Ladi and Vlasta

IMG_4047The coffee was served in perfect pink china, accented with gold.  From the Czech Republic, Ladi said – as was the meal of roast pork, sauwer kraut, and dumplings. I felt like I’d stepped through some wrinkle in culture and was experiencing something totally outside the small BC town we were in.

Ladi’s tall form more than filled the doorway as he and Vlasta welcomed us into their home for dinner.  We admired their view and chatted for a few minutes then were invited to gather in the living room.  Ladi sat, not on the couches with the rest of us, but on a tall chair in the middle of the room – music stand in front of him, violin case open on a chair nearby. He then introduced us to the plan for the evening.  He would play for us, then we would discuss drinks and enjoy dinner. Then, if we wanted him to, and if the music was pleasing to us, he would play for us again after dinner.

The evening was presented as a gift. And rightly so.  It WAS a gift.  Not just the dinner – though that would have been generous and beautiful enough.  They shared their lives.

When Ladi was little, a man went through the schools in Czechoslovakia and chose the children with an aptitude for music.  He had them mimic tones on the piano with their voices and rhythms with their fingers.  He’d look for long fingers and quick minds and Laddy was chosen to be a violinist.  He was told if he practiced 2-3 hours every day, he would be as good as those who practiced 5-6 hours a day.  And Ladi did practice – after a fashion. (Being someone who loves music and thought the dictate of practicing 1/2 hour every day too much,  I loved this next part of the story.)  He would go out into the hall way and put his time in, practicing in earnest for the 1st hour.  But after that, he would noodle pieces he knew while he read his book on his music stand so his mom would think he was still practicing. Doesn’t that just make you smile as you just picture that in your mind? He found a way through.

Being a musician wasn’t the only choice made for him. While he was teaching music at a school,  he was asked if he was communist. I thought his reply very diplomatic.   He said he was teaching music not politics.  But a diplomatic answer was not the kind they were looking for and he was asked to leave his teaching position.

Ladi was finding it more and more difficult to live there.  At 21, he married Vlasta.  They wanted to build a new life in a country that was more free, but getting permission to leave was next to impossible.  The first obstacle was that every young man was required to serve in the army. Ladi wanted to avoid this because he knew that once you served in the army, you could not leave the country for 10 years for fear you would share the country’s secrets.  Ladi also had stomach problems (which he later found out were ulcers in a test in Germany) but nothing would show up in the tests in Czechoslovakia.  He talked to a doctor who was willing to take a chance and help him out.  Ladi was not a smoker, but the doctor gave him this advice before his army medical exam, “Smoke a cigarette and swallow prunes with pits in them just before you go for the exam, then black spots will show up on the x-ray that will indicate ulcers.”  Ladi followed his advice and got a blue card which meant he didn’t have to go into the army. He found a way through.

The army wasn’t the only obstacle.  Permission to leave was not granted if you brought your family with you  – because you might not come back.  It was not granted if you didn’t have enough foreign currency.  It was not granted without paperwork from several different government agencies.  But Ladi and Vlasta wanted to leave.  The blue card took care of the army requirement – Ladi never had to serve.  Vlasta applied to leave from a different city than Ladi.  Both were asked if they were taking their children with them.  As they had no children, they both said no.  No one asked about a spouse.  No one noticed that they were a couple leaving together because of their applications from different cities.  They told no one – not even their families. They escaped to Switzerland. They found a way through.

Vlasta took over this part of the story. We were eating dinner at this point, the story being shared in accents that sounded like music to me.  The first night of their arrival in Switzerland, they were welcomed by a butcher.  He promised Ladi a job in the butcher shop and Vlasta a cleaning and cooking job in their house.  You’d think it’d be a dream come true but for some reason, they felt uneasy.  That night they both had the same nightmare.

“The man [their host],” Vlasta said, “was chasing Ladi with a … what’s the word in English?”

“Ax,” Ladi replied.

They both woke shaking and afraid and slid a dresser in front of the door.  They passed an uneasy night then packed before breakfast and slipped out to take a train to Germany.  They found a way through.

