Until she met Obrum Kehler, serious Sarah Sudermann had never laughed. Her mother said she always reached for the black things first. As a young girl, she was haunted by a vision of her grandmother bolt upright in her black trough coffin, laughing so hard her bonnet slipped off to the side and hung from one ear. But then Obrum looked at her with his Robin’s egg eyes and red paint on his nose.
And then there was the lawnswing . . . and the piano. Not practical. Not necessary. Especially for a young couple struggling through the Great Depression. When Beethoven Blatz enters to tune their piano everything is in place for the Kehler family to make great music together.
Full of love, longing, and tenderness, Grandmother Laughing is a story about unconventional families and the lengths we will go to find fulfillment for ourselves and the ones we cherish.
About the author
Armin Wiebe is the recipient of the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction and the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award. He has five published novels, one play, and his short stories have appeared in numerous books and anthologies. A teacher for many years, Armin Wiebe is now retired and lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Excerpt: Grandmother, Laughing (by (author) Armin Wiebe)
Suaruh Suschtje, the children called me in school. Sour Sarah Sudermann. I was nineteen already that Sunday, but Suaruh Suschtje I still was when I sat across the table corner from Preacher Funk. From so close he looked young for a preacher, hardly older than I was, and he seemed nervous. Liestje laughered herself behind her hand, and Mamuh looked like she was biting her tongue. I think Preacher Funk must have been waiting for my father to start neighbouring, and Papuh said nothing, just passed the meat plate to Pete and nodded his head in the preacher’s direction. I thought maybe Mamuh would at least ask him if he wanted more carrots or potatoes with peel, but she had decided to let the men play this game.
I, of course, was too frightened to talk, and I wished the eating would finish so the preacher could get up and go away. Still, out of the corner of my eye, I was watching Preacher Funk’s hands cutting up the meat and peeling young skin off a potato. A patch of stubble beard under his jaw made me think of the weeds in the garden corner that I didn’t finish hoeing on Saturday. In the night I had dreamed I was hoeing in the garden, and a patch of fat hen just wouldn’t go away no matter how many times I hacked the weeds off and flipped them over to go wilted in the burning sun.
But there at the table my eyes watched the preacher’s hands, the tractor grease in the cracks, the blood blister under the thumbnail. Fuschtje Funk was a farmer, after all. His forefinger along the butter knife had a dark brown wart beside the middle knuckle. He stuck the knife into the middle of a tweeback bun and broke it open, even like Jesus I thought, and I wondered me if Jesus had used a knife to break the bread for his disciples. I watched him cut a sliver of butter and smear it over half the bun. Then he reached his knife over to the wild plum jam, and he skimmed a knifeful off the top and reached his bun closer so that the jam dripped onto the bun and not onto the tablecloth. He saw me watching and one of his eyes slowly closed, and I got this grizzlijch feeling in my stomach.
“By us we don’t smear double,” my father said.
Everybody stopped breathing. Preacher Funk’s face reddened down to his collar so the patch of stubble beard looked like a black checker on a red square. He didn’t speak, but he looked at the two halves of his bun, and then he scraped the jam off the butter onto the dry half-bun lying beside his plate.
I held my breath until after Papuh led the preacher into the sitting room. I had just tied on my apron to clean up the table when Papuh came back into the kitchen, his face white as the sofa dust cover in his hands. He waved me to come.
Again that Sunday kitchen was so quiet I could hear the flies’ footsteps on the tablecloth. What wanted these men with me? I had never sat alone with Papuh in the sitting room, and only if I was getting baptized would a preacher want to talk with me. Spring baptism was long past already and for sure I wasn’t marrying myself yet, so what was the hurry?
But in those days a daughter obeyed her father, so I went into the sitting room without even running upstairs to look in the mirror first. I didn’t breathe but I could feel my heart boompsing against my dress as I sat down on the first hard chair. That’s when I saw I still had my apron on.
Papuh had pulled open the curtain on the south window. Sitting with his back to the light, Preacher Funk was a shadow that reached across the floor to my Sunday shoes. My feet wanted to breathe, but on Sundays we had to wear our shoes inside. I could feel his eyes looking out of the shadow, and I wondered what he was thinking and I wondered if my hair was all fixed into place. Papuh sat down on one end of the soft sofa like it was a hard chair, knees together, hands lying on his legs.
