I’m a fourth generation Canadian, and unfortunately haven’t been privy to conversations about ancestors’ “old country” lives, which, in my case, would have included several European counties. I’ve always felt a kind of longing for such tales, for knowing where we come from helps make sense of who we are today. After reading Sons and Mothers, Stories from Mennonite Men – a collection of a dozen essays commissioned by Winnipeg writer and educator Mary Ann Loewen – I recognize that the disparate contributors’ common heritage bonds them in an almost familial way. Yes, these Mennonite men have shared so many similar experiences they’re like one large family: a family that sings, reads, tells stories, and worships together; values hard work; practices altruism; and celebrates one another – even when individual beliefs don’t align.
Two of the most obvious threads in this affecting anthology are the prominent role that music’s played – for the mothers and for their sons – and how several offspring strayed from the church’s traditional doctrines. What distinguishes the essays are the ways in which they are told, plus specific anecdotes that give us a real sense of who these devout women were\are.
Certain essays possess an academic tone, while others are more conversational. Two writers chose poetry to express their thoughts. Humour and light-heartedness permeate some of the mother-son relationships (writer Patrick Friesen refers to his mother’s “trickster” character, and even the title of his essay – “I Give a Rip” – is funny, as it’s what his 87-year-old mother sarcastically uttered while she and her son were discussing her move into a “home”).
Byron Rempel’s mother was image-obsessed; he recalls a photo of himself in a sailor’s outfit, the cap “tipped at a jaunty, seafaring angle.” He must’ve been “on shore leave.” Lloyd Ratzlaff’s essay about his mother’s decline is particularly eloquent and heartfelt. He doesn’t sugarcoat the toll it takes on those being left: “We all need palliation,” he writes.
There’s also remorse. Regarding his vibrant, storytelling mother, Paul Tiessen regrets being “too dull, too inexperienced, too seduced by the attractions of the immediate present to be interested in what she had to offer”. When he abandoned his notion of heaven and hell, Nathan Klippenstein also felt he was “not only abandoning the religion of [his] youth, but that [he] was also abandoning [his] mother”.
Song is everywhere – choirs, family harmonies, even mother’s singing goodbyes – and gratitude’s paramount. Lukas Thiessen shares that his mother was the kind who “loves you even when you’re an aggravating, drugged-up sex fiend vagabond atheist raising a son born out of wedlock.”
It’s difficult to write honestly about one’s mother. Howard Dyck says: “To analyze such a relationship is to venture into treacherous shoals.” Kudos to Loewen for pulling these essays together, and for choosing exactly the right end-note in Patrick Friesen’s resonant lines: “Mother says sometimes that she is shocked when she hears how old she is. As far as she knows she was ten or eleven just yesterday. And she was.”
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