Part I: Introduction
Ten years ago, in the introduction to my doctoral thesis, I wrote:
“I am a Kleine Gemeinde[i]Mennonite woman who grew up on a farm in Manitoba. I am a woman from the prairies. I am an adult educator. I have a deep desire to have these experiences reflected in and valued by family, professional, regional, and national histories and literature. Carolyn Heilbrun, in Writing a Woman’s Life, says, ‘We can only retell and live by the stories we have read or heard.’ I am not in complete agreement with Heilbrun. It is, after all, amazing the lives we are able to live without previous narratives. I do think, though, that it would be easier to live our lives if we had more stories of recognizable women, stories of familiar women available to us.
“I strain to see the faces of my Kleine Gemeinde Mennonite grandmothers. I strain to hear their voices. I am far removed from them in so many ways. I am not a wife. I am not a mother. I don’t follow their daily routines of preparing and cooking food for large families, or their weekly routines of washing, ironing, cleaning and baking. I left the farm as a teenaged girl. I have even left the prairies to study in a large central Canadian metropolis. I can barely speak the same language anymore: I understand Plaut’dietsch,[ii] but when I try to speak it, it comes out all mixed up. I don’t share the faith of my grandmothers. I left the Mennonite church in my twenties.
“I long to understand the thoughts and experiences of my Kleine Gemeinde grandmothers. Through them, I hope to make better sense of how I’ve come to be where I am: from a Mennonite girl in braids, living on a Manitoba farm with five older brothers and a younger sister, to an adult educator studying in a doctoral program in Toronto. If, as Virginia Woolf suggests, one woman’s story cannot be told without telling many women’s stories, and if women do, indeed, ‘think back through our mothers,’ then quilts and other handwork are the medium through which that thinking happens for me.’ 
Ten year later, now in my mid-50s, it still seems to me I have little in common with my Kleine Gemeinde foremothers. I am still unmarried. I still do not have children or grandchildren. I don’t follow their weekly or daily routines of washing, ironing, cleaning and baking. I have returned to the prairies from Toronto, and while I feel a little more comfortable speaking Plaut’dietch, it still comes out pretty mixed up! I still don’t share the faith of my grandmothers, and I haven’t returned to the church. In many ways, the gap between my life experience and that of my foremothers has only grown. Now I have also been a civil servant, a bureaucrat, for nearly nine years. I provide leadership to more than 200 staff who oversee adult education, employment training and workforce development throughout the province, and have responsibility for administering a multi-million-dollar budget. But I still seek to gain insights into my own life through the experiences of my foremothers.
Recently, I have shifted my focus from gaining understanding through academic research and writing to seeking understanding through more mystical exploration, making peace with my ancestors. Popular Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn has influenced my thinking. “We are the continuation of our mothers and fathers,’ he writes. “We need to reconcile with the parents inside, talk to the parents inside, and look for a way to peacefully coexist…. In you are all the blood ancestors and also your spiritual ancestors. You can touch the presence of your father and mother in each cell of your body. They are truly present in you, along with your grandparents and great-grandparents.’ By writing this paper, I seek to co-exist more peacefully with my Kleine Gemeinde foremothers: my mother, Marie Bartel Plett (1925-); my grandmothers, Elizabeth Kornelsen Plett (1901-1979) and Sarah Doerksen Bartel (1901-1973); and my great-aunt, Anna B. Bartel (1908-1991). I have access to a great volume of primary sources, including daily diaries, letters, family genealogy books and records, photographs and my own personal reflections and speculation. For the purpose of this paper, I have focused on a single aspect of their complex lives, when they were in their mid-50s, the age that I am now.
Part II: Marie Bartel Plett
b. Nov. 1, 1925
m. Nov. 27, 1949
Mom was born and raised in rural Meade, Kansas. She was the second of seven children born to Sarah and Peter B. Bartel. Their firstborn, also a daughter, died in infancy. Mom was baptized into a transitional church – the Kleine Gemeinde in Meade had folded shortly before Mom’s baptism in 1943. In 1946, my mother and her entire family traveled from Meade to Manitoba, and that’s where she met my father. After an on-again-off-again correspondence and a few visits from Dad to Meade, in the fall of 1949, Mom finally persuaded her reluctant parents that she should travel to Manitoba. She surprised my father, and they were married within a few months. And from that date forward, Mom lived in Dad’s community with his family. Mom and Dad lived in Greenland, Manitoba for the first few years of their married life. One son was born to them during that time. Early in 1952, they joined Dad’s family in moving to the Quellen Kolonie, Mexico. Another son was born in Meade during the move. Mom and Dad lived in Mexico until 1959, where three more sons joined the family. Upon returning to Manitoba, and following a short sojourn in Blumenort, Manitoba, Mom and Dad and their five sons moved to the burgeoning Kleine Gemeinde community in Manitoba’s Interlake. Two daughters were added to the family, of whom I am the oldest.