“Ladi was sick – very sick – when were were there,” Vlasta told us.  “One time, he had a throat infection.  It was so bad it was poisoning his heart.  We didn’t have the money to take care of it but a doctor we knew said he had to go get surgery right away but even then, he would probably die.  He went to the hospital. I wanted to see him.  I wasn’t sure he would live but I had no money.  I had worked and so had Ladi but we hadn’t received our cheques yet.  I had food because that came with my job so I was OK.  But it was too much for me not to see my husband and to know how he was.  One day, while I was cleaning tables, I was crying.”

At this, tears choked Vlasta even these decades later. “A lady came up to me and asked if I was OK.  I cried more.  She spoke in my language. She was Czech! I told her that I just needed to see if my husband was OK but I had no money.  God send just the right person as she was the one in accounting.  She wrote my cheque that afternoon.  Each time, God provides.”

They continued  – sharing of their children lost and born, of their escape to Canada, of the punishment of relatives left behind, of new beginnings.  And I felt blessed to share a table with these two.  Not just because of the way their story captivated me, or because of the soaring music or the flavourful food.  Because they had made it this far, and were still finding a way through.



Walking Together


Jeff and I thought it was just a Saturday morning of errands until we got to the Cook’s house to drop off a dish we’d borrowed.  Cam smiled as we walked in, ‘Want to stay for an espresso?  Double shot or a single? Would you like your milk frothed?’  They led the way out to the patio. The morning was cool but sunny and we settled into the deck chairs – custom drink in hand.  And time slowed.  I had felt so rushed moments before, but now it felt like a real weekend  Saturday morning.  Like there was endless time before my husband had to go to work.  Plenty of space in the schedule for the cleaning and the shopping and the errands.  I noticed the breeze and took a deep breath.  Took a sip and thought – how did they do that – this time slowing magic?

I watched Cam hand June her coffee and my mind flipped back to one of the first times we went on an outing with these friends.  They had invited us to the Armstrong fair.  And since it was a newish friendship, I was still worried whether everyone was happy.  It was such a gift to be invited out with them and they had done this trip multiple times.  They had memories to live up to and I didn’t want to mess anything up for them.

I thought I got the sense that they wanted to move on to the next event.  Jeff was hanging out with Seth – taking his time watching the animals.  I said to Cam and June, ‘It’s OK, we can keep going… they will catch us soon.’ I still remember Cam’s response.  “No,” he smiled,  “it’s fine… we always walk together.’ And for him that was no trite statement.  That is something he and June live by.  They walk together. Not only that day, hand in hand, as we walked from event to event at the fair but . . . in life.

And in that time-slowed-magic place sipping my coffee that Saturday morning, I sat remembering and I looked over at Jeff.  I’m a race ahead kind of girl.  And I am often looking around, happy to put others first in how I spend my time and what I do next.  And those are both fine… but I want to ‘walk together’ too.  I want Jeff  to be the ‘other’ that I put first, first – if that makes any sense.  Everyone else matters, too.  I know this.  But God gave me this man  to walk together with, this man  to put first of all the other beautiful people I love.

So I’ll adjust my gait. We walk together.


Sole Sisters

Have you ever moved to a new place where you know almost no one?  I’ve done this quite a few times in my life and there’s lots that I like about it.  There’s the fresh start of setting up your house and knowing everything that is on every shelf and in every closet – for a least a few days.  There’s the new discovery of hikes in the area and new sites to see.  And when we moved here to the Okanagan 8 years ago, there was  a lake to swim in as often as possible.

Perhaps strangely, I also love not knowing anyone to start with.  There’s this brief time of about 3 weeks where there’s no responsibilities other than your family.  No friends that you’ve disappointed or that need you in some way.  No co-workers or boss that is frustrated with you.  No obligations anywhere yet relationally because you don’t KNOW anyone yet.  And it’s freeing.  Lots of tea and books and walks to the library and coffee shops.

But then you start to notice that there isn’t anyone to share your extra crop of hazelnuts with.  No one to tell that your kids have a concert coming up.  No one to  keep you accountable when you try, once again, to eat healthily.  And then it’s time to do something about it.  To get to know people in this new place you are living.

Seth’s CEA (Certified Education Assistant) was the first one to invite me to go running with the Solesisters.  It didn’t spark my interest because of the running.  Not at all.  I personally and passionately believed at the time that all who said they loved running were either lying or fooling themselves.  But I thought – huh – I could get to know some people here.  Then, when Saturday morning rolled around, I couldn’t get the courage up to go.  I wasn’t in shape, I didn’t have the right running clothes, and I only had my mother-in-law’s too big hand me down runners.

