I write about heritage. My first book, The Gift of Laughter: The Story of a California Mennonite Family, is about my father’s family. My second book, Child Bride: Remembering a Young Mother, is about my mother and her family. Descriptions of both books can be found below. Both books are available on Amazon and can be ordered by clicking on the links given below the photos of the covers.
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.
I also have another website: A Mennonite Story: The Willems/Zimmerman Family. It contains material that is neither in the book nor on this website. To see it click on the following link: lwillemsmennostory.blogspot.com
~ ~ ~
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.
~ ~ ~
Child Bride; Remembering a Young Mother
Agnes Young was fourteen in 1936 when she married twenty-one year old Jacob Willems and joined him on his vagabond life, traveling California’s country roads, sleeping in tents and cabins, picking up work wherever they could find it—harvesting grapes, peaches and apricots in spring and summer; pruning grapevines and fruit trees in winter—ready to pick up and move on whenever work dried up or her husband got an itch to try someplace new. Two years later she gave birth to her first child––a daughter she named Loretta, the author of this book. Agnes was only sixteen when she became a mother; yet she managed to create a stable home for her family, a home that felt secure and safe.
Child Bride begins with of Agnes and Jacob’s romance and scandalous marriage, and then turns to the author’s early memories of her parents and and growing up in World War II California. Richly illustrated with wonderful old photos, the book explores a mother-daughter relationship during the years when the mother’s quiet voice gently shaped the daughter’s perception of the world.