Diapers and Dragons

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


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Most of my childhood was spent in the Far Off and Away of West Africa, where I was surrounded by family of both the immediate and extended variety: parents, siblings, uncles and aunts both regular and great-, cousins both first and removed, and Grandma and Grandpa. But every single one of this plethora of extended family was on my maternal side, this great Clan of missionaries and their children-turned-missionaries and the children's children along for the ride. I was the oldest grandchild, the oldest child of the oldest child (of six), and I was queen of my domain. At least in my mind.

Back in the corn fields of Saginaw lived my father's family, just as plentiful and extended, but so far away from my reality. Every four years we would return to the strange land of Michigan for a year, and I would be thrust into the strange world of my paternal relations, where I was lost in the middle of a muddle of granddaughters all born within a few years of each other. My father was in many ways the exotic bird of the family, perhaps more a duck than a peacock, but one that had flown to far off lands and lived among dark-skinned people of a different tongue and told tales that stood out harshly against the flat green Americana farmland.

My great-grandparents were German Mennonite immigrants, part of a group of Mennonites that revolved around three large families, all shoved from place to place in Europe for their unacceptable pacifism. They finally shoved off the European continent for the farmland of South Dakota, where they settled and intermarried and farmed and practiced their strong, quiet religion in peace. My grandfather can understand some German but did not grow up speaking it much. I wouldn't think, knowing him, that there was much in the way of conversation to begin with. Silent types, these broad Germans who believed in hard work and strong religion and beating swords into ploughshares.

The Great Depression fractured their peaceful lives and sent Grandpa's family rattling across the states into Michigan, where the farmland was not failing and factories offered a chance at other employment as well. He met my grandmother there, a small woman of mostly French descent, quick and bright as a bird. She may have had more words to say than he did, but they shared their faith and work ethic, and they built a family. They had six surviving children, all born within less than a decade, with a couple of miscarriages along the way. They lived in the same house where they live today, a long narrow wooden house with three bedrooms and one bathroom. My grandparents had their room; the three girls shared another small room; the three boys crammed into the third.

My grandfather worked the land when he could and worked in factories when he could and brought home slim paychecks that squeaked them through. My grandmother worked at some point as well as what we would today call a Special Education teacher, specializing in speech therapy and development. Their children were brought up to value both hard work and school, with all six going on to earn college degrees, three in medical technology and three in various areas of education. One, the baby of the family, grew up to meet a beautiful young woman also of German Mennonite descent way back in her ancestral tree, a woman who had grown up in the wilds of Africa and who sparked in him a passion for ministry in that land.

Even though I didn't know them very well at first, my grandparents always drew us in to the circle of their love. Grandpa rarely said the words, but he crafted beautiful works of art in his wood shop, these heirloom pieces that could fetch a fantastic price at boutiques and artsy stores if he cared about that sort of thing. He made toy cars for the little ones and model cars for the older boys and jewelry chests for the older girls and clocks for the adults and framed pictures better than any professional store ever could.

Grandma could sew anything. She made amazing dolls with full and detailed outfits for every granddaughter, dolls that if they had not been so well loved and played with, could have fetched their own amazing prices at those boutiques and stores. She told stories too, both the story book kind and the family news kind. We always knew what everyone was up to when we sat down with Grandma, even our dad's second cousin's wife's brother's child, or that elderly woman we saw once at church when we were two. Grandma knew everyone and made sure we all knew about them as well.

When I was in fourth grade, they came out to stay with us in the Cote d'Ivoire for six whole months. My grandfather helped out at the mission hospital with all sorts of repairs and projects. My grandmother befriended everyone, including old women in the village where we went on Sundays, old women with whom she could not communicate in words but with whom she spoke in the language of love. Over two decades later, people out there still ask about them and send their greetings, for their memory has stayed strong.

For Christmas that year, my grandfather and father built a huge eight-room dollhouse for me and my sister, and my grandmother and mother wallpapered and carpeted the rooms and sewed tiny curtains. They had brought out a houseful of tiny furniture from the United States, including a little piano that played music when you pressed the keyboard and lamps that really lit up, and a tiny doll family to live in their new mansion. We had lived on tenterhooks for months leading up to the holidays, because we knew those adults were up to something big in the office across from the house, and we weren't allowed to see. We weren't disappointed. That dollhouse has long since been lost to time and dust and civil war, but I can still picture each room and remember the hours and days and years we spent setting up the house and the family and imagining their lives.

