Why go to a reunion?
By Katie Funk Wiebe
This is the text of a talk I prepared and which was read by my daughter Joanna at the Peter P. and Helena Wiebe reunion in southern Alberta in September 2013.
Step with me into a small workshop on the farm of a man the Mennonite villagers in the Ukraine called Fiddler Peter.
The man is busy sanding and polishing pieces of wood he designed and cut for a fiddle. Today we would call this a violin. He gave his first fiddle to his son Peter. He made a guitar for his daughter Katherine and cymbals for another child.
This man was a lay minister/farmer in the Mennonite church. He had already built a seed drill, as well as a cleaning mill for grain. He was known to be a good wheelwright. But he loved his workshop.
Then Fiddler Peter attempted a more ambitious project – making one-octave organ. He was not satisfied with its sound and sold it.
Next he built an organ of two octaves and also sold it. Then he attempted an organ with four octaves, including black keys for the half tones.
For wires he hammered old copper milk bowls paper thin and cut them into narrow strips. For the organ keys he boiled bones he found in the pasture to make them malleable, then cut them to size before polishing them.
Fiddler Peter was the father of Peter P. Wiebe III, grandfather and great-grandfather of most of you.
But let’s step back in time even more. Other Wiebe ancestors probably were the brothers Jacob and Arendt Wiebe von Harlingen (ca. 1570-1640) of Prussia, the earliest Wiebes on record.
The Prussians called the one man Wybe Adam von Harlingen. He was the inventor and manager of the first aerial tramway in Europe, an amazing undertaking.
Heavy wooden buckets filled with dirt kept the hemp rope turning the tramway around and around with no other mechanical power.
The tower standing at one end could be moved to link up to another area. A sketch I have of this arrangement in one of my books shows great skill of engineering.
Arendt also designed the dykes around the city of Danzig and accepted engineering projects in neighboring countries. Brother Jacob drained land so his brother could build the dykes. An enterprising pair indeed.
Each of you carries the genes of Fiddler Peter and also possibly these early Wiebes.
You can’t discard your DNA like you can a gum wrapper. I recall at one Wiebe reunion that Wes Wiebe boldly wore a t-shirt with these words emblazoned across the front: “I am a Wiebe original!” He was proud of his Wiebe DNA. I hope you all are.
Why go to a reunion?
The writer of Psalm 48:12-14 states: “Walk about Zion, go around her, count her towers, consider well her ramparts, view her citadels, that you may tell of them to the next generation. For this God is our God forever and ever; he will be our guide even to the end.”
Zion was both the literal place to which the Israelites were closely connected and also a symbol of themselves as the people of God.
They were to consider their strengths as a people of God. They were to admire what made them strong, and then proclaim to the next generation that God was their guide, forever and ever.
So here we are today at this reunion, and we want to do somewhat the same things. At a reunion you learn about your family, what makes you strong. How do you do that? The Israelites were to do that by telling the next generation about about the strengths of Zion.
I have a small clay figure of an old Native American man with dozens of little children perched all over him.
“Who is he?” I asked shopkeepers in New Mexico who sold these little figures. “He is the storyteller,” I was told. He had told stories to the tribe to keep its history alive. Stories are the best way to convey not only facts, but truth.
I hope there will be many stories told here at this reunion.
a. Stories link family members to the past, but also to one another. To have a sense of family history, you must feel a part of it, that you belong. That is one reason reunions are important. They give you a sense of belonging. The stories that are told are some of the best ways to create this sense of belonging.
b. Stories shape lives more than other kinds of words. A story has no meaning until the reader attaches it to his or her own experience. The stories you tell here are about the Wiebe family, your family, your experiences. Claim them as your own. Keep telling them. A house isn’t a home until it has many memories. A group of related people isn’t a family until they claim the same stories.
c. Stories are a way of reaching to each other. When I tell a story, I am saying to my readers, “I trust you with this story. It is my gift to you.” So accept each story as the gift of the teller.
At a reunion you learn that you have a heritage, something being passed down from generation to generation, and that heredity is powerful.
What are some aspects of this Wiebe heritage I am aware of?
One is an appreciation for beauty of nature but also the little things that are a daily part of our lives.
When Walter and I were newly married, living in Yarrow, I invited my new in-laws to Faspa. I set the table with my new William Rogers silver-plated tableware, a gift from my siblings. My new father-in-law picked up a teaspoon and said: “Es loeffelt so schoen.”
