My Own Epic Story
It was a Friday evening. I'm sure it was a Friday evening. Everything fun always happened on a Friday evening when my cousins came over.
That was when we noticed the car. It was the oddest thing - a complete stranger, had just driven up beside the gas station and had gone to sleep with his feet sticking out the side window.
Cautiously we circled the car and inspected the rather large, well-worn shoes. There were at least five of us cousins – the three older ones, one my age and me.
We even peeked inside and stared at the man – he was snoring softly. We dared each other to touch his shoes. Someone did -- lightly. We held our breath. He didn’t wake up.
Then one of the older cousins had an idea. “Let’s play tag –and use his feet as home base.”
What? We stared at him in pure horror. That was like poking a sleeping bear.
“What if he wakes?”
“Then you run!”
We all giggled with excitement. There was nothing more challenging.
We often played “tag” – a simple game that involved one player chasing other players in an attempt to "tag" or touch the person. "Tag, you're it." Then that player chased the others, attempting to get close enough to "tag" one of them. Only if you made it to home base were you safe.
It was a game with few rules. We could hide anywhere, except not in any buildings and not outside the fence circling our yard. Inside that fence was a house, cellar, barn, shed and a gas station. That gave us lots of hiding places. I remember taking off my shoes so I could run faster. And run I did. I hid. I ran until I was hot and pink cheeked. So absorbed were we that there wasn't even any time for washroom breaks. I remember one time peeing my panties and thinking nothing of it – took them off, hid them under a board and continued to play. We wore dresses back then -- it was so easy.
This wasn't the first time we had played silly games. Almost every Friday, my uncle and aunt who lived twenty miles away would drive onto the yard for an unannounced visit. My mother always had the best food. And then the adults would sit in the living room – doing what adults do. In this case, they would just laugh and laugh. We had no idea what they were laughing about. All we knew was that their laughter gave us permission to do whatever we wanted.
We played hard at whatever the older cousins imagined. Sometimes we pretended that we were scientists collecting frogs and dissecting them, sometimes we played cops and robbers, sometimes it was baseball with all the neighborhood kids, and sometimes it was racing our bikes. If we were the visitors, it meant different activities at their house, like quietly reading all the forbidden comic books we could find. Sometimes it was rolling down the hill at the nearby school, sometimes stealing grapes from a neighbor, sometimes it was climbing trees and sometimes it was falling out of trees.
Forced inside by the coolness at the end of day, we would go upstairs and jump on the beds, using them like trampolines until my father would open the stairs door and we would stop mid-air – until he closed the door again. And it would all begin again – just a little softer – quieter – till the door would open again.
After playing hard, we would take time to eat at the kitchen table laden with goodies -- left all to ourselves. Inevitably somebody would crack a joke when someone was drinking their chocolate milk and they would choke -- the milk backing up through their nose. That was the ultimate sign that we were having fun! The joy of seeing milk flow all over the place.
It was always amazing to me how our usually disciplined parents would never really reprimand us -- even afterwards -- for all our wildness on those marvelous Friday nights.
That particular Friday when we made the man's shoes our home-base – the man never did wake up. We got louder and louder, hung onto his shoes as if they were a branches -- and yet he did not waken up. Finally, bored with him, we went on to other things.
Actually, that day was also memorable because of an off-hand remark from one of our older cousins. He said that we could do anything we wanted because we were “blue bloods.”
Blue Bloods! First I had found out I was Mennonite, now I had blue blood?
I wanted to know everything about blue bloods; so we sat huddled on our beds and he told us stories of our origins -- stories he had heard from his parents. According to him, there was research that someone of Belgian nobility had joined the movement during the Reformation when the people were gathering under Menno Simons. That night I also learned that in Russia my grandmother had been the daughter of the mayor, that my grandfather had owned a sunflower factory and was one of the wealthier men in town, and that my crazy great uncle -- the one that looked like Albert Einstein -- had killed a Russian General during the war as a service to the community – and had to hide like a fugitive for years.
It kind of snowballed after that. Not only were we blue bloods, we also had the best church – the only church. Even the Mennonite church down the road – the one we called the General Conference -- wasn't as good as us. They were all going to hell because they smoked. We didn’t dance or smoke – or drink wine except on special occasions. Apparently, we not only had blue blood coursing through our veins, we had righteous, political, wealthy, heroic and royal blood pumping through us. We were obviously destined for greatness.
It was such a life-altering evening, I can’t even remember what happened to that poor drunk who woke up in that car eventually -- completely disoriented. He was the first drunk I had ever encountered. I think my father came out at the end of the visit – and drove him back to town to sleep it off in the city -- a much safer place and away from us. It didn't matter. We were blue bloods.
Later when I asked my father whether we were truly “blue bloods” he only laughed and said that it was all silly – his sister always had such grand ideas. But I did find the family crest, a symbol of our nobility, in his keepsakes after he was gone – and I still have it.
As a "wanna be" author, I recognized immediately that the "blue blood" theme had real story potential. Authors were supposed to start writing from what they knew -- I knew that much about writing books. And here there was potential for a truly great epic, a Mennonite historical romance novel. And I started writing it.
I never mastered it. And the unfinished manuscript lay in the bottom drawer of my desk for the next four decades. I would pull it out every once in a while -- work on it feverishly -- and then put it back. I must have completed it at least ten times over the years but was never satisfied.
"Mennonite" is a hard culture to capture in words. It was hard to find an interesting plot. I finally had my husband and son fashion a "missing treasure" kind of plot that tied together the idealism and romanticism of these strange people so I could finish it in 2003. I actually did self-publish it. I called it Mercy. Then after seeing it on the shelves for about three months, I pulled it off. It felt dangerously incomplete. It wasn't epic enough.
But it wasn't all lost. I still think that the endless writing of that one book – the endless rewrites – was my practice ground for writing books.
And the endless study of the Mennonite people, the courses, the historical books and the gathering of pictures, gave me a chance to sort out some of the good, bible-based teachings that worked, and a chance to discard the less noble, ego-driven, conflict-based beliefs that caused the great divides.
Above all, I was fascinated with their non-resistance stance -- that forgiveness-based belief that my father had said set them apart.
“Don't accept your dog's admiration as conclusive evidence that you are wonderful.” ― Ann Landers