III Family Reunions

The meal begins with a hymn. My relatives’ voices echo against the pale green cinder block basement walls: Aunt Audrey’s alto, as she balances baby Sara Grace on her hip, Uncle Raymond’s tenor, holding swaddled infant Priscilla in his arms, my big sisters’ soprano voices hover above the silky voices of their younger cousins, and my father’s bass, humming beneath.

For as long as their red brick ranch house in Manheim, Pennsylvania could hold all of us, Grandma and Grandpa Siegrist hosted our big family Christmas dinner. In that basement, Grandpa Henry and Grandma Nora set up four long tables lined with folding chairs and long wooden benches. This was 1983, the first and last Siegrist Christmas I can remember when Great Grandpa Henry also joined us. Forty-two gatheredin their basement that year.

At seven, I was still young enough to feel like I could pass among the cousins my age, that I could still be one of them, before their distinctive plain style dresses, pinned up hair, and head coverings would become a more obvious distinction.

Standing at the bottom of my grandparents’ basement stairs, I could see that the circle of my mother’s family belonged to two apparently different groups within the Mennonite denomination. When Grandma and Grandpa joined the newly formed Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Conference in 1968, their four youngest children, still living at home, also joined. But my mother and two of her four brothers, remained with the original Mennonite conference, which was less conservative.

Following the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference dress code, my conservative aunts and uncles also married within families who were also part of the new Mennonite conference. They distinguished themselves from the older conference by doubling down on the plain dress styles of the old days. Meanwhile, the rest of us had begun easing into the clothing styles of the broader culture. Conservative uncles Raymond and Harold were always very clean-shaven, with Ward Cleaver haircuts and long-sleeved button-up shirts. Unless doing manual labor, they buttoned their long sleeves at the wrist. Instead of neckties, they sported plain suits. (Neckties at that time were looked on as too fancy, which didn’t suit their aims of humility and modesty). To serve that same end, my conservative aunts did not shop in department stores, but used the same plain dress pattern and sewed their own. To complete the effect, they wore black shoes, black stockings and their hair pinned up under prayer coverings.

At this family gathering, after the tables were cleared, the smell of steaming dishwater gradually replaced the warm scent of ham loaf, corn pudding, and green bean casserole. Downstairs, the cousins took turns facing off over the old table-hockey set that sat on a table sat next to a stack of firewood. My cousin Mary Lois and I planted our feet side by side on the cement floor, our four hands twisting the metal rods to help those tiny metal players in their red jerseys fling that tiny puck across the rink toward her younger brother David and our cousin Nathan. She tossed her long red braids behind her shoulders and her face flushed red with wide-eyed concentration. A few years later, Mary Lois and the rest of my girl cousins would be baptized, wear their hair pinned under prayer coverings, and adopt a ladylike reserve that would leave table hockey to the boys. Securing a spot next to their aunts at the dish sink was the competition now.

Upstairs in Grandma’s sewing room, we raided the toy closet for the familiar old dolls, black faux leather pocketbooks with clasps, and toy baby bottles. Katrina was nine, Darlene and Ilene (twins), ten, and Mary Lois, seven, like me. With medium-length hair worn loose around my face, and store bought skirt and blouse, I knew that I was different from them. They wore long homemade dresses and their hair, untrimmed, trailed down their backs in long braids.I chose a partially bald doll with one plastic eyelid that stayed open and stared as the other fluttered shut. We balanced empty pocketbooks on our pudgy arms and swaddled our baby dolls, shushing them because they were fussy and we were pretending to be in church.

In the sitting room just off the kitchen, Nathan and David bent over the orange and green marble roller Grandpa had made. The plink of glass bouncing on wood punctuated the murmur of adults in conversation. Nathan’s little brother, Glen sat filling a toy wagon with wooden ABC blocks, stacking them like hay bales, then hooking the wagon to his tiny green tractor, and driving it around the concentric oval perimeters of a braided wool rug, its greens and browns his imaginary hayfield. Glen suffered brain damage at birth, and developmentally stayed childlike. Thirteen years later, while visiting his mother, my mom’s sister Lois, as she was dying of cancer, I would find Glen sitting on a different floor, playing with his tractors.

At ninety-five, Great-Grandpa Henry was hard of hearing. He sat quietly, nearly swallowed by a large stuffed chair, while his great-grandchildren played at his feet. He wore suspenders, and had a shock of thick white hair. A widower since 1963, he took turns spending Christmas day among the large families of his eleven children.

