country road.

My first parish downshore had two principal church buildings and a small, seasonal chapel of ease off the coast road. It had been consecrated for summer services for dairy farmers who had herds on pasture. It had a rural, homespun charm to it, but it was also an ugly little monstrosity smelling of mildew and abandoned wool cassocks.  When the members of the two principal churches got to arguing viciously over points of order, I locked those buildings and would hold services only in the off-grid chapel of ease. I was also surprised, and not pleasantly, with a fourth church building and its attendant cemetery farther down the coast road. It was a pretty little building, and eventually my favourite of all four. It was so remote that no one would venture down to it for regular services, and we used it for a community memorial service once a year.

The Danish parish had four buildings, and the sister parish I shepherded had one. I asked at the first vestry meeting if there were any other buildings or old chapels in the parish of which I should know. There was a bit of discussion about a lost chapel in Ansonia, on the other side of the mountain, but it was determined that the building had been gutted by fire and torn down, and it belonged to The Tobique anyway.

“There’s Foley Brook,” Finn said.

“Where’s that?” I asked.

“At Foley Brook. It was our only stone church.”

The older vestry members reminisced about the stone building, its stained glass, the altar and pews built by a master Danish carpenter before the turn of the last century. The altar was at the little church on the English side of the river.

“Why are we not using the church?” I asked

“It’s gone,” Finn said. “It had to be torn down. The walls weren’t stable.”

“But a stone building should be stable for centuries if it is maintained. The great medieval cathedrals are still standing.”

“It was a beautiful building,” Finn said. “Very old world. But we didn’t save it.”

“So you have lost my best church?”

Finn shrugged uneasily and turned to Rafe. “Well?”

Rafe was the local architect and builder, a retired craftsman. Rafe had a sixth sense for building and stability. He was an elf of an elderly man, sharp and brilliant at heart.

“It was not well-built. Things were wrong with the design.”

“Like what? Was it English or Danish built?”

“English, and ja, they should know, but…” His sentence ended in that encompassing Danish shrug.

“I won’t take it personally if you tell me what went wrong. I’m not English.” I really wanted to know, as it might indicate problems with the other buildings.

“It was not a proper stone foundation, made with the blocks of stone. It was a rubble foundation. It couldn’t support the weight of the walls. It could have been saved, if the work had been done to reinforce the foundation. But it was a lot of work to do. The others couldn’t agree on the expense, you know, spending the money. ‘Peng’ is always the important thing to the Danes. The English, they will spend the money on something old, even if it is not used. But not so much the Danish. So the church was condemned.”

“Is there anything left?”

“The stone was taken away, sold or something. I don’t know. It was good dressed stone. You don’t get that anymore up here in the north. We kept one piece, from the cornerstone. It is the support stone to the stairs into the vestry here.”

So the cornerstone had become the stone the builders overlooked, and I stepped on it every time I entered my own door to the church. The practical Danes had saved that much, and put it under my feet.

church ruin st sigurds

A rubble foundation was a problem at another church, Saint Wilfrid’s, on the eastern side of the river. It had been a chapel of ease for riverbank farmers, and was a stately barn of a timberframe building. The rafters were exposed. Its sacristy was in the bell tower, and that tower was a landmark along the river. It had a wood burning stove for heat. The pews were plain wood, the pulpit rescued from a church that had been deconsecrated on the Miramichi. It was a plain church, as simply furnished as an old Methodist chapel.  The little farming community still farmed, but mostly they went to the Roman Catholic Church that offered Christian education classes, or the Pentecostal church that had music and was a lot more entertaining than a staid spoken Anglican service.

It was obvious the church was settling. The farmer who lived next door, Alfie, was its caretaker, and we walked around its foundations one day after agreeing that the south floor was sloping at a discernible angle.

“It’s going, Pastor,” he said. “You know, it wasn’t meant to stand a hundred years. It was meant to be replaced.”

Its foundations were field stones cemented together, with concrete piers.  “We could build a knee wall and higher piers to support it,” I said. “We could have buttresses built in pressure-treated wood to take the weight of the roof.”

Alfie shook his head. “Ain’t worth it. Just the knee wall would cost thousands, even if we did the work ourselves. It’s going to need a new roof, new floor joists, and we ain’t even looked into the tower.”

I shook my head. “We don’t have the money.”

“We don’t have the money,” he echoed, with a note of finality.

Church ruins St Leonard

We called a meeting of those who lived in the community and had attended the Anglican church. The parish wardens discreetly stayed away, awaiting my report. The community would have to make the decision.

I presented the problem at the meeting, held in Alfie and May’s kitchen. There were questions about getting a contractor’s estimate, about funds on deposit with the diocese, about loans from the church development fund.

“We don’t have funds on deposit, and the church development fund won’t lend for building repairs. I don’t see much purpose in getting an estimate if we can’t pay for the work.”

Mick shook his head, and spoke. “It’s our own fault. We let it go. And you know how we let it go? We didn’t attend church. Why repair a church we don’t use?”

“We fought amongst ourselves too much,” May said. “One would say something, and another would just disagree, and nothing got done. We stopped coming to church so we wouldn’t argue.”

“We weren’t much of church then,” Mick answered.

