Sunday, January 24, 2021

Thirty Years Later

Do you ever wonder how far you've come? You know, or at least you hope, you've grown in faith, empathy, and maturity as the years have passed. But how much, and in what ways?

Most of us have memories that may or may not be accurate, but if we wrote things down and kept them, we have documentation. 

Our son Matt posted a quote by Ed Latimore on Twitter some time ago: "You know you've grown when you look back at your old self with a bit of embarrassment. If your old behavior doesn't make you cringe, did you really even mature?"

Matt said, "My old journals got a lot easier to read once I realized this."

Matt was also the one who suggested digging out old letters to see what we were doing thirty years ago. I wrote monthly form letters back then and kept copies of most of them. Amazingly, I was able to locate my stash without any deep digging.

Browsing through this stash refreshed old memories, both good and bad. I saw how some things were still the same, but many things were not. I had changed, my children had grown up, and social media had connected people in astonishing ways.

This letter was written 30 years ago, when we had three children aged 4, 2, and 7 months. We lived in a remote village and First Nations reserve in Ontario, Canada, called Weagamow or Round Lake. Paul was a teacher at a Christian school. I wrote this on our first computer and printed it on a dot-matrix printer.

I'll add comments in italics.

Paul and Amy in front of our house.


February 1, 1991

Dear Family and Friends,

The temperature soared up to 40 above today after hovering around absolute zero for about two weeks. One morning the official temperature was 45 below zero, but private thermometers ranged down into the 50s-below. We're staying reasonably warm, especially since Paul piled snow around the house. It's still too cold for Emily to be on the floor much.

The cold sure doesn't slow things down. The other evening I walked about half a mile to our ladies' Bible study when it was about 25 below, and there were lots of people out walking or skidooing. Even on the coldest days the school children go outside for breaks and P.E. I guess it's all what you're used to. I've heard several people, including the pastor, say they really don't care for summer—it's just too hot. Paul told Gary (pastor) that summers here seem nice and mild to us, and that in Oregon you can expect a spell of 100-degree weather every summer. Gary: "I suppose everything shuts down then?"

I'm sure most Oregonians think surely everything would grind to a halt at 30 below, so you see what I mean that it's all what you're used to.

As I recall, I used Fahrenheit figures here because most of the recipients were from the U.S. I also recall how I used to walk home from Bible studies and stop in the dark and cold to admire the Northern Lights--great bands of green and blue and white lights sweeping and hissing through the sky. I've always said I could hear them, and recently scientific articles have validated me.

 We're all recovering from bad colds. One day last week I wiped 48 noses in 2 hours. Amy got bronchiolitis, Emily got an ear infection, and I still have a cough, but I think we'll make it.

 I tell you, we were always sick. Colds, fevers, infections, vomiting, chickenpox, and all kinds of maladies. Was it the lack of fresh fruit? I just remember this constant battle to stay healthy.  

Since we have our car here we've gone visiting more. One evening last week we went to visit a family whose four children go to the Christian school. They are very interesting. James was telling us about how they met. He was 26 years old, living alone, and praying for a wife. So one day his dad called to Kingfisher Lake, another reserve just up the bush, and asked if there were any marriageable young ladies there. Sure enough, one of the next planes brought young Julie Sakakeep, who was puffing on a cigarette, and poor James, who was a staunch Christian, wasn't sure what to think. But they were married a week later and apparently he loved her to the Lord because a year later she became a Christian too. "And we've had a good marriage," said James. "With God's help," said Julie.

[Names changed]

 Arranged marriages were traditionally the norm but the custom is almost gone. Gary was telling us that in his family there were 5 arranged marriages and 3 "modern" marriages, and the arranged marriages have been more successful. This makes for some interesting study on our society's system of courtship and marriage.

 These observations are interesting to me now in their arm's-length detachment and "othering." It was like we had left one universe and entered another, and the two would never cross. I was fascinated with the customs and culture, and I had no qualms about writing a form letter about what I observed, because I didn't think the two worlds would ever connect enough for people to see what I had written.

