Need For Miracles At Matsqui Institution

When I graduated from SFU, I didn’t immediately look for work where I could apply what I had learned. During my 4 years at the university, I had put in quite a lot of time with Dad in his landscaping business. My role had mostly been to operate a John Deere front end loader and deliver top soil, sand, and gravel with a dump truck. Knowing Dad had more work than he could look after alone, I decided to stay with him temporarily.

I arranged a meeting with Doug McGregor to give him a copy of the paper I had written, based on my research at Matsqui Institution. I told him about M2/W2 and asked if he would consider having the organization set up a program at Matsqui.

“Do you think this is the answer to problems with inmate rehabilitation?” he asked. I wondered later if this had been his way of ascertaining how naïve I was in regard to prison issues.

“We don’t claim it will solve all problems,” I replied. “I do believe though that if an inmate has a friend in the community, he won’t feel as isolated from mainstream society. An M/2 Sponsor would commit to visit him once every two weeks. He and his family and friends could be a positive influence in his life. When the inmate is paroled, the sponsor might be able to assist him in finding employment.”

Although he didn’t say anything, I sensed that Doug was listening intently. “In cases where a solid relationship is developed,” I continued, “ the man doing time has someone of good character in his life. This means he doesn’t have to feel as dependent on his past criminal associations. Some men recognize that they need to sever those connections completely, but that certainly doesn’t happen in every case.”

Doug asked a few more questions and then agreed to meet with Ray Coles, the executive director of M2/W2. Several weeks later Ray asked if I would consider coordinating the program at Matsqui in a volunteer capacity. I had derived considerable satisfaction from doing the research at the institution, and although there would be no remuneration, I felt this was a good move for me. It would enable me to gain further experience in corrections. My interest was in the realm of rehabilitation, not in becoming part of the bureaucracy and being enmeshed in its often stifling web.

A few days later I requested a meeting with interested inmates. The staff liaison, who coordinated the activities of the various groups coming into the institution, recognized the benefit of having inmates interact with citizens from the community. She advertised the program among the inmate population and invited interested individuals to attend an informational meeting with me. This meeting took place in one of the institutions’ classrooms. At the time inmates were able to upgrade to a high school level education, something they frequently lacked. Several university courses were also offered.

The meeting attracted just over a dozen men. Some were simply curious or looking for a break from prison tedium. Others desperately hoped for something that would halt the downward trend of their lives. The men straggled in, usually one at a time, all clad in the drab grey prison uniforms. As though hoping not to be noticed, each cautiously took a seat as close to the rear of the room as possible. Prison life had tutored them in the art of distrust.

They observed me furtively. Only two or three made even minimal eye contact. These were hardened, discontented, discouraged men who had known mostly failure. Sexual and physical abuse was a common thread in their history. Feeling alone, unappreciated and unloved, they desperately needed a miracle. Of course, they didn’t have the capacity to believe in miracles.

For these desolate men heroin, cocaine and alcohol were the only means of escaping from the sorrow and rage that simmered deep within.  Even for the younger ones, the time had passed when they would willingly make the effort to change and grow. Looking into these disconsolate faces and sensing their lack of ability to believe, I felt a powerful urge to bring into their lives men who might be able to help them accept that good things were still possible.

Several days later, I received seven applications for a sponsor. Among them were three I particularly recall.

One was Steve, a large sombre man of about 55 who had two times killed a prostitute in a drunken rage. He was doing life. He’d need help if he was to get out of prison before he was too old to care. The damage done to his psyche in earlier years was immense. In the time I knew him, I never saw him smile.

Also in attendance at the meeting was Roy, a balding, barrel chested stocky man of about 40. He had come early to secure a seat at the very back of the room. He sat through the entire meeting with his arms folded across his chest and his face radiating distrust. Everything about him suggested extreme skepticism, lack of hope and a strong measure of defiance. I doubted he’d want anything to do with our program but I instinctively felt that if he did, he would be difficult.