Transitioning from farm to town
When my mother turned 50 years old in 1975, she and Dad and their five unmarried children lived in a four-bedroom bungalow on a mixed grain and hog farm in the Interlake region of Manitoba. She was working as a homemaker for her husband of 25 years and their three sons and two daughters living at home. Mom kept careful track of the household and the family’s activities. The oldest son living at home, aged 23, was a long-distance truck driver and farmer. An 18-year-old son worked various jobs in the surrounding area. The youngest son, aged 17, did odds and ends on the farm and later that year moved to Alberta. Two daughters, aged 12 and 9, attended the private, church-run school. Two married sons, aged 24 and 20, and their wives lived nearby.
While none of my mother’s family lived in the community – one brother lived in southern Manitoba and the others all lived in the United States – many of Dad’s first cousins lived in the surrounding community and attended the same church. Dad’s parents and many of his siblings lived in southeastern Manitoba. Two of his brothers and their families also lived in the Interlake region. Grandma, Mom’s mother, had passed away only two years earlier and her father, aged 77, lived on his own in Meade.
Between the ages of 50 and 55, my mother experienced a substantial life transition. She and Dad became members of a different church, within the same Mennonite denomination, but less restrictive. Mom began wearing a different style of head covering and wore her uncut hair “open,’ styled with pin curls and curlers – and eventually cut, with a perm. She and Dad sold the family farm in 1978, when she was 52 years old, and moved to the Mennonite-founded town of Steinbach in southeastern Manitoba.
In Steinbach, Mom worked as a homemaker for her husband of 30 years and three children living at home. The second-oldest son, 28, lived at home or came home for weekends. The oldest daughter, 18, graduated high school and then left to participate in a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) program for youth. The activities of the youngest daughter, 15, were mentioned almost daily. Mom had two grandsons when she turned 52. By the time she was 55, she also had two granddaughters and her youngest two sons had gotten married.
Moving from the farm to town, with fewer mouths to feed, changed Mom’s lifestyle significantly. Most pronounced, it seems to me, was her involvement in the MCC-sponsored thrift store in Steinbach. At the beginning of 1980, Mom volunteered every Thursday for a full day of work at the “Self-Help.’ By April, she had added Mondays to that schedule. She stapled price tags on clothing items, hung clothes in the store and sorted clothes that were donated. And outside of her volunteer activities in the store, she worked for Self-Help many of her day and evening hours – washing, then ripping seams of unsellable clothing items, ironing them, and finally drawing and cutting patches to sew together blocks and blocks into rows to make quilt tops, which were then donated back to the store. Towards the end of that year she seems to have become more involved in the store operations. She participated in determining whether the Board of Directors should purchase a new building for the store.
Another activity that indicated a transition from a farm to town was Mom’s participation and leadership – she called it “guiding’ – in weekly “Street Bible Coffees.’ Five or six women on Giesbrecht Street got together Wednesday mornings to study the Bible together. They focused on Genesis 2 early in the year, and Luke in the fall. Mom also frequently watched It’s a New Day, a Christian (but not Mennonite) television show. Both her twice-weekly shift at Self-Help and her participation and leadership in the weekly Bible studies were activities that took Mom outside of the “Gemeinde.’ The women she met, with whom she worked, prayed and studied, were not necessarily members of her church congregation or conference, nor were they family members. This was a significant departure from her years in Kleine Gemeinde farming communities.
Part III: Elizabeth Kornelsen Plett
b. May 26, 1901
m. Sept. 26, 1920
d. Jan. 29, 1979 (age 77)
Groos’mame, Elizabeth U. Kornelsen, was born May 6, 1901, into a large Kleine Gemeinde family living in the farming community of Gruenfeld (now Kleefeld) in southeastern Manitoba. Groos’mame was the sixth of 13 siblings born to Elizabeth Unger and Jacob W. Kornelsen. Groos’mame was baptized into the Kleine Gemeinde in July 1919. She married Groos’papa, Abram R. Plett, in September 1920. They settled into their first home in the community of Greenland, Manitoba, together with two daughters aged three and 19 months from Groos’papa’s first marriage. Groos’mame was 19 years old. Groos’mame gave birth to 10 children – six sons and four daughters – all of whom were born in Greenland. One son, Cornelius, died in infancy, when Groos’mame was 26. Groos’mame’s father died a few days before her 18th birthday. Her mother died in 1940.