“You know,” May said, “most of that arguing was amongst the old people. And they are gone. And we just let their old fights stand.”

The ad hoc committee agreed. The church would be deconsecrated, and then torn down. We talked about selling the good timber and rafters. The big church of The Tobique could have the bell, the pews could go out into the community or be auctioned, the altar – a plywood horror when stripped of paraments – would be dismantled and burned. I had already removed the altar silver to the rectory safe.

That was it. It was done.

friedrich-caspar-david-ruins-of-the-oybin-_dreamer_-wiki

The church building eventually came down, and some of its members dispersed to other Anglican churches. It wasn’t the church building that died, though. Buildings come and go. Perhaps they were poorly built, perhaps they burned. The death was of a congregation, a Christian family. That is the real church.

Ashes to Ashes

cemetery b and w

Cremation is a delicate subject among a country congregation. It is seen as undignified and disrespectful by many among the older generation. For my Danish congregations, it evoked old world memories, of pagan funeral legends and witch persecutions.

Rarely, someone from the community would die at a distance, and the only practical way to inter the remains was cremation, the ashes transported by a family member or friend. The funeral for a cremation seemed hollow to the local people, a party without the guest of honour. It lacked drama. An Anglican funeral of the old Book of Common Prayer is dignified, spare drama. It is one of the better scenes from a Shakespearean tragedy.  It evokes Act 3 of Richard II, the telling of sad stories of the deaths of kings, while ending in triumph, knowing that the Redeemer lives and at the last day, shall stand upon the earth. It needs its silent central character.

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Instead of the entrance into the church of the coffin, preceded by the priest reciting scripture, the urn was placed on a small table at the front, outside the chancel. I would have it in the place where the casket would usually be, at the foot of the chancel steps, covered with plain white linen,  as a substitute for the pall. The pall is important in old Anglican funerals. It symbolizes the grave clothes, and since it is the property of the church, it dignifies the poor and humbles the rich. It covers both an expensive casket and the poorest coffin. The pall goes on the casket at the church door, before the entry into the nave. Traditionally, nothing is placed on the pall, no insignia, no personal item, no flowers. In death, all are equal.

I had decided on draping cremation urns for the same reason. Some families chose to use nothing but the box in which the ashes were returned to them, and others had chosen expensive, ornate containers. Most old Anglican churches still had the white paraments of a previous generation, and the Altar Guild would choose something suitable in size as a substitute for a pall.

Before the funeral, as I made my parish rounds, I would hear the local tisking and clucking over the choice of cremation. “Oh, jah, but you know that her mother would not have wanted this, she didn’t hold with these modern things…” The lack of suitable visiting before the funeral was lamented. I could patiently explain that the wake was for the living, not the dead, but I was not convincing. Of course they wanted to see the deceased one last time. A bank of photos was not adequate. There was an unspoken belief – unspoken to me, at least – that we were rushing things, burning the body. What if the soul was not ready? What if the soul needed to know the body was properly buried? I did not dismiss their concerns as superstition.

At my first parish, on that bleak north shore, I had suggested a columbarium, a structure built like a wall, with sealed niches for cremated remains. Many had moved away after the war, and providing for a resting place for those who wanted their ashes returned to their ancestral home made sense. The horrible Sand Hill cemetery was running out of viable burial space, and the Clifton cemetery was washing slowly into the Bay. But my Irish-Canadian co-patriots would have none of that. They had corporate memories of the Famine, and the horrifying quick disposal of the many victims, the survivors too weak to dig proper graves.

I had a call one summer’s evening from a neighbour who was not a parishioner. He belonged to the Lutheran congregation, which was without a pastor at that time. I presided over their funerals, weddings and baptisms, while a congregant read their Sunday services. there was a certain amount of sneaking across the road – literally, as the churches faced each other at the top of the mountain. “I need to hear a real minister,” said one Lutheran escapee. I could remind that we are all ministers of the church, but she preferred the signature of the bishop on an actual license, thank you. I was not needed officially for Lutheran funerals; this though, was a delicate matter.

The deceased had not lived in the community since he departed for military service. He had been a bit of a wild young man, and he hadn’t held with regular church attendance. His dying request, though, was that his ashes be transported back to the hills of his immigrant ancestors, to be mingled with the native soil. And here was the really delicate part: He wanted to have his ashes scattered on the family farm.

This I could not do. Human remains could not be simply strewn on agricultural land. Neither the government nor the church would allow this.

The old friend and I met to work out details. “I can place some of the ashes in an unused area of the farm, ” I suggested, “but not as scattered to the winds. They must be buried. But the bishop will insist that there is a burial in sacred ground, so most of the ashes need to go into the cemetery.”

“Ah, well, we can do that much,” the old friend said. “The family has a plot. I will ask them.”

So this was the plan. A small amount of the ashes would be transferred to a wooden box, and would be buried in the farm hedgerow among the roots of a suitable tree, with prayers for the deceased and the hallowing of that place. The remainder of the ashes would be interred next to the family headstone at the Anglican cemetery.