Al, doing significant time for an armed robbery in which he had shot a policeman in the leg, also applied for a sponsor. His most recent contact with his parents had been a 45 minute visit six years ago at Stony Mountain Prison in Manitoba. Although he was only 36, he already thought of himself as a hard core con. He spoke out of the side of his mouth and his attitude and values were those of a man who has spent many years behind prison bars.

Looking through the applications, I was mystified when I saw the name of Roy, who had placed an impenetrable wall of reserve and skepticism between himself and me. He did prove to be a handful, as I guessed, but not in the way I had expected. In fairness to him, each of the others also proved to be extremely difficult. In spite of the challenges though, several of the relationships that developed from this first meeting would last a decade or more. As in every other prison, miracles at Matsqui Institution were scarce, but at times we got close.


Meriam Ibrahim Still Needs Our Help

Late yesterday Linda and I read an online report stating that an appeals court had released the Sudanese Christian woman, Meriam Ibrahim and her children from prison. This morning we read that the Sudanese National Intelligence Security Service had re-arrested Meriam and her 2 young children and her husband at a Sudanese airport.

We listened to the CKNW news this morning, hoping to learn more. There was no mention of this situation. I called the station’s news room, told Gord McDonald what I had heard and asked if CKNW was going to shed more light on this issue. He promised to get it on their news.

I admit that often when I feel something is wrong, I hesitate to express my concern publicly. Sometimes I question my own thinking. Is my concern valid? Will others consider it foolish?

At times our timidity prevents us from drawing attention to a government or corporate policy that is hurting vulnerable individuals. Hurricane Rubin Carter believed that “the most powerful enemy of justice is inertia.” A racially charged trial cost him 20 years in the Trenton State Prison for 3 murders committed by someone else. Surely there must have been individuals who realized that the process was flawed and that this innocent man needed people to speak loudly on his behalf.

When we allow the media to guide our thinking, we tend not to question whether a matter is being dealt with fairly or justly. And even when we realize that something should be done, we expect someone else to do it.

If the problem isn’t resolved rapidly, we are diverted from it by the next issue being reported by the media. The case of the Nigerian girls who were abducted is a prime example. Is the Nigerian government still looking for them? They assured parents they would find them. But now the media has lost interest and the government no longer feels international pressure.

We become complacent so easily. We are quickly diverted. We are fearful and hesitant. This permits base, corrupt, dishonest individuals to carry on with their nefarious schemes. An ancient Israeli poet once asked, “if the foundations are destroyed, what can good citizens do?”

In the game of life, we cannot be bystanders. At this writing, it is not known where the family has been taken. Whatever country we live in, each of us can ask our national government to press Sudan to release them. Meriam Ibrahim and her family, and many others, desperately need our help in drawing attention to their plight.


A Sunday In Hedley

Like every other day of the week, Linda and I began today with stretches and exercises. I was up earlier than usual and Linda doesn’t go to the Senior Centre for coffee Sunday morning, so we started at 6:45 am. Unlike every other day, I took half an anacin this morning. My body isn’t as limber as in the past and I’ve often considered anacin to make the workout easier. Until this morning, I’ve always resisted the temptation. I’m learning that holding age at bay requires a good deal of will and focus.

By 8 am the sun had popped over the mountain to the east and Linda asked if I wanted to have breakfast on the patio. We carried out our bowls of porridge, laden with Saskatoon berries and basked in the warmth of the sun. Clean air, birds chirping happily, the girls clucking after receiving their treat, mountains surrounding us. We have reason to be content and grateful.

At 9:15 we set out for the little church on Ellis Street. A 5 minute walk. Several people were away so, counting children, there were 17 in attendance. Pastor Graham entitled his message “The Scarlet Rope”. It was about Rahab, the woman who protected 2 Israeli spies and helped them escape from the city of Jericho. He emphasized that God can use us for a good purpose in spite of our past.

After the service most people stayed for coffee and cookies. I noticed little Evangeline, about age 3, tiptoe past me daintily holding the 2 halves of an Oreo cookie. She was licking the icing off the centres. A little later she came to me and offered me one well licked half. I accepted it but when she saw that I was just holding it in my hand, she said “eat it.”