Great Grandpa Henry Siegrist married Ursula Burkhart in 1910. Their first farm was in East Lampeter, the eastern corner of Lancaster county. The road back to that first farm was later named Siegrist Road. In 1937, they moved northwest to East Petersburg, onto the farm my mother would visit as a child. Mom recounts pedaling along the perimeter of that property on her Aunt Mary’s bicycle. Today, instead of those fields and dirt lanes she saw, there is a yawning limestone quarry.

At dusk, the grandchildren were summoned to the sitting room where, on a sette, Grandma had laid out twenty-five pairs of hand-knitted slippers for us grandkids to choose from. She had them in a long row, organized according to size. Made by a woman from her church, each pair had a drawstring and pom-poms attached at the ends. The pair I picked was made of yarn the colors of butterscotch and cream.

Dad went home before sundown to do the evening milking, taking my two oldest sisters with him. Julia and I had stayed behind with our mother, who was heating up cream of broccoli soup for supper. Uncle Henry, who had worked as a chef in New York City, was artfully arranging a fruit tray that resembled a swan, and the kitchen table began to fill up with cheese trays, sweet Lebanon bologna, and crisp, and bleached-white celery from Uncle Raymond’s farm. Like his parents had done, Uncle Raymond and Aunt Ginny covered their celery plants two weeks before harvest, bleaching them. I still savor the sweet celery grown the way the Siegrists did it. I don’t care for the bright green stringy stuff sold in stores.

Bellies full of supper and clutching our Christmas slippers, we made our rounds and said our good-byes. We shook Grandpa’s hand, shyly hugged Grandma, and thanked them for our slippers and all the delicious food. Our uncles would always tease us nieces and nephews by pumping our hands up and down with comic formality and over-pronouncing our names.“Kay-ren,Joooliah” they would say, eyes twinkling. I never really got the joke, but their friendly laughter gave me a good feeling. A handshake with Uncle Harold was more solemn. His voice was always solemn and he would shake my hand without a twinkle in his pale blue eyes. Like her sister Lois, Mom’s younger brother Harold belonged to an even more conservative district of the Eastern conference church than where her parents and the other “plain” families attended, and it certainly showed.

 Although these distinctions were felt, at age seven, they mattered little to me. But in a few years, when my cousins became members of the Eastern church, and I would watch my conservative aunts exchange the “holy kiss” of fellowship with them, but not me.

I followed Julia across the porch with its green outdoor carpet that made me think of miniature gulf courses, and slid behind her across the cold vinyl backseat of the 1975 blue Chrysler. Mom had been loading boxes of leftovers and food gifts on the seat next to us—jars of Grandma’s home-made chow-chow and apple butter, a log of sweet beef bologna in its brown cloth sleeve, and leftovers of pumpkin custard cake. We shivered from the chilly air, and pulled the least secure leftovers onto our laps for safe keeping.

 Seeing my great grandfather up front next to my mother, his ninety-five year old frame appeared even more small and frail. As we drove Great Grandpa Henry home, Mom valiantly exerted herself to make audible conversation. Her voice, unnaturally forced and repetitive, made me feel embarrassed and I didn’t know why. I looked over at Julia to see if she felt the same, but instead of the telling glance I wished for, she just pressed her lips together serenely. That was my cue to do the same. I looked out my window as Mom continued to exaggerate her enunciation, getting louder and louder. Looking back, I see parallels between that car ride and what my mother often went through when trying to communicate with her very conservative family. It wore her out, trying so hard, straining to be understood. When we pulled up in front of a red brick farmhouse, Mom’s Aunt Esther hurried out to meet us. Outside of the car, the two women chatted briefly, mostly about their two families’ different Christmas gatherings. Mom helped Great Grandpa out of the car and as we drove away, I looked back and watched them, a frail man and his daughter, silhouettes in the porchlight of his trailer, walking up the wooden steps to the door. 

Late 1950s: My mother, the eldest of eight children, standing, her back to the camera…
her father, her Grandpa, Henry Sr. is pictured far right

Great Grandpa Henry died in 1987. One of my last memories of him was the next Easter, 1984. My parents brought me along to visit him at Aunt Esther and Uncle Paul’s home. We sat together around a kitchen table draped with a red and white gingham tablecloth and Aunt Esther brought out ice cream and pretzel sticks. When a nearby earthquake in Marticville shook the farmhouse floors and walls, the conversation came to a stunned halt. There were gasps, followed by nervous laughter. Great Grandpa Henry continued leaning over his ice cream, and did not react.

