Sometimes it takes a momentous event to shake you out of complacency – to shake you out of your routine – shake you out of taking for granted all the imperceptibly small things that add up to something big.
The event today was a funeral for my friend Paul Penner.
I had not been back to Toronto United Mennonite Church for quite some time. I had been busy making music at a high Anglican Church downtown for a while, so being on Queen Street east today, in the embrace of my cultural family, was one of those moments.
It was one of those gatherings where several generations mingle in orderly chaos – grinning grandmothers struggling valiantly in walkers, gentlemen in suits reciting genealogies, itchy children in white collars, talented teenagers astounding their elders, precarious toddlers drooling over crustless sandwiches – one of those occasions where you look around and feel like you are a part of a warm, whirling contiuüm much larger than yourself; something that has been around for ages and will endure.
When Paul Penner’s life story was recounted today, memories of our journey to Ukraine came flooding back. Paul was born on the shores of the Dnieper river. He and his family were forced to leave there after WW II and came, via a circuitous route, to Canada. Our tour to Ukraine in the 1990’s took us from Kiev to Sevastopol, to small farming communities and struggling rural schools, across the Black Sea to Odessa. Our aim was not only to revisit the Russian Mennonite homeland, but also to reunite family members who had been separated after the war. Paul was particularly successful. He rediscovered two nephews with whom he kept in touch. Both of those nephews now live and flourish in Canada.
One thing that sustained our tour group was singing hymns. When we encountered difficult or joyous memories along the way we would sing “So nimm denn meine Hände” in German. Our mutual repertoire of hymns was a welcome outlet for things we could not express in words. Even so, some stories were so painful, at times it was too difficult even to sing.
Paul and Marie Penner were always committed to mentoring young people. When I came to Toronto in the 1980’s they helped me connect with other musicians, they fed me, and forced me to join up and take my part. Above all, they kept me connected with my heritage community who happened to be very good at singing together.
Years ago I learned how to read music at Listowel Mennonite Church on the fringes of fertile Perth County dairy country. Each and every Sunday morning, standing for hymn singing with my friend Kris Culp, we subconsciously absorbed fabulous poetry, common practice harmony and above all the ability to work together, to perform as a group. Kris and I would spar in a tacit understanding that we would never, ever sing in unison. She and I always had to sing a different part, so we cycled through alto, tenor, bass and the tune during the several verses of each hymn, unknowingly practicing all the rules of voice leading, counterpoint and harmony. I imagine nearly everyone else at Paul Penner’s funeral experienced something similar growing up.
As we sang together today, celebrating a life well lived, at least one singer was shaken out of complacency and truly appreciated that unspoken bond of music, heritage and family.