Keepers of the home
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The role of conservative Mennonite mothers in shaping identity and tradition from generation to generation is a powerful one. They guard the memories and pass on cherished values and objects from grandmother, to mother to daughter. The memories include stories — tales of who they were and what they will become, as a daughter, a sister or a mother.
At the heart of these stories is the history of Mennonite persecution and migration, which dates back to 16th-century Europe. It culminated in waves of immigration to North America in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Mennonites believed that every adult had the right to choose whether to be a part of the church or not. They also refused to participate in wars, so they were persecuted. Some had their tongues cut out, and some were burned at the stake, said Del Gingrich of The Mennonite s Story museum in St. Jacobs. They were driven out of their homes in Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands.
Today there are approxmately 30 Mennonite groups in Ontario, including the Markham Mennonite community north of Waterloo.
For the conservative Mennonites, that history of dislocation and isolation still resonates through their collective migratory experiences and stories of the past.
A husband would sing a song to his son while plowing his field; a mother would sew a memory quilt made out of her grandmothers’ old dresses to pass it on to her daughter on her wedding day.
“It is how the younger generation gets a sense of the values of the older generation,”Gingrich said of the Old Order and Markham Mennonite groups. “These are stories of their community a connection to their heritage that regenerates, in my opinion.”
The power of women within the conservative Mennonite community comes from a strong conviction about the role of the mother: it’s at the heart of defining an identity and maintaining a tradition.
They teach their daughters that if they have children, they should stay home to raise them. They teach them they must learn how to sew, to preserve and to cook, because they don’t want to become a culture where they have to buy their food. It’s not healthy and it’s not their tradition.
Women in this community believe that, in God’s eyes, they are equal to men. Their strength is in their role mothers, which is no less than a man’s role. For them, these defined roles create stability, security and order It’s not that women are better, or men are better — they’re just different.
At the end of July, Deborah Martin, a Markham-Waterloo Mennonite mother, was at her home with her daughters collecting green beans from her garden. The task was almost ritualistic. She knew what she needed to do. She knew her role as a provider of nutrition was an important one. It’s ingrained in her childhood memories of watching her mother and then learning to do the same things with food — cooking, canning and freezing.
That ritual of tradition can be found in the kitchen, around a big stretched quilt, or at events like a strawberry harvest. Women gather, talk and bring back narratives from the past. The younger generation listens and learns. There is a sense of simplicity in their relationships, and genuine care for each other shines through.
“We teach them how to be group-minded, not self-minded,” Margaret Frey, Deborah’s mother, said one afternoon as she was working on her quilt.
It is easy to form a judgment based on personal experiences and cultural standards. These Mennonites see little appeal in the lives of women in mainstream society, where materialism can easily smother any lasting sense of contentment.
They prefer their own culture.
"So many things most people can't imagine being without," Deborah Martin says, "but on paper it doesn't make them happy. Having a designer dress, might make them feel good for one day, but doesn't mean it will make them happy."
"It's uncomplicated. Our children have very simple joys. So many children, the more they have the unhappier they become. So many celebrities have everything, but they are a mess. So how can you argue with that, that simple is better? For me it is." Deborah Martin says.
"I can imagine all kinds of things, but I have no desire. I am happy."