“What did you think of that, Daddy?” Aunt Esther shouted.

He looked up from his bowl and seemed confused.“What do I think? Of what?”

We later learned that the quake had registered 4.1 on the Richter scale, a little higher than the other ten quakes Lancaster County had seen in his lifetime. If he were alive today, he would be 120. I regret I didn’t know him before his awareness of the world had narrowed into a tunnel of memories, before he lost his wife, before his hearing failed him. By the time I was aware of him, he was already in the final decade of his ninety-nine years. One year the research bug bit me and I combed public archives of Ancestry.com looking for some scraps to add to my family story. One of the things to come up was a copy of Great Grandpa Henry’s WWII draft registration card, signed and dated April 27, 1942. On it he is listed as self-employed, and a farmer.

RACE:White

HEIGHT:5’ 4 ½ “

WEIGHT:120

COMPLEXION: Sallow

EYES: Gray

HAIR: Gray

OTHER OBVIOUS PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS THAT WILL AID IN IDENTIFICATION: Deformed right ring finger. Scar on thigh of left leg. I asked his living children and neither detail was known or remembered by them.

Looking at his elegant handwriting, I imagine the gray-haired Mennonite crop farmer with gentle grey eyes, to put this fact into context: Born in 1888. Born in 1888 means that he was about to turn one when the South Fork Dam upstream of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, failed and the Great Flood killed over 2,000 people. Born in 1888 means that he learned to walk the same year North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and Washington became states. It means that when he was two, the US 7th Calvary massacred the Dakota Sioux at Wounded Knee.

Henry Eby Siegrist married Ursula Burkhart in 1910, when he was twenty-one years old. In 1912, the year their first child was born, the RMS Titanic sank to the bottom of the Atlantic. Three years after that, my grandfather was born. They named him John Henry.

When I took a print-out of the draft card to a recent reunion for all of Henry and Ursula Siegrist’s descendants, their daughter Mary said, “That’s Daddy’s hand-writing, all right. I don’t try to understand about all of the history, you know, who’s related to who. Your great aunt Theda’s the one you want.” When I went over to Theda, she indeed eagerly showed me her scrapbooks. Pages brimming with old Siegrist family photographs. She pointed to one, taken in the late 1940’s.“Would you believe it’s the only photo of everyone all together,” she sighed. “And these later group photographs wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t insisted. The hard time they give me when I try to arrange everyone for the photograph. It’s the strangest thing– I care more about this than any of my late husband’s sisters. But it’s their flesh and blood. I say to my children, ‘Who will follow up with this history when I’m dead?’” She shrugged her shoulders in a sudden playful jerk and touched my arm with a smile, but not before a flicker of sadness clouded her eyes.

  In a family directory that Great Grandpa Henry typed in 1975, he writes, “Of our fifty-eight grandchildren, about twenty-one have Bible names. Of our fifty-four great-grandchildren, about sixteen have Bible names. In those days (Bible times), names all had a meaning. Noah means ‘rest’, Abraham means ‘Exalted father,’ Naomi means ‘pleasant’, Rhoda means ‘a rose bush.’ The practice may be a small matter, but is one of those things that should help us to walk with God.”

Considering how many hundreds of Henry and Ursula Siegrist’s descendants could have been at that family reunion, it was a thin crowd of only about forty-five.

Descending the family tree, I venture rootward, following each line as deep into the past as available records allow. From Great Grandpa Henry to his mother, Mary Eby, all the way back to 1589, and Bartlis Aebi, born in Solothurn, Switzerland.

Crossing from Bartlis’ son Johannes to his wife, Magdelena Gut, I find a deeper line into the past. But first I linger over say the name of her mother, Madlene Kaiser, then slide my finger across to her father, Ulrich, whose father is Welti, 1525, whose father is Hans, 1500, and briefly noting that Hans’ wife, Marignons, bears a French name, I continue to trace the Gut line back to Hans’ father, also Hans, in 1468. The visible family tree roots end with Hans’ father, Klaus Gut Guttan, 1435. All six Gut generations began and ended in Zuerich, Switzerland, making their uprooting and departure in search of religious freedom that much more significant.

