Thursday, September 28, 2017

"I was free:" An Ontario woman flees her Mennonite home in the middle of the night

Walkerton grad shares her story of escaping

Sep 14, 2017     by Jonathan Zettel     Hamilton Spectator

 Emma Drummond - Submitted Photo

In October of 2015, Emma Drummond left her Orthodox Mennonite community in Gorrie for the modern world. Her aunt and uncle picked her up just after midnight and drove her to their home in Hanover.

Two years later Drummond wrote about her experience for the CBC Nonfiction Prize and was selected alongside 28 others for the long list.

"Growing up in the Mennonite community I was always a little different and didn't have someone to talk to, so I put it into writing," she said during a phone interview. "I did a lot of journaling ... I have this love for books. It's kind of an escape from the real world."

Two weeks after leaving the community, she was enrolled at Sacred Heart High School in Walkerton. This past June she graduated and then moved with her uncle and aunt — Philip and Anne Schuessler — to Waterloo, where she is currently taking a year off school to work at a Swiss Chalet to save up for college where she hopes to study massage therapy.

"I was kind of disappointed to not make the shortlist," Drummond said, noting the pool of entries was deep and only five of entries from right across Canada made the shortlist.

The story is titled 'Getaway' and is really the middle, most pivotal part of a longer story that could be made into a book.

"I had a life before and a life after," she said.

Drummond explained that the Orthodox Mennonite community she grew up in is similar to the Old Order Mennonites, but much stricter and with no technology of any kind.

"I definitely think there are a lot of misunderstandings between the Mennonite community and modern society," she said. "For someone like me, the Mennonite community would probably be seen as more negative than positive, but that's not to say the Mennonites are not a positive thing."

Drummond pointed to her relationship with her sister.

"It's not that I don't like her or her decision, it's that I don't agree with the philosophy."

She said the community functions and continues by constantly enforcing a separation from the modern world and the quiet lifestyle, close to nature, can be attractive for some.

"There are a lot of great Mennonites out there," she said. "I want to stay away from classifying them as a good thing or a bad thing. Who am I to judge?"

Drummond said it is hard for her to understand how people can live so closed off from the rest of the world, because she found it hard herself.

"But I think some people are genuinely happy to be Mennonite," she said.

Over the past two years, Drummond said she is finding it more and more easy to adjust to the new world she's in. She said she is keen on keeping up with world events and enjoys working, although admits it took her a longer than expected to learn.

"As time goes by, the less surprising every new thing is," she said.

Editor's note: the following is Emma Drummond's entry into the CBC's Nonfiction Prize. It has been published here with her permission.

Getaway by Emma Drummond

I snapped a brussel sprout off its stalk and concentrated on carefully harvesting the green knobs. I was helping my married sister before the next family had me in its grasp for maid duty. The bottom of my ankle-length dress was wet from the dew and swished against my rubber boots. I tugged at my kerchief to bring it closer to my forehead. Ruth didn't mind extra exposure of my hair but most Mennonite women would turn a disapproving brow to the display of a girl's immodest hair.

Ruth glanced up. "What are you thinking about?" she demanded. She had this habit of asking me that question at the most unexpected times.

I kept my head bent to conceal my anxiety. "I was just thinking about what quilt to make this winter. I stood up and brushed my faded apron nonchalantly.

As Ruth started talking enthusiastically about whether a Trip Around the World would be a better than The Lone Star pattern, I swallowed guilt. Who am I? Am I possessed by the devil? If Ruth had the slightest idea of what I was thinking, she would go screaming off to the bishop for an emergency prayer meeting. So I was keeping a secret. I'd always been a dreamer, keeping thoughts to myself to avoid being burned by fellow Mennonites. I was always inwardly rebelling against the rules of the church but outwardly keeping my feelings tamed.

Sunday morning arrived. I ran downstairs to the kitchen and splashed cold water over my face from the basin at the sink.

"Hey Ruth, I was thinking that it would be a great morning for me to walk to church," I suggested, feeling anxious and jittery. Ruth had meandered from her bedroom. My uncle's stolen phone number, scratched onto a scrap of paper, seemed to be crackling like a mindless chicken in my in black coat pocket. My uncle was English, the term Mennonites used for modern people who lived opposing lives to us. Phone calls weren't on our pious Mennonite group's agenda. To make me a shade more evil, the reason for the call was the unthinkable.

Ruth flew into a flutter of excuses for why I should by no means walk to church. I worked too hard. It was the day of rest. I could go with her in her husband's buggy.

"I've been looking forward to walking to church all week. I can relate to God better. Being surrounded by nature prepares me for the service," I said.

With that reason, she let me out the door while following me out and asking if I was sure that I didn't want a horse to put in the energy for me.

