Posts Tagged ‘Old Colony Mennonites’

The Mennonite Name Game

Old Colony Mennonites are a curious bunch in that they raise huge numbers of children while limiting themselves to a few select names to call them by. My Aunt Kathy and Uncle Bill had eleven sons: 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. Their dad was a young widower and father to Jake, John and Liz when he met their 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 johnny-automatic-coffee-and-pastryMargaret 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-souplaw 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.  Because we love and fret and dream and balk instead trusting God just like everybody does. Every John, Dick and Mary of us.

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Me and Mennonites

As a Canadian child born to Old Colony Mennonite immigrants from Mexico, I led two distinct lives.  My home and church vinelife consisted of Old Colony food, dress, language and traditions.  My school life was made up of English speaking, English peers and English fun.  My need to fit in drove me to cultivate this life and to take the other one for granted.  Ultra-conservative ways, home-sewn, floral-patterned dresses and Low German conversation were fine at home but in public, they were downright embarrassing.  In Kindergarten I struck a deal with my mom: I’d wear a dress to school every other day.  In between, I’d wear pants, just like the other little girls in my class.  By grade 2, Mom gave up trying to put me in a dress, except on Sunday.  She wouldn’t suffer her last-born to gad about like a boy on Sunday.

My attitude toward the Old Colony people shifted in my twenties.  God gave me a love for them and pride in them.  I marveled at their traditions.  I chuckled at their unique brand of Mennonite humour.  I was thankful that my parents hadn’t allowed me to speak English to them.  I would have forgotten how to speak Low German otherwise, or maybe never even learned.  I hurt when I saw an Old Colony immigrant standing on a sidewalk, scratching his head and trying to decode a bank statement.  I hurt worse when other people mocked their outlandish ways and made them feel unwelcome in our community.  I was caught between the same two worlds, but this time I longed to bring them together.

I volunteered as a driver and interpreter with MCS, a local charity that helps Old Colony Mennonites integrate into Canadian life.  Soon after, I found paying work as a Low German and English interpreter.  It’s rewarding work but building trust with these people is rarely straightforward.  I’d fulfilled my childhood ambition of Canadianizing myself – too well.  I no longer resemble anyone they’d think of opening up to easily.

My family background often helps to put them at ease.  Many of them know my Dad who’s a retired minister in the Old Colony church.  They visibly perk up when they hear that I’m his daughter.  I think they figure that anyone who started out with such promise can’t be a total heathen.

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But the invisible fence that divides us remains.  No matter how friendly we become or how many Mennonite recipes we exchange in the waiting room, I’m beginning to realize that being a credible witness for Christ to them may require more of me than I’ve been willing to give thus far.

A lovely exception to this happened yesterday.  I stopped by a local farm to buy ornamental corn with which to decorate my church at Thanksgiving.  The farmer happened to be an Old Colony Mennonite pastor.  A girl in a long dress with her hair tied back (who turned out to be the farmer’s daughter) helped me to fill a cardboard box with corn.  I paid her and asked her for a receipt so that I could charge the cost to my church’s visual arts budget.  She left for a moment and returned with her father. He asked,

“Where do you go to church?”

I said, “EMMC, at Summer’s Corners.”

He gave the money back to me and said, “You can have it for free.”

I looked at the money. I looked at him.  I said, “Are you sure?”

He replied, “Onns freit daut wan Menschen aun Gott jleewen.”, which forfeits poignancy and warmth when rendered into English, but means roughly, “It gives us joy when people believe in God.”

I scarcely dared to trust my ears.  There I stood, looking every bit a Welt Mensch in my wrinkled pants and short, frizzy hair (frizzy hair alone could not be held against me but in my case, it’s a direct effect of shortness) yet this Old Colony pastor counted himself my brother in Christ, and not only mine, but every believer in my anglicized, rowdy, rock ’n’ roll church.   I cast about for something to say that would cement his approval… “Hey, we both know someone.  Yeah, my vine2Dad, he used to preach at your church…” but for the first time love whispered, “You don’t need to…it’s okay.”

Instead, I composed myself, thanked him as graciously as I could, gathered up my corn and went home.  He’d already accepted me, exactly the way I was.  As I had him.  We were finally and properly, in every sense of the word that mattered, family.

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Feeling the High (German) Part Two

Today I sat down with my mother and asked, “Mom, when we learned to read High German in Sunday school, why didn’t the teachers teach us the meaning of the words on the page?”

She smiled and answered, “That’s just the way things were run back then.  The general belief was that education belonged only to leaders in the community.  In fact, if you were able to read, you were committing the sin of worldliness.”

The people she spoke of made up the Old Colony Mennonite community where I grew up and which Mom and Dad are still a part of.  They are an exclusive sect of Mennonites who are ultra conservative in their beliefs and old-fashioned in dress.  They are beginning to place more and more value on education now but when I was a child our parents sent us to public school only because it was illegal to keep us at home.  Reading German was helpful insofar as it enabled us to memorize entire hymns and sonnets which we recited in church at Christmas and Easter to earn a brown paper bag apiece stuffed with candy, peanuts, a small toy and an orange.

I understand that at that time, leaders ruled the community who kept their followers ignorant to control them.  But then why teach us to read at all?  We could pronounce the written words perfectly, but we read them in a flat, lifeless monotone because they meant little more to us than the bar code on a Walmart receipt.  In all the years that they practiced this mode of teaching, did one teacher ever turn to another and say, “Dude, this is pointless.  These kids wouldn’t know a Glaubensbekenntniss if it hit them on the head.  Ring the schluss bell; we’re going for a Coke.”

Then I asked Mom, “So how did you come to understand the written word?”

Her answer surprised me.

“I wanted to know what was in books,” she said.  “So I read them until I understood them.”

It was that simple yet that brilliant.

In the past I often saw my mother as a weak and passive woman who simply let life happen to her.  But I’ve come to see her quite differently, and today especially so.  I see a strong woman who burned out by struggling alone with illness and tragedy, all while cooking, washing and cleaning for a husband and ten children.   She taught herself to read and write German with the tools she’d been given: knowledge of what the language looked like and a desire to learn.   I believe her character would have blossomed and she would have followed even more dreams if she’d been born into kinder, gentler circumstances.

With her lowly origins and meager education, I thought I knew all there was to learn from Mom after she taught me to make Schmaunt fat (creamy Mennonite gravy).  I’m moved and humbled to discover how wrong I was.  Her words shone a light on my quandary about being unable to understand High German.  I don’t need a tutor.  I don’t need to spend money on night classes.  I only have to want it.  I have to stop whining about it and crack open a book.  I have to read it until I understand it.

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