I explore root systems on both sides of my family, Siegrist, Pfautz, Miller, and Groff, only to find their geography much the same. The clues reach deeper and further back in time, until there are no more names recorded. Whether in Switzerland or in Lancaster County, my ancestors consistently settled, farmed, and stayed in one place. Their agrarian, community-based lives were more practical than adventurous.            

I try to imagine them. Did Welti, Marignons, or Hans participate in the radical reformation during the early sixteenth century? Were they among the Swiss Brethren who took the reforms of Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli further, practicing adult believers’ baptism and earning the epithet Anabaptist, or re-baptizer?

At a young age, Bible stories from Acts, like the stoning of Stephen, had already brought the word “martyr” into my vocabulary, if not quite into my full comprehension. I have it on good authority that I have a freakishly good memory. I asked my mother to confirm the circumstances around the following memory and she shook her head in disbelief and confirmed them. I was four going on five, and there was a film screening at our church. It was the story of John Hus, the Bohemian priest martyred in 1415 for distributing the Bible in the language of the people. Leading up to the scene where Hus is burned at the stake, my mother urged me upstairs to “help” in the church nursery. I was very at home in our church. My father was one of the ministers, and I knew the building by heart. I think I realized that this was not just a suggestion, and I smelled a cover up. From upstairs in the nursery, with its curtained windows overlooking the church sanctuary, I remember feeling sneaky, sticking my head under the curtains, and peering down at the flickering screen. Before the nursery volunteers saw what I was up to and coaxed me away, I saw the bleeding form of a man being tied to a post as people stacked firewood around him. I did not see them light the pyre, but my imagination supplied what my eyes did not.

The first time I heard the word Anabaptist was from a girl my age at church. I was remiss in my Latin, as eight-year-olds tend to be, and argued hotly that I was not “anti-baptist.” I stood my ground against her know-it-all tone until an older boy overheard us and explained with the calm authority reserved for ten-year-olds that the word was “anabaptist” not “anti-baptist” and that Ana means again, not against.

I didn’t know about the Anabaptist martyrs until I was nine or ten. I found the stories in a four-inch hardcover volume, The Martyrs’ Mirror. (There’s a joke that goes, “You know you’re Mennonite if…you think a 1200 page book about torture and executions makes a good wedding gift.”)

After the Sunday service, I would go down to the church basement and into the tiny library to pick my reading for the week. In that basement, amid odors of mildew and new paint, I would kneel and ease the awkward, heavy volume onto my knees. Turning those thin pages and studying the sketches of contorted figures I carefully read those captions that explained who these persons were, and gave an account of their arrest, interrogation, torture, and eventually death. Beginning with the stoning of Stephen, its pages are filled with the names and accounts of Christ’s followers who were executed as heretics by the state church of their time. It contains the most complete record of the first Anabaptist martyrs in the early 16th century, their names, interrogations, and executions. These images and accounts formed my earliest understanding that Christian discipleship would probably result in my suffering at some point, and could one day cost me my life. My imagination animated these early Christian martyrs named in the beginning of the book, and the Swiss Anabaptist martyrs of the 16th century, quite possibly my ancestors.

During my middle school years, a local theater was offering a limited showing of The Radicals. I sat in that dark theater watching the riveting account of Michael Sattler (1419-1527), the German Benedictine monk (played by Norbert Weisser) who left the monastery during the Protestant Reformation and became a leader in the Anabaptist movement. His wife, Margaretha (played by Leigh Lombardi), was a former Beguine. The film picks up after Michael and Margaretha have fled to Zurich and are joining the “Swiss Brethren,” also known as the early Anabaptists (rebaptizers). By that time, the state church had begun executing the Swiss Brethren as “heretics.”

The film depicts discussions among the Brethren at Schleithem and the drafting of the first Anabaptist confession of faith. Sattler was particularly influential for his role in developing the Schleitheim Confession. In it, he wrote against wielding the sword or participating in the civil affairs of the corrupt State. The Schleithem articles encouraged the unity of the Body of Christ through church discipline, and the practice of Biblical rebuke among the brethren to restore each other to the fellowship and the breaking of the bread. The articles condemned the practice of infant baptism, describing it as an invention of the Pope, and viewed it as a compulsory act directed by the corrupt state church rather than by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, these radical reformers felt infant baptism was bereft of true spiritual meaning. It was the act of believer’s baptism that gave these reformers their name, and ultimately, what convicted them of heresy before the state church that executed them.

