I write about heritage. My first book, The Gift of Laughter (see below), was about my father’s family and their Mennonite history. I am currently in the final stages of a book about my mother, Agnes Young Willems, and her family (Adam and Margaret Armbruster Young). Chapters from that book, Child Bride; Young Mother, were posted on the blog (click here Blog) that is part of this website.
This website also preserves material from the research done for The Gift of Laughter. Much of that material, as well as all the old photos, are in the Archives, which can be accessed at the bottom of the page.
My original website, A Mennonite Story: The Willems/Zimmerman Family, contains material that is neither in the book or on this website. It can be accessed by clicking on the following link: lwillemsmennostory.blogspot.com
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The Gift of Laughter; The Story of a California Mennonite Family
My father, Jacob Willems, was the fifth of the fifteen children born to Jacob C. and Lena Zimmerman Willems, who, in 1919 moved their large family from a Mennonite community in Saskatchewan, Canada to another Mennonite community—this one in the rich farmland surrounding the small towns of Reedley and Dinuba in California’s great Central Valley. Most of the Mennonites who settled in this fertile farmland prospered. Jacob and Lena did not. They struggled to survive, yet the stories their children told were filled with laughter.
I grew up surrounded by aunts and uncles who laughed and sang and told stories. The time was the 1940s, the decade dominated by World War II. My aunts and uncles were young, caught up in the drama of that intense time.
My family had fun. They laughed and they sang. Everyone in that family except Granpa, sang. My dad and his brothers sang in bars and taverns before they married. My aunts sang close harmony like the Andrews Sisters. They would gather around the piano and sing popular wartime songs like “Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy and Drinking Rum and Coca-Cola.
Grandma sang, too. She had a high, very distinctive voice that was much appreciated in the Mennonite Brethren churches. With her oldest daughters, Mary and Helen, she had toured MB churches on the West Coast all the way up into British Columbia in Canada.
Grandma was the center of the family, the one people loved to be around. Grandpa, on the other hand, was at the periphery of family life, spending his time outside the house, tending his garden, sleeping in a little trailer in the backyard of the house.
My grandparents seemed to live very separate lives. I didn’t ponder that separateness when I was a child, but I did take it in. It registered. There was something going on. There was a story here. I could sense it.
Jacob & Lena Zimmerman Willems Wedding Portrait 1909
The sense of my grandparents’ having a story, an interesting story, started when I was a child, stayed with me as I watched them live out their lives. When they died, first Grandma in 1963 and then Grandpa in 1964, I knew I wanted to write about them and their marriage. Over the years that story has grown, become more and more complex. Now, after twenty years of research, it includes stories of family who died long before I was born as well as the story of the world that produced them, the world of the people known as Mennonites.
The Zimmerman-Willems Marriage
My grandmother’s widowed father, Heinrich Zimmerman, married my grandfather’s widowed mother, Elisabeth Boldt Willems, in 1906, a marriage the family said was arranged by the Mennonite Brethren Church. In this photo, my grandmother Lena sits beside Heinrich, her father. My grandfather Jacob sits next to her at the end of the front row.
Jacob and Lena’s wedding took place on her sixteenth birthday. Jacob was twenty-five. In the photograph of the Zimmerman-Willems family Lena is about twenty-two years old, the mother of six children, all of whom were born on a homestead near Waldheim, Saskatchewan, Canada. She looks worn, tired.
My father and his siblings remembered their father as a harsh man, their parents’ marriage deeply troubled. Yet the end of my grandparents’ marriage was tender. In the year before her death Grandma suffered stroke after stroke. Grandpa patiently, lovingly cared for her. When she died he had no desire to live on without her. He died one year later. This transformation was a mystery that captured me, sustained the long years of research about their lives and the world that shaped them.
To see other old photos click on “Old photos” in Categories at the bottom of this page.