Groos’mame and Groos’papa moved to the Quellen Kolonie in northern Mexico (Los Jagueyes) in 1952. Groos’papa’s father and older brothers had already moved in 1948. The children summarized the momentous decision to move and their subsequent eleven years in Mexico:
The parents received a very definite call to move to Mexico and being convinced of the leading of the Holy Spirit, they made this move in 1952, together with a number of their children. In Mexico, the parents encountered numerous, very difficult spiritual struggles, but as we look back, we praise the Lord for the tremendous victories they won. Feeling that they had completed their assignment in Mexico, they moved back to Blumenort in 1963. Here the parents spent their old age in wonderful quietness and relatively good health until their passing on.
Groos’mame lived in Mexico throughout her 50s, returning to Manitoba in 1963 when she was 62 years old. Groos’mame died at age 77, a day after Groos’papa’s death.
When Groos’mame turned 50 years old in 1951, she and Grandfather and their five unmarried children lived on their farm in Greenland. She and Groos’papa had been married for nearly 31 years. The children living at home ranged in age from 10 to 20. In addition to the five children living at home, six married children, with grandchildren, lived nearby. Groos’mame had 17 grandchildren when she turned 50 years old on May 6, 1951. The oldest grandchild was 12. The youngest, a granddaughter, had been born a few weeks before Groos’mame’s 50th birthday.
Groos’mame was living in a Kleine Gemeinde Mennonite community in northern Mexico when she turned 55 years old in 1956. Living with her and Groos’papa were four children. Also living in the same community were three married children – one of whom was my dad – along with their growing families. Of Groos’mame’s 11 siblings, eight had also moved to Mexico. And six of Groos’pape’s siblings lived in Mexico as well. It was as if Frind’schauft and Gemeinde had been picked up intact in Manitoba and replanted, still intact, in Mexico.
Groos’mame’s was an agrarian society within a close-knit, strong faith-based community. Church activities are regularly recorded in their daily diary – Sunday morning church attendance (although Groos’mame’s attendance was not regular), membership meetings, baptism, communion, holy days (Epiphany, Good Friday, Easter Monday, Ascension Day, Christmas Day) and “brotherhood meetings’ that Groos’pape attended.
Beginning in the summer of 1956, there are indications of serious conflict within the congregation. However, the details in the diaries are scant to nonexistent. On Sunday, June 3, my grandparents were in church for a baptism service in the morning, but then Groos’mame wrote, “In the afternoon was communion, but we didn’t go.’ Not attending a communion service, it seems to me, was a serious lapse. A few weeks later, June 29, the record shows that “the bishop and church leadership from Manitoba have arrived.’ This hints at the need for intervention from the home church. On Tuesday, July 10, Groos’mame wrote: “Esther (married daughter) washed here. The girls painted. Nick (son) came home from the USA. Tom (married son) got a beef I.C. Penner butchered. Yesterday the congregation split here.’ On Sunday, July 15, there is no record of church attendance. On Monday, a church service was held but not in the “Big Church.’
On Monday, July 29, Grandfather and daughters attended a baptism and communion service in Picacho, with the bishop from Manitoba serving, and with Mexican nationals in attendance. Then on August 13, “Papa was at brotherhood meeting,’ and on August 14, Groos’mame records that “Papa again was at a meeting with the ministerial.’ My mother’s diary for that date indicates that the meeting “concerned those who had been at communion services in Picacho.’ The following week, on Aug. 20, Papa was at another brotherhood meeting. By October, services begin to be held “at Wilbert and Tina’s house,’ or “in our building,’ or “at our house,’ or in the village school or at “Tom and Annie.’ One Sunday in late October, without a minister, they sang and read.
While the reference to the congregation split is offhand, the tension building up to it and tensions in its aftermath can be felt when reading between the lines of the diary entries. I know from family stories that Groos’mame was often not feeling well, which excused her from regular church attendance. I can’t help but wonder, did the tensions leading up to the splitting of the congregation impact her health? The Kleine Gemeinde congregation in Mexico desired to formally separate from the Manitoba congregation. My grandparents and most of their children (including my parents) did not agree with this direction. Therefore, the tensions were primarily between my grandparents and their children, and the rest of the congregation – which was made up largely of my grandparents’ siblings, nieces and nephews. I wonder to what extent Groos’mame embodied that tension.
