Undaunted In Life’s Last Chapter

Anna’s life changed when she fell out of a cherry tree.
(photo from Mercer Orchards)

During the 6 years my Dad was in a longterm care facility, I observed that the dynamics here were similar to what I had seen in prisons. Some residents lost all hope and just sat inertly in their wheel chairs, unwilling to participate in group activities. A handful of undaunted residents demonstrated surprisingly purposeful responses to this final, difficult stage in life.

After Dad fell and broke his hip, he never walked again. The facility in which he was placed had about 200 residents, all in wheel chairs. The perimeter doors were securely locked and the long hallways were impersonal and uninspiring.

A lifelong fascination with music helped Dad become one of those who decided to employ the time profitably. He played the cello and on every visit I carried the instrument to the piano in the dining room and we made music. It was the beginning of a drama that pulled together some of those who refused to give up. Because I arrived on almost a daily basis, I had considerable opportunity to observe the interactions and in some cases to be drawn in.

I occasionally chatted with Edna, a petite, fragile appearing woman with long white hair. In her late seventies, her alert mind still craved stimulation. Wanting freedom, she had seven times cut the belt staff affixed around her to ensure she would not fall from her wheelchair.

One day during the music time she parked her chair immediately behind the piano bench on which I was sitting. When we finished playing, I stood up and turned toward her, quite unaware of her devious intent. Grasping my wrist firmly, she fixed her mischievous blue eyes on me and said, “kiss me.” Dumbfounded, my mind scrambled, searching for a way to extricate myself from this awkward situation. I said, “what did you say?” “Kiss me,” she repeated, but with greater urgency. I didn’t want to embarrass her with an outright refusal. Studying her face, which still retained vestiges of earlier beauty, an idea came. Leaning over, I pecked her lightly on the forehead. Apparently satisfied, she smiled impishly.

Elsie, an independent minded resident, had earned a reputation with staff as a troublesome agitator. Over the years MS had trapped her questioning spirit in a body that no longer responded to commands. She guided her electric wheelchair by manipulating a steering device with her chin. Each morning she adeptly maneuvered the chair into Dad’s room and said “good morning Jacob, how are you?” After a brief chat, she backed out and roamed the hallways and dining room, searching for issues to take up with staff. Sometimes she literally cornered me and talked about the latest injustice she had uncovered. The Head Nurse became wary and uneasy when she saw Elsie trundling down a corridor on a sleuthing expedition. She attempted to discourage Elsie’s ceaseless roaming, but Elsie could not be stopped. She saw and heard things the Head Nurse didn’t want exposed. Elsie was delighted at each opportunity to tell institutional secrets.

As a teen, Anna had fled with her parents from a Mennonite village in Russia to escape Stalin’s purges. Now 83, she had been confined to a wheelchair for several years after climbing a tree to pick cherries. When a branch broke, her aged body had not been able to withstand the hard landing.

Day after day she sat in her wheelchair in the dining room, observing, meditating, often smiling. A woman of deep faith in God, serene and wise. One day as I was about to leave after a brief visit, she placed her hand gently on mine. In her native Low German, she prayed a blessing on me. As I walked away, I wondered if Anna had a premonition that we would not speak again. Several days later she wasn’t in her usual place. I went to her room where she quietly lay, very near to drawing her final breath.

Now, some years later, I still think often of these stalwart individuals. They had been stripped of health, material possessions, the freedom to go where they pleased, in some cases even of family and friends. Still, though the flesh was weak, the spirit was willing, and they were undaunted in this last difficult chapter of their lives. To this time I continue to feel privileged to have been in their company and to have learned from them.

The Nelsons of Cawston

Phyllis & Fred Nelson

Sitting at a table among fruit laden trees in the midst of Fred and Phyllis Nelson’s Cawston orchard late this past summer, Linda and I felt embraced by their large family of neighbours and friends. The surrounding mountains outlined crisply against a pristine blue sky lent an aura of grandeur to the occasion. Scattered among the trees were about 200 people, all at tables, enjoying a delicious potluck meal. At the end of a protracted, dry summer, this was a welcome break in the routine of hard work. In the growing dusk, with talented musicians performing on stage, there seemed a pervasive sense of goodwill in the atmosphere.

Several very young boys with plastic shovels were digging vigorously in Fred’s potato patch. The expert manner in which they used their small shovels suggested they were offspring of local farmers.

Linda and I were intrigued by the Nelsons’ vision for this remarkable event. Wanting to know more, we returned to the orchard last week for a 2 hour conversation. “We’ve done this potluck annually for about 10 years,” Phyllis told us in reply to my question. “It’s a celebration of the harvest. We also celebrate music, and the fact we’ve been here another year. I get on the phone and invite our neighbours and friends. It’s strictly by invitation. There would be too many people if we opened it up.” We quickly grasped that she is a capable, proactive event planner.

