Thursday, August 27, 2015

There’s something about that Mennonite

Christina was working at the station beside mine. I had worked with her and her boyfriend Rick many times while I worked the dayshift. She had always been really nice to me. I was thrilled to be able to get to work with her again.

Christina was stunningly beautiful and pleasant to be around. Everyone loved her. She had a unique style, and always dressed and smelled like she should be going out to have a good time, not work in a factory with me.

While we worked she told me all about the new house that she had just bought with her boyfriend. They had moved in together and she gushed about how excited she was to get married.

She was telling me all about how she was planning her wedding. When she talked about getting married, it sounded like something completely different than what I knew about getting married.

I couldn’t relate to her kind of getting married. For most of us Dietsche girls, getting married was scary and sometimes just a sad fact of life.

In my colony, there were people who married someone they didn’t even really like and suffered through a lifetime of unhappiness, just because the alternative would have been worse.

For us Dietsche women, marriage was about needing a man to take care of us because we couldn’t do that ourselves. Not getting married meant that we would have to live with our parents for the rest of our lives because there would be nothing else for us.

I thought Christina had so many things going for her. She was so smart and she had gone to college. I thought she should have no problem taking care of herself. She didn’t really need a man to take care of her.

During the time I was growing up if a woman hadn’t gotten married by the time she was twenty-one, she had become the person who would just stay home, take care of her aging parents, and became the babysitter for her nieces and nephews. She would get to do all the work to prepare and clean up after the family gatherings. These gatherings were often for more than a hundred people. She would get taken advantage of, pushed aside, and sometimes treated badly. She wouldn’t fit with any crowd, she couldn’t be with the married people nor the youth. A lot of women were afraid of that happening to them and they really didn’t want to end up like that. And that would be a reason to jump at the first chance they had to get married. I always thought that that was why some girls got married so young. Sometimes girls would get married as young as sixteen.

I was afraid that everything I admired about Christina would vanish after she got married. I really wanted to tell her that, but then I thought maybe it would be different for her. She would have to figure that out for herself, just like I was learning to figure things out for myself.

During work one day Christina came up with the idea to go pick up cappuccinos from Tim Hortons during the lunch hour. She said if I drove she would pay for mine. I asked, “What is a cappuccino?”

“What? You haven’t had a cappuccino? Wow, you have been missing out! I am seriously addicted to them.”

Bree walked past us on her way to the bathroom and overheard us talking about Tim Hortons. She got all excited and asked if we could let her know if we were going. She would give us money to buy her a coffee, she also offered to pay for mine if I was willing to do that for her.

A few minutes later the supervisor came walking toward us and I thought, “Oh crap! What does he want? Please don’t mention anything about Friday, bombs, or how many boyfriends he thinks I have, in front of Christina.”

“Hi Anna, how are you?” he asked.

“I’mmm okay?” I responded.

“I heard you’re doing a Tim Hortons run at lunch.”

“I am thinking about it.”

Bree had told people who worked in the back, and before I knew what happened, I was picking up coffees for everybody.

“I’ll tell you what Anna, I will walk around, take all the orders, collect the money, and call in the order. I will count out the exact change so you just have to go in, give them the money, grab the order, and bring it back here. I will pay for whatever you order. Christina can go with you to help. You guys can go twenty minutes before lunch, what do you say?”

I said, “Ahhh…” while I looked at Christina. She nodded her head that it was a good idea. I didn’t like or trust him at all. I was afraid that he was going to prank me or I would mess up the order and he would laugh at me again, he made me really nervous. 

I decided that because Christina was coming with me to help, I would go. I said, okay to the supervisor.

“Great, thanks Anna,” he said as he walked away.

I looked at Christina and asked, “What’s his name anyway? I can never remember.”

“It’s Derek,” she answered.

Christina and I drove to Tim Hortons and picked up a huge order. It was easy -- we made it back just before the lunch bell rang. I decided that I would try this coffee called “cappuccino” that Christina was so addicted to. 

Everyone from the entire afternoon shift, including Derek, came into the lunchroom and thanked me for doing that. I suddenly felt like they were all my friends. I thought, “That was all I had to do? They must really like Tim Hortons.”