Birch-Tree-Forest-Wallpapers16

It was a beautiful late summer day. A few weary maple and birch leaves were in red and yellow dress. The sky was the pure, astounding blue of the north, with white clouds like the sails of Viking ships. We walked down along the verge of a potato field soon to be harvested, and stopped under a tall, old birch. I climbed through the russet branches of a hazelnut copse, and stood on the wide root of the tree. The old friend dug a suitable hole with a garden spade, and I said a few words as the little carved box was planted. The wind sighed in the branches above us, and the leaves pattered as if feet were climbing quickly up a stairway we could not see.

The rest of the family and close friends met us at the cemetery. The words were the usual ones from the Book of Common Prayer, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…” in the sure hope of the resurrection.

“That’s finished,” said the old friend as we left the grave.

No Rest

Edouard Hildebrandt

It happens often in rural parishes that priests preside at funerals for people they have never met. Parishioners have retired and moved away, but wish to be buried form the home church and in their family cemetery. Elderly people are in distant nursing homes or hospitals. Sometimes, a new priest simply has not found the time to visit someone housebound.

Such was the case with Elwyn. His little homestead was halfway up the mountain. I barely knew who he was. His world had shrunk to a hospital bed in the living room. I had been in my new parish only six weeks.

His wife and children cared for him. He was on oxygen, a victim of COPD. He rarely left the house. His wife, a woman who had faithfully attended the church for decades, was always by his side.  I had seen her briefly at an evening service, and while the household was on my visiting list, they had not yet made it into the next rota. The house lay in the second circle for visits; I would have been there in another two weeks.

Elwyn had caught cold. More likely, it was a bacterial infection brought in by one of the grandchildren. It took his life quickly, almost in a matter of hours.

The phone rang just as I was in my kitchen, having fed the sheep and made coffee. I was in clerics, but the collar was still unattached. It was Marcia, a neighbour and niece to Elwyn’s wife, Nina. “Uncle Elwyn’s passed,” she said. “The ambulance was just here. He couldn’t be resuscitated. Could you come out? Aunt Nina’s doing poorly.”

I put on my collar and drove up the mountain. Family and friends were arriving. Sons, daughters, daughters-in-law, grandchildren. Mother-in-law with sister-in-law. Cousins, siblings. The small house was crowded. The two nieces were busily cleaning, moving the hospital bed out to the porch, opening windows. They swept, shook out blankets, bundled sheets into the laundry. Nina sat at the kitchen table, holding her mother’s hands, barely moving.

I sat beside her. A niece put a cup of nescafe coffee in front of me. It was horrible, but I drank it in small sips as Nina slowly talked.

“He started to cough,” she said. “And then he started to choke. So I got behind him and lifted him, but he just gasped and died. Right there. In my arms. He was gone just like that.”

She had screamed for a grandson to call his father from next door. Harry had rushed in; his CPR efforts did not revive him. The ambulance arrived, and they worked on Elwyn for half an hour, They were too late. The pressure in his chest had stopped his heart.

He had been ill a long time, but his death was sudden. The stress of caring for her disabled husband had weakened Nina, too. Her heart was weak, her nerves frayed and raw.

The youngest grandson sat in a corner of the living room, weeping. He was pale and sweating. I put a hand on his forehead. He had a fever. He had contracted the same infection that had killed his grandfather. Alarmed, I asked him which of the many people in the room was his parent. He pointed to Maurice. “That’s my dad.”

I threaded through the crowd of coffee drinkers and took Maurice by the arm. “Sammy is sick.”

He looked startled through his thick glasses, then followed me to the corner. “Yeah, you’re right, he’s just burning up.”

I went to the bathroom, found a washcloth, soaked it in cold water, and went back to Sammy. I took the child, who was  about seven years old, on my lap, and bathed his face and neck. He coughed pitifully and leaned against me. He cried silent tears from fever and shock.

“Maurice, maybe you should take him to the clinic.”

Maurice nodded, and took the little boy in his arms. “Come on, partner. We’re going to go.” He found the child’s jacket and ushered him out the door.

Nina didn’t want the casket open at the viewing hours. Elwyn had been puffy with steroid induced edema. His face was mottled with broken capillaries, she said. She didn’t want to see him all made up, just so people could stare at him. She was nearly hysterical about it.  The funeral director and I didn’t push her. The family was troubled, but she had the right to decide. We agreed to hold the visiting hours in the church, and save the expense of the funeral chapel. I was doing the funeral at the church anyway. Elwyn would be buried in the little plot they had bought forty years before, when they had lost twin girls at birth. There was no stone, so I had the gravesite marked by the cemetery warden, but two days before the funeral, we had a hard freeze and a deep snow. We would not be opening the grave until spring.

The church was busy for the visiting hours. Sammy was still sick, and I put him in the vestry with books, toys and drawing equipment. He was tearful and somewhat drippy, but he had been prescribed an antibiotic and was already improving.

The funeral was uneventful. It was a typical Anglican funeral. A cousin played the anthems. Nina was tearful and upset that Elwyn was going in the vault, and not in the ground, but it was an expensive proposition to open a plot in the winter after the hard freeze and through snow. Mistakes had been made in the past. Without a clear triangulation of the plot, I dreaded the possibility of accidentally digging up a little white coffin.