A spoon is a spoon, I thought. But not to him. A spoon was a work of beauty when it had been carefully crafted. Some spoons brought joy to the act of using them – and then there were just spoons—heavy, awkward, plain.
This love of beauty is present in many of you. I sense it in my son James. He loves flying in his little ultra-light plane over the Kansas prairies and then writing about what he has seen and experienced in his blog.
I am aware of an innate curiosity in the Wiebe clan coupled with the urge to create with words, music, textiles, even technology, and many other ways, and bring joy and beauty to others. I can’t mention all of these gifts but I am aware of a few:
At an earlier reunion, I noticed that a group would soon gather around the piano to sing for the joy of singing. Susie Martens has said that she and her siblings could form a quartet, mixed or male, at the drop of a .
Several of you are professional musicians, some lay musicians. From Jean Janzen, Walter’s poet cousin, I learned that the brothers left behind in Russia also found joy in music. They were also musicians.
Peter P. Wiebe III arranged music and wrote poems. In my files I have his book of poems as well as poems he wrote for Walter’s 30th birthday, for our wedding, for Dan and Anne Wiebe’s ordination, and others. He felt the need to wrap words around ideas and give them to the world. Peter Rahn will read one of his very last poems when he reflected on his life and that sensed that death was imminent.
This weekend you will have become aware of the tremendous gifts residing in the Wiebe family.
When we cut a finger or break a leg, we become very much aware that this part of our body belongs to us. This is our finger, our leg, our tooth, that is aching, not someone else’s. At a reunion you learn about the pain of the extended family and to acknowledge and accept it as a part of you.
At some point in his later life, Peter P. Wiebe III wrote a short essay on Psalm 73 and called it “ Der Dienst das Leiden” – the ministry of suffering. In his lifetime he and Helena experienced a great deal of pain and suffering.
In 1908 they came to Canada, a daring move. Son Jacob was born on the ship. I have tried to imagine what it was like to give birth in the unfamiliar environment of small ship cabin on the rolling seas. Helena had no diapers, thinking the baby would be born in Canada, so she tore up an old sheet and used some other rags for the newcomer. She suffered greatly from cold and hunger that first winter in Saskatchewan, a much colder climate than they had been accustomed to in the Ukraine.
Peter carried with him to Canada the difficult memory of his mother’s suicide. He never wrote anything about it that survived, but clearly it is not something you forget easily.
It was a secret borne “in sorrow and shame,” writes Jean Janzen in her most recent book Entering the Wild. Suicides were never talked about. I recall John and Susie Martens telling me about it. Jean has immortalized her grandmother’s death in her poem, “These words are for you, Grandmother.” In it she revisits the grave outside the fence where suicides were buried and gently lifts her grandmother and places her in a grave of dignity, love, and honor.
The husband of this despondent woman was not a willing farmer, according to Jean, moving his family several times to lease more fertile soil. He preferred doing woodwork and making violins and guitars, as I have already mentioned. This caused friction in the home at times. His wife wanted more resources for living, he preferred to create beautiful things. She spent many months nursing him in his final illness, during which time he was inventing an adjustable bed with an air mattress to make life more comfortable for himself.
After he died she was left with a large family to support. She became the target of wealthier men wanting her land. Once when she helped another woman clean cherries the woman told her she could take home the discarded cherries as her pay. Added to her problems was the fact that her oldest son, Peter and his wife and child were planning to immigrate to Canada. She didn’t have resources to care for her large brood and so became despondent. The church helped but she was unable to bear her loss. In1908 she hanged herself in the barn.
Jean Janzen has immortalized this family as it once was, complete, strong, with a life-size stylized painting hanging in her front hall. I have been lost in reverie before it wondering about the dynamics in this family I had married into.
Pioneering in the prairies in the early years was a huge challenge, writes Mary Rahn. The family always lived in dilapidated shacks, all run down, full of bedbugs.
Recently I saw for the first time on Facebook a photo of the two-story unpainted frame house the family lived in near Great Deer. The landscape is stark, uninviting, not a tree in sight, little beautiful to refresh the senses. Years later, Peter wrote poetry about his blissful youth in Russia, not his memories of this unlovely place. He loved green vegetation and birdsong. Like his father, he never did well at farming, writes Mary Rahn, possibly because of the conflict in himself to create with words and music, not dig in the dirt.
