Friday, 9 January 2009

rememberance and heritage

I have just finished reading a book my Mother lent me, Of This Earth: A Mennonite Boyhood in the Boreal Forest by Rudy Wiebe. It's written by a Canadian author who had a very similar background to my Grandpa: family from (what is now) the Ukraine, who emigrated to Canada to escape religious persecution. Wiebe's family settled in Saskatchewan and scratched out a farm family's existence in what seem like quite harsh conditions: penetrating cold, stony soil that needed constant clearing of the bush, and few technologies. Wiebe was ten years old when WW2 ended, so my Grandpa was slightly older than him, but Mum said that the experiences Grandpa had a child were quite similar to what she read in the book.

The Saskatchewan forest seems like it was a difficult place to live but Wiebe fondly remembers his family life, knit together by a strong family life. His stalwart mother propelled him through chores and was a firm moral compass. His companionable older sisters read with him and helped him with school work. His older brother was a strong, guiding presence on the farm and provided warmth and security through his large sleeping form in the childhood bed they shared. Wiebe's Mennonite faith provided a structure of church services and an inner strength that sustained him.

Wiebe is an excellent writer (and well recognised in Canada). His family focus and growing love of words is something I enjoyed reading about. His stories are plain, natural, and engaging. He has set about the task of remembering his childhood honestly and also inquisitively, in a way that makes me also look back at his time in the Saskatchewan forest fondly, if this is possible for someone who has only a vicarious experience of it. Wiebe makes it his job to remember and report his life, thoughts, and instincts. A quotation on the frontispiece says, "What do you do for a living? I asked./ I remember, she replied." It is clear that Wiebe relished the reminiscence of his childhood.

However, Wiebe also says that he felt a physical memory of some things his parents lived through, but he had never seen. "I have felt remembrance beyond words.... when after six decades of life, I walked in places where I had never before physically been:... the village cemetery where my parents met..., the village school he [Dad] first attended...." This makes me wonder whether, if I come to know more about my grandparents and our ancestors, I would come to feel the same affinity for them and their places and their words. As I read the book I felt a connection with their heartfelt faith and devotion, which I see modelled in my Mother and her siblings. I enjoyed the Low and High German passages in the book; Ant and I have been learning German for a few months and I am starting to understand a few words. Hearing my Mother sing in German at Christmas is always very moving and seems to connect her with her heritage; it makes me feel connected just to listen. The names of the families in the book also feel like a friendly neighbour, since they are names I have heard since my youth: I have an uncle named Rudy, and Wiebe's mother was named Katharina. I hope I have opportunities to deepen my connection with my Mennonite roots.

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