REVIEW: SONS AND MOTHERS: STORIES FROM MENNONITE MEN, EDITED BY MARY ANN LOEWEN 

Mary Ann Loewen, ed., Sons and Mothers: Stories from Mennonite Men (Regina: University of Regina Press, 2015). Paperback, 180 pages, $19.95.

 

Mary Ann Loewen’s Sons and Mothers: Stories from Mennonite Men was conceived as a companion to Mothering Mennonite, a 2013 collection of essays by women about Mennonite mothers, edited by Kerry Fast and Rachel Epp Buller. A mother herself, Loewen teaches academic writing at the University of Winnipeg. When asked to review her provocative anthology, I was reminded of my challenging role as a generic mother in a seminary class in family systems. The professor had briefed the other participants for an exercise in role play, and when I questioned him about my part, he repeated: “You’re the mother.” At that time, I was six years into my real-life identity as the mother of a son who died at sixteen, leaving me without a script.

Sons and Mothers gives voice to twelve very different sons wrestling with twelve equally different mothers for their identities. Many are transcending the ultimate separation: their mother’s death. The title of this anthology, subtly evocative of D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, is presented on the cover in subdued lettering beside the image of a blue apron—arresting in its simplicity—hanging by knotted strings from a metal hook. Inside, the mothers’ spirits are being distilled. The subtitle, Stories from Mennonite Men, presents a context for the conflict and the letting go—a shadowed amphitheater carved out of an ordered religious faith.

The opening essay by Paul Tiessen, “Things My Friends Did Not Know about My Mom,” discloses a woman leaving her well-defined role in the Mennonite church. Perceiving his mother’s personality to be “in an ongoing state of collapse,” Tiessen writes that she transformed the brilliant fragments of her traumatic past into the warmth of her presence within the circle of her immediate and extended family, including her own mother. John Rempel’s essay follows with “Rituals, Rhythms, and Memories of My Mother.” Expanding the themes of this collection, he lights the stage with an admonition to his dying grandmother in words spoken by a deacon: “Ewatsche, Du muttst stoawe . . . Mrs. Ewert, you have to die.”

In his beautifully crafted “Gifts from my Mother,” Josiah Neufeld wonders “if the mother with whom I continue to argue about doctrine and belief is a version . . . I’ve internalized, someone to push against as I assert my own identity.” He gives voice to his mother’s heartbreak, her inability to let him go, having failed to teach her children to love her God. One can imagine this mother’s pain when he asserts: “Mom has always been like my God.”

In similar vein, Nathan Klippenstein’s “Open Gates” describes his writer mother as both a fortress and a confessor. After her stroke, “the distance I had put between us as a rebellious youth was gone, and I felt the contentment of a human bond, not between saint and sinner, but between mother and son.”

“The most important tenet of religions is appearance,” writes Byron Rempel. How then is the reader to view the shimmering surface of the mother in his “Fifteen Ways to a More Beautiful You,” pulling the reader viscerally in as many directions? “You forgive me,” he begins, “for thinking at one time that her church was named after her, the Evangeline Mennonite Brethren.” “What do I resent with the force of the father?” he asks. “Stuck there in a Mother Teresa dream . . . nurses resent visitors, visitors resent death, death resents the searching sunlight that streams onto the bed.”

Happily, Lukas Thiessen’s mother does not die in this book. “She stood near the front door at the bottom of a flight of stairs, while I stood at the top, looking down. Without warning her, I leapt off those steps and hurled myself down, latching onto her back in mid-flight . . . I still have the confidence to launch myself in her direction, although now I do so metaphorically, through conversations with her; I know she can carry my existential weight.”

Christoff Engbrecht’s poem “heritage” pricks and tugs at the reader as with a sharp needle and blue thread at a “goddamned” pair of ripped jeans:

‘we’ll sew the rest up next st. patrick’s

now get outta here’

putting her hand to my face

‘and have a good time tonight’

Grappling with a mother’s pride in her son’s accomplished career, Howard Dyck writes in “Mary Dyck’s Vicarious Life,” “I came to understand that my childhood and adolescent relationship with my father had perhaps been affected somewhat by Mom’s candid and, indeed, unflattering observations and insinuations. In retrospect, I see that she compared me to him, and saw in me characteristics she missed in her husband.” Balancing this writer’s keen awareness of his mother’s unfulfilled longings, the reader’s attention is drawn to her silence.

There is more heartbreak within Andrew C. Martin’s courageous “Reconciling Caring with Conflict: A Memoir of Mom.” At the end of her life, “raspy, laboured breathing” was the only sound in the room. “Growing up, my siblings and I were put in the impossible situation of listening to complaints from each of our parents about the other . . . There was no physical violence between them, but the passive aggressive emotional and psychological warfare was palpable, debilitating, and corrosive.”

After Martin’s hand to hand combat, Lloyd Ratzlaff’s “Queen of Clubs” winds down this merciless collection with a chapter devoted solely to the death of his mother: “She lies now at the mercies of a new and exceptionally kind staff, looking indeed as if she has gone to still waters and green pastures. He repeats, “what Wally at the palliative ward said the dying (and who isn’t) long to hear: I love you. Please forgive me. I forgive you. I’ll be all right.

Merciless? Underneath the pain connecting these men to their mothers reverberates residual trauma. Michael Goertzen’s “Malaver” traces his mother’s story back to the death of her father: “Some say an owl called his name in the evenings leading up to his death, and over those last days, he continuously swore, I’m going to shoot that bird.” Still further back: “In a silent struggle, she grappled with her own Anabaptist traditions, songs, and those abandoned farms of the Molotschna Colony and other communities where she and her ancestors had lived.”

“I Give a Rip.” Closing the anthology, Patrick Friesen discovers his mother “running the full length of the standing train, leaping from car to car. . . . The curiosity, the attraction to danger, and the romantic framing of life . . . at eighty-seven, she loves to drive to the tracks . . . just to watch and listen as the trains pass.” He uncovers the cold anger of a ten-year-old in her “blue eye” when he tells her she will be moving to a home for the aged: “Later that evening . . . conversations were flying across the table . . . I became aware that my mother had her hand on my head. She was gently ruffling what is left of my hair. Then her hand moved to my shoulder. I thought she was forgiving me. Or she was saying she was sorry . . . In her fierce love of independence, and in her love for me, she was saying she understood what I had done that day, and it was okay.”

I recognized myself in these pages, felt the pulse of sons most keenly where they pitted their strength against their silent mothers. My son lost his life, accidentally, in the path of an oncoming freight train, more than thirty years ago. I have no script. I am not my story. I am a sanctuary, eternal presence, a dimly lit stranger, wrestling intimately with shadows until the morning comes.

 

It was early morning when I emailed this review to the editor. As I thought back on my prolonged struggle, my eyes fell on a photo of my son. The rest of the room remained in shadow while reflected light from the sun lit up only his beloved face.

 

Elizabeth Falk is a mother and grandmother, a writer, and visual artist. In 2010 she self-published October Rain, a collection of the writings of her son, Darcy Jacob Dyck.