I reminded Fred of seeing him shoo the youngsters out of his potato patch and asked if there are problems associated with the evening. “Digging up potatoes is not a permitted activity,” he said good-humouredly. “We spend a day preparing and another day cleaning up.”

Fred and Phyllis both grew up in Nelson, B.C., are only a few months apart in age and attended the same elementary school. “I became interested in Fred at age 8,” she said. “He wasn’t aware of me yet, but by age 13 we were dating.” Clearly Phyllis understood early how to make things fall into place.

After graduating in 1966, Fred trained in forestry at BCIT and Phyllis graduated from UVic with a degree in education. They were married at age 21. When their careers proved unfulfilling, they bought a VW bus and travelled for 26 months in Canada, the US and Mexico. Subsequently they fell in love with Cawston and rented the house in which they now live.

In time they were able to buy the house and a 10 acre portion of the orchard on which it is situated. The orchard was old and not producing an income. It would demand all the qualities normally required for success in any difficult endeavour. Their patience, perseverance and belief would be tested repeatedly. Fortunately Brian Mennell, a neighbour across the street, offered Fred employment and instruction in orcharding.

By this time they had 2 sons, Forrest and Pharron. Life became a financial scramble. Phyllis taught school and gave private piano lessons. Fred for some years was the water bailiff for the Fairview Irrigation District. He also did carpentry.

In 1996 they took what must have seemed a hazardous plunge into the unknown. Fred went into orcharding full-time. In the coming years they would encounter late frosts that destroyed blossoms, cold weather, crop destroying hail and much more. Lately, due to global warming there are new pests that destroy fruit and trees. All problems familiar to farmers. Their decision would require them to become a team forged together by love, trust, commitment and strength of character. They could not falter when disaster threatened.

Fred & Phyllis Nelson

I began a l0 year orchard development program,” Fred said. “Each year I took out one acre of trees and replanted with a variety of fruits, especially apples. I also switched to organic growing. For this I needed specialized equipment and materials. We are the only ones in the valley growing organic Aurora apples. They are particularly sweet, but delicate and require great care.”

Pherron Nelson (centre) & helpers packing organic aurora apples.

Now close to retirement, they will soon sell the orchard to Pharron and his wife, who already live and work on the property. Their other son, Forrest and his partner, also live in the Cawston area, and grow organic vegetables. Fred and Phyllis look forward to a slower pace and spending more time with their grandchildren. “I’m amazed at how quickly the years have flown by,” Phyllis said. Fred nodded agreement.

The Passing of Hugh Hefner and John Boersma

Hugh Hefner (April 9, 1926 – September 27, 2017) photo from Wikipedia

My friend John Boersma and Playboy empire founder Hugh Hefner had both attained the 9th decade when they passed away in September. This was pretty much all they had in common. John’s exit received little attention outside his very loyal circle of friends. Hefner had a following around the globe and for a couple of days, local and international media avidly interviewed anyone who had ever known him. I wondered about the impact of their lives.

Hugh Hefner is principally known for his Playboy Magazine and the 29 room Playboy Mansion. The former was first published in December, 1953, with Marilyn Monroe on the front cover. It became famous for its centerfold. Each issue featured a dazzlingly lovely young woman sporting an exquisite, flawless, totally nude body.

John Boersma (November 29, 1922 – September 17, 2017) photo from Dignity Memorial.

When John Boersma was a young man, a woman exposing her body publicly was considered unseemly. This was certainly true in the conservative culture in which he lived. He attained a trade, worked diligently, got married and with his wife Theresa raised 3 children. They sought to instill sound values and modeled stability.

In the mean time, Hugh Hefner was embarking on an amazingly, hedonistic life style. He established the Playboy Mansion and surrounded himself with “bunnies,” gorgeous young women he invited to live with him in the mansion. He dated up to 7 women at a time, had 5 partners over the years, plus numerous girlfriends. Into this confusing mix, he added 3 marriages. His third wife, Crystal Harris, was 26 and he was 86 when they married.

John Boersma was already in his 80’s when I met him at a longterm care facility where he visited Theresa daily. She had drifted into dementia, which might have persuaded some men to part company. Not John though. Even when she lost all speech, probably didn’t recognize him, and needed to be fed, he continued to call her “sweetie” and spend the entire day with her. When she rested, John cheered up other residents, encouraging them, often whistling a tune, adding his deep baritone to a musical group, sometimes taking a female resident’s chair and dancing with her. His zest for life raised morale and brought joy.