Social media brought these separate planets together in ways I had never imagined. I sit at my desk in Oregon and see posts from my Weagamow friends—the sunrise over the lake, people at work, activities in the gym, new grandbabies. They read what I write and sometimes we message, the "otherness" changed by 30 years and the great equalizing of the Internet.

Matthew has been playing outside a lot with Gokum's 3-year-old grandson, Sty. They were getting along fine until a few weeks ago they started fighting all the time. So we really worked with Matthew on that—but since Sty wasn't getting the same teaching, plus he idolizes Hulk Hogan, we had problems. Matthew was constantly coming in crying because Sty had hit him or pushed his face in the snow, and I was at my wits' end. Then one morning I heard crying and found Matthew backed into a corner of our entry with Sty waving a stick of firewood in front of him. That did it. With Mom and her antipathy for veeshty glenny boova [Pennsylvania German—bad little boys] coming out all over me, I waved the stick in Sty's face and told him in graphic terms what I would do with it if this ever happened again. He howled all the way home, Gokum let him inside, and I suddenly reconsidered my rash move.

 At noon Nita [granddaughter and translator] called me up. "My Gokum says (my stomach turned to water) that Matthew and Sty were playing in the garage so you should wash Matthew's hands good before he eats." (My stomach returned to normal) Since then Sty has been no trouble, either outside or in, and he seems to bear me no ill will.

 Later . . . I guess I shouldn't worry about threatening to spank Sty. Matthew told me this evening that today when they were outside, Gokum spanked them both for playing on the skidoo. He says she spanked him with a mitten on the bottom of his foot, and no, it didn't hurt.

This was a common scene. Gokum is kneeling, Matt is next to her, and Amy is over on the left.
Gokum used that metal post to stab the ice and keep the water hole open. One of these kids later
 tried to push Amy into the hole, and Matt saved her.

 Her name was Clara, but we called her Gokum (Grandma) because that's what her many grandchildren called her. I think Sty is now a musician and a responsible adult. Difficult neighbor children were an ongoing issue for us. The whole village belonged to everyone, so kids wandered all over the reserve and played wherever they pleased, often in our backyard. So if our kids wanted to play outside, I couldn't close a gate and keep them isolated from the others. Often, I got to know children long before I knew their parents, so I couldn't talk to a mom if the kids were stealing our toys or hitting people with hockey sticks. A few of these now-adults have told me they have good memories of playing at our place, which is good to know, because we were certainly making it up as we went along.

We have these buttons on our phone that you can program to call a certain number just by pressing one button, so I'm teaching Matthew and Amy how to call Paul at school, just in case I ever get locked in the outhouse again* or something. Amy thinks she's the cat's pajamas now that she can call Paul all by herself to tell him supper's ready. She likes to throw around big words like "actually" and she's good at sitting meditatively on her potty and remembering all kinds of events I'd completely forgotten. "Mom, were you brushing Maffoo's teeth? And then he dropped your toothbrush in the bucket of water? And then it got all wet? And then you said 'GWOSS'? And Maffoo laughed and laughed?" Several of the 9 and 10 year old girls at school are totally in love with her and practically fight over her. She just soaks it up.

I'm still amazed at how well Amy talked at two years old.

*Yes, one Sunday morning. The wind blew the little stick-revolving-on-a-nail and locked me in. Paul rescued me after about 10 minutes.

Emily, I am delighted to report, is getting over her food sensitivities and colic. She's working at scootching around like Hillary does, but she doesn't quite have Hillary's singleminded curiosity. Right now she's into chomping paper, exploring in her walker, yanking hair, and tasting real People Food. I can't say I blame her for not being real excited about baby cereal. Last week one day I sat at the table holding her when she turned around and touched the woodstove behind me. She got three heart-wrenching little blisters on her hand. (They're healing nicely.) Fortunately, our stove has an extra enclosure around the fire box, so the sides don't get hot enough to burn a child bumping into it. (The stove at school is just like it except the stovepipe comes out the side and it gets very hot. One morning before school Paul backed into the stovepipe wearing his nice navy blue polyester pants. Let us draw the curtain of charity over the rest of the scene.)

 Hillary was my niece and two months older than Emily. She appears in a later paragraph as well. As an adult, she goes by Romy.

Hillary and Phil, Emily and Paul
At my parents' place in Minnesota. Christmas, 1990.

