His Eye is on the Sparrow
by Karen Beaumont
Dedicated to Pierre Lioni Ullman and with gratitude for the life we tried to build together.
from Isaiah, “The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
9They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain...”
from Servitude and Grandeur, published in 1830 by Alfred de Vigny and translated by Pierre Lioni Ullman,
“It may be true...that there is no greater sorrow than to recall a happy time in the midst of extreme poverty. It is just as true that the soul finds some happiness remembering, in a moment of calm and liberty, times of sorrow and slavery.”
The Soul selects her own Society —
Then — shuts the Door —
To her divine Majority —
Present no more —
Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing —
At her low Gate —
Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat —
I've known her — from an ample nation —
Choose One —
Then — close the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone —
by Emily Dickinson
“Hey there, sweet girl,” Gabriel whispered into Phoebe’s ear, “did you sleep?”
“Yes. Why did I need so much sleep after sitting on a bus for hours doing nothing? I’m really ready to get back to my sewing machine.”
“I’ll make some tea and get things ready. What if we get our land legs back before you sew? I miss the Plains of Abraham.”
Phoebe and Gabriel had just returned from a 10-day bus trip from Quebec City to Ontario. It was the first time back for each of them in ten years. They may not have made the trip, but COVID ripped through each of their communities, taking the lives of many relatives. Because of the pandemic, there were no funerals.
The pandemic, however, began to ease, and they talked about going.
It wasn’t an easy decision to make the trip – away from the work they had and back to the communities they intentionally left.
“Maybe we’ll learn something,” Gabriel said.
“I can go,” Phoebe answered, “because you will be with me.”
Both of them knew that this statement was not simple or without qualification.
They had met in the kitchen of a youth hostel ten years earlier.
Gabriel was standing in front of the microwave, flummoxed.
“Excuse me, do you speak English?”
“Yes,” said Phoebe, who was preparing her own meal.
“Can you show me how to work this?”
She laughed, “I just learned myself.”
“Where I come from, we didn’t have these.”
“Where did you come from?”
“Ontario. We’re Old Order Mennonites.”
“I come from Ontario, too, but we are Metis and poor ones at that. Why are you here?”
“That’s a long answer, and I could probably ask you the same question. Let’s deal with the microwave first.”
Phoebe helped Gabriel and then returned to her cooking.
“You can join me if you’d like. I’ve been eating alone for a month now, after living with eleven people at the table.”
Phoebe was born into an Old Mennonite Order family who had a farm in Ontario.
When she was twelve, her mother said, “You’re old enough to help with the chickens. We need one to cook for supper tonight.”
Phoebe had dreaded this day, hoping that her mother would forget and ask one of her other siblings.
“Mama, I can’t.”
Her mother said, “You will,” and took her hand forcefully, lead her to the chicken coop, and found a way to force Phoebe to follow her orders.
At supper, Phoebe passed over the chicken on the plate, again hoping that no one would notice. Her father noticed and told her to take some chicken.
“I can’t, Papa.”
“Then you won’t eat anything at all.”
That night, while Phoebe lay in bed feeling very hungry, she thought about the chicken and the hunger and being forced to do something which, to her, was unthinkable. She also thought that she was twelve and within six years would be marrying and bearing children – lots of them. The average in her community was eight. Her mother had nine.
Phoebe had watched beautiful young women turn haggard or worse, bearing and raising so many children.
She made up her mind that she would leave at age eighteen, and she prayed a way would be made.
The prayer was answered. A woman who had left their settlement went on to become a fashion designer. She would outsource the sewing of her designs to Mennonite woman, as she knew they were excellent seamstresses. Phoebe offered her services, and her parents agreed: a young woman who could help support a family while remaining at home was an attractive prospect for marriage.
Phoebe set to work, learning about the different styles, sewing as much as possible, given her other household chores.
Packages of fabric and patterns came in the mail once a week, and, after the project was completed, Phoebe mailed back the finished product.
After saving a certain amount of money, she decided it was time to make her next move. She added a letter inside the package.
“I appreciate this opportunity very much. I am saving my money, because I want to leave as soon as I am eighteen and begin a new life. Can you give me any advice?”
Thus began her correspondence with someone who could guide her on making her transition to the outside world, so to speak.
She continued to sew, continued to save. In exchange for some of her remuneration, she received fabric to make a few pieces of clothing that she could wear when she left.
She learned the prices of things like a bus ticket, food, and what she would need to buy her own sewing machine and supplies once she settled somewhere.
“Why did you choose Quebec City?” Gabriel asked.
“I didn’t want to be in another rural setting, some small town where everyone knew everyone else’s business. The lady suggested Q uebec City because it is a city but not too big.”
Finally, she had what she needed. The day after her eighteenth birthday, she told her parents she was leaving.
Two days later, the suitcase the lady had ordered for her was delivered. She packed, went to the store in town that sold bus tickets, and left.
“Why do you still wear a scarf on your head if you left? I’m not judging,” Gabriel continued, “Just curious.”
“The sewing lady warned me of this and suggested I sew a few scarves – in other words, lose the bonnet but feel protected.”
Gabriel’s story was different in some ways but not in others.
He grew up in a small Ontario town with a significant population of Metis. His father ran a variety store which provided a steady if somewhat subsistent income for their family of five.
Gabriel loved being with animals and, when he was seventeen and nearly done with school, he thought he would try to earn some of his own money by working on a nearby farm. This was a great idea until the day he learned that working with animals didn’t always mean caring for them; it meant preparing animals to become someone’s meal.
“Well,” his father said, “Where do you think our meat comes from?”
Of course this made sense, but it didn’t change his revulsion, and he quit.
