The Bench

Sarah Janzen

Then a strange thing happened.

One Sunday after church, Nicholai was visited by two youngsters. They introduced themselves as Heinrich and Trudi Janzen. They expressed condolences for Nicholai in the loss of his wife and hoped she had not suffered too long. They said they had noticed that Nicholai was searching for permission to enter North America, but they knew that the quota was closed to both the United States and to Canada. They were also aware that Nicholai and others were planning to immigrate to Paraguay.

Nicholai was amazed at how well these two young kids knew the situation of others in the Mennonite camp in Harbin, but he said nothing.

Heinrich and Trudi continued. “We have a mother, Sarah Janzen. We have lived here in Harbin for a long time, waiting for the right chance to leave. We have no father. Our father died many years ago in Russia. Our mother has been carrying on bravely all these years. She has money and is not poor. Our mother has sent us here to ask you if you would consider being our father.”

Nicholai was stunned. He said nothing for a long time. He did not smile. “Let me think about your request.”

But the two continued. “Are you going to Paraguay?” Heinrich asked.

“Maybe,” Nicholai replied.

“My mother has all the papers to immigrate to the United States. She can take us along as her family. She hopes you will join us.”

The ace card had been thrown on the table.

“Mm,” said Nicholai.

Heinrich and Trudi saw that this last piece of information made a distinct impression on Nicholai’s otherwise expressionless face.

“May we come back tomorrow and ask for your decision?”

“I’ll think about it,” replied Nicholai.

Nicholai did not sleep that night. He pondered the events of the day. He didn’t even know a Sarah Janzen, but that wasn’t too surprising because he had not become involved with the church community since arriving. He had simply gone to church and left for his home after every service.

However, he was only 60 years of age and still felt strong and healthy. He considered himself good-looking and intelligent. Why not? Why not take this opportunity to go to the promised land, the country that everyone had spoken of, the new commercial power of the world? What’s more, the children had said Sarah was not poor. She had money. With his money and hers they should be able to make a good start. But what was she like? Was she strong and good-looking? What was her age? He knew nothing about her.

Tomorrow came and Heinrich and Trudi showed up at Nicholai’s place. Nicholai asked them to join him and go to a spot in the cemetery beside the church. Here Helena was buried. Somehow this place carried significance in the decision Nicholai was about to make. Here on a bench, Nicholai sat down and listened to the two of them.

“Have you considered our request?” asked Heinrich.

“What does your mother say?” Nicholai replied.

“Mother was very happy that you listened to us. She was pleased you did not say no.”

“How old is you mother?” Nicholai asked.

“Mother is 49.”

“Is she healthy?”

“Yes. The immigration officer required a medical examination before the papers were provided to go to the United States.”

“Are the dates selected to leave China?”

“Our departure is scheduled for one month from now. We cannot change the date because then we risk losing our place in the line.”

“Would your mother come to this place so we could meet?” Nicholai quietly asked, casting his eyes down and not looking up to see the children.

“Yes, of course. We will go fetch her right now.”

Nicholai stayed immobile on the bench. He covered his eyes with his hands, his elbows on his knees. The birds warbled above. The breeze rustled the leaves. It reminded him of the orchard in Lindenau.

So much of his life had been lived in the past. But so much life still remained to be lived in the future.

Nicholai’s meditation was abruptly broken by the words, “Mr. Janzen, this is my mother.”

Nicholai stood up briskly and pulled himself up to his full height. His dazed demeanor quickly vanished as he stretched out his hand in formal greeting. A matronly woman stood before him, meeting his glance with fiery eyes while she offered her hand to his.

“Good day, Mr. Janzen.”

“Good day, Mrs. Janzen. Please sit down on the bench. I will stand.”

Sarah noted no nervousness in Nicholai. He appeared to be in complete self control. She felt his eyes evaluating her while she settled herself on the bench. Did she feel ever so slightly that she was being inspected as if she might be a prize horse for sale? Impossible. Forget the thought.

“Heinrich and Trudi have made a good impression,” resumed Nicholai.

Nicholai thought this might be a good beginning. A compliment is always a good way to start an otherwise uncomfortable conversation.

“Yes. They are good children. They have helped me a lot during these difficult years.”

“Would you please tell me in your own words why you sent them to see me?”

“Their father died many years ago. We could not get out of Russia legally. Friends and relatives helped us get to China. But now we have relatives in Reedley, California who are sponsoring us to come to the United States. We have waited a long time for this. It was what we have been praying for.”

“Yes. But why do you come to me?”

“If I go to America I will always be dependent on someone because I am a widow. It is much more difficult for a widow than for a married couple to get ahead. I want to be a married couple.”

“Yes, but why me?”

“Yes. I have asked about you. I am told you were a very successful double Wirtschaft owner in Muensterberg. Even in Siberia you were known to work hard and get things started quickly even under very difficult situations. I have grown to respect you even though we have never met before.”

“Thank you for your compliments. I don’t know what to say.”

