Funeral Announcements

We’re each supposed to recite a poem after the horseshoes tournament. It will make Oma happy, we’ve been told. Ideally, we’re supposed to do it from memory. This may be why three of my Plett cousins have come down with mysterious summer colds and have texted our grandmother at the last minute saying they can’t make it to the family picnic this year after all. I, however, have a poem all prepared.

It’s one my grandfather wrote about a young man who turns to God after a dangerous encounter with a mother bear and is something of a legend among the Pletts. It’s called ‘Bearing it All Before the Lord’ and is based, to some degree, on an actual incident Opa had in the Sandilands Forest equipped with only his mushroom-picking knife and an ice-cream pail full of Chanterelles. About thirty years ago, it won ‘Honorable Mention’ in the annual Reader’s Digest literary contest. The poem, and the accompanying story of its near publication in Reader’s Digest, has been recounted so often at family gatherings that all of us have it memorized.

“A bucket in hand, a knife in the other/ I encountered a cub and with him his mother/ I turned for a moment and looked at the bear/ Then glanced up to the Heavens and offered a prayer.”

For a man who spoke Plautdietsch most of his life, we found his mastery of the English language impressive. The fact that the name Johan Plett was listed with a hundred others on the back page of the only secular magazine we were permitted to read, inspired all us grandchildren to write. Of course, we didn’t have the same vast array of bear encounters upon which to draw, but that didn’t stop us from trying to string together a few lines. It’s what we used to do at family gatherings after the obligatory German hymn sing.

Most of my cousins have long ago given up the dream of replicating Opa’s literary success. I, however, have kept on with the writing thing, only I haven’t really lived up to the expectations I had as a child, either. These days I write radio copy. You know, the funeral announcements? “Martha Wiebe. 78. Passed away peacefully in her sleep on Tuesday. She is survived by her eight children: Johan, Anne, Aganetha, Helen, Cornelius, Art, Peter and Mary. She was predeceased by her husband Abe, who died suddenly while handing out church bulletins.” It’s the same thing every day.

Jake is one of the few cousins here and I can see its disappointing to Oma, but, to be honest, these picnics have been waning in attendance for decades. This year the excuse was summer colds. Last year a bunch of them were afraid of getting something called West Nile virus. Apparently, the only way to avoid it is to sit around at home eating Doritos and binge-watching Game of Thrones.

Jake is tall and prematurely balding, but he can toss one hell of a horseshoe. He’s a tough man. A hog farmer. It’s what all the Pletts used to do before most of us moved into town and got jobs in offices. He says they do it differently now. Artificial insemination. There isn’t even a boar involved in the whole process anymore. That’s what Jake says anyway. Although his older brother Kjnels corrects him and says that there actually is a boar involved, only that procedure takes place in some other barn very far away where they specialize in just the boar end of things.

“It’s not like it was in the old days,” Jake says. “Very high tech these days. Clean, too.”

It isn’t often we get a chance to catch up like this. Just Christmas really, if Sarah and I aren’t in the Dominican, and then this annual picnic at the Sandilands every summer where we’re supposed to play horseshoes and reminisce about our childhoods when none of us had any knowledge of the goings on in hog barns and we all were significantly less skilled at the game of horseshoes. In those days, Jake could barely get a leaner, let alone a ringer. Now he’s a real pro.

“The prices fluctuate too much, though,” Jake says. “That’s the one thing I don’t like about the industry.”

We count the points. Jake has one leaner, worth two, and another one within six inches of the stake, for a total of three. Normally, this would have meant things were all over and I could let Uncle Henry play the winner, but Jake immediately suggests a rematch. I’m not much competition, but he wasn’t finished telling me about the hogs.

“We were thinking about setting up a farrow-to-finish barn, but the cost was prohibitive. Too much red tape,” he says. “I think we’ll stick with the feeder barn for now and maybe in five years or so we can think about making a change.”

I walk over to the pit to gather my horseshoes. A few have gone way off course.

“So, you have your poem ready?” I ask.

“Of course.”

He hands me a sheet of paper. 'Bearing it All Before the Lord' by Johan Plett. It was ripped straight from the Reader’s Digest.

“So, I guess we should have arranged this ahead of time,” I say. “You’ll have to choose something else I’m afraid.”

Jake says he doesn’t have any other options and why don’t we play a game of horseshoes for it. “Whoever gets the next ringer can recite the poem.”

I don’t really like the idea, because Jake is so much better at the game than I am, but I reluctantly agree with one slight modification.

“How about if Kjnels throws for me?” I ask.

There is some discussion about this and it does seem to impede on everyone’s sense of fairness and legitimacy of the whole enterprise, but at the same time neither Jake nor Kjnels can pass up an opportunity to out-throw his brother.

“Fine, if Kjnels can get a ringer before I do, then you can say Opa’s poem.”

So, I stand aside and let my tall sweaty cousins take over. Kjnels demands to throw first and I think his eagerness contributes to his errant shot, which sails well past the pit.

“I let go too early,” he says, shrugging his shoulders.

Now it’s Jakes turn. He digs his feet firmly in the sand and takes a deep breath. He looks squarely at the peg, draws back his arm and releases, the horseshoe floating perfectly through the air and landing in the dead center of the peg. A perfect shot.

The contest is over. Kjnels apologizes and looks downtrodden and embarrassed and now I’m stuck without a poem. I pat him on the shoulder, but it’s really he who should be comforting me.

When the time comes for the poetry recital, I have absolutely nothing prepared. Jake’s recitation has got them all teary eyed and now I really know what I’ll do, but all my aunts and uncles and Oma Plett and all the cousins who dared to attend are looking at me expectantly. There’s smoke in my eyes from the campfire, so I move a little, but it just seems to chase me. Finally, I haul out my phone and scroll a little.

“I’m sorry. It’s not memorized. This is all I have. I’m really sorry. Next year I’ll have something better,” I say, chasing the smoke from my face. Then I begin, slowly and solemnly with a quiver in my voice. “Martha Wiebe. 78. Passed away peacefully in her sleep on Tuesday. She is survived by her eight children…”

I stop, but they’re still looking in my direction and Uncle Earl is wiping mustard off his shirt and smiling. Oma is nodding her head.

“Well, uhh, she is survived by her eight children: Johan, Anne, Aganetha, Helen, Cornelius, Art, Peter and Mary. She was predeceased by her husband Abe, who died suddenly while handing out church bulletins. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Mennonite Brethren Church gymnasium expansion fund.”

I apologize again and I sit down next to Oma and say that next year I’ll be better prepared. I also say that I need to work on my horseshoes. She nods.

“A lovely poem,” she says, placing her hand on mine. “And yes, we all could stand to work on our horseshoes.”

“I’ll do better next year,” I repeat.

She says something about how she’s not so sure there’ll be a picnic next year and I’m not certain whether she’s referring to the low turnout or her own mortality and I don’t have the heart to ask, so I just say, “Oh, I’m sure it will be a great picnic next year.”

Now the poetry is all over and the uncles are starting a new match already and talking about the price of flax these days and the aunts are cleaning up/eating the leftover platz and my grandma and I are the only ones left around the fire. She looks at me without speaking and I look at her and I don’t know what to say, but it’s okay. I know that I probably missed my last chance to recite a poem for her and somehow, I also know, her hand resting on mine, that it really doesn’t matter.

About the Author

Andrew Unger

Andrew Unger is a writer and educator from Steinbach, Manitoba, best known as the author and founder of the Mennonite satire website The Daily Bonnet. A novel by Andrew Unger is forthcoming in 2020.