Two children died in early childhood. What was it like to have a small toddler die on a hot summer day, far from medical care?
Illness plagued other family members: Susie had a ruptured appendix and spent two months in the hospital, creating a huge bill. Walter had appendix problems, and, possibly aware how burdensome illness was to the family bore his pain in silence to have it come to a head years later. Walter also had dental problems, but the family had no money for dental expenses. Debt, drought, dirt were daily companions.
The family moved a number of times. It was difficult adapting to a new culture. The older children were sent to work. Susie Martens told me how she worked as a domestic and had to be shown how to do everything in these strange homes. She learned to cook Canadian style. One woman changed Susie’s name to Margaret because they already had a Susie in their family. She always ate in the kitchen alone, not with the family, and she was used to having a large number of chattering siblings around the table.
Peter P. Wiebe’s first illness occurred in 1935 at which time he asked God another 15 years. He spent a difficult winter at the Bethania in Ontario because of health problems. Recently Leona Gislason translated his letters to Walter, his youngest son, during this difficult time.
He was a man of the arts condemned by circumstances to plod along. What was he to do with the terrible urge to make music, to know beauty? He only attended an evening school in music for several weeks from which he learned the basics of music. Mary Rahn writes that in every area he lived he was sought after for his special talent in music arranging and choral conducting.
This record of pain is also part of your heritage. It also belongs to you. You become strong when you acknowledge not only the wonderful gifts of your heritage, like creativity and love of beauty, but also the less pleasant aspects. Yet to acknowledge them does not mean the pain and ugliness of your history defines you – only how you and I dealt with them. That is the important thing.
But there is one last thing to keep in mind. At a reunion you learn about the gifts and pain in the extended family but also that the grace of God is ever-available.
When I taught a course called Devotional Christian Classics at Tabor College, we studied the psalms, the laments in particular. Nearly half of all the psalms are laments in which the writer cries before God asking why he doesn’t answer his prayers. He needs help now, desperately. If God is God why doesn’t he respond to the cry of a child?
Some laments first review what God had done for the psalmist or for the people of Israel in the past. They list the wonderful escape from slavery in Egypt, the Red Sea Crossing, the giving of manna in the desert, and so on. God had been with them as a people in the past. These were specific concrete examples. Why not now? They complain. Where were God’s answers to prayer now.
In my class I would ask my students: If you were writing a psalm, what would you mention as God having done for you or your family?
Well, I soon found out this was a tough question for them.
It was easy for my students to list what money, education, and position, had done for their families. Money buys TVs, cell phones, computers, cars, refrigerators, travel and such stuff. Education and position buys influence. But where is the proof that God is at work in a family?
This is a question many people ask. It’s a big question. Grandfather Peter struggled with the big questions of life. Why did the righteous suffer and the unrighteous have an easy life? Walter mentioned to me that his father once told him: “It is better to search for truth for fifty years, making mistakes, than to live a lifetime according to tradition.” I imagine that he and Helena often came before God praying for help in their difficult new surroundings. They needed money to feed the children, health, strength for each day’s tasks.
I read the letters he wrote to Walter from Bethania where he spent one lonely winter and sense the agony of his soul. Where was God in this strange arrangement with him in Ontario and his wife in British Columbia? Where was God?
How can we recognize God’s work in our lives?
We probably look for God’s working in our lives in the wrong places.
Only the psalmist had an answer for Grandpa Wiebe: “My body and mind may fail, but you are my strength and my choice forever.” He chose God because God was God and not what he could get out of God in terms of what made life easier.
He wrote a poem based on Psalm 73:
That is why I will cling to you always;
With my whole body, soul, and spirit
I trust you always.
I commend myself to your keeping.
This a tremendous affirmation of faith.
So let me summarize. We become strong as a family when we tell our stories, when we recognize the wonderful gifts of heredity, when we acknowledge the pain daily life brings, but especially when we accept the marvelous grace of God for the hurts and ugliness of daily life.
I have often said that forgiveness is the bread of daily life. We need the grace of forgiveness for those sitting around our table, but also those who are part of our history whom we may never have known. There are no perfect solutions in an imperfect world. God works when we can let go of anger, grudges, hurts, and keep loving and serving. True family riches do not lie in things, or possessions, accomplishments, famous ancestors, but in forgiveness, and love.
So why go to a reunion? You are the only one who can give the true answer to that question.