News like this spreads quickly around a small community, and Gabriel experienced some violent bullying at the hands of some of his high school classmates.
He graduated from high school the day he turned eighteen, and the next day at breakfast, he told his parents he was leaving. With the small amount of money he saved from working on the farm, he bought a bus ticket. He packed some clothes and a few other items in a box, tied them up with a string, and waited for the bus that would take him to Toronto.
“That was a pretty big change of scenery.”
“Too big, really, but I thought at least in a big city, no one would know me, and no one would corner me behind a building and smash me in the face while screaming, ‘sissy’.”
When Gabriel got out of the bus station, he went to the nearest, biggest church and rang the office doorbell. Explaining his predicament (nowhere to stay, nowhere to eat, no work), they sent him the direction of a homeless shelter for men.
There he had a bed and people who helped him to find work as a day laborer.
It was summer. The city was hot and big and noisy and, though he was young and healthy, the daily grind of outdoor, manual labor began to wear down his moral.
He went to the library to use their computers, punching in random words in the search box, things like “small Canadian cities” and “animal care”.
He learned about “no kill animal shelters” and that Quebec City had one of these. He contacted them. They didn’t have any job openings at the moment, but, if he was willing to volunteer and learn, he would be prepared for a position when one opened up.
There was also housing and transportation to consider.
Gabriel did his research and did his math. He would make himself available for work seven days a week until he had saved enough to take the next step.
First were the meals together in the hostel dining room, and next came the government sponsored French classes. They were both already bi-lingual. Phoebe spoke a form of Platt Deutsch along with English; Gabriel English and Michif.
By the time neither of them could stay at the youth hostel, as it was not meant for long term residency, they both knew that they were each building a new life and that that life included each other.
Their dreams guided their decisions.
Phoebe continued to sew for the ex-Mennonite clothing designer and also began to be known in the city as someone skilled at tailoring, alterations, and custom design. Within five years, her dream of having her own storefront was realized.
Gabriel’s sensitivity with animals quickly garnered him a full-time position at the no-kill animal shelter.
Lucrative their work was not, but they didn’t need much. They both came from humble backgrounds and living out their hearts desire and with each other made them feel rich beyond anything they could ever have conceived of in the past.
Then COVID-19 swept over the world. With their usual adaptability and resourcefulness, Phoebe and Gabriel met the challenge.
During the lockdown, alterations and tailoring came to a halt, so Phoebe quickly began making masks, offering curbside pickup and delivery to any location she could walk to.
The animal shelter had to reorganize staffing and the influx of animals surrendered due to illness and death. Later, they needed to accommodate an influx of requests for pets as the pandemic wore on and families looked for ways to enhance their home life.
The curveball that was more difficult to manage was the news from their families. Work and distance and limited communication gave them convenient excuses for ten years not to visit and to keep to themselves. While COVID kept them in place for a while, the new of illness, death, and long-term consequences of COVID brought their families and their past into their lives. As restrictions began to lift, they began to discuss a trip “home” together.
Just the act of making the phone calls was difficult. They did one a day.
Calling Gabriel’s family was slightly easier. He was bringing a young woman along.
“So, I guess you’re not completely a sissy after all,” his father quipped, “But you know we don’t have room for you.”
Phoebe braced herself for what response her father would give.
“Well, you’d better find somewhere else to stay. You’re not going to sleep like a cheap woman in my house.”
They borrowed some camping equipment and backpacks from a colleague of Gabriel’s at the animal shelter, stocked up on vegan camping food, and bought open ended bus tickets. They budgeted for fourteen days away.
They first went to Gabriel’s small town. Whatever minimal charm his town had before he left had been stripped away by COVID. Twenty five percent of the residents had died. Store fronts were closed. Everyone’s cars were old and more dilapidated that before. Gabriel had lost two aunts and an uncle. One brother was still on oxygen, and his mother suffered widespread joint swelling.
Gabriel’s healthy mien and mature confidence, born out of living out his calling and beliefs, were a stark contrast to this landscape, and, much as he tried to bend, as it were, to what he found, just his presence was an insult.
Things were not much better on Phoebe’s family farm and the surrounding community. The communal nature of the Mennonite community and their natural tendency to respond skeptically and slowly to outside instruction had significant consequences when it came to the pandemic.
Her siblings, all married, had lost crops because they were unable, due to illness, to harvest on time. One niece and one nephew, though young, were suffering from long-term consequences. Her parents had also been sick and had not recovered their strength. In her mother’s case, this meant her mental strength as well.
Showing up with a man she lived with without the benefit of marriage and in “civilian” cloths, cooking her own meals on a camp stove instead of eating with the family wedged an even deeper gap between her and her family.
“So,” her one sister asks, “why do you still cover your head if you live like a loose woman?”
Phoebe had no answer.
They hadn’t told anyone how long they would stay, and the chilly receptions they received confirmed the wisdom of this choice.
The longest leg of the journey home was from Toronto to Quebec City. They spoke little and took turns sitting next to the window when they were huddled together, sleeping.
After breakfast they walked to the Plains of Abraham overlooking the St. Lawrence. Though August, the early morning was cool. The Plains were quiet in the morning: walkers and joggers kept to themselves.
Phoebe and Gabriel walked hand in hand like they always did.
“You’re humming that song again. What is it?”
“It’s a hymn from my childhood.”
“I’ve never heard you hum it. Why now?”
“Because, after this trip, I understand the words.”
“Will you sing it to me?”
Walking beneath the broad canopies of the red maples, Phoebe began:
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me; His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me. I sing because I'm happy. I sing because I'm free. For his eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.