What started me down this path is not what I want to write about. Not because the trigger isn’t important, but, rather, because it serves no purpose at this point to tell it.
Over the course of several weeks, maybe even months, it gnawed at my mind, until finally it pushed me to explore a place deep within. I have spent years knowing that there is somewhat of a disconnect inside of me. I have even blogged about it, superficially, in the past.
But it is hard to explore what does not exist–that ‘something’ that isn’t there, deep inside of me–and find answers to the root of something you don’t know where, or when, it began. So, in that sense, what I did this week was a bit of an exercise in futility, as far as finding any answers is concerned, but the process still ended up being valuable.
I left on Tuesday, for the area and community of my childhood, dating back to when we first moved to Canada. I was only five, then, going on six. In that place one event took place, about a year after our arrival in Canada, that changed my life forever. Returning to the place of that tragedy, I thought I might find something to explain the disconnect and, by reconnecting to that memory, I hoped it might awaken that ‘something’ within me, if it was merely dormant…
I arrived in the ‘hick town’ after dark, and parked across the street from our old home. Everything was peaceful and quiet, with no one in sight, except for one gentleman. He came to the car, to make sure I was okay, and immediately recognized me from a previous visit Corinth. We chatted for a moment, before he wished me a good night, and left me to personal pondering.
I have made peace with my past, with my childhood, and with all the people involved in my story. At least within myself. I am who I am, in part, because of the things that happened. The good. The bad. And the tragic. I have no regrets, on that front.
But grief comes, from time to time, in realizing that there are certain consequences that impact my mind, and my emotions–or the lack of them–to this day. This is not all bad, to be sure. Something of having survived great tragedy as a child, and developing a strong mind, and resilient spirit, actually equips me for the work I do with victims of abuse and violence, and individuals struggling with self harm, sometimes in very violent forms. Things that some medical professionals, and counsellors cannot handle, I work through with people, and help them break their addictions.
Whatever it is, about how my mind learned to handle trauma in childhood, I thank God for this ‘gift’. But in the day-to-day, this extreme desensitization has some negatives, and causes me to ‘shut down’ in situations where I should feel pain. I hoped that revisiting the single greatest trauma, that I can consciously recall, would help me understand what happens inside of me.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’ve read stories, listened to people share in person. But each person is unique, in how we process experience, information and the revisiting of past trauma. I sat there, for some time, just staring at the house, listening to the song that was next on my playlist, immediately after parking my car. ‘Jeremiah 29:11’, by Dan & Melissa David.
The tears started, for a few moments, not so much for the tragedy that was then, as for the way it plays into the present. The ways it leaves me feeling vulnerable, and helpless and, I fear, impacts the next generation. Sitting there I realized that, while the event was tragic, it wasn’t the answer to my struggle. Whatever shut down inside of me, had shut down long before that day. That day simply made me stronger, more than a survivor. That day made me an overcomer, and gave me the courage to do what I do today. If it caused any part of the disconnect, it was only a small part.
Just as quickly as the tears had started, the calm returned. I listened to ‘Even If’ by Kutless, and asked myself a few hard questions, based on that song. Can I accept if this is simply the consequence of early childhood? Can I trust God and let Him use me, and my broken story, even if the healing never really comes? If I remain, in some way, fragmented because of what once was, will I still trust Him? Trust Him with my life, with my children, and with their future?
I left Corinth, with no answers. I needed some sleep. I crashed at the Comfort Inn, in St. Thomas, at a special rate. That pleased me, since it was late, and I knew I would do nothing more that unmake the bed, and grab breakfast in the morning. If that.
Wednesday morning, I woke up bright and early, ready to face another day, whatever that day would bring. I had a list of things I wanted to do, places I wanted to go, but not a defined order of things. I’m spontaneous, in this kind of excursion, and follow my instincts.
After showering, I discovered that it is possible to do your hair without any products, and using only hotel shampoo and a lame hairdryer. I had deliberately left all of that behind, and had taken only the very bare necessities. It took a bit longer, but I was happy with the outcome, and felt reasonably presentable. I didn’t plan to see people I knew, other than my mom, if time allowed, and she had seen me in worse shape.
Breakfast was next on the agenda. The tables were filled, all but one, so I set my coffee and orange juice at the empty table, before getting eggs, sausage, and an English muffin.
