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first person

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Illustration by Rachel Wada

My lifelong passion for current events has lagged a bit these past months, especially as so much of the bad news is right in my own backyard. It’s overwhelming and hard to process at times. More than ever, I find myself asking, “What is my responsibility? What should I be doing? Who’s right and who is wrong? How do I help move things forward? What should I be accountable for collectively and individually? "

We all want to fix the world, then I remember something my mother did years ago that’s helped me get some much-needed perspective.

My parents immigrated to Canada from the Netherlands in the 1950s after experiencing five years of German occupation during the Second World War. The war years were very tough times but they survived and came here looking for a better life for their children. Which they did, successfully, in Alberta.

When I was about 15 in the mid-1970s, my parents purchased a new home. They obviously did not do their due diligence because, horror of horrors, we ended up right next door to German immigrants who also came after the war. And to make it worse, we strongly suspected that Mr. Schmidt, not his real name, had served in the army.

You may be thinking, “What’s the big deal? The war had been over for about 30 years at that point!” Well, it was a big deal. My mother’s childhood home had been appropriated by a German officer. He lived upstairs and my grandparents and mom had to live in two cramped rooms on the ground floor. They had to put up with this while one of my uncles was in a work camp; the second was imprisoned for hiding Jews; and the third had died during the early war years because of a shortage of antibiotics.

My father, on the other hand, worked in the resistance, his home turned into a hiding place for Jews, weapons, radios and an illegal printing press. Friends were arrested and shot by the Gestapo and Dad’s family lived in chronic fear for four years, expecting the knock on the door.

So, 30 years doesn’t really seem that long when you have experienced the trauma of war. Traumatic memories have a way of searing themselves into your soul.

My father refused to talk to the Schmidts, but it was worse than that. He mumbled the odd nasty comment across the fence and threw sour looks every chance he got. He just wasn’t nice to them. I caught on pretty quickly. Mr. Schmidt was probably a card-carrying Nazi, maybe even guilty of war crimes. He likely had a Nazi shrine down in his basement!

I am quite sure the Schmidts were well aware of my father’s disdain and undisguised anger toward them. They scurried away back into their house any time we were outside. Even though I was a typical self-centred teenager, I did sense their isolation and they seemed weighed down by life.

My mother, on the other hand, had a nose for sensing hurting people and her inner world of reflection was not as black and white as my father’s. And so, one day, she gathered some fresh baking onto a plate and hurried outside. I watched through the window as she called Mrs. Schmidt’s name. Before she had time to rush back into her house, my mother called her over and handed her a plate of cookies over the fence. I don’t know who was more shocked, Mrs. Schmidt or me.

My mom never said much about this but over time, the two women shared hellos over the fence and chatted a bit about their children, the weather or whatever it is people talk about over the fence. And then there was the day my brother tragically and suddenly died. There was a knock on the front door which I answered and there stood the Schmidts. She wordlessly handed me a bouquet of flowers and I remember the tears in her eyes as she turned and quickly left. There I was, surprised again.

I never learned anything more about our neighbours or about their role in the war. No great revelations. All I know is that my mother handed some cookies over the fence and a fence was partially mended. I gleaned something about the complexity of life even though I so yearned for the black and white. Oh yes, I also learned something about kindness, forgiveness and grace. Those little things.

As I contemplate the news these days, I feel my mother’s nudge. I may not be able to fix the world but I certainly can share some cookies over the fence, even when the barrier seems impossibly high.

Ellen Freestone lives in Nanoose Bay, B.C.

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