Three months after the Schleitheim Confession was written, Michael Sattler was taken to the town marketplace in Rottenburg and tortured. The film shows a scene that, in keeping with historical accounts, included gruesome acts. Pieces were cut from his tongue and glowing tongs were used to rip chunks of flesh from his body. All the while, Michael Sattler prayed for his persecutors before they took him outside of the city, tied him to a ladder, and tied a sack of gunpowder around his neck. As his body was pushed into the bonfire, Sattler gave a sign to his group showing his resolve and prayed, “Father, I commend my spirit into thy hands.” Two days later, Margaretha was drowned. Drowning was the standard form of execution for women.The state authorities referred to the drowning of Anabaptists as “the third baptism.” The number of early Anabaptists executed by the state church is recorded at 50,000.

Several years after the executions of the Sattlers and other prominent leaders among the Swiss Brethren, a Roman Catholic priest from Holland, Menno Simons, was also re-baptized. Simons became an Anabaptist theologian and his writings deeply influenced the Swiss Brethren. Menno-nites divided in the 1690s over the issue of church discipline. Mennonite Bishop Hans Reist (my distant ancestor) was on record as most vocal against the use of “the ban,” a harsh shunning practice. He considered this too harsh a form of Christian discipline. Another bishop, Jacob Ammon, believed strongly in strict use of excommunication, and implemented it to such a degree that Bishop Reist and other Mennonite leaders broke fellowship with Ammon in 1693 and became the spiritual father of the Amish. By several accounts, Ammon did some soul searching in the intervening years, and tried to rejoin the Mennonites in 1699, but the mainstream Mennonites felt it was no longer possible to reconcile the differing doctrines, interpretations of scripture, and traditions of the two groups.

By the time the Amish and Mennonites arrived in Pennsylvania in the late 17th century as part of William Penn’s experiment in religious tolerance, they were separate and distinct Anabaptist groups in their own right. For those Mennonites who would remain in Lancaster County another two and a half centuries, disagreements over faith and practice would bring their own divisions. One of those lines would leave its mark across my family.

In the early 1960’s, as my parents were starting their life together, a group of distraught bishops and church members held meetings to discuss what might be done to preserve what they saw as the threatened Mennonite way of life. My grandparents and great-grandfather were part of this group. They discussed the alarming influences of popular culture, among them, television, cinema, and higher education. They saw ways in which these “worldly” influences had begun to influence and shape the identity and direction of the Mennonite church. They sought to lay out lifestyle codes in hopes that that, by committing to them, they would help their members carry forward their unique witness instead of losing themselves within the broader church culture, which they saw as too similar to the world. In reaction to the dilemma of rapid change, they drafted some very specific rules.            The concerned conservative Mennonites met for seven years. Then, in 1968, when Lancaster conference, the majority conference for the Mennonite church in Pennsylvania, re-wrote its code of conduct and failed to incorporate any of their new rules that addressed their concerns, they broke away permanently and formed their own conference, the conference of Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonites. 

The Eastern church published its own code of conduct for its members. The new rules called for a lifestyle that withdrew from the world in very clear terms. They formed their own school system. They formed their own health insurance network, based on a mutual aid fund managed by the church deacons. The church would negotiate with providers for a lower rate of medical care for its members because the Eastern conference rules forbid members from participating in lawsuits.

They agreed not to send their children to high school or college, because they had no institutions of higher learning of their own. The code included rules against participating in organized sports, against voting, against owning or watching television, movies, or participating in any kind of drama or stage production. Participation in sports might lead to missing church for Sunday games, or wearing immodest uniforms, or pride. Television brought a corrupting and worldly influence into the home, and would influence families with the values of the world instead of the values of holiness and Christian community. Cars could become a matter of materialism and vanity, and so to avoid this, all automobiles must be black. Citing scripture passages about femininity, modesty, and simplicity, they agreed and committed firmly to the practice of uncut hair, no pants, no make-up, or jewelry. Well before I came onto the scene, my mother’s parents and youngest siblings obediently followed the Eastern conference teachings on dress. Other than from old photographs, I never knew them to do otherwise.