For lunch we went to the Hedley Heritage Museum. Jim Gray serves food in the Tea Room from Friday to Sunday. Beryl joined us and we each had a very satisfying sandwich. We learned that Beryl and Bruce spent three and a half months in India some years ago. In addition to extensive travelling about the country, she volunteered in a Mother Teresa orphanage and fell in love with the children. I’m often surprised at what some people have done. Most of us probably need to take a few more risks to enliven our existence.

Usually we walk along 20 Mile Creek to the Big Rock which is at the far end of the meadow (actually what is left of a tailings pond from gold mining days). Today Linda suggested a hike along the Similkameen River. We saw some Saskatoon bushes with nearly ripe berries. Doesn’t look like it will be a bumper crop though. When we returned home Linda prepared dinner while I began writing this post.

It wasn’t an exciting Sunday. Most Hedley Sundays are not. A few people in town may have gotten aroused by the soccer games being played in Brazil. Probably not many though. Haven’t heard any talk about it. I suppose we prefer to live our own lives rather than sit in front of a television, watching others live theirs. For Linda and me, it was a satisfying day.


A Door Opens At Matsqui Institution

Although I did not gain a deep sense of satisfaction or fulfillment from the Oakalla experience, it did foster within me an interest in prisons and prison life. I was asking questions such as, “what is the role of personal choices in producing men and women who spend years of their lives behind prison bars and high perimeter fences?” “What part does the family play in this?” “What about societal factors?” “And how does prison life influence and impact the thinking, attitudes, actions and futures of inmates?”

At the beginning of 1971 I needed to write a major paper to complete the requirements for an Honours BA. I discussed my interest in prisons, and especially inmate culture, with one of the SFU profs who would supervise me in this. Fortunately he had an acquaintance who was a department head at what was then the Regional Psychiatric Centre. He readily offered to make arrangements for me to meet him.

On arriving at the Psychiatric Centre, which was actually a high security prison, I quickly realized that the emphasis was definitely on security. An electronically controlled steel door slid open to admit me. I understood at once that from this point on, I would not be master of my own fate until someone opened this door for me again and allowed me to exit. I was buzzed into a small building where an aging, very thin officer was waiting for me. A sheet of glass with a metal aperture separated us. He pushed a book through the opening at the bottom of the glass and said “fill in the blanks, print your name and then sign.”

When I had provided the requisite information, he appeared grudgingly satisfied and said, “wait here, someone will escort you to your appointment.” A young security officer appeared from somewhere behind him. He smiled and said, “follow me”. I gathered that unlike the older man, he was not yet institutionalized and not bored.

Although it was much newer than Oakalla, the place had an intimidating institutional personality. It occurred to me that I probably would not be able to walk anywhere along these halls without being tracked by a camera. My psyche felt under siege and I questioned my wisdom in wanting to do a study in this forbidding place.

The department head was middle aged, balding and experienced. He very likely understood immediately that the high level of security and the nature of their inmates might be overly daunting for me. “We deal with extremely difficult cases,” he said, evidently feeling a need to establish a direction for our conversation. “Our clientele includes a number of sexual offenders.” Possibly he didn’t want to discourage me so he allowed some time for discussion. As we talked, I had the sense he was considering where my request might be looked upon favourably. After about 10 minutes he seemed to have come up with

Matsqui Institution by ian lindsay Vancouver Sun
Matsqui Institution by ian lindsay Vancouver Sun

a possible plan. “I think Matsqui Institution would be a more appropriate place for you to do what you have in mind,” he said. “They have the type of clientele you should be talking with. There is more of a cross section of inmates. The Superintendent is Doug McGregor. I’m quite certain he would be open to this. I’ll give him a call and ask him to talk with you.”

Matsqui Institution is a federal medium security prison on the same tract of land as the Psychiatric Centre. I knew it had a reputation as a prison that dealt with a high number of drug users and traffickers. Many were incarcerated for crimes that supported their habit.

I had read in the local papers that at some risk to his own career, Doug McGregor was experimenting with a Day Pass system for inmates. Some in the Fraser Valley community were experiencing considerable anxiety at the idea that federal prisoners were being granted either escorted or unescorted passes.