Bree, Derek, Christina, and a few guys who worked in the back came and sat down at the table where I had mostly been sitting by myself since working the afternoon shift. While the guys were talking and laughing they called each other “hey dude” a lot.

One of those guys asked me if I wanted to play cards with them. I thought, “He can never find out the real reason why I can’t play cards.” I said, “No thanks, you guys go ahead, today I’d prefer to just sit here and try to enjoy my very first French Vanilla cappuccino.”

“Are you for real, you have never had a cappuccino before?”

“Yes,” I replied, nervously.

“You are Mexican Mennonite, right?”

“Ahhh… I was born in Mexico. But you could just call me Anna,” I answered.

“Oh… sure thing, Anna. You could come and party with us some time. If you ever want to experience the time of your life, just let me know.”

“Ahhh… I’ll think about it,” I replied nervously while I thought, “I will be thinking about this for a very long time, uh, ‘dude.’”

It was really strange -- suddenly everybody was treating me so differently. They all seemed so interested and were willing to talk to me. Three people offered to pay for my order. I wondered if it was just that I had done them all a favor and picked up Tim Hortons or if there was something more going on.

I thought maybe it was because everyone saw that Christina and I were friends and suddenly I became interesting because of her. Christina and Rick were always surrounded by people. It seemed like every single person who worked there were friends with both of them.

Everybody went crazy over Rick’s car. I remember a few guys saying “sweet ride, dude,” to him. His car had a special antenna for a giant phone that he had in it. He could call people right from his car. I thought that was amazing.

When looking at Rick’s “sweet ride,” I looked at the big picture. It wasn’t a buggy, it had a stereo and four rubber tires. That meant more to me than anyone would ever understand. Even if I attempted to explain that to any of them, I didn’t think that they would get it.

It seemed in one night I had gone from “one of those Mexican Mennonites” to joining the “It crowd” and the “cool dudes” were talking to me. I felt really strange. I had just learned enough English to get by, I didn’t really understand the language of the “dudes.”

While I sat there watching how people interacted with each other, I realized how different their behavior was from what I was used to. I thought that the cappuccino everyone went so nuts over wasn’t even that good. It was way too sweet in my opinion, but I would never say that out loud.

While pretending the cappuccino was as delicious as everyone told me it was, I wondered if they all knew about what had happened there on Friday and they were all under strict orders to be extra nice to me. I wondered if George and/or Hilary had anything to do with that.

Derek the supervisor suddenly came to check on us more than he usually did. Every time he checked up on us he asked, “How are you doing, Anna?” I wondered if Hilary told him to keep a close eye on me.

I reminded myself that I wasn’t going to overthink everything anymore like I had been doing. As strange as it was, I tried to just enjoy the sudden interest everyone had in me. After all, I had always wanted to be part of it all and socialize with as many people as I could. I figured that I would learn about the world a lot faster that way.

Finally, I just told myself. “Okay, whatever is going on here, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that I am still working here and everybody is being nice to me. Just leave it alone, Anna!”

Over that week I finished three more school workbooks. I spent a lot of time with Christina. I visited her house. Their home was beautiful. I had never been inside such a fancy house before. It was neat and tidy -- everything was in its place -- and she had fashion magazines which I loved to look at.

Christina’s boyfriend Rick was still working the dayshift. He often visited her during the lunch hour. He always included me in everything. He often brought us cappuccinos and they even took me along to a fancy restaurant once. Just because that was the kind of people they were.

I began to see why everybody liked them so much. I felt special that such fancy people would spend time with me. But the more time I spent with them, I couldn’t stop a feeling I had that there was something about Rick. Something that I couldn’t put words to, I felt that there was a familiar sadness to him.

I thought maybe I felt that way because I had never experienced a friendship like that before. But it all made sense when Christina called me, crying hysterically, one night right after I had dropped her off at her house at the end of our shift. Click here to continue reading my story.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Mennonite Business as Usual

Continued from Strange Mennonite

Sunday morning I woke up from the most amazing, I-had-died-and-gone-to-heaven dream about George. I was extremely disappointed that I had woken up. I really wanted to live in that dream. I felt strangely happy thinking about it until I walked into the living room and inhaled the familiar scent of home.

