A Serendipitous Power-Walk on a Cruise to Hawaii

by Zena Deibert

Charles, Vern and George together at sea
Charles, Vern and George together at sea

I adhere to the adage that a ‘stranger is a friend that you have not yet met.’

l have lived and worked in a farming community of about 200 people in sparsely populated Saskatchewan, Canada for much of my 37-year marriage. In my personal travels to China, Nigeria, U.A.E., Mexico, Caribbean and U.S.A., I have met a few people who know where the hamlet Denzil is located, but I had never met a shirt-tale relative so far from home until our latest cruise to Hawaii.

My serendipitous encounter happened aboard the cruise ship, Golden Princess this March when my husband, George, and I were on our Hawaiian cruise. I was taking a morning power walk on the Promenade Deck when I overtook a gentleman on a similar mission.

I squeaked out a “beep, beep” when passing and not wanting to miss an opportunity to chat, I walked alongside him and asked, “where are you from?” Vern told me he was from Los Angeles, and that initial question led to more. As we walked, I found out that he was a retired accountant and a frequent Princess passenger. I told him that I was a retired teacher/principal who had worked in a number of provinces and countries and now was working harder than ever as a farmer’s wife (a.k.a. ‘Debbie Domestic’) on a grain farm. I didn’t foresee that my introductory remarks would unfold a personal and professional connection.

Since he was a Southern Californian, I was quite surprised to hear that Vern had visited my hometown of Denzil. However, I learned he’d attended three family reunions hosted in Unity, Saskatchewan. Vern’s heritage followed an all-too-familiar history for people from my area.  I had recently completed my husband’s family history to commemorate my mother-in-law’s 95th birthday, so I was familiar with the pattern: The first generation emigrated in search of homesteads; the second generation expanded the family farm; and the third generation (like my husband) marked their recent 100 year anniversaries of the family farm.

If Vern’s father and/or uncles homesteaded in the Denzil district, it was quite likely that Vern’s relatives were still in the area and that I had most likely taught Vern’s cousins and/or their children. He confirmed my suspicions with the mention of his surname: Wildeman. Although Vern’s father returned to Kansas to farm, his brother Frank remained in Saskatchewan, where I did, indeed, teach Vern’s cousins. Not only that, but he and my husband, George, are related by marriage through George’s half-sisters.

A member of the organizational committee for the first Wildeman family reunion (which attracted a whopping 1,000 relatives) was my sister-in-law Beatrice, with whom Vern has kept in touch with over the years. Now Vern was flabbergasted and we actually stopped walking and kept on talking!

I told Vern about his relatives I knew – about my husband’s half-sisters Beatrice and Marlene who lost their mother, Elizabeth (a Wildeman and Vern’s first cousin) to cancer when the girls were very young and for a brief time, the sisters lived with their Wildeman grandparents (Vern’s paternal uncle and aunt) in Denzil. Later, their father remarried and my husband is the eldest child of this ‘second’ family.

Vern was overjoyed to hear that George, his brother Charles and his wife, Marie, were onboard so we made plans to have lunch. Our first meeting was in the Bernini dining room and despite the fact that Vern, George and Charles weren’t ‘blood relatives,’ there was a distinguishable familial rapport.

During the cruise, I emailed a picture of Vern standing with George and Charles to George’s sister Beatrice with the caption, “Guess who we met?” Bea reacted the same way that Vern and I had – she immediately recognized her cousin Vern from Los Angeles and was in disbelief that her brothers and her cousin would meet in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

We made sure to get together a few more times during the cruise. This ‘happenstance’ with Vern and Francine Wildeman was so aptly hosted by our beautiful floating-hotel, Golden Princess, and her professional crew; the impeccable service in the dining rooms, a multitude of activities to attend, the availability of conversation nooks on the ship and, of course, the Promenade Deck for our daily power-walks.

A number of months have passed since we Deiberts said good-bye to Vern and Fran, but we continue to correspond via e-mails and use our mutual relative, Beatrice, to relay our news. From a recent message, Vern expressed his delight that ‘our story’ is of interest to the Princess cruise line and I ‘hear from Bea’ that Vern and Francine have booked another Princess cruise.

This connection pleasantly reminds us that even upon the vastness of the sea, the world can be a pretty small place after all.

Zena and her family are currently in the midst of harvest season on their farm in Saskatchewan. They look forward to future travels and meeting more interesting people.