Then another person I met, Patti, came up to me and invited me to this running group.  ‘It’s called the Solesisters and it meets Saturday mornings,’ she said.  ‘Oh yeah,’ I answered.  ‘Seth’s CEA told me about that.’  But Patti followed the invite up with, ‘What time shall I pick you up on Saturday?’… and I couldn’t say no.

So… dressed in hand me down sweat pants from my girlfriend, my husband’s t-shirt, and my mother-in-laws shoes, I stood nervously in the driveway as I watched Patti drive up that next Saturday.  She was chatty and friendly and when we arrived at the meeting spot, she introduced me to everyone. They all looked like running gurus to me.  And I thought, ‘Well, here goes…’ And I puffed along for 5 K totally unable to keep up any semblance of my side of the conversation as we all ran along.  They kept going as I gratefully called it quits and walked back toward the start.  “We’ll meet you for coffee,” one of them yelled back.  And they did.  All those beautiful ladies sat around the table at the coffee shop after their run and laughed and talked and welcomed me there.

11692502_10154006034264947_362855696143366697_nAnd each week, I keep going back.  About 2 years in, I finally realized I was enjoying the running part.  But it’s still not why I go.  I go because I know I will get to meet my sole sisters for coffee.  I go because I know I will hear about their new dogs or their business trips that drove them crazy.  I go too because I care about how their interview went or how their schooling is going or how their kids are doing in their new school.  I go because they have become some of my dearest friends.  And we run – all different distances, all different start times.  But you’ll often hear as you run by – ‘I’ll meet you for coffee.’

coffee with your college kid?

Just this week, one of my friends posted that she no longer has 4 children in the single digits. She ended with… ‘How did this happen?!’  And here I am just past the 4 teenagers stage – with one who’s 20!! And it feels like they are my children still – but not – at the same time.

When I drove down to see Jessi for the weekend at her college, she introduced me to ‘her new people’ -her new housemates, her new college friends, her new friends at church, and her new co-workers.

Oh and we had fun!  We rode the sky train and I’m sure there wasn’t a person there who didn’t know it was new to me.  I wasn’t uncomfortable or nervous (except on the escalators on the way to the platform – but I am definitely improving with those).  I just was having too much fun.  As we were climbing on and getting a seat, I heard a band tuning up.  I asked Jessi, “What is that?”  “What?” she answered.  “That band… ” and I hummed the note I was hearing.  Then they changed chords a few times and I followed along with my humming. They were almost in tune now and I figured there was some dignitary they were getting ready to meet at the station.  (Yes – I’ve watched too many ‘Little House on the Prairie’ episodes.) Then the sky train beeped its 1-4-8-1 cadence and we were off.  At the next stop, I heard the band again and I figured the train must be circling around a central area.  I called Jessi’s attention to it again.  She heard it this time and smiled. “Mom…  that’s the brakes of the train.”  She was right, of course.  This was her new space.  But, now that I’ve said this, I dare you to ride the sky train in Vancouver without hearing that band tuning up. [If you can’t figure out the chord progression of the cadence of the brakes – just ask Jess or me.  We music geeks spent a good portion of our time after that figuring it out and wishing Caleb was there to speed things along.]

Then it started to sink in.  She has new people.  She has new transport and new cafes and a new life that she is creating, piecing together.  More importantly she has a new life that I am NOT piecing together.  You see that’s different.  I used to have quite a hand in who was pieced into my children’s lives -who we had over to play, which families came for dinner, which shows they could watch , who I would drive my children to go see.  It used to be me that decided these things.  And yes- that has been changing gradually for some time now.  But there’s no ignoring it when you are being introduced to your daughter’s new life.

And you know?  It felt OK.  It felt great, actually.  I loved having her show me around.  I loved walking to the lake ‘that felt closer on her bus route’ and experiencing the beauty of her new place.  I loved seeing her dive in to her responsibilities and I loved eating her groceries.

FullSizeRenderBut I especially loved having coffee with her.  Yes – we nearly got lost getting there.  Yes, the people serving the coffee were late opening the shop and flew in all apologies and bustle.  But we got to sit and sip some the best coffee and hot chocolate that we have had.  We shazam’d a song. We FaceTime’d with Jeff.  But mostly we just sipped and soaked in the moments together.