My grandparents have shrunk over the years, turning inwards in body as time has ravaged their health. Their minds remain strong, however, and their hearts have only turned outward with time. To this day they still make toy cars and clothing and rugs and all sorts of things for people in need. They used to be a central part of their church's amazing gifting effort for the poor in Latvia, until their health made it too difficult. They carry on as they can. My grandmother just made some two dozen aprons and handtowels for Camp Barakal in upper Michigan. And the family benefits as well. My grandfather made amazing, unbelievably gorgeous rocking horses for each family of great-grandchildren, great graceful works of wooden art that are meant to be ridden and loved by small children even though they look like they belong in a museum.

My grandfather in particular has mellowed over time, from the stolid man who silently devoured his meal and left the table before his wife could even sit down, to a man who puts away the groceries and dishes and cleans up after dinner. He is gentler, softer as he gruffly grasps us for a hug and kiss before sitting down to visit, perhaps even joining in the conversation without being prompted. There's a look in his eye when he glances at his wife, this tiny woman made tinier by the scoliosis that twists her back and the Paget's disease that has softened her bones and bowed her legs. There's a look there that says he realizes the miracle of this woman in his life, this help-meet who raised his children and kept his house and held the family together when times were so hard that they didn't know if they would be able to put enough food on the table, this companion who loved him even when his shoulders were burdened with hardship and he couldn't open his mouth to tell her that he loved her too.

I have a new appreciation for the legacy of this family of which I am part. And when I take my small sons to see them, these two precious grandchildren whom they love as they love their every child, every grandchild, every great-grandchild; their eyes brighten and they catch them up. My children know who they are, and my children will remember them, and my heart is full with the love of four generations.

14 bits of love:

The Tormented Dragon said...


melissa said...

you're so lucky to still have them! mine died when i was in my early 20's and i still miss them!!

Arby said...

Very well done.

Beth said...

What a beautiful story, told in the perfect way. Lovely post!

mom said...

We are all blessed. I was just thinking about the Bible's way of talking about how blessings go down to the third and fourth generations, to our children's children, etc. You have seen the thread, and felt it, and described it so beautifully here. And I'm grateful for the way you bless us all in return, citing the gifts and the signs of love. Thank you for going to Saginaw. Thank you for listening, watching, and then writing your heart.

Meghan said...

Beautiful, precious people.

sAm said...

Dang. I had perfect makeup and you've ruined it by making me cry. That was beautiful. Such a nice recognition/remembrance of your grandparents.
Thank you for sharing.

Dad said...

Growing up in the family did not seem so great at the time - we had so little, and me being the youngest I thought that I always got the short end of the stick. But looking back now, I was and am blessed to be in that family and I am blessed by you in our family. Thank you for taking the time to see Grandma and Grandpa - I know it meant so much to them!!!

Kathleen said...


The Kampers said...

how sweet! And such a wonderful thing to know them. I have some of my grandparents still, but don't have a relationship with any of them really...something I wish I did.

And tell your grandma thank you from Barakel! What a small small world, that she makes the aprons that I get to use when I work in the kitchen!

Anonymous said...

That was beautiful! and so right on!
The German Mennonites of South Dakota had their own "exotic", helping-profession history - our great-great grandfather was a blacksmith, and smithed for both the Mennonites and the Sioux Native Americans. In fact, he spoke fluent Sioux (one of the few people of European descent that did)!!!

Anonymous said...

oh, that last anonymous comment was from...


I forgot to include that.

(incidentally, I'm starting to read a book by a Mennonite writer - a descendant of the same community of Mennonites, I think! - that has stories of Mennonites through the centuries. The person who loaned it to me said I'd find similar stories to that of our ancestors')

MomZombie said...

What a beautiful, well-written tribute to your family, particularly your grandparents. It was nice to meet you yesterday and get to know a bit about you.

BBLiz said...

(Yay, Firefox is the bomb)

I wanted to comment on this post -- it's really beautiful and brought tears to my eyes. Great writing...

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