The Martens House

Mennonites have delightful, lyrical nicknames that represent their characters, or in some cases, label whole families.  I know of Pepsi Wall, Stäla Friesen (Robber Friesen) and De Wille Sawatzkjes (The Wild Sawatzkys) to name a few.  My maiden name is Driedger.  I don’t think we have a nickname.  Or maybe we have one and we don’t know about it.  I doubt that anybody walked up to Stäla Friesen and addressed him as such.

Growing up, our closest friends were De Heena Moatess (The Chicken Martens), so named for the large flock of chickens that Mrs. Martens tended with as much love and care as she gave any of her many children.  The Martens farm was our favourite place to go.  They lived in a large, dilapidated former schoolhouse.  The students within were as unruly as their parents were lenient and broad-minded teachers.  Most children in our community never heard the facts of life from their parents.  The subject was shameful even to whisper about to any but married people, no matter what their age.  But Mrs. Martens discussed pregnancy, sex and menstruation in her children’s hearing as casually as she spoke about the weather.  It is the one subject where Susie Martens’ Low German vocabulary outshines mine.  Old Mr. Martens loved his wife and showed her, openly and affectionately, a shocking sight to conservatively bred little peepers.

They both had smiles as wide and relaxed as their housekeeping standards.  Until Susie and I were about six, we climbed to the second story by a wooden ladder leading up to a hole in the kitchen ceiling.  What were washing and repairs when there were broody hens to set and a winter woodpile to stock?  But dirty dishes and crumbling bricks could not detract from the mood of gaiety and freedom in that house.  The wood stove blazed merrily, children ran amok and newly hatched chicks cheep-cheeped under warm rags in baskets placed in random corners of the house.  When my parents allowed me to spend the night, I curled up under cotton quilts with one or both of the youngest girls in their upstairs bedroom.  The drone of Mr. Martens’ evening prayers floated up through the cracks in the floor and carried us off to dreamland.

This sketch is a surprisingly accurate depiction of the Martens house, from the double row of windows to the laneway on the right.

The old man was trachtmoaka (chiropractor) to the Mennonite community roundabout.  He had no certificate and little to no education, but what he had was better: the ability to see beneath human skin with his hands.  Whether the ailment was a dislocated rib, a pinched nerve or a strained muscle, Mr. Martens’ gnarled fingers could coax it back into place.  Recently my father told me a story about a man who doubted Mr. Martens’ healing power.

“My thumb’s out of place”, he taunted.  “You gonna fix it?”

Mr. Martens took hold of the mocker’s thumb and wrenched from its joint.  He let the man gasp and groan for a spell and then he pushed the thumb back into place.

“It’s fixed.” he said.

Almost everyone in my family had a close friend in the Martens, from my brother Abe and John Martens who were about sixteen years older than me, to me and the youngest Martens girls, Susie and Aggie.  They were as eccentric as their parents and as uncultivated and boisterous as we were shy and reserved.  They came and went without regard to curfew because their parents set none.  Nor did they monitor their children’s friends who came and went just as freely.  But they didn’t miss much; the children exchanged details about their social lives in front of their parents in a way that would have been unthinkable for me.  It made their house an exciting place, but they put me on tenterhooks in public, especially in gatherings of mostly even-tempered and moderately mannered society.  With their bluntness and blase approach to sensitive subjects, one could never predict what wild and outlandish thing they might say.  I tried not to get embarrassed or self-conscious, but that is a very hard thing for a Driedger (at least this one) to do.  Just waking up in the morning is enough to make me self-conscious.

My father was a preacher, and of necessity, he and my mother frowned on Mr. and Mrs. Martens and their unruly offspring, but they could no more stay away from their house than we children.  We held traditional Mennonite hog-butcherings either at their farm or ours.  My mother happily took on much of their harvest canning and freezing so that Mrs. Martens might devote herself to uninterrupted care of her beloved chickens.  Oddly enough, her lack of conventional discipline over her children turned out many healthy and well-adjusted adult Martens.  Susie, for one, never got drunk or smoked a joint in her teenage years or beyond.  Mrs. Martens, now a widow in her seventies, resides in a snug house purchased by her children who still air details about their private lives in her hearing and come and go as they please.

