May 30, 2021
My mother, Agnes Young Willems, was born 100 years ago today. She was born on a homestead in southwest Saskatchewan not far from the Montana border. Her parents, Adam and Margaret Armbruster Young, were both German-speaking immigrants from Eastern Europe who migrated to Canada with their parents and siblings in the early 1900s. Mom, the eighth of their ten children, was the last to be born in Canada. In 1923, her parents sold their farm and emigrated to the town of Lodi in California’s Central Valley, about ninety miles due east of San Francisco Bay. They chose this location not only because of its mild weather and rich soil, but also because there was a Mennonite Brethren church in Lodi.
My grandparents were not born into Mennonite families. The Armbrusters were Lutheran; the Young (Jung) family were Pietist Evangelicals. My mother’s parents joined the Mennonite Brethren as a result of evangelistic services held at the Woodrow MB Church which was near their homestead, a place where they found other German-speaking immigrants from Eastern Europe, a congregation where they felt at home. My grandparents’ decision to join the Mennonite Brethren, and the decision to emigrate to California would shape the course of my mother’s life.
Mom was fourteen when she eloped to Reno with my twenty-one year old father, Jacob Willems. Dad came from a large family that had long been Mennonite. Like many Mennonite boys, Dad had a complicated relationship with the church—believed what it taught, yet resented the strictness of its discipline. When he met my mom he was wandering the state picking up jobs wherever he could find them—working as a bartender and short-order cook, picking fruit during harvest, pruning grapevines and fruit trees in winter. He was not any parents’ idea of good husband material for a young daughter, and when my parents returned to Lodi, my grandparents had my father jailed for Child Stealing. Three months later Mom’s parents agreed to give their permission for her to legally marry the young man to whom she already felt truly married. That marriage produced three children and lasted until my mother’s death when she was sixty-four years old. She died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma one month after the fiftieth anniversary of her Reno marriage to my father.
I wrote the story of that scandalous marriage in Child Bride; Remembering a Young Mother, which was published on Amazon in 2019. It is the story of a young bride, a young mother, a young woman steadily gaining confidence as she builds a life for her family. The book begins with my father’s story of courting and eloping with his underage bride. It then turns to my memories of my parents and growing up in California during the 1940s, the decade of World War II and its aftermath. The book ends in 1950, just before my mother turned thirty. There were other subsequent, very important chapters in Mom’s life, but in this book I wanted to preserve the memory of the mother I knew as a child. I wanted that time in her life to stand alone, a portrait of my young mother in her prime.
Loretta Willems, Bellingham, Washington. 30 May 2021