Being in a quiet, contemplative mood, I was glad to be alone with my thoughts. No one to converse with. That pleasantry vanished when a chipper voice greeted me with a ‘Good morning!’, followed moments later by another. I quickly discovered that in a small town you pretend you’re family, when you’re just passing through. I found myself answering to, “Where are you from?… What do you do?…” and various other chatterings.
While waiting for my English muffin to pop up, I turned to see an elderly woman in search of a place to sit. She stood next to my table, looking at my drinks, then looking around to see whom it might belong to. My quiet contemplations were clearly not about to return.
“Go ahead, Ma’am’,” I said, cheerfully, “I don’t mind if you join me for breakfast.” If you can’t beat them, join them.
“Are you sure?” she said, more to be polite than anything else, as she set herself in motion to sit. She called her husband over, and stopped him from taking my spot. “No, no, there’s a lady already sitting there,” she chided, “Those are her drinks. You have to sit over here.”
A bossy one, I decided, but sweet doing it. Nothing I’m capable of… (Just don’t ask my family.) I seated myself, moments later, across from the elderly couple. In the next thirty minutes I learned that they are from Kincardine, have a brother in Elmira, who owns Double E Esso station five minutes from my home, and they would visit him on the weekend for an anniversary celebration. Their tiny daughter-in-law was a perfect catch for their son, taking on any and every task on the farm, as well as being a licensed chef who makes everything from scratch, even cake.
Almost sounded like a Mennonite ‘chickie’, I thought to myself. I can do all those things too. Most of us can, because it’s how we are raised. Run a skidsteer one minute, and pound the bread dough the next, and while the dough is rising you whip together a dress. It’s not that I wasn’t interested, it’s just that it sounded, well, ‘normal’, to me. Still, their enthusiasm and their love for their daughter-in-law was delightful.
I learned that he constantly misplaces things, and she is overly organized, and that he’s gained a dreadful amount of weight over the years, while she gained almost nothing. “I’ve always been a big, solid girl,” she said.
By the time I finished my breakfast, which turned out to be much tastier than I expected, I had learned more about their life and family than I know about some people I’ve known for years. And I was ready to be alone with my thoughts and music.
Leaving the hotel, I headed down Talbot Line, toward Aylmer, then wandered some back roads to Corinth. On Springer Hill Road, heading toward Best Line, a name on a mailbox caught my eye, Roger Wolfe. I was taken completely off guard. If it was the Roger Wolfe I knew in childhood, then it was the son of the woman to whom we had gone for safety, on that fateful day, for which I had returned.
It was too late to turn in the driveway, so I went to the next farm, where I would have turned around, if I had not been twice surprised by the name on that mailbox. C Wolfe, it read. It was all a bit surreal. I drove past that one too, more because of the shock than anything.
At the next property I turned around, and went back to the place that said Roger Wolfe. I knocked on the door. A jack russel went berserk inside. Who needs a doorbell? I waited. The dog settled somewhat. I knocked again. The dog went twice as crazy. A woman pulled back the curtain, peered suspiciously at me, then opened the door a crack. It was all to reminiscent of that morning, when I was seven…
I introduced myself, and asked if her husband’s family was from Corinth, and said I would like to find Mrs. Wolfe. I didn’t know Mrs. Wolfe’s first name, never had. She was always Mrs. Wolfe to me. The lady said her husband was from Corinth, and the woman I was looking for was likely his mother. She lived one farm over. I should be able to find her there, if I popped by. I thanked her, and apologized for disturbing her. She had said she was only home because she wasn’t feeling well.
The next farm over I knocked on the door again. There was no doorbell. And no jack russel either. I waited. And waited. Then knocked again. No one came to the door. I felt a bit let down. I was sure seeing Mrs. Wolfe would do me good. I could thank her in person for her kindness, and tell her the impact she had on my life, many years ago, and that I never forgot. I could tell her she made it into my book, and that I have probably never done a conference without mentioning her. She was so good to me, to our family. Obviously it wasn’t meant to be. I drove on, toward Corinth.
Back in the little hick-town, I drove to the dead end, on our street, parked, and wandered to the railroad track. How I loved, as a child, to count the train cars, as many as into the one hundred and thirties, or higher. We often ran and waved, and the conductor indulged us by blasting the whistle.