The vault was a concrete walled building with a peaked roof, painted a plain medium grey. The door was securely locked. I had a key, the cemetery warden had a key, the funeral director had a key. It was dry and clean. In the summer, the gardener kept his maintenance tools and a lawn chair in the vault, and he would rest in its cool shade on hot days. The caskets were couched on steel racks. It was as secure and vermin-proof as the Tower of London treasure rooms. It was locked because one local, having lost his mother the year after the vault was built, took to visiting it before her interment. No one had thought it necessary to lock in the deceased.

I asked the sons to keep Nina in the church while we took Elwyn’s casket to the vault. She shook them off and walked out with us. She held a handkerchief to her mouth, a son at each arm, steadying her on the ice. The casket was slid into place, the door locked as I said prayers.

Nina got through the winter with help. She had her children, her family, her neighbours around her. She never mentioned the coming interment. Perhaps she had blocked it out of conscious thought.

I could not forget it. I had no problem with using the vault. It was an old thing rediscovered. In previous generations, those who died in deep winter were put in their coffins, the coffin wrapped in oiled or waxed cloth, and the coffin set on trestles in an empty granary or shed.  Some places tried to open the ground by building fires over the gravesite, but in our rock-bound mountaintop cemetery, this was impossible. A backhoe could open the frozen shale and gravelly loam, but caused too much damage going in. Stones were sometimes damaged, and the whole procession from church to grave was fraught with the danger of broken ankles.

I could not forget that the interment was delayed because Elwyn was restless. While his body and casket lay locked in the vault, I could sense and see his spirit prowling around the church, standing at the gates of the cemetery, shaking his head in impatience. I had to pass through the cemetery to feed the sheep twice a day, and I found myself hurrying to finish before sunset, when his presence was more apparent.

Caspar David Friedrich

I do not fear the dead or their spirits. But his cold, sometimes visible dissatisfaction was uncomfortable to pass through.

Spring came. Nina was composed and quiet through the interment. It was brief, with just the immediate family gathered. Sammy had grown a couple of inches since his birthday. He had matured quickly.

The sheep watched from the pasture. The sun was high, bright and warm. It was a different world from the spirit haunted winter snow, the icy winds, the moonlight shadowing a bulky, hunched figure at the lych-gate.

I did not see Elwyn again. I had never seen him in life, nor in the silent flesh; I knew him only as a shadow. I was satisfied that he had, finally, found rest.

A Last Love

Clergy-in-training are cautioned time and again: Do not fall in love with a parishioner. It violates all the relational mores we are supposed to keep. It is not a relationship of equality. You, the clergy-person, hold forgiveness and sacrament. You are always the parent, never the partner.

I incautiously overstepped that rule once.

Lars was in hospital. Not the most modern, or the biggest, or even the closest, but the tiny twelve bed facility where I served as chaplain once a week and on call. I did not know Lars; I was new in the parish, and he rarely attended service. He was more likely to go to the Roman Catholic church on the far side of the parish boundary with his caregiver.

Lars was no longer young in body. His vision and hearing were failing. He had been a life-long bachelor, in a tidy little house in a glen over the ridge from the rectory and church. It was set in a lush meadow, with a merry brook running through. I doted on that farm. It evoked ancestral memories.

Lars was sitting up in bed, in the concentrated care room right off the nurses’ station. His caregiver, Antonia, was with him. It was late. There had been a difficulty of some sort getting him to hospital, a doctor arriving late, Lars detained, gray and coughing, in the emergency examining room for a couple of hours. It was dark: I had to get the porter to let me in.

With an oxygen cannula in his nose, Lars was improving. I whispered to Antonia as I met her, “Heart attack?” She shook her head. “No, just bad pneumonia again. It comes on him suddenly.” I held out my hand to Lars. “I don’t know you,” he said softly, in a sibilant Danish accent. “But I know who you are. Andy speaks highly of you.”

I looked to Antonia. “Andy – Anders Madsen. His nephew.” A warden, active in the church.

I pulled up a chair to the bedside. Antonia excused herself to go home.

“Not yet, Tonia,” Lars said. “You should get the reverend lady a cup of coffee or tea first.”

Antonia smiled. “If she wishes.”

I waved her out the door, protesting that I needed nothing. I was impressed, though, with the chivalry of this elegant elderly man, who addressed the hospitality owed a guest even as he was ill in hospital.

He turned clear blue eyes on me, and a high wattage smile. I returned the smile.

“My dear reverend lady,” he said. “Why are you here?”

“Because you are ill, and I have come to pray for you.”

“You don’t know me at all. You have never met me before. And yet you came all this way to see me, in the dark!”

“Of course.”

“Because it is your job?”

“Because I wanted to.”

I had received a call from the duty nurse, asking me to come in.  This wasn’t unusual, as I was the chaplain on call, and the clergy of record for almost half the county. I had charge of five churches with four congregations.  I had two classes of confirmation students, a total of twenty-five. My parish itself was in the hundreds of square miles. There were four hospitals within my range. Despite high demand I did want to see the sick, the housebound, the elderly and the least mobile.  I preferred the company of the very young and the very old.

