Old Colony Mennonites are a curious bunch in that they raise huge numbers of children, but limit themselves an awkwardly small list of names to call them by. My Aunt Kathy and Uncle Bill had eleven boys: John, Willy, Pete, Abe, Dave, Isaac, Jake, Ben, Henry, Frank and Dan. As close as I can figure, they used up more than half of the names available to them – Corny, George, Aaron, Herman, Anton, Diedrich, Hans and Andy are all that’s left.
My friend was born Susanna Martens. When she was a teenager, she changed it to Suzen for fear of drowning in a sea of Susans, Susies Sues and Züssas, but she didn’t have it as bad as her four older brothers Jake and John. Her dad was a young widower and father to Jake, John and Liz when he met her mom, likewise widowed and mother to Helen, Jake and John, resulting in the overlap. Together, they happily grafted the braid with a Mary, Abe, Tina, Annie, Aggie, Susanna, and tied it neatly with a Martin.
This dearth of names makes it nearly impossible to distinguish one Pete or one Margaret from another Pete or Margaret in conversation unless you add their last names. It’s easier if Pete marries Margaret because then you can say Pete ‘n’ Margaret and most people will know who you mean. Depending on the weather and availability of Manitoban knack sot (Low German for “sunflower seeds”) at any given social gathering, it’s unlikely you’ll encounter more than two Pete ‘n’ Margaret at the same faspa desch.
If you’re like Sarah Funk though, who wanted to marry Corny Wiebe but lost him to Eva Hildebrandt, people will always refer to you by first and last name to tell you apart from Sarah Reddecopp, Sarah Miller and Sarah Blatz who all work the same shift as you at the tomato cannery. You will be Sarah Funk everywhere other than your immediate family gathering, or worse, Funken Sush (The Funk’s daughter, Sarah), because if you can’t land a husband, you obviously haven’t matured into a separate entity from your parents and never will. This rule applies to everyone unmarried, male and female alike.
You’re title in society is no better. You’re not a single man or woman; you’re an “oola jung” (old boy) or “oola me’jal” (old girl), labels that carry subtle overtones of stunted maturity and social retardation. But since Eva was lucky enough to marry Corny, she gets “sche” appended to her new last name, which is pronounced shə, like the sound in “book”. She is now Mumkje Knaltz Wiebsche (Mrs. Cornelius Wiebe), to the delight of the Hildebrandts if the Wiebes own a lucrative bucklejohn contract or cheese factory, and to the mortification of Funken Sush. After fifteen years of marriage, I still wrestle my pride at giving up my last name to become Mumkje Wallsche. Driedgers are rare as Mennonite surnames go, and when you find them, they’re mostly tall and good-looking. I preen a little when an old-timer at church or the frozen food aisle stops and hails me as Driedjasch Tien (The Driedger’s Tina). I can’t help it. It’s hard to melt into obscurity with the Walls who number more than a hundred just in the Aylmer – Tillsonburg Canpages.
This shortage of names complicates other matters too. Announcing a death that’s occurred in the wider Mennonite community is never as simple as saying, “John Krahn died.” A hush falls as every head in the room turns to look at the speaker. “You mean my Schvoawa in Gnadenthal?” says Ben Guenther, rising from a game of Daum Brat. “Or my Grootfoda in Tamaulipas??” cries Margaretha Zacharias nee Krahn, a borscht spoon frozen halfway to her lips. An inquest ensues to identify the deceased. This is achieved by tracing the lineage of every known John Krahn from his birthplace in Mexico to his migration from Saskatchewan, over the Russian steppes to the Chortitza River and clear back to Prussia. If Ben’s brother-in-law and Margaretha’s grandpa prove exempt, shoulders slump in relief (presumably) and games and borscht resume.
Some people leave conservative churches to join more modern Mennonite sects while their family is still growing. The children’s names start out strong: Abrahams, Helenas and Johans march out into the world in quick succession before petering out in Tims and Rosies. Still other second-generation Canadians modify their own names in an effort to assimilate; Agathas become Angies, Cornys are Cors and tousled, barefoot Johnnys evolve overnight into coiffed and pretty Jons.
Nicknames are another means of telling one Friesen from another but you have to be careful to hear them correctly. I’d long heard tales about Stäla Friesen (a “stäla” is a thief or robber). I figured it marked him as a petty thief among his neighbours. Only a month ago did I learn that he was in fact Steila Friesen (“steil” means steep or upright), so named because his house in Mexico featured a steeply pitched roof in a neighborhood of flat roofs. I’ve never known what his real name was.
My Grandma Fehr always called my Grandpa “Heeya” (say it like you’re executing a karate chop with the accent on the first syllable), which means “Dear” or “Darling” but is only proper to say to your spouse. You don’t snuggle your favourite niece or nephew and call them Heeya…do not do it.
Other older couples call each other “Oola” (pronounced Owlah), which means “old one” but sounds affectionate when they say it, like, “You’re an old fart but I love you anyway.”
The scary ones are those who never call each other anything at all, except “mien Maun” or “miene Frü” (my man or my wife) when they’re obliged to mention them to other people. But this indicates a universal problem rather than anything inherently Mennonite. We love and fret and dream and balk instead trusting God just like everybody does. Every John, Dick and Mary of us.