On a foggy morning one early March, I met a tiny woman encased in a puffy tan coat. I loved her from the moment I saw her — the tiny, intense perfection of her, the way her glasses sat sharp and clean on her face, the bright look of her eyes, the way all her wrinkles massed upward when she smiled. She was Ojibwe. Her name was Charlene.
At that time, I drove for a company called Indianhead Transit and had been assigned to take Charlene to her dialysis appointment. I helped her to my car, my steps excruciatingly slow to match hers, got into the driver’s seat and backed into the foggy street.
“The Ojibwe have a saying about the fog,” Charlene said. “They say, ‘The Creator sent the clouds to Earth.’ ”
We talked a lot about God on that dialysis trip.
“I am amazed at how he made everything on Earth round,” she told me. “The leaves are round. The drops of water are round. The scales on a fish are round. Even the little blades of grass, when they first come up, are curled into a ball. It just makes me love him so much.”
There was wonder in her voice, joy in her eyes.
I asked if she believed in Jesus. She considered a moment.
“Yes, the Ojibwe have taken the Creator’s Son, Jesus.”
But when I mentioned the Bible, she snapped, “The Bible is just a white man’s book!”
I wondered how she could believe in Jesus while not believing in the book that taught about him.
As I got to know Charlene better, I found her a study in contrasts.
She would coo at her little dog in the sappiest, drippiest form of baby talk possible, and 15 minutes later, when the dog displeased her, would yell so harshly it would streak for its crate, her hand raised threateningly behind it.
She was the sharpest, meanest little lady I ever knew, with a perverse sense of humor and a penchant for original slams. “I dig your shoes!” she crowed to a Croc-shod woman once. “Dig a hole and bury them,” she muttered as the woman passed.
She was the most loyal and loving lady I ever knew, a lover of beauty, lover of God. She went hunting only once, and when she had the opportunity to shoot a buck, couldn’t do it — the buck was just too beautiful, she told me.
She held a vehement dislike of Black people and spoke so disrespectfully of them I grew angry. Then she turned around and voted for Barack Obama.
By that time, I realized that with Charlene, you had two choices: You could let her drive you mad, or you could accept her. I chose to accept her.
She also chose to accept me.
She understood what it was like for me to be conservative Mennonite and different. She had grown up Ojibwe and different. She didn’t ask, like others might, if I got cold in the winter because I didn’t wear pants or why I couldn’t go to the fair. She accepted my oddities as a matter of course.
“People have to label everything. Whether Mennonite or half-breed, they label you, and that’s what you are to them,” she said to me one day. “But our friendship doesn’t have to fit a label.”
Fit a label our friendship did not.
We were different in almost every way — one young and one old, one shy and one feisty, one sheltered and one who had experienced the harshness of life. And yet in the middle was a spot we connected, where we shared nerve and muscle and bone like conjoined twins.
She dispelled multiple prejudices of mine — yes, I also carried them — and taught me to see that people are people wherever you find them, that I could understand and be understood by someone from a very different background.
Charlene did eventually read the Bible I gave her and grew in faith as a result.
I also grew. She, with her fresh eyes and unboxed faith, strengthened and deepened my own faith as few people have.
I learned from her to see God in the small, everyday things of life that even a child can understand — things like fog and blades of grass and water at the kitchen sink.
I wrote a book about our friendship. The book is called Turtle Heart: Unlikely Friends with a Life-Changing Bond and came out recently with Elk Lake Publishing. It is available on Amazon.