In Sons and Mothers, Mennonite men write about their mothers, and speak of the often close, but sometimes troubled, relationships that exist between mothers and sons. The collection includes stories of migration and its ripple effect on the next generation, of mothers whose idealistic notions of faith cause rifts, of aging mothers who resist moves to care homes, of mothers who live their dreams vicariously through their sons.
Sons of all ages and a variety of upbringings reflect on the relationships they had with their mothers. But they also show readers who their mothers were as younger women, and who they are today.
A book that speaks to the Mennonite community but also draws on universal themes, this book is a must-read for anyone wanting to delve deeper into this fundamental relationship.
With contributions from Byron Rempel, Paul Tiessen, Josiah Neufeld, Nathan Klippenstein, Lukas Thiessen, Christoff Engbrecht, Howard Dyck, Andrew Martin, Lloyd Ratzlaff, Michael Goertzen, John Rempel, Patrick Friesen.
EXCERPT FROM SONS AND MOTHERS
“FIFTEEN WAYS TO A MORE BEAUTIFUL YOU”
The most important tenet of religions is appearance. The second most important tenet is to deny this. The way things look is much simpler to codify and follow than amorphous beliefs like spirituality and truth. “For man looketh on the outward appearance…” This is our biological heritage, the way we have judged since the stone age; and it is not to be toyed with. In Quebec, where I sometimes live, the Premier tried to do away with religious appearances and quickly lost her job.
If you are conservative, the importance is to dress modestly. This means clothing like everyone else in your clan, and with your references firmly and self-consciously anchored in a randomly chosen golden age (our former god thought the 19th century rocked). If you are more liberal, like Grandpa in his time, the importance is to not to put importance on your dress. John R. was upset that people thought dressing plainer-than-thou reflected their holiness. His radical ideas got him in trouble with the church. You couldn’t run a jewelry store in plain clothes, of course.
But this doesn’t explain my family’s attachment to the baroque. “Grandma always tried to look nice,” Melanie says. When we talk on the phone she always does something else too: cooks, harvests wild plums, picks up after her all-male household. Her house is spotless. I can’t see her but I bet she’s well dressed, with flair even on the farm. “Maybe because Gram and Gramps were ostracized at one point. Maybe she wanted to show other people, ‘We’re of some worth.’” A woman should be beautiful, she taught her children. My cousin Shirley says “Gram was a powerful woman who was not easily crossed.” My mother and her sisters are from raw pioneer stock; they all dressed and decorated their homes with elegance and extravagance.
Gram’s brother was the town drunk. He came to her house smelling like ripe cheese and wayward milk, which is what she fed him. His more complex odors of neglected beer and spilled hygiene represented everything I thought our family abhorred; Grandma welcomed him without question.
My mother’s father grimaced and stared, and when I knew him he had so few words left that his prayers over Grandma’s homemade chicken noodle soup were sermons. “He was a thinker,” Evangeline says in defense. He thought, as was fashionable at the time, that the Bible should be taken literally. Except where he didn’t agree. Where women were admonished to “adorn themselves in modest apparel,” for example. The adult Evangeline had suits of gold lamé, caressed and defended her furs, loved to watch the sun sparkle off her jewels. She commandeered the drapery department in her store with its endless swags and tassels and lace.
“Beauty is an aesthetic blessing,” Evangeline says at middle-age. She sits in front of the bathroom mirror, applies war paint, prepares to combat the plain and slovenly. Beside her, father paints black his moustache and eyebrows. He beams at the comments from shopgirls—“you don’t look a day over forty!” He has beaten death. He claims never to have had a childhood, and now disowns his golden years too. Raymond applies for the position as mythic god. There are no vacancies. He dies at seventy-five years old of an incurable disease, giggling at inappropriate moments from a wheelchair.
“I bless people by looking my best,” Evangeline says. My sisters apply her make-up for her trip to the radiation clinic. “People may have a better day when they see you look well.” Her cheeks and eyes hide wondrous tales of beauty in their wrinkles. When she kisses my cheek the aroma of foundation and powder rival the theatre. This blessing, she says, extends to all your parts. Get your varicose veins done! Fix your teeth! In the hospital she gives Cari some last advice: “Don’t gain any more weight.”
“What a legacy,” Cari says. They stop at the mall on the way home from the clinic.
Stops at the mall are essential. Mother is on a quest to find the one shoe in the world that will fit her narrow feet. In Quebec she led a whirlwind frenzy through my village’s shoe stores that literally left me dizzy for days. At seventy-five years old she could outrun me. She disappears in department stores as if she has Alzheimer’s. But she knows very well what she’s doing. I find her at the cosmetics counter, where the sales girls offer her a complete make-over so she’s ready for the second half of her day.
As kids we knew we were different. We came from the fundamentalist backwoods, but we were rebels. Maybe not as extravagantly as my father’s side, who drank and went to war and gambled. But it was simple to rebel in my town. You fought with what you had; and our ammunition appeared to be dress.
Evangeline and her immaculate husband expressed themselves by dressing well, but we kids adored our “barf” clothes —our patched Saturday wear. As teens we fought to wear jeans, which were intended for farmers, my misinformed father insisted. He hated rips or tears or shoes not in their place. You can see where this is going. I embraced the punk era. I came home with orange hair, jeans in shreds, an earring, paisley slippers. “That was a bit of a shock,” Evangeline confesses. “But I loved you anyway.” Later, my all black clothes were as disconcerting. They thought I looked like Johnny Cash, or worse: Johnny Holdeman.