My father, Ronald Dornn, died in 2010 after a ten-year battle with dementia. He was 87 years old and it was agonizing to watch his decline. I was in the doctor’s office with my mother when he was diagnosed. We sat in a gloomy, windowless room in a strip mall while the white-coated doctor asked my father a series of questions.
“When is your birthday?"
“April 26, 1923,” my mother replied.
“Who is the Queen of England?”
“Queen Elizabeth,” mom offered.
Please, Mrs. Dornn,” said the annoyed physician, directing his next question squarely at my father. “What is the difference between a cabbage and a cow?”
My dad’s eyes flew open and he burst out laughing. In 1959, he had been voted cow man at Fairholme Colony in Manitoba and for ten years his diligence earned the colony the largest milk quota in the province. Every morning he woke at five o’clock and walked to the barn before daybreak. He loved the quiet, magical way the sun rose and drew back the dark blanket of night. He considered it a privilege to be a spectator to such splendour and be serenaded by birds. His love of nature never grew old.
“You’re a doctor, and you don’t know the difference between a cabbage and a cow?” he asked in astonishment. It was the one light moment in a day that ended with a diagnosis as dark as the doctor’s office.
Dad was born in a small German village called Neuhiem (New Home) situated in the fertile soil along the Black Sea of the Russian Ukraine. His grandparents had immigrated there in the 1700’s along with other German nationals enticed by Katherina the Great, the German-born Tzarina of Russia who gave them tax breaks and other incentives to move to the area. Dad was 5 when his family fled the Russian Revolution and immigrated to Canada.
He was still a young boy when his parents joined the Rockport Hutterite Colony near Mcgrath, Alberta. It’s often been said that leaving a Hutterite colony is difficult but dad found the spectacle of joining a colony equally challenging. At fifteen he was apprenticed to work with the horses at Rockport Colony, a job he loved. I once asked the head horseman who apprenticed dad what my father was like as a young man and he said, “Pfleisich, sauber, und freundlich,” dutiful, orderly and friendly. It made me smile.
Dad’s motto, “things that you do, do with your might, things done by halves are never done right” didn’t sit well with me as a teenager. I was always in a hurry to finish my chores as quickly as possible and find some fun. It took time for me to appreciate Dad’s sense of excellence as a valuable asset.
My dad was a strong stable force in our home. He was our spiritual teacher rounding us up for evening prayers, reading to us and teaching us traditional German Hutterite songs. Our reward for memorizing all the verses of a song was a thick strand of licorice. It greatly inspired our efforts. He continued that ritual until we all left home but somewhere along the line he ran out of licorice.
In 1969 when we left the Hutterite colony, it changed the course of our lives. When I wrote my book, I Am Hutterite, I spent many hours in conversation with my father. He was a humble man and I admired his willingness to consider both his failings and his achievements. He bequeath a legacy of courage, and quiet dignity to his 9 children. I miss him very much.
Happy Father’s Day to Dad’s everywhere including my husband Gordon. Thank you for the important role you play in our children’s lives. And to all those who like me have lost a father, I wish you a special blessing.
(The father and son portrait on my Facebook post is by Hudson Bay, Saskatchewan artist, Sharon Strand Sigfuson)
For books and speaking engagements visit Mary-Ann Kirkby’s website www.polkadotpress.ca or www.facebook.com/maryannkirkbyhutterite
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