When I entered Doug’s office, he greeted me cordially and gesturing toward a chair, invited me to sit down. He was wearing slacks, and his shirt was open at the neck. Very relaxed and confident, he helped me to feel at ease. I liked him immediately. For nearly half an hour we talked about prisons, especially his experimentation with the Day Pass System.

When I explained the nature of the research I hoped to do, he listened intently, breaking in occasionally to ask a question. His alert mind quickly grasped what I was requesting. The idea of a study of inmate culture interested him. “Go ahead and do it,” he said. “Just give me a copy of your paper when you’re finished.”

For almost three months, several days a week, I sat in a small room interviewing men doing time for crimes such as break & entry, trafficking in heroin and cocaine, armed robbery, murder, etc. Their sentences ranged from 2 years to life. A life sentence did not mean they would never be released. Occasionally, a man died in the prison as a result of being stabbed, hit over the head with a metal pipe, an overdose of heroin, or some other unnatural cause.

I also spent time talking with counsellors, living unit officers, the warden, and others. Sometimes I was invited to have lunch in the prison dining room and I observed inmates serving food to staff. A senior security officer gave me a tour of the living units. Occasionally counsellors invited me to attend group sessions they were doing with inmates. I had numerous discussions with counsellors and also at times with the prison psychologists.

When I completed the research paper, I gave Doug McGregor a copy, as promised.

Now, more than 40 years later, I still appreciate the prof who arranged my meeting with the department head. I also value the department head for introducing me to Doug McGregor. And I am thankful to Doug for opening the many doors of Matsqui Institution so I could move about virtually without restraint.

Entering Oakalla, An Emotional Wasteland

1987 Aerial Photo of Oakalla Prison Main Hall,  Runagate Pictures
1987 Aerial Photo of Oakalla Prison Main Hall, Runagate Pictures

When the massive inner steel door at Oakalla clanged shut behind us, my heart told me we had entered an emotional wasteland. We had entered a wide grey corridor with a concrete floor and cells on one side. Each cell contained a simple metal bunk covered with a grey blanket. Steel bars enclosed each cell. The men, clad in light brown prison garb, moved about restlessly, with little discernible purpose. Seeing us, they momentarily ceased their meaningless wandering to scrutinize this troupe of “Square Johns” entering their dreary domain. If they felt surprised, they chose not to reveal it.

We were the first batch of citizens recruited by the newly minted M2/W2 organization. Each of us had already been matched with a specific prisoner in this cell block. Our assignment was to visit this man every two weeks and attempt to establish a relationship with him. M2/W2 organizers believed if a man doing time has a contact in the community outside the prison, he has a better chance of establishing healthier relationships and a more positive lifestyle when released. In time, teams of women would become involved in prisons for women. I was still a student at SFU and had decided that this prison visitation program would be interesting and might provide some insights for my sociology courses.

The first man I was matched with demonstrated little interest in anything. The years of successive terms in prison had seemingly sapped Rick’s humanity. He was never willing to speak about his family or upbringing, but almost certainly he came from an environment that did not nurture. Too many years behind bars had warped and hardened his thinking. Generating conversation with him immediately became my exclusive and difficult responsibility. He had no plans or ambitions that interested or excited him. When I asked a question or introduced a subject, he responded only briefly, his voice remaining flat and without even a hint of emotion.

Rick was paroled a few months later and quickly vanished, probably to the streets of Vancouver. In time I would learn that this was not uncommon. My next match was Pierre, who claimed he had been a lawyer in Quebec. Conversation with Pierre was easy. He loved to talk about his exploits, seemingly without pausing to catch a breath. I loaned him several prized books dealing with sociological issues. When I showed up for my next visit with him, I was told he had been sent back to Quebec. Apparently my books had made the trip with him. I hope he read them.

The men at Oakalla were doing provincial time, two years less a day (a deuce less, as they referred to it). Visiting Rick and Pierre provided me with a basic education concerning prison inmates, prison life and regulations. It also made me aware that other than resignation, bitterness and anger, this prison was indeed an emotional wasteland. These men had little experience with joy, delight or a sense of fulfillment.