Wisdom from the mouths of babes:

Matthew: Play this animal game with me!

Me: I don't know what to do. You want me to play. Amy wants me to read. Emily is fussing. I don't feel very good. I need to wash dishes. What shall I do?

Matthew: Thank God!


Matthew: Look at me! I got all dressed! I'm being responsible!!

Me: Wow! You're being so responsible, I just can't stand it.

Amy: (stands up on a chair) Mommy! I can stand it!!

 Next weekend we plan to be at Stirland Lake for some R&R. Now that the winter road is open it's like a superhighway compared to the first time we drove in. The first week in March is "spring" (wishful thinking) break and also the ACE Administrators Seminar in Chicago. The children and I plan to stay with Mom and Dad while Paul goes to the seminar with Joe Chupp.

 The winter road went across ten miles of lake and 16 miles of bush. It connected the reserve to the nearest road, but traveling it was not for the fainthearted.

Everybody is wondering if we're getting cabin fever. So far, by God's grace, the answer is no. But winter is far from over (the ice doesn't leave the lake till toward the end of May) so the battle isn't over yet.

Matthew is still asking thousands of questions a day. If I ever face a Communist interrogator I'll feel right at home. I have a picture of Philip and Hillary up on our bulletin board. "Is that your brother and his baby, Mom? Did you tell Nita that was your brother and his baby? Why is that your brother and his baby? Is that Uncle Philip holding Hillary? Does he like to hold Hillary? Are they standing by the ocean? Why are they standing by the ocean? Huh Mom? Why is that the ocean? Did Geneva take the picture? Why did Geneva take the picture, Mom?"

 Funny that I resurrected this quote so soon after the post about how much my children talked when they were little. Also funny how accurately I recalled this conversation. This is why I tell moms to write things down. If you don't, you forget many of the specifics.

I never quit jotting down quotes from my kids, and I still do it today. Someday they'll thank me.

 There have been two more suicide attempts recently. Both survived but were flown out to the hospital for a while. Sometimes it's so hard to know what to think and how to pray. It's a very very tragic situation.

 I decided not to include most of the above paragraph. I had contrasted the government-program responses to suicide, which saw these young people totally as victims, to my own solid Amish/Mennonite conclusions that were simplistic in the extreme. It seemed to me that if the young people would do some really basic things like listen to their elders and not get high, these tragedies wouldn't happen. (Duh!) It was na├»ve and cringey. Years later, when I lost someone to suicide, I finally began to understand the pain of being a survivor, which I knew was minor to the accumulated grief in Weagamow of multiple suicides and violent deaths.

In recent years, I finally did the math and found that some of my own illogical and bizarre reactions to life were responses to childhood incidents out of my control that evoked grief, terror, and a sense of abandonment. Studying that field, including some of the new research on trauma, helped me understand a small piece of the enormous, multi-generational pattern of grief and loss in the First Nations people.

I've come a long way in my own healing and in empathy for others in 30 years—just enough to see how far I still have to go.

My comfort is that I don't think I expressed my easy answers to very many people. Mostly, I served tea and cookies, and tried to communicate with people whose first language wasn't English.




 What hasn't changed: I'm still fascinated by cultures and my clever kids. I still like to write it all down. 

When we lived in Weagamow, I felt like all of my natural talents were buried and I was asked to do all kinds of things I was terrible at.

Today I look back and see a thread running through my life and taking a loop through the North. God was working, and I had no idea. One example: those monthly form letters turned out to be great practice for a newspaper column and a blog.

If you are isolated and overwhelmed among people who don't speak your language--even though you might both speak English, if you get what I'm saying--please know that you are not abandoned and this is an important piece of your story.

Four months after this letter was written.



  1. I feel like the last paragraph was just exactly what I needed to hear today. Thank you so much for writing!

  2. I see you lived in a tiny house long before it was fashionable. It probably didn't take long to sweep it, but it would be a recipe for cabin fever with five people living in that space. LRM

  3. Crystal Kupper1/26/2021 8:15 AM

    I love family form letters! And once again, you have managed to say exactly what I have been vaguely feeling for years but had little idea how to articulate.