Last week, while thinking about the coming of Valentine’s Day, my mind drifted back to the evening I met Linda on a hayride sponsored by the Mennonite church she attended. We had both been raised in the church, but my commitment had lapsed, as had that of my closest friends. I felt drawn to Linda’s fun loving nature and her capacity to laugh easily. Two weeks later I walked half a mile to the nearest pay phone and asked her to go to an Abbotsford Panthers basketball game. I didn’t want my family to be aware if she turned me down.
Looking now at the early years of our relationship, I realize I really didn’t have the understanding or maturity to make it work. Fortunately Linda was more settled and she was thinking beyond a few dates. Even that might not have been sufficient though and Linda’s mom apparently considered me an ill-conceived choice by her daughter. Shortly before we were married, she said to Linda, “I’m concerned about you two.” Understandably, she was probably troubled by the fact that I owned nothing except a recently purchased 1950 flathead Ford.
In today’s pretty complacent thinking about marriage, I wonder if ours would have survived. Like many of our friends, financially we started with almost nothing. Also, I always tended to over commit to work and Linda was at home with our children many evenings. What held us together?
We had grown up in the still quite cohesive Mennonite culture existing at that time. Our parents, and virtually their entire social circle, provided an example of a stable family life. They clung tenaciously to Mennonite roots, culture, and beliefs. Also to the German language. They wanted their children to embrace the simple, unadorned faith that had been passed on to them by previous generations. It was a faith intertwined with a good deal of culture, and had been practised by Mennonites in Ukraine and Russia, and in Holland before that. Although pyrogies, farmers sausage, cabbage rolls and home made white buns weren’t essential to the faith, in practise, a relationship did exist.
In our preschool days, our families spoke Low German at home. It was a dialect that came out of Holland and was the mother tongue of many Mennonites. The written version never really caught on, so in most churches the regular German predominated. Since neither Linda or I had a grasp of the language spoken by ministers, we didn’t understand the sermons until an English language Mennonite church was later started in our community. In spite of this, we understood the teaching that marriage was “for better or for worse, till death do us part.”
Without realizing it, this historical heritage of culture, language and faith seeped into our psyches. And into the psyches of the Mennonite friends we grew up with and who are still important to us. None of the approximately dozen couples we still consider intimate friends from the past have gone through a separation or divorce.
It was a different, more stable time in Canada and certainly Mennonites were not alone in wanting marriages to survive. Our grandchildren, now in their late teens, are immersed in a culture in which there isn’t a high regard for fidelity in marital relationships. It doesn’t even encourage marriage.
Linda was 20 (plus 4 days, as she sometimes reminds me), and I was 23 when we got married. Very young by today’s standards. We tested the bond between us early, tent camping for 3 months on the then undeveloped far side of Sheridan Lake in the Cariboo. The mosquitoes were ravenous and Linda particularly deplored the rain. Those 3 months set the stage for me attending university and for many of the adventures we have shared. In spite of our share of setbacks and failures, staying in the game for the long run has given us a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction.
By their example, our parents and their friends showed us the importance of overlooking slights, forgiving, never giving up and providing a stable home for their children. If we pass on to the next generation this deep commitment to sound values, Valentine’s Day could mean more than a card, a box of chocolates and a glass of wine.