My grandfather Peter P. Wiebe was a poet and musician, although Canadian immigration policies compelled him to earn a living, meager as it was, by farming. I was once told the story of how he would make music by throwing differently sized pebbles into a pond. Now I have a new picture of him, practicing violin solos standing on the wagon bed on the way to church. It’s from a new book of poetry, Paper House, by my cousin Jean Janzen. My mother, Katie Funk Wiebe, says the opening line refers to a huge portrait of the entire Wiebe family, in the Ukraine, about six by eight feet hanging in Jean’s hallway. Peter Wiebe was the oldest son in this family and left for Canada in 1913, together with his wife’s family. He left his own family behind in the Ukraine. Two brothers followed a few years later. One of them was Jean Janzen’s father.
FAMILY PORTRAIT — In memory of Peter Wiebe, 1886-1951
Now that you stand life-size in our hallway,
I talk to you, my uncle, oldest son
standing tall in the triangle of misery
and loss, the one who dared to leave.
Leaning into the heave of the ship,
ocean spray blurring the future,
you opened a path for my father
to follow, away from desperation,
not toward wealth, but music and a love
for words where fields lay open to rain
and drought, those furrows testing you.
Can beauty germinate in stony land?
My father found you plowing when
he arrived, northern light pouring
its long hours on your shoulders.
And then at night, hands sore and swollen,
with pen you seeded for us all
a raw loveliness of telling,
mud-caked and fertile. They say
your practiced violin solos standing
in the wagon on the way to church,
Aunt Lena driving the horses.
Dear Peter, I stand here holding
your songs, stories, and poems,
all rooted in struggle, even this page,
where I plant your wounds
with gratitude and remembrance. –– Jean Janzen