I come from a long line of doers. Good Mennonite stock that emigrated from Paraguay, South America. This means there is nothing you can’t fix by doing. In church circles it’s called the gift of hospitality. It was like a calling for us as Mennonites. You don’t sit around and wait for things to fall into your lap. We may be pacifists in war, but in life, you cook, clean, bake! I had a lot of family who wanted to help. When I was at my worst, no one knowing if I was going to cross over to the other side, family came out in droves. My two younger brothers, aunts, uncles, and cousins parked themselves on chairs in the waiting rooms and took turns sitting with me while I was oblivious to what was going on around me.
One of my cousins was willing to donate skin if he had to. Some were silently supportive, stoic in their pacing around the room. Others sat with me and held my hand. Some prayed and recruited their church congregations in prayer. Others had questions for the doctors. What could they do? How could they help? This is the Mennonite way. There may be a situation which is beyond our control, but one can always find a way to help. We demonstrate our love through action. The gift of hospitality is something we are not in short supply of.
Another way we help is through food. There is always more than enough food. You don’t go without, not if my mom or any of her sisters have anything to say about it. I have never left one of our family gatherings without somebody pressing food into my hands saying, for lunch tomorrow. You look down and it’s already been covered in plastic wrap or tucked into a Tupperware container. You cannot refuse. It’s not a choice. You say thank you and go, grateful for how your body will be nourished tomorrow.
I grew up in a house where you pray, but with efficiency. Short and to the point, amen. God doesn’t need for you to go on and on. He’s a busy God and not interested in flowery prose. He’s God. He knows your needs. My prayers growing up were all said in German. They were memorized, traditional prayers – one for mealtime and one for bedtime.
As a child I believed God preferred German. It was the language I learned first. If I said a prayer in English it would not be received as well as if I had spoken it in German. Our prayer at mealtimes went like this, Segne Vater diese Speise uns zur Kraft und Dir zum Preise. Amen. (Father, bless this food for our strength and to you as praise) It is said swiftly but with reverence. When we were children, to amuse ourselves, we recited it as fast as we could, picking up speed as we went along. It was a race. Who could finish first?
My dad did not appreciate this. With a stern look and a “Nah” with the ‘a’ drawn out, so it came out a Naaah, the word coming up at the end, we shut up and looked down at our plates, very busy with our forks. This meant he also didn’t appreciate when we said it slowly enunciating each word as if we were delivering a powerful sermon, sometimes with emphatic arm gestures. This was considered disrespectful too. I’m pretty sure I saw my dad hiding a smile more than once during our attempts to spice up our prayer lives.
My dad wasn’t a man big on I-love-you’s. We were loved, so it didn’t need to be said. That changed after June 12, 1998, the day of the car crash.
When I was newly born my dad cradled me in his arms and carried me around in the middle of the night to lull me to sleep. From infancy on I liked to be near him. There’s evidence of this in photos of us sitting side by side, my dad sipping his Yerba Mate (a South American herbal tea) and me leaning into him. My brothers and I spent a lot of time on my dad’s back as he crawled around on all fours as a bucking bronco, a galloping horse! He wrestled with us, played street hockey with us, but he never said I love you. When I was sixteen I worked up the nerve to say, “I love you” and it was met with uncomfortable silence. There was no, I love you too.
My dad’s very first I love you came when I was in a hospital bed hovering between life and death. He said, “When you were brand new to the world I dedicated you to God. I told Him, she is yours first and mine second.” He spoke in his well-worn German broken with English, the voice of my childhood. He cleared his throat, “I prayed, wondering if God was going to make good on the dedication. But, God gave you back to us.” He paused, looked at the floor, and then his eyes met mine. “I love you, Heidi.”