I am part of a tradition of pilgrim women. I did not know my grandmothers or their mothers, but I can imagine their determination and strength as they fled the horrors of war and revolution torn Russia, seeking safety to raise their children according to their convictions in a strange land. They were strong women who farmed, baked bread, quilted and lived out the mantra of more with less alongside with their Mennonite faith, while at the same time trying to find themselves amidst horrific memories of the past.
My mother grew up speaking German and learned English when she started public school. She has also lived a pilgrim’s life, travelling from Alberta to Saskatchewan as a girl, then to the Yukon, where she met her husband, then back to the Prairies and finally back North. I doubt that her life is what she imagined it would be like as a small girl, yet it has been a life weathered with grace and faith.
When I was four, we lived in tent for four months in the Rock Creek Campground. My mother cared for my sister and I as my dad worked in town. I still remember the night the park ranger shot the bear that had been stalking the campground. I cannot imagine what it would be like to be responsible for two tiny human beings with only the canvas walls of tent for protection. I can remember going for walks, eating oatmeal with golden raisins, baths in a plastic tub and going to Sunday School, but I do not remember fear or panic.
In many ways, my mom has given up much of herself and her traditions, like music and singing in four-part harmonies, yet she still remains true to the beauty and faith at the heart of those practices. Like those before her, my mother is not afraid of hard work. She carries with her a century’s long tradition of living according to her convictions, even if those convictions are not always popular. She bakes bread for her family and feeds an entire community with fresh vegetables.
I always knew that I was loved even if we did not talk about it frequently. Rather, my mother expresses her love in actions. I don’t know why, but one Christmas, contrary to tradition, we were alone as a family. To make the day still special and even more fun, my mom wore her wedding dress to carve the turkey and we ate by candlelight.
We did not have a television set or an indoor toilet when I was very young. Nor, when I look back on it, did we live with a lot of other extras. Yet, with a little bit of creativity, life was beautiful. Homemade play-dough, hours of cutting paper dolls out of the Sears catalogue and balloons for Mickey Mouse ears. We lived in a valley of darkness, where the sun did not shine for literally months of the year. But looking back, my mother’s ritual of sunshine jello with liberally applied whipped cream marking the first rays of brightness stands out stronger than the darkness.
My mother can appear unassuming, kind and soft-spoken, which true, yet my mother is also one of the bravest women that I know. Although contrary to assumptions, Mennonite women are not unable of change. Rather, they carry themselves through change and shape those around them and as they are shaped. As I learn to see my mom as a person, I can see how she has embraced change yet remained herself. The same strength that she carried to the Yukon is the strength that has allowed her to embrace Mexico, learn Spanish, open a food bank, and teach college classes.
By living in a strange land, even by choice, I am carrying out a family tradition. I only hope to do so with as much grace, love and courage as my mother, and those before her, have demonstrated. Their lives help me understand what it means to live as a displaced person with dignity. I want my life to be defined by a love of others, of courage and the conviction that the choices I make are important.