“Simply say you will seriously think about my offer to marry you and join my family in our move to the United States. That’s all I wish you to say today.”

“Yes. Sarah. I promise. I will think about your offer.”

Upon hearing this reply, Sarah picked herself up slowly. With one last penetrating look at Nicholai, she joined arms with her children, one on each side, and made her way home.

As Nicholai approached his abode, his family met him and Elizabeth asked, “What was that all about?”

Nicholai looked at her vacantly and said nothing. He continued on past her and into his bedroom. Clearly, he didn’t want to talk with anyone. His family did not follow him into his room.

The clock on the shelf ticked off the minutes. Nicholai could also sense the ticking of the legal clock controlled by the immigration authorities. He felt every beat. Only 30 days.

The path was clear. If he decided to unite with Sarah there would have to be a wedding. Then, as soon as possible, an appointment with the immigration authorities would have to be arranged. That could take weeks. Obviously he had to decide quickly if he wanted this opportunity not to slip away.

The next morning Heinrich and Trudi were at the door.

“Ask your mother to arrange the wedding,” Nicholai said.

And so it was. The next Sunday, in a modest celebration, Sarah and Nicholai were wed in the Mennonite church. The preacher was capable enough to obtain the state approval for the marriage, and so even these documents were properly produced and signed. Since Sarah’s home was bigger and more comfortable than Nicholai’s, he moved in with her and met her children.

They puzzled why he never smiled. But no one had the courage to ask.

Elizabeth and Jacob Isaak, Abraham, Jacob, Isaak and Anna remained in the abode previously occupied by Nicholai. They continued on with their daily routines. No one had been told that Sarah and her family, and now Nicholai, were preparing to leave Harbin and immigrate to the United States. They assumed all of them would be going to Paraguay and their father in due time would have the papers prepared for everyone’s departure.

Sarah and Nicholai immediately requested an appointment to meet with the US immigration officer to make the final arrangements. A date very close to the departure time was provided. There was no turning back now.

The intervening two weeks went by quickly. On the day of the appointment, Nicholai summoned his family together to join him in appearing before the immigration officer with Sarah.

Sarah was ushered into the private office with her children. The official was quite cooperative and signed the release documents for the last time.

“But Sir. I now have a husband.”

“You what?” replied the surprised official.

“I am married now,” Sarah said, producing the marriage certificate signed by the clerk of the city of Harbin.

“Well that’s a surprise. I assume you want your husband to accompany you to California.”

“Yes. I certainly do,” said Sarah.

“Now this is very irregular indeed, but given the circumstances I will consider it. Is your new husband here?”

“Yes. He is waiting outside.”

“Well, bring him in.”

Nicholas was called and joined the group in the official’s office.

“Have you any papers Mr. Janzen?”

“No. I have none.”

“But where do you come from?” continued the official.

“May I tell the story of my new husband?” said Sarah.

“Yes, by all means do.”

The immigration officer leaned back in his chair and patiently listened to Sarah’s story. Nicholai found her story about him remarkably accurate. His regard for this woman grew as he himself listened. When she was finally finished, the official resumed his formal pose and approached his desk.

“You have certainly told a good story, and just as certainly you have found yourself a good husband. As I’ve said earlier, this case is highly unusual. Therefore, I have decided to call this “A Marriage Of Convenience” and let it go at that. Permission is granted for both of you to immigrate into the USA with your children. I will prepare the papers.”

“But what about Nicholai’s children, Sir?” Sarah asked.

“Nicholai’s children cannot join you. They are already grown. They are adults. They have to apply for themselves.”

“But…” pleaded Sarah.

“Please Mrs. Janzen. Let’s not stretch my patience. I have promised to include your new husband in the immigration documents and that’s all. No further discussion.”

And so it was. Sarah emerged from the office with a handful of papers, obviously in charge. Nicholai followed meekly, in shock. What would he tell his family? Until now they had totally depended on him and he had been their elder. He had made the decisions for them and they had followed.

While the pause lengthened, Sarah realized the heavy load Nicholai carried. She decided to beak the ice and lay down the facts.

“Nicholai and I are leaving in two days for the United States. We are sorry. We did ask for permission to bring you along but it was not allowed. I am sure Nicholai will help you with your papers to Paraguay but he will not go with you. Nicholai is coming with us. We now have a lot to do to get ready, so please leave us alone to prepare for our trip.”

Elizabeth and Jacob and the Janzen clan stood speechless and stunned. They were now on their own for the first time in their lives. But nothing was said. Stoically, Elizabeth told them to follow her and they left the premises. Anger boiled, but no one dared say a thing. What was done was done.

MORE pages to follow: click the page numbers below!
Ed Janzen is the editor and publisher of CANADIAN STORIES, a literary folk magazine that publishes short stories and poems from Canadian writers of every province of Canada. Story Quilt is an electronic magazine similar in content. Ed has written four memoirs. He also writes for the old car hobby and has a column in OLD AUTOS - a biweekly newspaper featuring mostly Canadians events and automotive history.
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