Prairie Tea Party

I’m not sure if TV was so real to me because I didn’t watch it often (growing up in Africa) or if I’m just the naive, gullible type.  When I was in the States for 1 year in grade 5, almost every afternoon after school, my siblings and I would walk down the country road to my Grandparent’s small trailer to watch “Little House on the Prairie.”  We’d fill up the livingroom (including the space on the brown shag carpet) and sing along with the theme song.  Sometimes Grandma would have cookies for us, or Grandpa would hand around some fruit to snack on.

One afternoon, we were in the middle of an episode in which Pa and Laura were out camping. They were cooking over a fire and I remember wondering aloud what was in their frying pan. Then I answered myself, “Oh – it’s bacon.  I can smell it.”  Yes. . .  I said I could smell what they were cooking on TV. . . Sigh.  I’ve never lived that down.  And I’m sure the bacon my Grandma was cooking for supper that night tasted delicious too.

I also remember the day I realized that Pa Ingalls wasn’t really Pa Ingalls.  I mean, of course if I had thought it through, I would have know all along that he was an actor.  (But if I’d thought it through, I’d also have known that I couldn’t smell bacon over the TV.) So,  if Pa Ingalls was really Michael Landon, what was Michael Landon like?  Was he wise like Pa?  Did he follow God like Pa?  Here was one of my heroes and I actually didn’t know him.  I have this memory of a moment in the back of a car on the way to get groceries with my mom.  I was looking up at the sky through the car window and feeling the different shades of grey of the clouds as they slid by.  There were tears on my cheeks and I was praying – praying that Michael Landon would know God and that he’d go to heaven one day.


prairie hot cocoa

It’s crazy how much those shows influenced my life.  I’d watch them as a grown up and be encouraged to be a better mom, better wife.  I’d show them to my kids.  Something about the ‘Little House on the Prairie’ style of living captured my daughter’s imagination.  She’d dress up in bonnets and aprons and play with her friend Ellie for hours.  Then when her little girl cousins came to visit, she planned an outting to the woods and topped it off with a tea party – ‘Little House on the Prairie’ style.

I guess I don’t mind being a little (or a lot) naive. I love that my kids saw the beauty in the simple, loving life of the Ingalls family.  I loved that family too – probably because it reminded me a lot of my own.

Practical Penny

micro teaI have to dig through her cupboards when I go over to Penny’s for coffee. She actually doesn’t even have coffee unless she goes out and buys it specifically for me. She has some dusty boxes of tea behind the honey in her pantry shelf. She doesn’t have a kettle either. And she is fairly sure that 2 minutes is too long to microwave the water but she’ll let me do what I want.

She and I are opposites in almost every way. I’m short and fair. She’s tall and dark. I’m optimistic. She tends to imagine the worst possible outcome – that way she is never disappointed. She leaves the house prepared for any eventuality – snacks, tools, extra clothes, maps, plans etc. I forget what I should bring but am good at making do without.

One thing we do have in common is the value we place on family. Her husband and two boys are her focus. She loves her sister and they get together often – giving the cousins a chance to connect as well. I’ve never met her parents though -they had both passed away by the time our paths crossed.

When she told me her birth mom had contacted her, I had visions of it being an amazing thing for her – a completing moment – one where lots of her questions were answered. Family matters so much to her, you see. But instead she asked me, ‘Why should I write to someone I don’t know?’ She wasn’t mad at her birth mom or anything but she already had  a family. I think my view of finding birth parents has been skewed by reading too many books. She did eventually write, but she couldn’t pretend it was this amazing, fulfilling moment for her. She wrote because it was the kind and generous thing to do -and because she could. And that is who Penny is.

More than her two boys call her mom. She works in the high school and all the kids know she tells it like it is. She reminds girls that leggings aren’t pants and tells e-cigarette smokers that she’s not stupid. They love her because she doesn’t only care – she gets involved.

Yeah – she may not be the ‘sip-and-share-feelings-over-a-cup-of-coffee’ type. But she’ll make some luscious dessert and push a mug of microwaved water my way and listen. And if I give her the sense even slightly that I have a need, she’ll ask what she can do to help. And it’s no half-way offer. She’ll make it happen. She’s no idealistic, someday type of girl. She’s Penny.