My guilty conscience yanked me right back to reality. I hadn’t even been able to enjoy that dream for one lousy minute. My apartment still smelled like Pine-Sol from the cleaning I had done the day before. The scent was a reminder that I was such a disappointment to many people, and most importantly my mom.

While I was having my usual cup of instant coffee, I just couldn’t stop thinking about that dream. How could George, the man that I was once so afraid of, become my perfect, secret dream fantasy?

I realized that up to that point I had mostly had dreams about drifting away from the chaos of my life, to the unknown of Posen Land, seeking answers from my deceased grandfather. Answers that perhaps he didn’t even have for me. I thought maybe it was time to take George’s advice and let go of that.

I wanted to try and just live one day at a time. Not knowing all the answers was okay. It was a relief when George told me that I didn’t need to put all the puzzle pieces together on my own. 

I realized that I was probably overthinking everything again, which I so often did. A memory would trigger one thought and that thought would lead to another and before I knew it I was in deep confusing thoughts. I decided that my nerve problems could be the cause of that.

I turned on the TV to try and distract myself, and to my disappointment, there weren’t any Spanish telenovelas on TV on Sundays.

I decided that I should do my homework instead anyways. I got my workbooks out and started to work on them. I didn’t stop until I finished a whole book. I was looking forward to receiving praise from my teacher again.

I was beginning to do extra work just to get praise from her. I loved and craved the attention she gave me. Whenever I came to school and didn’t get proud praises, I felt like I hadn’t worked hard enough.

I practically jumped out of my skin when my phone rang. I went crazy, thinking, “Should I or shouldn’t I answer it?”

The first thing that popped into my mind was, “It’s Mark, he’s calling me from jail;” followed by, “My mom -- she must have heard by now that I was seen on George’s balcony.”

I hadn’t put the new tape in my answering machine yet since the police had taken the one I had into evidence. The phone just kept ringing and ringing. Finally, I got up and just answered it. I was shaking when I said, “Helloo?”

“Good afternoon, Anna. How are you doing?” asked a deep voice.

“Ahhh… okay I think,” I replied, as my heart started pounding out of my chest.

“This is Hilary. I just wanted to contact you today and let you know that I have spoken with the police. I wanted to personally let you know that we will resume business as usual tomorrow. Anna, you are free to take off as much time as you need. It is entirely up to you when you start work again,” he said.

“I am really sorry for all the trouble I caused,” I replied.

Before I could go on, he interrupted me and said, “Anna, it’s all right. No need for you to apologize, or feel bad about it. Let’s just be grateful that no one got hurt. The best we can do now is move forward and continue working. When you decide to come to work, come and see me in my office first. There are some things I would like to go over with you in person.”

“Sure, okay, I will.”

“Great, have a wonderful rest of the weekend and I hope to see you soon. Take care,” he said and hung up the phone.

I thought, “What if he wants to look me in the eyes when he fires me? Maybe that is what he wants to go over with me in person.”

I decided right away that I was going to work the next day. I couldn’t handle not knowing what Hilary was going to go over with me in person. I wasn’t going to miss any more work than I already had.

I really wanted to make up for the time I missed. I had dreamed of getting one of those perfect attendance plaques like Anita Dyck had gotten once during the time I worked the dayshift before I got laid off.

I thought, “If I don’t get fired, I won’t miss a single day from now on for a whole year and then I’ll get one of those plaques too.” I really wanted to be good at something, and getting something that said that to hang on the wall would even be better.

As long as I wouldn’t meet any more stalkers, I could do that. I loved working in that factory. For a girl like me, it was a dream job. I realized it was true especially after my one disastrous day of working on the tobacco field and working at that “fishy” embroidery shop that hid bears in the back of the shop for a reason unknown to me.

After trying so desperately to find another job, showing up at this job on time every day was easy for me. I thought that that could be the one thing that I could be good at. I could really impress Hilary with that.

I even envisioned it. It was perfect: Hilary shaking my hand as he hands the plaque to me and in his deep voice that had become my personal beautiful music saying, “Congratulations on your perfect attendance, Anna.”’ I got the shivers just thinking about it.