The distance to the track was much shorter than I recalled it. A train went by, but had only a few cars. Back then, we put pennies on the track, for trains to flatten them, and collected them after, if we could find them after the train was safely past. Now we don’t even have pennies any more.
I turned to leave. A gentle rain had started, and the distant thunder warned of more to come. Maybe even a good old-fashioned thunderstorm with it. It was then that I saw a woman looking out the window, in the house beside where I parked my car. She was probably concerned. I walked to her door, knocked, introduced myself, and explained my wandering about the area. Her name was Betty.
Many years ago, my little girlfriend had lived in what is now Betty’s house, and the two of us had an arrangement that our mothers never knew of. I loved to read, so she handed me bags and bags of ‘Highlight’ Magazines, through her basement window so her mother wouldn’t know, and I hid them in our home. In exchange, I filled bread bags with mom’s baking and handed it to her as payment for the books.
Betty and I must have chatted at least half an hour, during which time we discovered that my father and her grandfather were good friends, and died only days apart. I had been in her grandfather’s home, and remembered their family well. He was a kind-hearted minister, maybe even bishop, in the Old Colony church. Mr. Cornelius Enns.
By the time I started my car, she had found me on Facebook, and sent me a friend request.
I stopped at our former home. In times past, when I returned, I had stayed a distance, partly out of respect, and partly out of personal reserve about returning to a place that held so much trauma. This time I jumped out of the car, and walked to the front door. I knocked and, wouldn’t you know it, a jack russel went berserk inside. The advantage to a doorbell is that you don’t have to feed it. But the jack russel is far more persistent, and effective.
A woman, several years my senior, appeared at the door. I introduced myself, said I had lived in the house many years ago. She apologized, said she’d invite me in, if the house wasn’t a mess. She had just returned to work, she said, and was behind on housework. I thanked her, and said I hadn’t any such expectation, but would it be okay if I was outside in the neighbourhood. I wouldn’t make a nuisance of myself. There were memories here, and some needed revisiting.
Moments later she asked me to step inside, told me to overlook the mess. We’d stay downstairs, it wasn’t as bad. Time was lost to me, but I think it was a good hour later, when we had gone through the downstairs, out the back, around the yard–where I took some pictures, and remembered the old sow we kept out back. The garden with the gazebo, she said with great pride, had only cost her twenty dollars, picking things up, here and there, and creating the ‘heaven’. The old trees stood as proud and strong, as they did that memorable day.
Back inside, she said she would take me upstairs. “You got this far, we might as well go upstairs,” she said, having shaken the pride that prevented her from letting me in, at first.
I walked into my old bedroom. The place it all began, that morning, in 1976…. Rather than retell it, I will share an excerpt from my manuscript, ‘Dancing in the Shadows of the Lost Light’:
My older siblings were out in the fields, picking cucumbers, when I awoke to Dad gently rocking my shoulder and saying my name, in German.
I opened my eyes, rubbed them, and sat up, squinting against the morning light, as I tried to focus.
Dad was not a man to waste his footsteps. He wasn’t a lazy man, by any means, but he made good use of the booming voice God gave him. If he was to wake us up in the morning, he did so by yelling from the bottom of the stairs so loudly that he jump-started the whole family’s hearts all at once. This particular morning is the only memory I have of Dad waking me, using any other method. His voice was calm and steady, gentle and persuasive. It was all very strange.
“Go to the neighbours’ and tell Mom to come home,” he instructed.
Vaguely I recall a bit of conversation, but the details are replaced by the nightmare that day would become. Whatever the exchange, Dad spoke with the same uncharacteristic gentleness, urging me to go quickly to our neighbours, the Wolfe’s, and tell Mom to rush home.
Back then, our summer sleepwear consisted of a home-made ‘slip’ type nightgown. In the morning we simply pulled our dresses over top. Dad helped me get into my dress, buttoned it down the back, and again told me to hurry and get Mom.
At the neighbours’ all curtains were drawn, even the little one on the front door. When I knocked, Mrs. Wolfe pulled back the curtain a tiny crack and peeked out.
Why was everything so strange? And why was everyone acting so weird? Mrs. Wolfe removed the deadbolt, pulled me in the door quickly, almost roughly, and immediately dead bolted the door again behind me.