Soon after the conference split became official, my dad was nominated for ordination as minister in my parents’ home congregation, a Lancaster conference church. Grandpa had tried often to persuade my parents to join the new conference. When my dad was ordained, my grandparents gave up any hope that our family would ever join them. The day my father was ordained, my Mom cried, for several reasons. One of those reasons was that my father’s ordination represented her broken bond with her family. She was now a minister’s wife in what her parents viewed as an “apostate conference.” According to her parents’ church, my mother had aligned herself with those who had abandoned the faith.

Even though they did not join the conservative Mennonite conference, my parents were uncomfortable with the influences of fashion magazines and popular culture. Make-up, shorts, tight jeans, or any clothing associated with immodesty or “worldliness” was unsettling for them, and they navigated the tension between worlds as best they could. My Dad once confiscated an eyelash curler from my older sisters’ bedroom. We laugh about these things now. While I cannot imagine the father I know today doing anything so controlling, I understand the uneasiness my parents had during those years of rapid change. Although they did not agree with the legalistic approach of our “Eastern” relatives, they still held a lot of similar convictions about simplicity, modesty, and being careful about us welcoming the influences of the world.

As my grandparents’ conservative conference turned inward, developing its own schools and publishing houses, our church began to turn outward to the world around us. The Mennonite Central Committee was a strong and growing world relief organization, fostering local awareness of international humanitarian crises and development needs.With emphasis on professional and liberal arts education, sons and daughters of farmers were graduating from college and going into the community as nurses, teachers, social workers, professors, and doctors. Although my parents did not attend college, they were strong advocates of higher education.

By the time I came along, the fissures in the Siegrist family had hardened. But we did not give up on each other. Grandma and Grandpa were often at our house for dinner on our birthdays and for other gatherings. We frequently went back to Pleasant View Road to visit my grandparents, aunts and uncles. But discussions of faith and beliefs were too divisive and a silent agreement arose to keep those discussions off-limits. Other than the occasional well meaning (but deeply wounding) letter from a conservative relative who felt the need to unburden him or herself of concern for us, there were few words exchanged on these matters.

My aunts and uncles managed to joke around and keep the mood light, and my cousins and aunts were all very sweet when they greeted me. But there were these heavy moments, these rolling clouds of seriousness I could feel settling over us in the room, like summer thunderheads with heat and air too thick to breathe easy. When I noticed the occasional grieved silence or look of pained disapproval, it made me wish for a downpour so I could shout and run about and shock everyone by my lack of…whatever it was that kept us all so well-behaved.

As I got older, I became increasingly uncomfortable with the obvious difference that separated me from my plain cousins. I wanted to somehow prove to them that just because I didn’t wear their kind of dresses or have braids down to my waist, did not mean that I was bad. I don’t think they were too concerned, really, but I have an active imagination, and was on a campaign to be accepted by everyone. One summer, when Katrina, Darlene, Ilene and I were playing in the twins’ front yard I saw my opportunity in the form of a long-haired, shirtless man riding by on his bicycle. He was wearing cut-off jean shorts and his long hair blew in the breeze.“People who go out in public like that should be arrested and put in JAIL,” I pronounced with moral fervor. My heart racing, I surveyed my audience for impact. Immediately, I detected that I had overshot…by a lot. Rather than the solemn agreement I had been going for, I instead got looks of dumbstruck amazement. They must have thought that I had gone temporarily crazy. One of them mercifully changed the subject. My chest pounded with shame and embarrassment.      

My mother did everything within her power to avoid giving offense to her family. This meant that my sisters and I had to pass inspection on our way out to a family reunion, or to shop and do errands in the town near where they lived. At first it meant that, long after they had stopped wearing them to church, my sisters would continue to reach for their prayer coverings when it came time to visit Grandma and Grandpa. Our relatives only ever saw us in skirts. When we went to a grocery store near to where our relatives lived, we wore skirts.

I went to a private Christian school and we didn’t have a TV until I turned eleven. But, just as my grandparents had warned, it all happened. Eventually, I watched television, went to movies, and was involved in theater in high school and college. I censored any reference to these things when I was with my plain relatives. I was not very old before I detected a layer of pretense and expectation, like we carried scripts behind our backs or had prompters waiting in the wings.“How’s Karen?Are you keeping busy?” (When I would come home from college) “I guess Mother and Daddy are glad to have your help again.”