Lars was over eighty years old. He was handsome. He was tall, upright, thin. He had a craggy Viking face, eyes the colour of summer skies, and a sharp mind. He had farmed all his life, but like some of the older inhabitants of the Settlement, he had learned to read in English and Danish at home. He had not attained many years of schooling before he was needed in the fields; still, he had educated himself.

“Come sit on the edge of the bed,” he urged me. “I can barely hear you down there.” So I perched on the outer boundary of the hospital mattress as he held my hand and asked me where I was from, who my people were, what I did with my time. I was breaking the first rule: Never sit on the bed. I was well-known for breaking this rule. I was – and am – an unapologetic hand-holder, hugger, and motherer. I kiss cheeks and comb hair. I make soup and cups of tea. I have even gotten on the bed to take a dying friend in my arms, despite my clerical collar and title.

Lars was in hospital a week. I gave him communion and prayed with him daily. I sat on the bed and held his hand. I kissed his cheek. He loved a good story. He had little breath for talking, so he let me talk about my sheep, my travels, what I had found in the countryside as I wandered with my dog.

We fell in love.

It was a beautiful and chaste love. We would sit quietly at times, holding hands. We didn’t have to express this emotion, this autumn romance. Sometimes Antonia would come in, or Anders. But mostly we sat alone, until he was discharged. I visited him at home about twice a week, with cups of tea and sweet bread made by Antonia. She joined us more often in the kitchen, and encouraged him to fill up the time with tales of his own life.

Adoption had been common among the Danes in the early half of the twentieth century. Some families took in orphans and abandoned children, Danish or otherwise, as easily as old ladies take in stray cats. Anders had been among those children, adopted by an uncle and aunt when his own parents died in an influenza outbreak. He was raised with four other adopted siblings. He remembered his childhood as happy and blissful. His adoptive parents doted on the children. They were rural poor, eking out a subsistence living on the farm, with cows, potatoes, grain fields and a large garden to manage. Dollars were earned working for other farmers, wild-harvesting hazelnuts and blueberries to sell, and cutting cord wood. Toys were handmade. Lars remembered a wooden wagon, painted red, and a homemade teddy bear. Food had been plain and plentiful. The days were long and full of work. He regretted he had not been able to attend school after age ten, but he had gained his height and strength early, and he was needed to drive a team.

He was a natural shepherd, but it had been a couple of decades since he had kept sheep. We talked sheep endlessly. Anders took him for a drive and they stopped at my pasture so he could admire my flock of Shetlands. He leaned on his cane and surveyed the ewes and near-grown lambs. “Where’s your ram?” he asked. “I didn’t keep one,” I said. “Those two over there are wethers. I will borrow a friend’s purebred ram next month.”

“I do like the coloured fleeces,” he said, gently scratching the ears of Gala, a grey ewe with a lively white splash on her black head. “Oh, these are fine looking animals, reverend lady. You have them spoiled.”

I promised to bring a lamb or two by in the spring, to see if he wanted to keep a pair as pets. The Shetlands are small, intelligent sheep, hardy and thrifty. He would look forward to it, he said.

I felt as if an old Viking Lensgreve had visited me.

Antonia called me from the hospital a few days later. “Lars has had a relapse,” she said. “There is a lot of fluid building up.”

I went into the hospital to see him that afternoon. He was very weak, but his smile was still sweet and strong. I sat on the bed and gave him communion, supporting his head as he received the wine, and finishing the chalice myself.  He had no strength for words, so I sat with him, held his hand and sang softly, old hymns I knew by heart.

After a while, he said gently, “You go home, reverend lady. I will see you again.”

I kissed his cheek. It was cold. There was a hint of a tear in his eye.

Anders called me later that night, as I sat in front of my fireplace, reading John Gardner’s novel of the Protestant Revolution in Scandinavia, Freddy’s Book. It is a tale of nobility, spirituality and defeating the devil in the far north. I had just poured a small glass of sherry.

“Lars has passed,” Anders said. “Antonia and I are here. Do you want to come in?”

Of course I did.

I said the prayers to welcome the soul to heaven, anointed the body, and kissed his very cold cheek.

The day of the funeral, a storm took all the autumn leaves from the old maples in the cemetery. The funeral was the plain Book of Common Prayer service. I walked up the aisle with Lars, not as the love of the heart I had become to him, but as his priest. It had been a pure love; and though I was sorrowful, I knew he had borne my love to heaven, and offered it at the throne of God. A chaste, noble love; the truest love.

We buried him among his family and friends, while his surviving nieces and nephews stood at graveside. I picked up a handful of damp grave soil to begin the words, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” I stopped, looked across the grave at a young niece, and warned her, “You will put out that cigarette right now, Miss, and show your uncle some respect. You will not smoke in my cemetery.”

The cigarette was stubbed out with an annoyed sigh. In a strong voice I finished the office. A few roses were cast into the grave as the casket was lowered. The congregation hurried back to the church hall for coffee and tea. I stood at the head of the grave as the hole was filled.

“Goodbye, Lars,” I said. “I love you. I will see you again.”

The Origin of My New Blog Name

All in green my love went riding

 

All in green went my love riding
on a great horse of gold
into the silver dawn.

 

four lean hounds crouched low and smiling
the merry deer ran before.

 

Fleeter be they than dappled dreams
the swift sweet deer
the red rare deer.

