I was not a Mennonite when I was a child. My parents left the church early in their marriage, and I grew up as just another little California girl, playing outside almost all year, watching the adults around me, caught up like them in the drama of wartime California—dashing young men in uniforms, pretty girls flirting with them, trains filled with soldiers and sailors passing behind our backyard. It was an exciting time filled with the happy sounds of big bands and movies about teenagers going to dances and riding around in jalopies with rumble-seats. And when I turned six, it became a world of school, the well-funded Stockton Public Schools, where dedicated teachers handed on their belief in Democracy, Reason and the Innate Goodness of all humanity.
Religion for me then was a matter of being sent to the nearest Protestant Sunday school on Sunday mornings; being kind, honest and understanding; saying, “Now I lay me down to sleep” at night and going to the Mennonite Brethren Church in Lodi on Christmas Eve and Easter morning. I liked going to church. Taking time to put on my best clothes and gather with other people all dressed in their best gave significance to Sundays and holidays that other days did not have. But it really didn’t matter to me which church I attended. Mennonite, Unitarian, Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian—they all seemed the same. I knew my grandparents were Mennonites, but my parents belonged to no church, so neither did I. We were simply generic Protestants.
And yet, looking back as an adult, I can see that the foundation of my Mennonite identity goes back way before I had any sense of myself as Mennonite, back to my earliest memories and the experience of being part of a large extended family. There were ten children in my mother’s family, fourteen in my dad’s. This huge family was filled with aunts and uncles in their teens and twenties: aunts with pretty figures who would let me explore their closets and try on their high-heeled shoes; handsome young uncles who would throw me up in the air, toss me back and forth between themselves. My aunts and uncles laughed and teased and sang. My dad and his brothers formed impromptu quartettes. His sisters sang in trios, singing close harmony like the Andrews sisters. They were vibrant, full of laughter and stories about the crazy things they had done—the tricks they played on each other when they were kids; my dad running away from home at sixteen to live with his older brothers, Nick and Stan, and sing with them for drinks and tips in bars and taverns; my twenty-one year old father eloping with my fourteen-year-old mom to Reno so they could get married then returning home and getting thrown in jail for child-stealing.
Behind all this drama and adventure was the vague presence of the Mennonite Brethren church and its discipline, a background that seemed to take part in the action. The drinking, the movies and dancing—even the lipstick and makeup that made my mom and aunts so pretty—all this defied church discipline. I heard the words “hypocrites” and “money grabbers” used when the family spoke about people in the church. I heard anger in my parents’ and aunts’ and uncles’ voices when they talked about the Mennonite Brethren.
Of all that huge family, only my grandparents and a couple of my dad’s sisters still belonged to the church in those years of my childhood, yet somehow the Mennonite connection was still there, continued to affect all our lives, remained part of the family identity. Every Christmas Eve and every Easter without fail we would drive to the Mennonite Brethren Church in Lodi from our home in Stockton. New dresses were made, new shoes bought. Easter and Christmas would have felt empty without the trip into Lodi. My parents liked the people at the Lodi church. I could tell that by the way they joined with the crowd of people gathered under the big walnut trees in front of the church on Easter mornings. I saw how they laughed and visited, saw how they lingered afterward and talked until the crowd had dwindled down to just the group clustered around my parents. I could see that my dad and mom liked these Mennonites. I liked them too. They were warm and comfortable and kind—I put a question mark beside my dad’s words about Mennonites being hypocrites and money-grabbers.
The Willems family was Mennonite. I was Loretta Willems so that meant that I was somehow connected to the Mennonites as well. But in my childhood the connection was one of family history. The identity was definitely ethnic, not religious. I, personally, was not a Mennonite, nor were Mom and Dad. They had repudiated Mennonite identity when they asked to be excommunicated. They were now ex-Mennonites. Holiday visits were nice, but they were just that—“visits.” They had absolutely no intention of ever again living within Mennonite church discipline.
The emotional power of the church in my parents’ lives had not been erased, however, just shoved down. Just after my thirteenth birthday, that repressed power burst through the barriers my parents had erected, rushed out and engulfed our whole family. My parents returned to the church, and I suddenly found that I was living in a whole new world, a world in which, I too was a Mennonite. That event set my life on a whole new path, set the agenda for the rest of my life. That story is part of the family story, but it is a later book. First I need to tell the story of the family I knew as a child—my parents and grandparents, my vivacious young aunts and glamorous uncles—the family that captured my imagination when I was a young girl, the family I knew before I became a Mennonite. * * *
Note: The scene of the farm at the top of this page was painted by Paul Buxman, one of California’s most respected “Open Air” painters. He has shown, taught, and judged paintings throughout the state, winning many awards both statewide and nationally. He and his wife, Ruth, are also my good friends. Paul has generously given me permission to use his work on this site. To learn more about him and see more of his work, click on his name.