Monday morning I went to school, handed in a whole finished workbook, and got my learning-ability confidence cup filled to the top with beautiful praises from my amazing teacher. I realized that my teacher was making me want to push myself by making me feel good about the work I was doing.

I was beginning to feel a bit less like a worthless idiot. It was still hard to let go of that hard learner label I had carried around with me my whole life. A few new students joined us that morning. My teacher was too busy to even ask how things were with my stalker.

That was fine with me -- I didn’t feel like talking about it anymore. None of my lunch buddies showed up that day. I knew it was probably because they’d been to a party and drank too much on the weekend. During the lunch hour, I stayed in the classroom and started working on the next level of the workbooks I was learning from.

Once in a while, I thought about how it was possible for so much to happen to one person in such a short time. The Friday before I’d been sitting in that same spot worrying about how I was going to get through the day and how I was going to figure out what to do about my stalker.

I sat there thinking about how light and free I felt that I at least didn’t have to worry about that anymore. I thought, “That’s it! From now on, I am not giving my phone number to anyone ever again.”

Three o’clock came way too fast and not fast enough at the same time. I just wanted the day to be over so that I would know if I would get fired or not. When I got to the factory, I waited in the cafeteria for the day shift people to leave before I went to Hilary’s office.

I got weak in the knees and had to sit down quickly as I watched George walking toward me. No matter what I tried to do to stop it, my mind just went there. That dream I had had about him just slithered its way to the front of my mind.

“Hey, gorgeous, how are you doing?” he asked.

I thought, Oh crap!” and said, “Ahhh…” when I found my voice.

“I thought I would stop by and give you a little pep talk on my way out,” he said, as he sat down right against me. I began feeling woozy when he put his fingers under my chin and lifted my head like he had done so many times before; but after the dream I’d had, it had a whole new effect on me.

I didn’t know what part of him to look at as he looked me straight in my eyes and said, “Anna, I had a feeling that you might be really worried again today. You are not going to get fired. Just remember, chin up, deep breaths and smiles only. Everything is going to be fine. Hilary just wants to talk to you.”

“Mmmm… Hmmm…” I mumbled in a daze.

“Have a good night. Talk to you soon. And remember, you can call me anytime, or just stop by at the end of your shift if you feel like it.” 

I began feeling extremely sad as I watched him walk away leaving me there to fend for myself. I began to wonder, “What is happening to me? After everything that has happened, this is where I’m at?”

I took a few minutes to breathe until I gained some strength back into my legs. I was still a bit shaky as I walked toward Hilary’s office. He opened the door for me and said, “Hi, Anna, please come in. Have a seat. Good to see you here today, how are you doing?”

“Okay, I think.”

I got lost in the sound of his voice again as he began talking: “I just want to make sure that you’re alright after everything you went through leading up to what happened over the weekend. You know that you can come and talk to me any time, right?”   


“The police tell me that Mark is going away for a long time and that they will do everything that they can to make sure that he doesn’t bother you again.”

 “Okay, that is great.”

“Anna, just be careful. Sometimes this sort of thing can affect a person, days, weeks, or even months after going through it. Just know that you can talk to me or call your doctor if you need to talk to someone about it, okay?”

“Okay, I will.”

“Do you remember Christina? She bought a house close to where you live. She started working the afternoon shift today. I mentioned to her that maybe the two of you could ride to and from work together from now on. That way you won’t be all by yourself driving home late at night, just as a precaution.”

“Yes, I do remember her. That sounds great, thank you,” I replied.

“Okay then, that will be all for now. Have a good night,” Hilary said. And off I went, remembering George telling me, chin up, deep breaths and smiles only as I walked to my work station to continue the work that I had left when the police showed up. Click here to continue reading my story.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Strange Mennonite

Continued from Hopeless Mennonite

When George opened the door and saw my face, he embraced me with a companionate hug. 
I hadn’t experienced affection quite like that before. A question crossed my mind: how was it possible for life to be so beautiful and so depressing at the same time? Better yet, how could those tattoo-covered arms I was so afraid of once have such a comforting effect on me?