"I'm absolutely positive!" I laughed, as though she were silly for even thinking it.

I strolled along until I was out of sight then broke into a panicked run. I couldn't waste any time, or I'd be late for church and I would get questioned. I darted into an English driveway, so nervous I saw double. I pushed the doorbell. A young woman came to the door.

"I was wondering if I could make a phone call," I panted.

"Was there an accident?" Her forehead creased with concern.

I tried to be calm and persuasive. "I just want to call my uncle."

She waved me inside. She pulled out her cellphone from her pocket.

"I don't know how to use a phone," I said. "Here's the number."

She dialed the number for me.

I picked up the phone. I heard a faint mumble. I strained my unaccustomed ear.

"Uncle Philip, are you there?"

"Can you make his voice louder?" I asked, near frenzy.

The woman magically tapped and pressed her phone. When she handed it back, Uncle Philip's voice sounded clearly and loudly. Relief washed over me, but only for a second before a fresh bout of butterflies arrived. I now had the opportunity to make the sinful request.

"Yes, who is this?"

"This is your niece, Emma. Remember which one I am? I'm the youngest."

"I know who you are. How's it going?"

"I wanted to ask if you could pick me up sometime in the next two weeks?" I heard my voice crack out the words. My mind refused to enter into the moment. The phone trembled in my hand.

"That would be fine. Any time."

"Actually, could you pick me up tonight at midnight?"

"Are you ready?"

"Of course, I'm all packed."

I asked him the colour of his car. "So don't pick me up before midnight. I will be going to a youth singing first."

I handed the phone to the lady before I dashed out the door.

"I'm running away," I whispered with a shriek of triumph. My feet floated on air. "I can't imagine the shock wave that will hit the community."

Then I groaned. A whole day of putting on a normal act was going to be hard. What if I broke down and cried during the three-hour church service?

The grey-bearded minister preached about the reaping of those who sow. The pine bench hardened under my seat. I tried to keep from fidgeting like a seven-year-old. I looked the minister in his eyes, in case he was trying to make me feel guilty or change my mind. "It's too late now," I thought defiantly to him. "So I will be damned?" I reaffixed the normal look on my face.

Finally evening arrived. All the youth from sixteen to twenty-two were arriving at the home where the singing was to be held.

After supper was over and the dishes sat sparkling in the cupboards, the girls went outside to take a walk before the singing began. We ended our walk on a hill. Every now and then a girl would say some boring holy thing, like how we can grow so much from the sermon we heard today. As I stood on the hill, coyotes howled. I shivered. What if I came home late and Uncle Philip would be waiting in his car? Ruth could take me to the bishop or any form of confinement. If I missed my chance tonight, it would be ten times harder to pull it off a second time with owl's eyes staring at my every move.

I trailed the girls back into the house. The singing started. The light from the kerosene lamps failed to reach the hymn book in my lap. I pulled out a flashlight from my pocket to see the words. The girl beside me twitched nervously. I knew that she didn't want attention for having a flashlight on. I stopped caring. Wasn't this my last chance to show everyone what I thought of the senseless rules? I sang earnestly to calm my mind, but my knees insisted on shaking like twigs in a storm. I chose a farewell song, hoping to speed up the ending of the singing.

Sometimes a girl chose a farewell song so the boys would get the hint that it was time to quit singing. It didn't work.

I arrived at my sister's house at 11:15. I tiptoed around the house. I set my suitcase outside the door. I took my alarm clock and a flashlight outside with me and sat on the back steps in front of the house, facing the road. I was still wearing my plain blue Sunday dress and freshly starched white head covering. I watched the hands move on the little battery-operated clock and watched every car flash past on the highway. My heart thumped like a horse trotting on a paved road.

Then a grey car crept slowly past the house. I flashed my flashlight. A raw burst of energy made my body forget the toll the day had taken on it. I gave myself over to hope. Hope that my ticket to freedom had arrived.

"If it's Uncle Philip, he'll know what that flash of light means," I thought. Sure enough, the grey car turned around and stopped. The headlights went out. I rushed out to the car as fast as my shaking twigs could take me.

Uncle Philip emerged. I felt relieved at the sight of his tall protective figure. "Emma, are you OK?"

"We should hurry. Where should I put my suitcase?" I stared at Ruth's bedroom window. For all I knew she might be staring back at me.

"Throw it in the trunk," he replied, sensing my rush.

I did so then awkwardly opened the car door and flopped in the back seat. Aunt Anne was sitting in the front with Uncle Philip. The engine started and the car purred soothingly to my unknown destination.

I loved the speed of the car. "Where do want to go?" Anne asked.

"I don't know."

"Do you want to stay at our house?"

"If you're OK with that." Living with Aunt Anne and Uncle Philip would be a dream.

