Posts Tagged ‘Mennonites’

the problem with piercings

A flowered dress over polyester pants was one indication that I was a Mennonite kid.  Not wearing jewelry was another.  My Old Colony Mennonite parents likened ear-piercing to self-mutilation.  If God sanctioned holes in my head for the purpose of adornment and vainglory, why, he would have saved me the trouble and put them there himself.  That was how they saw it.

All my little Mennonite contemporaries and I could do was gaze in wonder and envy at tiny matching butterflies, lustrous pearls and gold hoops adorning the ears of the English girls.  “Rubies are my birthstone,” Denise Hodges explained to the class at show and tell.  She turned to present her profile and used both hands to turn the sparkly red emblem in her ear.  Emeralds are my birthstone.  My bohemian mother sewed me a yellow dress emblazoned with green checks in which to parade my birthright.

I took links from old broken necklaces and bracelets and pressed them into my ear lobes – when my parents weren’t looking, of course.  I hid these trinkets in my room but when I wore them before the mirror, I was almost as beautiful and sophisticated as the English girls at school.

In the summer when I was fourteen I asked Ange Martens to pierce my ears because she was fifteen and knew all about it: she had watched other people pierce ears and so I trusted her expertise without reservation.  I put ice cubes to my ears to freeze them while she sterilized the point of a safety-pin in the flame of a bic lighter.  When my ears were numb, she slowly worked the safety-pin through them and stopped the holes with a pair of cheap gold-coloured studs.  Pulling my hair back to view them before the mirror was the crowning moment of my short life.  Denise Hodges’ rubies turned a scuffed, pallid pink in comparison. diamond

My glory didn’t last long though.  I hid my ears from my parents behind my hair on even the hottest days but they turned red and painful to the touch.  They swelled up around the studs and oozed fluid no matter how carefully I cleaned them.  I held out for longer than was sensible – in the fall my parents had pulled me out of public school and enrolled me in the newly established Old Colony Mennonite private school and so rebellion became a matter of principle.  Eventually, trying to keep my hair over my ears while hopping double-dutch skip rope threatened to ruin recess and the pain overcame my convictions.  I took the earrings out.

When I was about twenty-two, I made an appointment to have them re-pierced at a chic little salon in town.  My experience with Ange and the ice cubes had impressed in me the notion that even the humblest of estheticians provided their clients with an anesthetic, but now a swab across the ear with a smelly antiseptic, a shot of blunt force through my feeling flesh and I was stunned, done and dusted almost before I knew where I was.  Still, I thought as I left the salon with tingling ear and watery eye, I’d bettered my chances for success this time by having my ears professionally pierced.

ice cubeI was wrong again.  They became just as infected and painful as the first time.  I took the earrings out again, this time forever.

Removing them from my ears was the easy part.  But a diamond swaying from the lobe of a perfectly perforated gal pal was enough to make me lose my place in conversation.  A gold hoop grazing an elegant neck in the pew in front of me was enough distract me from a spirited exegesis of 1 Peter chapter 3.  As it turned out, purging the earrings from my heart was another matter altogether.

Forever lasted seventeen years.  Assured that my problem could be solved by fitting my ears only with 14 karat gold, I had them pierced again in April this year.  They didn’t get infected, exactly.  They just got irritable and refused to heal.  But because they hurt less than previous times, it took me three tries to give them up.

At first, I bargained with myself.  I allowed myself two glorious hours to wear an exquisite pair of diamond drop earrings I’d laid away for the time when my ears would be healed.   Once the two hours expired, I said, I would take them out and commit my body to unadorned asceticism forever.  But the pleasant weight when they dangled from my ears only reeled me further in; the sensation against my neck when I tilted my head as intoxicating as I’d dreamed it would be and I could not give it up.

Clean exasperation fuelled the second try.  I pulled the studs from my ears, tossed them on the bathroom vanity and stepped into the shower unfettered and glad to be done with the troublesome business.  Less than ten minutes later I clambered out, groped for the studs and pushed them back through the holes, fearful lest they’d already begun to close.

