Grandpa Zehen folded his hands over his oxblood cane and tapped the brass end on the floor twice.
“Here is a story for all of you about my Grousepapa from Kleefeld. He was my grandpa like I am your grandpa. He was the chief of the fire brigade, the head of the village council, a church deacon and he also farmed,” he paused for effect, “on the side.” He smiled as everyone chuckled, despite knowing the joke was coming. Grandpa’s new false teeth were showing and his eyes were merry.
“He was one of the Delegates from Russia,” my grandma said. “He came here and made a deal with the government, so the Mennonite people could leave Russia.”
“Joh, Rosie, joh!” said Grandpa, tapping his cane for emphasis. He continued:
“On Halloween — which was new to the Mennonitische fresh from Russia and something that only a few of the Englanders did — some of the young guys went around and pulled jokes on people,” he began.
“PRANKS…” my cousin Rob offered loudly.
“You are VELCOME!” Grandpa quipped back, again showing off his store-bought teeth. Rob laughed and blushed as Grandpa continued the story.
Grandpa Zehen was, “a character,” according to my mom. He had bad knees and wore eyeglasses and used a cane. In his pockets were interesting tidbits like wingnuts, figure eights of twine, and notes written in tiny print and accompanied by complicated mechanical drawings. A wedding day picture of him showed a striking young blonde-haired man who could have been a leading man in silent films.
His Halloween night story about his “Grousepapa” was an annual tradition.
“Grousepapa was outside helping the boys — giving loud orders mostly. It had been a warm fall and they had been on the fields until the end of October. They were hauling farm equipment from the yard into the shed. They had one piece left to go, a big Massey disk cultivator, and they crossed the yard and went through the shelterbelt to fetch it. They walked Grousepapa’s two old quarter horses with them, Hilltop and Groota Obram and I sat on top of Obram which is how come I know this story so good. It was long dark and they were all tired from fighting with the stubborn machinery.
As they came into the field they saw that four boys from the next town, teenagers you call them now, were pulling with horses to get the cultivator up on the road.
Grousepapa was perplexed and walked fast, all bow-legged and arms waving like in a parade through the field towards them, calling out in German and broken English. He waved his hat at them, stumbling on the fresh-disked dirt.
‘Hey, you — old man,’ one of the Englanders shouted back to Grousepapa, being disrespectful all on purpose, ‘that cultivator belongs up here on the road, not in the shed! We’re here to help you.’ And all of his friends laughed and even their horses nickered. See, they were really there just to pull a Halloween prank, as Rob, says.
Grousepapa was mixed up by these guys and why they thought the cultivator should go on the road. That thing was almost new, good second-hand and with an unofficial loan from the church to pay it off, yet too. He didn’t understand that it was a Halloween trick. You know, he figured it was just another one of the strange rules and odd behaviour he had got used to from the neighbours who weren’t Mennonites like us. ‘They don’t take bribes like the Russians, but they sure like being bossy!’ he often commented.
Anyway, Grousepapa, he argued with them good and proper for a long time but his English was not-so-good and they were not acting proper. Finally, he gave up and came back to my dad and the other uncles. He told them that those stupid guys who, ‘couldn’t even sit straight on their saddles,’ wanted to put the cultivator on the road. ‘Must be some government thing!’
Grousepapa’s sons knew about these Halloween tricks and thought it might be best to just do it and get rid of those drunks. Our team would have an easier time with the machine on the road anyway, they figured. So my dad he clicked his tongue at the tired-out horses and we all headed up to the Massey.”
Grandpa paused, adjusted the pillow he sat on and took a wrapped hard candy from the dish on the coffee table. It was the kind of candy we always got from our Zehen grandparents on Halloween. Grandma Rosie took the dish and offered it to everyone.
“Grousepapa ran ahead and right away began being boss because he didn’t like being bossed at by a bunch of big-talking Englanders. He got busy ordering everyone around, pulling on the horse bridals and giving them pranksters orders until they were full op of him. And those Englanders obeyed because he just made them. When he wanted something, it was hard to change his mind. Soon, the cultivator was almost up on the road, with Grousepapa yelling like a wild man for them to pull, except he did Plautdietsch yelling, like ‘TRAKJE! TRAKJE MOL!’ which didn’t help those Englanders. Pretty soon they had enough and looked at each other and one of them said, ‘this guy’s no fun,’ and they started to ride away.
But Grousepapa got so mad when he saw them leaving, he ran after them and grabbed one guy by the leg and almost pulled him off his horse. ‘Op Kleefeld,’ he said, wagging a crooked finger, ‘We don’t leave until the job is done!’ My dad caught up to them and while Grousepapa kept on yelling, Dad explained to them in English. Well, it took awhile, but finally, the cultivator got all the way up on the road.
The young guys were now definitely tired and thirsty and they said ‘See ya later’ but Grousepapa made again with his finger. ‘Nay, nay. We Halloweened you, now you will Halloween us. This cultivator needs to schlop in the shed this night. So help us hook once up the team…’
Afterwards, when Hilltop and Groota Obram were in their stalls eating fresh hay and some nice carrots that were sweet from frost yet, Grousepapa insisted that the Englander teenagers come in the house. He gave them something to eat and he even had a little moonshine or maybe Alpenkreuter and he gave those guys a drink. After that, it was a special tradition for those four. And I would always come too, to see those boys act polite and sit still on the davenport like they were frozen. They came every Halloween for years after, but they didn’t pull no pranks.
Always they would ask, ‘How are youse, Grouse Papa Zehen?’ his name gnarshed opp like they were chewing oats from Scotland. And he would always say in English ‘It goes to hold out.’ They came for a drink and always brought some little treat, like those candies with the lobster on the wrapper from the Eaton’s store in Winnipeg. Grousepapa would wink at me and then thank them in practiced-up English for, ‘all the help with the Massey cultivator that one time. That was oba terrible much work!’”
“A Cultivated Halloween” is published on TOEWS.IR by special permission of the author, Mitchell Toews, who holds the copyright.