“How are you holding up, sweetie?”

“I was fine until I remembered that Mark is going to blame me for getting caught by the police and then I couldn't breathe. 

“Anna, please do me a favor and don’t let those thoughts consume you. I doesn't matter what Mark thinks. It is not your fault. It’s over now. He isn’t going to bother you again. Just try to remember that the next time you get all worried about it again, okay?”


“So do you remember the motorcycle ride drill? Hold on to me -- I mean really hold on tight. Don’t let go and don’t fall off. The last thing I need is to explain to your family that you fell off my motorcycle.” 

“Oh man, you'd be in big trouble.

No shit!

Yes I remember the umm... ‘Drill?’”

I just stood there and stared at him as he handed me a helmet, and grabbed his jacket, helmet and keys. He turned to me, smiled, winked, and said, “Ready for the ride of your life?”


I'll take that as a yes!

I forgot all about being nervous when he manhandled my face as he helped me put the helmet on. After he hopped on the motorcycle, I cozied up to him and happily put my arms around his waist without thinking twice about it. Any fear and nervousness I felt got left behind as he took off.

Upon arriving at his mom’s house in Port Stanley, George helped me get off the motorcycle, took my helmet off, and guided me into the house. A beautiful, petite woman with long blond hair walked toward us, I thought, “that must be his friend or sister.” George gave her a hug and said, “Anna, this is my mom, Julie.”

She smiled, gave me a hug, and said, “I am so glad you could come, Anna. It's so nice to meet you.”

“Me too and it´s really nice to meet you too, ” I replied.

I couldn’t help but stare at her. She had perfect teeth, just like George. She looked way too young to be the mother of a grown man. I just couldn’t wrap my head around that. Most women in my colony started looking old shortly after getting married, especially by the time they had grown kids like George -- by that time they looked really old.

She invited us into the kitchen to sit at the table and offered us drinks. I had never heard of half of the drinks she listed for us to choose from. George chose a beer and Julie poured herself a glass of wine. I decided that I would try the wine that Julie was drinking.

I had only ever taken sips of the drinks brought to our village by the boys who would go to town to buy it. They usually brought beer, tequila, brandy, Fresca, and Coke, to mix.

I took a sip of the wine and instantly felt the effects. I began to feel more comfortable sitting at the table. Julie asked me to tell her about growing up in a Mennonite colony in Mexico. I started talking and the words were flowing out of my mouth perfectly, words that I had never said before. It was like the wine had unlocked my English-word storage compartment and they were just flowing out naturally.

As I was telling Julie about growing up in Mexico, every once in a while I would look at George. He was just sitting there, leaning back in the chair, stretched out with his legs crossed, sipping away at his beer and smiling.

I felt strange yet comfortable being there. I felt that I could talk about what it was really like growing up as a Mennonite in Mexico. I often felt that most people who seemed interested were only interested so they could mock our lifestyle. But it didn't feel like that with Julie, she was genuinely interested.

While Julie checked on the food. George jumped up from the chair and asked, “Would you like to go for a short stroll on the beach before supper?”

“YES! I mean sure,” I answered.

“MOM, we’re going for a walk to the beach, okay?” George shouted.

“Okay, just don’t take too long -- the food is almost ready,” she replied.

“Okay mom.”

The beach was right behind her house and the sun was about to set as we began to walk alongside the water. The water sparkled from the reflection of the sun setting. There was no one else at the beach.

“I like your mom, she is really nice.”

“Yes, she is an amazing woman, I admire her strength. Things haven’t always been good between us. I haven’t exactly made her life easy, that’s for sure.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, she didn’t like it when I started with my tattoos and her idea of a happy life is different than mine. But she has accepted me as I am, even though it wasn’t easy for her. In spite of our differences, we have a great relationship. We spend quite a bit of time together now. People often mistake her for my girlfriend, it’s hilarious.”

“I can see why. If I would have seen you with her before I met her, I would have thought that she might be Harley -- You know the woman I thought you were storing at your buddy’s house.”

“What, you thought Harley was a woman?” 


Oh, Anna!” 

“I know!” I answered as we both burst with laughter. 