“Dad said that my Mom is here and I am supposed to tell her to come home quickly,” I explained.
Even as I spoke, Mrs. Wolfe led me around the corner to the sitting room. It was the TV room, where we occasionally were granted permission, by my reluctant and conservative parents, to watch cartoons at Mrs. Wolfe’s invitation. I loved those mornings.
This morning there were no cartoons. Mom was huddled in the farthest corner on a sofa, wringing her hands, with my next younger sister, Eva, sitting beside her. Mom looked an unhealthy grey colour.
As I took it all in, Mrs. Wolfe explained that Mom had been making bread when Dad announced he was going to get his rifle to shoot her. He then planned to shoot the children who were at home, before going to the field to shoot the rest of his family.
We would have to wait until police officers came before we could return home.
The officers arrived some time later. The older officer, with greying hair, explained that they had talked with Dad, calmed him down, and had removed all weapons from our property. They believed it was safe for us to go back home.
The younger officer smiled, patted my head gently, and chatted with me for a moment before they left. I don’t remember what he said, but I felt safe, loved. When they were gone, we returned home.
My dad wasn’t a drinking man, more than an occasional beer. But that day dad found comfort in a bottle of whiskey, drinking himself to oblivion, and then took to belting out gospel hymns in drunken irony. Half the neighbourhood could hear his deep, albeit slurred, baritone, as he sang, “Ich geh’ den schmalen Lebensweg…”
The English equivalent would be, “I go the straight and narrow way.” And in his state, taking the lyrics literally, neither straight, nor narrow, would have been a successful walk had he been asked to attempt such a thing. Spiritually he wasn’t in much better shape.
At one point he staggered into the house long enough to vomit all over the kitchen on his way to the bathroom. He left Mom to clean up after him—as though she didn’t have enough to do with 5 of us children at home, ages 6 and under.
I manoeuvred carefully the rest of the day, watching around every corner, determined to stay a safe distance from him. This worked well until mid-afternoon. I tiptoed through the abandoned half of our house, what had once been a store of some sort and a post office. It had become our creepy hide-and-seek space, where boxes of musty clothes and hand-me-downs were stored. Garbage bags upon garbage bags of clothing filled one small room. These clothes were donated to my mother by sympathetic neighbours, wanting to help dress her dozen or so children who still lived at home. With many rooms to hide in and old furniture sitting here and there, it lent itself to many delightfully terrifying moments as we competed to ‘out-scare’ each other.
For that reason alone, this part of the house had me on edge and moving quickly, yet cautiously. We never knew where another sibling might be waiting to jump out and grab us and, even though I knew my siblings were in the field, the fear associated with the space was very present. As I neared the half-way mark, listening closely for any creaking of floorboards, or footsteps, with heightened sensitively, there was a sudden loud snort—a snore gone very wrong.
I froze, standing there as if in a tableau vivant. There to my left, asleep on the couch, was my drunken father. Fearing that any movement on my part would awaken him and earn me a beating, I remained motionless for what seemed an eternity, until his breathing returned to the deep laboured breathing of his drunken nap. Only then did I start breathing again, tiptoe to safety, and run for my life.
The day blurs and blends into many shades of grey and black, a surreal collage of mental images, forever etched on the canvas of my memory. That day I became as strong on the inside as I was weak and vulnerable in body… maybe stronger. And from that day forward I took care of myself, relied on myself and rushed the day that I would leave my family. That day was filled with ‘learning’ that would take the rest of my life to be undone, in layers and stages.
Dad’s violent and unpredictable outbursts rocked our world, without warning, their impact creating lasting scars…
In that moment, of standing in my room, all those memories returned. To my amazement, it was peaceful. There was no trauma in it. No horror. Just a reality that once was, only a gentle scar remaining where once my heart was ripped wide open.
Mom and Dad’s old bedroom was immediately beside my room. The corner shelving, where dad stored his chocolate stash, and Easter bunnies, from which I nibbled parts, bits at a time so I wouldn’t get caught, no longer existed. Still, it brought a smile to my face to remember it. His secret stash, that he never discovered we shared, and both hid carefully from the rest of the family. It is funny the memories that return…
The current home owner chattered constantly as we walked, sharing her dreams, and explaining half-done projects. By the time the tour ended, I knew almost as much about her as about my breakfast guests.
