Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Old Mennonite Ladies

“Oh. By the way, Jane. I got the job,” she says from her curled up position on my couch.
I think to myself, “Oh my goodness, Omi would just love her. None of her children or grandchildren have stepped foot in the place that brought so much joy and fulfillment to her life. And now, this gorgeous red head with the English last name that is dating her great grandson is excited to be working at the MCC store in Abbotsford.”
Out loud I say, “You did? That’s awesome. When do you start?”
“May 1. I love it there. All those older Mennonite women are soooo nice. It’ll be a good change from the library.”
She’s been working at the library (which I think is, like, the perfect job) for a few years, but she was looking forward to something totally different.

As memories of Omi filled my mind, I think “oh yeah… those older Mennonite women. They turned the MCC’s back room into a party room. (An old-fashioned hen-type party room.) After Clint was born, I’d stop in with him to visit her whenever I was in her neighbourhood, which was probably once or twice a month. She lived in Menno-ville, also known as Fraser Street, in Vancouver – and the MCC store was just two blocks from her place. She had a lovely 2 bedroom home with amazing gardens in the front and back yards. But she was never there. If I wanted to visit with her, I’d pop by the MCC store and tear her away from the huge sewing table set up in the back. She volunteered daily. To hand sew quilts. Made out of donated denim jeans and hot pink polyester. They were as durable as a mother’s love and as heavy as a king-sized mattress. Oy vey. When it was time to move her out of a house and into a condo, she chose to live on Princess Street in Abbotsford because it was right across the road from the MCC store. If she were still alive, she’d be working with Claire and loving every minute of it. By the end of the summer, she’d have Claire speaking low-german and baking pershke…

Claire continues, “Yeah, I think it’s so cool that they all know everybody. I found an old knitting book crinkled up under a hat on one of the shelves and showed it to one of the ladies I was working with. She read the name penciled in the inside cover and it said something like Lydia Neufeld from Winkler. “Nah yo. Martha is from Winkler, she’ll know who dis is” she said. Sure enough, Martha knew exactly who it was, who she’d married, who her inlaws had married and who all their children were. I love that.”

I replied, “It’s called the Mennonite Name Game. Very popular amongst the generation older than me. Most folks my age refuse to get caught up in that, although, inevitably we too all know each other…”

As I say that, I remember an evening in Europe a few weeks ago. Ms. Bergen and Mr. Sawatsky were two of the teachers leading our adventure, and it didn’t go unnoticed by me that they both had Mennonite names. I was determined not to find out if we were somehow related, especially since they were both younger than me and it would look like I was one of those ‘older Mennonite ladies’ that Claire thinks is so cute.
But one night…
“Of my grad class of 12 students, only 2 of us left our community. I wanted to visit a different country for each year of my life. I almost did it – by the time I was 29, I had been to 29 countries” she said.
“Where are you from?” I innocently asked.
“Oh.” I said, not sure if I should continue this line of conversation. It would inevitably lead to the name game. And I wasn’t sure if she wanted to play or not. Most kids her age just aren’t into it.
“In Saskatchewan.”
“I know. I’ve been there.” I say with hesitation.
“Bridesmaid in a wedding. My roommate from Bible school was from there. Maybe you know her family? Joyce Paetkau?”
(You see, that’s the thing about Mennonites. You can ask one if they know another one, and not look ignorant. Ignorant like, if you were in the states, and mention to a Californian retail clerk that you’re from the Vancouver area of Canada and he says, Oh, I met a guy once from Toronto – hey maybe you know him, his name is Toronto Guy? You never have to worry about that when you play the name game. Or at least I never have to worry about that because my maiden name is Klassen. That gives me an automatic “in”, at least for round one.)

“Paetkau? Sure. Her brother owns the insurance company in town.”
“Yup that’s them.”

Round one over. Ding ding.

We ended up, not surprisingly, knowing a lot of people in each other’s lives. The game ended with her exclaiming in utter astonishment, “I can’t believe you know him!”
Oh, yes I did. And he’s living in my parent’s barn. And he’s very cool.
So by virtue of the rules of the game, I too am cool.
It was a nice thought to have for a few minutes. Then I had to climb up to the top bunk with my stiff leg, oversized ass, wrinkled face and aching head.

In Mont St Michel, Lori and I stumbled upon a perfectly quaint and unexpectantly tiny cemetery tucked in-between ancient stone buildings. That evening, we talked about our grandmothers.
“It has never occurred to me to visit the graves of my grandmas” I say.
“I have.” Lori replies.
“I just never think of them as being there.”
“I go to show honour and respect. It’s what she’d expect me to do.”
“It’s what she did. So I know that’s what she’d want.”
“I don’t even know if that’s what either of them did. I hope they’re not in heaven grieving that I haven’t gone to their graves. I think of them often. And hope they feel honoured when I talk about my memories of them.”

Omi, this blog’s for you. Hope it makes you happy. Know that you are loved. And remembered.

As she flips through the pages of my most recent People magazine, Claire ponders out loud, “I think it’s because they’re all Christians. I wasn’t sure if it would make a difference at a job, but it does.”

It does. It so very much does.
Not only at a job, but in your life.
Nothing like having some old Mennonites ladies around who love Jesus.
Nah yo.
I too will be one of those old Mennonite ladies.
And that’s not a bad thing.


Anonymous said...

Call it hormonal imbalanance-but you definetley brought tears to my eyes. Everything that i fought so against in my teen years, I strive for in my forties. To be know as an old wise praying mennonite woman-related to everyone-aahhh what could be better.In a world where people hardley see or notice each other-we have a sense of belonging. As the cheers song goes-I wanna be where everyone knows your name, and there always glad you came-could this of been written by a Mennonite? MMMMMMMMMM.-Marg

Christine said...

I really enjoyed this piece. It was hilarious as well as heart-warming, and just darned interesting. I think those mennonite dames are similar to some Irish dames I know.