I waited for somebody to say something to me, but for many minutes I heard only fuscheling from the kitchen and clicking back and forth from the grandfather clock.
That piano was old already when Obrum brought it home one afternoon with a dunkel schwoakj on his face, darker than the time Tien told him he had pneumonia. I didn’t see him right away because I was bending over in the garden, pulling carrots, and I didn’t think I needed to look over to what he was doing until I saw that he had backed up the wagon nearly to the kitchen door.
Well, my heart fluttered when I saw that. I mean, Obrum had that morning at breakfast talked about maybe selling the farm and moving to Peace River, but I hadn’t thought that he would want to load up the wagon before the evening cows had been milked. Even Obrum Kehler wasn’t that haustig a man. But living with Obrum was sometimes like trying to stand up on a moving lawnswing and so my heart fluttered when I saw the wagon backed up to the door.
When I carried my carrots to the kitchen step, Obrum was still sitting on the tractor seat looking straight ahead away from the wagon, away from the house. I had lived with him long enough, two years already, to know that when he looked like that he wasn’t looking at what was in front of him; he was looking someplace deep inside his head. I never quite learned how to hold the forked willow stick in such a way that I could see in there with him. I didn’t have a forked willow stick anyways, but I had fresh carrots, so I rubbed the earth off from two of them and walked over to the tractor and tickled Obrum’s knuckles with the greens and then slipped the carrot into his hand. His fingers gripped the carrot but he didn’t turn to look at me until he had bitten off the spitz and was crunching it in his mouth.
Then he looked at me. A tear sippled out of the eye corner beside his nose.
“What’s loose?” I grabbed the top of the wagon box and stepped on a wheel spoke. I noticed that the wheel was stopped on my begonia flowers, but I knew there was no use complaining about flowers to a man who would just say, “Nuh Bbloom kaun ye noch emma wada waussuh.” A flower can yet always grow again. Still, a part of me was maybe thinking that Obrum had such a cloudy face because he was sorry he had backed into my begonias. Yoh, I was still pretty young then.
A grey tarp covered what looked like a big box. For an eyeblink I saw a coffin under that tarp, I don’t know why, but that’s what I saw even when I could see that the shape under the tarp didn’t look like a coffin at all. In those days coffins were made of boards and just deep enough for a person to fit in, not like nowadays when everybody has to have a queen-size bed to be buried in and then yet a stone rolled on top of it. An old woman should be forgiven for talking about such dunkel things, but I was thinking that maybe I want somebody to play piano by my funeral.
I would want a man to play. A woman wouldn’t be the same, unless it’s my grandson Koadel's daughter Michelena. For sure I don’t want Klaviera Klassen or one of the other church players to play, no, not those women. What am I saying? I must be febeizeling my brain. But yes, if a man would play, then I could go to my grave happy. I can see him already in my head, playing on the piano, his tongue sticking out between his lips, just like Obrum when he sat down with me on the piano bench and we played "Chopsticks" together.
Ach yoh, I had thought Obrum’s lawnswing was as wrisplijch as things could get with a man but I had a thing or two to learn yet. You see, my father was a Fäasängah in our church where we didn’t have a piano. He had a shtemm gaufel tuning fork, which he would bang on his knee to get the right note to start off a song at the front of the church. But that was about as far as it went with music in our house. My brother got a little mouth organ in a popcorn box once and we all blew it full of spit but we never quite figured out how to make a song with it.
But Obrum Kehler that day had a tear sippling from his eye corner as he crunched away on that carrot I had given him. His tear didn’t make sense to me then, just like the piano on the wagon didn’t make sense to me, a person who couldn’t even stay on a tune for more than three notes in a row. I mean, Obrum knew that even before we got married.
The day I first went to the sod house, Obrum took me by the hand and led me along the middle road between the fields and I was a little bit nervous about this because I hadn’t told my father that I was going any place. At the same time I didn’t want to let go of Obrum’s hand because my knees were still shaking from being on the lawnswing and so I only looked back once to make sure my sister wasn’t schlikjing along behind. She wasn’t, so I just let myself be pulled along in Obrum Kehler’s warm hand.