Hefner’s Playboy magazine lured men into a very different lifestyle. The centerfold caused their hormones to flutter erratically and dance in excited anticipation. I never did buy a copy but as a teen I occasionally slipped into the local pharmacy and surreptitiously viewed the beauty of the month. Payment of $25,000 persuaded many cash strapped lovelies to disrobe for the Playboy camera.

There’s a meticulously crafted sense of mystique around the mansion, the magazine, and Hefner himself. The Playboy empire is deliberately portrayed as a glamorous, magical kingdom with Hefner in the role of Playboy Prince. The alluring imagery is calculated to lead people to believe they’re missing something essential, and to long for that elusive ingredient.

As seen from outside the Mansion, it is indeed a glamorous and enticing lifestyle. According to several former Hefner playmates however, the reality was not as enchanting as the public image. Holly Madison, for 6 years Hefner’s #1 girlfriend, presented a more somber view in Down the Rabbit Hole. In its promotion of the book, publisher Harper Collins wrote “What seemed like a fairy tale life quickly devolved into an oppressive routine of strict rules, manipulation and battles with ambitious, backstabbing bunnies. Life inside the notorious mansion wasn’t a dream at all, and quickly became her nightmare.”

In Bunny Tales, Izabella St. James, another former Hefner girlfriend wrote, “ Every Friday morning we had to go to Hef’s room, wait while he picked up all the dog poo off the carpet, and then asked for our one thousand dollar weekly allowance. He used the money to control us. We all hated the process.” St. James described the mansion as decrepit. “The mattresses on our beds were disgusting – old, worn and stained. The whole business was built on the bodies of nude women.”

There are always some who push the bar lower. Flamboyant individuals like Hugh Hefner are able to have a destabilizing impact on our society, because the media love to feature them and we are willing to be tempted. People like John Boersma do not exude the same charm or charisma, but they set for themselves a high standard of morality and decency. They are worthy role models for us all.


John van Dongen On Life And Politics

John van Dongen

In a drenching downpour on a Saturday morning in 1995, I huddled under an umbrella with a ragtag group of local citizens picketing a mushroom composting complex on Lefeuvre Road in the Fraser Valley. A car stopped alongside the roadway and MLA John van Dongen stepped out. Standing under a large umbrella he explained the Farm Practices Act and answered our questions. As the Liberal Agricultural Critic, he was a staunch supporter of farming in the province.

In the ensuing months we had further conversations with him and he came to understand our concerns about the stench emanating from mushroom plants at several locations in Abbotsford. Last week I called him at his home in Abbotsford and he agreed to talk about his early years, his time as an MLA and Minister in the provincial government and the recent Darryl Plecas decision.

His beginnings were humble. “I was born 5 months after my parents came to Canada from Holland in 1949,” he said. “They had $219.00 to get started. In 1951 they bought a little swampy farm, probably with loans from family and friends. I didn’t know much English when I started grade one.”

John’s parents were Catholic. “My siblings and I were taught all the basic virtues of the Christian faith,” he said. “I attended a Catholic school and two teachers, both nuns, had a positive influence on my life. Initially I had serious thoughts about becoming a priest. I attended the Seminary of Christ the King, part of the Westminster Abbey at Mission. After 2 years, I realized I didn’t have a calling to be a priest.”

My father was a farmer, and by age 16 I decided I wanted to be a farmer too. We’d come running home from school, put on work clothes and go to the barn. My father expected us to work hard.”

At UBC he studied Agricultural Economics, still intent on farming. After his third year, the Ministry of Agriculture hired him as an Assistant Dairy Farm Inspector in summer. “I was 20,” he said, “but I looked 16. That’s when I started growing a beard.”

By 1975 he was renting a small dairy farm in Dewdney. He later bought the 135 acre dairy farm that he still operates with the help of his nephew, who is gradually taking over the family farm. In 1979, at age 29, his political education began as a member of the board of Dairyland. “I read a lot about corporate governance, and I learned from 3 senior Directors”. He was particularly influenced by Peter Friesen, an Abbotsford dairy and poultry farmer. “I held Peter’s hand when he was on his deathbed.”

John van Dongen on the dairy farm.

When Liberal MLA Harry deJong resigned his Abbotsford seat in 1994, John was nominated to replace him and he won the 1995 by-election. “I wanted government to be relevant to the people,” he said. “I tried to educate citizens about their rights. My constituency office worked with people on issues like child protection and income assistance. I would offer to come to the family home to learn about the problem. To be more effective on behalf of constituents, I worked to have constructive relationships with (NDP) government ministers.”