They’re closed now though, for good this time (really).  I’ve finally accepted a bit of inadvertent truth in my parents’ puritanical restriction against ear piercings: metal rods don’t belong in my flesh.  Woe betide me should I ever need a hip replacement.  I’m okay though.  I’ll always be a Mennonite girl and maybe this is how God heads me off when I subconsciously try to escape that.

Besides, it doesn’t mean I can never wear earrings.  I didn’t want to try clip-ons at first; I assumed the only style they flattered required shoulder pads and an androgynous haircut but they’re actually not that bad.  They deliver that deliciously dangly sensation when I tilt my head almost as perfectly as the diamond drops.  I’ve laid those away until someone worthy enough to receive them comes along.



Mr. Penner’s Predicament

Mr. Penner was a catechism teacher in Sunday school when I was a little girl.  His wife never bore him children and he compensated with unsolicited concern for the way other people raised theirs, much to their irritation.

You might think the absence of tiny feet padding the Penner halls afforded Frau Penner an easy, if empty life but you would be wrong.  Mr. Penner never did anything for himself that Frau Penner could just as easily do for him, whether laying out his clothes or fetching a glass of ice water and in this way, he occupied her with more demands than ten Penner progeny could have supplied.  Some even say she had to tuck him into bed at night before she herself was allowed to retire.  I’d need a better source than a flock of flowered dresses fanning flames of petty tittle-tattle Tuesday mornings at the Aylmer Sales Arena before I’d credit such absurdity to poor Mr. Penner.  Still, others might say a fellow gaining notoriety among his Old Colony Mennonite contemporaries as a male chauvinist is its own testimony.  Mr. Penner 

He would gladly have died before she did in order never to be without his beloved Frau Penner but the usually accommodating woman ignored this final behest.  She passed quietly away just before Christmas last year, leaving Mr. Penner inexorably, and unbearably, alone.


One morning two weeks ago, I dropped in on Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Klassen, an elderly couple I often visit near Aylmer.  Mr. Klassen sat sprawled on the living room sofa.  He looked tired but I knew he wouldn’t nap.  He wore white sport socks under black dress pants and shiny black shoes which only meant that he was going somewhere, and it wasn’t to the grocery store.  His face looked dour, as though he would have preferred Price Chopper to where ever it was he was going.

“Are you going somewhere?” I asked, including Mrs. Klassen to be polite.

“Not me.” she said quickly, darting a glance at her husband from her arm chair.  He only frowned and stared at the picture window.

“He’s driving Mr. Penner to Mrs. Hildebrandt’s for a visit.” she explained when it became clear that Mr. Klassen would not.

I must have looked confused.  “Mr. Penner wants to court her.”   she looked as if she dearly wished Mr. Klassen would do his own explaining.   

I turned my gaze back to Mr. Klassen.  I’d seen him wear many hats in his life: husband, father, farmer and factory worker, but match-maker was a new one to me.  I don’t think he liked it much.  “It’ll never work.” he said grimly.  “Penner wants a woman who’ll make sure that he doesn’t have to raise a finger to help himself.  The trouble is, Mrs. Hildebrandt wants the same kind of man.”

“Doesn’t he know that?” I asked.

“He’s never seen her!” he exclaimed.  “He heard that I drove her to the doctor once.  That was good enough for him.  He’s hired Hän Hiebert to drive him over here so that I can show them over there.” 

A peal of laughter escaped my lips but I drew it up short.  A very little more provocation would have left Mrs. Klassen to finish the story. 

Mr. Klassen drew himself up on the sofa.

“When Penner sees her there in that sitting room full of dusty gimcracks and her biiig –“ his arms drew a wide arc over his stomach to give a picture of the widow Hildebrandt’s ample proportions – “he’ll know that she won’t do for him.”

 The widow Hildebrandt was not a fastidiousness housekeeper, but she’d cleared a path for her wheelchair through the bric-a-brac to the front door where with beaming, upturned countenance she greeted callers and preceded them, single file back into the recesses of her fusty, crowded quarters.  If she needed to reach a book or knitted Kleenex box somewhere beyond the constraints of her wheelchair, she stood up, clambered over furniture or piles of laundry to retrieve the object and resumed her seat and role of invalid as though nothing were in the least out of the ordinary. kleenex box     

Still, I thought, allowances might be made for shoddy housekeeping and an expanding waistline if she had other attributes to make up for them.  Especially since Mr. Penner with his squat figure and nasally twang was no Adonis himself, nor likely ever had been.  I asked,

“Is she generally a happy person?”