I’m happy to write that Susie and I are still close.  Our differences in temperament have caused conflict between us through the years, but in essence, our friendship remains the same: she still embarrasses me in public and when she drawls “Oh boy”, I know that her patience with my fastidiousness is wearing thin.  She inspires me with her love for God.  Her four children follow in her crazy Martens footsteps.  She was my irrepressable, pregnant maid of honour when I got married,

and I was her…maid of honour.

I think my childhood and teenage experiences at the Martens farm formed my love of Wuthering Heights.  They both feature a huge old house full of rowdy, rustic inhabitants who all talk (or shout) at once around a crackling fireplace.  If you asked them why they do things so strangely they would look at you uncomprehendingly: they’re oblivious (or perhaps indifferent) to the norms and customs of society.

Below are my brother John (sitting) and Jake Martens in their twenties.  I can totally picture John as a dark, brooding Heathcliff in the Martens house.

I think we all need a Martens house somewhere in our lives.  It’s a world apart, a place where people do and say things a little differently than anywhere else, a place where anything can happen and usually does.  Maybe you live at the Martens house.  If so, let me know.  I’d love to come and sit awhile at the fireplace.

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11 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by jdriedger13 on May 9, 2012 at 8:33 am

    We may have been the Praedja Driedgers(feel free to correct my spelling here,I’m just guessing) if we had a nickname. Great blog Tina,you have to write a book one day.

    Reply

    • Thanks John, and you’re right, whenever I run into one of Mom and Dad’s friends and they figure out who I am, they exclaim “Prädja Peeta Driedja’s me’jäl best dü?!”
      Meanwhile, Susie and I wait for our big brothers to take us out to McDonalds…;-)

      Reply

  2. Posted by jdriedger13 on May 9, 2012 at 11:40 am

    can’t believe you still remember that. I think about it every once in awhile and wonder what I ever did with the note you gave me asking to go. I wanted to surprise you two one day when everything worked out so Jake and I and you and Susie were all able to go. It feels like something unfinished,and needs to be to me. Something will have to be done. No surprises now though I guess.
    I don’t have a blog. I signed up without one. I can write a song now and then but I really don’t have that much to talk about. Maybe I’ll just try singing everything.
    Thanks for the proper spelling.(I don’t how to make that ‘a’ with the ” on top though)
    Hey,have you read Rudy Wiebe yet?

    Reply

    • I wrote you a note asking to go to McDonalds?!? That’s so funny! I don’t remember that; I only remember sitting behind you on the cucumber machine and you promising that you and Jake Martens would take me and Susie Martens to McDonalds. When I saw Susie, she told me that Jake had promised her the same thing. I agree, something must be done 😉
      Yes, I’ve read Rudy Wiebe. That’s where I got the inspiration to write about our old family cow, Couah, a few weeks ago. Great read, thanks for lending it to me.

      Reply

  3. I thoroughly enjoy reading your blog! You have a great perspective of the world so I’m awarding you with the LOL Award.

    Now here you go:
    Post the LOL (laugh out loud, for you non-texters out there) badge on your blog
    Write a post that includes the following: a) a thank you to the person who gave you the award (include a link to their blog) b) a clean joke or limerick (just look one up and copy it into your post if you don’t know one- it can even be a knock knock joke!) c) a list of five other blogs (linked) that you’re giving the award to- so we can find more laughs
    Notify the five other blogs that you’ve given them the award and explain to them that they need to copy and paste these instructions on their blog… and complete them

    Thanks for sharing your special brand of humour with everyone!!
    Holly
    Surviving the Madhouse

    Reply

  4. Posted by Mardi on May 15, 2012 at 3:36 am

    thanks Tina, It was well written and versed. It depicted my family well.

    Reply

  5. Posted by Mardi on June 27, 2012 at 3:44 am

    most of all that stuff happened before i came along. we all still sit around a crackling fire to talk… but, you forgot the most important thing we always do… sun-flower seeds (seut knocken)

    Reply

    • You’re right Mardi. And if I remember correctly, the shells didn’t go into the garbage – at first. We spat them straight on to the floor. At the end of the day (or week), someone would sweep them all up at once.

      Reply

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