Keepers of the home

Carli Martin, 15

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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."

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