"Why did you want to leave?" she asked.

I hesitated. "I don't want to speak evil of my dad …"

"Did he hurt you?"

"Yes," I replied, relieved she was not surprised. Anne asked what I wanted to do.

"Maybe get a job". I didn't want to admit it, but I had no idea what to do now that I was out of the community. Exactly what did modern people do for a living?

When we pulled into their driveway I had to ask Anne how to open the car door from the inside.

I stepped into their house. Philip and Anne poked light switches to flood the house with bright light. There were holes in the walls for plugs. Photos hung unashamed on the walls. My gaze gravitated toward the phone sitting on a stand of some kind. I shied away from the sofas that primly lined the walls. My eyes searched for something familiar. I settled with the chairs. They were wooden and varnished like the ones back home.

I saw a fancy fruit bowl with a special hook from which bananas hung. "So this is how modern people present the delicacy of a banana," I noted. Philip and Anne led me to a room. The carpeted floor danced before my eyes.

"This is your room, Emma," Uncle Philip said as though sleeping in a room with furry carpets was no big deal. I wanted to run my hands through the soft carpet, to feel it and become familiar with the intimidating strangeness of it. I was unprepared, yet eager to discover. An overload of emotions swirled dizzily throughout me. I kept expecting my family or the bishop to show up and reprimand me, but I was free.

Walkerton Herald-Times

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Mennonite girl problems

Continued from Still Mennonite

The day after the three holidays in a row was a major laundry day. It was the most dreaded day of the week. When I lived at home, I hated that day with a passion. Even worse than the regular Monday. It was exactly the same every time. Before last holiday ended, we would sort beans to cook the next day for lunch because there would be no time to make anything else.

Monday or the day after the three day holiday mornings, all the women in the colony got up earlier than any other day of the week. That was where the women had their chance to shine. It was a fierce competition to see who could get their laundry on the clothes line first. Not only that, but the woman who had the whitest whites on her clothes line first was the winner. She would be considered to be the best wife, mother, and housekeeper in the colony. 

I woke up to the sound of the pressure cooker on the stove and smell of beans cooking. I was excited about the day rather than being depressed like I always was when I lived there. I had no other clean clothes to wear except my jeans that I had brought to travel back to Canada in. I put on the jeans, pulled my hair up into a messy ponytail and went straight to mom to explain before she had a chance to give me a lecture about wearing jeans. Surprisingly she just said, “Okay”, and sat down beside me at the table. We bowed our heads, said our mealtime prayer, and enjoyed a nutritious knox-kuak and instant coffee before the laundry fiasco began.

Some people in the colony had an electric washing machine by then, but my parents still used a manual schtuk machine to do their laundry. When I went outside the sun was just peaking over the mountains and smoke was rising up past the windmills at most homesteads throughout the colony as people were heating water to wash their whites. The air was fresh, crisp, with a smokey smell to it. The cockerels of roosters and the sound of cows mooing echoed across the entire colony. I hadn't realized how much I had missed all of that until that moment.

The neighbor lady to the right worked hard to get ahead of me, and she beat me. She had half a line of whites up before I started hanging our whites. She stared at me a lot, but every time I looked over at her, she quickly looked down, so her hat covered her face. I had grown accustomed to saying hello or good morning to people in Canada. I had an incredible urge to yell ‘good morning’ across the fence. But I was able to control my urge and just carry on with the fierce competition. I was still ahead of the neighbor to our left.

I was exhausted by the time I had one load of whites on the clothes line. I went inside, poured myself a cup of water and sat down to drink it as I stared at the nine loads of laundry piled up on the dining room floor, waiting to be washed. My nostalgia suddenly took a turn in a different direction. Sara was busy making tweeback dough, so Agatha came out and helped keep us in second place with hanging the rest of the whites, but I threw in the towel when it came to the darks. I thought, “Let all the others shine. I give up.” 

When I went back inside again, it was very loud as all the kids were getting up and running around the house. I asked mom, “Do the neighbors have one of those fancy spinner washing machines?” Hoping that the answer would be yes so I felt better about losing.

“No, our neighbors on both sides are still using a schtuk machine,” answered mom.

My George influenced brain surfaced and thought “f#ck!” as I scratched my head where my ponytail was pulling my hair, giving me a headache.

I went back outside and continued to move forward with the laundry and imagined the end of that day when I would be able to lay down and go to sleep. But it got better as my brothers came and gave us a hand. My older brother John drove a car up closer to the front of the house that he was to fix that day and put the radio on. When a  Ramón Ayala song came on about being alone in the world and wanting to die, goose bumps rose all over my skin. Since I had learned enough Spanish to be able to understand the words of the song, I felt it deep in my bones as I remembered my Fula and my friend Richard. The song reminded me to enjoy the time there with my family as much as I could.