Part IV: Sarah H. Doerksen Bartel
b. Nov. 1, 1901
m. Aug. 26, 1920
d. Feb. 26, 1973 (age 71)
Grandma was born in Blumenhof, Manitoba, in 1901. She was the sixth of 11 children born to Helena and Bernhard D. Doerksen. In 1904, the family moved to Friedensfeld, near Steinbach, Manitoba, and lived there until 1917. In 1917, Grandma’s family crossed the Canada-U.S. border to settle in Satanta, Kansas. Grandma was baptized into the Kleine Gemeinde in 1918 at the age of 17. She and Grandpa married about a year later when she was just shy of 19 years old. They settled on a farm in rural Meade. Grandma’s siblings all lived nearby, but she lived in the midst of Grandpa’s family. Grandma gave birth to seven children. Her firstborn daughter died in infancy. Grandma’s parents lived nearby in Satanta. Her father died in 1956, just before Grandma’s 55th birthday. Her mother continued to live at the Doerksen homestead with first two, then one of Grandma’s sisters. She and Grandpa lived on their farm until 1972, when they retired to a house in the town of Meade. Grandma died in February 1973 at the age of 71.
Grandmothering across borders
When my maternal grandmother turned 50 years old in 1951, she and Grandpa and their three sons were living on a farm near Meade. Their youngest son had died the year before at the age of seven. Three sons, aged 13, 18 and 20, lived at home with them. She and Grandpa had been married for 31 years. Grandma had three grandchildren when she turned 50. The oldest, a granddaughter, was two and her brother was about four months old. My oldest brother was just under a year old.
When Grandma turned 55, one of her sons was married and she had four more grandchildren. Four of her grandchildren were my brothers, living in Mexico. It was no secret in my family that Grandma thought Mexico an uncivilized place to raise her grandchildren. Several letters written by Grandma when she was in her 50s suggest her love and concern for her grandchildren living near and far.
In June 1952, Grandma was 51 years old. Her young grandsons in Mexico were one and a half years old and four months (the younger grandson had been born in Meade while the family was en route to Mexico from Canada). Grandma writes that she has heard, via a letter, that Marie (her daughter) had come home with the boys in a carriage. She wonders whether Eldin, the baby, can sit already, and does Marvin, the toddler, sit that long? She notes the ill health of her oldest grandchild, aged 3, living nearby in Liberal, Kansas. This granddaughter is not gaining weight. The doctors have advised against giving her sugar and Grandma feels sorry for little Linda Mae who likes iced tea and chocolate milk. She has suggested to her daughter Lena, she writes, to change doctors. Of her grandson, Linda Mae’s brother, Grandma says that he is fat and runs all over. She has a special message for 1½-year-old Marvin: She asks him whether his brother Eldin is nice. Does he play with Eldin? And (to my delight) wonders whether Marvin has a cow already.
In December 1956, Grandma, 55, responds to the notice of another grandson born in Mexico. “Good evening, all of you loved ones,’ she writes, “whether known or unknown. We hope to learn to know each other sometime.’ She wonders how everyone is doing, whether they are all home, and if the “little big one is content’ (he weighed nine-and-a-quarter pounds). She would like to go to Mexico, she continues, but her doctor has “given me no permission.’ The doctor thought Marie’s family would manage by themselves. Grandma inquires specifically about grandson Marvin, whether he is still a diligent schoolboy. At the end of this letter, she writes that her son Ben “thought the name Wayne didn’t sound bad.’ And that “somebody questioned whether that [name] was permission in Mexico.’ Grandma concludes that she felt lighter hearing the good news from Mexico, and by sharing it with the pastor’s wife. It wasn’t a long wait for news of this birth – exactly one week.
Grandma’s experience of grandmothering was outside the usual for Kleine Gemeinde families She lived in rural Meade, within a community where sons and daughters married, settled in or near the community and raised their children there. Her oldest daughter did not conform to this norm, so Grandma had to grandmother from a distance.
Part V: Anna B. Bartel
b. October 1908
d. June 2, 1991
Anna B. Bartel was the youngest of nine children born to Maria and Johann Fast Bartel. Anna was born in rural Meade, Kansas, where the Bartel family had homesteaded since 1907, after the they moved from Jansen, Nebraska, to the Kleine Gemeinde settlement in Kansas. Anna attended grade school at McNulty School. She was baptized into the Kleine Gemeinde in 1927 at the age of 19. Both of Anna’s parents died when she was in her mid- to late 20s. She continued to live with two of her sisters at the Bartel homestead: Katherina (Katie), born in 1891, was 17 years older than Anna, and Maria (Marie), born in 1892, 16 years older. Marie married in 1953. These three women were known to their nieces and nephews as De Bautels Tantes.