It was a hot summer day with a bit of wind that ruffled through Obrum’s long red hair and blew his tie over his shoulder as we walked. I still had my hair pinned in my Sunday bun but as I watched the wind blow through Obrum’s hair, I felt like I wanted to let my hair loose with the wind too, only I didn’t do that. I just walked along and listened to him whistling a song that I hadn’t heard before. For sure it wasn’t a church song, only it made me feel like poplar leaves trembling outside a church window.
But then Obrum stopped and held his finger to his lips. I listened. I heard frogs croaking from Mary’s Creek. I looked at Obrum’s face and saw his Adam’s apple move like he was swallowing his spit and then his lips made a circle and my heart vrunsched a little because I figured he was going to try to kiss me and I didn’t know what I was going to do. But he didn’t turn his face or even his eyes to me. Then he cooed like a mourning dove. A few heartbeats later a mourning dove cooed back to him. Again Obrum cooed … and again the dove cooed back. He turned to me.
“Now you do it,” he said.
I laughed then and shook my head. But he wouldn’t listen to no. My squeaky voice wobbled a little off the tune, but when we listened, the mourning dove cooed back, and I got a feeling that was scary and comfortable at the same time.
You know, God could have made us different. Who knows? Maybe God tried making people who were born old and then they couldn’t do anything except die. I don’t know but it seems to me now that if we knew everything when we were young that we know when we are old, we would be too scared to make it through to old age. At least, it seems that way now, that if I had known everything that I know now I would never have ... no, I would never have climbed up on that wagon and sat down on the piano bench beside Obrum Kehler.
“Where did you get such a thing?” I wanted to know. That dunkel schwoakj wiped off his face.
“Get up on the wagon,” he said, and before I could argue he had helped me climb up and made me sit down on the slippery, shiny piano bench. He climbed up after me and sat so our hips touched and he lifted up the lid. I laughed. Those black and white keys made me think of Fiestane Friesen’s rotten teeth. But I hurry swallowed my laugh when Obrum started to play piano.
Yeah, Obrum Kehler played piano. Oh, not like a person nowadays who has had piano lessons. No, Obrum never learned real piano playing, but he could play that song he liked to whistle. He didn’t tell me till years later how come he had learned to play such a song, but then in those days a woman just figured a man would know things and she never asked where he had learned them.
But right then I didn’t ask. I was so yralled up with watching his farmer fingers bouncing on that piano that I wasn’t even bothered by the trembling poplar-leaf feeling the tune always gave me. Later, I thought our hips had been touching and far apart at the same time. Over and over he played that tune, louder and louder, faster and faster, his tongue sticking out from his lips like bolognaaloney between pieces of bread. It got so loud that the dog started barking and the swallows flew out of the mud nest under the eaves of the barn. Then he stopped, and he turned to me with his you-can’t-say-no look and he said, “Susch, now you play ‘Chopsticks.’”
“What mean you, ‘Chopsticks’?’” I said, and shrugged away from him. But he reached me around and took my right hand and he used my forefinger to slowly pick out the high notes of the song. A few times he played the song through with my finger, but it was his hand playing piano with my finger, not my finger doing my will, and something inside me wasn’t altogether happy with that. Then he started bouncing notes with his other hand and I was squeezed in between as the piano got louder and louder and I was happy for sure that we didn’t live in the village where everybody would come to look at these two schnorrijch people making such a schtook machine noise that the big spokey wagon wheels were starting to rock back and forth.
And then Obrum started doing another thing. He started pressing his foot down on one of the pedals, and because he was a short-legged man and he was sitting a bit to the side to give me room, he had to stand up a little so his hind end was bouncing on the piano bench yet. I was bouncing right along with him whether I wanted to or not, knocking back and forth between his arms, his bouncing hip knocking mine. The dog barked harder than in a thunderstorm and over it all I heard the cows mooing.
Then the whole world sank down., I felt it in my stomach like going fast down a hill in a car. I clawed out for the piano keys but that piano had bounced up over the board Obrum had nailed in front of the wheels, and it was all we could do to shove the piano bench back and get our feet out of the way as the piano rolled right out off the end of the wagon and schtooksed down to the grass.
For a long eyeblink the piano looked like it would tip over on its face … then it leaned back and settled on its wheels. Before we could let our breath go, the front panel above the keys let loose and clattered to the ground. The yard was as still as it must have been before the world was made.