We throw rocks, George tried to teach me how to make the rocks skip on the water, but he was unsuccessful. We chased seagulls while we ran back to his mom’s house. When we walked in, the table was set and the food was ready. It smelled amazing.

Between the three of us, we finished a whole roasted chicken with a side of mashed potatoes, corn, and salad. George ate most of it. Julie began telling me how she admired my bravery. I told her that it hadn’t been easy and that George had helped me every time I got myself in trouble.

I looked at George as I said that. He smiled and winked at me.

“He really is an amazing man. I just wish he didn’t have so many tattoos,” she said.

“MOM!” George shouted.

“Well it’s true, George. Most people have a hard time getting past the tattoos. Way too often people don’t even get to know how amazing you are because of them.”

I really wanted to tell her that I felt the same way, standing out as a Mexican Mennonite. Most people had a preconceived idea about us before getting to know us as individuals. I related to George in that sense. It is assumed that when someone belongs to a group that there is no room for individuality within the group. I was guilty of it as much as anybody. I assumed because George had tattoos he was a bad person.

I got too nervous and decided that I was no one to have an opinion about that. I feared that she would think less of me for comparing tattoos culture to Mennonite culture. I didn't know how to explain that I was comparing groups in general. Instead, I told her about the time a guy riding his bicycle smashed into a post because he was staring at me so much and he got hurt really badly because of it.

She laughed and said, “No way! Too bad he got hurt, but that’s really funny.”

We laughed for a while. “Do you have any family here in Canada?” she asked.

“Yes, some of my aunts, uncles and cousins live here. But most of them don’t speak to me anymore because they don't agree with my lifestyle. There is a lot of gossip going around about me and they believe that it's all true. I gave up on trying to explain myself.” 

“Oh honey, I’m sure that can’t be easy. You are a strong and brave woman to do what you are doing, good for you to go after what you want,” she said. 

While Julie went to the kitchen to serve the dessert, George and I gathered the dishes. She served warm apple pie with cherry ice cream. 

“Do you always have dessert after a meal in your culture?” Julie wondered.

“No, we don’t. We have faspa instead. Usually, between three and four o’clock we all gather around the table and enjoy a coffee, or tea, with sugar cubes, tweeback (buns), and all sorts of cold cuts, spreads and an assortment of sweets,” I explained.

“What a great idea,” she thought.

“In the colony, we hardly ever had ice cream. Only the richest people had fridges. As far as I can remember I had ice cream about four times before I came to Canada. Once when I was visiting the Guenther’s in my village, twice when I got to go to Nuevo Ideal on a bus, and once when I got to go to Durango City with my aunt and uncle who owned one of those big white a vans to go back and forth from Mexico to Canada. Now that I have my very own fridge I make a lot of ice cubes, I love it.”

Julie said, “Wow.”

“Thank you for allowing me to come with George to visit you and for the amazing meal,” I said.

“Oh honey, you’re so welcome. And feel free to pop in whenever you like. You don’t even have to call me first, just come over any time. Anytime you want to go to the beach feel free to park your care here.” 

I just might do that. Thank you so much!” 

“It’s so nice to meet you, Anna. I have really enjoyed your company,” she replied. 

“It was really nice to meet you too Julie.” Click here to continue reading my story.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

The old dispute between the two Old Colony churches Canada vs Mexico

Growing up in the strictly religious Old Colony Church, it was often confusing to know exactly which rules had exceptions and which ones didn’t. For example, The Mexican Old Colony church did not allow its members to drive cars. But if someone went to Canada, came back to Mexico with a van and parked it in their garage, that was allowed. As long as they left it parked until they went back to Canada.  

I remember people talking about how unfair they thought it was that sometimes change was allowed but other times it wasn’t. 

The rules about driving cars were complicated. For example, there were colonies that were too far to get to in a horse and buggy. In these cases, people would have to hire a Mexican driver to go there if they needed to. 

Driving a car as far as Canada was okay, though, because it was too far to get to in a horse and buggy. In a way, that was the same as going to a colony in Mexico that was too far to get to in a horse and buggy. But not quite. The question was, How far was far enough to be allowed to drive a car? Well, people could take a bus there, but people could also take the bus to Canada. It was a never-ending argument. 