 

Horn at hip went my love riding
riding the echo down
into the silver dawn.

 

four lean hounds crouched low and smiling
the level meadows ran before.

 

Softer be they than slippered sleep
the lean lithe deer
the fleet flown deer.

 

Four fleet does at a gold valley
the famished arrows sang before.

 

Bow at belt went my love riding
riding the mountain down into the silver dawn.

 

four lean hounds crouched low and smiling
the sheer peaks ran before.

 

Paler be they than daunting death
the sleek slim deer
the tall tense deer.

 

Four tall stags at a green mountain
the lucky hunter sang before.

 

All in green went my love riding
on a great horse of gold
into the silver dawn.

 

four lean hounds crouched low and smiling
my heart fell dead before.

 

e.e. cummings

Death and the Horseman via Getty Museum

What Remains

Malmo, Sweden, 19th Century

It was the time of the Gilded Age. Railroad tycoons and mining magnates had huge new mansions filled with gas appliances and the new electric light. They had twelve cylinder motorcars. They traveled the world by steamship or under sail on yachts bigger than warships. The future looked glowingly bright, with new factories being built and as cities improved services, laying on water and sewers. Immigrants swarmed to America.

Among the immigrants were Scandinavians from Sweden and Denmark. Shortly after the Irish potato famine, grain crops failed in northern Europe. People starved in the rural districts. American ambassadors arranged for many people to make the long voyage to a land similar to the countryside they would leave behind, and groups emigrated to the St. John River Valley between Maine and New Brunswick.

John Anderson family, immigrants to Maine

It was harsh. The weather was subarctic, as bad as anything the Swedish immigrants had experienced, and more severe than the Danish families had seen in decades. The winter came early, and it seemed wise to build one large dwelling in New Sweden for all the group to share. Land would have to be cleared in the spring, and the deep acid soil amended with ashes, limestone, and manure. But the first concern was to survive the winter.

Supplies were brought in to the Capitol Hill dwelling house. It was two stories, with a kitchen. Most of the Swedish families were from farming stock, and they had been living a sixteenth century life before departing for the New World. A winter of isolation, cold and hard work didn’t worry them.  They carried on with their peasant traditions, having brought spinning wheels, knitting needles, loom hardware, woodworking tools, and other necessities. They settled in to making new wool clothes, furniture, and tools. They prayed, sang and occasionally argued. The months of long nights set in, and they went on with life, surviving on their traditional diet of grains, pulse, and pork.

Capitol Hill building

On the other side of the river, the Danish settlers would have more trouble. Most of Denmark was already cleared for farmland, and the immigrants did not bring clearing axes and other necessary equipment with them. The hills of New Denmark were covered with boreal forest, pines, maples, birch. They had expected fields ready for the plow. The Danes, too, built a communal dwelling, a loghouse of several rooms, and settled in for a grim, long winter.

Some of the settlers on both sides of the river had been weakened by illness and poor nutrition. Death was an ordinary event in peasant populations. Potential grave sites were chosen, just in case.

The Danes lost older people in the first couple of winters. Another death in the New Denmark Colony was of a stranger, who had walked up from the frozen river, apparently after sighting the smoke from the fires. He was sick, and weak. The Danes took him in, nursed him as best they could, and never understood a word he said except one: “Halifax.” He was coming from, or going to, Halifax. If it were his name, he would be an Englishman. He did not speak English, any Scandinavian language, German, or French. The Danes surmised he was a sailor, perhaps making his way to the only Canadian port he knew. He died after a few days, and they buried him in the little unmarked plot.

The old log house that was the first Danish building in New Denmark lasted a couple more generations. A community school was built on the same lot. The little cemetery, the first hallowed ground in the Settlement, remained unmarked, until one older resident insisted that it be identified and fenced. The actual location was lost to modern knowledge, so a best guess was made, and a suitable enclosure erected. Pragmatic Danes, gently satisfying the scruples of an elder.

The Swedes in Maine had a more difficult time on their mountain top. The Black Diptheria set in, and the youngest members, infants and children, were taken suddenly and in pain. Graves were dug at a distance form the communal house, and a monument was erected a few years later. Depression and grief subdued the new settlers.

Peasant children, 1860, by William Carrick

The Capitol Hill location in New Sweden is now a museum, as is the original settlement site in New Denmark. I did not spend much time in the New Denmark museum, but I was a museum curator near New Sweden, in the neighbouring village of Stockholm. At that time, the curator at the New Sweden museum was an old friend, a Baptist lady I had known since childhood, a former teacher. We would visit each other in the museums, compare items from the collections, and collaborate on grant proposals and community activities.

I knew my museum to be haunted. It was the original general store in the community. The family had lived on the second floor for years. There were many old artifacts from houses, and a few things brought over from Sweden, including immigrant trunks, small farm equipment, and clothing. There was a veterans’ room full of uniforms and ordnance. I don’t know who haunted the upper story, and occasionally ventured down to the kitchen while I sewed on a  treadle machine, or worked on rugs at the old loom, but he or she was noisy. Slamming doors, furniture moving, footsteps on the stairs. Volunteers of a sensitive nature did not like working alone. I am never bothered by ghosts. As my mother used to say, “It’s not the dead who can hurt you, but the living.”