Almost without exception, the men I had joined with to visit prisoners had church connections. Many were individuals with a deep faith. Knowing that Jesus had many times responded to cries for help from lepers, blind individuals, parents with sick children, people looking for a source of hope, etc. they believed they too had a responsibility to the less fortunate.

One contingent of men came from a conservative Mennonite church on Ross Rd. in what was then Matsqui Municipality. They were rigorous, resolute, caring men, farmers, teachers, trades people, businessmen. I came to respect them for their commitment and integrity. When they gave their word, it was like a signed contract with a lawyers stamp.

I got to know one of these men, Dan, quite well. A chicken farmer, he was pragmatic and discerning, a good match for Paul. Paul was about half Dan’s age and could have considered himself superior to this farmer who chose not to own a radio or television . He and Dan were at opposite ends of the spectrum in pretty much every respect. Paul had given his life to crime. Dan had devoted himself to his family, church, farm, and the local community. He valued honesty more than money.

Amazingly, a significant rapport developed between them, probably in part because Dan unreservedly accepted and valued Paul. Paul’s past criminal activities did not prevent Dan from recognizing that this young man was a human being with immense potential. When Paul was paroled, Dan invited him to live with him and his family. Paul agreed to this and over time came to see the value in Dan’s conservative views and lifestyle. Dan helped him find work and Paul was launched on the road to a productive life.

He did have to contend with temptation, though. One day he was on the freeway, intending to visit people and haunts from his unsavoury past.

Years later he said to me, “I was halfway to Vancouver. Then I started thinking about what I was leaving behind. I knew if I went there, I would never return.” He took the next exit and drove back to Dan’s farm.

At the church, he soon fell in love with a young woman who was quite happy to accept his proposal for marriage. In time he became a skilled, specialized roofer and his services were in high demand. Now, many years later, Paul and his devoted wife have three grown children and several grandchildren. Like the other men in the church he has grown a beard and, except for his quite non-Mennonite name, in faith, work ethic, integrity and appearance, he is a perfect fit.

Paul told me recently, “I never had a good relationship with my dad. Dan was like a father to me.”

Although Dan passed on some years ago, the memory of him lingers in my mind. The relationship between him and Paul, developed in Oakalla, helped me to understand that although an individual has known only crime, bitterness and failure, such a person can still experience a miraculous change.



Our Mentors At Menno Hospital

Menno Hospital Entrance
Menno Hospital Entrance

When Linda and I entered East 1 at Menno Hospital in Abbotsford this past Tuesday, Eagan and his wife Mary pulled up alongside us. Mary was pushing him in his wheelchair.

“Are you going to pray for us?” he asked in his soft voice. It seemed an unusual question, but I said “sure, I’ ll pray for you.” However, in the midst of nurses and care aides chatter, I had not understood him correctly. Linda informed me that he’d asked if I was going to play for them. Although I’m a very basic plunker, I had played piano for them many times during the 6 years my Dad was a resident there.

While I played some of the old tunes like “Red River Valley,” “Home on the Range,” “I’ll Give you a Daisy a Day” and “The Wabash Cannon Ball”, Linda visited with Hazel. Hazel has been in care at Menno for a number of years.

After 20 minutes I switched to hymns. As in the past, 91 year old John Boersma joined us with his pleasant, very robust voice. Linda had advised me beforehand that she did not plan to sing, but I was pleased that she had a change of mind, possibly thinking she couldn’t leave the singing just to John. Many of the residents, all in wheelchairs and most of them white haired, were at their various tables waiting for the green clad kitchen staff to arrive with lunch. Linda told me later that quite a few had been singing or tapping their fingers. John called me to the sound system mike and suggested I ask for God’s blessing on the food. I was happy to do this.

The food had not yet arrived so we visited briefly with as many residents as possible. I stopped at Ilya’s table but couldn’t be certain I knew who she was, even though we had talked many times in the past. Inevitably I had found her asleep in her chair, appearing ready to pass away. This day she was alert, cheerful and smiling. A little later Linda saw her bent over as usual, sleeping, but we’ d had our few minutes together.