“She laughs a lot.” Mrs. Klassen conceded doubtfully, “But I don’t know if she’ll laugh today.”

A blue minivan pulled up and Mr. Penner’s knee-high rubber galoshes emerged from the passenger side.  Mr. Klassen let him into the kitchen and turned to gather up his coat.

“When you don’t know how to get where you want to go, you’ve got to take on someone who does.” said Mr. Penner half-apologetically.

“Yes.” said Mr. Klassen and put his hat on.

“Of course, I don’t know if this is going to work out.”

“No.” said Mr. Klassen.  The door closed behind them.

While we waited for the men to return, Mrs. Klassen and I set about light housework and lunch preparations.  I stirred a pot of stew and speculated on Mr. Penner’s chances of securing the widow Hildebrandt to be his lawfully wedded wait staff.   Mrs. Klassen set dinner plates and looked as though she wasn’t sure I should joke about it. 

Lunch was ready and the table set but the men did not come.

“It’s a good sign,” I assured Mrs. Klassen.  “It means they’ve found lots to talk about.”

We had no way of knowing how long the widow Hildebrandt might detain them with the gaiety  and effervescent laughter which even now trimmed inches from her figure in the eyes of her captivated paramour so we sat down to eat.  When we were almost finished the blue minivan drove up the lane and Mr. Klassen entered the house, alone. 

My curiosity was almost at its peak; I could not have remained silent for five more minutes but I busied myself with rearranging cutlery and held my tongue.  Mrs. Klassen couldn’t be bothered. “Well?” she said.

Mr. Klassen emitted something between a harrumph and a snort.  “It’s like I said,” said he, as he ladled stew into his plate.  “He looked at her and knew she wouldn’t do for what he wanted.  She looked at him and told him she’d turned a share of fellows away in her time and might have to do it again.”

 We may never know exactly what about Mr. Penner put the widow off.  Maybe something in his attitude tipped her off to his motives for seeking a wife.  Maybe it was the galoshes.  Whatever the reason, it formed her resolve: she was having none of Mr. Penner.  As though to soften the blow when he took his leave, she told him she would send word by Mr. Klassen by the second of March whether or not he should call again.  She needn’t have troubled herself.  Mr. Penner was no keener about the prospect of any future confab with the widow than she was with him.

“Then what took you so long?” asked Mrs. Klassen.  While he ate, her husband relayed the details of a morning which could not have been more unlike the romantic tryst I’d envisioned between the widow and Mr. Penner.

His wife had died less than three months before but the widow Hildebrandt was not Mr. Penner’s first conquest since then.  The long-suffering Frau Penner was barely cool to the touch when Mr. Penner set about finding a stand-in from among his peoples’ widows and “old girls”, the community’s diplomatic term for “spinster” (not that “spinster” beats it by much) but they were no more eager to succeed her than Dame Hildebrandt was, maybe minivan2 

This last disappointment tallied a predetermined number of attempts in his mind.  His fortitude could not endure another.  On quitting the widow’s house in Tillsonburg, the blue minivan with the obliging Hän Hiebert at the wheel sped westward, past Mr. Klassen’s turnoff to neighboring Aylmer and pulled up to Chateau Gardens, the town’s old folks home where Mr. Penner signed his name to the establishment’s waiting list and resigned his career as aspiring Casanova for good.  

It’s for the best, I think.  The staff and nurses there will feed him, monitor his pills and keep him in clean shirts.  He won’t need to romance any but the pretty ones and if a tender attachment should take root between him and another tenant, it will discover a kinder garden to grow in than the parched and stony plot he had to offer the widow Hildebrandt.  Not that she would have taken him even if he did know how to open a can of tuna.  She’s a plucky old girl for all her wheeling about on that enigma of a wheelchair and she’s turned away her share of fellows before.  I reckon she’ll do it again. 

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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