Farmstead in Sweden, late 1800s

The Capitol Hill Museum building was a replica. The original had been struck by lightning and burned, and a duplicate erected from the original plans. It was sound and square. It was lighted by lovely big windows, a pleasure to visit. We did not expect ghosts. My understanding is that when a haunted building burned, the trapped spirits were released.

But one sunny summer day, I was over in the Old Colony, visiting with my colleague, Una. We worked a bit on the flax wheel, adjusting and renewing drive bands; I could spin, she did not know how. We discussed having the rug loom warped by another weaver. We moved to the other side of the floor, to retrieve a pair of wool hand-carders I was going to borrow for a demonstration.

Scandinavian-style spinning wheel

As we examined the carders, we heard a gentle step, and unexpectedly, a large baby pram rolled across the floor, coming to rest about seven feet from where it started.

“Well,” said Una. “Will you look at that!”

I have since pondered what that lone spirit was trying to tell us. That she was there? Was it a mother asking where her baby had gone? Was it a child, lost and forlorn, afraid because her parents were departed? I think of that sad monument behind the museum, and wonder if the the children are cold and lonely still.

Hetty, Here and Gone

Old Saviour Church

* This is copied and modified from my previous blog, “Anglican, Plain.” Again, this is about a real person in a parish where I served a few years ago. When I write about these former parishioners, I don’t use their real names, although it is impossible to change the setting in which I met them. Those readers who live in the locations where these anecdotes took place may recognize the people. Your experience with these people may have been different. Please respect the privacy of their families if you think you recognize of whom I write.*

Hetty lived in the community where I was pastor. She was a recurring name on every visiting list left by my predecessors.  She was just about sixty years old. I don’t think she had ever had an income-producing job in her life. Her days had revolved around caring for her mother since she was young. She was a prolific knitter. It provided a supplement to her tiny disability pension and gave her a few treats in her quiet life.

She had never married. She had been born outside wedlock. Her mother, as far as I knew, had never married, and Hetty was an only child. The extended family had lived on a hardscrabble farm on the edge of the settlement.  They had been late immigrants, and the land they had obtained was swampy and cedar-choked. It wasn’t much of a farm to support several brothers and a sister, and then a single child. Hetty had a photo of herself as a child, sitting amongst her extended family. She had a pet chicken on her lap.

She was rather like a plump little hen herself. When I met her, she was trimmed down from being a very plump hen indeed. She still had the broody figure, and she habitually slumped forward in her chair and when walking, a result, I think, of a lifetime of sitting and encroaching arthritis. She would tuck her arms back along her sides, a habit from knitting, which  enhanced the hen-like appearance. Her eyes were bright, and her hair, growing back after chemotherapy, was a dark shock that usually stood up in three directions, like a hen’s comb. She was a survivor of breast cancer. The cancer diagnosis and treatment had come to define her life.

She had a hoarse, unmodulated voice. It would soar in volume as she talked, relating one of her many anecdotes. She was animated when she recounted her many doctors’ appointments, how the doctors were so nice to her, how they truly cared, how loved and supported she felt. Except for Doctor Margaret, who could do no right, being a woman doctor. I wouldn’t say Hetty was a hypochondriac. It was just that for the first time in her life, people took care of her. She loved all her (male) doctors greatly. I don’t know if they were appreciative of her love, but in her own way, it was innocent and faithful.

I called on her at least once a month. She did not drive, so she was dependent on neighbours and friends for shopping and entertainment. She wasn’t a television watcher. I suspected that she couldn’t follow the plots of soap operas or dramas, and her sense of humour was old world.  English was not her first language. She spoke Danish all her life, with enough cousins and neighbours who also spoke it that she did not lose her language skill.

Hetty lived in a house trailer, or a mini-home as they are called there, which had been purchased with insurance money after the family homestead had burned, leaving her and her mother homeless. It was circa 1976, outfitted with a complete kit of furniture. I had lived in a similar model about 1978, so I recognized it. Almost thirty years later, she still had all the original, pathetic-quality furnishings and curtains. Then she had added knick-knack shelves, whatnot tables, slim wobbly bookcases, hassocks, baskets of yarn, folding trays and most of the contents carried by W.W. Woolworth’s Five and Dime in Presque Isle. She loved a good rummage or garage sale. The little house was overheated and usually smelled of hot cooking fat. It was clean, as clean as rotating Red Cross caregivers could get it. She was a great favourite with her caregivers, as she was almost always sunny and pleasant, generous and sentimental. Only once did I ever hear her speak harshly of someone who had hurt her feelings, and it was with a great deal of sorrow as well as a bit of satisfaction in having had the last word. She cried quickly and copiously. I took care to turn the conversation away from morbid subjects, though she had a relish for the details of horrible illnesses and injuries.

