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Yarrow, British Columbia

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Esther Epp Harder, Edwin Lenzmann, and Elmer Wiens

Biographies and Obituaries

DERKSEN, John Edward

December 23, 1921 - September 4, 2011

Journey of John Edward Derksen

John Edward Derksen was born December 23, 1921 in Kalantarovka, Kuban Settlement, in the north Caucasus region of Russia. The family left Russia in 1925, leaving behind several aunts, uncles and their grandmother. In Southampton England, while en route to Canada, he contracted infantile paralysis (polio) resulting in a disabled left leg. After eight months, the family left for Canada. Their ship, the "Menadosa", travelled up the St. Lawrence River to Quebec City. The Derksen family lived in several locations throughout Saskatchewan, eventually settling in Watrous, Saskatchewan in 1928. The economic depression and dust storms of the "Dirty 30s" made farming difficult. In 1932, the family moved to Yarrow, British Columbia. Perhaps the story of Dad's piano best describes the rest of the journey. In an interview just two months ago, Dad recalled the following:

He was 19 - with very little money. For years he had cut cord wood, picked hops, and worked in tobacco fields. Most of his earnings supported his parents. School work was squeezed between jobs. Because of his physical disability, school became more important. He attended Yarrow Elementary and Chilliwack High School, graduating in 1942. In his senior school years, he was baptized and joined the Yarrow MB Church. Music played a central role in the church. He loved to sing: quartets and choirs always needed resonant basses. But he also longed to play the piano.

So at age 19, he went to Williams Piano House on South Granville in Vancouver. He bought a used, upright Ennis piano for $200. It occupied a prominent place in his parents' living room in Yarrow. Tuning was needed, but it was too expensive. It would have to wait. But why a piano? For a 19 year-old lad from Yarrow? Well, Mrs. Wiebe was teaching piano and he wanted to take lessons. It would help him with his singing. He had some previous knowledge of music. He could locate "Middle C" and thus had his "Doh". Three years of lessons enhanced his skill and repertoire.

Soon more than a piano was needed. He attended Yarrow Bible School for a year and then worked in the office of Yarrow Grower's Co-op for three years. With his earnings, he could buy a car - an old 1931 Model A Ford. Now he could take Freda Brucks on a date. They were married on September 23, 1945.

A two-room house on Cherry Avenue was their first home. The piano was the largest piece of furniture. And it rarely rested. Piano teacher, Lily Harms, used it several days a week to teach students. Dr. Vaughn from Chilliwack used it to teach singing lessons. With several friends (Nick Dyck, Cornie Balzer) he learned Italian arias, German lieder and English Art Songs. Mom listened and learned and served tea and cookies. Later, a fourth voice formed a quartette and a radio broadcast on CHWK Sunday morning followed.

A first pregnancy prompted the selling of the small house on Cherry Avenue. Our parents and the piano were now much more comfortable in a larger house on a 19-acre farm. The first baby was born (Harold in 1946). Another move followed to a 3-acre farm and a second baby was born (Elaine in 1948). Farming became less desirable and more challenging with Dad's disability. Going back to school seemed logical. With our mother's support, Dad completed Grade 13 in Chilliwack. A move to Vancouver facilitated further schooling and more profitable work. A third baby, (Ruth) was born in 1949. After three years at MacMillan Bloedel Sawmill and three years at CPR Telegraph, Dad was finally able to go to Vancouver Normal School. Finances were tight. Mom worked many part time jobs. The piano was now a luxury. It was sold to Grandmother Brucks for the price he had paid: $200. Tuning was too expensive so it was moved "as-is" to Grandma's house on 59th and Culloden. Dad graduated with his Teaching Certificate in 1956. Stability returned with a Grade 5 class in Richmond for three years. But the piano was missed. It sat on the cold cement in our Grandma Brucks' basement (which did not help the tuning). But playing the piano in Grandma's basement was a treat. We begged to go more often. Finally our parents were able to afford to buy the piano back — for $200. No inflation and no depreciation. What a thrill. Now we could play any time. Lessons followed. A piano teacher from Yarrow, Lilly Harms, had moved to our neighborhood.

Two more babies (Lois in 1955 and Daphne in 1956) and a few more moves throughout Southeast Vancouver took its toll on everyone, including the piano. Bumps, scratches, changes, adjustments ... Then a more significant change: In 1959 Dad accepted a job at Abbotsford Senior High School. The Derksen family moved to Arnold in Sumas Prairie and lived there until 1966. The piano now got even more mileage — practicing for lessons, church choirs, congregational singing, trios, quartettes, weddings and funerals. The new baby (Ruby in 1963) did not have much peace and quiet.

More moves followed: a new location in Abbotsford in 1966, new school appointments, and new churches (Clearbrook MB and Ross Rd. MB) with more lessons, solos, quartettes and choirs. The poor piano couldn't hold its tune for long and of course there was never enough money for such an indulgence. Dad retired from teaching in 1983 (at age 61). Our parents travelled more, volunteered at a home for disabled in Manitoba, and worked at Columbia Bible Camp — enjoying their freedom. With all the children gone from home, the piano got most of its attention during family gatherings with children's recital pieces, the ever-present "Chopsticks", Christmas carols and hymns. Now the place that Mom and Dad called home for many years is for sale. Possessions have been sorted and divided, but the piano remains in the family. It needs a good tuning, but if anyone's interested — perhaps you could offer $200. Dad would likely be very pleased. Regardless, we are assured that Dad is now freely singing, playing the piano, perhaps the old organ and maybe even a harp — with flawless skill and perfect tuning.

(Ruth Derksen Siemens, September 2011)


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