Old Colony church, Nuevo Ideal, Durango, Mexico

Our relationship with the Old Colony Church in Canada was complicated, too. Most parents didn’t want their kids to date people who had been to Canada because chances were that they would leave the Church in Mexico and join the one in Canada. It rarely happened the other way around.

People who belonged to the church in Canada were considered not Mexican Old Colony but a Canadian Old Colony, and eventually the Canadian Old Colony members were allowed to drive cars in Mexico without getting in trouble for it because they actually belonged to a different church.

It seemed that the Mexican Old Colony resented the Canadian Old Colony for having that luxury. This was a big problem, because so many Old Colony people went back and forth to Canada and Mexico. The older I got, the more people went to Canada for the summers. Even people who were against it eventually ended up going back and forth.

During my years living in Mexico, the Old Colony church was against its members going to Canada at all. However, many people had no choice but to come to Canada because of hardship and poverty in Mexico. Eventfully it was okay to go and work in Canada for the summers as long as people maintained the way they dressed.

Even if people attended the Canadian Old Colony church, as long as they didn’t join the church in Canada they were still Mexican Old Colony. After that had become the norm, then more and more people would end up staying in Canada all year round, not attending church at all. Then they were considered the ones changing too much and living in sin.

I remember the ministers in Mexico speaking out against the fact that too many people were not attending church at all, or joining the Canadian church, and that that was a sad reality. People were encouraged to just stay in Mexico so they wouldn’t be tempted to change like the ones who decided to stay in Canada.

The Canadian Old Colony members were still allowed to attend the Mexican Old Colony church, as long as they didn’t drive their cars to church and dressed Mexican Old Colony appropriate.

It was often said that people would join the Canadian church just so they could drive cars in Mexico without getting in trouble for it. Each time someone came back from Canada they had changed a bit more. I remember the year when a few women brought back the most beautiful dresses. They had pleats all the way around the skirt, not just in the back like they were supposed to.

In the Mexican Old Colony church we had to wear a black apron over our dresses which had pleats only in the back. Every female had to have their hair in braids and wear a big black düak (shawl/kerchief) with fringe around it in church.

The first Sunday after a woman had her first baby was the only time she was allowed to bring her baby to church. That Sunday she had to start wearing the mats (described below) in church, to funerals and to weddings. Children were not allowed to attend church until about the age of ten or when they were able to sit like a robot.

The mats is a beautifully handcrafted headpiece made out of layers of lace stacked up about two inches high. Women wear this under their düak just so that the layers of folded lace peek through and show on top of their head.

This mats was made by Old Colony Women in Bolivia

By contrast, In the Canadian Old Colony church women didn’t have to wear the mats -- it was their choice if and when they started wearing one. Some of the ministers’ wives even chose not to wear a mats and just wore a small düak  in church.

Some parents in the Canadian church would allow their young girls, even already-married ones, to wear their hair pinned up in a hairnet and a little black düak. All ages of children were allowed to attend church, even wearing a ponytail or a bun with no düak, and robot behaviour was not as expected of the children in the Canadian church as it was in the Mexican church.

In Canada, some young girls would wear short-sleeve dresses that had pleats ironed into the front of the dress as well as the back and not wear a black apron with it. They would even wear white socks in the Canadian church. In the Mexican church that was not allowed. We had to wear long sleeves, pleats only in the back of the dress, with a black apron and dark brown or black nylons.  

In the Mexican church, the older a woman got, the wider the pleats had to be in her skirt. The colour of her nylons and dress had to get darker and darker as she aged. After a woman became a grandma she would wear a lint-schaldüak (waist apron) which didn’t have the top part of the apron on it, just the bottom part. In the Canadian church a women could choose whether they wanted wear a lint-schaldüak or not.

In the Mexican church, church services, wedding ceremonies and funerals were all in High German only. In the Canadian church, these were all done in a combination of both High German and Low German/Plautdietsch. Old Colony people singing.

When I attended a Canadian Old Colony church, I felt welcomed for the most part. I did get the occasional side stare by someone who knew of me and considered my lifestyle a sinful one. It brought tears to my eyes when I actually understood the sermon because it was in Plautdietsch -- that was the language I spoke and understood. I had never experienced that before.