A visitor came and said Susie wanted us to come and talk with her. She was in her wheelchair, facing away from us. I noticed that she was observing us in a round mirror she held in both hands. We learned that she is 91 and had come to Canada with her parents from Russia when she was 5. A pleasant lady with a surprisingly young face.

After several other brief visits, we made the trek down the hall to see Mrs. Dosanjh. Mr. Dosanjh was in the room and I greeted him in Punjabi. When we drew near to her bed, we realized that this once vibrant woman with a clear, strong voice no longer recognized us. I looked at Mr. Dosanjh and he lifted his hands in a gesture of sadness and futility.

We left Menno Hospital, once again reminded that it’s a blessing to be able to walk, to live in our own home, and to have each other. We were also again reminded of the solid character of these people. In spite of their circumstances, very few complain. Some voice their thanks to God for the wonderful life they have had. They seem to have decided to squeeze meaning and joy out of whatever days or years they will be given. In their outlook and attitude, they are mentors to us. We feel deeply privileged to know count them as friends.

My Dad’s Guatemalan Summer (part 1 of 2)

Dad didn’t actually go to Guatemala that summer in 1994. It just seemed that way. Although it’s somewhat of a stretch, I could say that Guatemala came to him.

When the Mennonite Central Committee told him about Hugo, a 36 year old man who worked on a hog farm and lived in his car, Dad knew someone had to do something. “Why not me?” he said. “The evenings are long when I’m here by myself. I have a 3 bedroom home, and I’m happy to share it with Hugo.”

Hugo walked in the first evening carrying everything he owned –

The Guatemalan Guest
The Guatemalan Guest

which was pretty much just the clothes he was wearing. Dad had supper waiting and over the meal, they began to talk – only to discover they didn’t understand each other well. Hugo’s English sounded more like a Guatemalan version of Spanish.

During the first couple of weeks they collaborated in developing a simple system of signs and words that enabled them to somewhat communicate. Neither seemed troubled if they weren’t understood. They were like 2 kids who haven’t yet learned they can’t communicate unless they speak the same language.

“Jake, you want?” Hugo would say, holding up his offering.
Sign language was unnecessary when Dad said, “Hugo, you want coffee?” Hugo was well acquainted with that word.

On work days, Hugo got up at 5 a.m. and prepared breakfast for himself and Dad. Often this was a fried egg, unbuttered toast, a spicy green pepper and black coffee. Since Dad had no reason to rise until whenever he awoke, his egg, unbuttered toast and black coffee retained not even the slightest hint of warmth. Only the green pepper was hot. Dad ate all but the pepper and did not complain. “I lived through the Dirty Thirties,” he told us. “My parents taught me to be grateful for whatever was placed on the table”.

At supper time it was Dad’s turn to cook. His specialty was vegetarian soups and pies. Except for his Guatemalan foods, Hugo had a teenager’s palette. He loved greasy foods, especially hamburgers and fries. He always praised Dad lavishly, smiling broadly and saying something like, “good food Jake. I like.” Dad did notice that Hugo didn’t eat much. “I don’t think he cares much for my cooking,” he told us. “He probably stops at McDonald’s on his way home”.

At the beginning of summer, Hugo said one day, “Jake, my mother, my sister. They want come visit Canada 2 weeks. Is alright they stay here?”

Dad knew Hugo’s ties to his family were tenuous. This might be an opportunity for him to mend fences. Two weeks would pass quickly and it would be interesting.

“Yes, Hugo,” he said, “they are welcome in my home.”
The mother and sister soon arrived. They spoke only Spanish, so Hugo needed to interpret everything in his improving, but still very basic English.

The two women considered it their duty to feed the men folk and immediately commandeered the kitchen. Very quickly, the fridge had a stock of food – some of which Dad had never seen before. Tortillas, tacos, burritos, enchiladas and more. He was surprised and pleased to find a meal, always ready on time.

Reflecting back now, I don’t think Dad ever learned what the mother’s name was. Although we guessed she was very close to his age, when he spoke of her, he referred to her as “the old mother”.