My brothers took turns washing while Agatha and I rinsed wrung and hung the clothes on the line. At that point, I had stopped caring about who was winning or losing. Occasionally we would take a break and sit down under a tree, listening to my brothers talk about what it was like being an extra in a movie with Tom Berenger.

Apparently one of the Mennonite men had decided to quit at the end of a long day of filming and just took off without telling anyone. “The next morning when the director found out, he was livid. He punched a tree, knocked everything over that was set up to film next seen, and cursed really bad words,” explained my brother Abram.

“Wow, so what happened?” I asked.

“Well, because he had an important part, they couldn’t just replace him half way through. Filming was put on hold until they could find him and make him come back or they would lose weeks worth of work,” explained Peter.

“Did he come back?” I asked.

“Yes, I came back here to the colonies with the director to convince him to come back. The director told me to explain to him that if he didn’t come back, he would have to pay the penalty for breaking a contract that he had signed,” said Peter.

“Do you think he even knew what a contract was when he signed it?” I asked.

“No, he didn’t know. After we had found him, I explained to him what he had signed and that he would have to pay if he didn’t follow through, he decided to come back and finish the job,” explained Peter.

I empathized with that man more than my brothers knew. I too had learned the hard way about signing a contract without fully understanding what I was signing and then having to pay the consequences for it after. Most people from the colonies would have never heard of such a concept. When I signed the rental agreement for my apartment, I had no idea what I was signing. When I got laid off from my job and couldn't pay my rent that’s when I learned that I had signed a twelve-month lease and I couldn't move out before the end of the twelve months. The hardest part was figuring out how to pay rent when I had no income. Luckily I had a neighbor, George, who always came to my rescue and helped me figure it out.

“I bet these film people were happy to have that many people willing to work on the movie set, but they probably had no idea how little the Mennonites knew about contracts and stuff like that,” I said.

“Yeah. The director often asked, ‘Who are you people and why are you living here in the Mexico desert?’”

“I bet,” I answered as we got up and continued with our laundry.

By lunchtime, we had two loads of laundry left to wash, rinse and hang. But then we still had to take all the laundry off the lines, bring it inside, fold it, iron the pleats back into our dresses and put it all away. I sat at the table and let out a big sigh just thinking about all the work we still had ahead of us.

Lunch was so good. Sara had baked fresh tweeback and made my favorite salsa to add to the beans. I missed George as the meal reminded me of the day that he came over while I was wearing my beautiful ‘purple dress’,  and I ended up serving him the same meal we were eating.

After lunch, Agatha stayed inside to help Maria do the dishes, while the rest of us went back outside to finish washing the rest of the laundry. We had one load left to hang on the line when Javier, my new cowboy friend came over to have his pickup serviced by my brothers. When he stepped out of his pickup he looked right at me, smiled, and greeted me by taking off his cowboy hat and bowing before me as he said, “Anita.”

I blushed and quickly continued working so no one would notice my flushed cheeks. I suddenly realized how hot the afternoon sun had gotten. I hung laundry on the line trying to act like a ‘good Dietsch girl’ who wasn’t bothered by that at all. My thoughts went to a place of anger again as I thought about the fact that a visit from someone like Aaron Neudorf would be perfectly acceptable, but not someone like George or Javier all because they were both not Dietsch. Thinking about George made me feel guilty for the attraction I was feeling for the tall, incredibly handsome, olive skinned cowboy. I allowed my mind to imagine dancing with him at the dance he had invited me to in Nuevo Ideal on New Year's Eve.

I tried to talk myself out of even considering going to the dance with Javier. When I thought only about myself, I had a really hard time coming up with a good enough reason not to go. But considering that the entire colony would be against it and that mom would never hear the end of it was almost enough to crush the idea. I knew George well enough to know what he would say if I were to ask him what to do, “Anna, go experience and live the shit out of life,” like he said when Sam asked me out on a date.

The idea of spending more time with Javier was growing on me especially after I experienced his company on my lonely holiday. After my visit to the mountain, I could tell him that I understood that feeling he told me about being separated from one's soul. I wanted him to know that telling me about it helped me put words to what I was experiencing. I wanted him to know how much I appreciated that he felt comfortable enough to tell me about that. I carefully considered how I would explain my version of that feeling to him. Even though it made perfect sense in my mind, I knew that I might not have the vocabulary to voice it. But since Javier spoke both English and Spanish I thought if I combined the two I just might be able to transfer it into words that only he would understand.

I decided right then and there that I would definitely never be able to express something like that in Dietsch. I knew that if I would even attempt to try and explain that to someone in Dietsch, that I would probably be put on the next bus to a special hospital in Durango city to deal with my nerve problems once in for all. Click here to continue reading my story.

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