I got the sense that the focus on the message in the Canadian Old Colony church was a bit more about how one acted than how one dressed. Dressing church-appropriate, wearing a head covering, and not showing too much skin was still promoted. It wasn’t so much about pleats, big or small düak, an apron or lint-schaldüak, and the mats.

This was not the case in the Mexican church. From the little I understood, the focus was more on dressing and not allowing change to happen. But many things were said in High German that I didn’t understand, therefore I can’t say that this is entirely true.

Now that I have read a mountain of books on the history about why my people left Canada, I am beginning to get a clearer picture of the battle between the two churches. It has always been about keeping things the way they had been. I understand the fear for when small changes were allowed, because how many small changes could happen before it become a big change?

“The main reason most of the Old Colony Mennonites left Canada, where they had settled a mere half a century earlier, might best be summed up by words of Old Colony Mennonite Bishop Isaac Dyck: ‘When the school, as the first plating place in man’s heart, was held in common with the world, then the church also couldn't remain free from it.’”1

“The Old Colony believe ‘ji meha jiliehet, ji meha fitchiehet’ (the more learned the more misguided). The Mennonites felt cheated by the government, who, in their eyes, was not keeping the promises that had been made to the Mennonites before they came to Canada.”2

Allowing children to go to a public school was a change they clearly didn’t want.

“The leaders’ plan was to move the entire church to Mexico.  But not all the Old Colony people made the move.  Some did not see the Canadian school laws as a threat.  Others were too poor to move.  Ministers returned to Canada to hold communion services until 1926.  Eventually, all the ones remaining in Canada were excommunicated.”3

One of the Old Colony ministers who was involved in the decision to move to Mexico was my great grandfather Johan P. Wall. Among the people on that train to Mexico were both my paternal grandparents, as well as my great-grandfather and grandfather -- both named Abraham Schmitt -- on my mother’s side.

While researching where I fit into the timeline, tracing my family tree back to Russia, I learned this piece about my great-grandfather. I was so disappointed, mostly in myself. The thing that saddened me the most was that he had made such a huge sacrifice to save us from being “misguided” and I didn’t even know about it. In order to avoid being “misguided,” we hadn’t learned anything about many subjects, including history . . . even the history of our own people and families.

The Old Colony people who stayed in Canada ordained new ministers and continued life in Canada as a separate church from the one that left. By law they were supposed to be sending their children to a public school until grade eight. This didn’t happen overnight as this change was not easy for some Old Colony people. Though they stayed in Canada, it didn’t necessarily mean that they agreed to send their kids to a Canadian public school.

While I was searching for information on my great-grandfather Abraham Schmitt on my mother’s side, I came across an autobiographical book entitled Brilliant Idiot by a Dr. Abraham Schmitt. From the story, I learned that during that time of great upheaval, the author’s father was about to marry a girl whose family was too poor to move to Mexico. Because of that, he was the only Schmitt out of that family to stay behind in Canada. I believe he might be my great-grandfather Abraham Schmitt’s cousin.

In this book, Abraham describes life as he grew up in Canada. It sounds about as hard as -- if not harder than -- it was for the people who went to Mexico and started a brand new colony in the Mexican desert. He talks about how families, including his, moved further into isolation so the “English people” wouldn’t get them in trouble for not sending their kids to public school.  

I’ve often wondered how different my life would have turned out if my great grandparents and grandparents had stayed in Canada. After reading Brilliant Idiot, I realized that it may have been different but not necessarily better. He was a “hard learner” just like I was. While on his quest to find his way in life, he discovered that he in fact was dyslexic and wrote a book about it.

Reading Brilliant Idiot gave me the shivers. In it, Schmitt struggles and fights and claws his way through intense obstacles and overcomes them. This book inspired me enough to start writing about my learning struggles and fitting my puzzle pieces together. I am so grateful that he left behind this information for me to learn from and gain a new perspective on what could have been.
1 Called to Mexico p.12
2 Called to Mexico p.12
3 Called to Mexico p.13
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