Dad was mystified by the ladies shopping activities. Virtually everyday, while Hugo was at work, the old mother and her daughter visited the local thrift shops. Often they returned with bulging shopping bags.

Because Hugo left early in the morning and usually returned late, Dad was at home alone with the two Spanish speaking ladies during the day. With limited success, they also learned to communicate by signs and gestures.

We remembered that Hugo had told Dad the ladies wanted to visit in Canada for two weeks. The time passed rapidly and when we expected they’d be leaving imminently, Linda & I invited Dad and his “Guatemalan family” for dinner. Over coffee and dessert, Linda innocently asked what day they were planning to leave.

The Old Mother’s response gave us an insight concerning Guatemalan time and culture.

“When someone goes on a holiday in our country,” she explained, speaking through Hugo, “it is necessary to bring a small gift for everyone. Now I have a room full of presents but it is too much to take on the plane. I will have to buy a truck and my other son will drive it back. We will go with him.”

My Dad’s Guatemalan Summer (part 2 of 2)

A few days later, Hugo provided Dad with another dilemma. His sister’s teenage daughter
wanted to come to Canada. “Can she stay for a little while Jake,” he asked?

Dad knew Hugo’s lovely black haired sister had six children. If one came, wasn’t it logical that all the others might come? And, would any of them ever leave?

We were beginning to realize that in Guatemala this was probably considered quite acceptable and usual. Since they had virtually adopted Dad, they were now all family. And when people have little, members of the family must help each other. Only by sharing can they survive.

Then Hugo’s sister was not around for a few days, so Dad asked about her. Hugo said she had gone to L.A. to be with a sister who lived there. She had not said good-bye to Dad because she had grown close to him and was afraid she would cry.

Now Dad had to deal with a cultural challenge. He, a widower, was well known and respected in his community. He had always tried to

The "Old Mother"
The “Old Mother”

set a standard that was above reproach. How would he explain having this woman, almost his own age, living in his house? Hugo was rarely at home anymore. It was not considered proper in his culture for a man and woman to live in the same house, outside the bonds of marriage.

For two more weeks Dad ate tortillas and tried to understand the mother’s Spanish. To avoid being in the house when she was at home, he devoted many hours to working on his yard. It was looking pretty spiffy.

One day when Hugo came home, he pulled into the driveway in a red 1979 Toyota pickup truck. It now seemed that the Old Mother would leave soon, but Hugo said, “brakes no good. My brother and I fix them when he has time from work.”

At the end of the sixth week, the truck was deemed road worthy, but Hugo’s brother couldn’t get enough time off from work yet. We were puzzled by the thought that the brother did not have time to fix the brakes, but he would have time to drive the red pickup all the way to Guatemala.

The Old Mother’s original two weeks in Canada had now stretched to almost eight weeks. It occurred to us that in Guatemala two weeks were apparently of indeterminate length. Fortunately Dad had long ago learned to appreciate and even enjoy unanticipated adventures.

Then, in the eighth week, Hugo came home from work one evening and said, “Jake, tomorrow my brother will come with the truck. He will take my mother to her village.”

At 9:00 the following morning, the brother came and began loading the red pickup. Dad was astounded at how much the Old Mother had managed to accumulate. When the brother had filled the truck box to capacity, he began jamming the remaining items into the cab of the truck. Would there be room for the Old Mother, Dad wondered. Maybe her plan was not to leave after all. Had she decided she wanted to stay in Canada? But there was a small space on the seat for her.

She came to Dad, holding a large, intricately woven Guatemalan straw hat with a bright red ribbon. Rather shyly she presented the hat to him, holding it with both hands. With tears in her eyes she said, “In my village you welcome to visit”. Then she added, “please, you take care my Hugo.”

Dad was surprised she had learned these words. He accepted the hat and placed it on his head. “Yes,” he said, “I will look after Hugo. He is like a son.”

Brushing away the tears still trickling down her cheeks, she climbed into the red Toyota and began the long trip to her village in Guatemala. She very likely believed she might never see her son again.

And so ended Dad’s Guatemalan summer.