We were wrapping up when she told me that the house is haunted. We have a ghost living with us, she told me, and went on to tell some stories of strange happenings. “His name is Henry,” she told me.
Her daughter, maybe about eighteen years old, joined us then. Not having heard that conversation about Ghost Henry, she told me that the house gives her the creeps.
“I hear there’s a ghost here,” I said.
Her eyes grew big. She nodded. “His name is Henry. It’s creepy! Sometimes, when I’m walking down the steps, I feel someone trying to push me down the steps,” she said. “It’s pretty scary.”
Significant or not, it was a bizarre irony, if nothing more, that my great grandmother was murdered by being pushed down the steps, back when they lived in a house where the only access to the upstairs was via stairs on the exterior of the house. My great grandfather had ordered my great uncle, who was only about thirteen at the time, to push his mother down the stairs. If he did not, he would get punished, or killed. I cannot recall that detail.
I stayed a few more minutes, disclosing almost nothing of our family, or story. Whatever creepy things they had going on with this ‘Ghost Henry’, I didn’t need to add to it.
It was time to head out, I said, and thanked them. I wanted to see my mother in Aylmer before heading home.
I drove past the farm with C Wolfe on the mail box. The truck was back further on the driveway. Someone was home. I pulled in the lane and saw Mrs. Wolfe disappear into the barn, at the back of the property. She was home.
I parked my car, and walked toward the barn, not wanting to startle her. I gently called a ‘Hello… Hi…’ and waited. She appeared at the door.
My mind flashed back to a time when she was my age, and I helped her feed gravy to her cats in the little barn-like structure on their property. I smiled. I had loved this woman dearly, as a child. I could hardly believe that it was her, standing in front of me again.
I reached out my hand, “I’m Trudy Metzger… was Trudy Harder…”
Her eyes lit up, her face brightened with a big smile. “I remember you!” We talked a while. I asked her if she remembered the tea parties, with the cheerios.
She giggled. “Donut seeds,” she said.
“Yes, you had me convinced that if I would plant them, I could grow donut trees.” The cheerios were just seeds, not full grown donuts.
Mrs. Wolfe laughed, “I remember that!”
I wasn’t going to bring up that sad day, and cloud my visit by making her sad, but then she asked me what I do now.
I told her what I do, and as I spoke, her eyes changed. She knew why I chose the work I do. Not willing to leave it, but not wanting to be too raw, I simply said, “I don’t know how much you knew about what went on in our home…”
A sadness in her eyes spoke louder than her words, “I knew…” And then she mentioned ‘the day’. We said little, but both knew what day we were talking about.
I thanked her for keeping us safe that day, while we waited for the officers to arrive. I thanked her for the many times she gave me roses, from which she carefully removed every little thorn. And then I asked if I could take a few pictures, just with my phone, to keep the memory of having seen her again.
She was worried about her barn boots, and barn clothes, but all I saw was a beautiful woman who loved me when I was a hurting little girl. With giggles she consented, and then Mr. Wolfe let me take several of the two of them.
Immediately after this shot, Mrs. Wolfe said, “You didn’t get our boots, did you?” I hadn’t, but if I turned the camera just right, I said, I would get them. This set them both laughing, leaving me with a picture that shows the joy I feel, at the memory of this couple.
I spent some time with my mother, mostly talking about her health, and getting caught up on various goings on in our lives.
She offered to feed me, at least three or four times, even though I told her I wasn’t hungry. It’s a mother-thing to do.
When I gave her a bye hug, and headed for the door, she asked me one last time if I’m sure I don’t need some cookies or fruit for the road. “No thanks, Mom, I’m still not hungry.”
And with that I was on the road again. The answers I set out to find were not to be found, but the mini-trip was one of the most outstanding experiences I’ve had, in relation to my childhood. If the higher purpose was for me to see Mrs. Wolfe again, after almost thirty-four years, then the trigger was well worth it. My heart has longed, for many years, to see her again, and speak with her.
I thank God for the amazing moments that we cannot possibly orchestrate, and for how He redeems every little thing in our lives. In this family history of murder, threats, and generational strongholds, He continues to prove Himself faithful. And in every rise and fall, I learn to trust Him a little bit more, in spite of that history.
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