“Don’t fence me in.
I can’t stand hobbles and I can’t stand fences.
Don’t fence me in.”
My dad could not carry a tune. This did not stop him from singing. He tunelessly sang this song, cobbling together bits of remembered or made-up verses, but mostly repeating the endless chorus of, Don’t Fence Me In.
At 33152 Cherry Street, piano practicing was the only music. And hymns. There were certainly hymns. Other bits of music found their way to us between the news and funeral announcements from the copper and cream coloured Phillips radio. But there was no record collection. No jazz, blues, operas or symphonies. We grew up with hymns and my dad and his song.
He’s told me this story many times. He was 19 and working on the binding machine for a farmer in MacGregor, Manitoba, sixty miles from his hometown of Lowe Farm. The town was almost twice the size of Lowe Farm, boasting two restaurants, three grain elevators and a theatre. He was in the MacGregor Cafe the night of his story, plugging the glowing Wurlitzer with his hard-earned coins. Over and over, he played what would become his life’s theme song, “Don’t Fence Me In.” Finally, a Canadian soldier, home on leave, punched the red Cancel button. Dad always laughs when he tells the ending.
Whenever he told me this story, I always imagined him as the man who was then my dad…but at 19, he wouldn’t have looked like the father I knew. He would have been a strapping tall Mennonite farm boy far away from home. He would be getting used to being called Hank instead of Heinrich. Black and white photos from later years show his gap-toothed smile and sinewy arms. The photos have silenced his laugh though his face is still caught in the animation of it, head thrown back, eyes twinkling, like he’d just told a funny.
At 19, he was a young man discovering this cowboy tune about places where you didn’t have to conform, didn’t have to share three beds with your eight brothers and where there was space to roam without bumping into your six elder sisters. A place where there were probably enough plates for everyone. Where maybe things weren’t so hard, so tight, and so rigid. A place that maybe existed near the edge of their world, that flat place his dad insisted you would fall off if you dared venture too far from home. Did Christ himself not speak of going into the four corners of the world?
At twenty-one, the man who became my dad headed away from the fenced flatlands of the Canadian prairies and into his freedom. Five young Mennonite men piled into Fred Doerksen’s navy blue 1937 Chevy. Hank had asked his employer if he could have three weeks off. After the reply, he had quit. In three days the Chevy arrived on the west coast of BC. At the end of their adventure, his friends headed home, returning to the familiar. Hank stayed in the valley town of Fred Doerksen’s parents.
Back in Lowe Farm, his father died, never having ventured more than 50 miles from the town of his birth. The brothers married local girls and moved to nearby towns. Two of his sisters continued their angry silence that only ended with their deaths.
In BC, after a three-month courtship, Hank married a Saskatchewan Mennonite woman. Their three daughters were born four years apart. Hank began his entrepreneurial life. He doodled endlessly while making deals. He shot rubber bands at his employees, looking away and chuckling when they turned. His hands never stopped fidgeting.
Later, he would be referred to as a self-made man. He would build a big house. Much later, he would be given the keys to the Fraser Valley city he lived in for 56 years.
“Send me off forever but I ask you please,
Don’t fence me in.”
The man in the recliner is 88-years old. He wears track pants that are too loose on his gaunt frame. He has no need of pockets. He no longer carries a wallet. His shirt holds dried bits from his breakfast. His sweater sags too long in the front. Beneath the smooth bandages on his hands is the torn Warfarin-thinned skin. His vision and hearing are almost gone. This is my father.
The Menno Home caregiver sees an elderly man. She hasn’t seen the photos or heard the stories or shared the jokes. She didn’t learn how to wield a hammer and build a tree-fort at this man’s side. She has no way of knowing that those frail hands once split cedar shakes, tamed horses, and soothed a child. She’s never heard him on the phone, cajoling, kidding, closing the deal, smacking his hands together and exclaiming, “Profit is not a dirty word!” She hasn’t seen his formidable anger, or the terror he could evoke in his children when he reached for the shingle on the top of the fridge. She never saw his sure grip on the wheel of his new Buick LeSabre or walked in his buffed and polished Sunday brogues. She’s never opened the ledger to read the long list of second hand cars he bought for widows and prisoner’s wives. She doesn’t realize who resides in this old man’s body.
Dementia. Depression. Anxiety. His eternal optimism has failed him and he is fenced in by his own mind now, a mind caged by worry and held in a body that holds no remembrance of its former strength. They say it started with his heart surgery. The strokes didn’t help. He is tired. His heart is broken. How, after so many years, could it be anything else?
I sit by my dad, resting my hand on his arm, tunelessly humming the song I learned so long ago.