He developed a reputation for following through on commitments and returning phone calls. In regard to the mushroom composting issue I mentioned at the outset, John worked closely with Corky Evans, then Agriculture Minister. When I called Corky at his home and asked for his memory of this matter, he said, “John and I didn’t care about the politics. We just wanted to get the job done.”

The Liberals formed government in 2001. As Minister of Agriculture, John stickhandled through the Avian flu crises and the disastrous “mad cow” disease. Then, as Solicitor General he worked patiently with the federal government and also the Americans, to bring in the Enhanced Drivers Licence. He had been warned the Americans would never accept this.

At the end of our marathon telephone conversation, I asked about Darryl Plecas’ controversial decision to become Speaker of the Legislature. “Darryl took a 50% cut in pay to become an MLA,” he said. “Money wasn’t the motivation. He knew people didn’t want another election.”

When John van Dongen declined to support Christy Clark’s leadership, this decision ended his political career. For him it was a matter of integrity and ethics. The outcome of the recent provincial election suggests a lot of British Columbians agree.

My Dad’s Guatemalan Summer

Elderly Guatemalan Woman, photo by nationalsterotype.com

My gentle, white haired Dad didn’t actually go to Guatemala that summer in 1994. It just seemed that way. When the Mennonite Central Committee told him about Hugo, a 36 year old Guatemalan man who worked on a hog farm and lived in his car, Dad knew someone must do something. “I have much to be thankful for,” he said. “I’m living alone in a 3 bedroom home. He is welcome.”

Hugo walked in that first evening carrying his few belongings. Dad had supper waiting and over the meal they began to talk, but Hugo’s sketchy English made communication difficult.

During the first couple of weeks they collaborated in developing a simple system of signs and words. They were like 2 kids who haven’t yet learned communication requires a common language.

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

On work days Hugo got up at 5 a.m. and prepared breakfast for himself and Dad, often a fried egg, unbuttered toast, a spicy green pepper and coffee. By the time Dad woke, the food retained not even the slightest hint of warmth. Only the green pepper was hot. Dad ate all but the pepper, without complaint. “I lived through the Dirty Thirties,” he told us. “I was taught to be grateful for whatever was placed on the table.”

At supper it was Dad’s turn to cook. His specialty was vegetarian soups and pies. Except for Guatemalan foods, Hugo had a teenager’s palette. He loved greasy foods, especially burgers and fries. He always praised Dad lavishly, smiling broadly and saying “good food, Jake. I like.” Dad noticed though that Hugo ate little. “I don’t think he cares for my cooking,” he said. “I’m sure he stops at McDonald’s on his way home.”

At the beginning of summer, Hugo said, “Jake, my mother, my sister. They want come visit Canada 2 weeks. Is alright they stay here?” Dad knew Hugo’s family ties were tenuous. This might be an opportunity to mend fences. “Yes, Hugo,” he said. “They are welcome.”

The mother and sister soon arrived. They spoke only Spanish, so Hugo needed to interpret in his still skeletal English. The two women quickly commandeered the kitchen. Soon the fridge was stocked with ingredients to prepare tortillas, tacos, burritos, enchiladas and more. Dad was pleased.

Virtually every day, while Hugo was at work, the old mother and her daughter visited local thrift shops. They returned with bulging shopping bags. Because Hugo left early in the morning and usually returned late, Dad was often at home with the two ladies. They were learning English, but initially communication was primarily by signs and gestures.

We remembered that Hugo had told Dad the ladies wanted to stay two weeks. The time passed rapidly and when we expected they’d be leaving imminently Linda and 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 provided insight into Guatemalan time and culture. “In our village, when someone goes on a holiday,” she explained, speaking through Hugo, “it is necessary to bring a small gift for everyone. I have too many presents for the plane. I will buy a truck and my other son will drive it back. We will go with him.”

When Hugo’s sister unexpectedly left for L.A., Dad faced a new challenge. It was not considered proper in his Mennonite culture for a man and woman to live in the same house outside the bond of marriage. How would he explain this woman, almost his own age, living in his house? He devoted many hours to working on his yard. It was looking pretty spiffy.

Several weeks later Hugo arrived driving a red 1979 Toyota pickup truck. “Brakes no good,” he said. “My brother Otto fix when he has time.”

In the eighth week Otto arrived in the pickup. When he had loaded the truck, the Old Mother came to Dad and gave him a large straw hat with a red ribbon. With tears in her eyes she said, “In my village you welcome to visit.” Then she added, “Please, you take care my Hugo.”

Yes,” Dad said. “He is like a son.” She climbed into the truck, tears on her cheeks. And so ended my Dad’s Guatemalan summer.