My daughter, visiting in Canada, sent me a photo of the house in Yarrow, B.C., where my husband and I first lived after our marriage. Memories flooded back like a tsunami. In my book You Never Gave Me a Name: One Mennonite Woman’s Story I have described this first year after we had said our vows as one of the most difficult in my life.
I had moved unknowingly into one of the most conservative bastions of Russian-German immigrants. My parents were also conservative immigrants but we had lived for several decades in a multi-ethnic community in Saskatchewan. I had no experience with this kind of one-mind living.
One early morning, shortly after moving into our side of the duplex, I woke to hear heavy footsteps on our gravel driveway, accompanied by loud muttering. I nudged Walter. He looked out the window and then explained that the man lived by himself about a mile or so from us. In his childhood during the Russian Revolution of 1917-19, he had witnessed his mother’s rape and murder. Later, he had spent two years in hiding before coming to Canada as a five-year-old to be reunited with family members. At some point he had lost contact with reality and the demons from the past asserted themselves.
In the bleakness of that morning I watched from our upstairs window as this miserable, emotionally disturbed soul sparred and shouted at an imaginary foe, his voice growing louder and louder. Even when I later saw him in daylight, I drew back. He was a huge man, poor groomed with an angry mien. He was fighting his battles, I was fighting mine.
Walter was soon busy teaching during the day and deep into class preparation every evening. Even if he had had time for me, there was no place to go and no money to do so. There was no library anywhere in walking distance. I was shocked that I had become pregnant almost immediately. Cause and effect had escaped my limited understanding of the facts of life. I felt nauseated to the point of despair and spent hours it seemed hunched over the bathroom stool throwing up. I knew nothing about being pregnant. Nor about cooking or operating the drafts on a wood stove. Growing up, I had been the child assigned to dusting and cleaning, not cooking. This was newly-wedded bliss?
Another deep-seated concern was that the new baby might be born prematurely, as was the baby of college friends. The husband wrote anguished letters to all their friends, explaining with underlining and capital letters that he and his wife had not had sex before marriage, the Greatest Sin in the church at the time. Their infant son was truly premature. I believed him, but the new father anguished that people might judge him unfairly. What if our baby was born prematurely?
Other wrinkles related to finances that I describe in my book introduced themselves unceremoniously during the next months.
It didn’t help that early one morning the Slavic woman living in the other half of the duplex knocked on the door to borrow some sugar. She watched Walter carrying a tray with oatmeal to me in bed trying to find courage to get up. Her amused comment, “In Amerika, Frauen wie Kinder” (In America, women are like children), stabbed me to the core. She had come from Europe recently and could shop wood, carry big sacks of groceries for miles, and manage a household with energy to spare.
She did me a favor. Her statement humiliated but also pushed me. I had chosen marriage. No one had pushed me into this new arrangement. If those difficult first experiences and others I mention in my book had knocked me down, they had also shown me that life is about choices, mine and others, but I determine how I will respond to them. So began a long journey of self-discovery, learning about the practicalities of life, and figuring out my relationship to God, the church, family and society.
I look again at that little photo my daughter sent me. The building had once been a barn, with only the hip roof remaining to indicate its modest beginnings. A room had been added onto the side and a front door added. But it was more than the beginning of a marriage; it was the beginning of an awareness of being adult of whom something was expected at each stage in life. I began that journey.