COLUMN: Ed Olfert — June 26, 2014

Ed Olfert
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Ed Olfert

A long ago memory stirs.

When our children were very young, I’ll guess two, three, and four, Holly worked occasional shifts as a care aide at the Kerrobert hospital, about 30 kilometres distant. I’m assuming it had to do with her need to broaden her self-description a little from “exhausted mother of numerous young children.” Mostly, it worked out reasonably well, as she could choose shifts that coincided with my availability to parent.

But there was a time when, after she drove away to work, a winter storm closed in. Roads closed, things stopped moving for like what seemed like weeks, possibly months. In actual fact, it was probably three or four days. Holly stayed with cousins in Kerrobert, and kept going to work, because there were many others who couldn’t. I recall phone conversations she had, particularly with her eldest, who told her that, “Today we had red soup, and yesterday we had white soup.”

Meanwhile, on my parent’s farm, five kilometers from us, my Pa was getting restless. His grandchildren needed their mother! And so, on a still stormy day, he, and mom, and youngest brother Dan appeared on our yard in the four wheel drive truck. It had been tough going, the grille was broken out of the truck from the hard banks. Pa was not dissuaded. “We’ll go back home and get the Hydro.” An hour later he was again on the yard with his snow blower tractor.

Mom stayed with the children while Dan and I set out, a snowmobile loaded on the truck. When we got to an impassible drift, we waited for Pa to catch up, to clear a path, and away we went again. I picture my Pa in the storm, no heat in his cab, an old one-piece snowmobile suit with hood tied close around his eyes, determined to provide his grandchildren with a mother. Within sight of Kerrobert, as we were blocked once again, Dan and I unloaded the snowmobile for the final leg of the rescue, but by the time I was bringing Holly out of town, my Pa was plowing into town on the old tractor.

It has become a family legend, a legend that reminds me of many things in our story. Today, it reminds me of my Pa’s generosity.

A few weeks ago, much of my extended family gathered in Saskatoon at the annual Mennonite Central Committee Relief Sale, the big fundraiser for MCC. The Olferts have, for more years than I can remember, volunteered their time to the booth that sells bulk sausage. Four different generations have stood behind the table, taking money, bagging farmer sausage, and dispensing banter that might guilt or encourage customers to buy more. In the meantime, we also circulate the larger venue, usually with grandchildren in tow, and find reasons to leave money at different and interesting causes.

As I chatted with siblings, we agreed that our Pa was very present there.

I have fading memories of my own cherubic days, before charitable status regulations intruded so much, when our little country church still held mission auctions as fundraisers. Most of the items sold were made by moms and grandmas. A notable exception might be a doll house, or carved horses with carriage built by my craftsman grandfather. At these events, I saw a side to my father that was new and exciting. He came to have a good time, and to offer his financial support to the current causes. That meant giggling with his brothers and spending ridiculous sums for a pair of knitted mittens just so a certain brother in law didn’t get them. That meant buying pies, or bags of buns, again paying crazy money, for baking that probably originated in our own kitchen.

A sister shared memories of extended family gatherings, usually Sunday afternoons at a lake. Before home time, my Pa would send someone to the booth for ice cream for all.

I recall, in the early days of the Canadian Food Grains Bank, which originally began as a Mennonite Central Committee program to provide food for hungry people, my Pa loaded up the semi truck, not once, but a number of times, then provided that same truck to haul the donations of others. Feeding hungry folks was something he could understand

Our dad was as careful with his money as the next person. But something about his own story, multi-layered as it was, moved him to all manner of expressions of creative generosity. That history is an important one.

It is also transformative. The same sister who recalls the generosity of ice cream at the lake, is now noted for her generosity when it is time to grab the bill at a restaurant. Siblings gather at the MCC Relief Sale, and remind each other that there are better ways to spend time then counting your change after a purchase. Hands that wave at auctioneers are connected to minds that process differently, directed by a sense of generosity, a sense of outrageousness, and a sense of fun.

Family legends are important.


Ed Olfert is a Prince Albert freelance writer.

Organizations: Kerrobert hospital, Mennonite Central Committee Relief Sale, Canadian Food Grains Bank Prince Albert

Geographic location: Kerrobert, Saskatoon

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