While these divisions and the legalism that caused them only really bothered me when I was around my conservative relatives, it remained a lingering weight on my mother. To her, family was everything. Although she did not agree with the rules her parents’ church taught, she was determined not to break her parents’ hearts. As the oldest daughter, it was my mother who gave up finishing high school to stay home and help her parents on the farm. This decision came about rather quickly in the late summer of 1955 when her baby sister, Twila Gene, died at only four days old. She died on September 3, just before my mother would have begun the eleventh grade. Grandpa told my mother that if she wanted to be a teacher or a secretary, she should finish high school. At sixteen, my mother had no firm idea yet about what she wanted to do with her life. What she did know was that her parents had just suffered a heart-breaking loss, and her sense of duty to them told her that it was the right thing for her to stay home from school and help with the farm and the family’s farm market.

The oldest child, Mom was very close to her father. They would sing duets as she accompanied him on the organ. When the church split happened, her father became a different man than she remembered. He would unburden himself, describing the depths of his concern for his family, and his voice would shake with emotion. My mother once said that she prefers to remember her daddy the way he was before that all happened. It made her too sad to think of him being so sad and burdened. Once in awhile, the old, light-hearted Henry would return. One summer evening at Grandpa and Grandma’s house, with the sound of crickets drifting through the screen door, Mom convinced Grandpa to do his imitation of a train whistle on the harmonica. He also played the mouth organ for us. This side of Grandpa was familiar to my mother, but not for me. Sadly, musical instruments were not permitted during worship in the Eastern conference churches.

For many months after Grandpa died, I would hear my mother downstairs in the living room, playing Grandpa’s favorite hymns on the organ. If I went in to sit beside her, I would at times find her face red from crying. The morning Grandpa died, Julia woke me to tell me, her face a mess of tears. Passing my parents’ bedroom, I saw Mom through the half-open door. She had been getting dressed when the phone call came, and was now stretched across her bed, in her white slip, her face pressed into the covers, sobbing audibly.

Grandpa had died unexpectedly during an overnight stay in hospital, where they had kept him for observation after a heart catheterization. An angioplasty had been scheduled for the following morning. But his heart gave out sometime during the night. No one was with him at the hospital when he died, because no one thought his condition was that serious. My mother had planned to make his birthday dinner that night, but when his doctor recommended the tests, he had phoned Mom. “They want me to come in for a catheterization. I’ll have to take a rain check on that dinner,” he told my mother, and she put the food back in the freezer.         

At the funeral, we walked across a narrow country road from the little church to the cemetery. Led at each elbow by her sons, Grandma moved passively, her face drawn. After the coffin was lowered, Grandpa’s sons and daughters and grandchildren took turns dropping shovels full of earth onto the wooden coffin. I was only eleven then, but now when I remember Grandpa, he is so much more human than the somewhat intimidating patriarch who disapproved of us at times. He was a man who, right or wrong, took on a burden for his family. As I look at my mother and my aunts and uncles, I see the father who teased them gently and treated them with affection, the farmer sitting on his porch with his wife and watching the fireflies, or playing the harmonica after a long day’s work. Regardless of the pain of rejection that his convictions brought to his family, there is no doubt in my mind that it was, in his human and imperfect and scared way, from love.

After Grandpa’s death, and as I grew older, I grew closer to Grandma. We corresponded through letters. She wrote to me when I worked away at summer camp, and later on when I was living several states away and working as a nanny. I opened letters from her in my college dorm room, and even when studying abroad, her news traveled from Manheim to Cairo. Her letters were brief and simple, mentioning a few things about her own life- the enjoyment she had in the greenhouse with the coming of spring, the marvel she saw in the sprouting seed. The notes always expressed some aspect of her faith. But unlike the more heavy-handed letters my parents had received from Grandpa in those early years, Grandma’s notes to me lacked urgency. There were no overtones of disappointment or worse, judgment. They simply communicated that she was thinking of me, that she cared, and that she hoped to see me the next time I was home.

During the months my mother’s sister Lois was dying of cancer, I went along with Mom to spend the day with her. We found Aunt Lois downstairs, sitting up in a hospice bed, by an open window. Uncle Paul was out bird watching, she said. “He heard a Scarlet Tanager since breakfast and he’s gone out to look for it.”

The summer afternoon light came in through the kitchen windows at the sink where my cousin Regina was washing spinach from their enormous garden. I offered my help, standing next to her, my shy, pale cousin whose thoughts would always be a mystery to me. Her older brother Glen sat cross-legged on the kitchen floor with his tractors. The tires rolled loudly across the linoleum floor while our mothers’ voices in the next room rose and fell, hinting at kind civility, at concern expressed through shy helpfulness and strained conversation.

