Kootenay Literary Competition

ABOUT AN UNFORGETTABLE GIFT

By Elisabeth Von Ah

 

Adult New Canadian – First Place

Foreword:

I met the old man only once, almost 30 years ago. But his words of compassion and wisdom spoken to me in a heart-breaking situation changed my awareness of life forever. My gratitude for his gift is still present; just as much as my shame not even to have thanked him.

 

…And About Dreams, Farewells…

 

The first years of my life my family lived in a bombed-out city in post-WWII Germany. We resided in a wet, cold ruin with a shared smelly outhouse in the yard. Rain constantly dripping through the ceiling was the only running water source. However, playing in the remains of the destroyed chaos was always an adventure for us kids, scary, when we ran into traumatized adults and stranded hobos in rags and old army garment, all former rank badges carefully removed. They hunkered down in whatever shelter they found and either tried to chase us away or draw us near. Exciting, when we played WAR, the only game we knew. In fact, it was no play for us, it was real. Gangs of boys constantly and brutally fought over property control. Younger boys fought for power over housing blocks, older ones over roads, while the oldest battle for control of entire quarters in the city. Small girls like me were not accepted as soldiers but were tolerated to assemble ammunition in the form of clay and dirt balls with a stone inside. I came home always dirty, often bruised and bleeding – and got punished for returning so filthy with my precious clothing a mess. But nevertheless, next day was a war-day again.

I was six when my family moved to a small but newly-built apartment in a remote house outside of town. It was surrounded by endless wheat fields and other agricultural land, beautiful to watch when the wind moved the grains like waves. There were no playmates and playgrounds around, not even a yard or a garden. In this isolation I was lonely. The world of books became my universe which nourished my phantasies and dreams. And here my wish to have a dog became almost an obsession.

My dream unfulfilled until Ben, a beautiful short-haired black and white Border collie with tiny ears came to join my life. I was 25 then and a teacher. Three years later, unexpectedly and out of the blue, many other dreams came true.

The man I was having a love affair with called me at school.

“Could we meet after work? I want to show you something.”

It was a beautiful sunny spring day when we drove a narrow winding road to a remote forested valley just minutes outside a small village. He stopped at a dilapidated old Tudor style house romantically nestled under two big chestnut trees in full bloom and surrounded by slopes overgrown with forest and old fruit trees. Next to the house a big square pond with ducks and other water fowl nested. I could not believe my eyes when I spotted a rare kingfisher, beautiful in his opalescent feather coat. Behind the pond green meadows with flowers and willows stretched out as far as one could see with a creek meandering through it feeding the pond. Then the waters flew through a tunnel underneath the house before they fell over a huge rotten wooden millwheel. We were at an abandoned old water mill, a romantic and somehow unreal picture, just like one of the phantasy drawings in my childhood fairy tale books.

Never before had I seen a more beautiful and peaceful setting. No wonder I immediately fell in love with it.

“If you can imagine living here with me, I’ll buy the place,” my friend said.

Of course, my answer was yes.

He and I shared a great affection for nature, animals, and outdoor activities, and yes, I was in love with him. A few months later, when Ben and I moved in, the neighbour’s kids greeted me with two little female kittens, a long-haired black one with white paws and a grey tabby. I named them Black Panther and Yellow Tiger. Soon we got more and more animals and started to operate a hobby farm along with our professional lives.

My happiest moments every day came at feeding time after finishing farm work in late afternoon. I called the animals. Our horses, Dixie, my big chestnut gelding and hazel-coloured Syracuse, no matter how far away they were grazing, galloped to me at full speed. Tony, our big hand-tame deer buck and his herd of does and offspring raced to be fed by hand; the buck with his big antlers eager to get the most. Our chickens, ducks, house and Canada geese came from far and near, running, flying and swimming. Nick and Tim, my Canada geese kids, I had bred from eggs in an incubator and fostered after a fox had killed their parents, followed in my footsteps all the time anyway. Obviously they regarded themselves human rather than animal and stayed away from their bird species. Ben seriously performed his self-chosen herd-dog job gathering the sheep, Fanny and Frieda and their three little ones, who were already waiting at the gate of their pasture. The cats, four by then, watched the whole turmoil in Sphinx like grace sitting in the windows of the horses’ stables. I was perfectly happy. All my childhood dreams had become true.

I lived in my paradise for 11 years caring for my animals. But over time my partner, a workaholic businessman, and I slowly drifted apart. However, the day for me to move-out came almost as suddenly as my move-in-day a decade earlier when I learned that he had gone on a business trip with another women. Then and there I decided to leave. Within a week I arranged to join a roommate friend and her teenage son in their big old farm house. I packed my belongings, contracted a company to move my things.

A crew of three men arrived, two strong lads and an old man who looked far too weak for this kind of job. They worked hard, and although the youngsters did most of the heavy lifting, the old man did his share. We didn’t talk much. I was trying hard to keep the pain of leaving under control. From all my animals only Alex, my young Border collie, could go with me. He came after Ben and would share my life for the next 12 years.

When the truck was ready to go the old man gently touched my arm.

“I lost my wife and only son last year in a car accident,” he said in a soft, low voice. “Life goes on.” For a blink only we deeply looked into each other’s eyes. I recall his were dark, but I have forgotten his face. This very moment eased my sadness and an unexpected calmness replaced it. Not immediately, but time later after my sorrow had eased and I had thought more deeply about the old man’s words I became aware of what he had wanted me to know: whatever happens, in any situation, if we only see our personal feelings, our very own pain or happiness, we might lose the sense for what really matters in life.

Yes, I thought. I am 39, my life will go on.

 

…And New Beginnings…

 

Afterword:

 

Imagine the old man as a Gypsy Future-teller.

Let me read your palm and I’ll give you a foresight, he could have said.

 

I see how many wonderful surprises life will have for you. Very soon you’ll fall in love again. This time it’ll last. You’ll go on a big journey. You’ll quit teaching. You’ll move to a foreign country named Canada. You’ll find an even more beautiful paradise on the other side of the ocean. I see a log house in a lovely valley, at the banks of a crystal-clear untamed river, surrounded by forests of huge old trees and snow covered mountains and wildlife you never have encountered. I see you enjoying new activities. You’ll be underwater scuba diving, climbing tops of mountains, kayaking wild waters, canoeing uncrowded lakes, skiing down hills. You’ll be writing, filming and photographing. You’ll make new friends among humans and animals. You’ll be able to communicate in another language. You’ll be happier than ever. And besides, all memories of the happy old days remain to be yours for the rest of your life anyway. And at the end, looking back, it only counts what you have made of your life.

 

30 years later now. Yes, life went on better that way. And this will be another story…