Her favourite entertainment was live country music. A neighbouring church had a music night once a week in their parish hall. She was a regular. Someone would pick her up on their way by, and she sat there, week after week, tapping her feet, enjoying the hot sweet tea and cookies that were the regular fare. I believe she used to dance; it wasn’t anything I ever witnessed. I’d say her next favourite  activity was a good funeral. My Danish congregants had a healthy and earthy attitude to death. They mourned their loss, but a history of famine, forced immigration, hardship in the new world, and the loss of children to epidemics, old people to pneumonias, and young people to accidents made them aware of death in our lives, daily. Cancers are common. Fatalities in the fields or woods and on the roads and trails were a yearly occurrence. We clergy officiated a lot of funerals. Good funeral sermons and some favourite music of both the modern gospel and antique Danish hymnal were expected. The cemetery burial ended with a traditional Danish hymn sung a capella. Our local funeral director, although not Danish, would lead it if no one else had the voice for it.

The funeral lunch was not neglected. A table of traditional foods was provided by the ladies of the parish. (We had one male cook amongst us, but he was kept in reserve for smorgasbords and fund-raisers where Danish sausage and other hearty meat specialties are required.) Hetty was a society matron at funeral lunches. She found herself a good seat, walking cane beside her, and we fetched her plates of sandwiches, delicate Danish creations of good homemade bread, sweet butter, sandwich meats and thin sliced vegetables and pickles, followed by another plate or two of the delicious, cardamom-scented and otherworldly cookies that only Scandinavians can produce. (I have acquired the knack of peparkakor, a spicy molasses biscuit.)

Hetty called me occasionally. She had need of a few groceries at the end of the month; she needed a new (to her) refrigerator, so would I contact the right people for that; she hadn’t seen me in a  while and I’d left a card in the door while she was out. She had a bitter pride when she had to ask for help. People offered and she accepted. She might ask a favour but she posed it as if she would, when possible, reciprocate. She could not reciprocate with me. Not that it mattered. I am pretty nonchalant about helping people in need. But I could see the frown, the incipient tear when she realized that she was indeed bitterly poor, and she had to go to the church for help. She had to ask me. She liked me, but I was not the same as the wonderful priests in the past, Father Such, Canon Wonderful, Mr. Greatheart. I was just little Pastor Julie. She didn’t hold it against me, but my stature did not cast the same impressive shadow.

She called me from the local hospital one day. She had been admitted for surgery. She had a terrible hernia. I don’t know what caused it. I suspect a lifetime of poor health and inadequate diet was the culprit. I went in immediately to see her before the procedure. She was a fragile patient, the body weakened by cancer and its cure. It really was the worst rupture I had seen in a few years of chaplaincy and hospital ministry. Her skin had split. She was in pain, but she joked a bit about it, poking her finger delicately around the damaged navel. She had no inhibition in sharing scars and wounds with me, nor was I ever shocked by such. Ten years of shepherding had submerged forever any remaining squeamishness that had survived motherhood.

The hernia was repaired, but her condition worsened. She was taken to the big hospital in St. John, far from home. I went down to see her in the midst of her diagnostic routine.

“They got me here in Oncology,” she said. “I don’t know why.”

“What is your doctor’s plan?”

“X-rays and tests and ultrasound. But why am I in Oncology? That means Cancer.”

“Yes, it does.”

She talked a bit randomly about her cousins coming to visit, and gifts they had brought, and what the food was like. She liked her roommate. She liked the nurses.

She got quiet. I sat in the pink visitor’s chair and waited.

“Do you think I got cancer again?” she asked.

“What does your doctor say?”

“Nothing, He said it was tests.”

She got quiet again. “I got cancer again. That’s why I’m here. The medicine stuff is chemo.”

She started to cry. I held her hand.

“Can you go ask?” she said to me.

I went to the nurses’ station. I asked if someone could explain Hetty’s medical treatment to her. They arranged for a doctor to come in later.

I told her this. She shook her head.  “It’s cancer. I know it. That’s why they got me here.”

“Yes, I think so.”

She covered her face and cried. Finally, she wiped her eyes and said. “I kept you a while. It’s a long drive home. My cousin will be in soon, really. I’ll be okay.” I said a prayer and left her.

She was transferred back to the local hospital. She slowly descended into more pain. Morphine didn’t help. The cancer was in her spine. Neighbours helped in the hospital, sitting with her, getting her comfortable, bringing her little treats as long as she could tolerate food. Her property had to be sold; she talked about the nursing home. She thought she would like it.

I sat a few spells with her. She liked to have me close when she was conscious, but that was getting rare. Her eyes would glaze as she lay half-reclining in the bed, propped with pillows. She would moan softly sometimes. She started talking to someone who wasn’t in the room. “What is she saying?” asked a caregiver who didn’t speak Danish.

“She’s talking to her mother. She’s saying, mother, help me, come get me.”

We looked at each other with troubled eyes, then back at the place by the window Hetty seemed to be addressing.

She died soon after that.

She had a good Anglican funeral, in the church.

I walked up the aisle ahead of the coffin, in my black cassock and white surplice.

“I am the resurrection and the life , saith the Lord; he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth…”

Her cousin gave a eulogy. The lessons were read, I gave a sermon. We went out to the cemetery. She was laid next to her mother. “I’ve arranged for stones,” her cousin said. “For her, her mother, and her uncles. The family could never afford them. I can do that for her now. It’s the last thing we can give her.”

And so it is. The last good words to be spoken, the last gift, the hope of the resurrection.

“Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”