Anna turned 55 in October 1963. Her siblings and their families all lived in rural Meade at this time. Anna, who never married, lived with her older sister, Katie, on the family farm. Katie was 72. The sisters lived in the two-story house Bartel homestead. They kept house (baked and cleaned); gardened (irrigated and hoed); picked fruit and canned vegetables; kept chickens, and later dressed hens and roosters. They put up electric fences. They sewed and did hours and hours and hours of handwork.
The sisters visited back and forth with their brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews and friends from the neighborhood and the Darp – rarely was there a day without company or visiting. They made frequent trips into Meade, where they presumably conducted business and visited with friends and family in the hospital or the old people’s home. They stirred lard at Schmidt Packing – did this provide extra income? – and dealt with rental property. They went to weddings and funerals and attended church regularly. And while Anna’s single status, year after year after year, might have been frowned upon by family and friends, it seems reasonable that they turned a blind eye to activities (like having rental property or putting up electric fences) that crossed cultural and religious gender norms. After all, these activities were undertaken with, and within, the community.
But for several months a year between 1960 and 1966, the two Bartel sisters left that community and traveled, usually unchaperoned, by bus or train, to California. Anna’s 55th year begins with a record of the sisters’ visit to Long Beach. They left Meade by bus December 27, 1962, and arrived back in Meade on March 26, 1963. Anna’s diary records their daily activities until January 16. The rest of that visit was not recorded – only the Long Beach part. These few entries provide a glimpse into the Bartel sisters’ experiences during their California travels that crossed the line – not only because of their independence and single marital status, but because they left the predictability of their family and Kleine Gemeinde community.
The sisters arrived in Los Angeles at 10:15 a.m. Dec. 28, 1962. There they changed to a bus for Long Beach, where they arrived by noon and they settled in their room. The next day, they walked to a grocery store and to the market. They baked and did hand-work. On Sunday, Dec. 30, they attended church, where two babies were baptized. (Not a Kleine Gemeinde church then!) After a nap and a walk and writing letters, they visited a couple of old ladies in the building. New Year’s Eve, the women took the bus to visit friends for supper and the evening. They stayed the night with the John K. Friesens where, the next day, they watched the Rose Parade on TV. A few days later, back in their rooms at Long Beach, the women again went uptown and to the market and to the ocean. They visited second-hand stores frequently.
They made friends with a Mrs. Richardson, a Mrs. Crain, a Mrs. Conkie and a Mrs. Haterwig – not well-known Kleine Gemeinde names! They even went to town and met “our police lady.’ They attended a ladies’ handwork meeting at the Wilton Hotel and stayed for lunch there. And there the entries end, until their safe return home on the 26th of March. The year 1963 ends with the sisters making preparations to leave on another extended trip early in 1964. They returned from this trip, “almost around the U.S. and America,’ on March 26.[iii]
My Kleine Gemeinde foremothers and forefathers were no strangers to international travel. My mother, born in rural Kansas in 1925, made her first trip to Canada as an infant in 1926. Twenty years later, my mother’s parents traveled to Manitoba again, with all six children. Anna and her sister traveled frequently. As early as 1929, Anna, her parents and two sisters traveled to Mexico.[iv] But two women traveling alone, year after year, to live outside of a Kleine Gemeinde community for a period of time, must certainly have been “crossing the line.’
Part VI: Conclusion
I began this paper by recounting how little I have in common with my Kleine Gemeinde foremothers, but that I seek to gain insights from their experiences – to co-exist more peacefully with them. After exploring the experiences of these four women, I have come to believe that I am not alone in thinking my life bears little resemblance to those of my foremothers. Each of the women in this paper had experiences for which their mothers and foremothers provided little insight. What, my mother may have wondered, did her mother know of living in town? What, Groos’mame may have wondered, did her mother know of such spiritual struggles as she experienced in Mexico? What, Grandma may have wondered, did her mother know of grandmothering children in an uncivilized country? And Taunte Anna? Surely she must have wondered what her mother and foremothers could possibly know of being a single woman, traveling unchaperoned, to Long Beach, California, and other non-Kleine Gemeinde locales.
Each of these women – my mom Marie, my Groos’mame Elizabeth, my Grandma Sarah, and my great-aunt, Taunte Anna – would likely have seen their lives as vastly different from those of their own mothers and grandmothers. I think they, like me, would have recounted ways in which they crossed the line, sometimes deliberately, sometimes unconsciously, of what was expected of them as Kleine Gemeinde women. Our writing – diaries and letters and papers – is instrumental for building, nourishing, maintaining, and perhaps, healing, family and community.