After Lois died, Grandma once talked about how precious it was watching my mother with her little sister. “Lois began walking late, and Naomi would hold her by the hand and they would go walking slowly all along the yard. Naomi was so patient.” I’d seen a photograph of those two little girls, rounding the far corner of the farmhouse with their backs to the camera, their pudgy hands clasped.

Aunt Lois had been Mom’s maid of honor. A few years later, when after joining the conservative church, and marrying within the Eastern Conference, their bond frayed. Mom could no longer speak freely. Once, when I had outgrown my winter coat, Mom gave it to Aunt Lois for Regina. Aunt Lois rejected the coat because it had a bright red lining, and “Our church wouldn’t approve.” My big sister Donna remembers a time when, expecting her first child, she had brought a knitting project along to a family reunion. Thinking she would find some common ground with her conservative aunt, she asked her aunt, “Do you know anything about this pattern? I’m having a hard time with it.”

“I know it. But I wouldn’t knit on a Sunday,” came the answer.

At the funeral, the women from the conservative church filed past, greeting Aunt Ginny and Aunt Mary Ann with the “holy kiss”, then extending their hand to my mother. These people brought meals to my dying aunt and her family. They took care of her medical bills through their church’s mutual insurance. They are, in many ways, good and loving people. But because they did not know my mother, all they had to go on was her outward appearance, and by that detail alone they determined that she was not one of them. Now, when I look at that photograph of my Aunt Lois and my mother, two little girls in short summer dresses, Lois grabbing onto Naomi for balance, I mourn for what was later lost between them.

Last summer, my dear friend Sara’s father, Abe, died. Abe and his wife Jeannette both grew up Mennonite but left the denomination in the 1960’s. Abe’s father had been excluded from the communion table as an act of discipline when he consulted a lawyer to help him defend his farmland from confiscation. In those years, the Mennonite church frowned on any legal or political involvements. Abe disagreed with the church’s harsh discipline against his father and in solidarity, he too refused communion. Soon afterward, he left the church.

At his funeral, Eastern conference people stood in line with the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the last of the Lancaster Conference Mennonites to dress plain. Hipsters and intellectuals, some of them Manhattanites and curators of museums, some web design entrepreneurs and some owners of art galleries– they all mingled with their parents, that first generation to leave the family farm and trade the more conservative expressions of their parents for something they wanted. I sometimes see their fashion choices as a reaction to having these things forbidden so many years ago. Excessive jewelry, heavy make-up, and high heels are typical of this generation, a clear attempt to create distance between themselves and the little girls in homemade calico dresses who ran barefoot in cow pastures. Some of these women, when they were baptized at the age of eleven, twelve, and thirteen, probably went with their mothers to buy prayer coverings. In a way, my grandfather was right. Many of the traditional Mennonite cultural values have died out. But during the funeral service, the voices of these men and women in their fifties and their philosopher-artist sons and daughters, joined with their conservative neighbors in plain suits and prayer coverings to sing the hymn, “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.”

For all of our divisions, we cannot be who we are without each other.

Where the Martins lived during their thirty-three years together at the foot of the Welsh Mountains in New Holland, Pennsylvania, they were neighbors with Amish families, conservative Mennonite families, ex-Mennonites, and people with no religious ties.

After Abe’s death, Jeannette was left alone with acres of yard and meadow to rake and mow, on top of her full-time nursing job. In October, a group of thirty plain Mennonite schoolchildren came out to rake her meadow. Their teacher, a neighbor, knew of Abe’s death and suggested it to her students as a service project.

In December, a few evenings before Christmas, Jeannette came home from work and was getting ready for bed when she heard knocking. She opened the door to a powerful wave of sound, dozens of the plain Mennonite students who had raked her field, joined by others, stood on her lawn singing “Joy to the World.” Jeannette stood in the doorway of the log house that Abe had built three decades earlier, and, with tear-blurred vision, stared out at the host of faces. As they continued on to the second verse, she pulled her bathrobe close and sat down on the porch, crying in front of forty strangers with voices like home, like her own mother and daddy, like angels.


from my series of 3 essays about place, home, and family: Gone from Here ©2008

Gone from Here

Prayer Covering

Family Reunions

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s